They wanted to go to Africa to work on a voluntary project’

ONE thing you can say about the intrepid Exmouth and Budleigh Explorer Scouts, who only last month returned from the south western African state of Namibia, is that they aim high.

ONE thing you can say about the intrepid Exmouth and Budleigh Explorer Scouts, who only last month returned from the south western African state of Namibia, is that they aim high.

After spending previous summer camps within the safe confines of the English-speaking developed world - like the Channel Islands, Ireland and Scotland - for 17 teenagers to venture to the second most sparsely populated country in the world for two weeks was certainly ambitious.

And if you think the trip was just to do a little sight-seeing, maybe spend a few days taking in the famous vast desert plains, miles of uninhabited landscapes, mountainous sand dunes and the local wildlife in Etosha, one of the finest National Parks in Africa, you would be mistaken.

Their task; to work alongside a rural community just outside the capital and to upgrade, refit and in some cases, rebuild a school.

"This time they wanted to do something a bit different," said one of the scout leaders, Esther Workman. "It was their choice entirely.

"We asked them what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go, and they wanted to go to Africa and take part in some kind of voluntary project, to help people.

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"There were concerns about Kenya (following the deaths of 130 people in election violence last year) and there was an opportunity to go to Namibia - so we took it."

Once they arrived at the capital, Windhoek - Namibia is the only German-speaking African nation - they were met by 'Brian', their driver and guide for the stay, who took the group to tents where they would be staying.

This accommodation put Explorer Scout James Kelly, 18, in the unenviable position of having to face down one of his mortal fears - snakes.

Namibia has 90 different species, about 17 of which, like the Black Mamba and the venomous spitting Cobra, are deadly.

"Always been scared of snakes," said James. "I just hate them, and rats."

The group was also offered another piece of helpful advice: "Don't wear open-toed shoes like sandals," added Esther. "Apparently because scorpions' tails can curl round the toes, it can be dangerous."

Other surprises included the diet - and while they, for the most part, bought their own food from local shops, they had the chance to try local culinary delicacies including aurochs and crocodile.

Almost as soon as they settled in they were driven off to the Namibian equivalent of B&Q to buy the hardware necessary for the project, including paint, plaster, wood, nuts and bolts.

Formed in September 2002, the Exmouth and Budleigh Explorer Scouts get involved in many activities, including building projects - and the locals seemed particularly pleased with the skills they had brought along from England.

However, Scout leader Bob Day admitted: "A few of us (the leaders) had the basic skills required, but I would say have never attempted anything quite so large.

"The Explorers certainly had never attempted anything along these lines and time was spent, pre-trip, getting them to think about how they were going to build the swing, with a couple of evenings spent practising joints on scrap bits of wood."

James added that, despite their limited DIY experience, their skills kept the students more than happy: "They seemed pleased that, unlike the last group, we could actually do more than just paint.

"I got the impression that they didn't finish the work and we were told we were the best group that they had ever had, and were efficient and hard working."

The Scouts certainly were prolific, building a see-saw, swings, a climbing frame, a ropewalk, re-plastering and repainting the walls of the school, building and even developing a football pitch - and finished early to boot.

This gave them the chance to get to know a little more about their hosts, and interacting with the odd game of football.

For more about the Exmouth and Budleigh Explorer Scouts trip to Africa, see next week's Journal

Pictures from the trip can be seen at:

Katie Lock, 18, said: "It was very rewarding. They are lovely people. A small gesture, like a hug, things we take for granted, made them happy."

April Snow, 18, said: "They were very generous welcoming people; despite having very little to begin with.

"One boy was walking around and he only had one shoe."

Bob said they were genuinely very friendly and grateful for the work they did and he found the time to chat to some of the locals about life in Namibia: "Unless you live in the city, there are very few jobs and as a result a lot of people in the local towns live off government subsidies.

"Chatting to a local man in the town one of the higher paid jobs is security where with overtime they can earn approximately �100 a month.

"One of the Explorers mentioned to me about corporal punishment as they had witnessed one of the school kids receiving the cane. He seemed quite shocked that it still happened in parts of the world."

But despite the poverty bill boards advertising mobile phones were everywhere: "It was strange," said James. "You knew most of the people didn't even earn enough in a year to buy one."

For the second week they journeyed to the Etosha National Park and went on a safari.

When asked if they would go back, Esther said: "It went as well as it possibly could - we couldn't have achieved any more.

"We were told we were the best group that they had ever had. Perhaps they were just being nice.

"But in one sense there is no point going back; it's about new challenges."

However as she admits another trip on the same scale may be a few years away - it cost �1,900 for each scout - the money was raised thanks to a donation from the Pain Trust and years of fundraising through things like street collections, mobile phone recycling and car boot sales.

"I think we have to set our sights a little lower next year," she said. "Perhaps the Lake District!"

You can view pictures from about the trip at: