An Adventurous Journey of pandas, odysseys and optimism


Sofia Shang writes with candour, wit and wisdom about her Duke of Ed experiences.


I found out The Duke of Ed award in the beginning of 2009, which is the first summer holiday I had after I entered university. As an international student, I felt that I was not engaged in the community enough, and a simple search on the Uni Melb website lead me to The Duke of Ed Award.

The Duke of Ed award stands out to me a lot, due to its components. I wanted to be more involved in the community and to make more friends by volunteering, also, to learn a new language has already being in my ‘to-do’ list. Duke of Ed seemed to be the perfect thing to sign up for, so that I would not only do things I want to do plus a bit more challenge (I’m thinking about the Residential Project), but also be awarded by the end of it. It seemed to be a win-win situation, so I signed up.

My Duke of Ed experience has been nothing but positive (ok, I kind of lied, there were fleeting moments of resentment during both the Residential Project and the final Adventurous Journey, but they all turned out to be great and memorable). Looking back, I loved the Physical Recreation, Skill and Volunteering parts of the Duke of Ed.

For the Physical Recreation part, I’m doing yoga. I thought it is a relatively easy one to do in the beginning, thus I started the physical recreation part first. However, after I got into it, I have realized that perseverance is such an important thing! Some physical recreation might not look demanding, but to be able to put your heart to it and do it well to every pose, every inhalation, and to appreciate the philosophy behind it, is an art.

I have the same good experiences from my Skill section and my Volunteering. For my Skill, I learnt Japanese from scratch, and by the end of it, I pushed myself and happily achieved Japanese Language Proficiency Test level 5. I am so glad that I signed up for Duke of Ed, otherwise, I might have learned Japanese for several days and forgot about it, but the Duke of Ed Award made me felt more purposeful when I was learning Japanese; also, it made feel compelled to challenge myself and to achieve something.

If I did not sign up with the Duke of Ed, I would not be as happy as today I am. Thanks to the Duke of Ed, I started doing some volunteering work at the Melbourne Museum back in 2010. Thanks to the volunteering at the Museum, I have figured out what I really want to do in my life (from an Engineering drop-out, to a Bachelor of Science graduate, to now, happily doing Executive Master of Arts in University Melbourne). Volunteering through Duke of Ed has, in a sense, led me into exploring what kind of person I am, what I am naturally good at and what I actually want to do. I got a volunteering opportunity to work back of house for the mammalogy department of the museum, and many opportunities to help out at the museum during different events. Even though none of these extras are recorded as part of the Duke of Ed Award Volunteering, somehow these are the best bonuses I’ve got from doing the Duke of Ed volunteering in the first place.

Here are the challenging parts of my Duke of Ed. Even though by the end of it, both the Residential Project and the Adventurous Journey gave me really positive experiences, they are positive and memorable only because of all the odysseys we had to go through on the way!

I only started planning my Residential Project when I was already in a good place with regards to all the three long-term sections of The Duke of Ed. For my Residential, I did a Panda Conservation volunteering project in China. Just when I thought all the volunteering experiences from the Melbourne Museum and my native Chinese background should’ve prepared me, all the shocks bombarded me.

The condition at the panda place for the volunteers was, to be honest, quite third-word standard. No real road, stray dogs with fleas on them, and people (they are the official animal keepers at the sanctuary) with no Mandarin skills (even though Mandarin is the official language of China) nor sympathy to animals… It has forever changed my view of China. I guess I was growing up in the city and what I can see there is similar to what I can see here in Melbourne, I thought poverty and remoteness should be something belonging to the 1970’s China…There were arguments and miscommunications between the volunteers and the animal keepers with regards to how the animals are kept. As the only person there who could converse fluently in both Mandarin and English, I had been the translator for most of the time, as well as the one who got a lot of attitudes from the local animal keepers.

The Panda Conservation project has taught me more about how to deal with people, than how to deal with the animals. At the end of the day, what we want is the best for the pandas and other animals we saw there. When in such a remote place like that in China, and dealing with people (without any zoo-keeping qualifications), I actually learnt a way to negotiate without the use of what we think of as common sense.

The Adventurous Journey was indeed an adventurous journey. We covered parts of the Great South West Walk (GSWW). Since we did the practice journey at the Great Ocean Walk without any problem, we thought we must be ready for the GSWW. However, after competing with the tides for time, trekking up and down on those nearly vertical parts, sleeping on bumping camping ground…In an evil union with the winter terrible weather, the GSWW really pushed us to our limits. On one of the nights, we were still on our way trekking to the next campsite when it was 9pm! It was a period of time full of resentment. All the ‘I could’ve picked something easier like some semi-civilized regional railway track…’ thoughts came to my mind so many times. Walking in the dark on top of a cliff, while it’s windy and rainy, the waterproof jacket just seemed not waterproof enough. I thought I was going to die somehow, especially after I tripped over on the cliff; it was several really hopeless hours.

After sleeping in semi-wet tent and trekking in strenuous environments, the moment came when we saw the finishing point: that feeling was incredible! The GSWW was much harder than I thought. It does not have as many signs on the way (when you compare it with other trekking routes, for example, the Great Ocean Walk). Therefore, if anyone’s interested in doing the, be warned – the lack of sign makes some part of the journey feels extra long and hopeless.

After all the good and the bad/tough experiences from all the Duke of Ed components, I enjoyed the whole Duke of Ed experience. I’ve learnt that a sense of community, team work, perseverance and an optimistic outlook to life are something valuable. I love the Duke of Ed Award; it gives young people great opportunities to be more engaged in life in general as well as challenge ourselves in many ways we might not thought of.

I don’t think the Duke of Ed experience simply finishes when I submitted the Record Book. Because of the Duke of Ed, I have made many new friends, some of whom will be friends for life; with or without the Record Book, I will be able to continue a lot of things that I have started when I was participating in the Duke of Ed.

The feeling and/or thoughts I want people to remember from my stories are: good experiences or bad surprises are just episodes of life, embrace them because those will be the great topics you can talk about when you are old one day.  Also, do more, see more, initiate more…these might not drastically make your day brighter, but it is the accumulated experience that makes you the more fulfilled person in the end.

Oh, and a unique fact I’ve learned from my journey? I’ve found out that pandas are actually omnivores. The wild pandas actually eat meat! They are bears after all.

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