Students travelled down river for six hours into the heart of the Amazon to paint a tribal school as part of their World Challenge trip to Venezuela. The expedition also included treks up Mount Roraima, a flat-topped mountain that borders Brazil and Guyana, plus they saw the iconic Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world.
The trip gave students the chance to experience life in a completely different culture and organise their own food, transport and itinerary. They were accompanied by teachers Miss Bianco and Mr Houghton and each of the 10 students has been raising money for the last two years to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After arrival and acclimatisation the group undertook a mini trek on the Paria peninsula. Miss Bianco said: ‘The first trek was really good and the campsite was amazing. The view was outstanding and the locals were lovely. The next day was really difficult with nine hours of trekking with heavy packs. The downhill was bad; it was really slippy and exhausting. I trained a lot and it was the most difficult trek I had done in my life. We saw lots of birds and at one point the guide went off to get us some fresh bananas to eat; they were amazing.’
After a day on the beach the group travelled to a hostel called Posada Don Carlos in Ciudad Bolivar. They used this as a base for most of their time in Venezuela and were well looked after well by hosts Martin and Yolene. Then it was time for the community project when they had to sit two abreast in a long boat for the six-hour journey down the Caura river to visit a remote village peopled by the Ye'kwana tribe. The students spent four days repainting the village school during the day and afterwards they joined in games of volleyball and football with the local children.
Miss Bianco said: ‘The village children were running around, slamming into walls and falling and just getting up again. There were no tears. They and our students would all laugh together, it was such a good environment, they really enjoyed our company. I love World Challenge projects because you get to immerse yourself in a completely different culture.’
Then the group prepared for their main trek, a climb up Mount Roraima. After trekking for a couple of days many of the group had injuries that meant they were not able to make the final ascent. They stayed at base camp while Miss Bianco and five students climbed to the summit accompanied by porters carrying water.
She said: ‘We arrived and it was weird, just black. There wasn’t much life on the top of the mountain but there were some plants. It was so cloudy, that was the biggest drawback. We went to the Valley of Crystals where there were a lot of natural crystal formations, then we went to some natural springs where two boys decided to jump in, but it was absolutely freezing!
'Then we went to different edges and were supposed to see views of Brazil, but we saw cloud, then Guyana, but more cloud. Then we got to the very summit and it was really surreal, there was a frog there that just lived on that mountaintop. It was really cool. That was my proudest moment. We had a quick rest and it took two and a half hours to get down so it was a nine hour day of constant walking.’
The final part of the project was a trip to Angel Falls which involved a flight in a Cessna aircraft followed by another three-hour boat trip. Miss Bianco said: ‘As we were going down the river there were more flat top mountains and waterfalls. We had to stop at one place and walk because of the rapids and there was a mini waterfall which created a pool so we went swimming and climbing up the rock face. We started arriving towards Angel Falls. All the mountains were really small and you look and see this little thing with just a bit of water and you think ‘is that it?’ As you start going around you see more of it as the rock face hid it and suddenly there it is.
'It was beautiful, absolutely amazing. It took us an hour to get to a really good viewing point. It was spectacular. I liked it better than Victoria Falls which I visited a couple of years ago with World Challenge. The scale of it is amazing as it is roughly the height of Snowdon. It is a beautiful thing. It was a bit difficult to walk away from, it was so pretty. You just think "I will never see anything like it again."'
The trip ended with a few days of rest and relaxation at a beach before the party returned to the UK. Mr Houghton said: ‘For a lot of the students the project was the main focus of the trip, rather than the R&R or trekking, their favourite part was painting the building and playing with the children from the village. The students learned a great deal on the expedition. As they had had to buy and cook their food and sort out all the transport themselves they should now be more able to organise themselves and overcome problems. Hopefully a few of them may now consider taking a gap year and going off to do a community project with a Amazonian tribe.’
Miss Bianco added: ‘The mountain was the thing I was looking forward to the most and it did not let me down. Angel Falls was spectacular. The people were just so friendly and very open and lively. A lot of the students said the project was their favourite bit. There were lots of struggles for all of us and I am hoping that a lot of them have come out a lot stronger mentally and physically than they were at the beginning. There was one moment where they had a little tiff but they wanted time to sort it out themselves. They sat in a circle and sorted it all out. I have never been so proud. I was so impressed. There were times when they were all sat around and singing. It was really nice to see things like that however they are still not good at cooking rice or leaving on time!’