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Volunteers restoring wetlands in Australia
Yarra Valley (Victoria)--volunteers from the U.S. and Denmark working on a project to restore wetlands.

With its varied landscape, unique wildlife, and refreshingly down-to-earth people, it's no wonder Australia is a dream destination for so many. The price tag, sadly, can be discouraging. But don't despair—if the gypsy in you is willing to go for adventure, there's a little-known route that will allow you to see Australia cheaply—and get completely off the "tourist track" to boot. If you want to see the real Australia—get down into the remarkable red dirt (literally) and brave the remote heart of the country—then the "Conservation Experience" may be for you. 

The Conservation Experience Program

The Conservation Experience is a program run by Conservation Volunteers Australia, a not-for-profit, non-political organization dedicated to the preservation of the environment. Through the Conservation Experience, international volunteers are able to participate in various work projects in return for room, board and limited travel costs. Participants pay a fee for expenses in addition to donating their time and efforts.

"With the scale of the problem facing them, the only viable solution was to recruit volunteers," explains Madeline Townsend, Director of CVA Enterprises.

Dale Kristensen, former project team leader, adds that "Australia has one of the highest urbanized populations in the world with 90% of the population living in 10% of the country. The ATCV (Volunteers Australia was formerly known as the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers or ATCV) was formed as an urban-rural link, allowing any interested persons to become involved with hands-on conservation."

"We have here an operation that grew into a national organization," says Townsend. The original office in Ballarat remains as CVA's head, but offices have sprung up in every state and territory across Australia.

"What started with locals has spread not only through our own country but abroad," says Kristensen. The Conservation Experience is the facet of CVA that forms the international connection. Volunteers come from all over the world and are described as "CVA's most important resource". 

Originating from all walks of life, they work in teams of 6 to 10 persons under the supervision of a team leader. Each team is a self-sufficient unit with its own vehicle, food, first-aid supplies and all tools necessary to complete the assigned project. Projects run for one to two weeks, and volunteers are asked to stay a minimum of four weeks. Food and accommodation are provided on weekends between projects. Weekends are usually free time, and as long as house rules are adhered to (a no drugs/alcohol policy is strictly enforced), volunteers may come and go as they please. It's a good time for exploring or catching up on things like laundry (you will NOT stay clean during the week!)

Although the majority of volunteers are 18 to 25 years old, you can be anywhere between 18 and 70. "I remember a volunteer from London (U.K.) in her 50's," relates Kristensen. "She kept the rest of the group up till 3:00 a.m. when we all had to work the next morning!"   

While you need not be a superhero to participate, you should be relatively fit, as projects tend to be labor-intensive.  A work visa is NOT necessary since participants aren't paid. Volunteers are never asked to work beyond their capabilities and "safety first" is always the rule of thumb.     

What the Volunteers Do

As a volunteer, you could be working on anything from surveys and animal studies to archaeological programs to noxious weed control, wetland restoration or endangered species protection. Tree planting, however, is the largest area of volunteer involvement, accounting for roughly 30% of CVA's project time. 

Since the program's inception, over ten million trees have been planted. Aside from being a major weapon in erosion control, new tree growth is important in parkland rehabilitation and wildlife preservation. Conservation Experience volunteers planted trees to shade the nesting sites of turtles near Bundaburg, Queensland, and on Bowen Island (New South Wales) assisted in the National Parks and Wildlife's penguin habitat project. Cleared areas were replanted with native flora and a walking track was constructed. Work continues with revegetation and penguin monitoring.

CVA's activities are carried out for both individuals and organizations on public and private land. It is up to the team leader to act as a liaison between the volunteer group and the landowner or state manager. Projects are brought to CVA by land managers and planners— CVA then recruits volunteers to provide the "hands" needed for the task.

Volunteers direct seeding in Australia
Strzelecki Hills (Victoria)--a U.S. volunteer in the foreground and a couple of locals in the background doing direct seeding.

Where and How the Volunteers Live and Work

Participants can choose their base city as well as their time frame (subject to availability). For a four-week stint, $945 (Current prices in Australian dollars) covers food, accommodation and travel to various work sites. (Also included is an Australian Wildlife Guide and membership in CVA entitling you to information updates and various discounts.) For six weeks, the cost is $1,407.

Accommodations vary greatly—private homes, tents, cabins—even the floor of a football club! Don't come looking for luxury—that's not what this group is about. Warning: Privacy, too, is limited, so if that's your thing, this program probably isn't for you. Quarters are often crowded, especially on weekends when several work groups may congregate. It's not unusual for someone to plunk their sleeping bag inches from your bed, so be careful when you get up or you might step on someone who wasn't there when you went to sleep! 

Working conditions, too, can be far from idyllic—rain or shine, volunteers are out there, sometimes knee-deep in mud (or other substances!), sometimes fighting off flies that abound in the heat of central Australia, sometimes slugging heavy rake-hoes while balanced on the slope of a steep clay hill.

"It's definitely an active program, not a tour organization," laughs Kristensen. "The projects can be tedious—but it's always a learning experience."

You may say to yourself, "OK, let me get this straight—I go to Australia and I work for these people under these conditions—and I pay them $900+ to do it? Are you out of your mind?

Maybe. But think about this—where else, for that price, can you get a month or more all inclusive—and travel to areas you just wouldn't get to otherwise?

"Realistically it's a great way to see the country," says Kristensen. "We get you working side-by-side with the locals. All you need to have is a love of the outdoors. And," he stresses, "a sense of humor certainly helps!"

Who the Volunteers Are

Joining with a group of internationals is another bonus. The camaraderie alone is worth the effort—how often can you get into a game of cards with two Danes, A Kiwi and a Texan? Or go bushwalking with a Crocodile Dundee-type who can tell you the name of practically every green thing that surrounds you? Or watch some old American TV with a group of Swedes who think Bart Simpson is the greatest thing to hit the airwaves? Try sitting down to a meal with a dozen people from half a dozen different countries and see where the conversation takes you.

Spraying to control weeds in Australia
Author in Ormiston Gorge National Park (Northern Territory). I'm spraying to help control the Mexican poppy weed which was beginning to take over the area.

Getting to Know the Locals

Even the projects are not always a chore. If you're lucky enough to be placed on a farm, you will feel the appreciation from the Aussie farmers. They are genuinely interested in hearing about your life back home and are more than willing to share their own stories. You will get coffee and home-baked goodies at break; you'll be shown around their land and introduced to the inner workings of their operation whether it be dairy cattle, sheep shearing or harvesting sugar cane. Sometimes they'll even send their kids out to help you—tree planting can be a lot of fun when the seedlings are handed to you by an eager four-year-old with a pet "skink" in his pocket!  Above all, these people will explain the reasons behind the job you're doing, which serves to reinforce the fact that you are making a worthwhile contribution to their society.

If you complete your planned weeks (and most do; the volunteer drop-out rate is very low according to Kristensen), you can move around and do extra weeks at a cost of $210.00 (current prices in Australian dollars). 

So how about it? Might your future hold an unforgettable trek through the Conservation Experience? And what about the future of CVA?

"Expansion is in the works," says Kristensen. "It can only continue to grow. I don't see how it can do anything else."

For More Information

Conservation Volunteers Australia, P.O. Box 423, BALLARAT, Victoria 3353, Australia. Phone: (03) 5330 2600. Fax: (03) 5330 2922. Website: www.conservationvolunteers.com.au. E-mail: info@conservationvolunteers.com.au.

Sources

Madeline Townsend, Director, CVA Enterprises
Karen Dimmock, Volunteer and Partnership Manager CVA    
Dale Kristensen, former Team Leader, Melbourne Victoria
CVA Annual Reports

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