James Borrell is a conservation biologist with a passion for challenging expeditions. He’s been involved with a range of projects on four continents. From critically endangered big cats in the remote Dhofar Mountains to biodiversity surveys in the Amazon and forest genetics in the high Arctic. He also founded Discover Conservation, a website to inspire the next generation of young field biologists. In this post, James offers his best advice on what to do on coming back from your first expedition – with a taste for more.
You’ve just returned from your first project overseas. Beds seem weirdly high, soft and comfortable; you’re tempted to roll your mat out on the floor. Food seems rich and plentiful (hello bacon old friend, we didn’t have you in the jungle). Clean water, straight out of a tap, is a gift you swear you will never take for granted again.
I believe strongly in the benefits of challenging fieldwork expeditions and projects overseas. They don’t just help us develop personally and broaden our view of the world, but they also offer an opportunity to contribute to worthwhile causes, often in developing countries. Quite literally, it’s a win-win situation.
Expeditions can feel like the culmination of months or years of hard work, and the comedown of stepping back into reality can be strange. But just as they say ‘it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all’ – the same is true for expeditions. Many will slowly slip back into their ordinary lives. That trip will be a great thing they did once, but that wanderlust itch has been scratched.
For others though, a minority perhaps, expeditions are an awakening. What next? How can I get involved with more? Is this a serious career path?
These are questions I hear a lot, so here are five options for staying involved with expeditions long term. I have friends and colleagues who are slowly finding their way down all of these paths, it’s not easy, its not fun all of the time, but it is possible – and you’ll often leave the world a better place as a result.
- Fill your free time with expeditions – the simplest ‘no strings attached’ options. As a teenager it can be hard to find the money to get yourself out to projects in far-flung countries. With a semi-normal job, a few years down the line, it gets easier. In fact pretty soon, it’s no longer money, but time, that becomes your most precious commodity. If you can be scrupulous and hoard a few weeks of holiday to head overseas then it’s easy enough to get your annual expedition fix.
- Become an expedition leader – help run overseas logistics. Lots of organisations require cool headed, experienced and organised individuals to help them run their projects. Often this involved taking young people on their first expedition or project, you’ll probably remember what that was like! Whilst it can be a stressful job, it’s also hugely rewarding.
- The science route – make your passion your job. As a result of my first expedition, conducting research in Madagascar, I’ve spent the last few years developing skills as a conservation biologist. This has led to opportunities on several other projects abroad, but for every week spent in the field there’s normally a couple of months of preparation and write up afterwards in front of a computer screen.
- Set up your own project – increasingly a realistic option. I know several people that have been so inspired by a travel experience that several years later they have headed back out to work there long term, or even set up a similar project in another area. Often, their venture grows and begins to take international volunteers and so the cycle repeats itself!
- Become an expedition medic – a tough job, but possibly the easiest way to get on expeditions. Medics are always in huge demand; their flights are often paid for too, the only downside is that it takes plenty of time and money to train! That, and you have to deal with all of the worst-case scenarios.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but my single piece of advice (I have no idea who said it first!), is this: ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’