BBC Wildlife magazine July 1999 issue

THE LIFE OF RALEIGH

For three adventure-packed months, volunteers 'get away from it all' with lessons in diving, conservation and teamwork. And you could too. Story: Dominic Hamilton.

Prodded from sleep by my bowels, well before the crack of dawn, I walked to the end of the sand bank and sat feeling sorry for myself.

To the east, an island bobbed on a bed of cerulean, an indistinct mass in the crepuscular light. In the haze above it, frigate birds glided on invisible currents, performing an avian acrobatic show. Something caught my eye. At first, no more than a peel of orange emerged. Then the glow limbered above the tree line, silhouetting the palm trees' tapered fingers and the swoop-swoop of the birds. The rising sun sent a glimmering shard over the water, burning its way to my sandy feet. Only 48 hours ago, I had been in London. Now this. Seeing, as they say here, is Belizing.


An hour and a half later, it's whistles, porridge and "Anyone seen my spoon?" Sand- and salt-encrusted figures emerge from their hammocks in the mangroves, bleary-eyed and grumbling. After breakfast comes the briefing: which group is doing what, where. "Another day, another dive," someone mutters, as they make their way to the boats.

Coco Plum Caye is one of Raleigh International's two dive sites on the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world. Since 1997, the island has provided the base for a sedimentation study funded by the European Union. There are growing concerns that changing land use on the mainland will have adverse effects on the marine ecosystems here. And the youth-development charity provides the fin-work for the huge task of accruing data for the study.

Raleigh's young volunteers are first trained to scuba dive. Over the following two weeks, they dive twice a day to various sites located around the tiny pearl-drop island. The studies are overseen by a marine biologist, who briefs the divers about what to expect. Maria Neuhold worked on marine surveys and conservation work on Australia's Great Barrier Reef before moving to London.

"I originally joined Raleigh to gain more practical experience in the field," she told me. "But working with young volunteers has made me realise how much I enjoy sharing my knowledge and being part of a group. It's also," she adds with a grin, "a lot of fun."

To become part of the extended Raleigh family staff fundraise 1,500, young 'venturer' volunteers, 3,000. In the same way that time shared with your parents and siblings can prove among life's most rewarding and memorable moments, it can also drive even the most mellow of characters mildly insane.

Dive sites can be particularly challenging in this respect. Some of the instructors will get the chance to leave the confines of the turquoise-soaked island only once over the course of a three-month expedition. On Coco Plum, forty metres down the beach is the farthest you can go for some 'space'.

"Sometimes it's hard to deal with the confined conditions," Ben Nimmo, one of the dive instructors admits. "But then you look around to see how lucky you are just to be here."

Space is not a problem in the nearby Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Expanded in 1990 to embrace 42,000 hectares, the sanctuary is the jewel in Belize's conservation crown. Through the efforts of the Belizean government, The Wildlife Conservation Society, the Belize Audubon Society and WWF (or Worldwide Fund for Nature), Cockscomb is home to 290 species of birds (including the endangered scarlet macaw), troops of howler monkeys and 70 per cent of the country's non-marine reptiles.

But Cockscomb's biggest attraction is feline. It is one of the few places in the world where there's a good chance of spotting jaguars as well as ocelots, margays and pumas.

Amenities are basic at the group's camp: tarpaulin for shelter and large holes in the ground for latrine 'long-drops'. Food is, to quote a venturer, 'cordon muck', consisting of dehydrated packets of soya mince, tins of tuna and, if you're lucky, raisins with your porridge.

A day trek through the Maya Mountains to Belize's highest peak provides a dose of adventure and the odd close encounter with a snake. Living the life of Raleigh, or slogging through the jungle for days, is not everyone's cup of tea. But those who make it to the top of Victoria peak are greeted by incomparable views of the forest's undulating canopy, interrupted only to the west by the blue hues of the Caribbean. Seeing, at moments like these, is most definitely Belizing.


Notebook

Raleigh facts
Raleigh International offers an excellent blend of adventure, lessons in teamwork and leadership skills. Working on community projects provides a unique channel through which to get to know another country and its people, and many projects tangibly improve people's lives. The charity is founded on the principles of youth development. As such, it is structured by meetings, 'day-leaders' and reports, which don't suit everyone.


The details
Venturers must be 17-25 and physically fit. Staff, aged 25 upwards, needn't have any particular expertise, though nurses, doctors, engineers, boat-handlers, dive instructors and scientists are particularly valuable.
The first step is to apply and then attend an assessment weekend. From there, you choose a country - destinations for 2000 include Belize, Chile, Ghana, Mongolia, Namibia.and Oman.
The charity organises fundraising activities to help volunteers raise the required 3,000 (1,500 for staff), and also runs a subsidised Youth Development Programme. Preparations can take up to a year.

Belize and beyond
Belize is regarded as the least harsh of Raleigh's expeditions. The main attraction is the chance to learn how to dive. There's also the opportunity to work on community projects, trek in dense jungles and live with the Mayan people. Travelling on to Guatemala and southern Mexico after the expedition is also a major draw.
For those seeking more of a challenge, well-established expeditions to Chile offer remote environmental projects: kayaking in fjords and mountain trekking in the Andes. But community phases aren't, as with projects in other less developed nations, life-saving. Expeditions to Chile also tend to attract older venturers.
For further information contact: Raleigh International, 27 Parsons Green
Lane, London SW6 4HZ % 0171 371 8585, fax 0171 371 5116. Email:
info@raleigh.org.uk; website: www.raleigh.org.uk