FOR the first time in 17 years, Scouting Ireland’s coveted Explorer Belt has been presented to two local Rover Scouts after they completed one of the organisation’s toughest challenges.
Gearóid Shannon from Ennis and Tim Quinlan from Quin, representing Ennis Scouts Group, achieved the award after taking on a gruelling 200km walk on the Camino Way between Spain and France.
The pair were among a number of Rover Scouts from all over Ireland who were left in an unknown location in the early hours of the morning with just a map to find their way.
Among the many adventures for Gearóid and Tim was meeting a group of African refugees, who allowed them to stay with them to pay them back for the charitable generosity of the Irish people.
The walk through the mountainous Basque region while carrying 22kg on their back wasn’t their only challenge. They also had to survive on just €4 each a day for food, camp outside and complete a number of projects.
Gearóid said, “We were dropped off at 3am and we didn’t know where we were. We were literally put on the bus from the plane and dropped off at an unknown location. We didn’t know if we were in France or Spain. We were just handed a map and an envelope with the money and that was it.”
Tim, who is currently in the Alps with UL Mountaineering Club, had been training for the challenge for a year. However, Gearóid had just weeks to prepare for what was in store.
“Tim had been planning to do it for the last year and I was going to do it next year. He had another partner from Dublin but he had to pull out just three weeks before they were due to leave. Tim was in a bit of trouble and he had no-one to go with him, so I said I might as well go now, seeing as I have the chance.
“We ended up getting some funding from Ennis Scouts and we did what bit of fundraising we could in the weeks leading up to it. Usually you would be training for the year in preparation, you would get dropped off in towns and have to walk 20km over the one day. They all had a good bit of training done beforehand but I didn’t.”
The challenge involves travelling at least 200km on foot. “It was very bad for me, I got blisters from day two onwards. I thought I was going to have to pull out on day seven but I kept going anyway. By the end of it, my feet were bleeding. Tim was grand though because he had the training done for the year. He only got blisters on his shoulders.”
As well as the walking, the pair had the limited budget to contend with. However, that wasn’t a problem for the two, who actually managed to come home with €10 left over.
The trip gave them both a very different view of Spain than those who have just experienced the country’s beaches.
“What we noticed in Spain was that a lot of people have moved out of the smaller villages and into the big cities. There is no-one in the countryside, it’s just farmland. We didn’t notice at the start, so we were walking around but we didn’t realise how valuable it was to have shops around. But when we did realise when we found a shop we would buy three days worth of food because we wouldn’t see another shop again until we got to a big settlement. The whole place is ghost towns.
“But we got on fairly well with the budget, we even had a tenner left. We didn’t want to buy too much because it would be too heavy and having to carry it all would be too much. We just bought what we needed. We were living on about 1500 calories a day, which wasn’t much but there wasn’t much food we could buy. We’d get three baguettes a day between us, two tins of meatballs, a pack of chorizo and fruit. That would be about it. But sure food is a lot cheaper over there.”
Gearóid and Tim had to complete a number of projects during their trek, which were meticulously inspected to make sure they were up to standard to achieve the Explorer Belt.
“We had to pick three projects. One was on religion and we had to interview the local people. We had to ask them if the Camino Way was more a religious or tourist experience and we found that it is not religious anymore. We also had to learn about the different sports of the region and participate in one of them. We actually couldn’t find any sports to participate in so we acted them all out in a video and put them all together, calling them the Basque Olympics. The sports were ox pulling, strong man, wood chopping, handball and pelota, where they use a racket against a handball court.”
They also had to compile a tourist booklet of all the villages they went through and do individual projects. Tim explored renewable energy and communications while Gearóid looked at the physical activity of people in the Basque region compared with people in Ireland and had to learn about traditional food in the region.
According to Gearóid, completing the projects and the challenge in general led to some interesting and surprising encounters with locals. “The projects helped us meet lots of people. We interviewed about 20 people altogether. It was great to meet so many different people.
“While on the challenge we were supposed to stay in people’s gardens and we would have to walk up to their doors and ask them could we camp in their gardens.
“Most of them would say no and they would tell us to camp in the park, but there were some really nice people. We even got to stay in a house one night.
“We were going to sleep on a bench because the park was way too busy and these Muslim refugees from the Western Sahara walked past and asked where we were from.
“They got all excited when we said we were Irish, saying you people gave our people money. We were like, what’s going on? And they said from the Trócaire boxes and Concern. They said now we have to repay you so they brought us back to their house and they fed us and gave us tea and beds to sleep on.”
Now that the challenge is over, how does Gearóid, feel about achieving his goal. “It was really tough, physically and mentally but I would do it again any day. It’s the best thing I have ever done in my life and I would recommend it to anyone, that and joining scouts of course.
“I feel very lucky that we were the ones to bring the Explorer Belt here after 17 years.”
A spokesperson for Ennis Scouts paid trubute to them both on their achievement saying, “They had a big task in 33oheat but they returned home tired and triumphant with their certificate, badge and of course wearing the much coveted Explorer Belt.”