Alison Crane wanted to do something different to mark her 40th birthday. After 12 years of teaching and raising two young sons, she decided she needed a change of scene, another perspective. What she got, thanks to the charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a flexible headteacher, and a lot of fundraising, was an experience which she describes, simply, as "magic".
"You get to a stage in life where you're so focused on your marriage, kids and work - you're in your own world," she says. "This trip opened up the rest of the world again."
The "trip", in March this year, was a 10-day fundraising trek and rafting expedition through the rainforests of Guyana in South America. After days of wading through tropical rivers, crossing ravines on tree trunks, sleeping in hammocks and cooking meals on a kerosene stove, Alison, her six fellow trekkers and a local tour guide climbed for three hours in sweltering humidity to reach the top of the spectacular Kaituer Falls, a waterfall that has five times the drop of Niagara Falls.
"It was amazing - breathtakingly beautiful," says Alison. "We just sat there for a while - the sun was going down and two bright blue and orange macaws flew past. It was perfect." For Alison, this trip was more than just a change of scenery; it was a breath of fresh air. "For once, I didn't have to organise my pupils or my own kids. It felt like I was me again, not a teacher, a mother or someone's wife - just me."
VSO has been organising treks to raise money for its volunteers' programmes for three years. Alison, a former VSO volunteer herself (in Papua New Guinea, 15 years ago) had always been interested in the idea but had never been able to go until now, because the treks have been in term time.
It was Alison's husband, Brian, a senior teacher at Prince Henry's grammar school in Otley, where Alison teaches vocational education, who suggested she apply for unpaid leave. Headteacher John Steel agreed, so once Alison had arranged cover, prepared lessons, and raised the pound;3,000 minimum sponsorship, she was all set.
Recognising that such leave opportunities are rare, VSO has organised two treks during half-term holidays specifically to attract more teachers - one to the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain this October; the second, in spring 2003, to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. "We have a large network of teachers who go overseas as volunteers," says VSO fundraiser and trek organiser Lisa Russell. "And we know teachers are interested, so we thought, why not make it easier for them?"
Judging from Alison's experience, it could be a valuable move, for the charity and the teachers. The treks are open to anyone between 18 and 65 on a first-come, first-served basis. Participants pay an entry fee and raise a minimum amount of sponsorship money, which they must send to the charity eight weeks before they leave.
"It's a very cost-effective way of fundraising," explains Ms Russell. "We get the money before they go so we can start to use it straight away." The charity needs to raise pound;8 million this year alone; the six people on Alison's trip raised pound;20,000 between them.
VSO sends participants a fundraising starter pack, advice about how to prepare and what to take and tips on attracting local press coverage. Alison raised money at school using treasure maps of Guyana with prizes donated by local businesses. She gave assemblies on the country and the work of VSO, and organised a ceilidh for teachers and parents, helped by her sons, the school hockey team, and the kitchen staff. Her running club, Ilkley Harriers, chipped in, as did her gym. She received early "birthday money" from her parents, and even put her fees for exam-marking into the fund.
"It was time-consuming," she says. "But I knew it was going to good projects in Guyana, and the pack VSO sends is superb."
As a former PE teacher and runner, Alison needed no extra training to get in shape, but VSO supplies fitness advice and a training schedule to those who need it. The treks are led by local people attached to specialist tour operators and are geared to people of all abilities. So there's really no excuse.
"It's easy to put blocks in the way of doing something, to think of reasons why you can't. I always did," says Alison. "But you can do it, if you want to."
The four-day trek to the Sierra Nevada (October 19-22, 2002) is for at least 20 people. Entry is pound;100 and entrants must raise a minimum of pound;1,200 for VSO. The Mount Kilimanjaro trek is for a maximum of 20 people from February 27 to March 8 2003. Entry is pound;199 and pound;3,000 must be raised. The money from these trips will go to support VSO's sports volunteers around the world. For more information, tel: 020 8780 7289, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org