Surfing and travelling go hand in hand, always have. Some of the remote and wild places that we visit in search of perfect waves can be pretty rough. No electricity or running water, not enough mosquito nets to go around and rubbish everywhere. It takes a dedicated surfer to stay in a place like that for weeks or even months, just for waves.
Then there are the locals who live there all the time – and sometimes life isn’t all that rosy. Occasionally you can get involved, buy a soccer ball for the local kids, or give some old tee shirts away. But often you leave wondering if there is more you could do and thinking maybe next trip you’ll plan to put some time into helping out those less fortunate of this world.
The smart thing is to be sceptical. There are some really shifty dealers out there with fancy websites and enticing offers. Beware of third party companies that seemingly offer every volunteer abroad package under the sun.
Volunteering abroad is a bit of a strange one. Ideally most of us would like to help out a bit where we can. But it doesn’t take too much research to discover that a lot of organisations will charge you quite a bit for the privilege of donating your time. It makes sense when you break down the costs; fuel, food, accommodation etc. But if you’ve made the decision to volunteer the last thing you want to hear is that you have to pay for it. It’s far from an ideal situation. It’s not ideal at all. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? In an ideal world there wouldn’t be any need for NGOs or volunteer organisations.
The smart thing is to be sceptical. There are some really shifty dealers out there with fancy websites and enticing offers. Beware of third party companies that seemingly offer every volunteer abroad package under the sun. They can be great for researching different places and projects, but they are notorious for taking a big chunk of placement fees for themselves.
Don’t be disheartened. There are a lot of really great people and organisations out there. Do some research and cut through the third party, commission-snatching crap. Talk to the project operators directly to make sure your cash and time is going 100 percent into the projects. You might find that you’re pleasantly surprised by the sustainability, success and value of the programs and organisations out there. Don’t be put off by the price-tag of organised volunteering; often that’s the stuff that has the greatest positive impact on the world.
Arguably the best thing about volunteering abroad is that you can combine it with a surf trip. And Indonesia is the obvious place to start looking. A surfer’s paradise – every surfer is well aware of the delights of the archipelago. But it doesn’t take a trained eye to see that all is not well in the land of endless barrels.
The Mentawai Islands are the centre of some great volunteer work. Despite the island chain’s popularity with travelling surfers it’s very remote.
The Mentawai Islands are the centre of some great volunteer work. Despite the island chain’s popularity with travelling surfers it’s very remote and medical, educational and waste-disposal systems are poor. There are groups out there working in communities to improve healthcare and sanitation. There is a real focus on community empowerment, education and sustainability; a hand-up, not a hand-out, as they say.
In Sumatra and Kalimantan where vast swathes of forest have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations there are a host of volunteer groups working to help affected orangutan populations. There are groups which run refuges for displaced orangutans and other animals. It’s definitely the kind of volunteer work for those that enjoy hands-on animal stuff. There are also other organisations which are more focussed on research and forestation work. The Australian Orangutan Project and Orangutan Foundation International are good places to find out more.
Then there’s South Africa. When it comes to waves there’s a lot more than just J Bay. But J Bay alone is probably enough to get most surfers to visit. Cape Town has icy waters mainlined straight from the Antarctic, Dungeons, sharks and a whole lot of world class beach and reef breaks. Durban has more of a board shorts year-round, shark netted and sand-bottomed double-up vibe. Then there’s the West Coast, the South and North Coasts and the Wild Coast. Pretty much whatever kind of wave/water temperature/shark population combination you prefer you can find it in South Africa. Similarly; whatever kind of volunteer work you’re looking for you’ll find it there too.
Some of the coolest volunteer projects in South Africa use surfing as the main focus of their work. Street children and other South Africans are taught to surf and encouraged to use it as a positive force in their lives. Surfing teaches confidence and self-worth, working with others helps build trust and time in the water is time away from the poverty and crime of the townships.
If you haven’t already checked out Jordy Smith and Sihle Mbutho’s clip which demonstrates the work of Surfers Not Street Children in Durban, it’s worth a look. In Cape Town the people at Waves for Change run a similarly epic program. If that isn’t your jam check out the work that African Impact, the largest on-the-ground volunteer organisation on the African continent, does.
Surfing teaches confidence and self-worth, working with others helps build trust and time in the water is time away from the poverty and crime of the townships.
Over in Guatemala and other parts of Central America there are reforestation projects on the go. Forested areas which have been cleared, mostly for agricultural purposes, are being replanted by volunteers. It’s not just about planting trees; community education and involvement and the establishment of local tree nurseries help to ensure the sustainability and long term effectiveness of projects. Check out The Alliance for International Reforestation.
Also in that part of the world are the Galapagos Islands where conservation projects allow volunteers to work with marine iguanas, giant tortoises and some of the other weird and wonderful stuff that lives there. There are also community and reforestation projects. The Galapagos National Park Service and Hacienda Tranquila are just two of the numerous organisations running volunteer programs on the ground.
Mozambique is a land of endless potential when it comes to surf-volunteer opportunities. Think long, sand-bottomed hollow waves. Add palm trees, white sand beaches and waves with names like The African Kirra and Warm Water J Bay. That’s Mozambique. Cyclone season (January and February, give or take) is the best time to hunt surf in Mozam and the torrential rain can spoil the sunny paradise thing a bit. But if you score a thumping cyclone swell you’ll barely even notice the deluge.
Mozambique is a great place to volunteer if you want to use your time, skills and passion to help monitor and research some of the amazing marine life of the area. Whale sharks, manta rays, various species of turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales and dugongs frequent or dwell in the waters of the Mozambique Channel. There are organisations set up on the ground to observe and study these wonderful creatures and educate local communities about sustainable fishing and other environmentally savvy practices.
The Marine Megafauna Foundation was created in Mozambique to protect, preserve and research the local marine life. They have a dedicated volunteer program called Underwater Africa. Whale shark season also coincides with surf season. Stoked.
The volunteer abroad thing isn’t for everyone, but it can be an incredibly rewarding thing to do. If you feel like you could contribute something valuable to an organisation or you want to spread the love and lend a hand to those in need, try it out. It makes getting barrelled feel so much better.
*If you have any volunteering tips, troubles, or locations, let us know in the comments below.