Some years ago I participated on my first voluntary work camp in Ireland through Service Civil International. For 10 days I worked with a group of like-minded travellers at the community of Ballytobin. This place was a sheltered environment for children in need of special care and our job was collecting apples from the orchard to make apple juice.
Working at Ballytobin was an incredible experience. We got to know some of the children and quickly began to feel part of the community, sharing some very special experiences. It opened my eyes to the joys of volunteering and, since then, I’ve volunteered on several occasions (both at home in Australia and overseas).
One of my all-time favourite travel experiences was volunteering at a brown bear refuge in Kuterevo, Croatia and below is an account of that experience.
Kuterevo’s brown bear refuge
Kuterevo is a magical place, nestled in the foothills of Croatia’s highest peak, Mount Velebit, and only an hour’s drive from the Adriatic Coast. I’m immediately inspired by its old-world charm and by its location, a valley surrounded by spectacular mountains. An old woman herds a flock of sheep across the road, pausing when she sees us to call out “dobar dan – good afternoon!” Already I’m in love with this village.
Participating in the work camp are ten international volunteers. We will live and work together, sleep in the hayloft and cook in the open-air kitchen. Conditions are basic with drop toilets and cold showers – a back-to-nature lifestyle typical of the village, which has no gas, very few phones and only recently received running water.
On our first day we hike up the mountain, which is where we will work on upgrading a trail to the village. It’s part of a grand plan to build a 50,000 square metre enclosure across the mountaintop, which will provide a larger area of forest for Kuterevo’s resident bears.
Camp co-ordinator Maya Burazer leads us to Kopija, a grassy area encircled by a dry stone wall thought to be of Roman origin and a special place for the villagers. As we sit on the ground, Maya tells us about the overall refuge project, which focuses on educating people to preserve the European brown bear.
Unlike most European countries, where the brown bear is extinct or highly endangered, Croatia’s bear population remained healthy until the late 90s when rebuilding commenced after the Croatia War of Independence (1991-1995). It was the usual story of development encroaching on wildlife habitat.
Founder of the refuge project, Ivan Crnković-Pavenka, had already been bringing volunteers to Kuterevo for many years, teaching village tradition, culture and ecology. When he realised the brown bear population was declining he met with the villagers to discuss his idea for a refuge.
Maya explains she initially visited the refuge on her way home from a hiking trip with friend Nina Kuharić. They talked to Ivan and agreed to volunteer for two weeks. Four years later they are still here, helping Ivan look after the bears and coordinate volunteers.
The project is very flexible about recruiting volunteers; it’s not necessary to come through an organisation such as Service Civil International. Anyone who is interested can simply contact the organisation via their blog (details below). So far there’s been a Red Cross group from Germany, scout groups, and several work camps. Many visitors have volunteered, including a primary school teacher from Zagreb and a retired couple from Belgium who have returned each of the last three years.
“It’s not just a few people living and working here. It’s people coming from all over the world, wanting to help the bears and to preserve nature,” says Nina, as we walk to the refuge to see the bears already in residence.
The female bear, Janja Zora, arrived in 2002. She was wandering alone in a Bosnian forest after her mother died. Some soldiers found her and contacted the refuge. The two males arrived a year later: Ljubo Lik was clinging to the branches of a plum tree, too scared to come down for fear of stray dogs, while Zdravi Gor was a victim of man’s good, but foolish, intentions. A family began leaving food out for the cub and he kept returning. Unfortunately on one occasion he lost contact with his mother.
These bears will remain in captivity. They were orphaned too young and didn’t get enough of their mother’s milk or have a chance to learn basic survival instincts. But there’s a determination to keep the bears close to nature and human contact is discouraged once they are off the bottle.
Much of our time is spent working on the mountain. It is hot, but nights are cool, and we witness several impressive thunderstorms. The unpredictable weather means we also work at the volunteers station collecting plums for the bears, painting souvenirs and making signs. Every task is for a reason and though we don’t see the bears every day, the thought is always there – this work is for the bears.
We attend a farewell celebration at Kopija for Maria-Ruth Schaefer, a long-term volunteer from Germany, and her family treats us to a concert. It is surreal: sitting on a mountain in Croatia, where bears and wolves roam, listening to a German brass band.
Maria-Ruth says she will miss being involved with the village. “I really love the mentality of these people. They are so open, warm and friendly. When you come as a volunteer everybody greets you and tries to make you feel at home. It is really nice.”
The people of Kuterevo are passionate about ‘their’ bears and proud of the volunteers station. It is reflected in the way they greet strangers with smiles and waves; by the enthusiasm of the local fireman who delivers water to the bears; and on the face of the old woman who laughs as she gives us a cabbage from her garden.
Her joy is contagious. After only two weeks I’m attached to this village and inspired by its people. I hope to return, and perhaps when I do, I will spy the bears wandering across their new mountaintop sanctuary.
Do you volunteer? Have you had any special experiences while volunteering? I would love to hear about them in the comments below.
For more information visit Kuterevo Volunteers blog.
Service Civil International promotes peace and intercultural understanding through volunteering. Its Australian branch is International Volunteers for Peace, which organises projects in Australia, as well as placing volunteers overseas.
A version of this article was first published in YOURLifeChoices.