The vital survival skills taught to young British merchant marine cadets during the Second World War through the Outward Bound educational initiative might seem redundant in the safe harbour of the UAE, but its newest international chapter is already delivering unique, life-changing experiences to young people from across the Emirates.
Outward Bound UAE was set up in December 2016 to provide Emirati and expatriate youth with practical and cognitive skills designed to develop their leadership skills, problem-solving capabilities, teamwork and self confidence, through multi-day expeditions that take full advantage of all the great outdoors has to offer.
Character-building experiences don’t have to mean cold showers and 20-kilometre cross-country runs before breakfast, but for home comfort-loving students, and young adults, a (maximum) four-day, three-night hiking and camping adventure can prove challenging.
“Everyone who participates does recognise it as being a physical challenge, but the overwhelming response at the end is that they were able to overcome these challenges and, more importantly, learn to not give up,” says Steve Bishop, executive director of Outward Bound UAE, which has its headquarters in Ras Al Khaimah. “We are filling a gap in the market by providing skills training for young people that helps prepare them for university or work, as well as thrive in the classroom. The experience can also help improve low self-esteem, foster resilience and boost confidence; and delivering a real sense of achievement is key,” he adds.
Instructor Susan McLatchie briefs students before their Outward Bound hike in Ras Al Khaimah. Satish Kumar / The National
Unlike the Duke of Edinburgh’s (International) Award programme, which is more multi-skills focused and includes service and sport elements, Outward Bound is wholly focused on outdoor education with the Hajar mountains its UAE playground.
“The courses are aimed at 15- to 18-year-olds, so Grade 11 and above; but we also plan to extend this to further education institutions such as higher colleges of technology,” notes Bishop.
The team includes one Arabic-speaking member of staff and the single-sex schools courses are taught in English. All instructors are Wilderness First Aid certified, with four out of the five instructors Outward Bound UK-qualified.
“Our courses are known as ‘journey treks’ and are reasonably remote, but we are never more than a couple of hours away from proper medical facilities. We try to operate an inclusive course and students are medically screened prior to joining,” explains Bishop. “As long as they don’t have any serious medical issues, and any they do have, such as asthma, present no chance of them coming to harm, then we work around that.”
However, it is a physical wake-up call with daily hiking distances of up to 8 kilometres, obstacle challenges to negotiate, a packed rucksack to tote and terrain ranging from slippery wadis to unstable scree and shifting sands.
A rallying call to “push your limits” marks the start of the expedition with a full briefing from Bishop or another member of the team covering practical concerns, safety and learning outcomes.
Satish Kumar / The National
From then on it’s all about learning how to come together as a team, using individual strengths and experience to make the most of the experience. “Participants are required to put up their own two-man tents, make a fire, cook for themselves on small camping stoves, and even learn how to properly pack a rucksack,” says Bishop.
“We also pair students up and allocate rotating roles and responsibilities, from leader to safety officer. Each day ends with a review of the experience and discussion on what they enjoyed and the learning experience.
“During the course, students are pushed physically, socially and emotionally. Often when they think they’ve reached their limits they find there is more within them. They also discover their passions and trial new skills – both technical and interpersonal.”
Feedback from students at Al Nahda School for Boys, Abu Dhabi, one of the first schools to sign up for an Outward Bound experience, is proof of the benefits of the programme. “The best part was when we were in the mountains helping each other and being a team,” says Ayham Mohamad Alnaser, with fellow student Mohamad Kamal Malas, adding: “For me it was when they took our phones. That got us to communicate more with others and brought us closer.”
They also embraced the physical aspect, as Zaki Narel Karemu explains: “There were tough moments, but overall it was awesome. Now I think I’ve discovered a new me.”
Bishop is also keen to offer tailor-made skills-development courses for companies with graduate trainee programmes.
“A company could come to us with a brief to help its graduate employees develop leadership skills or improve teamwork. With schools we can also match our courses to the learning objectives defined under the education board’s competency framework, such as a focus on respect and integrity,” he explains.
Outward Bound UAE trialled a corporate course for Ethos Consultancy, with eight team members venturing into the Hajar foothills with the goal of learning how to work better together and improve internal communication. Commenting on the experience, Jad Rammal, director of measurement solutions at Ethos Consultancy, says: “Outward Bound gave us the opportunity to know each other better. Now we’re more than just colleagues, we’re friends
“Working as a team has become a more tangible concept to us because of our experience. We have learned how to work together as part of a high-performing machine.”
The adult perspective is echoed by the next generation of business leaders. Al Nahda’s Ayham Mohamad Alnaser says: “I now know that when I don’t feel like studying I need to apply what I learned on the course, which taught me to work hard and never give up.”
For more information about Outward Bound UAE, visit outwardbound.ae
The Duke of Edinburgh Award
The award was launched in 1956 by The UK’s Prince Philip, to equip young people for life and work outside of the classroom by gaining experience and developing skills across four key areas.
Why should I do it: As well as developing invaluable skills, taking part in unique experiences and expanding your horizons, the award is highly respected by universities and employers around the world.
Can you take part if you don't live in the UK: Outside of the UK, the award falls under the remit of The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Foundation and attracts more than one million participants annually from across the globe, representing more than 140 countries. In 2016, almost 6,000 participants entered the award programme in the UAE, Europe, Mediterranean and Arab States.
Who is eligible to participate: The award is available to all 14- to 24-year-olds.
What does it involve: There are three levels: bronze, silver and gold. Depending on age and experience, participants can start at the bronze level or go directly to silver or gold.
How does it work: To register as a participant, you need to find the nearest operator (intaward.org). In the UAE there are 51 participating educational institutions with varying registration fees. Once registered, participants work with a designated award leader to plan and record their individual activities programme.
What activities does the award include: Each individual has to undertake voluntary work, a physical/sport activity, skills discipline (such as creative and performance arts, science and technology or life skills), go on an adventure/expedition, and, for the gold award, take part in a residential project.
How long does it take to complete: From six to 18 months minimum, depending on chosen level and number of hours commitment per week.
* Claire Malcolm