JoLt 2000 – Chile

JoLt 2000 – Chile

If the spirit of JoLt 2000 had to be illustrated in one photo still, it would perhaps best captured by a portrayal of six sledges being hauled just beneath a snowy precipice, metres from the plateau that marked their destination. At 2200 metres above sea level, tired lungs and weary limbs make no effort to disguise their objection to such an ordeal; however, minds know better. Bound to their vehicles only by gravity and their grip on a makeshift cord, the sledge riders are no passengers. Their finite balance adjustments, their firm grip and confidence in their hauliers are vital to the success of the expedition. Ahead of the sledges, leaders and other teenage protégés lean towards the slope, faces taut and teeth clenched with dogged determination, one foot leading the other as each tenuous step hauls them closer to their goal.

Two weeks earlier, observers at Gatwick airport watched a large number of these youngsters being transported through the lounge on carts specially adapted for those who cannot walk or who find it problematic. Many might have assumed that the ascent of an Andean ski slope, at Lagunillas in the hills above Santiago, would have been the preserve of those who marched behind. But the people who made up the group that travelled the length of Chile in July and August 2000 were no ordinary group of travellers. The eighteen teenagers, seven leaders and two resident organisers were a group committed to meeting challenges, regardless of impairment or previous behavioural expectations. A commitment to unity created a bond that knitted the group together in all events – if goals were to be achieved, everyone must realise them and if that meant compromising those more able to enhance the performance of others, compromise was willingly made.

A potted illustration of each challenge and places visited provides scant justification for the journey. One had to have been present to experience the building of character, the bonding of young and old, the warmth of reception from those who hosted and those who provided transport, and, above all, the affection that expressed itself in unerring acts of mutual care and kindness.

It began in the Atacama Desert. A vast expanse of volcanic ash, parched by forty years of drought, offered few of the usual amenities to which the group was accustomed back home. Thus, the early morning dash to the lavatory took on epic proportions as the group hauled themselves from the protection of goose-down sleeping bags and assisted each other in pulling on long johns, trousers and shoes, clipping on callipers or lunging into wheelchairs and escorting each other across the soft, forgiving sand and rocky outcrops to an area of concealment. Throughout the day, sand endeavoured to penetrate every available opening, temperatures rose steeply and fell sharply, and, for a while, home seemed a long way away.

But it was here that the group began to realise the mettle that would be needed to accomplish their goals. For some, the midday ascent of the Death Dune, a ridge overlooking the barren plateau of Valle de la Luna, was a momentous achievement in their brief lives so far. Furthermore, the value of mutual support, both physical and emotional, was conceived on this ascent; it was something in which everyone could play a part and it became a principle by which the group lived for the remainder of the journey.

Moving down from the village of San Pedro, a visit to El Tatio’s geysers demanded a four a.m. departure and two-hour bus ride. On the surface of a once-volcanic plain, hundreds of geysers spewed boiling water into the biting dawn air. The sub-zero air temperature meant that the invitation to bathe in a thermal pool was accepted by only the hardiest and those who could get dressed quickly once emerged from the steaming bath.

The respite of a night spent in the luxury of a hotel in the mining town of Calama afforded the opportunity to cleanse bodies of lingering sand. But luxury is short-lived on JOLT trips and the next two nights were spent bedded down on gym mats as guests of La Serena International School. The stay afforded the group the opportunity to visit the vineyards that are the source of pisco, the Chileans’ national drink. The plight of the Ancient Mariner sprung readily to mind as, prior to visiting a pisco factory, the group was reminded of one of JOLT’s golden rules – no alcohol on tour!

Five hundred kilometres further south, breakfast in Santiago preceded the drive up to the Andean mountain lodge at Lagunillas. Sledging and snowballing were a tame prelude to the following day’s mission, but even the ascent of the overshadowing slopes could not stifle the few dynamos who clambered out in ski boots in the late afternoon for a brief introduction to skiing. By now, friendship patterns were emerging – but they were just patterns, not exclusive cliques. Evidence of this was witnessed in the camaraderie of an evening quiz and games of cards and scrabble.

Those who have enjoyed the beauty of the English Lake District would marvel at the magnificence of Chile’s equivalent national park. Here, the vast lakes are surrounded by dense, rolling forests and, through the dining room window of the splendid Pucon lodge, a snow-clad volcanic dome casts its reflection on the crystal water. A speedboat trip delivered the group to lush, green pastures for a picnic beyond the shadow of the looming volcano. By now, it was felt that the group should be put to the test. The gauntlet was thrown down, challenging the youngsters to scale a rugged, undulating and winding path that reached its pinnacle at the base of a thundering icy blue waterfall. The leaders were to offer support but no assistance unless urgently required. The response of the young rovers was resounding in its success and the leaders could have been forgiven for pondering their future worth in the light of such initiative and resolve!

A brief visit to the popular market stalls in Puerto Montt and the group headed off to Coyhaique where an overnight boat took them up to the Laguna San Rafael. Exploring deep into the waterway of Patagonia’s southern icecap, the extraordinary lagoon is fed with daily chunks of ice from the enormous glacial cliffs. A short ride in speedboats took the group to the base of the cliffs and in amongst the floating bergs.

Back in Coyhaique, the town’s amenities offered relaxation in the swimming pool whilst a visit to a local farm on the back of an ox cart provided opportunity for horseback riding and sheep catching. It was decided that a full-blown assado, in which a sheep is killed and fire-grilled on a rack, might temper emotions, though a banquet around an open fire and roasting sheep’s carcass did serve to remind all that pre-packaged meat does much to alleviate squeamishness.

Perhaps most memorable for most though was the flight of a lifetime in a helicopter that whisked the group over the Andean peaks, glaciers, lakes and farmlands and back over the town of Coyhaique. For a fortunate few, the privilege of the co-pilot’s seat enabled the realisation of a lifetime dream by providing the occupant opportunity to command this most versatile of vehicles.

The journey to Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego afforded a brief glimpse of Argentina as the only route south required crossing the border for several hours. The British School of Punta Arenas provided refuge for two days which incorporated a military ceremony and visit to a local centre for people with disabilities. The school’s indoor sports facilities enabled travel-heavy limbs to loosen and surplus energy stores were burned in endless games of football, frisbee and basketball. As it transpired, these were merely training sessions for the big event that took place in the Torres del Paine National Park, the next port of call. The event was a male versus female one kilometre team race over cobbles, snow, ice, cattle grids and meadows. Only one rule was stipulated – that each team must remain linked for the duration of the course – and this gave vent to some unruly racing. At one point, the battle faced abandonment as a female wheelchair overturned and its occupant ended up face down in a puddle. On realising that the unfortunate competitor’s convulsions were, in fact, an uncontrollable giggling fit, male sympathies soon evaporated and they quickly regrouped to storm up the home straight back to base. However, their claim to victory was contested by the light-hearted objection that lack of chivalry gave the ladies a moral victory – whatever the result, hot showers soon quenched any contentiousness…

The trip could not have enjoyed a more fitting end than the reception held in the British Embassy in Santiago. Here, the group gathered to commemorate the journey with numerous support players and with officials and dignitaries from the Embassy and Chilean government. Many of the helpers and sponsors in the U.K. and Chile were unable to attend; but like those who were present, they received heartfelt thanks. The sentiments expressed by experienced leaders and by the youngsters themselves as they bid their farewells confirm that this was truly a journey of a lifetime. The memories will linger and may well fade but the practical and psychological learning implications are entrenched for life. JOLT offers a special experience for youngsters who face special difficulties every day of their lives and the journey will undoubtedly have cast new light on their perspectives. Long may its spirit continue to flourish.

The success of each journey owes much to the teamwork, courage, good humour and personalities of the teenagers and leaders who participated. To every single member of the team who contributed so much and who benefited so much from the expedition, life will never quite be the same again. Problems will not vanish but we hope that each participant will feel better able to cope with the problems that life throws at them; better able to take control of their own lives and destinies, and better able to look positively and creatively towards the future. JoLt blood now flows in their veins and, we are sure, they will be more determined and more confident of their own ability to find solutions to problems and to achieve their hopes and dreams. We hope that they will continue to turn to us in times of trouble and in times of success.

We are indebted to Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan for continuing as our President. We greatly miss His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan whose wonderful support, both moral and financial, has sustained us since the very first JoLt expedition in 1984. He will always hold a special place in our memories.

Without the help of friends old and new, companies and charitable trusts, the 2000 “Journey of a Lifetime” would never have been possible. We are greatly indebted to you and to all the people who worked so hard both here in Britain and in Chile, to ensure that this was truly a “Journey of a Lifetime”. We thank you for your friendship and support but most of all we thank you for caring.
Participants: Grant Allan, Lisa Beeby, Alison Chown, Shona Cormack, Sandra Dunn, Christian Guarino, David Gunn, Baljinder Kaur, Maria Masland, Lucy Nevinson, Jody Rothwell, Lynsey Sanderson, Richard Shakespeare, Alexander Smith, Peter Smith, Christopher Stocker, Alison Usher, Emile Yardley.
Leaders: Dorothy Dalton, Claire Walford, Alan Buzza, Shirley Farthing, Donald MacLeod, Jamie Hill, Moira Hamilton.

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