A famous frog once said it’s not easy being green, but it’s getting a little easier for travellers in Australia. There’s no end of hotels with eco credentials, airlines providing us with the opportunity to offset our flight emissions and travel companies intent on leaving only footprints. It’s now also possible to take things a step further with conservation ‘volun-tourism’.
While the idea of combining conservation and local tourism activities in the same travel package has been available overseas for some time, it’s a relatively new concept within the Australian leisure travel market. So is it really possible to have a memorable travel experience in Oz and put something back at the same time? Absolutely - according to Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA).
CVA has always offered environmental project volunteering opportunities, but the company has recently extended that remit to create the Naturewise Eco Escape programme. These single day trips, two or three day breaks and week-long adventures involve teaming up with local protected area agencies to achieve a positive environmental outcome – while also incorporating traditional tourism-based activities such as guided walks and visits to local attractions. Each escape can be booked in the same way as any standard package holiday or tour.
We’re about to set off filming Little Desert Discovery – a four-day programme in the Little Desert National Park and adjacent nature reserves, about 20km south-east of Nhill in regional Victoria. On this escape we’ll be assisting local Parks Victoria rangers for a couple of hours each day to conduct wildlife monitoring. Animals are lured to camera sites by the promising aroma of peanut oil and vanilla essence. Hey presto – critter selfie! The findings will be used to formulate park management plans or initiate research projects. It’s non-invasive for the animals and fun for us, as we review the footage and the various fauna up for a pic – including kangaroos, emus, wallabies, echidnas and possums. Ranger Stuart Lardner is hoping we spot the extremely elusive Phascogale or even the long absent – and now endangered – eastern barred bandicoot.
We stay at the Little Desert Nature Lodge (owned and operated by CVA) in comfortable twin or double accommodation with private ensuite facilities. All meals are included and the menu is straightforward but hearty and delicious. There’s a bar at the lodge which offers reasonably priced beer, wine and spirits.
The lodge is wonderfully integrated into the natural surrounds of the park. The entire 11 hectare property has predator-proof fencing, providing a safe home to several species of marsupial that would be virtually impossible to be seen in the wild. There’s also a pair of the endangered Malleefowl (again, extremely elusive in the wild). An evening wildlife walk around the enclosure is part of the itinerary and we get to meet the resident colony of brush-tailed and rufous bettongs. You hear them well before you see them - the light pit-a-pat of tiny feet through the undergrowth. Suddenly they’re all around us and we’re treated to an intricate ballet from the dainty monopods, as they sweep and weave between one another with perfect precision. It’s fascinating to watch.
The concept of volun-tourism is an interesting one. The traveller is paying for a travel experience and contributing their labour as part of the agreement. Could there be some grey area in this arrangement? For example, what if a participant decides to opt out of the project work one morning – opting for a sleep-in instead?
I put this to CVA team leader Rod Collier. ‘It’s not usually an issue. The participants on our trips are genuinely interested in conservation issues and willing to participate fully in that side of the experience. However we do make the effort to provide as broad an experience as possible. That means providing leisure activities as part of the package, along with some free time. The project work is just one component’.
It also comes down to the type of volunteer work being undertaken. As Rod explains, ‘Generally the work on a Naturewise Eco Escape is low impact. We are not asking people to build fences or dig drains. It often involves research projects, recording data and so on. But it’s a valuable contribution and a unique opportunity to be part of this work’.
But all work and no play makes Adam a dull boy and there are lots of opportunities to relax on this programme, including rambling nature walks with our rangers Stuart and Bianca. We also visit the lodge’s nearby Malleefowl sanctuary and enjoy a fabulous guest presentation on traditional indigenous culture with Bill Speedy of Nullawokka Aboriginal Tours – including a dance lesson and an exquisite ‘bush foods’ feast of honey myrtle scones, roo pizzas, saltbush scones and more. I could have spent hours listening to Bill’s stories about life in the bush.
All too soon it’s time to board the troopie for the five-hour drive back to Melbourne. Sadly, we never did spot that Phascogale or eastern barred bandicoot. But we’ve made a meaningful contribution all the same. And without a doubt this has been one of my most satisfying travel experiences yet.
Adam Ford is host of Tour the World.
See Little Desert Discovery in Part 1 of Tour the World’s Aussie Touring Special, Saturday May 23 at 12noon on Network Ten. For more information visit www.tourtheworld.com.au.
For more information on Naturewise Eco Escapes visit www.naturewise.com.au.
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