A “once in a lifetime experience” was just that for eight students from Tadcaster Grammar School as they embarked on an expedition they will never forget.
When an opportunity to visit Indonesia became available through Operation Wallacea, the students seized it and, even though the journey often took them out of their “comfort zone”, they will never forget the sights, sounds and smells this amazing place had to offer.
“People can often overuse the phrase ‘once in a lifetime experience’, but it is simply the only way to describe our visit to Indonesia,” said Sixth Form student Callum Mo.
“It was not simply a holiday; it enabled us all to experience things very few people could only dream about,” he added.
Operation Wallacea (Opwall) is an organisation that runs a series of biological and conservation management research programmes, operating in remote locations across the world.
These expeditions are designed with specific wildlife conservation aims in mind. Large teams of ecologists, scientists and academics, who are specialists in various aspects of biodiversity or social and economic studies, are concentrated at the target study sites. This gives volunteers the opportunity to work on a range of projects.
The group of Year 11 and Sixth Form students travelled to Buton Island in South East Sulawesi, Indonesia with two teachers. It took more than 24 hours and four flights to get there. The cost of the expedition was £2,800 each, being entirely paid for by themselves through working and numerous fundraising events including Race Nights, selling preserves and a lot of bake sales.
“It was a privilege to be asked to accompany the Operation Wallacea expedition,” said Mrs Kerry McGeechan (Subject Leader Girls PE).
“It was such a fantastic opportunity to be part of a conservation project that helped provide invaluable research for the REDD+ project to prevent the degradation of rainforests and coral reefs.”
On arrival the group spent one night in a hotel before being taken to a village where they stayed with locals in their homes.
The first activity in the village was a canopy access course using ropes and a harness to climb to the canopy of the forest, something which took everyone out of their comfort zone. “Even for those who didn’t mind heights it was quite unnerving,” stated Mrs McGeechan.
The first week was spent in the rainforest being transported by cattle truck and then trekking for three hours mainly uphill and in very humid conditions. On arrival at Bala Camp there was a small clearing with a few large tents set up. Four tents had rows of hammocks to sleep in and there was an area for eating and lectures, as well as a kitchen area. Washing facilities included trench toilets and the river that ran through the camp was where everyone washed.
“We got used to eating rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner and there was the odd vegetable and egg thrown in too,” said Mrs McGeechan.
“Living on rice for two weeks was a challenge and I was very glad to have some marmite on toast when I got home,” said Sixth Form student, Tamsyn Dawson.
Each day involved a trek to a different area of the rainforest to carry out various surveys including habitat, bats, butterflies, birds, reptiles and megafauna.
Assisting scientists who were collecting research through monitoring and recording specific data, the students would measure and weigh the bats, frogs, snakes and lizards that were caught, as well as record data about the habitat where they lived. In addition, a jungle skills course showed how to make a shelter, a fire and find food and water.
“My time in the jungle was extraordinary,” said Tamsyn. “There were some tough treks but the views and wildlife I saw were amazing and well worth it,” she added.
“On the herpetofauna survey one night we measured and identified different species of frogs from near the camp and another evening was spent identifying bats.”
“Seeing these species first hand just drove home how important it is to ensure their longevity, so that future generations can appreciate them too,” said fellow Sixth Form student Joel Finnigan.
The second week the group travelled to a marine site at Bau Bau, staying close to Nirwana Beach, where they took a PADI scuba diving course which involved a combination of lectures and practical sessions in open water.
A coral reef ecology course ran alongside this and through it the students learnt about coral and fish identification, as well as the degradation of the coral reefs through unsustainable fishing techniques and global warming.
A visit to the local fish market travelling in small, cramped minibuses with loud blaring music was “disgusting yet fascinating”.
Due to the use of trawler fishing everything including turtle eggs, crocodile fish, butterfly fish and needle fish gets swept up in the nets and it is all sold at the market.
“There were so many locals cutting up fish to sell that there were fish guts and blood all over the floor, and then there was the smell!” said Mrs McGeechan
“The best part of my visit was diving at the marine site,” said Tamsyn. “I saw some fantastic fish, a turtle and a sea snake swam right past me.”
“I had to push myself to do certain parts which were key to diving, such as taking my mask off and swimming without it, but once I had done it, I enjoyed the experience of being underwater and the opportunity it gave me to see things I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.”
This ‘once in a lifetime experience’ meant something different for each student but all agreed that the visit had given them a valuable cultural education, as well as a scientific education of the rainforest and the coral reefs.