I’ve always loved animals and the bush. Where my brother was given to playing with Lego and one day grew up to become a mechanical engineer, I used to play with zoo animal toys. Look where I ended up.
While we may have grown up in Melbourne, the family was lucky enough to own a smallholding near Seymour – the weekends spent there contain many of my fondest childhood memories.
It was from this time that one of the largest influences in my life appeared. Max Johnson, the neighbouring farmer, taught me a lot about the land and he became a true inspiration to me.
From that time on, I knew I was going to study zoology and so I chose my high school subjects to get me into the requisite science degree, which ended up being at the University of Melbourne. I took zoology and genetics subjects and I’ve never since regretted the choice.
After graduating, I first went travelling to Zimbabwe and then on to Europe. It was there I heard of a volunteer position opening in Nigeria, which represented an opportunity to work with chimpanzees and drill monkeys (Africa’s most threatened primate). I jumped at the opportunity and still think it was one of the best choices of my life, even though the experience also brought with it malaria and dysentery. Never mind, I put the weight back on.
After Nigeria, I took a one-year Masters of Science in Scotland. This may be the only thing about my career that I would change; with hindsight, it may have been time better spent in studying to become a vet.
Still, I enjoyed my Masters and I learnt a lot, eventually returning to Nigeria for my thesis study. Upon completing the course, I applied for and was appointed as the Biologist for the Arabian Oryx Reintroduction Project in Oman. I spent over three years in the desert and loved it. Truly, it was a field biologist’s dream job and it reinforced why I studied zoology. Not only were there the oryx, we also studied tree-nesting golden eagles, Arabian wolves and ibex.
After Oman, I went to London for three years to head up the charity that had sent me to Nigeria: the International Primate Protection League (IPPL). Through them, I had the good fortune to meet Jane Goodall and a few other greats; it was also useful for me to learn how an office works (they really do need all those field reports!), but after three years at a desk I decided I’d had enough.
In mid-2002 I was recruited by the Orangutan Foundation to be their Senior Conservationist in Indonesian Borneo. Working alongside Birute Galdikas and The Orangutan Project (TOP, formerly the Australian Orangutan Project), we undertook a vast range of activities; habitat protection (I had arrived at the height of the illegal logging crisis), reforestation, negotiation with palm oil companies, research and orangutan reintroduction.
While with the Orangutan Foundation, a group of us spent ten days trekking through Sarawak on what we dubbed “The Red Ape Trail”. For outdoor enthusiasts this is an experience to be recommended. It is one of the most challenging but rewarding things I have ever done. Honestly, I believe it has the potential to be a world-class trekking route. It is tough though; as one of our companions said “the only time the trail was flat was when it was underwater!”
One year lead to another and another and suddenly seven years had been spent in Indonesia.
I returned to Australia early in 2010, not quite sure what to do next, but as luck had it I was contacted by the Born Free Foundation regarding an opportunity to become their Country Representative in Ethiopia. That was the beginning of this latest chapter in my life, which appears to be now drawing to a close.
Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is a noisy, dusty, busy place. Driving there is, frankly, mad and the bureaucracy mind-numbing. However, the country itself is unbelievably beautiful. There are alpine mountains, forests, rivers, lakes and deserts. The diversity is quite incredible. It’s an exciting place, but there are many things I miss about Australia – and first among those is an ordered, systematic government service!
The big surprise of my time in Ethiopia has been in hand-rearing hyenas. I think, like many people, my opinion of hyenas was first shaped by Whoopi Goldberg in The Lion King. It is totally wrong. Hyenas are smart, sociable, tough, curious, versatile and serious fun to be around.
Of course, all of this generally leads people to wonder what I’m planning to do once I return to Australia (which will have occurred in February this year). My fiancée and I have just purchased 20 acres southeast of Melbourne.
Perhaps starting a bird list will be the one of the first things we do.
This article originally appeared in issue 147 (March-April edition, 2015). To stay up to date with our premium content, subscribe to our print or digital magazine here.