Help nature while you enjoy it. This is just one of the messages Roger Smith has for his fellow Australians and people everywhere. A passionate conservationist, Smith works alongside his partner Janine Duffy in a Melbourne-based organisation called Echidna Walkabout offering wildlife walking tours to get you up close with nature.
Melinda Healy chats with Roger Smith
The pair, who previously worked in the building industry for many years, have always been fond of the outdoors and had a keen interest in wildlife.
“That was really the basis for wanting to get away from an industry that we weren’t happy with,” says Roger. “So, we moved into something that we have managed to build up over the years.”
Echidna Walkabout is ‘a style of tourism that not only minimises negative effects on the environment, but positively creates a sense of wonder, an understanding, and a power to change for the better’. All wildlife walking tours involve a conservation action.
“When you’re standing out in the bush and you see a koala, and you say to a group of tourists: ‘Look, just by being out here you’re helping this animal. When you look at this animal, you’re not looking at it in a zoo, no one’s looking after this animal. It’s 36 degrees today, it could be 40C tomorrow, and in winter, it’ll be raining and cold, and this animal has to do something that all of us have to do – eat and drink’. “
“It’s interesting to see people’s attitudes change,” Roger tells me from his home base in Victoria.
The name of the business, which Roger and Janine started in 1993, is a nod to Australia’s Echidnas and their independence and desire to travel.
“Prior to Covid, we were running tours for small groups, anywhere between two and eight people. We also had a number of [small group] extended tours that went to different parts of the country, and we actually worked with cruise ship groups too,” notes Roger.
Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, Echidna Walkabout lost 99 per cent of its business – international tourists were its bread and butter. “We’ve pretty much only run two or three tours since March 23, 2020,” said Roger. “That is a day I will never forget.”
Although there were staff losses and plenty of challenging times, Roger and Janine have continued their work with the Koala Clancy Foundation, a non-for-profit charity the pair founded six years ago. It’s a charity that’s close to Janine’s heart, for in 1998 while on tour, Janine discovered a method of identifying individual koalas by their noses. From this discovery a wild koala research project was born – mapping the home ranges, social interactions, tree use and following the lives of over 108 individual koalas in four locations in the You Yangs and Brisbane Ranges National Parks.
The Koala Clancy Foundation’s focus right now is on planting 300,000 koala trees by 2030 and saving the koala population that occupies the You Yangs. Fortunately, Aussies who are looking for a sense of purpose and have a desire to get in and help, are heeding the call.
“Just recently we needed a big group of people to plant a lot of trees on a property just near the You Yangs, so we put out the call, and before we knew it 30 people appeared,” Roger said proudly.
“We planted more trees on that Saturday than we’ve ever planted in a tree-planting day over the past four or five years. We planted 1,500 trees, it was just miraculous.” Roger, who once held a position as an Australian Conservation Foundation project officer for the South Western Pacific region and who has worked closely with the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative over the years, said that the joyfulness and enthusiasm of the volunteers was ‘fantastic’.
As has been the case right globally, Roger and Janine too have noticed a shift in people’s attitudes toward travel and the environment.
“In the past tourism has been about enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment,” noted Roger. “Now, it seems people don’t just ‘want a break’ they want to give back. On our tours, people actually walk away feeling like they’ve actually done something that’s meaningful.”
When back up and operating their wildlife walking tours, Echidna Walkabout will continue to ‘involve, educate and foster awareness’ that can be shared.
“I suppose the most important thing is bringing humans together with the environment … get them to understand this word, biodiversity.”
It’s not surprising that a lot of people lack ‘real connection’ to the world around them, and according to Roger that’s one of the things he enjoys most about what he and Janine do day to day. “I love helping people see that,” he said, adding that it was this that prompted the Echidna Walkabout and Koala Clancy Foundation organisations to ‘expand into a new way of thinking’.
Hence Conservation Travel Australia was launched. Its purpose is to protect and enhance Australia’s unique wildlife and natural areas by bringing people into those places who wish to understand, conserve, improve and help nature ‘while they enjoy it’.
“Climate change is a much bigger deal than just about anything else at the moment,” Roger says passionately, and he’s encouraging everyone to do what they can to help make the world a better place in the future.
Head to conservationtravel.com.au for more on this venture; echidnawalkabout.com.au for details on the wildlife walking tours when they are back up and running; and for Koala Clancy Foundation donations hit up koalaclancyfoundation.org.au.
Or check other sustainable travel experiences here.