Indiana Jones and the rucksack from hell
Amy Sparks stood and gazed over the edge of a precipitous slice of rainforest with dismay. "Bugger. Look at that," she said. After an excruciating haul uphill, bent double under the weight of a rucksack, the next worst thing in the world was just about to happen: the climb down the other side.
The slope fell away into invisible depths, the path festooned in treacherous roots and creepers. An eerie knocking sound rattled close by, then stopped, then started again. It was the same one the poor saps in Predator heard seconds before the invisible alien disembowelled them all. "I want to go home," said Alex Stevens. She wasn't the only one.
Amy and Alex were part of a group of 16 to 18-year-olds from Corsham school in Wiltshire, on a four-week expedition to Thailand, organised by World Challenge Expeditions. It wasn't the first time some of them questioned the wisdom of their intrepidity.
But just when you think you cannot go any further, you somehow find you can. After a long pause, the group stowed their water bottles, shouldered their packs and slipped and slithered their way onwards.
Expeditions regularly surprise people by showing them that they can go way beyond what they had previously regarded as their limit, whether of courage, endurance or even geography. One member of the Corsham group had never set foot out of England before. For all of them, each day presented new challenges, from learning to cook on a camp fire to being in charge of the group's money supply.
It is this capacity to change lives that makes an expedition to a remote place one of the most powerful learning exercises a young person can undertake. In a relatively short time, it develops a whole basket of skills, including leadership, independence and self-confidence, encouraging team work and mutual tolerance along the way.
World Challenge has developed a range of expeditions carefully tailored to meet the particular needs of schools and students. Corsham's trip was one of a series known as Team Challenge, a month-long expedition preceded by 15 to 20 months of planning, fund-raising and goal-setting.
After a week acclimatising to Thailand's sweltering humidity, Corsham set off for the densely-forested foothills of the north for a week's trek. This was the first really testing episode of the trip. The altitude and punishing heat would have been exacting enough without the added burden of a backpack stuffed with food, bedding, clothes, mosquito net and enough potions and unguents to start a Body Shop franchise.
Food became the epicentre of everyone's lives. Either the fevered contemplation of when we were next going to get some (never soon enough); or the minutiae of camp catering (ratio of sugar to porridge, optimum number of Pringles to a sandwich - it's six if you're interested) absorbed us for hours. Fantasising about pizza toppings also served the higher purpose of taking our minds off the leeches, which would inevitably be hanging off our ankles after several hours walking.
The group were accompanied by John Scaplehorn, Corsham's deputy director of sixth form studies, who has 10 years' experience of outdoor education. Both he and Hilary Koch, the expedition leader, kept a weather eye on the group, stepping in if a course of action was likely to result in actual bodily harm but otherwise leting them manage their own affairs, make mistakes and adjust accordingly.
Adaptability and mastering things quickly are the keys to any such enterprise. Some found this easier than others. Helen Price, aged 16, emerged as something of a camp-fire diva, producing homely flames out of damp and uninspiring tinder in the twinkling of an eye.
"That's Girl Guides for you," she observed drily, as yet another fire roared into life. She deftly split more logs with a machete to keep it going.
"Did you do that at Girl Guides too?" someone asked her, im-pressed. "No, I use one to chop down the Leylandii at home."
The group became adept at absorbing deficiencies and making the most of collective strengths. Some were naturally gifted leaders. For others, taking a turn at key areas of responsibility, such as group-leading, money and transport, represented a considerable challenge.
There were enough recreational breaks to make sure that it did not all become a joyless physical grind. There were elephant rides and a rafting expedition through bat-filled caves, where phosphorescence glowed on the stalagtites.
"Fun is important," said Hilary Koch. "It is vital to keep up morale and the meetings at the end of the day give everyone a chance to look at the funny side. If people have had a bad day, this shows them they can still laugh about it.
"The enjoyment side of an expedition is huge. I don't want to frogmarch them down a trail. I want them to look around them. This is what they have come to see."
Each of World Challenge's expeditions revolves around a project which may have been planned for more than a year. For Corsham school it was to work with a charity called the Karen Hill Tribes Trust, which installs fresh water for Thai hill people.
For 16-year-old Simon Brand, this was the highlight of the trip. "This project is going to transform people's lives," he said. "It will last for years and it means that we have left something behind us.
"These people have so little anyway it has to be the biggest boost for all of us to be here."
The students stayed in a remote village close to the border with Burma and spent days gouging a trench out a steep hillside, in which to lay pipes from a water source. These were then connected to standpipes outside each hut.
The rains poured daily and the trenches would fill with glutinous red mud. It was back-breaking work, with everyone, including the villagers, wielding pick-axes, shovels and hoes to complete the job.
By the time they had finished, none of them owned a piece of clothing that hadn't been trashed beyond recognition. At least this meant that their rucksacks were that little bit lighter for the last leg of the journey.
The last few days gave everyone a chance to rest and recuperate on one of Thailand's many exotic islands. After three weeks locked in the interior, which constantly brought to mind every film with jungle in it you've ever seen, from The Bridge on the River Kwai to Indiana Jones, the Corsham group was looking forward to exchanging the terrain for The Beach.
"I couldn't have asked to be away with a better bunch," said John Scaplehorn. "They all took on the different roles very well and really looked after each other. They loved it and were in raptures about the project. It was the best school trip I have ever run."
World Challenge Expeditions, Black Arrow House, 2 Chandos Road, London NW10 6NF. Tel: 020 8961 1122.