School trips must go on despite the risks

10th August 2001 at 01:00
After the recent run of tragedies, some teachers and parents have called for school trips to be stopped. But what about the views of students like myself who go on them?

I have just returned from a two-week school trek in Morocco's Atlas Mountains with schoolmates from Year 10 and 9. And, although I can understand the safety worries, I wouldn't have missed my expedition for the world.

I know I wouldn't even have thought about a trip like this if it hadn't been organised by my teachers. I will always be grateful to them for that.

Our expedition was part of the First Challenge programme run by World Challenge Expeditions. While I was away, a 17-year-old school student died on a similar World Challenge expedition in North Vietnam.

We did not learn about this until our return. If we had known about this terrible tragedy before we set off, we might have had second thoughts. It must have added to the worries of our parents, too. It certainly made me realise that things can go badly wrong.

However, on our trip I felt well looked after and in the hands of a good, knowledgeable leader, which made me feel safe. Obviously there were risks but I think the experience made it worth taking them. After all, I probably take just as big a risk cycling across town at home.

In many ways I'll now be safer when I travel in future. I have learned some first aid and survival skills as well as knowledge about outdoor life and camping.

Another benefit was that I was put in a group of people I hardly knew. This meant my communication skills improved as we worked together. I even made friends with people in the year below me!

Our first proper day trekking was a shock to the system. It was meant to prepare us for the long walking days ahead, but without the altitude and steep paths that we would face later on.

We had to get used to carrying two litres of water and all the clothing and equipment we needed for the four-day trek. Cutting down to a minimum was difficult. My friend, Laura, still packed 14 strap tops.

The heat was intense so we had to start early to fit in several hours walking before the midday sun. We would then stop for lunch of tomato salad, sardines, stale bread, cheese and couscous.

Then we had several hours more trekking before reaching our final destination which was often a pile of rocks where we were meant to pitch our tent and sleep.

Safety was taken seriously. We were split into two groups of 12, each with a qualified expedition leader and one of our schoolteachers. A Moroccan guide was attached to each group. They knew about local conditions in the mountains.

Each day we had a safety talk before we set off and were warned what conditions to expect. We had to tell our leaders every detail of any illness we had, even a slight headache.

Any time we considered going into water our leader had to check the conditions carefully and supervised us closely. There was one place with a natural water slide which we were desperate to go on but were told not to.

As we neared the summit of north Africa's highest mountain, it was very windy and we were told we might have to abandon the last bit or be roped together. In the end, the wind dropped and we went up without the ropes.

There were other dangers too. One morning, someone found a scorpion in their walking boots. Luckily they checked before putting them on. It was a big one and we all heard the scream.

We had to avoid drinking tap or river water, or diarrhoea would strike. Instead we had to either use a special pump to take water from a stream or use iodine tablets, which tasted horrible.

For health reasons, we also had to rate our faeces on a scale of one to 10 according to how close they were to diarrhoea. We soon spoke openly about our toilet breaks. Another benefit of our trip.

We each spent one day as expedition leader. When it was my turn I had to get everyone up at four in the morning. This involved scrambling around the other tents in the dark, tripping over the guy-ropes.

The experience has made me want to stop watching TV, and get out and explore more of the world. I learned how to raise money to pay for it and I feel it was more a challenge than a holiday. We all felt we returned fitter and less fussy about what we eat.

So I would say that, although I am now more aware of the dangers, I gained an enormous amount from this school trip. I just hope that others won't be denied similar experiences.

Louise Baker, 15, attends Tiffin Girls' School, Kingston Upon Thames Talkback, 15

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