Shenfield High School

Day 1 - Heat, Humidity, Hand Sanitizer

Land in Delhi, step out of the airport and bang! You can read about it all you want but when it hits you for real it's warm, very warm! The sign on the way out said 33 degrees, it was midnight, and humidity at 70% it was going to be a warm one! We barter ourselves some taxis and a couple of phones, the games had begun! A short air conditioned ride later we arrived, exhausted, fatigued and sweaty! We checked into our rooms and arranged tomorrow's meet, in 5 hours’ time! Quick check of the room, air con, phew! 5 hours later and very little sleep I was blaspheming that very same little unit that provided not only cold air, but enough noise to populate sugar hut on a Saturday night. My alarm goes and we assemble a tired yet excited group.

 

Day 2 - Horns, Holes, Hills!

We come downstairs to a fairly new air conditioned bus waiting to ferry us across India. Now 300km although a fair distance, you'd think 6 maybe 7 hours max? Not even close! 11 and half hours later, we were nearly at our destination, nearly! These was a bus ride that I will never forget, some of the sights, sounds and near crashes were eye opening to say the least. Health and safety isn't high on their list of priorities, or in fact a priority at all! Think of the most dangerous event in our school and times that by a 1000 and you wouldn't get close! School buses with 50 people crammed in, buses with no windows, engine covers or mirrors! Children riding on the front of their parent’s motorbikes, cars overtaking/driving on the wrong side of the road. There were no rules!! Oh apart from drinking and driving apparently that's their main risk!! You had to see it to believe, I lost count of the number of 'near' crashes and pot holes that were cars deep! This journey took us through the very heart of India and it was astonishing to see. You read of the poverty and poor living conditions in a country that is grossly over populated. We witnessed this first hand and encountered a roller coaster of different emotions. From locals descending on you like a famous celebrity, taking pictures and selfies. To abject poverty in which hundreds of people living next to open sewers, piles of rubbish, in houses that an English homeless person would turn their nose to. Each town we drove through was the same, rubbish strewn across the street, 10 or 12 people to small shops sitting in filthy conditions. Men and children urinating in the streets, it was shocking to see. I almost felt bad as we drove through waving at the affixed locals. To someone watching down on us, it could have come across as arrogant and self-righteous. Plodding along in our air conditioned bus taking photos of them like they were objects, questioning their day to day lives. It was unfair, yet hard to imagine as we are so used to home comforts and our 'normal' lifestyle. I am pretty sure they would be equally as inquisitive if they came to Brentwood on a Saturday afternoon and watched groups of people being shown around a town made famous by a TV programme. Similarly the cost, expense and time spent on getting ready for a night out in Sugar Hut. We are much further apart than the 6,000 odd miles from country to country that is for sure. After what seemed like an age we stopped for some food. We step off the bus and it's not the heat that has the pupils stuck in their tracks. 100's of eyes turn to our group and we wait for one of them to move, they don't! It was a daunting experience for them, but one that they will never forget. We sat inside for some food to avoid the flies and get out of the soaring sun, the menu was opened... You can imagine this was going to be a difficult next hour!! It's all curry? 3 of the words you will hear the most on this trip! I went for it, led by example and ordered the mushroom masala with garlic naan and tried my best in asking them to 'tweak' it! At the other end of the table, chips, tomato soup, burgers and toast! Quite a collection, but those who ventured out of their comfort zones were richly rewarded with some beautiful food. Opinions and barriers were beginning to come down, mine seemed down to those around, but there was a lot of bravado in that!! The finance team settled up and we headed back on what was one hell of a journey... As signs past and I drifted in and out of conscientiousness we were edging ever closer to our destination where ever that be! With 28km left it seemed imminent, not so! These 28km would take us 2000m above sea level and up to the near top of the Himalayas. Winding roads just wide enough for 2 cars to pass and steep drop offs with only a 2 foot barrier, meant for a tricky ascent! Although hairy at points the views were incredible! We saw towns in the distance and wondered how they survived? We were about to find that out... We reached as high as we can go and more pertinently the bus could go. It was a miracle it got that far that's for sure! On arrival we were greeted with this serene lake in the back drop of lush green mountain scenery. It looked incredible, let's get out and find our hotel? Or not... We look outside; horns and whistles were furiously being blown, with hand gestures and obscure looks aplenty! Back down the mountain we go, wrong place? Done something wrong? We start to panic, slightly... The driver’s assistant (who'd watched him drive the whole 10 hours!) Tried to explain..... Off the bus we get a good 25 minute walk back up to our hotel that was located half way around the lake. The driver couldn't get around to it or stop at the top and so our first trek was upon us quicker than expected! Loaded with bags and not before some quick photos with the excitable locals we made our way back up the steep roads. Now this would not have passed a H&S check as cars drove by beeping their incredibly loud horns every 2 seconds, it is obviously there method of communication to both other road users and passers-by! As we approach the lake we visited not too long ago, we keep our eyes peeled for our hotel for the next couple of days. Hotel Elphinstone, now if you are ever lucky enough to visit India and in particular Nanital you must stay here! From the outside it looked nothing special, but our rooms were amazing! Challengers had 4 to a very spacious room and we leaders were spoilt! Huge double beds overlooking the whole town, peaceful and beautiful with breath-taking scenery. If you dropped this into another country there would be a waiting list and an extortionate cost attached to it. I think we were paying £5 a night, incredible. We managed to persuade the staff to keep the restaurant open so we could have a much needed feed! I wonder if the those hungry stomachs would be tempted further than their last meal... 80% were and a feast ensued, naan, roti's aplenty and some brave souls went for the chicken curry and rice! It went down a treat, unlike the out of date local sprite that accompanied it! Our leaders for the next day were decided with a few more volunteers than yesterday, signs were good, spirits high! Bed was going to feel good tonight.

 

Day 3 - Hectic, Haggling, Hunger

The day started slowly with some weary bodies after a long couple of travel days. We awoke to a picturesque view of the lake, observing the locals serenely making their way from one side to the other. We sat down for breakfast in the church like dining hall and a whole array of foods were consumed! Omelette, scrambled eggs, chips and vegetable pakora! With our stomachs full (ish) we ventured out looking to immerse ourselves in the local community. Before starting we split off into groups of 4 and were tasked to find a quiz prize for 50rupees (50p) or less, our haggling skills were getting their first outing. Our objectives were to complete one lap of the lake, have a look around the markets and generally get stuck in. By the end of the day all of these were met and in teacher terms all were above their target grades! Walking around the town it was clear to see why so many people want to reside here. The streets are clean, no litter, no open sewers, no public urination. All of the locals take pride in their town and why wouldn't you, it is beautiful. As we approached the markets we split off into our teams, the bartering began! Things started slowly with a quick once over of the surroundings, we then got into our stride. As well as picking up our quiz prize (knitted slipper socks) we picked up some real bargains! 3 sets of beats headphones (fake obviously) for £4 a pair, I'll take that! As we leave the hectic market place we begin to feel hungry and our leaders for the day seek out a suitable venue. On route we become local celebrities again with pictures galore and even a stint on a video camera! We sit down and feast as by now lots of hungry bellies are rumbling. The food fear is quickly dissipating as the group start to embrace the local cuisine. One thing to note is just how cheap the food is, a meal for one would cost between £1-2 and as a group of 16 we could feast for £35, incredible. The afternoon was left for an R&R and some decided a trip back into town was the option. The bank of India was calling, however they were 10 minutes late and it's closed, what's the only other option for English people to amuse themselves? Of course a game of football ensued and the expedition was in full swing! Those that didn't fancy the trip into town enjoyed some much needed relaxation. I fancied an afternoon on the balcony overlooking the lake, scribbling (typing) my thoughts on here. Perfect. As night fell those that went out came back excited about their match and full of purchases from the market. Excitement was building and it really felt like we had settled into this fast moving, vibrant country. Earlier we had stumbled across a highly recommended restaurant for which we decided to try for dinner. A feast for a king and all his men! The group couldn't wait to get stuck in, questions were being asked, opinions taken on board, it was in stark contrast to the first evening, progress. We left in high spirits and on full stomachs. On route back we stocked up on sugary foods, mangos and Mountain Dew for the upcoming trek, things were getting serious. The evening entertainment was provided by Kamal's newly purchased Beats Stereo, not much sleep was had that night! Sing alongs went on long into the evening and tired bodies were inevitable. Eventually insomnia left and peace was returned to Anita.

 

Day 4 - Hiking, Himalayas, Hundreds of leaches

We awoke on trek day to Monsoon rain; it had been hammering down all night. We packed up our rooms and got ready to leave this beautiful retreat. At breakfast leaders were chosen and we discussed Agra and our final few days in India. Pete or Phillip Schofield due to his remarkable resemblance to Mr ITV mentioned a 5 star hotel. The response was immediate, everyone was in and already dreaming of luxury spas and swimming pools! With a buzz in the air Gary our trek leader strolled in, what a boy! We packed the jeep and via the bank our first mission began. As I am sure you are aware the exchange rate for pounds to rupees is pretty high. We walked in with £2,000 and walked out with 200,000rupees, the wad was enormous! We split the money up and to song we started the climb and boy was it a hike! The total distance was 13km but we had to climb roughly 2000m over thick terrain. The sun was out, it was hot and very humid, but the scenery was spectacular. As we got higher Gazza informed us that we were approaching leach country, he wasn't wrong! There were hundreds and thousands of them and they put up one hell of a fight. Never have salt and tobacco been so critical, both remedies that either killed or deterred these ubiquitous creatures! The distance almost became irrelevant as the fight against the leaches hit boiling point, they were everywhere! There literally was blood, sweat (lots of it) and tears! As we approached the camp we were greeted with spectacular views, this place came out of nowhere and was serene in its beauty. Peaceful, green and the campsite was so impressive. It is clear how much time and effort had gone into this, a family run business 100s of miles from civilisation, it was perfect. We sat down to lunch in the 'glass house' and were served up an absolute treat. It was clear our time here was going to be very enjoyable and we would want for very little. After lunch our tents were erected, most in one place, leach territory. Mr Evans and I were slightly late and fortunately for us it was a stroke of genius. We found a spot slightly away from the group with a balcony and amazing views of the mountains, staying in tents just got a little easier! Once we were bedded in, it was time to meet our in country agent, Sid. He introduced the camp and the basic rules, turn off lights, keep litter to a minimum and use water sparingly. Oh and don't leave the camp at night as there are bears and leopards. The look on each and every face was priceless and for those that know me, my reaction was the worst! With this good news we went for dinner and again were treated to some delicious food, Roti's, Dahl’s and Okra, all plates were spotless. As we were won of the last groups out it meant that another challenger group were in camp for their last night. I persuaded our group to mingle, be curious and ask questions. It proved to be a great idea, nearly 3 hours passed as we all sat in the 'pavilion' with an open fire to keep the mossies’ away and reduce the slight chill in the air. It was a fantastic evening and we could have been anywhere in the world, as it was we were situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, life is good! As tiredness kicked in we headed to the 'comfort' of our tents. Ed sang me to sleep in amongst some excellent one liners coming from the tents above. Then the rain came, bye bye sleep!

 

Day 5 - Hash, Heavy, Hard Graft

Today was one of the hardest most physical days I have had in my 27 years of existence! It is hard to explain in words just how physically exhausting it was. We had an idea that it was going to be hard based on what the other group had told us, but nothing could have prepared us for what is was really like. The walk from camp to the project site is about an hour and all downhill. It starts on a road and then goes into the forest, that's the easy part. As we approached what we thought was the site it was a further 1.3km down the steep mountain side. Our project was based around a longer outlook as World Challenge aim to provide drainage, water holding facilities and a furnace for all of the 90 houses in the hamlet of Pangot. They had started from the top and gradually made their way down house by house. Our house comprised of 5 people and they had waited years for their turn, it was a fantastic occasion for them and us. Out of our budget we allocated 35,000 rupees, roughly £350. It meant we had; 100 bricks, 2 water tanks (300 & 500L), 2 plastic drains about 7 meters long, 4 bags of sand, 2 bags of cement (50kgs each), 2 metal rods, some plastic sheeting and some basic tools. This all had to be taken down to the house over a km down the steepest of terrains. We employed a system in which we thought would mean that the workload was spread. It didn't turn out like that, some of the group ended up doing doggies up and down the mountain. It was 25+ degrees with 80% humidity, on top of that we were 2600+ meters above sea level, and it was the hardest of graft. Despite all of this, the hard work, the heat, constant leg ache and the continuous sweating. We all remembered why we were doing this and just how much we were helping this family who survive on the equivalent of £30 a month. As the materials found their way down bit by bit the smiles on their faces got wider and wider, it was heart-warming to see. I think that's why at no point did anyone moan or whine about being tired or question why they were doing it, it was a team effort and one that we smashed. As we ferried the materials up and down it gave us a chance to appreciate the beautiful, idyllic surroundings we were in. During these rest periods the views were spectacular and everyone was sincerely grateful for this opportunity. We stopped at 1 for a lunch made by the family, it was delicious!! Rice, lentil Dahl and okra, which some of the challengers helped prepare. If you were to be served this in a restaurant in England you would pay good money for it, we were a 6 hour walk from the nearest town and in the middle of the Himalayas, incredible. After filling our now ravenous bellies we completed the last few runs, bringing the remaining bricks down to the house. We then packed our day packs and dragged our weary bodies back up. The walk back to camp seemed to go on forever and the downhill buzz on the way down quickly became the uphill struggle on the way back. An hour and a half later we collapse back into camp and fight for the cold showers! We had some much needed downtime before dinner, or so I thought. Some of the challengers were so moved and touched by what they had seen in the village that they wanted to go and buy some presents for the family we were helping. The leader Joe Dancer or Tiny as he is now commonly known popped over to Sids house and asked about the possibility of a trip to Nanintal. They returned jubilant and excited, despite all the exertion throughout the day, a jeep was ordered and a trip to the markets was on. Four members of the group and I headed off down the mountain with a shopping list of goodies, not for their own self-indulgence but for items that would help our project family. A slush fund was collected with everyone chipping in what they could afford. We had about 2000 rupees to spend and a specific list if items; New flip flops for the eldest son who helped carry the heaviest of items down to his house. New sandals for the youngest boy who had missed school that day so that he could meet us! Both of their shoes were in such a terrible state and in desperate need of replacing. A couple of tennis balls so they could play cricket and not use a ball of mud. Some candles for the mother and daughter as electricity was sparse and only used in emergencies. Finally a new football for the school we were visiting the next day as theirs was on its last legs. We returned to camp eager to share our purchases and share some photos of our trip back up the mountain. As we trekked across the heavy mountainous forest we didn't get the views from the roads which were spectacular! As we had missed dinner (by an hour and a half) we thought we may be left with rations or left overs. No, Gunga who is in charge of our stay in camp and (quite possibly the cutest old man I have ever met) had left us a full meal with plenty to go around and warm Roti's which was quickly becoming the group’s favourite food item! After wolfing down dinner in a matter of seconds we headed up to join the rest of the group. With card games and an open fire to dry our smelly clothes the scene was perfectly set. With weary eyes and the thought of the trip to and from the project, beds were hit. No rain this eve but still an interrupted night’s sleep lay ahead.

 

Day 6 - High Fives, Helping hand, Happiness

I awoke feeling rather rough with a stinking cold and a deliciously deep voice! Lemsip and Chai eased the pain as we headed out for what was the best day of the expedition thus far. If you asked the challengers what their main reason for choosing to come on the trip was I'm sure the project would be top of the list. Making a difference to those that desperately need it, whilst having the opportunity to interact with a group of school children that are schooled in a concrete hut. Whose round trip of 10km across dangerous terrain that is barely suitable for adults let alone 4/5/6 year olds. Carrying their school bags bigger than them and whose school clothes are their pride and joy. It was a stark reminder of how lucky and privileged we are as a nation; all of the challengers were definitely taken aback by their surroundings. We started the day with a really powerful breakfast, toast, fried eggs and porridge. We really were being treated in camp and we all appreciated it immensely, without such excellent food I feel that a few of us would have struggled to make the project for all 3 days. Our walk down to the campsite was a leisurely one as a combination of the intense heat and the previous day’s exertion came to the fore. As usual we stopped off on route for our daily sugar intake, although trip leader Schofield limited us to 1 fizzy drink each to preserve our teeth and ensure we weren't replacing our water intake. As we approach camp it is rather warm, yet as soon as we delegate roles and begin work it starts hammering down!! This brief shower didn't interrupt or dampen our spirits, the two teams (furnace & drainage) made a start and by the time lunch had arrived we were at the half way point of our tasks. We were fed another fabulous lunch, with some cabbage that was out of this world!! Whilst eating the excitement was building as we were about to head up to the school for the afternoon. The group powered up the hill whilst eagerly getting their gifts out. As we approached the school and the kids caught sight of us the volume level increased tenfold! They were ushered into one of the two classrooms by their teachers and the organised mayhem began! Gifts were handed out and the smiles grew wider and wider, it was a poignant moment. Pencils, colouring in books, beads, skipping ropes, a football and tennis balls were some of the items that would make their day to day lives that little bit better. The modern day selfie craze found its way to this tiny remote village and the children's reactions to their own pictures were priceless. As this paparazzi style red carpet event continued some of the challengers began playing games on the forecourt and soon everyone was involved! Hokey Cokey, YMCA, duck duck goose, shoulders knees and toes were the favourites, in and amongst some of Mr Evans hilarious camp America games! We posed for one last group photo and said our goodbyes; it was fairly emotional as the kids clung on to the challengers!! We head back up with spirits at their peak and the walk home is an enjoyable one. We discuss our remaining presents that we have to give to the family on our last day and before we know it we are back at camp. We arrive back weary and the monsoon rain returns, the next 2 hours are tranquil as everyone naps in their tents to the therapeutic sound of the rain. As I resisted the chance to sleep in the hope of catching up later (didn't quite work) I continued to note down these amazing experiences. As I waited for the hot water and chilled in the hut we were given to shower in (staff) I heard an almighty bang and another and another! I dashed out and saw this enormous monkey swinging from tree to tree over our cabin. This caused the owners dogs to freak out and soon everyone was up out of their tents wondering what on earth was going on. Gunga ran down from the pavilion with stones in hand seeking out the monkey. He arrived and within a second of spotting it he was aiming his laser like throw towards them! As the monkey fled in fear of its life we scarpered into the hut as Gunga was still in hot pursuit, pelting stones until it went out of sight! After this extraordinary episode I had the best hot (luke warm) shower and felt a bit more human. As dinner time approached the group again looked forward to what had become our favourite time in camp. We were served another culinary triumph! As per the last few nights we headed up to the pavilion and gathered around the fire to play cards and try to extract some sweat particles from our sodden clothes!! After refusing the earlier nap I called it a day about 9 in the hope I would get some sleep. With an earlier get up (6:30) it kind of worked.

 

Day 7 - Hopping, Hiding, Heart warming

We awoke a week into our trip wondering where the time had gone. As we got our wires crossed the evening before we rose an hour early and gave Gunga a bit of a heart attack! No harm was done though as we tucked into our scrambled egg with onion and tomato on toast, it was gun! As we finished we were treated to some spectacular views on what was a spectacularly clear morning, another scorcher was on the cards. We gathered and made our way down to the project site for our last day. It really had been a fantastic couple of days that I'm sure will live long in our memories, despite the physical demand. On the way down expedition leader Schofield prepped the school leaders about a couple of scenarios that were designed to keep the challengers on their toes and ever vigilant of their surroundings. Pete asked two of the group to lag behind and drop off to see if they were noticed. They were given ample water and instructed to hide in the woods just off the track until found. Ten or so minutes had passed and no one had noticed so Pete decided to drop a subtle hint, it took them a while but soon they realised who was missing. Leader for the day Ruth marched them back up as they split either side of the road in an attempt to find their fellow challengers. 20 minutes later they return, marching down the hill in single file, military style, the episode had lost them not only time but valuable energy they could ill afford to lose. We make up time by walking that little bit quicker and as we arrive at the house it seems as if the whole village had come to visit! As it was Sunday there was no school and so we had an audience, mainly the children who were inquisitive and adorable!! Some had had their houses done by previous groups; others were still patiently waiting their turn. We got to work as the two groups swapped over roles and by the time lunch had been prepared we were complete! It was a heart-warming occasion with smiles aplenty, the drainage system was up and running and would help the family to preserve their water ready for the dry months. The furnace looked incredible and this would help them to burn their rubbish rather than dumping it. Although not environmentally friendly it was much better than having it strewn across the beautiful landscape, attracting flies and other such undesirable creatures. We had also attached their water source to a secure fitting and made a clear pathway for the unused water to exit without puddling, it was a great success. As we posed for some final photos and handed our gifts to the family it was time to say an emotional goodbye. It's not often in life that you get the chance to directly help those who are so desperately in need. This project was started and completed by the challengers, their money paid for the materials and their hard work over the past 3 days ensured the outcome was a positive one. As we walked joyfully up the mountain for the last time we took a little extra time to appreciate our surroundings. However the atmosphere was about to take an unexpected turn. Charlie revealed to the group that whilst down on project he had fallen and injured his ankle. He thought nothing of it until stepping on a loose stone whilst heading back up the hill thus aggravating it further. At first the group were in the mind-set that it was set up as was I. However it was soon apparent that it was real and serious as Charlie was in a lot of pain. With every step he took his face grimaced and soon he could go no further, it's a wonder how he managed to get that far, he is a tough character and had really led from the front throughout the trip. Raj or Gerrard as he is affectionally known managed to hail down a local Indian tourist who drove us back to camp so we could assess the damage. It was an experience sitting in the boot of an Indian car heading back up the Himalayas, the kindness of people out here is something we can all learn from. On our return we placed his foot in a bucket of cold water and elevated until dinner. After another meal in which the group gauged on the delicious food we were being served, we headed up for a debrief in the pavilion around the open fire. The 4 leaders discussed the options as it looked likely that Charlie would be unable to complete the trek which for him was devastating. As a group we discussed the project and its huge success, each and every member of the group should be exceptionally proud of their work over the last few days, it was a great way to finish the day and everyone went into the hardest part of the expedition with a feeling of accomplishment. We gave Charlie some painkillers and the lucky devil got a night in the hut on a comfy bed! No rain meant a better night’s sleep, with the only concern, how Charlie was going to shape up in the morning.

 

Day 8 - Haldawi, Hospital, Healthy

We awoke early on the day of trek with all bags and tents packed away by the time the gong for breakfast sounded at 7am. After popping into to see Charlie and watch him gingerly get out of bed and hobble towards the door our fate was decided. The difficult decision was made to keep Charlie in camp for the next 3 days and therefore miss the trek phase of the expedition. It wasn't a decision that was taken lightly, with the whole group disappointed that one of the most popular members would be missing. We then decided to make sure that there wasn't any serious damage, so a trip to the local hospital for an X-ray would be our mission for the day. As we said goodbye to the group and wished them luck on what was going to be a mentally and physically draining couple of days, we hopped into a taxi with the legend that is Gerrard. Sid our in country agent who seems as powerful as the mafia out here had organised us to see the doctor at 11am in a town called Haldawi, roughly 2 1/2 hours down the mountain. If I ever meet a better in country agent/team I would be very surprised, these guys are absolutely incredible and lovely people to boot. As we approached our destination I had no clue on what to expect, all I knew that it would be an experience! What we got was nothing short of spectacular, we were in and out within an hour and that included; Consultation with doctor, sent for x rays, handed x rays, straight back into doctor who gave them the all clear, picked up pain killers - done! Now for this express service of which you would struggle to match anywhere in the world the cost must be extortionate right? Wrong, the bill for all of that was just under a 1000rupees, £10 yes £10 I was and still am speechless. Our trip was a successful one when you look at the outcome of no lasting damage, R&R was ordered along with some anti inflammatories. A special mention to Raj (Gerrard) who accompanied us on this 5+ hour round trip on one of his rare days off. Without him it would have taken a lot longer and been a pretty daunting experience, the hospital despite being private was heaving, I and I'm sure Charlie is exceptionally grateful to him especially and of course Sid for pulling the strings!! On route back we stopped for a bite to eat as we treated Raj to a slap up lunch. We of course picked up the bill, 415rupees, £4.20 odd for three of us to feast, it still amazes me. A short snooze and we are back at camp and Charlie has a well-deserved rest. I head off for a wander to the shops for some water and a bottle of sprite before napping in my tent, which I was strangely enjoying more as the days passed! As hot water time was approaching I gave Charlie and nudge and we were ready for our romantic meal! Gunga treated us to a delicious array of rice, Roti's, Dahl and vegetable masala. I have eaten meat once since being out here and can honestly say I have not missed it; such is the quality and flavour of their vegetarian meals. After dinner we have a chat about life as we adjust to a very quiet camp. Gunga as always is on hand for whatever we may need and we discuss helping cook tomorrow, the deal was done. We ask what time breakfast would be and he informs us 7am as he has to go to Nainintal to see the doctor. Fear not he is okay and it is just a Calcium injection or at least I think that's what he meant! I offer to come with him which he agrees, I think we are getting the local bus down! Whilst I am down there I will try and grab some Wi-Fi to check in and look to get both Gungi and Raj a little something. My love for these two is enormous as I am sure you have gathered!! I head down to my tent not before ensuring Charlie has taken his anti inflammatories and is safe in the hut. As we speak I am looking to hammer AA and complete the diary, with home and loved ones firmly on my mind.

Day 8 trek day 1 - Himalayan Hideouts, Hindu temples, Heart rates

Day 1 of the expedition saw the team split for the first time as Charlie unfortunately was deemed unfit first thing. He was ordered for three days’ rest under the supervision of Mr A-B and to re-join the group at the end of the expedition phase day 3. The group made their way through the forest starting their ascent at a shallow but gradual incline in good spirits. We came across a small Hindu temple with two girls saying prayer. We quickly made our way down the valley to the river crossing and came across the remains of a secret hideout which Gorov, our guide, said that Baba, a holy man to the village, had taken years to cut away into the rock face, and lived there for the remaining 50 years of his life - A real scary place! The group continued to push on through the heat and humidity further into the Himalayan jungle. As stomachs rumbled, an apparition appeared ahead, in the form of a Shop and restaurant!! Here, we found an ancient but lovely old man cooking lentil and onion curry, and he quickly offered us a freshly brewed cup of chai and vegetable samosa for free - apparently this is the Indian version of tea and biscuits! After a few final purchases, photos on a rickety old tarmac steamroller, and plenty of 'danivads' (thank you), we set off again through the forest to get an extra 8km in before lunch. News broke through that Charlie had been taken to a doctor near Nanitial and had been told there was no break! This immediately raised the spirits/energy levels and the group ploughed onwards and upwards along the ever increasing incline and rocky terrain! As we made our way out of the jungle and into the open heathland, the group were greeted with the most amazing views of the various ridges running for miles down to the plains and basin of the River Kosi. As we approached the final ascent to 2545m (above sea level) at Badansatti Peak, the incline became greater than 45 degrees and many of the challengers struggled to find their breath in the heat and high altitude that they were now in. The team rallied around each other, and their excellent attitude was epitomised by how everyone supported Catherine and Sophie in the final stretch up to the last temple where the new 'Baba' was situated. The group were on their last legs when the campsite came into view! We made it! However one final job of the day - dig the poop tent! What a **** job! A three course meal was quickly put together by our fantastic chef known as Mario! As the challengers finally retired to bed, an amazing sunset and subsequent lightning storm gave an electrifying end to a hard but rewarding day.

Days 9 & 10 - Honey Hut, Home contact, Hook up

Days 9 & 10 were a lull in what's been an amazing first week. Charlie and I were 'house bound' and wondering how the troops were coping on trek. Day 9 saw me pop down with Gunga to Nainital to try and grab some Wi-Fi whilst he visited the doctors. It is amazing how time flies when you have had no contact for what felt like months but in fact was only a week! I eagerly waited outside 'Honey hut' for it to open as this was the only place that advertised Wi-Fi and it was free! I sat down at 9 and with a couple of coffees with honey (of course) I caught up on the world’s news. A first thing was to obviously check the cricket scores and based on what’s app messages, it had been a pretty good day for the Shen. I managed to wake the other half for a Face Time which was delightful! Also checked in with the mother and shared a few pictures on social media. I then met up with Gunga and treated him to coffee and lunch! We headed back up and with 14 people, yes 14 in the jeep we made out ascent! As I arrived back Charlie was asleep and so I took myself off for a nap. With very little to do it seemed the only option! Dinner time arrived and both Charlie and I sat down to feast, we were obviously hungry as we gauged on the glorious offerings! We headed back to camp on full stomachs and excited about reuniting with the group tomorrow.

Day 9 trek day 2 - Horses and a horrendous hike!

The challengers awoke to the most beautiful scenery; storms clouds clearing to reveal minuscule mud hut settlements, sporadically dotted along the rolling ridges of the foothills of the Himalayas. After being fed like kings, the team were quick to collapse camp and get set on their way. The trek horses were loaded up with the main bags and their jingle of bells gently faded into the distance with the sound of chirruping birds and clicking of crickets taking over. Day two of the trek was to be the longest in distance but by far, time and effort. As we traversed our way along each ridge and valley, the once beautiful rainforest grew mundane; the monotonous rhythm of the challengers trudging along the path became almost hypnotic, with the group falling into silence for large periods of time. There were however, times of triumph, such as the precarious river crossing along two thin, and alarmingly weak tree trunks. Safe, it was not, the group edged their way across the torrent of white water rapids roaring below. All made across safely. The final descent to the campsite was hard on the knees, but the group were refreshingly revitalised by the cooling rainfall (the only precipitation they were to experience on trek). As we entered the campsite, the group could just about make out the outline of a cold, stone-bricked building through the dense fog easily set the scene for an eerie zombie filled apocalyptic thriller! The group were clearly exhausted and flat out, until the unmistakable sound of Santa's bells appeared in the distance... Our bags had arrived! Camp was erected in no time and the group again were tucking into their feast of an evening meal topped off with hot chocolate biscuits! All were asleep by 9pm ready for the final descent to the River Kosi camp and more importantly the reuniting of the group as a whole!

Day 10 trek - Hoorah's, Hair washes and Horrid Heat

The earliest wake up of the trek (again) under blue skies. Today was going to be a scorcher - We have definitely been lucky with the weather!!! As the group made their way out of camp glistening with their recently applied factor 50, it became apparent that today's trek would be demanding on the knees. Traversing the way down a near 45 degree angle made progress slow - with the challengers losing their footing regularly! The group however saw the funny side to things and Morale stayed high. A short stop at a remote village's shop allowed for the group to stock up on sweet beverages and chocolate along with a rather playful puppy lifted spirits further. With new found energy and various E numbers flowing through the blood stream, the group continued their descent to the final camp and the reunion with Charlie and Mr AB. Being a far shorter day, and with the group on such high spirits, the last few kilometres passed with little drama and with smiles on everyone's faces. A short water break at a Baba burial temple lead to the news everyone wanted to hear - "camp is 20 minutes away along the road"! The view that greeted the challengers was stunning of the campsite and River Kosi fast approaching! We'd made it! As the group ditched their bags and made up camp for the final time, a huge sense of achievement had spread across the group as a whole, with what they had actually accomplished starting to sink in. As the celebratory Chai and biscuits were shared between the group, the rumble and dust cloud of a jeep came to view. Out stepped Charlie and Mr AB to applause and singsong! The group were now reunited! A tremendous dinner followed with fresh chicken, and our first meal with desert - pineapple rings. Something so simple had never tasted better! The group continued to celebrate their achievements and finally relax after dinner and some of the girls decided to open a makeshift salon, with the boys fighting to have their hair washed! Even though it was late in the evening, hair was drying quickly with temperatures still in excess of 30 degrees! The heat failed to die down and tents turned to ovens with many challengers losing a few pounds in sweat that evening! Some of the group ventured outside and slept under the stars (and mosquito nets) for the night which was a fitting end to such a memorable 3 days in the mountains.

I awoke before my alarm to a glorious morning, not a cloud was in the sky! I will certainly miss this view although not so much the uncomfortable night’s sleep! We strolled up for our last meal in camp, it felt like we were the last two on I'm a celeb! We leisurely packed up out belongings before strolling to the shop for the last time. We stocked up on crisps and sugar for the 5 hour journey and wondered what lay ahead for us. The drive seemed to go on forever and as we descended it got hotter and hotter. We stopped off with a shopping list of goodies for the camps dinner that evening. Potatoes, tomatoes, onions and chicken!! Now watching the preparation for the chicken was not nice, in fact it was enough to put you off it for a while! We continued onwards and entered the forest with about 40km to go. Nearly two hours later we approached camp in the middle of nowhere, it must have been some trek to get there! It was boiling and it didn't seem to be relenting as the day wore on. Charlie was greeted to a hero’s welcome as he embraced a very tired and smelly camp. There had been no showers throughout the three day trek and the searing heat had caused them to sweat by the bucked load! We caught up on their stories and tried to grasp just how difficult the last few days had been. Whilst we were conversing Super Mario (camp chef) was preparing 'that' chicken for dinner, my vegetarian holiday was set to continue. After dinner we played a morale boosting game of 'who’s been the most' and we headed off to what was going to be a sweaty night’s sleep. Now the temperature outside had to be about 25 degrees and I reckon you could add 10 on to that and not be close to the temperature inside the tents. It was unbearable; some took to sleeping outside under a mosquito net, braving the super-sized ants and other critters. I eventually gave in and opened my tent to let some much needed air in, by this time I was beyond caring about being bitten (kind of). Eventually I drifted off to a very uncomfortable night’s sleep.

Day 11 - Honking, Hygiene, Hopeless

The camp awoke early to pack away (5am) ready for breakfast at 6:15. The jeeps came and we loaded our bags on, not before saying a fond farewell to the trek team who I was told were fantastic. We set off in our open top jeeps for the 2 hour ride through the forest. On route we were informed about some of the animals we may incur on our safari. A question was posed to our knowledgeable driver: Have any tigers jumped on the jeep? Yes a few! It could be an interesting afternoon; we were excited about what was to come. Before our safari later we had some time to kick back and try and relax. With two rooms booked out to store our bags and utilise the much needed showers for those that had been without one for so long! Now cleanliness is not high on the list of very few priorities out here, especially in the towns and cities. Think of the dirtiest person you know and times that smell by 1000 and you may get close. The trek had meant some of the group had become that smelly person, with only wet wipe washes after 9/10 hours of walking in the searing heat. So this shower was so very welcome and the transformation as each came out was remarkable! However this feeling of cleanliness didn't last too long as without air conditioning the heat and humidity was outrageous! The change in altitude had made all the difference and according to leader Schofield it was only going to get worse in Agra, joyous! The group fancied some lunch and decided on venturing out to find a suitable venue, without a plan = bad idea. The streets were crammed with people, cars and buses and the heat was sapping. After walking up and down the streets without any joy, tempers and patience began to fray. The hotel was calling; however some of the more confident challengers strode to the front and took charge. They had found a 'restaurant' if you could call it that and we were in! Now this is a prime example of why you should not always judge on appearance (although very hard to do!). The place looked grim and that is being polite, I made an early call not to eat. This soon changed as my belly reverberated around the room and I eventually gave into it. 200rupees the budget and mountains of food was consumed, it was so good! Lesson learnt, although in real life you wouldn't have got the long eyelashes line looking like that! We strode back to our hotel and before we knew it jeeps were here to pick us up; this was going to be good! Not so! Now for me this was the biggest disappointment of the trip so far, although not sure what to expect, my expectations were no were near met. This national park is over 1300km and there are apparently 227 tigers within it. Now the experience involves you being 'lucky' if you see a tiger. As you have probably guessed we didn't see a tiger on our 2 hour drive around the forest and neither did the other 7 jeeps on 'safari'. The rather unhelpful guide informed us that as there are more places from which they can source water and because of the vast expanse of land it makes it very difficult to spot one. Also Tigers are reclusive type creatures who often hunt alone and with the long grass...... The excuses went on! So what did we see during our time you ask? We drove around an incredible bumpy forest, in a jeep with very little room, looking for what may as well have been the tooth fairy. The only plus point of the trip was the wild elephants we could photograph and that the temperature was bearable. Not everyone was as downbeat as me and on a positive note the challengers were enjoying the open top Jeep ride! As we returned to our hotel from hell (it wasn't that bad but wouldn't have fancied staying there overnight!) the heavens opened and a flash flood was upon us. The streams that the children were playing in only 3 or so hours ago had become a death trap, now a meter deeper and extremely fast flowing. When it rains here it rains and despite it being the driest monsoon season in many years (according the locals) it was pretty clear how much damage the rain can do to a town built on rubbish and wood. As we enter damper than when we left, the groups thoughts turned to food! Mine was occupied by; Cricket of course, the ashes was being shown live, perfect! Oh how I had missed my first love... With time ticking on, we grabbed some dinner before heading out on the tricky and lengthy trip down to Agra; it was going to be a long next 24 hours! The trusty jeeps that had ferried us around all day came to collect us for the final time, only this time it was dark. Now India in the dark is a pretty scary place and I'm presuming that because it's that much cooler (not much) more people come out. Our jeeps had their horns on permanently and we dodged not only people but dogs and cows!! We arrive at Ramanagar station and board our sleeper train, it looked pretty good! We found our seats/beds and that was me, top bunk, feet off the end, and headphones in, sleep! I slept the whole way through and awoke to me alarm at 4:00am as we pulled into Delhi.

Day 12 - Homeless, Heinous, Hotel

We arrived into Delhi at 4:15am a very tired group of individuals. However as soon as we stepped off the train our senses were awakened both with the smell and the volume of people on the station floor. Now the population of Delhi is said to be 1.5 million people and I would hazard a guess that 10% of those are homeless or without a fixed abode. As we stepped of the train and walked past the final few carriages the smell coming from them was heinous. The train had been stopped for 15 plus minutes and the toilets were still in use, the flush system simply empties the contents onto the tracks. Each carriage was grossly over populated and the long hot journey was not kind on the nose! As we headed towards the exit the number of people sleeping in the station was astonishing, bodies everywhere. There was even some sleeping on the tracks in between trains, ridiculous. As we stepped out the scene continued as people were being awoken from the floor to start their day, families were huddled up and people were sleeping in every available space. We haggled some taxi's to take us the 6km to New Delhi station so that we could catch our connecting train to Agra at 6am. That short journey was one of a kind and will live long in the memory of all I'm sure. It was still dark and the streets were piled with rubbish, bodies were in and amongst the filth as dogs, cows, goats and buffalo sifted through it for scraps. There was very little street lighting and it looked like a scene out of a horror movie! Our one saving grace was that out taxis were new cars and air conditioned! We arrived in convoy to the slightly refurbished New Delhi and found our way to platform one. A quick toilet stop and our train arrived, it was still very warm for the time of the day and the AC felt so good! We had previously allocated seats and sat down to a bottle of water, with a cup of chai and biscuit! It was only a 2 hour trip to Agra and we arrived a tired group of challengers. The taxi system was a lot better organised here than in Delhi that's for sure! We paid the police and they in turn paid he driver once the job had been complete, furthermore the majority of fares were set in price. 'The retreat' please driver, it almost felt like a magical place we were describing. As we passed through Agra it was in stark contrast to Delhi, clean, less polluted by industry and quieter. The taxi driver was proud of his town and its heritage, especially they infamous Taj Mahal, this was the symbol of their society. We arrived at the hotel and the excitement was palpable, this was pure luxury to what we had endured for the past week and a half. It was clean, air conditioned and it had Wi-Fi and a pool! Screams and smiles aplenty we managed to check into out rooms early and after 15+ hours of travelling we could relax and unwind. Although initially very willing to part with the £30 so that we could stay here, I'm pretty sure all felt it was the best decision they ever made! As everyone headed out to the pool I decided a pampering session was in order (of course) and the first thing on the menu, a shave!! Two weeks of not shaving had meant a hideously itchy and ginger beard developing, its end was nigh. The shower was amazing, as warm as you wanted it and suddenly I felt a million dollars! Teeth cleaned and flossed, hair almost done and a quick cleanse of the face, I know what you are all thinking! Why didn't I go straight to the pool? We decided to meet at 1 and decide our day, once the excitement had subsided. Unanimously we decided to explore and braved the mid afternoon heat and boy was it hot! We headed towards the Taj Mahal hoping to catch a glimpse and find a suitable eating establishment. With both achieved, although taking slightly longer than anticipated, we were back in time for our trip to see the Taj at sunset. Now I am sure if it had been sunny, it would have been glorious, but as it was overcast it didn't quite have the desired effect. Still we had a good view and it did look mightily impressive, the challengers began the photo bonanza. As we headed back to the hotel tiredness was kicking in and quickly! Moods started to change and tempers began to fray, dinner arrangements were, difficult. No one wanted to go out again and we couldn't afford to eat in the restaurant twice, we hit the wall, hard. As silence ensued, leader Pete intervened and suggested we complete our previously created quiz, it seemed to go down okay. A quick comfort break and retrieval of previously purchased prizes and we were set. We split into our teams and 'the Shenfied safe bluds' were ready! We came second but that was irrelevant as it boosted morale and created some amusing answers. The prize giving ceremony was complete and camp legend Matthew Vardy closed the evening with a witty speech, bedtime was so much needed!

Day 13 - Heritage, Hustle, Home gifts

After a long last couple of days my alarm again went off at 5am and I was questioning why we agreed to get up so early! Nevertheless as we previously discussed, we were only in India for two more days, we could sleep on our return. The order of the day was rarity, we were visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal, and the excitement was palpable. We arranged an early breakfast (very early) and set out on the short 1km walk to the ticket office. We chose an early visit for many different reasons and our decision was almost certainly vindicated. Firstly and most importantly it was cooler, much cooler. Secondly it was a little less crowded and so made for a more comfortable experience. Finally we had seen it at sunset (kind of) and we were informed that at sunrise it was equally as impressive. It turns out that neither if these timings really affected our viewing as it was overcast! Nevertheless what a spectacular building, I am not one for monuments or sightseeing, however this was mightily impressive. As we approached the main view point it was still pretty packed as people scrambled for the best viewpoint. We had a few school group photos and we nailed ours! A new school twitter banner was imminent I am sure! We strolled up the boulevard type walkway that was lined with fountains and immaculately kept gardens; it was strange to think we were actually there. We put on our shoe protectors and headed into the marble clad mausoleum, the building itself was ginormous and the attention to detail immaculate. It was a quick walk around as we decided against a guide, it was much less painless although slightly less informative. As lunchtime was approaching we headed back to pick up our bags and rehydrate as by now the temperature was beginning to hit boiling point. As our leader for the day Kai navigated our way through the incredibly busy streets we stumbled across the Taj cafe which we had been searching for the previous day. We had it on good authority that this was a good place to eat as Kamal had researched it in his lonely planet guide! The meal was good as everyone tucked into a variety of food, although I felt too hot to eat much. Now the next 5 hours were 5 hours that I certainly wouldn't forget in a long time, if at all. We walked 5km to the 'market 'bizarre' and that was the first experience. Our trudge took us through the back streets of Agra and it was clear that the group felt uneasy in their surroundings, it was nothing like they had encountered before. We eventually made it out and onto the main road, just another 3km until we immersed ourselves within this local extravaganza. As we came off the main road we hit possibly the most upsetting and eye opening scenery to date. We were in the slums and boy was it deprived, it was shocking to witness. These people were the poorest of the poor and lived under plastic sheeting, in and amongst the open sewer, mud and piles of rubbish, it was shocking. As we increased our step pattern we had been firmly spotted and the slums children descended on us. As they approached filthy and cloth less, the begging began. Each challenger had at least one round them; I had managed to pick up 4 I really struggled to tell them to go away. We almost broke into a jog in our attempt to get to the market; they grabbed our arms, pleaded for food/money and sifted through our pockets. Despite my feelings and sympathy for them, I eventually pulled them off and sent them away, their desperation, appearance and necessity to beg will haunt me for a very long time. I would have really liked to have taken some pictures to enhance my descriptions, however any valuable items were under lock and key on leader’s orders, I could now see why. We got to the market, finally! But this was by no means the end of our eventful, emotional and experiential day. The market was PACKED; cars, Tuk Tuks, cows, water buffalo's, goats, Lorries, buses and of course people, lots of people. It was quickly apparent that our day of souvenir shopping was becoming more difficult by the second. We went for it, led by our leader Kai and with gifts in mind we hit the shops, not so hard! This was the most disastrous attempt I have ever been involved in. If Richard Madelely did shopping trips... We walked round for hours with not even a hint of a purchase and morale was decreasing faster than the Chinese stock market. A group decision EGM was called and it was decided that we would return to the hotel, via the Sari so that the girls could make their expensive, yet important purchase. We got taxis back to the hotel which was a relief after hours and hours of walking in the dirty, oven like streets. We collapsed into the retreat and tried to forget about a difficult day. We reconvened for 8 and had organised a surprise for the group as it was K dog’s birthday the following day. The group’s meal was to be set poolside and it was a lovely way to finish the tour. As our finance team had been so scrupulous we could eat whatever we wanted! It was a feast, 2, 3 and even 4 courses per person were ordered, not all consumed however. As the meal came to a close and we gave out the end of trip awards, the scene was similar to the opening scenes of saving Private Ryan, motionless bodies aplenty! We called time on a memorable day for many reasons and the meeting time was a generous 9am! I slept like a dream, although waking my bed sharing partner Dan up with a night terror, of which I don't remember.

 

Day 14 - Happy Birthday, Headphones, Horrendous food

Our final day in India saw a much deserved lay in as we met for breakfast at 9:15am. As the previous day had proved fruitless we headed to the much quieter market by the Taj Mahal to grab some gifts. By now our haggling skills were spot on and there were some real bargain purchases! The two hour time limit flew by as we headed back to vacate our rooms and re pack our inordinate amounts of gifts! The air con bus arrived and it was a huge relief as the temperature at 9am was already in excess of 35 degrees. The journey took about 5 hours with a break for food and their version of a motorway service station, it was still cheap and the food very good. I stuffed my face and returned my position at the back of the coach, I was then joined by K dog and Tiny for a spotify session. This sing along helped pass the time and by the time we ran out of battery our destination was upon us, the dreaded International Inn hotel! We checked in and had a couple of hours before dinner in the adjoining restaurant, which looked rather swanky; I chilled and caught up with the diary or short novel that it had become. I headed down and for once I wasn't particularly hungry after my mammoth lunch, it was actually a blessing in disguise. The food was pre-selected by everyone so that we could avoid waiting an age; however waiting would have been better than the cold, oily food they served up! It was a disappointing dinner to finish as the food throughout the whole trip had been fantastic, with only 1 occurrence of the dreaded 'Delhi belly'. Catherine used her impressive bartering skills to make sure that our bill was reduced accordingly, eventually it was but not without an unnecessary aggro. Our taxi's had been ordered and one final early get up was left, which shouldn't be a problem with the room I am in, the same room as I so fondly spoke of after day 1!

Day 15 - Homecoming, Heathrow, Hallelujah

It was here, the day had finally arrived, home was calling and boy was I looking forward to it! My alarm was redundant as my favourite room struck again, no aircon this time, the noise came from the fan that in turn kept the lights on, and I couldn't win! The taxis pulled up to the hotel and leader Pete went out to inspect, three were fine the other not, 3 tyres balder than the great Ross Becko meant another was called. We travelled in convoy in the blistering heat, the sun was out and the temperature 38 degrees, it was 7 o'clock! We sailed through arrivals and security, arriving into what was voted the number one airport in 2014, it was clear to see why. Nine hours later we arrive back on home turf after a wonderful flight! It was all over...

Overall it is difficult to put into words just how amazing an experience this was for the challengers. I was gaining valuable life experience and they are 11 years my junior, it was one for their CV that’s for sure. Most of the group had been fundraising the £2800 needed to pay for this trip for the last 18-24 months and it was a fantastic culmination of their hard work and dedication. I am sure that the experiences recorded above, amongst many others will live long in their memory and hopefully help shape or influence future life choices. This will be the first of many opportunities that will be on offer to pupils at Shenfield High School and one that I can now speak of from experience. Next year see’s seven year 12 pupils travel to Peru for a month’s expedition, that includes the world famous Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. 2017 will bring another opportunity and hopefully include a trip to Cambodia and Viet Nam, with details to be finalised before September.

Bring on Peru!

Mr Bennett

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