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Leaders in the Rough

Operation Raleigh sparks courage and builds character in young adventurers

WAKING up in the morning and finding a poisonous snake under your hammock isn't an ideal way to start the day. ``I wouldn't say it was funny, but it certainly was memorable,'' says Adrian Smart, who was staying in a remote jungle area in Indonesia at the time.

One of the local people told him to get up slowly, and because one of his boots was only half on he had to nimbly hop out of the way.

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As a venturer in Operation Raleigh, Mr. Smart was a British member of a group of young people from a variety of countries and backgrounds. The group was on a four-month expedition involving scientific research, exploration, and building projects.

The purpose of the Operation Raleigh is to help young people develop their leadership potential to improve the global community. Since 1984, there have been 73 expeditions worldwide involving over 4,000 venturers from 41 countries.

After undergoing a rigorous selection process, venturers are assigned to expeditions as diverse as trekking across the Great Sandy Desert in Australia, climbing Mount Amboro in Bolivia, patrolling jungle in the Rumpi Hills in Cameroon, or surveying marine coral off Indonesia.

Those accepted must raise a minimum amount of money to contribute to the costs of the operation - transportation, supplies, equipment, supplies.

The idea of Operation Raleigh originated with Prince Charles who thought young people in modern society needed the ``challenges of war'' in peacetime. When young people are put under stress and made to think about helping others, it strengthens them, the prince said. The program was named after Sir Walter Raleigh, the 15th-century explorer, who set up the first English-speaking settlement in North America on Roanoke Island, now North Carolina. The settlement wasn't a great success, but Operation Raleigh commemorates the spirit of this pioneer who risked venturing into the unknown.

Despite the hard work, long hours in an unfamiliar tropical environment, and the challenge of adjusting to a new culture, Mr. Smart found his experience in Indonesia satisfying because he was able to contribute to the local community. He also noticed a change in himself. ``You grow much more confident. I returned home a much better person,'' he says.

Nadia Jennings spent four months in the Bahamas renovating a cave on the Eleuthera Islands and exploring the unknown Andros Island. ``I think it's made me a lot more independent,'' she says, adding that although she never viewed herself as a leader, the experience helped her to develop leadership qualities. Leadership and courage are only two of the qualities needed to take part in an Operation Raleigh expedition. Director of operations, Col. John Blashford-Snell (known affectionately as ``JBS'') knows about such qualities. He has led expeditions in Zaire, down the Blue Nile in Africa, and across the Darien Gap - 300 miles of dense jungle, swamp, mosquitoes, and snakes between Panama and Colombia. ``If a leadership spark is there, you can do something with it. You can fan it into a flame,'' he says.

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Colonel Blashford-Snell says there are two types of courage in a person: the more obvious physical courage, and the rarer moral courage. He has often found that people who display physical courage lack moral courage. But He says he's never seen anyone with moral courage who lacked physical courage. Like leadership, moral courage can be developed. ``If you give confidence to people, it does tend to lead into moral courage,'' says Blashford-Snell.

Applicants spend a weekend under continuous assessment to see if they possess these qualities, even to a small degree. They are tested on how they handle being wet, cold, hungry, miserable, frightened, and furious. Initiative tests, such as crossing rivers using poles, are not necessarily evaluations of physical prowess, but rather tests of the individuals' compatibility with others. ``You find out a great deal about brotherly love when people are under those conditions,'' says Blashford-Snell.

Some of the tests involve animals. For example, young hopefuls might be placed in a darkened room with a ``harmless'' python or tarantula spider and expected to pick up the creature and weigh it. A gorilla has been used a few times. Such tests can translate into real situations, as Smart discovered that morning with the snake. Jennings's worst moment in the Bahamas was when she was canoeing alongside Andros Island in choppy seas far from shore. She felt a tug on her paddle, pulled it up, and saw a shark swim away.

Working for communities worldwide is an important part of Operation Raleigh. It fosters a sense of caring for others, as well as an awareness of the needs and problems of different cultures.

Community tasks have included building projects, such as schools in Papua New Guinea; conservation work in Kenya; and irrigation systems in Peru and Malaysia. In addition, venturers return from their three months overseas to continue community work in their home countries.

``If we pick them correctly, and we have found young men and women with the spark of leadership in them, then they become very effective leaders in their own community,'' says Blashford-Snell.

Smart's group, for example, recently organized an adventure weekend for inner-city children from London. Other members in his group are helping ``down-and-outs'' in the city. Jennings has worked in Operation Raleigh's headquarters in London since she returned from the Bahamas, but plans to work with handicapped children near her hometown of Exeter, West England, while attending college later in the year.

``To seek, to find, and not to yield'' is as good a motto as any for Operation Raleigh, says Blashford-Snell. If there is a way of helping people in any part of the world and improving their way of life, he wants to do something practical to help. Still, another factor motivates him - curiosity. ``If there is something that people in one part of the world have been doing for years, and no one knows anything about it, and this could have tremendous ramifications for civilization, then I will go and look for it,'' he says.

Blashford-Snell has endured great hardships, but he doesn't deliberately look for them. Like many explorers, he's not really a sportsman, he says. ``If I was asked to climb Everest, I'd probably build a scaffolding up one side!''

Parts of the earth still remain unexplored, particularly those underwater. And with the advent of glasnost, Blashford-Snell hopes to organize expeditions to remote areas of the Soviet Union. He believes that expeditions are great levelers and help to promote international understanding. ``Simply by working under adverse conditions, you get to appreciate the other person's point of view, and if you can do that with young people before they develop prejudices and learn to hate one another, we can do a very great deal for the peace of the world,'' he says.

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