Adventure with a capital R

Raleigh International in Chilean Patagonia

The Independent on Sunday


March 99


"It's OK, Mum, I'm only going up to Caracas after the expedition," was the message from Patagonia.

A worried mother rang Raleigh International's head office in London.

"Is Caracas in northern Chile?" she asked.

"Er, no, madam. It's the capital of Venezuela, about 3,000 miles away."

Lying to anxious parents isn't big and it's not clever. Though having drip fed them a diet of campfire letters from the southernmost tip the Americas, you might understand how a little 3,000-mile white porky would seem harmless enough.

Parents of nervous dispositions must go through paroxysms of Dante's Purgatory while their precious offspring are away. First, there are the misconceptions about foreigners. Then there are the horror stories of kidnappings and diseases. Top this with say, a political crisis over an ex-dictator, and you have the recipe for premature blue rinses and early retirement.

In fact, participating in a Raleigh International expedition as a member of staff or young venturer has more in common with the Divine Comedy than any descent into Purgatory. Clucking parents of backpacking chicks will always fret. The youth development charity provides a safe umbrella under which young volunteers can discover a country and its people. When Raleigh's young volunteers set off into the unknown, parents even receive an expedition update every three weeks. Maps of South America not included.

"I wouldn't have to come to Chile on my own," Matt Leney from Bristol admits. "I just didn't have the confidence to get on the plane."

The prospect of arriving in a foreign country with no knowledge of the language or much experience of travelling is daunting for most 17 to 25 year-olds. As a venturer you enter a structure and a system which has boldly done good all over the world for the last fifteen years. Risk is minimised, though, this being a British set-up, character-edifying hardships and Somme-like suffering are never far away.

Every eventuality on Raleigh has been dib-dib dob-dobbed from head to toe. Nick Higgins, a university-bound 21 year-old from Sussex, managed to hurl himself over the edge of an Avon inflatable into iceberg strewn water. This is actually quite hard to achieve. More so when your at the helm of the craft, and the rest of his project group didn't let him forget it.

"I came on Raleigh because I wanted to do something adventurous with my year off," he says, still struggling to laugh off his most humiliating experience since nursery school. "Raleigh allows you to get to remote areas which tour operators wouldn't dream of covering."

Learning boat-handling skills, and retrieving bobbing bodies, are integral to Raleigh's project in the Laguna San Rafael National Park. The lagoon is dominated by a sixty-metre cobalt wall of ice, the breathtaking façade to a glacier that slides inexorably down to the water's edge from snowy peaks two thousand metres above.

The burnt-out hulk of a hotel provides the Raleigh group with shelter from the driving rain and icy winds: Welcome to the Hotel Patagonia. The project consists of trapping, tagging and monitoring the Kodkod wild cat. Though rare and endangered, the cat is about as large and ferocious as next-door's Tibbles.

Rachel Freer is the scientist in charge of the Kodkod project. Staff join Raleigh for motives as diverse as the projects they run. Career breaks, career ladders, voluntary work, youth work, travel. One thing is certain, they're all enjoying it.

Rachel sees working with Raleigh as a great work experience opportunity.

"It's exciting to head-up my own project," she says. "In fact, I hate it so much I've decided to stay for another three month expedition."

As well as environmental and scientific work, the venturers will provide manpower, not dissimilar to slave labour, on community projects. These generally consist of working on the construction of a school or community centre. Learning new skills and adapting to a new environment are essential. Pouring a wheelbarrow of concrete over your best friend is not a skill which is officially taught, though the venturers seem to have a knack for it.

Staff have to raise £1,500, and standard venturers £3,000, to become part of the extended Raleigh family. For most, this is greatest challenge of all. Volunteers sally forth collecting in nurses' uniforms in their locals, join sponsored schleps over the Brecon Beacons, or letter-write till they're blue in the wrist. As well as aiding international venturers to join expeditions, Raleigh runs a Youth Development Programme (YDP) which targets people from less privileged backgrounds.

At 17, Paul French was the youngest venturer on the last expedition to Chile and an excellent example of the YDP initiative. He knew what to expect from Raleigh, though it's doubtful Patagonia was ready for a garrulous six-foot Geordie with a pudding bowl haircut.

"I picked up Spanish well quickly on the community phase," he says. "I just make it up as I go along." Amazing what sticking an 'o' on the end of a word can do.

When not working as a mechanic, 'Frenchie' races a hovercraft built from old tyres and shopping trolleys at his youth club on the notorious Meadowell estate in Newcastle. "Mucking about on boats in the lagoon was top," he grins. "I definitely want to do more of that stuff when I get back home."

After environmental and community projects, adventure is the third arrow in Raleigh's do-gooding quiver. Adrenalin rushes are essential to the charity's pulling power. Adventure phases are often the most mentally and physically challenging time spent on an expedition. Clothes never dry, skin rots, tents sweat and smell. Dehydrated packets of soya mince fail to inspire the palate after a day, let alone three weeks.

Developing leadership skills, mastering team dynamics and conquering personal bêtes noires are key to the Raleigh experience. Community and environmental projects go some way to nurturing these qualities. However, adventure phases remain arguably the best environments for the unique Raleigh chemistry to work most effectively.

The structured nature of Raleigh is not for everyone. Surprisingly, many volunteers hadn't realised the charity is founded on the concept of youth development and the extent to which this shaped expedition life. Some of the older venturers found the alcohol bans, curfews and interminable meetings far too controlled.

At the end of every three-week phase, project managers write brief reports on each venturer which contribute to a reference for prospective employers. Although not everyone has their CV in mind, "built a school from scratch" certainly sounds more impressive than "chilled on a beach in Goa."

Still smarting after his dunking, Nick Higgins is one of the many venturers for whom hedonistic backpacking wasn't enough.

"I'd done some travelling before with friends and felt this time I should do something more constructive," he says.

Of the 140-strong expedition, two-thirds don't fly home at the end of their three months. Having learnt a bit of Spanish, acclimatised to Latin culture and met congenial companions for the road, they head for Peru, Bolivia and yes, Caracas, far more prepared for what Latin America will throw at them.

Going abroad with Raleigh International entails a fair dose of misery, what with the primitive conditions, food, runs, latrines and other niceties you encounter. Venturers and staff emerge smiling however. To paraphrase Dante, "There is no greater joy than to recall a time of misery in happiness." After Inferno and Purgatory comes Paradise - a hot bath and a pint.