Travelling like you give a damn

Ever considered voluntourism?

Words Heather Wright

Ever considered voluntourism?

Occupational therapist Kate Truman spent the first three weeks of her holiday working with autistic and disabled children at a Hanoi school.

Her trip, organised through New Plymouth-based International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) and Volunteering for Peace Vietnam, included language lessons and accommodation in a suburban house, alongside other volunteers, with a local cook providing authentic Vietnamese meals.

Weekends and some Fridays were free for exploring. “It was a great way to start experiencing the country,” says Kate. “You were really immersed in the culture and way of life, and felt you were giving back.”

For those keen to try voluntourism, the options are diverse. There’s diving with manta rays on the Great Barrier Reef with Earthwatch Institute, jungle conservation in Peru with IVHQ, working with giant pandas in China through Student Flights or building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Student Flights (www.studentflights.co.nz) is not restricted to student travellers, but rather the young at heart. Company brand leader Jessica Allen says travel including volunteering is an increasing trend.

Many Kiwis, it seems, are seeking the volunteer experience but still not wanting to sacrifice the traditional indulgent holiday abroad. “Integrating a volunteer experience with a beach or shopping holiday in one trip can make it meaningful, cost-effective and twice as enjoyable,” she says.

IVHQ (www.volunteerhq.org) was started in 2007 by New Zealander Daniel Radcliffe and organises placements around the world. The most interest in voluntourism comes from Australian, Canadian, British and American travellers, but the company is placing increasing numbers of Kiwis.

Wild thing, I think I love you 

The chance to help endangered wildlife is a key attraction for many Kiwis, with Student Flights’ top four voluntouring options involving animals. Packages include conservation work with cheetahs in Namibia, sea turtles in Costa Rica, orangutans in Malaysia and elephants in Thailand.

A quick reality check: most programmes won’t have you spending your days cuddling cute, furry things. Rather, they involve helping to preserve or clean habitats, and the tracking or monitoring of wild animals.

The Namibia cheetah conservation programme sees volunteers assisting in a welfare programme at a reserve, helping with maintenance in the morning then spending afternoons tracking leopards and cheetahs. There’s also the opportunity to get involved in rescue and release activities.

Student Flights’ offerings include conservation work on the Galápagos Islands, a South African experience at a centre housing predators, including rare white lions, and llama conservation in Peru, which includes weaving llama wool.

Also offering conservation in the mix is Malaysia’s Animal Projects & Environmental Education, which has five-day Borneo wildlife habitat restoration programmes and 12-day wildlife safaris, available through Active Asia (www.activeasia.co.nz).

Both of these programmes are based in Sukau and involve tree-planting and maintenance work connecting the area’s fragmented forests to encourage orangutan and pygmy elephant populations. Community and education programmes are included and extra sightseeing can be added.

Cultural immersion

IVHQ has programmes around the world, but reports that Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, China and Sri Lanka are the most popular with Kiwi travellers.

Cambodian experiences include teaching English, working in an orphanage, human-rights work with non-profits and computer support.

For something more unusual, IVHQ also offers a Sri Lankan temple renovation programme, where you help restore temples using traditional construction methods – without the aid of machinery.

Repainting and cleaning temples and helping establish community centres for youth are also included. And the ‘holiday’ component? IVHQ’s Sri Lankan team offers special packages for volunteers, including a week of hiking, a beach week on Sri Lanka’s coast, or a week of yoga and Ayurvedic massage at a local retreat.

IVHQ’s Ramadan programme in Morocco has volunteers providing food at the end of each day to disadvantaged families, teaching language and organising workshops on ethics and values. While volunteers don’t have to be practising Muslims, they are required to observe Ramadan customs. This can be topped off with a week of adventure visiting major tourist spots.

Student Flights’ programmes include community work in Thailand, teaching at a floating school in Cambodia, childcare in Ghana and English teaching in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal.

Earthwatch Institute (www.earthwatch.org) has packages ranging from archaeology and paleontology to working with threatened animals and habitats. Volunteers can help save treasures of a Roman villa, uncover an Etruscan burial ground along Tuscany’s central coast, excavate a Roman fort in England’s north-east, unearth dinosaur fossils or mammoth bones in the United States, or help conserve the Amazon Basin’s pink river dolphin, giant river otters and primates.

Even luxury hotels are getting in on the act, with the Ritz-Carlton chain offering a range of volunteering options for guests.

If you’re lucky enough to be holed up at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan, for example, you can spend a morning learning about Old San Juan’s 500-year history, while helping maintain historic treasures such as Castillo San Felipe del Morro or Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo).

Meanwhile, guests at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans can spend a day helping restore St Bernard Parish. Volunteer projects aren’t just cultural; the hotels are also involved in working with disabled children, helping restore the Florida Everglades and beautifying New York City’s Battery Park.

Development agency Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA, www.vsa.org.nz) says it doesn’t see itself as offering voluntourism, but it has expanded its short-term programme to help volunteers go on shorter assignments, rather than the standard two years.

These are not so much holidays as job postings, with vacancies listed online for positions throughout the wider Pacific, including Melanesia, Polynesia and Timor-Leste. Recent vacancies include a two-month stint as a training advisor in the Solomon Islands, and a six-month vacancy for a database advisor in Samoa.

In your own backyard
Nor do you have to leave the country to become a voluntourist. The Department of Conservation (DOC, www.doc.govt.nz) offers volunteer opportunities throughout the year. Options are leaner over the winter months, but DOC does offer three- to five-day maintenance programmes on Kawau Island.

There is also a bird-monitoring option on Little Barrier Island from September onwards, requiring a 17-18 day commitment.

Seven-day Tiritiri Matangi trips are on offer every week of the year (except for six weeks over the summer), and in July and August, maintenance programmes for the Milford Sounds track and historic sites are in full swing. You won’t have any sightseeing options added on to your main trip, but you do get to see top New Zealand destinations up close.

Raw adventure
Fancy an intimate encounter with an endangered species, such as orangutans or elephants?

One option is to join a seven-day eco-tour run by Raw Wildlife Encounters and guided by New Zealander Amy Robbins. It’s heading to North Sumatra to help out the Earth 4 Orangutans project, including spending time with world-leading orangutan experts, local people and exotic wildlife.

Amy has 13 years’ experience looking after primates, previously working in Sumatra with orangutans, and is currently on maternity leave from her job as team leader of primates at Auckland Zoo. Amy says the whole experience will be educational – including being immersed in village life.

Expedition highlights include: visiting the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project’s headquarters in Medan, visiting the site of Earth 4 Orangutans, trekking in the jungle (including at night) to look for orangutans and other wildlife, feeding and walking among the orangutans at Bukit Lawang, a cooking lesson, preparing food in a cave, river tubing, washing elephants in a river and traditional massage.

Tour dates are October 7-13. More information can be found on the Raw Wildlife website: www.rawwildlife.com

Writing her first feature for Good has revived Heather Wright’s old plans to be an archaeologist; now she’s dreaming of mammoths and Etruscan remains

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