In January 2019, when I first heard of the European Wilderness Society, I did not plan that I would be in little Tamsweg in the middle of a pandemic in February 2021. Back then, I was in the South African desert during the hottest time of summer researching small rodents. Now I am amongst four different ski resorts in the Alps – the temperature difference between the two is up to 60°C. In between was a wild time with ups and downs, many new experiences and lessons.
How it all started
I first heard of the European Wilderness Society that January because someone shared on Facebook that they are looking for a new volunteer. The description sounded interesting: Wilderness, EU-wide conservation projects and a young team in a picturesque town in the Alps. Plus, the position was supposed to start when I planned to finish my master´s degree, in July 2019. Unfortunately, the internet in the South African desert is rather poor and I could not finish an application in time. So how did I still end up here? Luckily, the European Wilderness Society is regularly looking for volunteers, so I found the next call in May 2019. This time, I applied and soon after got a call that I have the position – if I remember correctly, it was even on my birthday. Even though I was not finished with my thesis as planned, I moved to Tamsweg ready to start an adventure.
And an adventure it was. Even though our work is mostly desk work – a common downside in conservation – it was amazing to explore the mountains around Tamsweg throughout the different seasons. And I had some interesting business trips, too. I went to Italy, Brussels, Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia. So, when my volunteering was supposed to end in December 2019, I didn´t want to leave yet. Fortunately, we found a way to prolong my stay by transferring me to another volunteer program. So, I left to see my family over Christmas and returned planning to start another full year with the European Wilderness Society.
The lockdown was … not planned
After a great winter of office during the week and skiing on the weekend, everything changed. My parents planned to visit me here in Tamsweg and I travelled home to spend a few days there and return together with my parents. Instead, my trip home was very chaotic and I managed to slip back into Austria just before the lockdown started. While our team adapted to remote work quickly, I personally struggled a lot in this unknown situation. I just tried to keep my head above the water and at least I was still in the middle of the Alps, so many hours of hiking, cycling and running kept me sane. In May, we could return to the office and I finally found the motivation to tackle an issue I had put aside for way too long, my thesis. After not working on it for months, I eventually pushed through. So, my summer consisted of a lot of office work plus enjoying the summer in the Lungau, when everything seemed weirdly normal in retrospective. And by the end of August, when everyone else was on holiday, I finally finished my studies.
I used that newly gained freedom to work from my parents´ place for a few days and then I and our other volunteers got the chance to experience the life of a shepherd first-hand within our project LIFEstockProtect. We spent three weeks in Tirol and everyday hiked to an Alpine pasture to take care of the herd of sheep that grazed there. This was maybe the most memorable time for me here in Austria. I learned a lot about what a shepherd does, what issues farmers face and got to know my colleagues intimately. All four of us lived in a tiny house of less than 20m², which bonded us together, but of course was a challenge, too.
All planning still couldn´t prepare me for this
Back in Tamsweg, I started working on what should become by far my most ambitious and important project at the European Wilderness Society, the first International Wilderness Week. I was responsible to find enough speaker to fill a whole week with presentations about Wilderness, nature conservation and wildlife research. And to find enough participants, so the speakers wouldn´t have to speak to themselves. That was intense work for a month and until the last second, I was sure that everything is going to go horribly wrong.
Luckily, I got a four-day break from it, when I attended my ESC mid-term training in the beginning of October. I was super happy that it happened physically – I think it was actually the only onehappening physically since March 2020. My on-arrival training was scheduled for late March 2020 and was cancelled one week before. So, I attended it online in May, which was not even close to the experience at my mid-term training. It was great to meet other volunteers, hear their experiences and spend some time in the big city.
Despite all the hassle, the first International Wilderness Week was surprisingly successful, even though very stressful. But directly afterwards, the next big change of plans was already waiting for me. On the first of November, I and the three other current volunteers moved into a shared flat provided by the European Wilderness Society. We were the first volunteers to live there, which meant we helped furnishing and decorating it, which I enjoyed a lot. And it was great to get out of Pension Weber, the kind of “hostel” I had lived in for sixteen months. In the new flat, we cooked together and spent the evenings and weekends together. It seemed like that would be how my time in Tamsweg would slowly fade out. I planned to finish my project, enjoy living with the other volunteers, spend my free time skiing and leave in February.
The best things in life are never planned
However, in December all my plans completely changed again. In addition to everything already mentioned, there was someone in Tamsweg, who I was very interested in since I had arrived. So, while everything else happened, she was always on my mind. But only after I had already given up on it, we finally started dating. And it was better than I had hoped. So, we decided to move together and that I would stay in Tamsweg until I find a good job somewhere. Since that is takes some time, I still live in Tamsweg. As planned, I spent my Christmas holidays skiing, finished my projects until the end of January and search for a new job now.
So here I am, starting my twenty first month in Tamsweg. The original plan were six months. In between these two plans, there were many different plans. None of made it to the end of my time here. Which is a quite fitting allegory to the work of the European Wilderness Society. And one of the lessons I will take with me. You should always have a plan. However, this plan will most likely never become reality. So, be flexible, open for new input, circumstances and plans. That´s my advice for all future volunteers.