There was one activity I didn’t mention in our previous Lakewood Lodge post. The most rugged and intense activity, as well as my personal favorite activity, is Survival Adventure. Survival Adventure (or “Survival” for short) begins right away in the morning with a debrief from the Survival Instructor about what to pack in their packs for the overnight trip, they then assign a group leader and are told how to get to Survival Camp. Shortly after, they are released to make the hike over to the other end of the property where they will remain until the following morning. This initial interaction with the group of thirty or forty kids is an opportunity for me to introduce myself as their Survival Guide (Big Ben, as I am known here) and begin constructing my ever growing series of tall tales that turns this day from being an ordinary outing in the woods to a day long crusade between tribes of children who have crash landed on a desolate island. The goal is to carefully toe the line between creating a Castaway-like experience and allowing so much slack that it turns into Lord of the Flies. They then follow, from memory, the map I drew in the sand for the group leaders while being sure they avoid the many “dangers” they’ve been told they will encounter. These dangers include: three crocodiles in Gypsy Lake (they are here on a breeding exchange from an Australian university), stray arrows from the archery range, and electric fences that are charged to kill.
Once they have arrived at Survival Camp, I inform them that they have, in fact, become stranded on an island, and that their “memories” of hiking to this new location are simply defense mechanisms their minds have created to cope with the disaster they just endured. Turns out, they had all been in a horrible plane crash that left just a few dozen survivors. These survivors eventually formed various tribes (their camp groups) that will compete throughout the day for resources and to claim the title of Ultimate Survival Champions. The day is then spent performing various team building exercises and learning how to increase their chances of survival. Throughout the day, there are opportunities to continue building my web of lies explaining that the apples and biscuits (cookies) provided at morning and afternoon tea (snack time) were collected from the apple trees and biscuit trees here on the island. These “trees” are also used to explain the sausages provided for lunch and the mince (ground beef) and rice provided for dinner.
As the afternoon approaches, the kids are hardly able to hold back their excitement (or fear) for the infamous mud run. The mud run is a staple of any good Kiwi camp, and from the reviews I get from parents and teachers, mine is the best! A mud run, simply put, is an obstacle course in the mud. The groups compete against one another in a relay race that calls for rolling of big tires, slipping down water slides, climbing through tires, crawling under cargo nets, rolling under logs, and belly flopping all while tromping through two or three feet of thick, grayish-brown mud. Additional competitions are conducted for fastest overall runner, fastest human chain (group goes all at once holding hands), and muddiest boy and girl. This portion of the day is something I still look forward to, even after seven months of watching it, and I will undoubtably miss it as soon as we leave.
As the evening rolls around, we prepare our fires for dinner and the setting completely changes. My little mud monsters flip a switch and are now organizing their teams to compete in the world renown cooking competition, Master Chef Survival. Their teams are given minimal cookware (a couple pots, a pan, and a few other utensils) and an open fire, then told to make a masterpiece out of the “freshly picked” ingredients they are given. You’d be amazed at the meals these kids can create with just some mince, rice, a can of tomatoes, a carrot, an onion, a loaf of bread, and some basic seasonings. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of crunchy rice and undercooked mince, but I’ve also been the lucky recipient of delicious Italian meatballs, decadent rice bolognese, artisan beef burgers, gourmet burritos, carefully crafted nigiri, and so much more. Each day I am amazed at what these kids are able to think up and create with the few ingredients they are given to work with.
During the down time of cooking and eating our meals, we all get a chance to hangout and get to know more about each other. The kids get to learn where I am from and why I am in their country, and I get to learn about who they are and what they like to do and what kind of person they want to be. It seems crazy to think about, but these kids have taught me so much more about understanding people from such differing backgrounds than I would have ever guessed coming into this position.
My start here as the camp’s Survival Instructor was a unique one. Unfortunately, the instructor before me had already left the Lodge before Dana and I had arrived which left me with no one to show me the ropes. This didn’t make for a very smooth transition, considering I didn’t have any prior experience working with children, let alone having ever run an all-day survival course. On the flip side, this allowed me the chance to build a completely new program and customize it the way I wanted! My objective when designing it (and tweaking it along the way) was to make sure the course was engaging and full of energy from start to finish. I wanted to make sure every kid was pushed out of their comfort zone at least once and that they all went home having learned something about how to better survive in a survival situation.
Due to a very unexpected change of plans, I also had the opportunity to customize more than just my lesson plan. I was unbelievably lucky in that during my time as the Survival Instructor the Lodge was required to relocate Survival from the original location, where it had been for over twenty years, to the newly constructed site where it is today. Here’s how it went: I was told we needed to move, I was pointed to a few acres of undeveloped grass/forest land, I was assigned a well-trained digger operator, and then I was told I needed to have the new site developed and fully operational within three days time. I won’t go into how seemingly impossible of a task that was at the time, but from my perspective this was an absolute dream. For the next few days, I was directing a digger operator to develop the land, deconstructing/moving/reconstructing all operational facilities, and building a one of a kind mud run, all under the pressure of a hard and fast approaching deadline. And we did it! I had to put some finishing touches on the long-drops (outhouses) the morning the first group arrived, but other than that, we did it.
I truly hope I get to come back some day to see how the program has developed and tell stories of where it all began. The aspects of this job I know I’m going to miss are limitless. I’ll miss spending time with all of our amazing coworkers. I’ll miss calling the beautiful New Zealand wilderness my office. I’ll even miss coming back to the Lodge covered in war paint and mud and smelling like I crawled right out of a chimney. But what I will surely miss the most will be those Kiwi kids. At the end of each night, when their bellies are full of warm marshmallows, their tears have been wiped away after the scary story, and just before they are sent away to bed, I get to share a few parting words with them. It’s nothing dramatic, and it certainly doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to myself, but at the end of each night I like to thank them for making the day a memorable one. From the stories the adult leaders tell me, they still remember their Survival Camp from when they were their age, and it has been a privilege to get to share that experience with so many of those kids. I then send them off to bed and get myself prepared to provide the same memorable experience for the next group when the sun comes back up in the morning.