Scouts UK provide an update from South Korea
IT WAS a 12-day international celebration of scouting, four years in the making – but for the hapless British teenagers attending, it lasted just four days. The 25th World Scout Jamboree in South Korea was supposed to give 40,000 teenagers from all around the world the chance to share cultural experiences and forge new friendships. But yesterday organisers announced they were ending the event early due to an incoming typhoon days after soaring temperatures of 35C caused hundreds to fall ill.
The 4,500-strong UK contingent, the largest at the event, evacuated the site at Saemangeum for Seoul on Saturday, blaming poor sanitation, inadequate medical services, a lack of shade, not enough food and little consideration of dietary requirements.
UK Scouts chief executive Matt Hyde said he felt “disappointed” and “let down” by organisers.
The British Embassy in South Korea helped move UK scouts back to hotels in Seoul and stepped in to arrange activities for the remainder of their time in the country.
But what went so terribly wrong? For more than a century, the scout motto has been to “Be Prepared” for “any accident or situation that might occur” – but it appears the Korean organisers didn’t get the memo in what has become an unmitigated PR disaster for scouting.
As one of two UK journalists who made the trip to Saemangeum, I saw firsthand some of these problems. Many others were not obvious – as the British contingent, sandwiched between the Koreans and the global scouting body, The World Organization of the Scout Movement, ensured we saw only good news stories.
Things had started so well. On Friday, July 28, I arrived with British 14 to 17-year-olds who had fundraised for two years to pay £3,495 for their trip of a lifetime.
We stayed at the bright and spacious Novotel Seoul Dragon City. Each morning, scouts piled their plates high with bacon, eggs, waffles or Korean dishes at the breakfast buffet.
They were impossible to miss, their tied neckerchiefs looped over colourful jamboree-branded T-shirts.
And Seoul’s streets were soon filled with scouts from almost every continent as they hired traditional Korean costumes to visit Seoul’s grand palaces and the Bukchon Hanok Village.
The Scottish teenagers I accompanied to the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, said they couldn’t wait to get to the jamboree.
The biggest struggle was the 33C heat which felt even hotter due to high humidity.
“We were told it was going to be humid but I didn’t comprehend how much it would cling to you,” Ailsa Russell, 16, from Greenock, near Glasgow, said. “We’ve been in hot temperatures before but we’re used to dry heat.”
She was right. It had turned us all into walking human ice lollies, melting slowly and dripping constantly with sweat.
Even with air-conditioning and shade, it was still challenging.
But all this changed after I headed four hours south on Monday with volunteers to the jamboree site in Saemangeum on the south-west coast.
The following morning, a media representative told me I couldn’t enter the jamboree site as it wasn’t ready. The Korean organisers had banned all media for the day. Cue awkward silence. There was an explanation.
Two weeks earlier, heavy rains in one of the country’s worst monsoon seasons on record had caused flooding and landslides that killed 40 people.
Saemangeum’s treeless jamboree site over an area of 2,200 acres – twice the size of Glastonbury – couldn’t absorb the rainfall.
Some campsites remained flooded without water and power. Up to 10,000 scouts, including the British contingent, would have to remain in Seoul for another day.
Then, after just a few hours, I was told firetrucks, aided by British volunteers digging trenches, had removed the water. The scouts would arrive, albeit 24 hours late.
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On a highway above the main stage, I saw a sea of colourful tents and pyramid-shaped marquees. The ground was dry. All that was missing was the young people.
Liz Walker, the leader of the UK contingent, was asked if the jamboree would be impacted.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “The programme will go ahead. It may look a little different but the scouts didn’t know what exactly was planned so we will adapt, we will get on with it and we will just have the best time.”
With journalists restricted to one area, what I couldn’t see were the campsites beyond view that remained waterlogged, attracting mosquitoes and flies.
Come Wednesday morning and now on-site, I noticed a worrying lack of shade. The Korean organisers had installed over 1,700 shade shelters but it didn’t seem enough.
Some of the toilet cubicles were backed up with unflushed human waste.
The British contingent had arranged for me and another UK journalist to meet scouts straight off the buses for brief interviews before they set up their tents.
Everyone was in good spirits, if weary from the heat and travelling.
TV adventurer and chief scout Bear Grylls had arrived to deliver a speech at the opening ceremony. In a brief interview beforehand, he talked up the resilience of scouts and how “young people are going to change the world”.
By now, we had spent several hours in the heat without air-conditioning. My top was damp with perspiration and I was wilting.
In the UK media tent, volunteers filed in and out to get video footage and interviews.
We had access to ice-cold juice drinks, but the scouts only had warm bottled water.
It was at the opening ceremony, as darkness fell, that things began to unravel.
Constantly shepherded by a media representative, I could see that long queues and security checks were delaying people from entering.
Still, there was a convivial atmosphere as international scouts paraded past in uniforms, waving flags and singing songs.
With a drone then whizzing around our heads, ambulances began passing by in greater numbers as dusk turned to night.
The ceremony itself was lacklustre. Too many officials delivered speeches and only Bear Grylls’ rousing address seemed to energise the crowd.
At 10pm, local time, the speeches ended and K-pop musicians took over.
Three exhausted scouts plonked themselves behind me, moaning loudly about the concert (too dull), the long queues and their 45-minute walk from the campsite after their late arrival.
“It’s taken two hours, it was horrible,” one of them complained. “We need to set up our tents when we get back.”
Clearly peeved, my media escort decided it was time to leave. We needed to find the other British journalist who had got lost in the crowds; hardly surprising as lighting was minimal and signage non-existent.
As thousands left the arena, ambulances rushed past, taking patients to a makeshift hospital, while volunteers formed human barricades to let them pass.
I met one scout leader lying on the ground who said she had suffered a panic attack, the culmination of a “horrible” four days.
She waved me away saying her friends were nearby. The following morning, the British contingent found new scout interviewees for me to interview.
Many seemed hot and listless, sprawled across the floor but all were on message.
“The heat is tiring but you push through it because what matters is the experience and meeting people from different cultures,” said Sam Robinson, 16, from Devon. “We are drinking lots of water and carrying on.”
The others agreed. And their enthusiasm seemed genuine. No one was bothered about trying activities aside from water slides or paragliding. They wanted to meet other scouts, swap badges and learn about new cultures.
Luke Patterson, 20, who is studying politics and social anthropology at Cambridge University, was a volunteer who had paid £3,500 to dig trenches and help late arrivals assemble their tents.
He was enthusiastic and talked about the “challenging but rewarding” work and everyone’s “amazing spirit”.
But he did admit he’d been offered lettuce and rice for breakfast and had to walk everywhere after the site shuttle buses failed to turn up on time.
“It’s all part of the fun,” he laughed. “It’s the most expensive diet I have ever had.” I wondered if he was suffering from heat exhaustion.
By now, parents were flooding social media to complain about the jamboree’s poor organisation.
They shared pictures showing their children’s tent raised on platforms and one said their child was having an “awful time”.
Before heading to Seoul to catch my flight back to the UK, I managed to sneak away from my minders for 45 minutes to assess things for myself.
It was a mixed picture: I saw one scout slumped over a table and paramedics wheeling a stretcher into the jamboree souvenir shop.
But elsewhere I saw Scottish teenagers swapping stories with Australians, and others playing games.
At one food stall, children howled with delight as they placed their feet inside ice buckets for an endurance competition.
By the time I landed at Heathrow Airport, the British contingent had pulled out.
In an effort to salvage the event, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered unlimited air-conditioned buses and cold water – but the typhoon proved one problem too far. Tens of thousands of young people are now being evacuated.
And lessons must undoubtedly be learned from the experience. Let’s hope the scouts are prepared to do just that.
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