Many moons ago, possibly twelve years ago, I first visited Wildtracks as a naïve, fresh-faced volunteer and got the chance to stay. For two years, Wildtracks became my place of work, Sarteneja my home, the cenote my bath, the jungle my playground, the volunteers my family, and Paul and Zoe my voice of reason!
I left and continued with my life, in a roundabout way. However, in November 2016 I had an epiphany and returned for a flying visit. I was welcomed back and ridiculed as if I had never left.
During my first stint at Wildtracks, volunteers at the farm would share time in Fireburn Reserve, mapping, doing wildlife transects, camera trap maintenance, clearing the Mayan ruin site and teaching at the village school. Others would work with the manatees (one manatee at a time mind!), 24 hour feeding and observation schedules, and caring for all manner of other wildlife that found its way to our door. University students and project groups would visit, gap year groups would set up camp, local volunteers and school classes would come and see what we were doing, life was never quiet!
Those were the days when evening drinks on the jetty were spent dreaming about building permanent manatee pools and reintroducing howler monkeys to Fireburn Reserve.
Guess what. Dreams can become reality. There are now zillions of howler monkeys in Fireburn! Successfully rehabilitated and howling away! Imagine my ears whilst stirring beans in field base (by solar powered light might I add) listening to the fellows chatting away up in the trees.
The ethos of Wildtracks has not and I don’t think ever will change. The volunteers and local workers still have a ‘can do’ attitude. An aura of ‘get on with it’ floats around like a friendly Duende. Paul and Zoe still survive on three hours of sleep, whether that’s because they are making a deadline or an impromptu "full-moon-rising-parties" just ‘happened’, work still gets done.
Wildtracks has experienced big change. Paul and Zoe now virtually live with the orphaned howlers and spiders ‘all the better to do night feeds’ and merely lean off a computer chair to attend to their wards. Volunteers walk around the place with various branches and twigs draped around them ‘this one is……try it, its Izzie’s favourite’. Whether the furry creatures are undergoing intensive rehabilitation, are in integration or experiencing life in the huge pre-release enclosures, every single volunteer has the single aim of eventual release in mind. The number of times in my first week I had to interrupt conversations to ask if people were talking about a person or monkey is slightly embarrassing. I think it’s a testament to the dedication of the monkey team and how closely observations are made that this happened and I did overhear other ‘newbies’ doing the same. Embarrassment gone.
The manatee pools are things dreams are made of! When I saw them I did have to do a ‘In my day’ speech. In my day ‘we had a kids paddling pool, to be emptied and filled twice a day from the lagoon by hand’. In my day ‘WE DUG THE LAGOON OUT BY HAND USING BUCKETS, I BLED’. Not convinced I was believed, as they had a digger last year. Lucky them. Seven manatees were being cared for during this visit, including one who admitted herself by arriving outside the lagoon enclosure one morning. The word about Wildtracks must be spreading.
This visit I did, I learnt, I realised and remembered: the sunrises and the sunsets, I can still catch a scorpion, you can still get cold and sunburnt in Belize, Fireburn still thrives and Lincoln suits a moustache, a tractor can be driven with three wheels, there is never too much rum or too much coffee, and that sleep can happen tomorrow.
The whole staff and volunteer team works as one, as it did ‘in the olden days’, now its just a much bigger team. Slicker, more professional, gaining expertise and recognition as the years roll on.
Paul and Zoe, still heading it, being proud, making others proud, encouraging, nurturing people and animals. Paul still cracking jokes over the dining table, still getting bitten. Zoe still being everyone’s big sister, welcoming, organising and putting up with her husband Paul.
It might have been ten years since my last visit but it won’t be ten years until I return.
Paul and Zoe and the Wildtracks team, thank you for everything.