Volun-tourism ... when you’ve been there and done that

Travel experiences may not always broaden the mind or satisfy a well-travelled soul.
For some, there are only so many countries on the to-do list; only so many miniature Eiffel Tower pencil sharpeners to collect; only so many Mai Tais to drink as the sun sets over another tropical pool. Aloha again.
And so some Australians spend their well-earned spare time in later years helping out in far-flung corners of the world.  

Volunteer work in exotic locations is a travel experience that keeps on giving.
It’s not for everyone, but here are three Queenslanders who are making a difference far from the first world comforts of home.

Ross and Brenda Hazelwood first tripped off to Nepal in 1986, excited about a camping trek with a difference.
“We’d previously travelled to Europe and Israel, wanted to visit Asia and this sounded like a real adventure,” says Ross.

The pair fell in love with the country: the trekking, the mountains and the people.
Two years later, the Queenslanders were back, and with a stronger appreciation of Nepal and wanting to get involved.

They joined the nascent Nepal Australia Friendship Association and on their third trip, took the first of the association’s funds, distributed with help from Australia’s ambassador in Kathmandu.

By 2016, the Hazelwood’s trips to Nepal numbered more than 20. And still counting.

“We could see there was a genuine need (for aid) by those people in remote areas who are mainly subsistence farmers with no way to improve living standards,” Ross explains.

“We could see that very low budget assistance, like water pipelines from springs into the villages and schools, could make a difference to their lives and their children’s lives.”

From 1986 to 2003, Ross and Brenda travelled to Nepal almost every second year for four to six weeks. Since 2004, and retirement from management positions, they live in-country for five months a year, monitoring Nepalese Friendship Association projects.

Aid work includes funding and assisting with health clinics, school classrooms, education sponsorships and children’s homes in remote villages and schools. Projects, which help some 3000 students and more than 2000 households, range from building classrooms to school toilet repairs and micro hydro plants for electricity.
As project co-ordinator, Ross assesses new projects, visiting sites and talking to locals.

He advises NAFA on what’s needed and monitors a project’s progress.

Brenda has taught craft and English to Nepalese children and makes jewellery, for sale back here to raise extra funds.

Each year, the pair lead a group on a trek through the lower Solu Khumba and other districts to monitor these projects.

It’s 15 days of walking, carting tents, mattresses, stoves, fuel and food with no roads connecting the villages.
“Our personal goal has been to make a difference and to improve the lives of children who wouldn’t have had an opportunity to get a basic education, as well as helping people in remote areas improve their lives,” says Ross.
“Our achievements have been to see children complete higher study and obtain work from this. (Plus) the construction of better classrooms in remote area, bringing water pipes to schools, better water supply through villages and improving community standards with solar or water-powered electricity and the reduction of deforestation by the use of fuel-efficient stoves.”

Self-funded, Ross and Brenda spend about $12,000 on a five-month stay in Nepal – that covers flights, local travel, accommodation, food and other costs.

 Donations for NAFA projects can be made at: nafa.org.au/donations

KEITH Christiansen was an Australian Army engineer before heading off to work for Brisbane-based consulting engineers GHD.  That led him to volunteering to help source fresh water for African villages.
Five years ago, Keith was about to retire.

“But I didn’t want to drop out. There’s only so many games of cricket and golf, only so much fishing you can do,” he says.

He turned to MSABI - Maji Safi kwa Afya Bora Ifakara - or Safe Water for Better Health Ifakara.

Founded in 2009 by Australian engineer Dale Young, MSABI helps fight health issues in Tanzania’s Kilombero River by cleaning up water supplies through new wells, water pumps, filter pots, latrines and hygiene education.
Keith last worked for GHD on infrastructure engineering ventures in the Asia-Pacific region, including post-tsunami reconstruction in Indonesia.

He also had responsibility for GHD’s charitable, pro bono support program.
 “This involved seed funding and ongoing support for MSABI and I saw a great opportunity during retirement to continue involvement with MSABI as a senior advisor and mentor for Dale,” Keith says.
In 2013, he headed to Ifakara in Tanzania for hands-on experiences with MSABI’s self-help program, developing local capability and capacity for sustainable water supplies and sanitation industries.
 “When you visit a village that has benefited from an MSABI well over a few years the feedback from the village elders is about how the children are not getting sick,” Keith says.
“In a part of the world where 200 children out of 1000 don’t make it to their fifth birthday, that feedback gives a lasting impression.”

Empowering villagers to help themselves was important in Tanzania, just as important as using trail bikes to cart materials to remote villages; and just as important as navigating local politics.

Keith would suggest this type of overseas aid – self-help and sustainable – is more effective and more efficient than many programs.

Clean water is a Tanzanian problem and has to become a Tanzanian solution.

He stresses would-be volunteers should do their homework, specific due diligence, on overseas projects before heading to the airport.

Some “do-good” projects are inefficient; some are top-heavy with full-time professionals; some can collapse once westerners leave town.

Keith saw well-meaning schemes in Africa fall through after aid workers came and went, charitable monies raised in Australia ill-spent.

“A lot of international aid money doesn’t allow enough provision for through-life maintenance, or putting in place a maintenance system,” Keith says. “That’s where expectations get let down.”

He says those looking for hands-on experiences need to be reasonably fit and have an open mind but  most of all,  “don’t apply western values” to expectations.Remember, some outposts will not have mainstream power, hot water or refrigeration. Chickens may need to be killed and plucked before dinner.

Internet access in Tanzania was reasonably good but planning and patience was needed to connect with folk back home.  The same may go for transport.

He recommends sorting out medical advice and supplies with doctors before take-off.

Also check on access to cash. This could be problematic, so take advice on funds before leaving home.
At the end of the day, Keith calls himself a humanist and agrees there are some Australians in desperate straits.
He argues we have systems to help those people.

“Whereas two-thirds of the world don’t have a system, people have nowhere to go. I think I have made a difference to tens of thousands of people with my own time, money and effort,” he says.
 For more information on MSABI programs, visit msabi.org

It was a first world challenge that led Allen Cox to Vanuatu with his wife, Lyn and their family in 1993.
“The reason for the trip to the end of the world – that’s how I saw it – was a challenge from a bloke who said I was living in a country that was in the world’s 10 per cent of wealthiest and that 90 per cent of the rest didn’t have the excessive luxuries we consider the basics in Australia,” Allen recalls.
“We thought we might make a small difference.”

Since then Allen, now 57, has been back to the island of Santo more than 60 times, initially helping out with building a house deep in the Vanuatu bush and setting up a printing press.  

The cabinetmaker and his wife have been hands-on with repair work after cyclones, helping out at schools and have helped establish Medical Santo, a clinic for local health and medical emergencies.

“Medical Santo was started when we saw a desperate need to provide quality medical services to the people in northern Vanuatu,” he says.

“I have three big hospitals within 20 minutes of my (Queensland) house in case I have any serious medical need.
“After having too many Vanuatu friends die over the years from what we in Australia would call non-threatening conditions, Lyn and I with two other families investigated the need for a medical centre in Santo.”
Medical Santo is now operating with an operation manager onsite and a volunteer co-ordinator based in Brisbane.

Allen and Lyn assist volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists, paramedics and medical educators with health services to locals.  

Lyn was the first aid worker into remote northern islands after Cyclone Pam in 2015 and Medical Santo had a six-person emergency medical team on standby, later sent to treat 1200 patients in 10 days on Tanna Island.
Today, volunteer medical staff on Santo spend a minimum of two weeks in-house and up to 12 months for those with the time.

Non-medical volunteers help with building plus maintenance of the centre and volunteer accommodation.
Medical Santo take one to seven volunteers at a time with all asked to pay an accommodation allowance plus any medical registration fees. Depending on the length of stay, it could be a $300 fee plus a $600 flight from Brisbane.

Allen says many volunteers have never worked in a low-resource, third world country in the tropics.
“This brings a steep learning curve for most,” he says.

“The heat and humidity, damp and mould, earthquakes and cyclones all make life back home just a little bit tame. (But) the huge impact that can be made on a ni-Vanuatu life because a volunteer was willing to give from their abundance and provide quality medical care to those in need cannot be measured.”

He says aid work forges friendships that last forever.

“I think we are classed as ‘volunteer junkies’. It’s very difficult for us to live a privileged life in Australia when friends in Vanuatu have so little,” he says.

For more information visit medicalsanto.com or email