Qualifying in the Time of the Pandemic: A DofE QAJ in Meemure

Amidst the prolonged COVID-19 crisis schools have been forced to shut campuses and move to digital learning platforms. In the case of the Overseas School of Colombo, this process was relatively smooth. Unfortunately, one causality was the experiential programs that get our students outside. The Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) International Award program, an initiative that is still in its infancy at our school, had to cancel both its Bronze and Silver qualifying adventures in May 2020. That left our candidates in limbo and not able to plan the next steps forward. I started working with various stakeholders to see if we could put something together over the summer. After some extra planning we were able to run a successful QAJ for a small cohort of candidates in Sri Lanka’s remote Knuckles range at the tail end of our holidays.

OSC’s Silver Award Candidates for 2020-21 on the path to the Nitrox Cave. Lenny, Alex and Chloe with Ms. Kamila. Emily and Talia kneeling.

Meemure Village in the North-eastern Knuckles (also known as the Dumbara mountains) was the target destination of the special summer Silver Qualifying Adventurous Journey (QAJ). There are many reasons why it is an appropriate location to facilitate this final test in the Silver Award. In Sri Lanka, Meemure is well known as a model rural settlement where life and agriculture goes on much the way that it has for centuries. Its small population practices traditional paddy and home garden cultivation. Until recently there was no electricity and the road access is very poor. The village is set amongst numerous sharp peaks and jungle-cloaked hills. The pointed 1,317 meter Lakegala Peak dominates the valley where Meemure is located. Lakegala and other features in the area are closely associated with Ravana and Ramayana mythology. Although Meemure has been happily isolated for many years, it is becoming a destination of interest for adventurous tourist groups from Kandy and Colombo.

Health and safety was our first and most important consideration as the QAJ came together. We took extra precautions with spacing the group out and taking preventive measures to minimize exposure. Because of the timing during the summer holidays several of our candidates were out of the country or were on family holidays. The five students that came on the journey all came voluntarily. All fours girls (Alex, Cloe, Emily & Talia) and our single boy (Lenny) were veterans of the program and had successfully completed the Bronze award as well as the PAJ in Rangala last November.  My colleague Kamila Sahideen joined us an award leader and female chaperone. Another major change to the program was to build in an extra  day of travel so that the tasks of the QAJ were not compromised by the significant distance (7-8 hours from Colombo) of our camp site.

Adventure Seals, the certified Colombo-based assessors that we work with, designed the program to Meemure. Led by Major Ruvan Ranatunga and supported by Thinuwan they worked with a team of Kandy-based outdoor enthusiasts (http://meemure.com/index.html) who have a camp site half way between Corbet’s Gap and Meemure village. It sits near a hillock overlooking the Heen Ganga and facing north down the valley. Sumedha and Anushka ran the programs and were our enthusiastic intermediaries as we explored the area over four days and three nights.

Our team in Meemure village below the imposing pinnacle of Lakegala.

Having used the first day to get to our campsite, we started our program in earnest on Tuesday July 22nd. Major Ruvan introduced the course and our goals and the team shared their focus project plans. We then hiked down the road to Meemure village, a distance of about 8.3 km. The day was bright and the skies clear. There were marvelous views to the mountains that walled in Meemure valley in including notable peaks such as Kalupahana/Thunisgala (1,627m).

OSC team (Chloe, Lenny, Talia, Alex, Kamila & Emily) below Corbet’s Gap on our way to the campsite in the Meemure valley. Lakegala is the last peak above Lenny’s head.

The exposure the sun surprised us and dehydrated almost everyone in the group. The five students took on their roles to plot a detailed route card of the journey. We leant about the town, its people, history, mythology and environmental challenges as more visitors seek their own Sri Lankan Shangri La. Our lunch was taken in a village house next to the Meemure paddy files that are overshadowed by Lakegala. The highlight of the day was swimming in a series of crystal clear pools on the way back to camp.

During our 2nd full day the focus projects were the key aspect of the hike to the Nitro Cave. The DofE focus project of the PAJ/QAJ is something that we are still working on with varying levels of success. The idea is that their journey has a purpose and is not just an aimless walk in the woods. Our five candidates each had goals to work on with a focus on collecting flowers, taking portraits, making a video and writing poetry. I expect that in the future the focus project will take on more importance. On this day we spent a good deal of our energy getting to the cave and back.

Our final day at Meemure mostly involved packing up the campsite and heading back out of the valley to Colombo. As usual, I was up at dawn to watch the light on the mountains. The high densely forested, rocky- ridge to west of the camp provided an awing screen for the first rays of sunshine.  A large owl-perhaps the rare Forest Eagle Owl -had been calling in the last inky hours of the night. It had woken up several students and I had also heard sounds. We took a final hike down to the pools, for a swim and  boulder jump. By the time we were on our way up to Corbet’s Gap and smoother roads, my sense was that everyone in the group had been fulfilled. In fact,  all of us could have spent more time in the valley.

OSC Silver candidates on the road near Meemure

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