HELEN LANDYMORE found herself surveying rare birds and fish in stunning locations when she joined an Operation Wallacea expedition.
The advert said they were looking for enthusiastic volunteers to help in a wildlife and coral reef survey of a remote part of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Well, I'm enthusiastic to go trekking through towering forests and dive on sites virtually undived before. But surely they couldn't want me - I wouldn't recognise a hornbill from a parrot and although I can dive I've never got past the coloured underwater sheets of reef fish that you can buy in most dive centres.
Nevertheless, spurred on by the thought of doing something different and worthwhile at the same time, I went to an interview. The whole project seemed so exciting that I signed up and a few weeks later found myself in the forests of North Buton with six others.
We were a motley crew. Mark was an experienced birder and worked for the Audubon Society in the USA. Brian was a naturalist from Britain, but who'd never been to the Far East. For the rest of us - two from Singapore, one from Hong Kong and my partner and I - the wildlife of the rainforests was entirely new.
Mike, the ornithologist on the project was not daunted by the prospect of such a mixed group and we set off in the four-wheel drive vehicle driven by the ever smiling brothers Jusuf and Mansur. Our first night was spent in a local village house, built on stilts, and overlooking a white sand beach.
This paradise village, Kyoko, is about as remote as you're likely to find anywhere in the world. Apart from the Operation Wallacea survey teams it was apparent that the locals had not seen hordes of tourists before. There was an innocence about the village and an unreserved welcome from all the local people.
We left Kyoko before daybreak and trekked into the surrounding forest to get to our target survey area. At first it was still dark as we climbed, but as the sun rose and the early morning mist began to rise over the valley the view was one of the most spectacular I'd ever witnessed.
A group of Red Knobbed Hornbills with their huge bills, white tails and eerie barking call swooped across the valley below us, whilst a pair of Sulawesi Serpent Eagles wheeled above. The day just got better and better. We saw three types of parrots, kingfishers, spectacular white fronted mynas and just before we set up camp next to a spectacular waterfall we had our first glimpse of the almost extinct Maleo bird.
This turkey-sized bird doesn't build a nest like any other self-respecting bird, but buries its eggs turtle-like in sand in large communal areas. The eggs are five times the size of chicken eggs and highly valued by the locals. Since the Maleo bird is only found in Sulawesi and the egg eating is a widespread custom, the Maleo is on the edge of extinction, except perhaps in the hill forests of North Buton.
After a few days in the forest we reluctantly left the towering trees, troops of macaques and the friendly locals to join the marine survey team on Hoga island. Hoga is everyone's idea of Robinson Crusoe's island - white sand beaches, palm fringed, glorious coral and uninhabited except for the Operation Wallacea marine base.
We were welcomed on our arrival in a speedboat by Dr Monica Sullivan - a cheerful Irish marine biologist who'd found herself running this outpost thousands of miles from her native Sligo.
The marine base turned out to be a huge house which apparently had originally been built with World Bank money by the regional government to catch the passing tourist trade! I never saw another passing tourist in all the time I was there and Monica told me that there had been only a handful over the complete year. So why build a tourist house in such a remote location?
Anyway, the house is now in full use with about 20 people based at any one time on the island. The atmosphere was great with everyone busy helping build a school in the local sea gypsy village or learning to dive or improve their dive skills at the dive centre.
The coral around Hoga is one of the most biologically diverse reefs in the world. I know this because we were involved in counting the numbers of species of butterflyfish found on transects along the reef. This is a technique developed by WWF amongst others to give an indication of biological diversity.
The more diverse the coral reef then the more species of butterflyfish are found. The reef at Hoga contained more species of butterflyfish than even the best transects in the apparently spectacular reefs in Irian Jaya!
After two weeks of working alongside the biologists I was beginning to recognise many of the reef fish and a few of the commoner nudibranch and tunicates. There was a real energy about the base as the biologists rushed to finish their data gathering so that the information could be used to set up different zones in the newly created marine national park - zones for fishing, nursery zones, conservation zones.
Australian ornithologist Chris Majors who lives with the sea gypsy community also came across to the base frequently. He has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the different sea gypsy families and knows which are involved in bomb and cyanide fishing. This sort of knowledge is essential if the kind of changes necessary to protect the fishery are going to be put into place.
I'd only been away four weeks, but the experience will be with me forever. Going on a normal diving holiday will never have the same appeal again!
Helen Landymore is from England. She joined the expedition in 1997 and now works at Operation Wallacea. Check out the Operation Wallacea Web site: http://www.operatio nwallacea.org.uk, email info@operationwall acea.org.uk.