Working in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Written by: Will Hardy

Huaka’i hele: Travelling w/ Purpose

The summer after graduation – dissertations are in, mortar boards have been hurled skywards, and in my case, some pressing decisions required attention. “What am I going to do next?” Many of my friends had already jumped headlong into the scrum that is the graduate job market. Some had even proved successful, soon embarking on exciting careers, and all I could think was “nope. Not going to happen. Not just yet.”

I had enjoyed university and left with a good degree in physical geography, but I had also worked hard. The thought of going straight into a career was not an attractive one. Travelling seemed a logical step, but the ‘mainstream’ travel experiences never really did it for me. Don’t get me wrong, partying on a beach in Thailand would be fun, but I wanted more than fun. I wanted to travel with more of a purpose; I wanted to achieve something that was rewarding and would look good when I eventually started the job hunt.

It was apparent after a spot of Googling that volunteering ticked all the boxes and, for me, choosing where in the world to volunteer wouldn’t be a hard decision.

Will was faced with some tough decisions after university

I was desperate to explore America; the vastness, the diversity and the natural beauty were enthralling to me. I was especially intrigued to discover the National Parks and the undisturbed wilderness within. To my contentment, I stumbled across the ‘International Volunteer in Parks’ webpage. A brief read of the opening paragraph persuaded me to unleash a flurry of emails to parks in all corners of the country. Up went a map on my bedroom wall with each park circled in thick red ink. As emails returned, crosses were struck through some while others were tentatively adorned with question marks.

Then, one July evening, I was watching a television programme broadcast from the summit of Kilauea Volcano on the big island of Hawaii. A park ranger, sporting the distinguished flat brimmed hat, was being interviewed. I was mesmerised by the bellowing plume of volcanic gases roaring out of the erupting crater behind him and the dynamic landscape he described. I noted down his name and fired off a speculative email. To my astonishment (and after some frantic visa negotiations), I was accepted into the international volunteer programme. I was to be a volunteer ranger in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for three months.

Huaka'i hele: Will living the dream in Hawaii

No sooner had the traditional tea leaf lei (necklace) been placed around my neck on my arrival that I was issued my uniform and training began in earnest. A whirlwind of presentations from world renowned volcanologists, biologists and guest speakers ensued preparing me for my duties. I was to be an interpreter, but not in the traditional sense. Instead of translating speech, I was translating the unique environment in which I now found myself in. It was my job to make a small proportion of the 1.5 million annual visitors say “wow, I did not know that!” I wanted the visitors to leave with that same feeling instilled in me as I watched the ranger on that July evening; a sense of awe and wonderment at the power of nature.

I led hikes to the edge of the erupting volcano and brought to life the monumental forces that shape its formation. I spoke about endangered plants and animals that could only be glimpsed on the island. I acted out Hawaiian mo’olelo, traditional tales recounting the exploits of the legendary fire goddess Pele. The most active volcano on earth was my office.

In return for the 40 hours I volunteered per week, I lived in the active caldera of Kilauea Volcano, surrounded by fern forests and waking to the sound of bird song. My morning commute bypassed the erupting summit in the shadow of the majestic slopes of Mauna Loa. At night, the sky was bathed in an ethereal orange glow emanating from a tumultuous lake of lava. I stayed in free accommodation in the park, sharing with other volunteers from around the world. My visa was sponsored and I got a stipend to supplement my food bills. My only expense was my flight, plus the price of a rental car every now and again.

But I got a lot more out of it than just a stunning place to live. I was also working and developing an abundance of valuable and transferable skills. I became comfortable talking to large groups and presenting information, and I gained experiences in education both with children and adults. I was given free reign of the park resources, and spent afternoons researching historical records, unearthing stories of visitors warming their feet on the liquid fire beneath their precarious perches. It may sound cliché, but these are the skills that help nail down a job. And think about it; if an employer is breezing through 200 potential applicants and comes across a CV with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as a reference, they’re going to take a closer look.

Volunteering in a volcano can make your CV look red hot

Of course, sprucing up the CV is just a small part of the experience. Exploring the park and the island was my greatest desire. Before I embarked, I wondered how much I would be able to discover but I soon realised that exploring is actively encouraged. It certainly wasn’t all work anyway!

I would spend days camping on deserted coconut palm beaches with crystal clear waters and dazzling corals. I would trek to vistas of lava cascading into the ocean and oozing across barren black rock. I would hike miles of trails, descending into 400 feet deep craters and through lush, humid rainforest. I even made the most of true Hawaiian ‘aloha spirit’, hitching a lift to the summit of the towering Mauna Kea for sunset and stargazing.

That perfect mix of work and play translated into a much richer taste of Hawaiian life. I wasn’t just snatching a glimpse through the distorted lens of the tourist. I was part of the community and existing as a local. A Christmas meal of kalua pig, a bottle of tequila and festive fireside storytelling is not the type of experience plastered across the pages of tourist magazines. Yet these are the moments I remember most fondly and were gained solely through true immersion into my surroundings.

On my first day of training, on a scrap piece of paper, I scribbled down the Hawaiian phrase “huaka’i hele”. As I came to the end of my adventure, I realised that I had fulfilled the definition of that phrase. I had combined unforgettable experiences with meaningful achievements on a remote island in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. I had truly ‘travelled with purpose’.

Further Information

If you’re thinking about travelling to boost your CV then read Charlee Owen’s feature on Taking a Gap Year for the Future.

Also, if Will has inspired you to volunteer then head over to our volunteering section for more advice and information.

And finally, jump on the message boards and meet other travels to share your experiences with.

About the Author: Will Hardy

Will HardyWill had been exposed to travel from an early age thanks to intrepid parents and a far flung family. After graduating from the uni in 2012, Will wanted to apply the knowledge he had learnt while taking some time out. Travel beckoned, with North America at the top of his list. Becoming a voluntary park ranger In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for three months was the perfect excuse to have fun in an island paradise. He enjoyed it so much that he wants to volunteer in National Parks all over the country in the future. You can follow Will on Twitter @willhardy.

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