One life to live

edited by Ola Fagbohun

Fortunate to have enjoyed a challenging and fulfilling career and family life, Christine felt it was time to take a career break.

Christine Dent (left) volunterring abroad Fortunate to have enjoyed a challenging and fulfilling career and family life, Christine felt it was time to take a career break. This lead to diverse travel experiences through conservation volunteering around the world.

 Picture: Christine Dent (on the left) volunteering overseas.

Wallabies, whales and orangutans

I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a challenging and fulfilling career, whilst bringing up my fabulous daughter as well as having lots of outside interests and pursuing activities including sub aqua diving, mountain biking, skiing and camping. However I’d always had a vision that at some stage I’d take a career break and go off travelling for a few months, something completely different from normal holidays and well outside my comfort zone..

I finally got around to doing it at the tender age of 51, and my employers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, who have a progressive attitude to flexible working approved my application for a four month career break.  The question then was what to do? I decided that I would prefer to “do something useful” rather than simply take a holiday, and that by “doing something useful” I would probably get to see the countries I would visit along with the people and thier way of life.

Investigating the options was a real eye opener – there is literally a world of opportunities out there for the willing volunteer. My passion has always been for nature and wildlife so I narrowed down the options to conservation based volunteer work. My final choice of adventure was partly based on my interest in the animals involved, partly on location, and partly on what I could afford, and I came up with the following itinerary:

Wallaby reserve, Queensland Australia – two weeks. Cost 10* Aus$ a day for food and accommodation

This involved living in very basic, but comfortable accommodation with three other volunteers, eating and sharing facilities with the reserve owners and project leaders. The work was not glamorous – poo picking (no need to explain further), preparing food for the wallabies, intensive care and feeding of orphaned kangaroo joeys, wombat, koalas and many other such waifs and strays.

The main subjects were the wallabies, an endangered species the “bridled nailtail” which had been thought to be extinct. This small group of less than 100 is being carefully managed and a breeding programme reinstated with the long term aim of release into suitable areas of the wild. It was a great experience, the wallabies were beautiful shy creatures, the reserve owners and project leaders absolutely inspirational (and certainly not shy creatures), and the experience of having a tiny little joey to look after and watching it progress from hardly a crawl to real kangaroo-hopping, absolutely priceless.

Whale research expedition, Hervey Bay, Queensland Australia – one week. Cost £975* / week (volunteer fees help to fund the research boat / project costs)

A completely different experience – living on a luxury catamaran for a week and helping to monitor the humpback whale. The humpbacks “call in” at Hervey Bay on the way from their breeding grounds in the Pacific to the feeding grounds of the Antarctic, thought to be so that the calves can gat fattened up and prepare for the long journey ahead. From breakfast to bedtime we kept a lookout for pods of whales, then observed and photographed them. The research has been taking place for over 10 years and the research team know many of the whales from their markings and previous years experience. The metal hull of the boat meant that the sound of whalesong passed through, which makes for a wonderful lullaby in your bunk on a night.

Orangutan Foundation volunteer programme, Central Kalimantan, Borneo – six weeks. Cost £700* (food, travel in Borneo, accommodation and the cost of the project)

This project was the main one I went to do, and surpassed all expectations. Apart from a general fascination with Borneo, and an interest in the great apes, this one was somehow shrouded in mystery and adventure.

The first river journey in our klotok (very few roads in Kalimantan) had all the volunteers in anticipation, until the first troop of monkeys we saw had us in uproar – everyone shot to one side of the boat and it was a miracle we didn’t end up in the river.

We spent a few days at Camp Leakey, the main research site for the Orangutan Foundation (OF), surrounded by wild and semi wild orangutans and seeing the work of the Indonesian OF assistants. All washing was done in the river (someone was posted on “croc watch” ) and this was often a battle of wits to get yourself and your clothes washed without some mischievous orangutan taking possession of your soap, sarong or anything else they could get their hands on. Similarly getting clothes dry was a bit of a lottery – would your favourite (or last!) tee shirt be dry and recovered before one of the darling orangutans made off with it for its nightly nest. One of the guys had his toiletries bag stolen by a long arm through the wire mesh window – he was planning to spend a few fun weeks in Bali after Borneo and was well prepared together with vitamin pills, after shave and condoms. These all went missing, who knows what the guilty orangutan got up to with them, at least it should have been safe.

Although the volunteer programme was brilliant at giving us an insight into the world of the orangutan and the conservation effort, its main purpose was for the volunteers to work on some important projects. It was hard work, in hot humid conditions, but very enjoyable and rewarding. Our team of 12 volunteers planted thousands of trees to reforest a burnt out area of rain forest, we completed a forest police guard post including concreting, roofing, painting and woodwork, and built some new boom gates at one of the river tributaries to prevent illegal logger access . Our living condition were basic and we ate simple local food – mainly rice and noodles but made very special by our Indonesian cook. And when it came to chicken day (chicken arriving live and in all its feathered glory) that really was a special feast.    

At the end of the four months my daughter and friend came out to Borneo and we enjoyed a rainforest trek (a busman’s holiday for me), hiked up Mt Kinabalu and spent a week diving around Sipadan island, famous for its turtles.

What were the best bits of the adventure?

Being really immersed in the way of life – whether it was Australian farm living, or Indonesian lifestyle – it was very “real” – no hint of being a tourist during the whole volunteer experience

Humour – the people we worked with had very little but enjoyed life to the full, and had a great sense of humour. As Westerners we were an unending source of amusement and the pranks, jokes and daily events meant no-one was more than a few minutes away from a good laugh

Basic living – the simplicity of living out of a single rucksack, having everything you need to live, a life free of complications and unnecessary “stuff”. And deriving a real pleasure from little things – getting into your own comfy sleeping bag under the safety of a mozzie net, having a daily wash in the cool river, simple local food.

Jungle living – going to sleep with the atmosphere of the jungle, completely enveloped in sounds, and waking to the sound of gibbons singing in the trees. And always seeing something new and exciting, never knowing what you may see next

Learning – I learnt so much about the animals I worked with from the project coordinators and the local people, giving a real insight into the world outside of my own sphere of knowledge. I hope it hasn’t turned me into an eco bore, but it has made me much more aware of the consequences of our actions in the West across the globe.

Appreciation of others – I met people with a real passion for their work – volunteers with a spirit of adventure and wanting to do something however small to make a difference, and especially those full timers who had dedicated their lives to a single cause.

Having a holiday at the end and sharing some of the experience with family and friends - a great way to relax when completely immersed in the local culture and actually feeling like part of the country as opposed to just a visitor. 

Back home

It felt really alien to come back to my (normal by western standards) house – it felt too big, too luxurious, and why on earth did I need wardrobes full of clothes.

The adventure has changed my outlook, I won’t pretend that I now live a frugal lifestyle, but it is simpler, and more enjoyable as a result. I also committed to continue to help out the OF in any way I can, and have spoken at a few local events, to schools and done some fund raising since I returned form Borneo.

Finally, because I enjoyed the volunteer experience so much I committed to spending at least one holiday each year on a volunteer project. For 2008 this saw me working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust as Assistant Volunteer Ranger on Handa Island in the far North West of Scotland. I had my own badge and wellies and everything! It was a fabulous experience, showing day visitors around the island and helping the full time ranger in monitoring the sea bird population, with the privilege of living on the island in a renovated blackhouse.

And this year I’m off to Borneo again to work for the OF.

After that who knows what project will be next, maybe turtles in Greece, vultures in Portugal, or elephants in Thailand. There’s a whole of world of adventure out there and a whole world of useful work that an ordinary person can get stuck into, and I’m going to make the most of it!

* 2008 prices.

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