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The Leader

Common Ground in an Uncommon Place

By Rich Brame
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2002, Vol. 17, No. 3

  Common Ground
  Proving that the wilderness classroom can be just about anywhere, Rich Brame teaches a class on LNT principles.
© Krishnan Kutty
Accompanied by a diesel generator’s roar, the overhead string of flickering incandescent lights rudely pushed away the dark. My groggy mind registered that I was laying in a squeaky-new, NATO sleeping bag (it was rated to zero degrees Fahrenheit, but only to about 100 decibels) on a musty Oriental rug on the floor of a garage-sized rectangular tent. I was 120 kilometers southwest of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was 3:30 a.m. and my NOLS workday had just begun.

NOLS India Program Manager Krishnan Kutty and I had arrived in Saudi Arabia two weeks before. Our March 2002 mission was to present NOLS’ perspectives on ecotourism and wilderness leadership to about 200 participants and land managers at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s first ecotourism symposium in the capital city of Riyadh. As if that weren’t challenge enough, through the auspices of the Professional Training Institute of NOLS, we were also charged with conducting a two-day Leave No Trace workshop in a wildlife preserve near the city.

Although Kutty lives in India and worked for a number of years in the Middle East, I had never been to Asia. I had never even left the North American continent. In fact, ten days before my arrival at King Khalid International Airport, I’d been in the sedate and icy northern realms of the Yukon Territory. From culture, to religion, to language, to weather, to sheer urban confusion (Riyadh has over 5 million people compared to Whitehorse’s 20,000), this NOLS adventure was pushing my personal envelope as an educator.

We spent our first days in-country scouting locations in the Najd, the Arabian Peninsula’s heartland of gravel deserts and towering escarpments, for our end-of-tour LNT training. Our hosts, the National Commis-sion for Wildlife Conservation and Development, provided an English-speaking guide to thread us through Riyadh’s paved labyrinths and southeast to the Ibex Wildlife Preserve. The aptly named Ibex Preserve is home to a dwindling population of ibex (small goats) and gazelle. The preserve’s rangers and managers are kept busy chasing out machinegun-toting poachers and voracious free-ranging camels. Our immediate goal was to share LNT ideas, philosophies, and awareness of subtle recreation impacts in a seemingly bulletproof environment—the Ibex Preserve had received only 22 millimeters of precipitation in the last three years. The heat, sun, camels and aridity hardened the ground to an almost impervious status.

We all had much to learn, but each of us had much to share and teach as well. Over our two-day course our nine men and three women students (ten students were Saudi) immersed themselves in NOLS’ philosophy and conservation techniques. The women, all accompanied by a spouse or male relative, asked questions from behind their abaya—the head-to-toe robe-like covering that often shows only their eyes (sometimes even eyes are hidden behind a fine mesh). Much of our classroom curriculum was inside the relatively cool shade of a gigantic carpet-floored wall tent that was crewed by a cadre of thawb-wearing Bangladeshis (a thawb is a traditional and ubiquitous ankle-length shirt of light wool or cotton).

The Saudis are interested in protecting their arid wildlands and conscious of the country’s growing population. Many of the government folks with whom we worked are keen to develop some sort of recognizable outdoor recreation for Saudis, Arabs, and possibly tourists from outside the Kingdom. Areas in the north near the Jordanian border offer canyons and extensive granite domes and spires. To the south, the world’s largest sand desert, the Rub Al-Khali or the “Empty Quarter”(a France-sized area of shifting dunes), is already popular with camel and vehicle trekking groups. Over two million people come to Saudi Arabia during the Haj on their pilgrimage to the western city of Mekkah, Islam’s holiest city, each year, so the Red Sea on Saudi Arabia’s western border has great potential for sailing, kayaking and diving. There are many challenges to viable “wilderness tourism” in the Kingdom, but it’s heartening to see that the Saudis are tapping the best resources available to set up their nascent outdoor recreation systems and standards.

We had the normal expeditionary challenges of broken-down vehicles, harsh environments (it’s really hot there!), and local unidentifiable cuisine (ever drink “coffee” made from unroasted beans and enough cardamom to make the drink tang-colored?). We also were tired by nightly palatial social engagements with a rotation of well-spoken Princes (“HRH” is a common title as there are literally about 8,000 Princes). Certain un-named conspirators in our adventure also narrowly avoided a major diplomatic incident when bad choices were made concerning just which washroom was reserved exclusively for women…

Our success in Saudi Arabia was a lot of work for many people at NOLS. Kutty and I took on the challenges of culture, language and environment and managed to have fun while doing it. Our efforts paid off as participants sincerely thanked us and, even more importantly, immediately began to teach NOLS’ LNT concepts to support staff and Ibex Preserve Rangers who did not get the chance to sit in on our weekend training. NOLS’ practice of “explain, demonstrate and do” really works, even across great cultural gulfs.

Given recent world events, I am quite impressed that we can share and learn skills that not only protect wildlands around the globe, but also in at least a small way, teach respect and tolerance for differing cultures and worldviews. The Saudis, with their monarchy, challenging environment, abaya, thawb and a host of other “differences” are, after all, just people trying to do the right thing with their diminishing wild lands. I’m proud that NOLS can help.

An instructor since 1984, Rich Brame was chief architect of NOLS’ Outreach/public policy/Leave No Trace efforts in Lander and now heads up NOLS Yukon in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.



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