Miriam Lord - Himalayan Mountain Conservation in Nepal
I spent four amazing months in Nepal on the Conservation and Environment project in Ghandruk, in the Annapurna Conservation Area. My time there was genuinely both life-changing and life-affirming and I can’t recommend volunteering abroad enough for the incredible experiences it’s bound to bring.
My first impressions of Nepal are hazy and a little garbled; I generally don’t sleep well on planes and I don’t cope well on little sleep. After a 14-hour flight and being awake for 30 hours, I was so tired I was practically hallucinating! I remember it was very hot and vibrant. The co-ordinators who met me at the hotel were lovely and made me feel a lot less nervous.
It didn’t really start to sink in until two days later, when I took a jeep from Pokhara to the jeep station and hiked up to Panorama View Point in Ghandruk. Everyone I met was so generous I don’t think I suffered too badly from culture shock, but if anything, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the Nepali people. The contrast between Ghandruk and Kathmandu was startling and I was already in love with the green smelling air and the mountains that felt as if they were close enough to reach out and touch. The other volunteers were on an overnight field trip, so myself, another volunteer and the Volunteer Co-ordinator were waiting until they got back to begin surveying. I couldn’t wait to meet them and get started!
My Conservation and Environment placement
The conservation project works in partnership with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) to collect data on the species in the ACA. As research hasn’t been conducted there for a long time, the data Projects Abroad volunteers collect is still preliminary. Projects Abroad even found a new migratory bird species, the Pied Thrush, which had never been recorded in the ACA before!
I love conservation and ecology, so the project was perfect for me. We conducted surveys of birds and butterflies, and started photographing and recording the moth species found at Panorama. Having already done some bird surveying back home in the United Kingdom, I found the bird ID really interesting and picked it up pretty quickly; eventually I ended up giving a presentation about the birds around Ghandruk to new volunteers, which slightly terrified me but was really rewarding. I also saw several Lammergeier (bearded vultures). They’ve been synonymous with the wilderness for me ever since I saw them in a beautifully illustrated book about the Alps as a small child. When I finally watched one glide over my head in Nepal, I was so moved by the experience that I nearly cried, earning some rather odd looks from the others!
We also set up camera traps in the forests around Panorama to record mammals. This is especially important as some have been reduced to very small populations due to poaching and the camera traps help keep tabs on the different species and how they are doing. It was one of my dreams to see leopards; after nearly three months of finding only leopard scat and evidence of leopard activity we finally caught film footage of two leopards on one of our camera traps, scratching and marking the ground. Capturing two individuals in the same clip was a first, and was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Nepal, and I have to admit inducing a near dancing state of excitement in most of us!
My favourite, though, was the nocturnal reptile/amphibian survey. As the monsoon approached the number of snake sightings increased and finally we went out in the evening to see if we could find any. I really wasn’t expecting to see anything much at all, but we ended up finding over 30 toads, several slightly creepy spiders (not part of the survey but pretty cool!) and three snakes, one of which was actually in the process of eating a toad – grim and gruesome to watch as it was obvious that the toad was, unfortunately, still alive, but I found it pretty awe-inspiring to be able to watch the snake.
Working with the community
The ACAP works hard to encourage and support sustainable development. To do our bit for this we spent some time raising awareness in the village. I made posters about the wildlife around Ghandruk, and these were later displayed down at the school. The snake poster seemed to be very popular! Projects Abroad also organised a drawing competition with the school as part of their program for World Environment Day, which was led by a youth group in the village. I went down to speak to the children in the school and I loved how keen they all were to get involved.
Towards the end of my project, we had a day off from surveying to lay a carpet in the day care centre. One of the previous volunteers had donated this, and it was lovely to see the rooms after we had carpeted them! Hopefully it will be a little less cold and a little more comfortable for the children now.
A slower pace of life at Panorama
Living at Panorama was wonderful and taught me a lot. Nepali culture is beautiful, but getting used to Nepali time can take some doing, especially for someone like me who (used to be) quite ‘stressy’ about that kind of thing. It has definitely been a lesson, and a very valuable one at that, to be a little more chilled out!
The absence of modern appliances like washing machines means that day to day chores take much longer at Panorama. I really enjoyed doing my laundry by hand. I also enjoyed doing little things by myself instead of asking a machine to do it. A good example of this was us making enough tomato pulp for ten pizzas (a weekly treat!) with a knife instead of a blender; it was a great way to get more immersed in the moment and much more engaged with life. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Jamuna, our cook, making momos and dal baht and noodle soup and attempting to learn Nepali. We were certainly never hungry! The other volunteers were some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met and we remain firm friends.
Travelling around Nepal
At weekends we took time out to go on trips, exploring the beautiful country we were staying in. I visited Pokhara, and Chitwan (where we saw rhinos, elephants, monkeys, crocodiles and to my delight a lot of birds). We also took a hike down to Jhinu, a village with hot-springs.
My proudest moment in Nepal was when I reached out, exhausted, soaked and incredibly happy, and leant against the famous sign at Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). I’d joined a group of volunteers from Panorama who were trekking to ABC and, despite not believing I could, I battled it out and made it all the way up and back. It was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever done but it was definitely proof that, for me, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. I was awestruck by the beauty up there. It was sacred to watch the sun rise on some of the tallest, most inspiring peaks in the world.
My overall experience
Now that I’m back in the UK, I’m becoming aware of how much my time in Nepal has changed me. The people are more giving, generous, and kinder than any I’ve ever known. The country has shown me perceptions of the world so completely different from my own, that they were hard to imagine before I encountered them. Volunteering gave me a glimpse of what it is like to give without expecting anything in return, and this is something I observed everywhere in Nepali culture. To have had the opportunity to work in such a wonderful country and to have had such a rich and rewarding experience feels like a rare gift I will always be thankful for.
I have only one thing to say if you’re thinking about volunteering: plan carefully, yes, but then get out there and go do it! You won’t regret a single moment.