The boat that took us out to Clark Island was this rinky-dink thing, barely big enough to fit our rakes, trowels, gloves, sunscreen and transportable coffeemaker. But eight of us squeezed in anyway, and our driver, a ranger in the Australian national park service, took off, maneuvering as if it were a jet-ski, bouncing over waves, each crash sending my stomach churning.
The view—that was something else. Taking off from the northern end of Sydney’s gigantic bridge, we sped across the famous harbor, watching sailboats gather beneath the steel structure and the city opening up behind us. We headed to a tiny spit of land to pull weeds with Conservation Volunteers Australia. How small is it? It takes less than five minutes to walk the island’s length.
The official term for our specific brand of weed-pulling is bush regeneration—finding invasive species of plants and pulling them up before they bully out the natives. The threat on this island is a type of South African plant, the asparagus fern. The plant is technically not a fern, though, because it has bright red, poisonous berries. Although it’s a good for hanging baskets with its delicate, star-like leaves, on the ground in Australia it’s a different story.
The asparagus fern is a hardy plant with extensive roots that spreads over native plants like groundcover over soil. Foreigners who wanted to make their gardens prettier brought the plant over before they realized it was harmful—in the same way foreigners brought rabbits to Australia prompting a nuisance big enough to build a rabbit-proof fence through the middle of the country.
CVA has been doing this type of work for 25 years in 100 different locations across the country, completing more than 2,000 projects a year. A volunteer organization that gets hundreds of people from all over the world, the group is happy to take anybody who wouldn’t mind buying a plane ticket to Australia to do conservation work for a few months. Or less. The only requirements are that you’re between ages 17 and 70, that you’re in reasonably good health and that you care about nature. The organization typically provides housing—caravans, hostels, bunkhouses or tents—and sometimes food for an extra cost during projects.
Conservation work in Australia can be one of the most rewarding ways to spend a summer vacation, especially if you’re unfettered by a job or a significant other. As part of a study abroad program, I was assigned to CVA to create an orientation video for the group. An Aussie woman named Simone was in charge of the Sydney office and would become my boss. Cropped boy hair, crooked teeth, a boisterous laugh and jeans that had seen a bit too much bush regeneration, Simone epitomized the rugged, outback local.
The first part of the day was spent filming and interviewing the conservationists. Our small group was varied and from all over the world but united in its job of untangling the ferns from the native flora.
A man from South Africa had been doing this for more 10 years—a friendly sort who was quick to grin and eager to talk politics. A Korean woman seemed the most into the conservation work, moving away from the group to do her work in a more remote area of the island. A hesitant newcomer stayed next to the South African, earnestly repeating his every move. Two middle-aged Australians with raucous senses of humor went off together, laughing the whole time. Tatjana was the island project leader, an Aussie woman who wore an Akubra, the traditional outback hat, and spoke with a heavy accent. And I rounded off the group, a budding reporter from the States.
Even though I dug my hiking boots into the hill and pulled weeds, it became apparent early on that conservation work wasn’t so much about saving this tiny island as it was about the human experience. We broke in the morning to have coffee, manually strained by Simone, and lamingtons, Australia’s popular spongy cake, and then again for a long lunch break that turned into an extended discussion of Aussie society. There was another break in the afternoon to follow around an Aboriginal group tour of the island, followed by a display of traditional Aboriginal music and dance.
And then, all of a sudden, it was time to pack up. Somehow, we had gathered seven large bags’ worth of those pesky plants. I filmed the bags being dragged onto the boat, proof that the group accomplished conservation in the midst of its fun and conversation. It was fulfilling to feel those bags under our feet as we rode the choppy water back to the white CVA van. But it was even more fulfilling to look around me and see the same face on everybody else in the boat. This little group had made a small difference. Even though we would likely never see each other again, we had helped build our own fence against the invasive plants.