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Volunteer in Australia: Work in the Great Outdoors

CVA Volunteers in Tasmania, Australia
CVA Volunteers working in the pristine wilderness of Tasmania.

Having previously visited Australia on a short holiday and having been struck by the diversity and unique beauty of the place, I was keen to return. However, I was reluctant to become part of the mass of backpackers who swarm up and down the country’s coasts, rarely mixing with locals or seeing sights too far from the main highways. I was traveling alone and wanted to find a way of meeting like-minded people and venturing off the beaten track—preferably while offering some time and energy of my own in return.

Australia is not often in the minds of those considering volunteering abroad. Yet with 16 Australian areas on the World Heritage List, and ecology so distinctive that over 80 percent of its mammals, marine species, and flowering plants are found nowhere else on the planet, the country should be considered by those who hope to give their time and skills to an environment well worth protecting.

There are a number of voluntary organizations in Australia working hard to conserve and protect the natural environment, but the one that is most geared to the needs of overseas visitors is Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA). I chose to work with CVA, after literally tossing a coin to choose between the fantastic destinations they offer and ended up spending the most memorable month of my life in Tasmania, Australia’s island state.

CVA has offices throughout Australia. A good proportion of their day-to-day conservation work is done by a willing army of overseas volunteers who participate in “Conservation Experiences.”

The work that volunteers undertake can often be physically demanding, although it should be manageable for anyone with an average level of fitness. Working hours are usually between 8-9 a.m. and 4 p.m., with plenty of breaks in between. Volunteers are not expected to work weekends or major holidays, and these times are ideal for traveling.

In Tasmania our tasks alternated between weeding non-native plant species and planting native trees, interspersed with water-quality monitoring, erecting fences, and picking up litter.

My first day as a CVA “vollie” was spent weeding a pristine beach on Tasmania’s untouched north coast; over the course of the month we also worked at the spectacular Launceston Gorge and Seven Mile Beach, cleared undergrowth at a convict-era graveyard to prepare it to become an important historical monument, spent a weekend in sheep shearer’s quarters on the supremely beautiful Bruny Island, and planted trees at the world-famous Port Arthur, site of Australia’s most notorious prison settlement.

Tasmania is renowned for some of the most pristine wilderness areas in the developed world, and, for a relatively small island, it has an impressive diversity of landscapes ranging from isolated crags and mountain lakes to desert-island-fantasy beaches.

However, travelers signing up with CVA have many choices of where in Australia to spend their time—from the metropolitan areas of Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth to outback towns like Broome and Alice Springs. And the work they will do is as diverse as the setting they choose. For example, one of my fellow volunteers in Tasmania had recently spent time with CVA in Alice Springs tracking and monitoring the local crocodile population.

As well as providing an opportunity to work in such incomparable surroundings, volunteering is also a fantastic way to learn about and absorb Australia’s unique culture.

To many the phrase “Australian culture” is something of a contradiction in terms. Particularly to those from English-speaking countries, it may seem at first glance that Australia’s culture and lifestyle does not differ much from their own. It is worth remembering, however, that Western civilization is extremely new to this continent, and that the indigenous Aboriginal culture is believed to be the oldest surviving in the world. The Australian landscape is entirely inseparable from Aboriginal history and beliefs, and any CVA volunteer will come away having learned much about this unique culture not found in guidebooks.

All CVA team leaders are Australians, as are many fellow volunteers. They are more than happy to share their country’s customs, whether it be sampling kangaroo steaks on the barbie, reading bush poetry, or learning traditional Australian songs while drinking “billy tea” around a fragrant eucalyptus fire.

Furthermore the local community is often keen to get involved. During our weekend on Bruny Island we had morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea in a different local person’s home every day. Each meal was more sumptuous than the last—from fresh-baked scones to roast hams to home-made venison sausages.

Accommodation for CVA volunteers is basic but comfortable. Most volunteers stay in the local “Volunteer House,” leased by CVA and usually in or just outside a major town, although in some cases volunteers will stay in youth hostels, campsites, or camping barns. Volunteers are usually expected to share a room, though this depends on the number of volunteers on a project at any given time.

During the time I spent with CVA my fellow volunteers were evenly split between male and female and were multinational—a core group of British gap-year students, who often spend up to six months working with CVA, as well as an ever-changing mix of Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Canadians, Americans, Danes, and Guatemalans.

This international flavor provides added spice at mealtimes—volunteers cook their own meals, and I fast became a connoisseur of Korean and Japanese delicacies. If you are extremely lucky, as I was, one of your fellow volunteers may even turn out to be a trained chef!

For More Info

CVA Conservation Experiences can be booked direct with CVA via its website or through one of their booking agents in your own country (see the website for a full list of agents).

Volunteer work in Australia may be undertaken on a tourist visa, providing the main purpose of the visit is tourism, and the work is genuinely voluntary in nature.

Other Volunteering Opportunities in Australia:

Willing Workers On Organic Farms is an international organization, very widespread in Australia. Members work for short or longer periods on organic properties, in exchange for food and accommodation. You must first pay to become a WWOOF Australia member before taking part.

The following websites are useful for finding general volunteering opportunities in Australia:

Related Topics
Volunteer in Australia
Living in Australia
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