Not often do you come across an experience that challenges your body, mind and all your senses, and subsequently leaves you with a strange sense of longing and a whole lot of leech bites~🌚🔥
Team Alpha, hosted for the 4th consecutive year by the Rotaract Club of SLIIT, was anything but the leisurely stroll in the jungle we were all somewhat hoping for. From the moment we stepped off the bus to the cool, serene air outside, it was made clear we were far away from the comforts of home. We were immediately ushered to the Gemunu Hewa Camp’s seating area by the organizing committee for the project, led by our beloved President Rtr. Duleesha and our PD director Rtr Menuka. Rtr Duleesha gave the welcome note to the gathering, after which our charge was handed over to a team of instructors lead by Corporal Rathnayake. Corporal Rathnayake did not hesitate to point out the fact that for the ensuing two days, the only thing we could call our own was the air we breathed; which was just a significantly elegant way of saying “We own you”. Hence, started the first day of training which made us realize that we would all die a tragic and painful death if we were actually put into a war-zone.
All the activities we were to face in the following couple of days were conjured up in the minds of our fellow Rotaractors in the organizing committee, and meticulously planned and prepared days before the event even started. These activities of our training started off rather tame, lulling us into a false sense of security that made us believe that the ensuing activities would be just as simple. Firstly, each of us were given an egg which would be our “responsibility” for the duration of the training, and the survival of the egg was of the utmost importance; despite which, several eggs were promptly broken, cracked or stepped on almost immediately after being handed out. The first test involved the making of a structure using A4 sheets, which served as a warm-up session for the teams to learn to work together to achieve a common objective.
Immediately afterwards, the teams were rushed off to the jungle to face various challenges placed along the way. The challenges ranged from traversing a decaying bridge avoiding pretend laser beams fixed along the path, to crawling through a narrow channel made of rope without touching the roof. Each of these challenges served to bring us closer to the dirt we tread on, while testing our patience, endurance and the cohesion of the team.
The real test of our endurance arrived when Corporal Attanayake, the instructor in charge of our team made us carry the heaviest guy in the team the rest of the way to the rendezvous point, pretending he had been shot and in immediate need of medical attention. We managed to lumber our way down to the destination, swaying about and panting uncontrollably, never for a moment suspecting that the worst was yet to come.
The sun was at its highest when we arrived at the gathering point for the teams, where bad news awaited us: we would have to cook our own lunch. All we were given was a bag of potatoes and two fish caught from the river; unwashed, ungutted and definitely not how we are used to having them served. The timer was set, and the teams scurried off to find twigs and dry leaves while some of each team’s teammates stood behind to prepare the food for cooking. Cooking the food amounted to no more than sticking a long twig through the fish and the peeled potatoes and holding them over the fire we had kindled up, all the while tolerating the nightmare of a smoke blowing into our sore eyes and constantly running out to get more fuel for the dying fire.
Eventually, we were able to cook up a meal that was edible, if not appetizing, which we ate regardless of the questionable state some of the fish were in. Thankfully we were given ears of corn to satiate our hunger after the less than appealing meal.
Following lunch, we were allowed a much-needed respite, during which Ms. Sachinthani conducted a lecture on essential first aid in situations of emergency. Soon afterwards the activities resumed. The teams were quickly briefed on the upcoming challenge, which involved the discovery of a ‘rare gemstone’ hidden somewhere at the bottom of the river. Each team were allowed several minutes to wade through the icy-cold evening waters in search of the supposed gemstone. Yet, even after repeated dives down to the bottom of the river, turning every stone that exhibited the least amount of suspicion and plunging hands down the sandy riverbed, no team was able to find the gemstone.
After this failure, all the teams were simultaneously called down to the river once more to allow everyone one final attempt. Corporal Rathnayake established the perimeters of the search area once more and bade the teams to attempt to find the gemstone once more. All forty-eight participants immediately waded or dove in, eager as ever to discover the elusive stone. Several minutes passed, the waters were getting muddy and some of the team members had clearly given up and were relaxing on a rock. Suddenly one participant held up a small, square object wrapped thoroughly in a white polythene. It was tossed over to Corporal Rathnayake, who promptly revealed to us that our ‘precious gemstone’ was just a few ten rupee coins wrapped up in a polythene. Our mild disappointment was short-lived as we were allowed a few minutes to wash ourselves in the river. Some swam around and some actually washed themselves. A few others however, simply opted to find a safe spot somewhere along the river, lie down with their eyes closed and allow the icy-cold streams to run serenely along their bodies; finally finding a little bit of peace in one tremendously unpeaceful day.
Soon enough, our few blissful minutes at the river ended and we were called back to camp. The soldiers of the Gemunu Hewa camp had constructed a pyre for a campfire. The honor of lighting the pyre was given to the team leaders, which marked commencement of the night’s entertainment. Each team presented a song and a play based on a particular message. Some of the highlights were the plays performed by Team 1 and Team 5 which conveyed messages regarding protecting the environment and importance of risk taking respectively. The electrifying Tamil song performed by Team 3 was also a high point of the night, whose team members had to tackle many challenges pertaining to the existence of members speaking differing native tongues.
The night drew on backed by the pouring stream of embers rising ceaselessly towards the darkness from the pyre, until the various hakas performed by the teams marked the end of the entertainment and the call for dinner. After dinner most retired to the dormitories. Some of us however, stood behind a little longer, restlessly anticipating what was yet to come.
When the alarms sounded in unison within the men’s dormitories, it was still painfully dark, and nobody had had enough sleep. One by one the guys started walking zombified towards the bathroom to face the inevitable splash of cold water upon their faces. Getting ready was a painful process, however by 5.30am everybody was present at the seating area for tea. Soon afterwards we had a small PT session, which served as a warm up for the arduous journey we were about embark on.
Before we departed into the forest, we were all given instructions on where we would need to find our way to the river. Each team was given a rope, and we had our essentials packed in one backpack. With Corporal Attanayake closely following us, our team dove into the wilderness, carefully following a footpath set before us. Corporal Attanayake kept on reminding us to keep an eye out for anything unusual and that the forest is a home to many people, arousing our suspicion on what was about to come. Quite suddenly we heard a faint groan coming through the undergrowth ahead of us. Warily we crept closer to find a man lying on the ground, with a red drenched cloth wrapped tightly around his knee, groaning in visible pain. The man explained to us how he had injured himself cutting wood. He asked us to carry him up to the footpath ahead so that he could get some help. It’s at that point that we realized we were being subjected to a test, hence we hurriedly recalled everything we had learned in the first aid lecture the previous day and safely carried the man to footpath, after which he pointed out the way leading to a woodcutter who would give us further information regarding our path.
It didn’t take us long down the direction we were pointed in to hear the distant sounds of an axe being swung upon a piece of timber. The woodcutter obliged in giving us directions to our destination; under a condition. We were asked to chop a few pieces of wood for him in exchange for the information he was about disclose to us. Embarrassingly enough chopping wood turned out to be a more complicated of a job than us city-dwellers had realized. It took a few good minutes to find a sizable piece of wood and another few minutes to place it in a position that wouldn’t allow it to jump off the blade and hit somebody on the head. The first swing landed nowhere near the piece of wood and buried the blade of the axe deep in the soil. After our umpteenth attempt the soldier disguised as the lumberjack divulged the information we were seeking out of sheer sympathy. We were sent off to find a small shrine within the forest whose priest would supposedly lead us on our way, provided we make an offering to the shrine. We followed the footpath until we came to the shrine were told about, which was just a small shelter made out of a long red cloth inside which the priest was sitting cross-legged with a “thammettama” before him. We made an offering, soon after which he read our fortune and spoke of a road that would lead us down to a huge rock and eventually the river. Soon enough we found the road the priest spoke of, and eventually made our way down to the river, huffing and puffing.
A few other teams that had left before us were already there when we came jogging in. The organizing committee along with Corporal Rathnayake and Sergeant Sanjeewa were waiting patiently till all the teams arrived. A small respite was allowed after the final team had arrived. Then Sergeant Sanjeewa lead everyone down to the river. Standing tall atop a large rock in the middle of the stream, he pointed towards the forest we were about to enter. There were no clear footpaths, no easy roads and no leniency for those that were proud and careless. The forest we were about to enter into extended for miles in each direction, and anyone unfortunate enough to lose themselves in there would be lost for many days, or even weeks. Hence, the warnings were given, and heeded. Thus, started our slow descent into hell.
The trek started off relatively smoothly. While there wasn’t a clear footpath for us to follow, there were noticeable openings through the shrubbery we could creep past with relative ease. Gradually, the terrain lost its soft facet and became increasingly rougher as we progressed. Rarely could we move several paces without encountering a small hill we would have to climb up or a slope we would have to slide down. The undergrowth was getting thicker and thicker until it was barely possible to keep an eye on the teams moving ahead of us, and the occasional thorny branch that we encountered along the way made it a point to leave its marks on our exposed faces and forearms. One of the most difficult aspects of the journey was the footing. Traversing the uneven terrain was arduous enough, however finding sure footing amongst the moist soil, the moss-covered rocks and the muddy slopes posed an interesting challenge of its own. Many times, our unsuspecting steps ended up in small pits of mud, connivingly concealed by the wild grass and weeds grown over.
The environment rich in moisture affixed yet another interesting feature to our route: leeches. Curled up in the most concealed of places, standing upright precisely at the perfect moment to latch on to an unfortunate passerby and causing just the right amount of itching in your lower thigh to arouse your suspicion and cause panic. All along the way it was a common sight to see somebody complaining of their legs itching and repeatedly checking their feet for leeches; all because of paranoia. The trek continued with little rest in-between.
The winding path we made for ourselves through the trees had us cross the river multiple times, completely drenching our clothes time and time again. It was an onerous task to keep our bags dry throughout the journey, but even more so to keep the eggs we were given the previous day as the “responsibility” intact. In fact, the few eggs that had made it through the trials of the previous day were mostly cracked against rocks, dropped in the river or inadvertently smashed in the pockets of their owners. Yet, we kept moving, and after almost six hours of walking, climbing, crawling and wading through rough waters, we finally made it to our destination, miles away from where we had started. The view around us was astounding and a road nearby allowed our lunch to be brought to us from the camp itself. Famished as we were, we finished off our food quickly and made our way back to the camp in the back of a lorry.
The day was soon drawing to a close and the only event that was left was the award ceremony. After scraping off the mud and the leeches off our legs in the washrooms, we all gathered in the seating area. A heartfelt speech was made by Corporal Rathnayake, bidding us farewell and releasing us from his “ownership”. The enthusiastic team of instructors who were in charge of us for the duration of the training were presented with tokens of gratitude.
Then came perhaps the most anticipated event of the eve: announcing the winning team. The teams were scored on a multitude of points which includes cohesion, leadership, supportiveness and the success achieved in each challenge. After consistent teasing from Rtr. Duleesha, the winning team was announced to be Team 01: One Force, which was no real surprise for anyone.
Subsequently, all the team leaders were invited to the stage speak a few words, share their thoughts and express their gratitude to the organizers of the event, instructors and all the soldiers at the Gemunu Hewa Camp who made us feel welcome at their home. The ensuing jubilation lasted for a while, with each team fighting to take photographs with each other and the instructors that guided them. In the end, we said our goodbyes, got back on to our bus and left the camp in the darkening obscurity behind us, taking nothing but the stories we were dying to tell.
Rtr. Randima Fernando