Explorer Belt Romania 2019
This summer, I embarked on an expedition of a lifetime along with others from the Scottish Scout Association, in particular the South West Region. It was to be an experience where I would make lifelong friends, meet new people and strengthen bonds which I already had.
The Explorer Belt is an award that requires the participants to take on a 10-day expedition in a foreign country, with the country chosen for us being Romania. Whilst on this expedition we would complete 10 minor projects along with a major project. These minor projects ranged from sleeping in a weird/wonderful place to dressing in national traditional clothing. Most of all though, the aim was to understand and integrate into the local culture, meeting locals and trying national delicacies (something which I believe we got very right).
Before we left country for Romania, we had three training camps at which we were trained in skills we would need for the expedition such as first aid, language skills and mindfulness. Most important of all however was meeting the people who we would be sharing this experience with, all 20+ of them. Getting that foundation of friendship before leaving in my eyes was crucial, as without it I feel we wouldn’t have had such good times and laughs with each other.
For the expedition, I was in a team with 2 others, the aptly named ‘Team Troon’ since we were all from the same unit. I never thought that I could strengthen the friendship I had with these two, but I was about to be proven very wrong.
The first day commenced with a two and a half hour walk into Bran, the heart of the Dracula myths. It was not until this point that I really felt the effect of the heat whilst carrying a 65-litre rucksack, and that effect was quite severe. From then on, water took number one priority. With our tents pitched at our campsite for the next two nights, we headed into Bran with a visit to Bran (Dracula’s) Castle on the agenda. Walking through all the markets, we came to the foot of the castle, a sight that I’ll never forget as I had been thoroughly looking forward to visiting. The castle was an amazing experience with all the local history and lore on display in force, it was easy to get lost in the past times of the region. The rest of the day consisted of a meal with two other groups that we met up with in Bran that night, with an early bed time in preparation for an early start.
Getting up relatively early, we packed our water and organised transportation to the Libearty Bear Sanctuary. Throughout the morning we learned how this sanctuary has helped the local bear population in unimaginable ways, from the rescue to the current care that is being provided. It was at the end of this tour that the heavens opened, with my eyes being stunned by the size of the hailstones falling from the sky. Most likely the size of paintballs, these hailstones were awe inspiring, with lighting to go along with them. After a hasty retreat back to the campsite, we took shelter in our tents for the next few hours as the heavens opened above us. Although, at one point, I decided that a food run was in order and ran for 15 minutes in the torrential rain, wearing only a t-shirt and shorts, to the nearest supermarket. Needless to say, I got some very strange looks!! After the rain ceased for the night we headed out for a bite to eat, eventually ending up back at the campsite.
With our stay in Bran coming to an end, we packed away the tents and got on the move to Rasnov. This in turn meant my first experience with the Romanian bus service! This was a moment of anticipation as I had heard some stories but the ride went relatively well, even though we stood the whole way and yet again got some strange looks! With the tents pitched yet again, we headed out for Rasnov Citadel, a medieval fortress sitting at the top of a hill overlooking the industrial town. The experience was an unexpected one, a lot busier and tourist orientated than we expected. The views however were nothing short of spectacular, with a line of sight all the way over to the Carpathian mountain range. With the excursion over, we headed back to the tents for the night after dinner. Yet, this was not as uneventful as it sounds as we were chased no less than two times by stray dogs! We all think we got new personal bests on the 100m sprint!
Waking up and heading to the train station, we headed for the bustling city of Brasov. Once we arrived, we searched for our hostel for the next two nights. However, once we found it we were quite spooked. It turns out that the hostel has two names, the Carrousel Hostel (the name I booked it by) and the Evil Clown Hostel! It was packed from tip to toe with clown dolls! With the eventful reception behind us, we spent the rest of the day exploring the city and grabbing a bite to eat.
The halfway point of the expedition saw us exploring Brasov even further, with a trip to the old town, a cable car up to the Brasov sign and a traditional festival square. Along with all this, we were able to meet up with another of the groups who were also staying at the hostel. With a walk through the city’s parks to bring us to dinner time, we watched as the city became bustling with atmosphere in the old town.
Day 6 was the earliest start of the whole expedition. We had to wake up at 4am to catch the 3-hour train to Sibiu. This day was to be the busiest day so far. We started with the walk to the accommodation which was an hours walk away. With all of us quite hungry by this point, we met with local scouts who we went for a meal with, before being led on a tour of the city. We traded stories, with some trading neckies and had some good times meeting new people. Afterwards we were shown a game that the Romanian scouts frequently played. With the daylight fading, a trip to the supermarket for supplies was in order before a night back at the accommodation.
The busiest day by far. With a lot of minor projects to be completed and many travelling hours ahead of us, we had an early start. We said farewell to Team 5 and set out into the city of Sibiu once more. We toured the city completing 3+ minor projects and interacting with locals, along with seeing the sights of the old town. Afterwards, we headed back to the accommodation, grabbed our rucksacks and headed for the train station, an hours walk away. Our journey from Sibiu to Carta was quite eventful, with the meeting of a very drunk Romanian entertaining us for the best part of the 2-hour train ride! Our arrival in Carta was like a blessing in disguise, finding myself instantly falling in love with it. It was the most rural destination of the whole trip, with kids running down the streets giving high-fives and locals showing us our way to the campsite along. That night we explored the small village before heading to bed.
This day was focused on travelling up the Transfagarasan Highway, featured on Top Gear. With some magnificent views at the top it didn’t disappoint, along with a bustling market and a cosy mountain hut where we would meet people from the Netherlands and America.
With an early start to go and take some photos of the scenery, we headed off down the Transfagarasan back to Carta. The day was spent trekking to an atm, where group spirits were especially low as all together we had £2 to our name! After that we further explored Carta with a herd of cows travelling through the village at night which gave us some entertainment. We met some other foreigners at the campsite and had a talk to them before heading back into the tents.
This was purely a travel day getting back to our base in Rasnov where we would all be meeting with the leader team. With a relatively late start hopping on a train in Carta, we headed into Brasov before catching a train (with open doors in the carriages!) back to Rasnov with a hike back into town to finish our expedition.
This experience is one I’ll never forget and has opened opportunities for me that I never would have had before. From presenting to the British Ambassador in Romania to getting further involved in Scouting. I have met people that will remain lifelong friends with the experiences shared between us and the laughs had. It has taught me so much about myself and what I thought were my boundaries. By pushing me outside of my comfort zone I have gained confidence in myself even more so than expected.
For this, I would like to say a massive thank you to YET for the grant that was kindly given, contributing to this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am very grateful for the support that has been given to me for this part of my scouting career and this grant has greatly contributed to this. I hope that from the Explorer Belt, I will be able to tell others about my experience and encourage fellow scouts to do the Explorer Belt in future, an opportunity which I have already presented to many scouts.