President's Youth Award expedition:
Sleeping on a mountain's edge in the quest for gold Story and photos by Jaime Hall
Guyana Chronicle
September 22, 2002

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One of the Trail to Lethem

"I felt tired, I felt hungry, I felt sick. I wanted to turn back. I felt as though I was going to die. It was harsh and scary. I had to hold on to Mr. Cole's bag for support to reach up the mountain, but at the end of it all, I was excited" - Michelle Smith, President's Youth Award expedition participant

MICHELLE Smith could not believe she had the guts to sleep on the edge of a mountain on pillows of rocks in a pitch-dark forest.

But the slightly built 16-year-old laid her ground and awoke in `one piece' to tell of her bravery while going for gold in the President's Youth Award Republic of Guyana (PYARG) expedition last week.

"I could not believe that I would have reasons to sleep on the edge of a mountain in the pitch dark forest where the rocks were made pillows. If ever we were driven by fear and screamed, it's only the echoes of our voices from across the valley that would have responded.

"I didn't believe anything else would have...and come to our rescue. We were in the middle of nowhere. But thank God, we made it safely," she commented after her feat during the four day Gold Award Expedition from Mahdia to Kaieteur Falls in Region Eight (Potaro/Siparuni).

`We made it!' - some of the President's Youth Award gold expedition participants at the Kaieteur Falls. At far right with green pants is PYARG Executive Officer, Mr. Alfred King and to his right, with blue T-shirt, is Unit Leader, Mr. Adrian Cole.
The unforgettable night was during the last leg of trekking to Kaieteur after participants covered 28 miles on foot from the Mahdia/Tumatumari Junction to Pamella's Landing, and 32 miles by boat up the Potaro River, crossing the Amatuk, Waratuk and the Tukeit Falls.

Michelle and other participants had to fetch the two boats, fuel and all other equipment across the waterfalls.

After landing at Tukeit, climbing for seven miles or some 822 feet to the top of Kaieteur was not easy. It was a test-piece for all.

The expedition, the first for gold since the programme began three years ago, took off on Thursday, August 23 and concluded on Monday, August 27 after a more than 24-hour set back.

It involved more than 50 participants between the ages of 14 to 25 who were drawn from the 10 administrative regions of Guyana. They were placed into several groups for the purpose of interacting with others from the different regions, to share and to learn from each other.

The participants departed Georgetown about 07:30 hrs and arrived at the Mahdia/ Tumatumari Junction after travelling for more than six hours by truck. It was there the expedition officially began. Participants were required to trek some 26 miles and travel 64 miles by boat on the Potaro River during the trip.

Just a part of the journey - participants arriving at Amatuk Falls Landing.
Although the expedition suffered a setback due to logistical problems, which developed after an engine failure on the Potaro River, it was a tremendous success, PYARG Executive Officer, Mr. Alfred King said.

He noted that the participants encountered many other challenges and expressed satisfaction in they handled most of them.

One of the bigger challenges, King said, was the monitoring of food ration, taking into account the set-back. That challenge was managed well by some groups but those that fell short used other survival tactics.

The team was headed by King and supported by Field Officers, Unit Leaders, and staff from the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sports.

Participants, carrying their camping equipment and food ration to sustain them throughout the four days, began the first leg of the journey by walking some 21 miles of very tough terrain to Mahdia and arrived there at about midnight.

Kaietuer National Park Chief Warden, Mr. Laurence Gibson explains the functions of the `Reductor' plant.
They all spent the night at Mahdia and camped at the playfield pavilion before leaving for Pamella's Landing the next day. Pamella's Landing is seven miles from Mahdia, a distance the participants also had to cover on foot.

Trekking to Mahdia was described as being "very harsh" by many participants who later concluded that it had prepared them for the seven miles covering 822 feet of climbing to reach the world-famous Kaieteur Falls, a place they were all anxious to go.

Anyone falling short of reaching there would have jeopardised his or her chances of achieving the Gold Award.

Everyone was very excited to reach Kaieteur; none of the participants had gone there before. Driven by enthusiasm, they were bound to make it on a trail none of them had ever trodden.

One of the Unit Leaders, Mr. Adrian Cole, who led the team of participants that slept at the edge of the mountain, said although they arrived at Tukeit Fall (the bottom of Kaieteur) about 20:00 hrs on Saturday evening, his group wanted to be among the first to reach the target.

They chose not to camp out at Tukeit, but to follow the trail unknown to them.

The first team, of which this writer was a part, had been more than two hours ahead. We made it almost incident free, except for one of the participants stumbling in the path of a snake, which did us no harm. Our torch held out until the end, unlike Cole and his team's.

"When we arrived at Tukeit, we decided not to camp out there, but follow the trail, not knowing where we were going and where we would end up. Our torchlight went out about half way of the distance. We decided to stop and spend the rest of the night there and took off at about 05:00 hrs. the next day to complete the journey", Cole explained.

He said his team was very enthusiastic about getting to Kaieteur and was prepared to do so at all cost. "They were very excited to be in the jungle at that time not knowing where they were heading. They kept asking, `Mr. Cole, you know where we are going?' I said, `all of us are like blind bats and we have to make it to the top'."

This statement might have sounded harsh, but his group didn't think it was as harsh as the terrain they all had to climb. It was said in a spirit of optimism. And he felt that there was very good camaraderie among the participants and they were all motivated by that.

"I felt tired, I felt hungry, I felt sick. I wanted to turn back. I felt as though I was going to die. It was harsh and scary. I had to hold on to Mr. Cole's bag for support to reach up the mountain, but at the end of it all, I was excited", Michelle, the lone female in that group said.

"When the group stopped to sleep, the piece of flat space at the edge of the mountain was too narrow to set up our tents. We slept in a line where everybody's head was touching someone's toes. Michelle was placed in the middle to be protected and we would call upon her steadily throughout the night just to ensure that she was okay," Cole related.

The experience shared by Cole and his team was among individual challenges many young people encountered during the expedition. All of them made it, driven by enthusiasm to see the mighty Kaieteur - a destination that is frequented by many foreign visitors and a place to which many locals could barely afford to travel.

When the participants arrived at the Kaietuer National Park they were welcomed by Chief Warden, Mr. Laurence Gibson who told them he thought the PYARG expedition was a good move, which should be seen as a venture to encourage more young people to get to know their country well.

He noted that many foreigners and overseas-based Guyanese can afford to visit Kaieteur by aircraft at the cost of over US$200 for a day tour, and that it could be embarrassing when most young people spending most of their lives in Guyana cannot afford that means of experiencing the natural wonder.

He urged the participants to pass on the word about PYARG and encourage them to be a part of the programme.

The team was taken on a tour in some sections of the Park where they were introduced to the wide-ranging flora and shown how symbolic some plants are to human existence.

One of the plants shown was the `Reductor', which traps insects, particularly mosquitoes. The functions of that plant will help to reduce the chances of any disease the parasite usually transmits, such as malaria.

The national award scheme concept is one of individual challenge. It presents to young people a non-competitive programme of voluntary activities, which encourage personal discovery and growth, self-reliance, perseverance, responsibility to oneself and service to community.

PYARG will be holding an award ceremony in October to honour those participants who took part in the Bronze, Silver and Gold award activities, which include the expeditions.