Trekking and Big Society in Morocco

The following is re-produced from an article in the Peterlee Star on September 25th 2013. The author, David Taylor-Gooby, and his brother Peter, joined Adventure Alternative for a summer trek in the Moroccan High Atlas, including an ascent to its highest point, Jebel Toubkal.

As you may know from the Star I have been in Morocco most of last week, so this article is an attempt to make some observations about health as a result of the expedition.  I am not sure about the effects on my health, but I did manage to climb Mount Toubkal, and I want to thank all those who sponsored me.

 When I go on an expedition like this, I feel like the lines of Keats recently popularised by the BBC, “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold…… silent upon a peak in Darien”.  But when I come back down to earth, several points relating to health stand out when visiting a country less well developed than our own.

Average life expectancy in Morocco is 72, according to the World Health Organisation.  That compares with 80 for the UK and 79 for America.  It is well ahead of central and southern Africa.  You notice that public health in terms of plumbing, toilets and clean water is much worse than in this country. You see fresh meat being carried through the streets on a warm day. But on the other hand you notice that most Moroccans, including the elderly, are thinner than we are.  They eat far less processed food.  Fresh products are sold in markets, and fresh bread is baked every day. And, of course, most of them do not drink alcohol.

So should we sit back on our laurels and think that the answer for Morocco’s health to improve is to become like us?  I saw another piece of literature about health last week, Professor Lieberman’s book “The Story of the human Body, Evolution, Health and Disease” in which he argues that our modern lifestyles and food consumption are becoming more likely to cause cancer. He argues  that the body will naturally put on excess weight if it can so that it has a reserve for leaner times.  Unfortunately we never encounter those leaner times nowadays , so the fat stays with us.  The answer as we all know, is a healthier diet and more exercise. So we may not stay ahead of the game in terms of life expectancy for ever.

Progress is not one-sided.  We can teach countries like Morocco much about hygiene and preventing disease, but in terms of lifestyles we could learn from them. If we ate more locally produced fresh food we would probably be healthier.

Incidentally, if you want to improve your own health, I would recommend a trekking holiday.  There are all sorts of varieties of expeditions, and it is a unique experience.  Look at organisations like “Adventure Alternative” which I can certainly recommend.

David Taylor-Gooby is a Lay Member of the Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield Commissioning Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

David and Peter have between them published a number of books dealing with social policy. You can see some of them on Amazon.

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What Responsible Tourism is Not

The word Sustainable is now everywhere, it has grown beyond its literal, grammatical meaning and is tagged onto a huge number of entities, some deserving, some not.

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In the world of travel and tourism we also find the word sustainable. Though often it is expanded and perhaps made more specific by use of the word ‘Responsible’.

Again, the word ‘Responsible’ is tagged onto many things. It is now an established term in the industry but is, in our opinion, often mis-used as a pure marketing ploy. We are genuinely passionate about acting Responsibly as an organisation. This is not an add-on for us, it is an all-permeating ethos.

Perhaps you will therefore grant us leave to express, in fairly blunt terms, what we feel about certain schemes that are used by certain organisations in order to claim use of the word ‘Responsible’ in association with their services.

Responsible Tourism is many things, but it is not….

  • Simply throwing a lump of money at a community with no background research, establishment of a working relationship or long-term plan and goal.
  • An outside organisation, company or group telling the local community what it is that needs to be done. It should be listening.
  • Setting up a ‘fund’ from which local individuals may or may not be able to apply for a pay-out from.
  • Swamping an area with volunteer labour, displacing local jobs.
  • Constructing a building or facility with no provision for the costs of its ongoing use.
  • Offering cheap deals by squeezing local people on their wages.
  • Using a ‘volunteering project’ simply as another box to tick on an adventure travel itinerary.
  • Inventing a white-elephant project to tick the box above.
  • Paying too much or too little for anything.
  • Reaping the benefits of what a country has to offer without sharing the rewards fairly with it.
  • Hiding possible negative or difficult aspects of a trip from prospective clients.
  • Just using the cheapest provider when you outsource certain services

Climbing and Craic in the Atlas Mountains

A very Personal Account of Adventure in the Moroccan High Atlas
By P. Jack

PART 1 : SOMEWHERE IN NORTH WEST AFRICA….

I was at 4,100 metres above sea level in the Atlas mountains of Morocco.  There were only 67 metres of altitude between me and the summit.  I was holding on to my ice axe as if it was a life saver. Because it was. My crampon-ed boots dug deep into the ice as if my life depended upon them.  Because it did.

A Mancunian voice drifted up towards  me from around a rocky crag, “Pete, do you not want to look back at the view?”  “No thanks” I weakly replied. I knew already what the view consisted of – about 1,000 metres of ice and snow at a 60 degree angle and if my ice axe and crampons didn’t work, then it was ‘good night Irene’.  I would have been a fine looking corpse but still, I decided I would cling onto life, if not sanity, a bit longer.  As long as I concentrated on this one metre piece of glistening ice in front of me I would be fine.  Finally Ibrahiam, our Berber guide, shouted up at me, “Mr. Peter, it’s ok, you can go ahead now”.  I slowly withdrew the ice axe and stepped gingerly forward to try to find somewhere equally safe and comforting.  I had only to keep calm and concentrate for another 15 minutes and I would be at the top.  I didn’t even want to think about the journey back down because I would definitely have to look at the view… .   What on earth was I doing here, perched to the side of a cliff in North West Africa, trying to resemble a limpet? SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA I have always admired climbers, not quite understood them but always admired them.  I mean, they would have to have a screw loose, wouldn’t they?  What type of rational human being gets his kicks being scared to death?  I read “Touching the Void” and saw the movie of the same name about guys climbing to – and beyond – their limits.  I am a huge fan of people like Chris Bonnington, Edmond Hilary, Sherpa Tenzing, Bear Grills, Gavin Bate, Hannah Shields and the late Ian McKeever, all of whom had conquered  their fears – and also mountain peaks.  I however live at sea level.  I get vertigo if I go up a flight of stairs too quickly, but I have always loved hill walking.  What could be nicer than hacking your way up to Binevenagh Lake and then plunging down through the forest?  For the last three years, I had trekked and hiked my way to the top of Kilimanjaro to Everest Base Camp and to Kinabalu in Borneo, all of which were between 4,000 and 5,900 metres, so I proved I could cope with altitude, because it’s actually about attitude, not altitude and I could suffer as long as I needed to suffer.  But this would be the first trip where I would have to do some work which was more than your average scrambling, this would actually involve some technical stuff.

As ever, I signed up with the excellent Adventure Alternative team from Portstewart where Chris and Andy guided me expertly through what I would need in terms of kit.  At the same time when I was in Morocco, Adventure Alternative had teams away in Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and Aconcagua  (South America) and at Everest Base Camp.  AA is a phenomenally successful company whose DNA is reliability and experience.  I wouldn’t go anywhere without them.  I flew to Marrakesh from Gatwick and was met by Matt who was the group leader.  I knew Matt from Nepal and his quiet reassuring demeanour and professional leadership was to be a source of great comfort over the next week.  There was also the local head honcho, Ahmed and we quickly met the rest of the team including Andy from AA who had actually gone to Morocco for a break away from work and had bumped into Matt at the airport, talk about a small world!

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I met the rest of the intrepid travellers at our riad in the middle of a street only a stone’s throw away from the bustling heart of Marrakesh, Jamaa el Fna Square.  A riad is a town house which is like Dr. Who’s Tardis, it looks tiny from the outside but when you step in through the gilded front door, there are rooms in every conceivable direction with a quiet court yard (often with a palm tree) to get out of the sun, a roof top terrace to catch the sun and the whole thing is an oasis of peace and quiet.  Quiet that is, until 5.30 a.m. when the booming voice of the local iman is broadcast from the ubiquitious minarets.  At the end of the week we stayed in a second riad which was caught in a Cross Fire Hurricane of four different minarets and they all started about ten seconds apart so there was there was this constant cacophony of wailing, assailing my sleep deprived ears.  If you could sleep through that, you are a better man than I, Gunga Din.

There was six in our team, two Mancunians, both called Andy, one supported City and one supported United, (so I have no idea how they co-existed); Ben and Libby from Leeds and Kevin from Cork, but based in Faro, as he was a pilot for a local airline and was well versed in taking the ribbing that his airline received daily.  All of these guys had travelled and trekked extensively –   Elbrus, (highest mountain in Europe);  Kilimanjaro, (highest in Africa) and  Aconcagua, (highest in South America) had all been ticked off by some or all of them so I knew I was with an experienced bunch.  It’s the people that make or break a trip and I was so lucky (again) to meet a bunch of like-minded people who were up for some craic, some banter and a lot of thrills, but hopefully no spills.  Ben and Libby had actually climbed one of the peaks already, Toubkal several years ago in the summer months, but this was going to be a whole different ball game for them and for all of us.

We enjoyed a feast of lamb cooked in a tagine (basically a slow cooker shaped like a mini volcano), then we had a walk around the madness of the Jamaa el Fna Square square.  This basically is a market place which is jam packed for about 20 hours every day with donkeys, monkeys, acrobats, drummers, shysters, traders etc. – you could literally buy anything here.  The turquoise light from toys, which were catapulted up into the air by local ten year old sellers, illuminated the night time sky even further.  The smells of cooking, fresh oranges, and spices enticed our nostrils as we made it back for a night’s rest before the fun would really begin….

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The next day we were transported in a “grande taxi “ to  Imlil.  As the native tongue of Charles de Gaulle is the country’s second language, I had my annual opportunity to show off my school boy French.  The locals however not only spoke Arabic but also Berber and English, thankfully.  In Imlil, we quickly settled onto the roof top veranda of our latest riad and it was a pleasure to lie down in the warm rays of the African sun.  Later we went for a 2 ½ hour acclimatisation walk which was led expertly by Ibrahiam.  We seemed to pick up both a dog and a horse out on the hills and they accompanied us back to base just as it was getting dark.  My new boots were serving me well and I had just purchased  a set of B1’s which apparently could be fitted with C1 crampons.  I didn’t understand any of the technical lingo and just just hoped for the best. I was lucky not to have any blisters later.

After a hearty meal, we retired for the night as we had an early start.  The call to prayer ensured there was no rest after 5.30 a.m. and a few hours later we walked down the dusty main street (the only street!) of Imlil before turning left and heading off onto a rocky trail.  The street was the last time we would see a paved road or a wheeled vehicle for four days.  Everything above this altitude of 1,750 metres was carried on a porter’s back or on the side of  a mule.  That was the first of many parallels with the Himalayas in Nepal where their preferred beast of burden is the yak.  The Atlas mountains are basically mini Himalayas.  Whilst the latter have a range of 8,000 metre peaks, the former have a whole bunch of 4,000 metre peaks and the scenery is equally stunning.  Quickly our dry and dusty valley was transformed into a twisting and turning combination of gorges and ravines, of snow and ice.  After about 6 hours of easy walking we made it to the Nelter Refuge, which  was going to be home for the next four days.  In here, we would eat, sleep and socialise together.  If you weren’t up a mountain you would be in the lodge trying to keep warm.  There were trekkers from all over the world including Alberto from Gran Canaria whom I later bumped into in Marrakesh.  I met two Dutch blokes who were going skiing down the slopes of Akioud (a name which was later to strike true terror in my heart!)  We listened to loud Americans discussing their daily conquests and we slept, all 7 of us on the top bunks, where the only way to keep way was with a four seasons sleeping bag and hot water bottle.  It was either wet wipes or a cold shower for hygiene but the food was great.  We needed about 3,000 calories a day just to keep ticking over – at altitude you are pulsing your metabolic rate or both up.  After trying to huddle round the fire we retired for the night.  We were to be up at 7.00 a.m. which was to be a positive lie in compared to the next two days.  Earlier Matt had given us lessons on how to use our crampons and ice axe.  He showed us, if we were hurtling down an icy slope towards imminent doom, how we could use the ice axe to stop, using the well known technique, known as “self arrest”. I thought that the only arrest I would be capable of doing over the next 72 hours would be of the cardiac variety.  We climbed up onto our bunks supposedly to sleep.

Join me next week to see if we make it to the top of all four vertical leviathans, all over 4,000 metres, in the Atlas mountain range of North West Africa.

PART 2 : TRIUMPH ON TOUBKAL!

Our intrepid team of explorers from Adventure Alternative were in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and our aim was to summit Four Peaks, all over 4,000 metres high, in the North West of Africa.  The description of the trip in the Adventure Alternative blurb was that on day three, we would “make an attempt” at Akioud, why just an attempt?  What could be so tricky about it?  The delights and difficulties of Akioud would have to wait for another two days because today was an attempt at a double peak –  Timesguida and then Ras Ouanoukrim (which funnily enough we shortened to Ras).

Back  home in Ireland, the Ras is the toughest amateur bike race on the Island.  It’s been won by Sean Kelly amongst others, but in Morocco the Ras was our first goal.  We were stationed at Nelter Lodge nestling in the middle of the high Atlas, an impressive swathe of mountains which stretch nearly from the Atlantic sea board in the West to Algeria in the East.  They are 500 miles long and up to 60 miles wide.  These mountains in previous centuries have been a place of refuge for the population from invaders.  For us they were merely to be a high altitude playground where we could pit our wits against precocious Mother Nature.

As the seven of us were sharing a dorm with about 10 to 12 others, every team had a different mountain to tackle and therefore a different start time.  One morning one bloke opposite us got up at 2.30 a.m. and started fumbling about with his head torch.  We heard him put all his gear on and he was obviously going to start his climb in the dark and the cold.  For us on day one we had a civilised lie in to 7.00 a.m. and by 8.30 a.m. we all assembled outside the Refuge bright eyed, if not, bushy tailed.
We had our crampons and our rucksacks and we set off, more in hope than in expectation.

We quickly got into a pattern of making slow and steady progress with the accent on slow.  No matter where you trek in the world, the right method is the one used in Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.  The Swahili word for “Slowly Slowly” is Pole, Pole and I have heard that phrase used in Nepal, Borneo and now in Morocco as well.  Matt, our leader, showed us how to synchronize our footsteps with our breathing, better long and slow than fast and choppy.

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Crampons would be a boon on ice and were necessary to prevent us from falling.  Putting on a set of crampons is an art in itself and it took me three days to master it.  In fact I obviously didn’t because on the very last day coming down the last slope one of my crampons fell off!

With crampons you have to walk with your feet wider apart than normal, so you don’t catch one on the other i.e. you have to trek John Wayne style.  It may not be pretty, but it works.  Matt also showed us how to kick a hole out of the ice with the front of the crampon and he explained that it was fairly hard work for your calf muscles if you had to do this for hours on end.  Me? – I just crossed my fingers and listened to Ibrahiam who said we would get to the top,” Inshallah” (God willing).

After a few hours of snowy ridges we had some technical scrambling on bare rocks to remind us that this wasn’t just going to be a ‘walk in the park’.  Omar, one of our guides just made the whole thing look ridiculously easy.  I tried to follow his footsteps in the snow.  Although I was the same height as him, his gait was much longer than mine and I felt myself struggling to keep up with his ‘Finn McCool’ type steps.  Eventually we summited our first peak on Ras and it made us feel good.  Why do you go and trek all over the globe in these places,? I am often asked.  It’s hard to encapsulate it into mere words, but up here, the warm comfort blanket of security and network systems and support of friends and family and office is stripped away.  You have to fend for yourself, it’s you against nature.  It’s not a case of conquering these mountains, God forbid, I conquered nothing – except my own fears.  These mountains merely allowed us to stand on their top for a few minutes before we shuffled off their peaks.

Why do it?  In a nutshell, standing up here, seemingly on top of the world, you can practically hear the silence.  Hannibal Lector waxed menacingly about the Silence of the Lambs, but up here it’s about the Silence of the Souls. It’s so quiet it is breath taking.  The second reason for being up here is the scenery and the peace.  I am fortunate enough to live in a beautiful part of the world – at sea level – but even I have to admit that these views are world class.  The weather was kind to us, every day was blue sky, no clouds and no wind.  Roger Daltrey of “The Who” sang years ago, “I can see for Miles and Miles”, I now know what he means.

Up here, you are not worried about the nonsensical decisions of the Northern Ireland Court Service to close Limavady Court House or the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission abolishing Legal Aid, you just relax and go with the flow and enjoy the views.  The Atlas mountains are the African equivalent of the Himalayas, albeit half their height, but they were no less challenging and there was no less sense of achievement when you got to the top.

One hour later I was on what is called a snow-bridge.  Our second goal of the day was Ras.  To get across to it we had to place our feet – and our well being – and entrust them to a snow-bridge.  Now I have stepped across quite a few bridges in Nepal and Borneo and they are made of good solid stuff.  Here however, the fate of the organiser of this year’s Roe Valley Sprint Race on the 11th May, was dependent upon negotiating very carefully a narrow enough carpet of snow.  If you slipped down to the left, you fell only 300 metres, but if you slipped to the right you would tumble twice that.  The whole idea was not to tumble in the first place.

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We all made it across in one piece and celebrated with chocolate, group hugs and energy bars.  We hadn’t budgeted however for being out so long and so it was a fairly hungry and thirsty Adventure Alternative party that made it back to base camp 8 hours after setting out.  On the way down, we put on our crampons for the first time to help us cope with a big steep icy decent and after an initial reluctance we all got to grips literally with our new iron clad feet.

Day two saw us leave the comfort of our lodge at 7.00 a.m.  Quickly we were on our way across a fairly scary looking face but it was covered in snow and ice and our crampons worked a treat.  Today was Toubkal.  At 4,167 metres it was the loftiest of our challenges.  Many people come here just to do this one, but we had wisely had four goals in mind.  On this trip, I was to more than double my number of 4,000 metre peaks that I had bagged in my life time.

Again we went Pole, Pole and we were rewarded with cracking views and spectacular scenery.  There were a few ‘seat of the trouser’ moments on the way up but when we were there we were amazed to see a canny canine companion with us!  Apparently this dog would routinely work its way up (without crampons!) the slope knowing that any climbers would share their tinned mackerel with him.  We obviously obliged – please don’t tell Roxy!  After opposing for the obligatory “King of the World” shots, we started to fight our way down.  This was undoubtedly our trickiest assignment to date as we descended over a seemingly glass like stretch of 400 metres of sheet ice at a precipitous angle, where if you  had started to slide you would end up on a spot marked oblivion.  I learned that you had to have confidence in your equipment – crampons and ice axe and also yourself.  I learned a lot about myself and we all made it down to our temporary home after a ten hour day, full of fun, and a bit of fear as well.

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It was day three I was worried about….  I had spoken to a bombastic mountain guide the night before who greeted it as “PD”, this was a French climbing term meaning   “Peu Difficile”  It was quite obvious to me that the French had never actually been up Akioud because to me it was a BD i.e. “Beaucoup Difficile”!  I  was very apprehensive about it and  tossed  turned most of the night and  I already decided that if I couldn’t hack the technical upper reaches that I would turn back, preferring to be a living coward than a dead hero,  but adrenaline does funny things to a bloke.  We set off at 6.00 a.m. head torches and with the sky illuminated by the sparkling stars and a crescent moon.  Three hours later after a massive hike up a steep ice wall (off which Ibrahiam told us helpfully a skier had launched himself, couldn’t stop, hit another skier and killed him).  We were at decision time.  It was Fight or Flight.  The only thing I wanted to do was get cracking.  The rest of the team were fairly relaxed and were posing for pictures.  I only wanted to pose for photographs at the top and not on this col.  I set off and there was only one thing on my mind, get to the top a.s.a.p.  I went at it like a bull at a gate.  Soon the lines were stretched and I was told to wait.  Matt had brought ropes in case one of us fell.  I am not sure if I wanted a rope in case I caused all of us to fall.  We were at a 60 degree angle and I have never been so grateful for the ability of crampons and an ice axe to do their job.  After an interminable wait I got the go ahead to continue the push to the top.  This was without doubt the toughest thing I have ever done in my life.  Thirteen Ironman was one thing, but at least all you have to do is swim, bike and  run, there are no life threatening situations to confront but here, half way between Hell and Heaven, I knew that one slip could be fatal.  It tended to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

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After what seemed like hours we all made it to a rocky crag where we celebrated the fact that we were all still alive.  I knew however that going down would be even worse as I would have to look at the drop. Forty five minutes later we made it back down to the relative safety of the col.  The relief of the Siege of Derry was as nothing compared to how I felt and where a call of nature was necessitated….  I had stood on top – and lived to tell the tale.

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On the way down, the atmosphere in the warm sunshine was one of “Schools Out for Summer”.  We practically frolicked in the deep snow and laughed when we fell over.  After negotiating the tricky icy gorge, we were on the home run except that we had another four hour hike after lunch to get to Imlil where a surprise birthday party lay in store for Ben and I.  Ahmed managed to bring us some beer from Marrakesh and we had no difficulty in persuading a visiting Dutch guy and an Australian girl in joining us for some cake and to  listen to Moroccan drumming and singing.  Ahead of us lay a night or two in the souks, medinas and kasbahs of Marrakesh but in the meantime we could reflect a on a Job Well Done.  The aim was to summit four 4,000 metre peaks, we accomplished that and more importantly we made it back down.

Morocco has everything from the wild sea coast in the West to the biggest desert on earth to the East.  Adventure Alternative are looking into planning a new trip along the lines of “From Surf to Summit to Sahara”.   You might want to check it out.  I just wonder how I will get my surf board to the top of Toubkal…..

Peter traveled with Adventure Alternative on the Winter Toubkal trip. For more information see;

https://www.adventurealternative.com/trips/view/73/mount_toubkal_winter

This article originally appeared in the Limavady Chronicle, N. Ireland

Slum Tours : The Human Zoo?

Over the past decade ‘slum tourism’ has sky-rocketed to popularity, seen as a new way to branch outside the more conventional tourist activities. This form of tourism can actually be dated back to Victorian times, when the curiosity of the upper-classes drove them to London’s East End to witness the living conditions of the poor. A century or so later and slum tours were being offered in India, Africa and Brazil. Now the idea has spread all over the world.

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UN-Habitat define slums as urban areas that lack one or more of the following: durable housing; sufficient living space; easy access to safe water; access to adequate sanitation; and security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.

Many become uncomfortable with the idea of a group of wealthy tourists visiting a slum to look at the poor; these experiences have been likened to a museum visit – the detached visitor sauntering around whilst critically looking at what’s on offer. But surely these trips have so much more potential, if orchestrated properly? First of all, visitors will experience the whole infrastructure of the slum and if they’re lucky, might even interact with its inhabitants. This experience begs the privileged tourist to open their eyes to deprivation, appreciate their comfortable lifestyle and may even lead a few people to offer themselves up for charitable work, or at least a donation.

Moving Mountains Kenya Chair, Gilbert Njeru, offers his first-hand account of the effects of slum tourism in Shauli Moyo and Grogon slums, both in Embu, Kenya:

Slum tourism in Kenya can have both positive and negative impacts on communities.There is a great feeling amongst the slum dwellers that most people will visit the slums and take photos, through which the locals get no benefit or assistance, whilst the tour operator benefits financially from their exploitation. It is hard to tell which organisations are genuine out there and which are there to make profits and benefit from the people who live in the slums. Most of the people are turning hostile towards visiting tourists; they are sick of having their photos taken as people use them for fund-raising and personal benefit. The slums are turning into a museum.

Moving Mountains is helping the communities in the slum areas by improving the infrastructure and learning facilities in schools whilst trying to lift the education standards With a couple of programmes running like the social welfare programme, we offer on-going support to children through funding school fees and uniforms. We also have a feeding programme that helps to maintain children in school, taking the big boys to polytechnics to learn skills that will help them get employed. Moving Mountains also offers grants to some of the families to start up small businesses that help them support their family’s needs.

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My experience with on a tour in Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum, Rocinha:                   

To be honest, I found the most unethical part of the experience took place before the tour even began – each of us boarded a moped taxi. This was both thrilling and slightly petrifying as we wound our way uphill through the busy streets of the slum to reach the starting point of the tour. Drivers there are daredevils by Western standards and we narrowly missed passers-by and the odd chicken; it was an interesting start.

Rocinha signOther than being fed facts about Rocinha, the tour was a chance to purchase locally-crafted items, including artwork and baked goods – I purchased a painting by 13 year-old Edu who lives in the slum; I couldn’t say no. We didn’t make fly-through visits; we got a chance to chat to the inhabitants in broken English or our tour guide would ask questions about slum life and translate the story back to us. We were assured that the slum community were welcoming of tourists, mainly due to the donations and aid work offered by the tour company that partners with the slum’s orphanage and school. The company also helps inhabitants into employment. The main objective of the organisation is to “dispel a myth that Rocinha is simply a place of drug dealers and extreme poverty” and it does this by creating a relationship with the local community.

Interesting cables…

Many competing organisations failed to create such a symbiotic relationship and their connection with the slum community wasn’t as positive, which can mean that the tourist’s safety is somewhat questionable.

Adventure Alternative’s view:

One of the success stories is the Africamp Street Kid Rehabilitation Programme. The background to this whole programme begins with an idea to take street children off the streets and try to give them a life, an identity and some hope in their future. They are given clothes, a school uniform, a place in which to meet safely, regular food and an opportunity for education. Mostly we give them company and friendship and a sort of surrogate family which is a big security for them.

This was the vision of Gavin Bate since 1991. Now it is a highly successful, well managed and fulfilling programme which incorporates many aspects of corporate strategy promoting pro-poor tourism, and charity being supported by commerce. This is now seen as a main tenet to aid in Africa by the Commission for Africa report in 2005.

A taste of what Adventure Alternative clients can experience:

Clients have a full afternoon to visit and experience life in the slums where Moving Mountains works on a daily basis; Muthurwa slum is where everything started, the original street kids that helped shape MM and AA all came from this area and we have spent a number of years re-building the local Primary School and developing our ‘Black Cats’ Street Children Sports Program. After this, clients head over to Sub Saharan Africa’s largest slum, home to an estimated one million people; Kibera. MM and AA has been involved with projects in Kibera since 1991. Ushirika Community Clinic, which was developed by MM is also the base for our HIV/Aids Community Outreach program with a team ofhealth workers and volunteers working daily in the slum to provide medical and nutritional assistance and counselling to families and individuals affected with HIV/Aids.

 It’s not a case of quick entry and exit – this is where Moving Mountains Trust – Adventure Alternative’s partner charity – conducts a lot of its work and we want our clients to take part in the development of these areas and to meet the wonderful people that reside here.

Supporting the Indiginous Penan people of Malaysian Borneo

Adventure Alternative has spent recent years working to support the indigenous Penan people who live in the rainforests of the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo.

A number of villages are represented as a whole, by a central community co-operative, the total number of people represented is estimated at approximately 1000 and will grow as the program slowly expands. The initiative involves providing a sustained source of income for the Penan that compliments their traditional way of life and actively incentivises protection of the natural environment and of their cultural heritage. This income is provided firstly through sensitive and controlled access by small groups of carefully selected paying expedition groups and secondly through funded direct payment of local people for activities associated with active reforestation measures.

Through careful planning, selection and briefing of the expedition groups, the initiative also seeks to instil and reinforce, within the Penan people, that their efforts to maintain their land and culture are of international relevance and importance. This includes aspects in support of the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Purpose of the project

The objective of the initiative is to support the Penan tribe in achieving a long term situation where their traditional way of life is allowed to continue in a sustainable and viable way for ongoing generations. At present, their native lands continue to be under considerable pressure by commercial and agricultural activities in the jungle, on their traditional ancestral lands.

Tree planting with a vistor

Tree planting with a vistor

These commercial and environmental pressures have considerable negative effects on their ability to sustain their lifestyle and effectively threatens their future existence as a self-sufficient native population.

These effects include loss of sufficient forest-area to allow sustainable hunting ground for provision of food and for sustainable provision of traditional building materials. The reduction in forest from vast areas of ancient primary forest to secondary forest and plantation zoning has also led to difficulties in locating specific flora for traditional medicinal purposes, as well as affecting basic needs such as clean drinking water. These pressures in turn lead to the potential loss of native skills and knowledge, as these methods become less and less possible or practical to practice.  This represents a considerable loss to both the native Penan culture and also to the wider international knowledge of the forests.

The subtle change from internal self-sufficiency to cash-economy also means that communities are forced to seek paid employment. In a region where the biggest local employers are often those applying pressure to the maintenance of the native forest, this has many additional effects. For example, where local people take employment with a logging company, this can be interpreted as implying tacit consent to logging in their home area. In a region where land-ownership law and administration is very indistinct, this can have devastating results and lead to a continued cycle of destruction.

From the brief details above it can be seen how the value of a carefully administered route to monetary income for the native people can be of huge value. One of the main objectives of the initiative is to provide an alternative source of income over low paid migratory jobs in the city, or closer to the villages in logging camps. The villages now have their own community elected body called the Koperasi Pelancongan Penan Selungo (KOPPES) cooperative. It was the villages themselves that originally asked for help as they realised the potential of community adventure tourism but had no knowledge of how to facilitate this.

The second way that monetary income is provided is by helping to fund a tree nursery and re-forestation project. This project pays local people for collecting seeds, nurturing the saplings in a nursery and then re-planting the saplings in de-forested areas. This has the multiple effect of providing monetary income, providing alternative to employment with commercial companies, nurturing natural knowledge and connection with the forest and of course actively re-planting areas of forest that had previously been damaged or destroyed.

Tree Nursery Full

Tree Nursery

The monetary income for the project is provided through a number of channels: The trip costs of the expedition are paid by participants, some of which goes to local guides, businesses and hosts of home-stays. The expedition members are set a fundraising target which is administered through our partner NGO. Additionally, we now operate our own carbon offset initiative with donations again administered through our partner NGO. Clients are given the option to offset the carbon dioxide associated with their flights via a carbon calculator hosted on the NGO website.

The second main part of the initiative’s objective, perhaps less concrete and tangible, but actually just as important. This is one of a more social and educational bias, one toward universal human rights. The Penan have a naturally very respectful and some ways shy culture. This makes for a wonderful society for its members and for visitors but unfortunately it can lead to a situation where their rights are not fully safe-guarded in the face of strong economic powers such as the palm-oil industry.

In recent times, there have been a few figures within the Penan community who have seen the relevance and need for the Penan to have a voice on the larger national and international stage. Through these individuals and their supporters the Penan are beginning to form this voice. The initiative therefore seeks to nurture and promote this movement in a subtle way that does not change the gentle and respectful nature of Penan culture.

This is achieved by carefully selecting and briefing the groups who take part in the expeditions to interact with the villages. The expedition members would usually split into small groups or pairs and be accommodated in local home-stays. In this way there is natural interaction and social exchange. The expeditioners are briefed in appropriate methods and then actively encouraged to;

  • Reinforce Penan’s confidence that they are relevant to the outside world.
  • Reinforce/Emphasise the Penan’s equal rights in law and society, independent of any lack of literacy.
  • Reinforce to the Penan that their native skills and knowledge are important to retain and nurture.
  • Reinforce that the rainforest is of interest, relevance and importance to the world as a whole.

This can all be achieved by fairly simple methods. In one sense it is conveyed simply through active participation and interest in native Penan culture, beliefs and language. It can also be helped through directed conversation, and then recording the thoughts, feelings and history from local people with regard to logging and deforestation. This point of view can currently be under-represented due to illiteracy and lack of communications. Another method is via a directed ethno-botany project where expeditioners learn the native names and possible uses of the local flora from the villagers. This can then be actively photographed and recorded.

Young Penan boy with tree sapling

One huge advantage of the methods above is that additionally, it does not displace any potential jobs or activities that the local people may draw income from. It also allows the distinct skills and resources of clients to be best used as well as their hosts’. Many of the Penan villagers are illiterate and clearly wouldn’t have access to cameras or methods of storing large amounts of information easily. So the initiative works to a collaborative action where-by all those involved contribute the aspects that are best suited to their skills.

Parties involved in the initiative

Clients are involved in the initiative, initially by fund-raising for any specific group-identified targets. They also then contribute financially by the fact that they are providing income to the local guides and families who they stay with as well as by supporting our own in-country company offices and staff. The clients then actively contribute via volunteering activities and the social interaction exercises outlined above.

Expedition leaders work not only to provide the trip logistics but to pass on their own knowledge and experience of interaction with the Penan. This will include guidance and assistance with the social interaction side of the initiative.

Many other volunteers also provide additional time and resources for the administration and monitoring of the initiative. This includes, in some instances, pursuing possible direct donors and ever-elusive development grants to help support the initiative.

Local Penan village committees and the Koperasi cooperative provide invaluable information, guidance and feedback as to the effectiveness of the various aspects of the initiative.

Individual Penan villagers obviously not only benefit from the initiative but actively engage with it. Many of the villagers collect the seeds and plant the saplings. A number of the villagers also work within the tree nursery looking after the saplings and maintaining the protective netting and nursery area.

Achievements of the initiative to-date

  •  25,000 trees in total from the Shorea genus of trees.
  • Providing members of the community with a small income meaning that fewer are leaving the villages to seek work in the city. Culturally this is significant as it means that more of the younger generations are remaining in the village and an increased population in the villages gives them more leverage when justifying their land rights.
  • Once these planted trees become an appropriate size, they can be used as building materials so that villagers do not need to cut down the larger and more ancient trees.
  • It is hoped that the forests will recover quickly and communities will no longer have to travel so far to hunt, gather or search for medicinal plants.
  • A number of small expeditions have now visited the area and have provided positive feedback on their experiences both as an expedition and in cultural interaction, global awareness and the positive outlook of the local people.
  • In winning the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) Sustainable Tourism, Roger Diski Community Project Award, we will receive a bursary that will be used to further the aims of the project.

The bursary will be used to begin work on a ‘pondok’ building, at one of the Penan villages, in which visiting clients, volunteers and visitors would stay. This would be a community administered venture where the locals would build, staff and maintain the pondok as a source of revenue by charging visitors for their accommodation. This is an income-generating venture that the community has previously identified but has not had the capital investment available so far to start it up.

Penan elder making a blow pipe for hunting

Penan elder making a blow pipe for hunting

Once built the ongoing costs of maintenance would be very low, but the initial outlay of money is currently prohibitive to the largely subsistence nature of the local economy. It is hoped that construction of the accommodation pondok would greatly advance progress in the local community’s aspirations toward a sustainable and self-led route to long-term financial stability and independence.

You can read more about the work of Moving Mountains at http://www.movingmountainstrust.com/

And about Adventure Alternative trips to visit the Penan people here

Are we on track for 2015?

How are we doing in the run up to the post 2015 world?

On Tuesday I attended an event to discuss what will happen when the date for completion of the Millennium Development Goals expires. This week the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, co-chaired by the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron is meeting to discuss the new global framework of development and in particular the role of private business.

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So how does Moving Mountains and Adventure Alternative, two tiny players on the stage, stand up to the assessment of how progressive developmental aid should be carried out?

At the event we met Michael Anderson, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on the Post-2015 Framework, who commented that in developing the new goals we must stay focused on the fact that a vibrant private sector is the exit strategy from aid.

Funnily enough I have always thought that Adventure Alternative should play its role as a partner to development, mainly because our ‘products’ are mostly based in developing countries and it seems only right that the onus for upholding equitable employment standards should be on me. The spoils of tourism can and should be ploughed back into the destination rather than on expensive UK overheads, and that has been a principle of mine ever since I started AA in 1991.

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NGOs are beefing up their private sector teams, to engage with businesses and implement “inclusive” business models. Funnily enough that’s what Moving Mountains has been doing for a long time. I have always felt that if the charity can provide the capital investment for improving infrastructure (like we have done in the Nepalese villages for many years now) then the company can provide revenue and a route to market through tourism.

For example all of our youth trips, gap trips and international development trips contribute financially to communities where previously there was no market, while at the same time promoting the long term development aims of the charity. Our medical camps in Nepal bring important medical aid, but they also bring visitors to the villages, which in turn promotes jobs and income.

The fact is that development happens because people have access to economic opportunities and greater choice.  The exit strategy from aid is a vibrant domestic and international private sector – one that will create the vast number of jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities needed (two things prioritised by poor people themselves). That is exactly what I have tried to establish in Adventure Alternative.

For example, Kevin Onyango  is our book keeper in the Nairobi office, but he came from a very poor background in the town slums around Muthurwa where I started the work of MM. Having put him through school and college, he then got a job with the company. But most importantly his son Cliff will never suffer the same privation that he did, and I am fortunate to see that cyclical effect of combined aid and economic opportunity in the new generation.

Ang Chhongba Sherpa is my oldest friend in Nepal, a one-time porter who now helps to manage AA Nepal and MM Nepal. His own self-determination took him to school but with the opportunity offered by the charity and the company he was able to put all his children into school. Now his family lives in America and his sons Norbu and Sonam study business and engineering at college, and his daughter Tashi studies medicine.

 To my mind this is poverty eradication and sustainable development on a small scale, but reflects the global agenda of the post 2015 discussions.

As a businessman I see my role as teaching and promoting good business practises within the AA family of companies – an equitable gender environment, transparent trading and accounting, fair employment contracts and accountable supply chains to name a few. I can achieve this by investing in communications, staff training and development, and an ethical approach to the product itself. We don’t plant thousands of trees in Sarawak for nothing; the sense of responsibility for causing damage from flights has to be borne by all of us in the tourism sector.

Around the world the conversation has moved beyond “do no harm” and “doing good”, to companies “doing good by doing good business”.  The post 2015 development goals need to be underpinned by a clear recognition of the role of the private sector in driving long-term development, and therefore the factors that are needed to help it grow.

In the tourism sector there is a cynicism and boredom with words like ‘sustainable tourism’, a fatigue borne of over-exposure to confusing semantics and underwhelming action. For many people, it’s still about using low energy light bulbs. I sit on the sustainable tourism committee at the Association of Independent Tour Operators and our biggest problem is that the majority of the membership think that sustainable tourism is not an integral feature of the association.

 ‘Sustainable tourism’ is out of step with how far the general business and development discussion has come.  We have moved onto the question of “how”, while many people are still at the “why?” stage. The cutting edge of global developmental policy is already onto granular issues, but many people are still navel-gazing on whether it’s something they want to do. And the “Why” is vital because people generally follow a vision and a cause, and at the moment sustainable tourism has no visionary to take it forwards.

I am very happy that in its own small way Adventure Alternative and Moving Mountains reflects a joint business model that is progressive and accountable; it requires a dynamic approach to business management, especially nowadays in the current climate. Flexibility, adaptability and knowledge of online technology and marketing is a big part of my ‘toolkit’.

But when I look at Kevin Onyango and Ang Chhongba and how far they have come, and how far their children will go, I know it is all worthwhile. I keep in mind the essential vision of the company which is this:

We believe in combining good business sense with concern for the social inequities we have created on this planet, and we do this by providing authentic holidays and amazing adventures to far flung corners of the world.

The Greenest Games yet…

Part of London’s strength throughout the Olympic bidding process, and consequently their win over Paris back in 2005, was the promise of regenerating London’s East End and the strong sustainability pledge put forward to make it the ‘greenest Games ever’, in the words of David Cameron.

Five themes offered a framework through which to implement the sustainability strategy, so here’s a snapshot of the main objectives…

Climate change

Aim: To deliver a low carbon Games

  • London 2012 is the first games to attempt to measure its carbon footprint. All activities, including building work and the sporting events, will incur a ‘carbon cost’ that will contribute towards a running total for the games. See, now even the Olympics has started to benchmark its sustainability progress!
  • Over £10m went towards active travel policies. If the horrific numbers taking to the roads and tube wasn’t enough to attract people towards more sustainable forms of travel, 75km of upgraded cycling and walking routes should have helped.
  • More than 4,000 trees were planted around the Olympic Park area, not only to improve the aesthetics of the area, but to account for emissions produced throughout the Games.
  • This may be the most successful Olympics yet in terms of sustainability, but the CO2 emissions created by the event are the equivalent of adding a city the size of Cardiff to the UK, highlighting that there is still a lot of progress to be made before the games are carbon neutral.

Biodiversity

Aim: To conserve biodiversity and create new urban green spaces.

  • A major triumph has been to remove, clean and reuse over 2 million tons of soil in order to create new habitats. This includes a huge area of wildflower meadows, the largest ever sown in Britain and also the largest rare wetland in the country.
  • In addition to over 300,000 wetland plants, organizers have planted more than 4,000 trees and 130,000 plants and bulbs. This will hopefully attract local wildlife into the area whilst also proving to be a pull for tourists and Londoners alike in the years following the games.
  • The European eel; smooth newt; kingfishers; bats; and grass snake are all amongst the species that the biodiversity plan aims to attract – all sounds very exotic for inner-city London!

Inclusion

Aim: To host the most inclusive Games to date.

  • It would be difficult to find any culture unrepresented on the streets of London and the organisers wanted to ensure that diversity and social cohesion were a prominent part of the Games, as expressed in the Opening Ceremony.
  • Volunteer participation in the ceremony, and throughout the Games, was one of the most endearing points of the whole celebration. Over 15,000 volunteers offered up their time for the production of the Opening Ceremony alone.
  • The Games collaborated with 6,075 people to transform the Olympic Park area. Volunteers performed all sorts of tasks, from planting trees to removing waste. The hope was that, by participating, local residents would retain the feeling that the area is there to improve their wellbeing and happiness.

Healthy living

Aim: To inspire people across the UK to take up sport and develop more active, healthy and sustainable lifestyles.

  • The Games was committed to improving eating habits and the natural environment, and trying to engage people in physical activity, from the workforce behind the Games, extending out to the whole population of the UK.
  • One of the themes of London 2012 was ‘Inspire a Generation’. The Games supported numerous UK-wide sporting programmes attempting to encourage fitness and competitive sport amongst young people.
  • There were strict guidelines on catering – strictly free-range eggs and sustainably sourced fish, amongst other criteria.  Despite this, McDonalds opened its largest (pop-up) restaurant in the world in the Olympic Park, hardly nutritious and responsibly sourced but presumably a vital source of funding through sponsorship.

Waste

Aim: To deliver a zero-waste Games

  • Recycling was a prominent feature at the games. Two thirds of the steel used to build the Olympic stadium was recycled, much of it comprises of old and abandoned gas pipes. The stadium used only a tenth of the amount of steel used to create the impressive Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.
  • Some 200 largely derelict buildings were demolished and 98.5 per cent of the resulting waste was reused or recycled.
  • For the first time in the history of the Games, no waste will go to landfill. Also, water reclaimed water from a local sewer was treated, and used for irrigation and toilet flushing.
  • All of the uniforms worn by staff were fashioned from recycled polyester and the trilbys worn were made of responsibly sourced paper.

These are but a snapshot of the ‘green’ credentials of the Games, and impressive they are!

Watch this video to get an idea of the overall sustainability pledge:

But there is still a way to go to make the Games truly sustainable… As The Sunday Telegraph has revealed, 350 tons of ore must be mined to produce each gold medal. And, most damaging of all, sponsors Dow Chemicals and BP have been widely attacked for tarnishing the Games’ green credentials.

All these objectives form part of a long-term plan to regenerate a deprived area of London. The Games were a huge success, but down the line we shall see if these actions can really transform not just one area of London, but the rest of the UK.