Expeditions are hard work and don’t always go to plan – but that’s the point! It’s when teams are faced with a curve ball or two that the real learning begins.
Developing countries, in particular, present a multitude of environmental, cultural and physical challenges, allowing teams to practise leadership and management skills in real life scenarios.
Expedition Leader, Alex Frood, reflects on his experience of leading a team in Africa this summer and describes how a challenging situation enabled the team to shine…
‘This is Africa’ is a phrase so frequently used that it’s earned its own acronym – TIA.It’s used to describe the unique experiences of life and travel on the African continent and I’ve heard it used by many Namibians, Botswanans and Zambians as well as tourists and travellers.
When you’re lucky enough to witness one of Africa’s stunning, fiery sunsets – you would say ‘This is Africa’. You would also say it in less positive situations, like when you spot a black mamba snake or when the border office runs out of visa stickers as you try to cross! It’s an all-encompassing term that you only really understand the meaning of if you’ve walked on African soil.
It's also what, in my opinion, makes travelling and leading expeditions in Africa such an incredible learning experience for everyone involved. Taking a team to a spot that I know well and watching their faces as they see the sun set on a jaw dropping landscape, littered with elephants, giraffes and lions, is one of the obvious highlights. However it's often not the 'picture postcard' moments that are the most treasured. It's the 'unforseen circumstances' that at the time were difficult but which strengthen our bond, increase our confidence and make us proud.
This summer, while leading a team in Namibia, Zambia and Botswana, we were challenged in a really big way, but this resulted in big gains for the team.
Whilst in Botswana, making our way from the village of Maun to Kubu Island via Nata, our journey was due to take six hours in the morning and a further five hours off road in the afternoon. But it wasn’t meant to be as several vehicles broke down and stopped us from making any real headway. Breakdowns are more commonplace in Africa as vehicles tend to be older and are repaired over being replaced. It’s quite normal to see vehicles with odometers reading well over a million kilometres compared to the UK where you would rarely see any with over 100 or 200 thousand miles. Even so, this wasn't a part of our planned itinerary.
Without the luxury of The AA on speed dial, the knock-on effect was a 72-hour diversion. Initially it was a huge disappointment for the team and could have resulted in them moping around for a couple of days. But this is what expeditions are designed for – they present challenges that enable young people to dig deep, overcome adversity and come out stronger and more capable as a result. So, instead of being down about it, we used it as an opportunity – ‘This is Africa’ after all, we thought.
As a Leader, it would've been easy for me to take control and make arrangements. As Outlook's operational prodedures dictate, I informed the Operations Room and made a budget request for additional funds to help with food and accommodation but other than that I gave it to the team to find solutions.
They stepped up and started researching local campsites and organising alternative transport to get us there. Arriving after dark on the first day of the delay, the team pulled together to get their tents up and settled in for the night. Whilst this was being organised, other team members made arrangements for us to eat at the campsite, which helped restore our energy levels.
The next morning, the vehicle that thad broken down the day before arrived at 8am to collect us. We got a full 200 metres from the campsite before it broke down again! Unbelievably this happened twice again that day and the distance travelled away from the campsite only got shorter each time. This could have been the point that the team got really disheartened but I witnessed the absolute opposite. As the team were already so strong and fused together, they were able to see it as a pure 'This is Africa' moment and appreciate the funny side - even after having packed up the entire campsite.
Eventually it was too late to leave the camp so we, once again, got to work setting up our dwelling for the night and made a team decision to make the most of it. This meant time to enjoy the campsite pool and catch up on writing diaries. The food team even went and got ingredients for a big Braai (A South African style barbecue) which lifted everyone's spirits and is a highlight in my memories of the expedition.
These unforeseen circumstances, while frustrating and disappointing at times, are what make expeditions such a profound learning opportunity. In this case, the team were prompted to make some big decisions together and they did it with grace, independence and maturity.
It wasn’t to be the last of our ‘This is Africa’ moments but the experience taught the team to look at every challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow. That’s the power of expeditions – it was incredible to see and I’m really proud of them all.