Leadership Training: What really happens on trek?

4th March 2015



South of Morogoro the landscape once again begins to change. I am heading 300km to the town of Iringa, sat at 1600m above sea level and the original home of the Wahehe tribe, to meet with our leadership training group who are trekking in the mountains above the town. The road there passes through the lush flats of the Mikumi national park, where giraffe, zebra, baboons, and impala all graze alongside the road, ambivalent to the heavy traffic that passes by. 

Beyond Mikumi the road starts to climb as we skirt the edges of the Udzungwa mountains, part of the same Eastern Arc mountain chain that encircles our field base. These mountains though are different, steeper sided and with a deep green canopy of trees sheltering a bewildering array of wildlife. Protected by a combination of government intervention, superstition, and their own inhospitable nature they remain an unspoiled example of virgin forest. 

The roadside is lined with aloof monkeys and broken down trucks; the steep twisting road burning out the clutches and brakes of the ageing wagons that haul heavy goods around the country. Piles of branches set in advance warn you of their presence and the disconsolate drivers squat beside their vehicles cooking on a small fire, recovery here will be a long and laborious process. 

Iringa sits on the route of the original ‘Cape to Cairo’ road and has a relaxed feel, more welcoming than the northern towns of Arusha and Moshi. The main strip is on a bustling dirt road and we pass through heading upwards, where the roads become rougher and narrower, heading for a Masai settlement near the tiny village of Idodi. The terrain here on the plateau is flat scrubland with small areas for the pastoral tribe to graze their cows and goats. Chickens and dogs roam the camp, partial to any mess tin left unwashed and unguarded by its owner. The venturers take the opportunity to join the grazing herd just after sunrise, each taking a turn at corralling the weary looking cows through the bush. 


Our trekking group ready to leave Riverside Camp on Day 12. 

Dinner that evening is goat, with every part of the animal included: a stew made from the stomach and intestines; liver cooked over a fire;  kidney taken raw from the animal; and meat from the ribs and hind quarters. The stew smells pungent and grassy, the liver rich, and the meat is hard and difficult to chew. The group meet it with a mixed reception, some enthusiastic and others preferring the potatoes and rice that follow. Trek will have that effect on you. Our normal parameters shift as the environment we live in changes radically from what we are used to. It is only the first of many changes I am to see in the group over the coming week. 

After dinner local Masai men regale the group with tribal singing. Arranged in a horseshoe shape and in tribal dress, the chanting is throaty and urgent with a rhythm section providing a repeating bass to the falsetto cry of the leader, who also orchestrates the dancing. Each tribe member takes it in turn to pogo forwards, jumping two-footed with their sticks held reverently in front of them. Soon enough the venturers get involved, enthusiastically bounding in a tight circle with the local tribespeople. It is a slightly surreal but enjoyable experience sure to stay long in their memories. 

The next day is a relatively short hike to the next camp where the weather turns quickly in the mid-afternoon. The long rains are coming to the region and the brilliant sunshine soon is replaced by heavy cloud, then a wind that rattles mess tins hung in the trees and wrecks improvised washing lines, before finally the rain hits. The rain here is rarely anything but torrential and beats down on the hard ground and tents insistently. It is impossible to keep everything dry as the water forces its way into tent porches, half-fastened zips, and underneath inner tents. After a long half an hour the rain eases and the storm passes leaving muddy floors and wet tents in its wake. At 5am the next morning we are up, packing wet tents into wet bags for the days walk ahead. 


Akeem, Trek Leader Paul, and Poel on the trail to Kehanga Camp

The walking is tough. It is physically and emotionally demanding for everyone, with many of our young venturers having little or no experience of trekking. The heat out of the shade is oppressive, even with the efforts to leave camp long before the sun is high. Within a short time you are sweating all over, sucking in water and searching for any available shade for even the shortest respite from the sunlight. 

The scenery is probably spectacular but I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the ground in front of me, watching for stones, tree roots, and easy places to turn over an ankle. My glance shifts to head height every few steps to check for the low-hanging barbed branches that will snag hats, bandanas, and rucksacks without compunction. The river campsite we stop at is rejuvenating and meets with murmurs of approval from the group, who by now assess each site on its aesthetic and practical virtues. With camp pitched by 2pm, sopping wet clothes from the previous day can dry in the afternoon sun, while dirty kit and dirty bodies are washed and left to dry on the riverside rocks. 


Learning to get a fire going at 6am is an essential trek skill


Jessie, Tevin, and Maggie peel potatoes they got from a nearby farm for a potato and noodle curry (which was lovely!). 

Water is a basic physical need and is in your thoughts constantly, many of the campsites having only rivers and streams for the group to draw from. It needs filtering with the 5kg Katadyne  hand pump the group carries and then purifying before drinking. Each night we need around 70-80 litres to replenish personal water supplies and to cover the cooking, hand washing, and cleaning needs of the group and our guides. As well as the water filter, the group share the kit needed to be self-sufficient: cooking pots and bowls, washing up bowls, buckets, tarpaulin, jerry cans, shovel, tents, and of course enough provisions to last 9 days. Along with 3kg of water they will each be walking with loads up to or over 20kg. 

Each day’s trek is between 10-18 kilometres, short steep pitches alternating with longer descents as the group crosses valleys and ridge lines. As the paths climb and the terrain grows steeper the trees close in and views open up to the boulder strewn hillsides around us, sandstone columns scattered as if thrown at the hillside in a giant handful. In the flatter sections the maize fields of small subsistence farms dominate the landscape. The small homesteads are typically arranged in an open-sided square with a central courtyard and dark, non-discernible interiors. Life here is basic to say the least and many of the families will live below the United Nations poverty level income of $1.25 a day. 


Our In-Country Venturers were kindly helped with kit donations from Hi-Tec, here (from L-R) are Joyce, Tevin, our guide Leons, Poel, and John putting their boots through a lot of paces. 

Everything about this experience pushes our venturers out of their comfort zone, physically but perhaps even more in terms of their attitudes and emotions. Perhaps the term ‘leadership training’ is a misnomer, which conjures images of corporate events at out-of-town hotels with flip charts and coffee breaks aplenty. This experience is so much more. It develops a level of personal resilience, but also it forces people to change in order to survive. The whole success of the group is dependent on them learning to work collectively. They must learn to accept not only their own limitations but that of their fellow venturers. Each day presents a new opportunity to learn and develop, if they are ready and willing to do so. 

During my time with the group I watch them closely, keen to see how they respond to the various challenges and how they manage their interactions with others. Divisions and cliques form and then start to break down as they learn that they must work together to get the most from the experience. Since I first met them, the group dynamic has shifted. Personalities have found their place within the group and have learnt to accept others too. Quieter personalities are stepping forwards in words and actions, while those initially dominant in voice have learnt to step back and let others find their feet leading the group. It is a powerful transformation to witness. The team starts to function without constant direction; venturers take turns to be leaders for the day, allocating roles to each of the team - digger (for toilet and slops pits), cook, firewood collection, fire starting, rubbish management, water collection, Mother Goose (looking after the general welfare of the group, from sunscreen to anti-malarials) - so that everyone has a responsibility they are accountable for. 

The Volunteer Managers leading the group are able to step back as the group starts to become more self-managing. It is a difficult balance for them to strike, knowing when to push and direct versus when to step away and let the group self determine. They must manage this while still ensuring each member of the group is safe, healthy, and achieving their own potential for personal development. For them too, as well as the Venturers, it is valuable experience in leading and managing groups. 


Medic Jenny and Trek Leader Paul check the GPS, on a day that the group trek ahead on their own

Campfire reviews become steadily more positive. Instead of looking at others in the group to criticise, the venturers have learnt to look at themselves first. They are becoming more reflective and less reactive. As we sit in a tent sheltering from another downpour, one of them tells me “I really didn’t want to trek in the first phase, but I am really glad I did. It’s totally changed my mentality and how I look at problems. Instead of looking to blame others, I’ve learnt to look at myself first and ask myself if I can look at a situation differently.” 

This is really what the ‘Leadership Training’ phase is all about. It is so much more than a few weeks spent hillwalking and is far from the self-indulgent element of this experience that some may think it is. While it might not be about the issues of globalisation or the nuances of sustainable development, it does provide a unique experience for our young venturers to develop as ‘active citizens’ setting them up for the challenges that lie ahead, both on expedition and further on into their career. While we can impart upon them skills and knowledge, only they can change their own attitudes. In some cases that is simply adding some reinforcement, but for others it can mean totally melting down and reforging how they look at life. Learning tolerance, patience, empathy, and consideration can be difficult when you are tired, hot, and hungry, but the trek phase is the perfect chance to test and develop each of those qualities along with ample time to reflect on each experience and grow from it. 


The views make the hard work worth it...

* Many thanks to the group who shared their food and hospitality with me without a single grumble, it was a pleasure spending the time with you all!