Jacob Rath - Conservation & Environment, Himalayan Mountain Conservation in Nepal
Up a mountain is a great place to be. Perched on a slope as the picture of the world unfurls around you; birds listing in the breeze against a backdrop of distant peaks, trees sprawling in the valleys below and – if you happen to find yourself in the Annapurna foothills – a procession of donkeys moving at a relaxed pace.
More specifically, if you find yourself in a village called Ghandruk as I did in early November, there'll be a plethora of wonderful and unique sights to behold. Located in the foothills of the Annapurna range and within the Annapurna conservation area, in Ghandruk you'll find friendly faces, colourful characters and a wide range of wildlife. Oh and stairs... lots of stairs.
Volunteering in Nepal
After two days full of travelling by plane, coach and jeep, it was with relief and enthusiasm that I began the walk from the jeep station to the guest house known as Raj Mahal. Led by one of the porters, a middle-aged woman with a permanent smile, the memory of that first time walking up will stick with me forever. The view, the trekkers, the locals; wondering exactly how long the walk would be and who I'd meet at the end of it.
I wasn't disappointed – from Volunteer Supervisor Raj and his family to the volunteers already settled in at Raj Mahal, I was welcomed by a diverse range of friendly, conscientious people. With still more volunteers at the Namaste guest house, I was never short of good company.
Conservation project in Nepal
Most of the work undertaken on the project is surveying the various forms of wildlife found around Ghandruk. One morning you might be walking through the forest surrounding the village, checking the camera traps for sightings of mammals like barking deer and leopards; in the afternoon you may find yourself chasing a butterfly along a riverbank, trying to catch a clear sight of its distinguishing markings.
You’ll spend a few days birdwatching at the beautiful Australian Camp – and find out where that name came from – and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a day of looking out for the monkeys which can sometimes be seen hanging around. There are also various one-off assignments depending on when you’re there; I was lucky enough to observe a traditional honey harvest involving a sheer cliff face, a rope ladder and several Nepali guys with no fear of heights or bee stings.
Alongside simply keeping tabs on the animals around Ghandruk, it’s important to educate people about them as well. To this end, a series of presentations on mammals, birds, butterflies and snakes was written and given by us volunteers. These were first shown in the village school and later to the rest of the village with help from a few of the schoolchildren, Raj and the Projects Abroad bird expert, Seejan. In short, the work is involving, enjoyable and rewarding.
It’s not all work. Volunteers get the weekend off and with nearly two dozen of us between the two guesthouses there’s plenty of scope for fun in the downtime. There are several places dotted around the village where you can enjoy a beer, or a hot drink and a slice of apple pie. At Raj Mahal there’s ping pong; at Namaste there’s badminton.
There are footballs (soccer balls, for our American-English speakers) and there’s even a basketball court down at the school. Depending on the length of your stay, it’s also possible to take a few days to conquer the Annapurna Base Camp – something I wasn’t able to but will definitely be returning for.
Finally, there’s the option of a weekend in Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal and the one nearest to Ghandruk. It’s a good time; there are some great little shops, plenty of restaurants and bars and a big, beautiful lake for good measure. During my time volunteering, almost everyone went down one weekend as a few of our number were moving on to further travels. It was a good send-off and overall a brilliant weekend, and two full days of flat walking after the stairs and slopes of Ghandruk is a welcome change.
The plainest sign of how good a time you have somewhere is how reluctant you are to leave, and when the time came for me to bid farewell to Ghandruk, its inhabitants and the volunteers, I was gutted. The entire experience was amazing and I can’t recommend enough doing this or a similar project. You’ll encounter new people and perspectives you simply couldn’t anywhere else, and you will certainly want to try something else incredible as soon as it’s over.
I’m not much of a photographer but fortunately everyone else, it seems – the amazing shots included herein were taken by one of my fellow volunteers, Ricarda Grün. I would encourage anyone and everyone to get out somewhere and find an experience like this; get involved, meet people, take photos and make memories.