12 August 2014

Kieran Harkin is the Conservation Programme Manager for Projects Abroad (one of The Career Break Site's approved partners). He is based in the UK but visits the organisation's conservation projects regularly.

Previously, he spent six months in Botswana where he managed the African Bushveld Conservation project, then went to Nepal to set up the Himalayan Mountain Conservation project, the only one of its kind in Nepal.

We spoke to Kieran to find out more about these two very different projects and destinations.

Projects Abroad volunteers carrying out data collection in Botswana

These conservation projects sound pretty remote, how do you get to them?

To get to our camp in Botswana you first fly into Polokwane airport in South Africa’s Limpopo province. From here it’s about a 4-hour ride on tarred roads through rural South Africa to the border with Botswana.

Once you cross the border, the road ends and you hit the dirt tracks. Our camp is a 90-minute drive through a semi-arid landscape. There are no fences so you are likely to see anything from elephants and zebra to antelope and warthogs on your journey to camp.

To get to our project in Nepal, you first need to fly to the capital Kathmandu. From here you can either catch a bus or hop on a flight to Pokhara, a beautiful and chilled-out city close to the Annapurna Mountain range.

From here you will travel by jeep for a couple of hours and drive to the conservation area. But it doesn’t end here, the final part of the journey is on foot! In fact it’s a 90-minute trek on mountain trails to Ghandruk, a small village at an altitude of about 2000m. On the way you’ll pass villagers and mule trains, a site you will soon become accustomed to in the Himalayas.

Projects Abroad volunteers in Nepal

Tell us about the accommodation set-up on these conservation projects

Our camp in Botswana is unfenced, so animals can wander in and out as they please. There is a traditional boma - a common area covered by a thatched roof – with kitchen, toilet/showers and a braai (barbecue) area. Volunteers stay in shared safari tents – these are permanent structures with a canvas roof.

In Nepal, volunteers stay in a local home stay. There are up to ten volunteers at each home stay. It’s homely but basic and each room has an ensuite bathroom. There is also a common area to relax in, and outside space to play badminton and volleyball. There’s also an amazing view of the Himalayas!

Do you get many career breakers on these projects?

All the conservation projects attract a wide range of ages and backgrounds of volunteers. I think they appeal as locations of these projects are often a bit more remote and off the beaten track, which can appeal to people who have done a certain amount of travelling already.

The kind of work done on conservation projects is also a chance to get far away from your typical daily life and learn new skills, whether that be tracking animals tracks in Botswana or learning to dive on a marine project in Thailand, Cambodia or Fiji.

Projects Abroad volunteer collecting data in Botswana

Describe a typical day in Botswana

It’s usually an early start, with volunteers getting up at around 5.30am in the morning to have their breakfast, followed by a briefing from staff. Everybody then jumps on the jeeps and heads off to that day’s area of study. The day’s work can involve anything from setting camera traps, conducting elephant ID research or digging water holes.

During the midday heat, everybody returns to camp for lunch and to chill out a bit!

In the afternoon we head out again on surveys, including working from hides, doing spore ID, and on-foot tracking of predators like leopards, hyenas and wild dogs.

Evenings are usually spent around the camp fire – often chatting and playing games. Sometimes there’s also the exciting chance to sleep out in the bush – we camp out in the hides to carry out overnight surveys.

Projects Abroad volunteers carrying out conservation in Botswana

And how about in Nepal?

In Nepal volunteers typically get up 7am and have breakfast. We then trek into the jungle to do wildlife surveys with birds, mammals and amphibians.

Lunch is usually a packed lunch taken with us to eat out in the jungle. Volunteers work with the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), which is also the first official conservation area and largest protected area in Nepal.  We’re also involved in monitoring bee hives and working on the communal organic gardens. The project in Nepal is focussed on working with, and learning from, the local people living in the area, which creates an experience of real cultural exchange for the volunteers.

Projects Abroad volunteer in Nepal, carrying out research in the jungle

What about the food?

In Botswana there’s plenty of locally-sourced beef, typically served with potatoes. There’s also rice, vegetables, sausages and pasta. There’s often the chance to cook things like chicken on the braai, and at weekends, volunteers can barbecue their own food. There’s always plenty of fruit too.

In Nepal the food is a mix of basic western fare and local Nepalese classics like daal bhat. We often have pancakes for breakfast and again, there’s plenty of fruit.

Is there much to do in your spare time?

Neither projects are ideal if you want to be out clubbing every night! In Botswana it’s definitely a laid back and relaxed vibe, volunteers read, relax, listen to music. We have solar power for charging things like mp3 players. Once a month the volunteers may go to a local town in Botswana.

In Nepal you can take part in all aspects of village life. There is also a popular German bakery and access to wifi in the nearby village, and you can play sports with the children at the local school. At weekends it’s possible to travel to Pokhara, where there are lots of activities on offer, from paragliding to mountain biking and of course there are many world class treks right on your doorstep!

A waterfall in Nepal, near a Projects Abroad conservation project

What are your most memorable experiences of each project?

In Botswana it would have to be sleeping out in the bush and being on watch, listening to hyenas in the wild. Meeting elephants on foot in the middle of the bush was also amazing, we stood still and kept calm and they backed off.

In Nepal highlights include interviewing local villagers to gain their knowledge on the natural resources, and setting camera traps for bears. Watching the bee hunters harvest honey is also really interesting. Best of all though, is simply waking up with the Himalayas in your face every morning!

Find out more about all the Projects Abroad conservation programmes here.