If you've been thinking of swapping the traditional beach and beers break for something a little more, well, useful this year, allow us to present ten inspiring options. Whether it's monitoring fish in Tobago or cleaning elephants in Thailand, these breaks allow you to really put something back on your travels.

Help conserve the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galápagos Islands, 1000km off the west coast of Ecuador, are a living laboratory of evolution, a fragile home to a collection of unique species. It’s a sad truth then that if tourism wasn’t providing an alternative income to the islands’ fishing industry, it’s likely the surrounding waters would be fished out. And with no fish, the seabird population would plummet and the island ecology would be devastated.

Discovery Initiatives arranges a two-week cruise around the islands in partnership with the Galápagos Conservation Trust and the Charles Darwin Research Station. On board a deluxe yacht, guests sail around the islands, hike up to the famous Sierra Negra volcano, see some of the last remaining wild tortoises on Isabela and learn about the Trust’s turtle conservation efforts. All funds raised through the trip go to the Charles Darwin Research Station to support its conservation work.

Alternatively, there are several volunteering initiatives with conservation projects on the islands. The Ecuadorian organization Fundación Jatun Sacha runs short-term placements on San Cristóbal island, where you’ll help local NGOs eradicate non-native plants. If you can spare longer, join a Global Vision International volunteering project, which last from five to thirteen weeks. Volunteers, based at the San Cristóbal Biological Station, help conservationists on reforestation projects. You’ll be given Spanish classes and, once a week, hike to one of the tourist hotspots and help teach visitors about the islands’ ecological issues.

For prices and booking for the Discovery Initiatives cruise see www.steppestravel.com; For more info on volunteering in the Galápagos visit www.jatunsacha.org or www.gvi.co.uk.

Plant trees with Ripple Africa, Malawi

A volunteer holiday with Ripple Africa involves you in a vital project to establish four hundred community nurseries in Malawi, a country with severe deforestation problems. Three thousand local people are already involved in the scheme, which has established over 150 nurseries and already planted millions of trees.

Ripple Africa is acutely aware of the dangers of misplaced aid and ensures guests’ help is given where it’s most useful, and where it won’t stop locals from working. Accommodation is at Mwaya beach on the shores of Lake Malawi, in eco-friendly huts with private verandas overlooking the water, where swimming, diving and kayaking are among the best ways to relax.

For more on volunteering projects available, costs and testimonials see www.rippleafrica.org.

See conservation in action at Phinda, South Africa

Ten top volunteer holidays: Hippo in water yawning at Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa.© The Maberhood/Shutterstock

At the seven different lodges in Kwazulu-Natal’s Phinda Resource Reserve, no attention to detail is missed – from the private infinity pools to personal butlers. These hideaways of opulence are not ecolodges in the strict sense, yet their environmental benefits are nevertheless impressive, since profits from the lodges have been used to create one of the most successful nature reserves in South Africa.

It’s hard to believe that twenty years ago Phinda was degraded farmland with just a handful of people scratching a living from it. Today the 160-square-kilometre park is a potent symbol of regeneration: it’s an excellent place to spot cheetah; the critically endangered black rhino has also been reintroduced; and some 4500 local people benefit from the new clinic, schools and employment the lodges have created.

The reserve runs several research projects in partnership with African Conservation Experience, which enables volunteers to stay in a simple farmhouse and enjoy the reserve at less expense. Twice a day, volunteers head out in safari vehicles to monitor elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, caracals or leopards. These projects have raised local awareness of game conservation and recently led to an amendment to South Africa’s hunting laws, thereby saving the lives of many animals.

For details of lodges, rates, activities and local attractions see www.phinda.com.

Contribute to the Earthdive Log in Tobago

Given that our knowledge about the effect of climate change on the oceans is still evolving, wouldn’t it be great if divers made a note of what marine species they had seen on their dives, so we could develop a better picture of what is going on?

Thankfully this is already happening in the guise of Earthdive – a unique “citizen science” research project. The idea is that you put your dive to good use by recording sightings of what you see underwater, helping to build up a global snapshot of the world’s marine species and providing valuable data for conservation organizations.

If you want to participate, you can do so on Tobago, whose warm waters are home to manta rays, south Atlantic coral and a variety of multicoloured tropical fish. Tobago Dive Experience is a member of Earthdive and runs dives chiefly off the northeast coast of the island where there are forty dive sites, all within a 5–20min boat ride from the jetty in the fishing village of Speyside.

Divers in 119 countries have already joined Earthdive. The recording process on its website (www.earthdive.com) is very simple: once you’ve registered, choose where you dived and tick off the fish and coral that you saw from the list provided. It’s especially useful to record the key “indicator species” at the dive site, whose absence can alert scientists to any environmental pressures these species may be suffering, such as pollution and overfishing.

For info on dive courses, prices and bookings see www.tobagodiveexperience.com.

Volunteer in the Pantanal, Brazil


Cattle-ranching used to be the main threat to the biodiversity of Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland (it’s bigger than France). But now pollution, sport fishing and tourism (as well as a black market for exotic pets) are all contributing to the destruction of this unique habitat – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to thirty million caimans alone.

You can help address these problems by joining one of four research projects organized by Earthwatch, a global conservation body that places volunteers at the heart of scientific research. You’ll stay in shared accommodation on a ranch with other members of the expedition. Choose between working with: amphibians and reptiles; bats, which involves catching them at night with mist nets; birds (there are 690 species in the Pantanal, including parrots, kingfishers and hummingbirds); or otters (which participants video from the banks of rivers).

In an age of disappearing wetlands, proposals are in place to alter the natural flow of water in the Pantanal, which threatens to disturb its complex ecosystem. By helping to monitor the effects of human impact on its biodiversity, you will not only become familiar with perhaps the world’s most amazing wetland, but also provide valuable data that could help save it from irreversible damage.

For prices, booking and more details about each expedition see www.earthwatch.org.

Community and conservation, Ecuador


Central America is famous for its ecotourism, yet Ecuador is fast becoming recognized as a centre for ecolodges and tours that are managed and run by local people, often in stunning settings. The pick of these community-based trips are to Sani Lodge in the Amazon Rainforest; to Santa Lucía, a lodge in the cloud forests of the northwestern slopes of the Andes; and to Oyacachi, a mountain community in the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve in northeastern Ecuador.

These and other tours can be organized through Quito-based company Tropic Ecotours. Tropic also runs trips to meet the Secoya people, an ethnic minority of fewer than one thousand in the upper Amazon basin. Tropic only takes small numbers of guests to visit typical Secoya houses so as not to overwhelm the local communities. As a result, these unique adventures provide guests with a raw sense of discovery time and time again, while the local communities benefit from a regular supply of income for medicine and education.

For details of programmes, prices and reservations see www.tropiceco.com.

Volunteer at Lake Baikal, Russia

Ten top volunteer holidays: Lake Baikal. Island Olkhon. Cape Burhan, Russia.© Katvic/Shutterstock 


Called “the sacred sea” by those who live around it, Lake Baikal, in Siberia’s southern steppes, is the oldest, deepest and most biologically diverse lake on Earth. To help protect it, the Great Baikal Trail Association is creating Russia’s first environmental trail system round the lake’s 2000km circumference, providing a focal point for ecological tourism in the region and an alternative to industrial development.

On two-week volunteer holidays throughout the summer months, the first half of each day is spent working on the trail, doing anything from clearing paths to constructing shelters, signs and other facilities for hikers. Afterwards you’re free to walk around the lake, swim or just hang out with the other volunteers, a mix of locals and international visitors. Accommodation is in two-person tents (you’ll need a sleeping bag) or sometimes in homestays. It’s simple living – there are no showers or hot water and you cook for yourselves.

For more on what volunteering projects will involve and how to apply, see www.greatbaikaltrail.org.

Give an elephant a bath, Thailand

On the Elephant Experience at Elephant Hills, a luxury tented lodge on the edge of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park, guests can do far more than on the usual elephant trek offered elsewhere. As well as hosing and scrubbing inside the folds of the elephants’ skin, you’ll prepare their food and feed them, learn how they and their mahouts (trainers) communicate, and then watch them playing together in the pool. It’s exhilarating and humbling to be so close to such mighty creatures, who love being washed and often respond with a delighted squirt of water from their trunk.

While most people would prefer that these creatures were truly wild, for two-thirds of the three thousand Asian elephants left this isn’t currently feasible: they have worked in the logging or tourism industries all their lives and wouldn’t survive independently. As well as giving more dignified lives to the fifteen or so elephants at its camp, Elephant Hills is establishing an elephant sanctuary in the north of the country, which will give even more elephants a better life and the opportunity to breed.

For package details, rates and reservations see www.elephanthills.com.

Underwater gardening in the Maldives

Ten top volunteer holidays: girl in snorkeling mask dive underwater with tropical fishes in coral reef sea pool.© Tropical studio/Shutterstock 

Lots of people dream of sitting on a Maldives beach, soaking up the sun and gazing out to sea. Few people dream of sitting on a Maldives beach and rolling up balls of cement. But this is one of the most popular choices of activity at Angsana Velavaru, a luxury resort situated on a pristine island on South Nilandhe Atoll.

The appearances aren’t deceptive – Angsana is your typical Maldives hotel, a pampered paradise offering day-long watersports, endless spa treatments and cocktails at sunset. But the resort is also making concerted efforts to conserve its habitat: rising sea levels and temperatures caused by El Niño phenomena and global warming have put the islands at risk of flooding. This is where the (voluntary) cement-rolling comes in, as part of an ambitious project to replant damaged reefs, essential for protecting the islands they surround from the rising sea.

Once you’ve rolled out the cement balls, you swim out into the blue where, a few metres below the surface, new corals are being planted on a mix of custom-made frames, concrete blocks from building works, and even the odd broken air-conditioning unit. For the next hour or so, you wedge the balls into place and then stick shards of coral into their new home. You’ll then swim off to see some already-established coral beds, to see what your little saplings will become.

For prices and more information see www.angsana.com.

Teach rugby in Fiji

Known for their ferocious tackling and some of the most imaginative play in the sport, the Fijians wouldn’t seem to be much in need of rugby tuition. But while the nation’s raw talent is undeniable, there is little to no coaching at junior level and as a result many children never get the chance to nurture their skills. It’s one of the reasons that although the country excels at the more free-flowing sevens version, it struggles to translate this into the fifteen-a-side union game.

On a Madventurer two-week coaching holiday, you’ll work with kids between the ages of 6–14, passing on what you learned at school or your club about the increasingly complicated (and ever-changing) rules and tactics of rugby union. Accommodation is at the organization’s base in a house in the suburbs of Lautoka, the second-largest town on the islands. You’ll share a room with up to five other people and tuck into traditional Fijian meals, such as sweet potato and pineapple bake or lentil and potato curry. Outside of training – which starts at noon on weekdays and continues for most of the afternoon – there’s plenty of time to indulge in other Fijian pastimes, such as heading down to the beach, diving, swimming or drinking kava with the locals.

For further information see www.madventurer.com.

Top image © Al'fred/Shutterstock 


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