This time last year, if anyone had told me that I would be spending my summer in volunteering in the Australian outback, I would never have believed it. I had always wanted to travel; I’d considered taking a gap year before starting university but had decided against it due to a lack of funds. The prospect of travelling to the other side of the world seemed both impractical and unaffordable. But during my first term at university I found out about International Student Volunteers, an organisation that offers programmes for four weeks or more in such countries as Australia, New Zealand, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Thailand and Eastern Europe. I was immediately attracted to the Australia programme, particularly the adventure tour, which included a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, a place I’d always dreamed of visiting.
When I started university, the best advice I received was to make the most of every opportunity, and I knew that this was one I could not ignore. The ISV programme sounded ideal- combining two weeks of volunteering on meaningful projects in conservation or education, with a two-week adventure tour that allows participants to experience the best of their host country. Furthermore, ISV organised all flights and accommodation, and provided a fundraising pack with some great ideas for how to raise money for the trip. Money had been my first concern, but through the support of my friends and family (as well as a travel grant I received from the university) I succeeded in raising the money to pay both for the programme and for the Optional Activity Package, allowing me to take part in even more activities on the Adventure Tour.
When the day of departure arrived, I was undeniably nervous- I had never travelled alone before, and I was embarking on a 23-hour flight to the other side of the world with a group of strangers! However, we might have been strangers, but we were all going there for the same reason: to meet new people and to make a difference to the country. My project was with Wild Mountains Trust, an environmental education centre deep in the Australian bush. It was great to meet all the other people on my project, and to know that we had all come from different corners of the globe to help to protect Australia’s threatened wildlife and habitats. The centre promoted sustainable living, and the change of lifestyle proved a bit of a shock for some people! We stayed in camping cabins with no heating, and the meals were exclusively vegetarian. As the centre operates on its own water and power supplies, this raised our awareness of the use of those resources. The isolated setting proved to be liberating- with no technology, and barely a connection to civilisation, it was both a lesson in sustainable living and a lesson in life. We were encouraged to keep a journal in order to reflect on our experiences; looking back, I can see how much I learnt- how to better appreciate those around me, as well as our planet. Volunteer tasks included trail building, weeding, tree planting, completing paving for an amphitheatre, building a path, and collecting firewood- contributing towards both the maintenance of the education centre and the protection of the ecosystems of the surrounding rainforest. I was truly grateful to be able to make a difference to the world heritage listed forests, and had some wonderful experiences that I will treasure for life: hiking through the rainforest; watching the sun rise over the mountains; sitting around a campfire beneath the stars; and observing the amazing wildlife, including koalas and wallabies. I feel that I really got to see Australia, and not just from a tourist’s perspective. I think the people at Wild Mountains are truly inspiring, and their belief that education is the best way to build a more environmentally sustainable world is definitely one that world leaders would do well to adopt!
Following this, we had our two-week action-packed adventure tour, travelling down the east coast of Australia in order to see the best of the country- whilst practising responsible tourism. We began our adventure in Cairns, where we visited the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns, learning about Australia’s indigenous people and their history and beliefs- and even learning to throw a boomerang! We then spent a day on the Great Barrier Reef, snorkelling and scuba diving- there was something so surreal about seeing the corals appearing from the gloom, like watching a 3D video, only with the weightless sensation of being underwater. We even found Nemo! Another memorable experience was white water rafting on the Tully River- racing through rapids, tumbling down waterfalls, and (on one occasion) our raft being completely submerged! Whilst travelling down Australia’s east coast we also visited Whitehaven Beach, a tropical paradise amongst the Whitsunday Islands, whilst ocean rafting and snorkelling on the reef. We spent a few days on the beautiful Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, hiking amongst rainforests and sand dune; and another action-packed two days in Byron Bay, learning to surf, and even jumping out of planes in the most thrilling experience of all- skydiving! This was without a doubt the highlight of the trip- I discovered a new love for freefalling, and I would do it again without hesitation!
We finished our tour in Sydney, abseiling in the Blue Mountains and encountering Australia’s unique wildlife at Featherdale Wildlife Park. We even got to feed kangaroos! Within two weeks I had learnt so much about Australian culture, and pushed my boundaries beyond anything I had expected. From visiting World Heritage listed areas to participating in thrilling activities, the adventure tour exceeded my expectations. Without ISV it would have been impossible to fit so many activities in, and would been far more expensive as they worked hard to get us the best deals. The only complaint anyone had was that it was over too quickly, and the worst part was saying goodbye! If I were to repeat the experience I would change nothing- I feel I made the most of every second of my trip, and I will never forget it.
I would encourage anyone who wants to travel, learn and volunteer to consider taking part in one of ISV’s programmes. They are committed to helping participants expand their horizons and worldview whilst simultaneously raising our awareness of the impact of our actions on the planet; and the money invested in the programmes goes directly towards the organisations that make a difference to the people and the environment of the country. ISV well deserves its reputation as a leading volunteer organisation. I am now an ISV Student Rep, so feel free to contact me with any questions about ISV (my email address is [email protected]), or you can visit their website at www.isvolunteers.org, where you can download an application form (if you decide to apply, could you please write “Emma Adams, Lancaster University” under the question, “Where did you hear about ISV?”).
Have fun adventuring!