An Interview with Volunteer Dan

Dan Murray, 30, is a support-worker from Liverpool who works with adults with learning difficulties. A couple of years ago he decided he wanted to go somewhere completely different, to do something completely different, and to work for a time with endangered animals. The trouble was he’d never even been through an airport before and, in an accident a few years earlier, had lost his left leg below the knee. We thought we'd catch up with Dan and he told us his story.

So, Dan, tell us a little about what you've been doing?

I’d seen photos and read about orangutans when I was much younger. I had dreamt that when I was older I would go and see them in the wild. I don’t really know exactly what it is but the orangutan just looks like such an incredible animal. I’d put the idea on the back-burner but had continued to read about their welfare and was increasingly alarmed by the impact poaching and an accelerating loss of natural habitat was having on them. I wanted to go and do something, anything, that would help. I knew Borneo was where most of the surviving 50,000 or so orangutans live but absolutely nothing else about the place. I didn’t even know anybody who’d ever been there. But I wanted to go.

How did you make it happen?

I’d never been on a trip anything like this before and couldn't really imagine how I could be away for a month and everything would just carry on. And when I first started thinking I might actually do it, all sorts of awful fears came into my head. I asked for the time off at work and, to my surprise, it was agreed straightaway. A friend was only too happy to look after my dog, and that was about it. When I got back after four and a half weeks, everything was pretty much exactly as it was before I left!

What was particularly attractive about this project?

I chose to go away and work with the Great Orangutan Project at Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo for a number of reasons. Their website had a few positive testimonials on it. I also did a few general searches on the internet. I realised that saving orangutans had to involve helping the local people feed their families in ways that didn’t hurt the orangutans and that was part of the Great Projects programme. I'm not usually suspicious but it was a bit daunting to be setting off on a 13,500 mile trip.

Dan volunteering in Borneo

We couldn't help but notice that one of your legs is artificial. How did that factor in your thinking about what to do and where to go?

I didn't know how the heat and the humidity would affect my ability to work but I guess everybody must wonder about that. I thought I should just go, take everything as it came and do my best. It’s so easy to think of reasons not to do things. When I realised I was beginning to plan for things that were nowhere near the realm of the possible, I just decided to stop trying to plan and simply go for it. If I couldn’t cope with something, then I would find someone who would help me. To be honest, it was a relief when my cheque was cashed and I was definitely going. I wrote a list of all the things I needed and packed. Then I reviewed the list and re-packed. I must have done that 20 times before I left.

What sort of reception did you get at the project? Did anything come as a surprise?

Everyone at Matang was so welcoming. I wore trousers the first day as I felt a little self-conscious. I was worried about people making presumptions about what I could and couldn’t do because of my leg. But it was just too hot so, on the second day, I wore shorts. All the keepers were more than happy to let me try whatever I wanted work-wise. The only people who were ever really curious were the kids - but kids are the same all over the world. They always make a beeline for anything a bit out of the ordinary.

How did you feel once you were settled in? Did you enjoy it?

There was work to be done and everyone seemed really nice, so it was pretty easy to get totally immersed. I usually just go with the flow in new situations. Our routine involved getting up around 7am, having breakfast and then helping to look after the various different animals. Lunch was between 1 and 3pm. In the afternoon, we’d usually do some construction or maintenance work around the park, stuff like sawing wood to be used for a fence or painting the cages. At night we'd usually have a BBQ, play board games, or just talk. It was all pretty carefree. I look back on it now as one of the best times of my life.

Orangutans in Borneo

Was your leg ever a problem?

My leg was painful at one point and I just carried on working. I shouldn’t have done that. I wasn’t being much help. All I needed was to take a rest.

Is there any advice you’d give someone else with a comparable physical issue thinking about volunteering?

My message is simple - go and try your best. There are things that you'll be able to do, and things you won’t. It’s no different to the rest of life. Commitment and passion can make up for pretty much anything. My most embarrassing moments had nothing to do with my leg. I tried to learn a bit of the local language. One day I was feeling a bit tired and thought I’d tell people. I wondered why they kept laughing. Turned out I’d got the words a bit wrong and was telling everyone I had diarrhoea.   

What do you think has been the most important lasting impact on you?

Since that first trip, I've volunteered in Kenya and have been back to the Indonesian part of Borneo to work with orangutans there. I can’t imagine a better way to learn about a country. I've met some incredibly interesting people and made some amazing friends. I can't imagine ever stopping volunteering now. It means more to me than I ever thought it would. Instead of visiting places and passing through, the places become a part of you. I got back from Borneo about a month ago. There’s now a climbing-frame there the size of double-decker bus that I helped build. That will be used by orang-utans for years to come. The satisfaction that gives me is something you can’t put a price on...

Further Information

For more information on Dan's volunteering project at The Great Projects then see a list of their projects.

For more information on Malaysia then head to our Malaysia country section and to Tourism Malaysia.