Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Never to be forgotten


When I received a letter from JOLT (Journey of a Lifetime) in August 2004 inviting me to join an all-women fundraising trek on elephant in the foothills of the Himalayas, I had no idea what an incredible experience was unfolding.

By Denise Bolland, head of Ockbrook School in Derbyshire

The invitation said we would be attempting a 17-day trek, riding on or walking with the elephants in addition to feeding and bathing them.

The route would pass through the forests and grasslands of the Chitwan National Park to the south-west of Kathmandu and the foothills of the Himalayas.

The decision to go was not difficult. Like many schools, we do a great deal of charity work and encourage our students to become involved in causes at home and abroad.

We have been involved in World Challenge expeditions to, among other places, Belize, Uganda and Ecuador. By doing this, I was practising what we preach to our students.

The trip did, however, fall within term time - it was important to see how the deputy would feel about leading the school in my absence. Full of enthusiasm and support (characteristically) she said "go for it". My governors were equally supportive.

So it was on. After much emailing and preparation, eight women from different parts of Britain set off from Heathrow on 12 March.

During the course of our trek we set up 15 tented camps and slept in sleeping bags on the floor.

Our schedule was determined by sunrise (5am) and sunset (6.30pm). Each morning we would trek between 6.45am and 1pm when it would become too hot for the elephants to work comfortably.

There was one exception when we kept going until 11pm crossing, in moonlight, the steep Churia Hills. This was a magical journey, the silver hue of the moonlight and jasmine-like scent of the sal blossom creating a soporific atmosphere.

We experienced no difficulties whatsoever - a great surprise after all the negative press about Nepal's political situation with the Maoist insurgents.

At the best of times, the people live a hand to mouth existence and they could do without this scare mongering. We felt safe and well cared for throughout our trip.

During our brief stays in Kathmandu before and after the trek, we were privileged to visit a number of organisations.

Maiti Nepal is one of the many orphanages situated in Kathmandu. It also provides a refuge for women who want to escape their lives of prostitution.

The children we met were so happy and welcoming, fully enjoying the break time entertainment - a snake charmer whose hooded cobras did not seem very impressed with his music.

I did, however, find it very distressing to see so many three- to six-month-olds lying in the sunshine, in the full knowledge they were abandoned by parents who could no longer care for them.

The Secretary General of Nepal Red Cross, Dev Ratna Dhakhwa, also gave us much of his time to describe their extensive work in disaster management, health and care in the community, and organisational development. Their work is impressive and Dev was an inspiration.

We saw some phenomenal sights and met some amazing people who seem to cope with a tough and adverse life with such acceptance and serenity.

Any trepidation and hardship that we might have felt were overwhelmingly outweighed by these amazingly positive experiences.

What promised to be quite a hardship for us did indeed turn out to be our own 'journey of a lifetime' - one in which the coming together of two very different cultures transcended everything else.

The Nepalese are a very special people and I never dreamt that attempting to raise funds for JOLT would pay such personal dividends.

Amongst many things, the trip reaffirmed for me the importance of being open to new experiences, of broadening one's knowledge base and of being prepared to take risks - something we are becoming increasingly averse to doing in our society because of burgeoning health and safety regulation and fear of litigation.

I was hugely impressed by the way the people we had met embraced their environment with all its dangers, hardships and difficulties. We in Western society seem increasingly afraid of our environment.

More than anything I was struck by the enormous gratitude the people expressed in their daily lives - thankfulness for food, shelter, safe keeping, and for each other.

These are the lessons I want to share with pupils in my school. And the challenge now is to ensure that this type of experience is available for others.

At my school, plans are afoot for a group to revisit the Royal Chitwan National Park and we are building on the crucial links made with the Maiti orphanage and women's refuge and the Nepal Red Cross.

We are also forging links with Tiger Tops Pre School at Nawalparasi which has been set up for the children of poor families who cannot afford even the modest fees of government schooling.

A £200 sponsorship covers the educational, health and nutritional needs for one child: two meals a day, uniform, books, school supplies, immunisation and health care.

And finally the generosity and support for JOLT has enabled me to raise in excess of £3,000 which, together with the sponsorship from the other seven trekkers, will go towards helping a group of 25 youngsters to go on their own journey of a lifetime to Nepal, Tibet and India in July 2006.

We are indeed blessed - something I can so easily lose sight of during the hustle and bustle of daily school life.

More information

The JOLT Trust is a small British charity that takes disabled, disadvantaged, abused and neglected young people on challenging month-long expeditions to help them grow in confidence and self-esteem. For more information, go to www.jolttrust.org.uk

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