Lindsay Burns - Himalayan Mountain Conservation in Nepal
Since enrolling in university, I felt compelled to do something interesting and positive with my degree, my plan was to use my degree to try and benefit developing countries. As I approached the final year of my degree, I was required to complete a sixteen week placement to satisfy the requirements of my course. I was lucky enough to have a free semester at my disposal and so the plan to volunteer was first hatched. After just three hectic weeks of organisation and discussion with my university faculty and the local Projects Abroad staff, I was sitting on a plane bound for Kathmandu, en route to my home for the next four months, Ghandruk, Nepal.
Thirty hours and three flights later I arrived, to be immediately greeted by Projects Abroad staff and whisked through the vibrant commotion and energy of the city to their hotel in Thamel. It was here that I first got to experience the loving kindness of the Nepali people. After sharing an hour-long conversation in broken English, many laughs and about a litre of masala tea between us, a Nepali staff member invited me to his home for my first Dhal Bhat (Nepal’s staple dish of lentils and rice) and to meet his family. Sitting on their floor feeling gloriously full, laughing and extremely gracious for my invitation, I got my first glimpse of the unrelenting hospitality, warmth and humour I was yet to receive in this amazing country.
Travelling from Kathmandu to the conservation project in Ghandruk is a whole experience in itself. An eight hour bus ride, winding along the valley’s edge will bring you to Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city. Pokhara, positioned on the incredible Fewa Lake and surrounded by Nepal’s trademark Himalayan skyline, also provides an amazing backdrop for vacation breaks or festival celebrations while in living Ghandruk. From Pokhara you cram into a jeep, that you think with 12 passengers is at full capacity, until another family of four decide to jump in and begin the three hour winding ascent into the Annapurna National Park. The last stretch of this journey is an hour-long crawl up a single lane dirt track that is also serviced by over-loaded goods carriers, goat herders, the local bus and the occasional insane motorcyclist. A one hour walk up the steep, unrelenting stairs that hug the cliff faces of the valley’s edge later and you will find yourself in your new home, overwhelmed by both exhaustion and majestic beauty of this incredible location.
Home for volunteers in Ghandruk is a repurposed hotel ran by an incredible Nepali couple who will make you feel part of their family in no time. Along with their cook, these amazing people provide volunteers with incredible love and hospitality in a home full of laughter, where friendships are forged between people of all different nationalities. The cultural exchange shared between other volunteers can be extremely profound and just as rewarding as with locals. Living with such a diverse group of people in such close proximity, you develop a curiosity and appreciation for each other’s perspectives and gain life-long friends and promises of a bed to sleep in on the other side of the world.
Another thing that made my volunteering experience so enjoyable was that there was no “typical day” while volunteering in Ghandruk. Work days were led by the ever-capable project leader Raj and could entail anything from rappelling down cliff faces using bamboo shoots while tracking the elusive Red Panda, to watching birds and catching butterflies in the most beautiful environments imaginable. Anyone who questions the masculinity of Lepidopterology (studying butterflies) has never been fortunate enough to experience grown men sprinting, diving and hurling themselves after elusive Himalayan butterflies.
The only thing that remained a daily constant was trekking along trails that can only be described as “Nepali flat – a little bit up, a little bit down”, through the most breath-taking scenery imaginable. I had never held such an appreciation for hiking; walking seven hours up hills for days had never appealed to me before living in Nepal, but there is something incredibly moving about working and living in the Himalayas. Whether your job is to make your way through dense jungle placing camera traps, sliding down icy mountain tracks or picking up dried buffalo poo, the feeling you get when you look at those gigantic mountains is indescribable. This majestic setting combined with the lack of a single engine or mechanical sound and the most incredibly clean air imaginable make the many hours spent in pain, drudging uphill dripping in sweat some of the most enjoyable moments of my life. Being able to share these experiences with friends only makes these mountainous journeys even better; running, jumping and dancing along hiking trails, singing together, cracking jokes and sharing stories while climbing up 4000 metre peaks, (not only for work, also the occasional picnic) with other volunteers are moments I will never forget.
My advice to anyone volunteering would be to appreciate every second of your experience and immerse yourself in every moment possible! Your volunteering experience will be one of the most amazing and rewarding adventures of your life, so why not maximise your experience? So learn the local language, eat the local food, eat with your hands, get involved in local celebrations and festivals, talk to anyone and everyone, make new friends with everyone and ask lots of questions. You will learn new things about people, the world and yourself that you never thought possible. Also remember to appreciate the fact you are living for a length of time in a country that is so radically different from your own, something many people are not lucky enough to share. The entire time spent while volunteering with Projects Abroad, you will be surrounded by amazing local staff members who will ensure you the most amazing experience possible.
I can honestly say that volunteering with projects abroad was one of the best decisions of my life and would recommend it to anyone. It has provided me with amazing, life-changing experiences that I still appreciate on a daily basis. There is not a single day where I am not reminded of my time in Nepal, and spend many hours day-dreaming up schemes to get myself back there. My friends are all sick of hearing “Nepal stories”, but my volunteering experience has provided me with enough incredible experiences, adventures and stories to last a life time.
I have been blessed to have met some of most beautiful people I have met in life while in Nepal, including volunteers, staff members and local people alike. These people have provided me with many new ideas and perspectives, allowed me to experience a plethora of new things and shared amazing friendships. An unexpected benefit of my experience was the dramatic increase in fitness shared by volunteers, provided by living and constantly exercising at high altitude. Watching other volunteer’s fitness and confidence improve over time, overcoming previous doubts and obstacles was beautiful to watch.
On a very practical level, using my internship period to volunteer has provided more beneficial than I had ever imagined possible. My volunteering experience has demonstrated the possibility of amazing career paths and inspired me to use my university degree towards future conservation, voluntary and non-government organisation roles. Or I might just throw it away and become a hiking guide.
“My most memorable experience was hiking uphill for an hour at 5am, through fresh snow and darkness to see a sunrise from 3500m altitude. The thinness of air, the steep and slippery ascent, the lack of trail, my completely soaked boots and the regular blasts of sub-zero winds were making me absolutely hate the walk. As the sun emerged over the snow-capped Himalayan horizon, my previous feelings of discomfort completely dissipated as I was overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the moment. There is no way to describe the feeling you get, surrounded by the most incredible, untouched natural landscape, no engines or people to be heard or seen; there is truly nothing like it.”
“My advice to future volunteers would be to appreciate every second of your experience and immerse yourself in every moment possible! Your time spent volunteering will be one of the most amazing and rewarding adventures of your life, why not maximise your experience? So learn the local language, eat the local food, eat with your hands, get involved in local celebrations and festivals, talk to anyone and everyone, accept invitations, make friends with everyone and ask lots of questions. You will learn new things about people, the world and yourself that you never thought possible!”