“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever” – Jacques Yves Cousteau
27 soldiers from 71 Royal Engineer Regiment have completed a two week multi activity expedition to Belize.
Meeting in Heathrow on Easter Monday 2017 after travelling from Northern Ireland and Scotland, 12 divers and 15 canoers were all set to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. For the vast majority of the group it was their first time to Belize.
Prior to starting the expedition the group was put through their paces at a training weekend in February, for the canoers it was at Ballykinler and the divers, Lisburn swimming pool. On this weekend they met the rest of the group for the first time and learnt new skills and refreshed old ones.
The group arrived in Belize City on Tuesday afternoon and were transported to British Army Support Unit Belize (BATSUB). For the Canoeists this would be their base for the next 2 weeks. The divers spent the night at BATSUB and then headed to Caye Caulkner, a small island off the coast of Belize, 8 miles long and 1 mile wide, where they spent the next 10 days. The temperature was a warm 32 °C each day with a significant amount of humidity.
The divers spent their time consolidating skills they had learnt previously. The Belize barrier reef is the second largest reef in the world and was among the best diving condition and sights that the majority of the group had ever experienced. Among the underwater creatures spotted, highlights were the nurse sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, sting rays, lobsters, sea snake, lion fish, hawkback turtle, eagle rays and moray eel. The dive facilities and boat were provided by Belize Diving Services (BDS) and every day they brought the group to different sites, each of which posed their own challenges. Each member of the group built upon their previous skill sets under the guidance of WO1 Scott and SSgt Harrison, both of whom proved to be superb instructors.
The culmination of the diving was an overnight expedition to the Great Blue Hole, which was rated number one on the Discovery Channel’s “the 10 most amazing places on earth” in 2012. The group travelled by boat for 3 hours and camped overnight on Half Moon Caye. They woke up at first light in order to be the first people at the Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is a sinkhole over 300 feet deep. The more advanced divers of the group were able to dive down to the cave system at 36m which contained drip stones, columns, stalactites and stalagmites. After diving the Great Blue hole the group made 2 other dives that day on the way back to Caye Caulkner. The overnight expedition was a highlight for all the divers on the trip.
For the canoeists it was a significantly different expedition. The majority of their time was spent in the Belizean interior, canoeing along rivers with jungle as far as they could see. Initially they began their training at “Crocodile Creek”, which provided the perfect location to learn their capsize drills. The heat and humidity provided an extra level of difficulty to overcome. The weather did change at certain stages when the canoers would get a welcome respite from the sun as the heavens opened.
Of particular highlight was the overnight expedition for which they were joined by Aaron the Belizean tracker, recently made famous in Levison Wood’s book “Walking the Americas” and the Channel 4 TV show of the same name. His in depth knowledge of the jungle, its wildlife and passion for the country was superb. They paddled throughout the day before parking up the canoes and, under Aaron’s supervision, they trekked into the jungle, wielding their machetes, to set up camp. In the jungle Aaron showed them how to select trees for their hammocks and then how to start a fire. That night they fell asleep to the sound of howler monkeys. The next morning they were up at first light in order to complete their journey. The overnight canoe expedition was the culmination of the Open Canoe Foundation Course (O2F) awarded to all 12 who set out to complete it.
As well as adventure training there was time for the soldiers to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Altun Ha, the Belize Zoo and also go on the Lamini boat tour. Several members of the party also took time out to deliver a donation from the expedition to Liberty Children’s Home which aims to provide a “nurturing environment that enables children to integrate in family or society easily”. The group spent several hours with the children talking to them and playing games. LCpl Shields said of the visit; “The trip to the orphanage was one of my highlights and was a really heart-warming experience”.
Adventurous training is hugely important to the armed forces and aims to ‘promote enhanced operational capability through controlled exposure to risk’. This trip achieved this and more. For the majority of those involved it is one of their highlights of their time in the reserves. Exercise FINN SAPPERSOAKER is one of two expeditions planned by the unit this training year and has been the most ambitious adventurous training expedition undertaken by the regiment for several years. Special thanks goes to WO2 Clasper for organising the trip and to the Ulysses Trust for their financial support.