Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Zulu Groups Walk the Walk - the last 10 days

Adventure Challenge – Trekking Phase

On the 22nd of August, the Alpha groups left their project site and headed to La Cangreja National Park. Alphas 1 & 2 stayed in Santa Rosa, and Alphas 3 & 4 stayed in Fundacion Ecotropica. Everyone was very excited about seeing each other but also very anxious about what was going to happen next. The following morning everybody was split into Zulu Groups, with whom they would spend the next ten days. At 10am the teams were given their first cryptic clue to the whereabouts of their destination. After some deliberation over maps and routes, they headed off just in time for the skies to open; Hurricane Dean was tearing its way north of Costa Rica, and it would affect the weather throughout the trek. In addition to four days of trekking, they also had a variety of group challenges to achieve to gain points. From this point on it was an adventure competition.

Day 1
Zulus 1 & 2 trekked from Santa Rosa to Alto Palma. This was a 12km uphill walk. Their accommodation for the night was a yard outside of Pulperia Laura (a shop) – the group promptly bought them out of hot chocolate to warm themselves after a day of walking in the pouring rain. Zulus 3 & 4 walked form Fundacion Ecotropica to Iron Bridge. This was a tough up and down slog through some stunning landscapes. The destination was the beautiful Rio Grande at the bottom of the valley. Unfortunately the groups arrived a little too late to appreciate it, so it was straight to bed after a quick meal of pasta.

Day 2
Zulus 1 & 2 were to have their toughest day of walking. It started with a five hour hike up to 1500m. Once on the ridge, they took in some breathtaking scenery and were able to see the Pacific Ocean in the distance. It was during this day that they realised Costa Rican maps aren’t completely up to date! They had to use all of their navigating skills to find their way to Potenciana Arriba, where they stayed at the local school. They were thoroughly exhausted by this time, but spirits were soon lifted when Woody dished out a delicious marshmallow / granola bar cake! When Zulus 3 & 4 awoke, they could finally appreciate their beautiful surroundings. They were to have a tricky day of navigating ahead of them. After a river crossing, they tried to find a way up the valley to Baja Quesada, but found themselves stuck in the jungle. A few hours of machete action later they found their way onto a track ad pushed through to Bocana where they would have a luxurious night spent under shelter in a cow barn.

Day 3
Zulus 1 & 2 did a great job of organising themselves, and had eaten breakfast, decamped and were on the road by 6.15am. They started the day with a 500 metre ascent to the highest peak in the area – Cerro Bares. Again, the landscapes were just astounding. By lunchtime they had descended to Caite, but were to spend a few hours ‘geographically misplaced’! A few people were ready to down tools by 3pm, but the spirit of the group was so strong that any doubters were convinced to continue to their home for the night, Galan. Zulu 3 & 4 had a lot of ground to catch up from Day 2, so had two extremely challenging days ahead of them. Both groups walked for 9 hours, and both spent sections of the day off piste (or is that piste off!) After a lot of wrong turns, Zulu 3 made it to the school in Bajo Lanas, while Zulu 4 were taken to the limits of their comfort zone and ended up sleeping in the only patch available – a cow field full of dung (which turned into a bog due to the never-ending downpour).

Day 4
The long march home! All four Zulu groups made it to their destination of Bijagual Ranger Station; an incredible achievement. It was a very long day for everyone, but the elation felt by all made up for the physical and mental pressures of the last few days. Nearly everyone commented that it had been the four hardest days of their lives – they had been pushed to their physical limits, been drenched in torrential rain countless times and felt what it was like to be lost in the wilderness. As time went on, more and more people stated that they felt that they had taken a great deal from this experience – after this, any difficulty encountered would seem easier. The final night of the trekking phase was spent together in yet another storm. As opposed to the first night, where the groups retreated to their tents feeling cold and tired, there was a party atmosphere, with people taking advantage of the conditions by showering under the broken roof gutters, and singing along to tunes on the guitar. The mood was particularly good when everyone piled into the tiny house to eat freshly delivered pizza – a bizarre house party in the middle of the jungle!

Adventure Challenge – Survival Phase
Travelling to the Mystery Location

The sun finally came out, and it was time to board the buses and head to the mystery location for the survival phase. After a couple of hours there was time to walk around the port of Puntarenas, an ideal opportunity to do some shopping, take a proper shower or eat as much junk food as humanly possible. Everyone then headed to the dock to board the Samantha Tours yacht, which would take us to San Lucas Island. San Lucas was a notorious Costa Rican prison island, akin to Alkatraz or Devils’s Island. It had dreadful conditions, and a terrible history of mistreating prisoners – only around 60% of the inmates would make it off the island alive. One of the most poignant landmarks is ‘the disc’ – this is a disc shaped area in front of the cells with a hole in the middle leading to a pit about 3m deep. If a dispute arose that could not be settled, the aggressors were thrown in and had to sort it out one way or the other – this often meant that only one person resurfaced. The prison was shut in 1988, and MINAE (Ministry for the Environment) took over the running of the island in 2005. They are in the process of clearing up the island and turning it into a key section of National Park. They are gradually releasing a variety of species, including guatusos, scarlet macaws and boars – there is already a great variety of monkeys, crocodiles, spiders and snakes.

Arriving slightly later than expected, we got to the island in darkness and yet another storm. This created a very eerie atmosphere – especially as we were to sleep in the prison cells that night! However, as soon as floodlights were up and dinner was cooked, it all seemed a bit more normal. Out of nowhere, Don Baron Julian and his Rimjoaloahhisyipieshimcut Tribe appeared from out of the flame covered disc, beating drums and chanting their tribal mantras. Don Baron Julian challenged the groups to find his treasure – only one would be worthy of this honour. Their first challenge was to perform their skits from the first phase. There were some truly entertaining performances, detailing each group’s stories. The eventual victors were Alpha 4, who had everyone singing along with their ‘Cheery Chirripo’ song – already a Raleigh classic, winning them an ice-cream feast the next day during the blazing midday sun.

Day 1
Early in the morning, we woke up to realise that the island wasn’t that scary after all, but was actually a paradise of beaches, palm trees and howler monkeys. The Zulu groups were given their first challenge – to make their way to their own private beach and set up camp. The groups needed to set up their own basha hammocks to sleep in, make a group shelter, and cook using a variety of natural methods, for example Zulus 1 and 4 created a mud oven to bake flapjacks, Zulu 2 experimented with bamboo to steam cook vegetables, and Zulu 3 made damper bread on an open fire. During this time, there was also room for a bit of swimming and sunbathing. The groups were treated to a spectacular sunset – an incredible way to finish their first full day on San Lucas.

Day 2
This was the main challenge day. There were two main activities – two would do each in the morning, and then swap over after lunch. The first activity was a low ropes course, led by Rhyan and Jimmy, two Costa Rican ex-staff members. These challenged the teams in a variety of ways – they were against the clock to complete a series of Crystal Maze style activities. The other main activity was to build a raft using barrels, rope and bamboo, and then paddle around a sunken ship and back. Firstly, the teams had to free themselves from their handcuffs, and then complete a deserted island challenge. There were mixed results, but all teams completed the challenge – they may not have been the quickest, but Zulus 1 & 2 definitely constructed the most sea worthy vessels.

There was also enough free time on this day for everyone to hang out on the pier. This led to am array of pier jumping and diving, with full marks going to Cameron, Philly and Roberto.

Day 3
The teams started the day by decamping back to the prison and then helping MINAE with a bit of maintenance. The final challenge in the afternoon was a group orienteering race, complete with more group tasks. Zulu 1 and 2 started miles in front and it could be said that either were deserved winners, destroying the competition in all of the other challenges thus far. However, a last minute surge from Zulu 4 meant that they came back form the brink to find Don Julian’s treasure just ahead of Zulu 1, earning them the glorious honour of being the winners of the first ever Costa Rican Adventure Challenge (and a massive fried breakfast the next day!) With the exception of the last day, the weather was perfect – so the farewell ceremony was forced into one of the cells due to rain. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Julian gave his farewell speech to everyone, highlighting the amazing efforts and achievements by all staff and participants. Next was the end of expedition slideshow put together by Chris. The photos were truly awesome, and everyone either laughed or cried at some point during the presentation. The finale was a party inside one of the cells. The lights went out, while the projector and head torches went on. The cell soon heated up to boiling point as everyone jumped about to everything from Feddy Le Grand to Fall Out Boy to Queen to House of Pain to The Village People! As soon as the rain stopped, the party moved outside where flaming poles were set up, and an enormous visualiser was projected onto the main prison building – very reminiscent of an old school rave for some of the staff members! At midnight, the whole expedition retired to the pier where yet more pier jumping was done, followed by a mass sing-a-long - a euphoric end to an incredible five weeks.

The long journey home
On the 26th of August, we packed up all of our gear and left the island, destined for the British School in San Jose where we would spend our final night. VERY early the next day, everyone set off for either the airport or further travelling. There were some tears as the farewells were said, but mostly smiles and laughter.

07M was an outstanding success. The atmosphere was awesome right from the start, and the hard work and positive attitude of all involved was much appreciated. We look forward to hearing from you all soon, and hopefully seeing you again with Raleigh either on future expeditions or as staff. Good luck and all the best…


Sunday, 19 August 2007

20 days of hard graft later...success all round!

Yesterday all the participants packed up camp and headed off for the changeover into the trekking phase of the programme. So what have they achieved on their individual project sites? Have they done any work in amongst all the fun and frollicks? Well, yes they have. Here's the run down on the amazing things they have achieved...

Alpha 1 - Playa Nancite

In amongst the trips along the beach and leaping in the sea, Alpha 1 have cleared the full length of the path between the ranger station at Playa Nancite and the nearest quad-bike accessible track. They have also injected some pace into a variety of improvements in the ranger station itself, clearing away old parts of the buildings and shifting in new materials by boat. On the last night they also had a precautionary trip to the top of their now-familiar 'mountain' to make absolutely sure there wouldn't be any big waves heading their way from Peru - some excitement that will doubtless feature in their stories for their grandchildren in years to come.

Alpha 2 - Volcan Tenorio

Alpha 2 have cleared more than 1000m of track through the jungle at Volcan Tenorio, helping to open up access to the spectacular waterfall, blue lagoon and hot springs that lie in in the national park there. The local community and rangers are really delighted with the improvements Alpha 2 have brought about, describing them now as "part of the family". The forest gets a regular drenching, so developing the paths to be relatively rain-proof will make sure that the paths remain useable by everyone who wants to appreciate this amazing landscape.

Alpha 3 - Las Rosas, Salitre

The indigenous community at Las Rosas now have a storm-proof eating area for their primary school thanks to the efforts of Alpha 3. The comedor was formally opened on Thursday, when the British Ambassador Tom Kennedy joined the local community in thanking the team for their hard work. Having the comedor means that the school gets government grant to provide food, which in turn will encourage more people to attend school.

Alpha 4 - Quetzal, Chirippo

The hill-top indigenous community at Quetzal now have a new landmark - a cheerfully coloured secondary school made from wood from the forest and the enthusiasm of Alpha 4, who have now renamed themselves 'Alpha Hardcore'. The daily treks into the forest to collect sawn up tree have certainly provided good training for the trekking phase of the programme.

We're sure you'll agree this is an amazing amount to have got done in slightly under three weeks. All the projects have ended on a real high, and the teams have become well-oiled work machines.

The participants are now spending four days trekking through the mountainous area of Turrubares. They have been rearranged into new groups to maximise the enjoyment of sharing stories from the last three weeks - so there were some tearful farewells and a lot of happy reunions as they prepared to head off. In two days time they will reconvene ready to be moved to the mystery location of the final stage of the programme - the Survival Challenge...

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

News from Chirripo

After a 5am start on Saturday morning the newly formed Alpha 4 group packed up their bags and hit the road en route to Quetzal. All was well til the bus attempted to get across the river and failed. After a few moans and groans we set off packs et al on the 3hr trip up to the village. The satisfaction of arriving there on foot and the joy of removing the packs was felt by all. But the hard work was yet to begin!

Daily jungle runs to collect freshly cut wood has meant the project is coming on very quickly and will soon be starting on the walls. Unfortunately, Alpha 4 seems to lack some of the locals’ sophistication on the football field but what we lack in skill we give in determination! As a group we are loving every minute and all keen to see the project through to completion, so for now we shall sleep well, work and play hard, and keep our fingers crossed!


News from Nancite and Tenorio

After a slight mishap with a forgotten passport (mentioning no names, Ross!), we were on our way to see Alphas 1 & 2. On this road trip was Julian, Ross, Chris and Helen, as we wound our way North to Tenorio, the IPod game was in full swing to help pass the time. We were very lucky to have a near perfect view of Volcan Arenal as we passed by and were happy to reach Alpha 2 at Volcan Tenorio before sunset. The group were in high spirits and have made their wooden shack very homely. After a frenzied attack on the chocolate and fizzy drink supply brought, we settled down to play ‘mafia’. This seems to have become the night-time entertainment for Alpha 2, who have honed their bluffing skills to perfection and were wiping out Julian and Helen in no time! The next morning it was 5am start so Piers and Will P could show us their progress on the path and the hot springs.

The rainforest is providing a challenging environment to work in, but the group are making great progress digging trenches to drain the rain and the daily reward of a dip in the hot springs is motivation for all!

So it was farewell to Alpha 2 and back in Bravo 4 heading for Santa Rosa and Alpha 1. After an enjoyable hike into Santa Rosa National Park (apart from the rather steep hill at the end), we were welcomed by Alpha 1 at Playa Nancite. All settled in the Ranger Station, 200 metres from the beach, Alpha 1 also executed a planned attack on the shop items carried in! Waving goodbye to Julian and Ross the next morning, Helen and Chris were set to work with the group on the ‘mountain’ for a few days. Day by day the group are pick-axing out the rock, relaying the soil and smaller rocks to create a path up the ‘mountain’ so that the ranger can access the beach by quad bike. The work in the sun is tough but Alpha 1 is proving that they are hardcore by tirelessly going at it day after day.

This hard work is rewarded though - every afternoon they fling down their tools and dive into the cool and crashing waves on Playa Nancite. While we were there, we were also blessed with the amazing sight of 2 Olive Ridley turtles nesting on the beach, one at night and the 2nd in the late afternoon, surprising the group in the midst of an activity. The group are hoping that during the next couple of weeks they will be lucky enough to see an ‘arribadas’ where they could see up to 1000 turtles nesting on the beach.

After 3 enjoyable days with Alpha 1, Helen and Chris trekked back out, deciding that they were now fairly hardcore, to meet Ross and Julian at Santa Rosa. After an overnight stop in San Jose, they arrived back at field base, excited to see all again and hear how the other road trips got on…


News from Salitre

Hugh, Amanda and I have been on a Road Trip to Salitre to visit Alpha 3.
They have been working really hard and have dug the foundations for the comodor and moved 300 concrete blocks, a lot of corrugated roofing sheets, and wood for the walls doing a round trip of 1km each time.

They were certainly pleased to see us but we are still not sure if it was because with three extra pairs of hands and a Land Rover we were able to help move the 30 50kg bags of cement, or that we bought the shop to them with chocolate, pringles, sweets and cold drinks which all disappeared on the first evening!! We were rewarded for our hard work with a trip to the river to wash and cool off. We left them eagerly awaiting a lorry load of sand to arrive so they can then begin the actual building of the comodor which they were all very excited about.


Tuesday, 7 August 2007

A fond farewell to Marco

Marco (aka Mark Blythe-Ashby) headed off yesterday to help set up Raleigh in India. Clearly this is a fantastically exciting opportunity for him, but we'll all be sad to see him leave after a year in Costa Rica. During his time here, Marco has been transformed from a podgy city boy into a lean mean trekking machine and all round happy chap. We decided to see him off with a fancy dress party, with each member of the team appearing as an aspect of Marco's life, so we have, from left to right...

Chris as 'R2D2', Yvette as Fat Marco, Julian as Darth Vader, Milly as Bravo 4, Marco as himself holding a Bravo 4 shaped cake of yipies, Roy as Marcia, Ross as Hayley, Hugh as medic Marco, Helen as a yipy bar and Amanda as Marcia. Explaining how these are all facets of Marco's personality would take a full doctoral thesis so you'll have to use your imagination...but Marco seemed chuffed with it all.

Festivities continued with a barbeque, followed by party games and the evening drew to a close in the new field base swimming pool with some green body paint.

Good luck Marco - we'll miss you! (and then come and work for you in India...)