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Volunteering Abroad - Australia

Volunteering in Australia
blue mountains australia
Blue Mountains - Australia

May 2007 - My second semester at UCF had just ended. It was hard to believe that six months had passed since that curly haired girl came into a few of my lectures screaming at the top of her lungs about adventure. Without hesitation I signed up with the International Student Volunteers. Although they had several packages in different countries, I settled on conservation in Australia.

Crossing the Pacific Ocean


Forget the possibility for college credit, I didn't need it, I did it for the rush.  It had been years since I last left Florida and I needed out! What better than a group organized trip? It felt safer than traveling alone. So, I spent some of the scholarship money I had received on reserving my spot - it counted as educational, right?

The morning of my departure, my dad gave me a hot-pink camera; I just wished I had some time before leaving to play with it so most of my photos didn't turn out so... out of focus.

After a fourteen hour flight on Qantas, and a bit of motion sickness, we landed and my group of eight gathered around our local leader, Chris.  We loaded up the Thrifty van and headed out of Sydney through the mountains to Blackheath, the small town we would call home for the next two weeks.
Blue Mountains Australia
Blue Mountains - Australia

First Thoughts

Someone had obviously knocked out a wall of a duplex (because of the mirror image layout) to create a four bedroom 'cottage'. Each of the rooms were equipped with a space heater since, as I later found out at the time, there was no central heating - in any of the buildings we would visit. This was my first summer below the equator and, although I spent it freezing, it was much nicer than sweltering like I would have in Florida. Bring on the snow! I told myself.
Blue Mountains Australia
Blue Mountains - Australia

Later that first day we met with Rusty, our liaison with the Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens. He took us to a small park nearby overlooking the valley of the Blue Mountains.  He explained how the valley had been formed similarly to the Grand Canyon in America, but instead of desert, a lush rain forest had emerged and thrived. He continued to describe how when the sun hits the trees just right they look blue, giving the range its name, and he was right. Every morning before work we would sit out on the terrace of the welcome center, enjoying 'biscuits' and tea while a cascading blue haze slowly blanketed the valley. It was incredible.
Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens Australia
Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens

Volunteer Work

Our conservation work consisted of a mix of clearing trails, mattocking non-native plants, seed collecting, leading school tours, and the occasional kangaroo spotting.
Mount Tomah Botanic Garden Sign
Mount Tomah Botanic Garden - Sign

One day, two environmentalists showed up from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney and took us out to a remote part of the rain forest to search for a supposedly extinct flower that had been spotted around the area.  Hidden in the trees were countless hearths left behind by a now long defunct mining village.  Piles of rubble, glass jars, and pottery sherds were scattered about the ghost town. Overgrown, and yet so mesmerizing. What had it been like to live here? (Oh, we found the flower!)
Searching for the flower in the rain forest.
Searching for the flower.

Our Goodbye

On our last night in the cottage, we decided to venture to the nearby town Katoomba for dinner as a goodbye to our awesome leader.  Although the food was good, it didn't compare to the tender kangaroo steaks Chris had grilled for us a few nights earlier.  Afterward, we didn't want the night to end and went in search of drinks. As we walked the downtown streets looking for a bar, Chris noticed a poster for his favorite band playing that night at The Red Room only one street over. How could we say no?  Inside, the nine of us piled into a round booth near the stage and waited. Somehow, we got into a conversation about 'Drop Bears' - the Australian version of Bigfoot.  The lore states that Drop Bears have never been found, but drop out of trees and scalp tourists.  We had to ask other locals about the elusive creatures. Everyone seemed to play along; one man saying that they were from a beer commercial, while another told us that soldiers used to tell that story to get out of coming back to base late after a night of drinking.

As the band came on stage, I and a few others stood in the front.  The lead singer stated that they had just returned from a tour in America and were happy to be back in Australia and in Katoomba. At that moment one of the girls in our group screamed out, "Woohoo! Yeah! Katoomba!" The singer's face froze and he eventually said, "I've never been so confused in my life!"
Blue haze over the mountains.
Blue haze over the mountains.

It was a tearful goodbye as Chris drove us back to Sydney to meet with the other groups that had been volunteering around Australia with ISV.  The next two weeks were to be spent participating in fun excursions up the east coast.

To be continued...
waterfalls
Waterfalls.

erosion
Erosion

waterfall
Waterfall.

wearing away
Wearing away.

Looking over the edge of the trail.
Looking over the edge of the trail.
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