Raleigh: Phase 2 - A tale of two parks

Trip Start Feb 03, 2013
Trip End Jan 25, 2014

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Cartago,
Saturday, August 17, 2013

In phase two, the Alpha groups would now disperse and in their place X-Ray groups would emerge from the ashes; we would switch project locations, PM teams and venturers.

I'd requested an environmental project for my second phase and once again happily got my wish; meaning I would be working in Costa Rica this time around. An astonishing 25% of Costa Rica is designated as a national park and the primary goal is conservation. I would be heading to the stunning San Lucas Island National Park; which had been on my Raleigh project wish list, ever since I first heard about it at my preparation weekend, back in December last year. As the work was almost complete on San Lucas, we would switch locations mid-phase to the nearby Carara National Park, on the mainland. We'd get to live and work in not one, but two national parks.

Isla San Lucas is an island located off the Pacific shore of Costa Rica in the Gulf of Nicoya and is under five square kilometres. It had been a pretty gruesome penal colony, Costa Ricas answer to Alcatraz, from 1873 to 1991. It had housed some of the worst criminals in Costa Rican history and had seen such bad conditions and torture, that prisoners lives there were often cut short. It had such an awful reputation that despite Saint Luke being the patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons, students and butchers, I learnt there are few, if any churches with his name in Costa Rica. After almost twenty years left to grow wild, it was made a national park, in 2008, due to the beautiful flora and fauna on the island.

We would be finishing the Alpha groups work to create a trail between beaches, which would serve two purposes. Firstly it would assist the ranger in swiftly navigating the island and heading off poachers and secondly add to the tourist trails available, thereby raising national park revenues. Visitor numbers are currently quite low and the only people permitted to stay on the island were the ranger and volunteers, quite a privilege. We would therefore by staying in basha beds, so all the preparation of Jungle Camp would be worth it.

Carara National Park by contrast is one of the busiest and most popular national parks, in Costa Rica. The park is located near the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and was established in 1978. It is a medium sized park and due to there being both dry and wet forest, it is rich in biodiversity. Such is it's popularity that a "Universal Footpath" was created, which allows those with disabilities to enjoy the park, using paved walkways, QR codes and braille signs. This time we would be continuing the previous five week Delta groups work of path maintenance and staying in a volunteer house. They needed our help, as whilst they had huge amount of foot traffic, all National Park revenue is split evenly across the country.

My fellow PMs were announced as Tico Tavo and Kiwi Kelly. Tavo had been one of the phase one Nica posse and studied ecological tourism, so would be an amazing asset as our personal guide in the parks. I knew Kelly as a friendly and fun character around Fieldbase and I looked forward to spending quality time with her, plus she was one of our precious medics which would prove to be very useful. Once more we received our venturer list and the groups were bigger for this phase, as we had gained around extra venturers who would be on expedition for the remaining seven weeks.

For our second phase, we decided to annouce venturer allocations a little differently, with each of the PM teams hiding in a different location and playing sardines. Tavo suggested we hide under one of the Raleigh 4x4s, so we slid under; at which point I realised that yet again it was not a good idea wearing my denim skirt on changeover! When we had all our twelve venturers and after some last minute switches, we once again started with name games and energisers and as four of our group were newbies, it was all fresh for them. With jungle camp already out of the way, we then focused quickly on the projects we'd be delivering; San Lucas was top of a lot of lists, so there were smiles all round.

Unlike living in the community, this time we'd be cooking for ourselves. Packup took somewhat longer therefore, as we unpacked and counted all the food and equipment we'd be provided with; fifteen people and nineteen days made for quite a lot of food. For ease and to minimise costs, we'd have porridge every morning, crackers and either tinned beans, black beans or tuna for lunch and pasta, smash or rice based dinners. Not the most interesting selection, but would provide us with the carbs and calories needed to work! Once complete, we did a new round of presentations including an environmental session to familiarise us with the wildlife we'd see on phase. On our final evening we had another tasty bbq, enjoying our last meat for a while, followed by Casino Night.

As we were closer this time we were the last to leave, so after waving the others off we headed out. After three quiet hours on our little bus, we arrived at the port. We loaded our provisions on to one boat and after filling our pichingas with tasty mainland water and a sneaky last ice-cream, we boarded our boat to the island. Those in the front had a lovely ride, those of us in the back got soaked to the skin! Ronnie the boat driver pointed out the beaches along the coast of the island and I felt renewed excitement for what lay ahead staying in such an idyllic spot. We soon arrived at the jetty of San Lucas and a couple of local volunteers and the ranger were there to greet us. We were soon unloaded and ready to see our home for the next nine nights. We were shown through to a clearing where Alpha 3 had stayed for phase one and it looked like the ideal plot to make our X-Ray 3 basha campsite.

To set up camp we lugged all the bamboo through from the ramshackle bodega, where we'd later stash our food supplies in giant plastic tubs, to keep them from the animals. We set up one large camp for the venturers and a smaller PM camp near to the waters edge. In between the two was conveniently placed an ideal spot for our communal eating and chilling spot, however due to rains that night, construction on that started the following day. Our first nights downpour whilst long, wasn't too heavy and was a good test for our new homes, most of which faired fairly well. After a fitful first nights sleep in the humid and hot climate, punctuated by the storm and the call of howler monkeys, our first full day of jungle camp life lay ahead. It would be an exploratory day, to get the lay of the land and see what work we had in store.

I'd already explored a little with Tavo and the ranger the previous day, so I volunteered to be one of the housekeepers for the day. We needed to leave two people in camp each day, to mind our belongings, from wily tourists and monkeys. Housekeepers were in charge of all the cooking and cleaning for a full day, but we got off lightly, as breakfast was already eaten and lunch was packed. We hit the bodega for a thorough food count and after three hours of counting and then recounting the porridge, we were finished and headed back to our jungle camp; to be greeted by the sound of small tree branches snapping above. We looked up to see a monkey...followed by another...and another! In total more than a dozen monkeys, young and old, trouped through our camp. They were so close you could see their faces and most were clearly curious about their new neighbours! They chatted to each other and climbed through the trees and after thirty minutes or so they'd all trouped through - pretty damn awesome.

The following day was our first working day and we started what would be our routine for the rest of our time on the island. We woke up before dawn at 4.30am, breakfasted at 4.45am and left camp at 5.30am. The previous groups had made good progress on the path and it was down to us to complete it. Our commute to the worksite was past the old prison buldings, across the island and along the long sandy unspoilt beach of Playa Coco.

We lined the edges of the path with large rocks from near the path route; we then laid first sand, from the nearby sandy beach; and lastly pebbles from the pebble beach, nearer the other end of the trail. The work was strenuous, as we loaded up pebbles into hessian sacks or backpacks at the pebble beach and carried them up and down slopes to the drop point. Carrying 8-10 kilos of pebbles over distances of between 100 metres and 1 kilometre, was at times tedious and gruelling, however I actually came to enjoy it. Thinking of the exercise and seeing the path extend, bit by bit, was very satisfying. I also got plenty of time to contemplate the world on each of my runs. It was very hot work and we would end up pretty filthy; the mud turning my skin paler, like I'd been in a flour fight. We'd work through until around 10.30am and after five hours of slog, we'd head shattered and ravenous back to camp.

The path builders would then descend on the housekeepers, who had our meals prepared and quickly announced the menu for lunch. To be fair it was pretty standard, but with the addition of fresh fruit and our variety of Tang, there was generally a small element of suspense. The housekeepers too would surprise us with what they'd got up to during the working day; sometimes they'd built a new bench or table, other times decorated our camp area. One such surprise came early though, when one set of housekeepers decided to hang a washing line behind camp. They managed to disturb some bats nesting there, which flew out at them; unfortunately they drew the blood of one of the venturers and as we didn't know if it was a scratch or a bite, there was a (tiny) risk of rabies. After treatment from Kelly and a MEDREP to Fieldbase, Tavo accompanied him to the mainland for a rabies jab, to make 100% sure!

During our time on the island we were also joined for a day and night, by the roadtrip crew and we were keen to share with them the sights and sounds of our temporary home. We toured the buildings of the former penal colony on the island, which are now a cultural heritage site. Whilst there I read 'The Lonely Mans Island', which was a harrowing account of one mans incarceration. Tourists are few and far between and there isn't much in the way of visitor information yet for either for history or the wildlife, so imagination is required to envision how such a beautiful place could have been a prison used to inflict so much misery. There is a church which is remarkably well preserved, though bats now swoop around the roof. We visited also, the prison cells which were covered in graffitti from the beautiful to the grotesque. We saw too the old water tank in the middle of the prison courtyard, which was apparently used as a solitary confinement cell for unruly inmates.

Happily there were also less disturbing sights to share, with our free time spent by the islands pier, swimming and relaxing in the sun. At nightfall too, there were even more magical sights to see with the most colourful sunsets I've ever seen, filling the sky with potent oranges, pinks and purples. After dark we were then treated to another show of bright colour, due to the bioluminescent plankton in the water. The plankton don’t glow all of the time, but these ones glow blue, when the water they are in is disturbed. By dropping in small stones and rocks, the water lit up with their energy, a beautiful phenomenon to see.

Our time was short on San Lucas Island however and nine days, whizzed by. Finishing the path took more time than originally anticipated, meaning we worked hard for seven days straight. With great satisfaction we completed the path, a "senduro bonito" according to the friendly ranger. We then shipped out of the beautiful island, where the next day would see the arrival of the preparation team for the five week expedition Adventure Challenge; where they'd be camping out, making rafts, fishing and completing challenges around the island. It was with fond memories that we set off again, across the water to our next national park of Carara. The parks themselves were very close but differed vastly, in look and feel. San Lucas was remote and sprawling, whilst Carara was bigger and more densely populated by both plants and animals.

In Carara we would be upgrading and living in a house; we'd heard that the house was not great, but the concept of having a solid roof over our heads was a novel and exciting one. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find bunk beds, showers, a kitchen and plenty of space to hang some bashas up as hammocks. We were more than happy with our new home and after working for a week straight, we had a well deserved rest day. Next to our house was the start of one of three, nature trail loops, so on our first morning we headed out on, what was to become, the first of many Tavo tours.

Over our many tours with Tavo, we saw a wide array of trees, plants and animals along the way. There were many frogs and toads, from toads so perfectly camflaged, that you don't see them until they hop; to the fluro green pattern delights of the poison dart frog. Iguanas too of every shape, size and colour crept around; from tiny and cute, to huge and suspicious. Snakes were also more plentiful than we would have liked, from bright green ones, eating frogs whole, to two metre long boa constrictors and a couple of little fairly innocent looking, but deadly, Fer de Lances, about the work place and the house! Insects were present in abundance, from ant motorways with their mini community and strict roles; to hopping crickets and the like.

Spiders were seemingly everywhere too, from money spiders, through to tarantulas; with standard or 3D universe-like webs. Millipeeds and centipeeds came in all shapes and sizes, from wiggling mostaches, to colourful furry madness. Butterflies fluttered around too, from small and yellow, through dowdy brown, to large bright green and blue patterned beauties. There were rodents too, not as big as the amazon though and really quite cute, with similar mannerisms to squirrels. Brightly coloured toucans and scarlet macaws swooped overhead and beautiful fluttering hummingbirds and noisy Woody woodpeckers went about their business. Last but not least, howler monkeys raised the volume of the noise in the canopy and white faced 'Marcel' monkeys, with prehensile tails, popped up on the way to work, swinging through the trees.

Our working day in Carara was similar to that in San Lucas, but started a little later. We were the maintenance crew, for the existing paths, which meant we raked and pebbled all morning. Raleigh has worked with Carara for some years and it is anticipated in the future, that the work there will also turn to the creation of further trails, once the relevant permissions have been granted. Our morning commute was through the dense wet rain forest, spotting birds singing their morning song and mammals munching their breakfast. The work unfortunately did not provide the same satisfaction as the creation of a new path though, but we made the best of it and slogged away. We had an addition to our group too, when an injury made further trekking unfeasible; who then joined our daily housekeeping team in the other tasks of the group.

The afternoons were spent relaxing, after the mornings exertion and we started up entertainment time, when a new pair led the rest of the group in actvities, each day. These ranged from a scavenger hunt, a life drawing class, to quizzes and more energetic games. On one of our last days, the ranger arrived at our house with our final delivery of fresh food for the phase; the tomatoes and fruit were very appetising but the item that received the most attention was the ice (and coke) he'd brought us as a gift. For me an ice cold glass of water was something I'd been hankering after for weeks. I remember reading 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and them discovering the invention of ice for the first time - I now understood the wonder, as something that I would normally take for granted brought so much pleasure in the heat of the jungle. There were cravings amongst the group for other things too and much bartering amongst everyone; I even held a silent auction for a bread roll, in which I received bids from eight people, offering a wide variety of trades (I plumped for five chocolate biscuits).

The air in Carara with filled with a constant buzzing, tweeting and hooting, with the din of afternoon rain on our tin roof adding to the atmosphere. Unfortunately at times the din of a main road nearby was also very loud, the very road that took us there, tainted the sounds of nature. We encountered a lot of tourists in Carara too, where there is a lot of foot traffic, both from local and international tourists; varying from a Boston dad wanting to spot monkeys with his daughter; a Costa Rican family, ranging in age from 2 to 80, making the most of the 'Universal path'; to a group of French photographers with the largest camera lens I've ever seen. We looked quite different in our dirty work gear to the tourists in their bright whites and fluros and after weeks of Raleigh it was amazing to smell an impeccably clean couple of guys walk by!

Whilst there the venturers also conducted interviews with the ranger and some of the visitors about their opinions on national parks and conservation. We received some interesting responses and these were captured in the phase official blog. The last day of the phase was soon upon us and we decided to devote it to the wildlife around us, with Tavo taking us on our last tours of our stay, to spot animals and pick up further facts about our environment. We also packed up our camp, washing all the tools and equipment, ready for our return to Fieldbase the following day. The day culminated in a wildlife quiz, compared by Tavo, which proved just how much knowledge everyone had soaked up in our time on phase.

On our last morning, everything went like clockwork and we were soon on our way, stopping briefly on Tarcoles Bridge to see the many crocodiles lazing below. The phase had been a very varied one and as the projects themselves had been simple to manage it was possible to focus more on the venturer development, through day leaders and our review sessions - Raleigh is a youth development charity after all.

Changeover was as before, with everyone that much more efficient having been through it once before already. Once again we finished our phase with a skit and after much deliberation X-Ray 3 bowed out with a quiz show format recap of the long list of incidents that occured; from the bat attack, the many items damaged at sea and the constant battle with rustic and not so rustic bathrooms!
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