British Volunteer Group's Aim Is 'Bettering World'

Times Staff Writer

Trudging across the Great Devastation were eight men and four women from the British Isles led by an army captain of the Royal Lancers in full uniform.

There was no sign of life in any direction. No plants, bushes, trees, insects, birds, animals. Nothing. A never-never land.

Only the immense jet black lava flow that is called the Ka'u Desert on the steep slopes of 13,677-foot Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island.

It took the party of intrepid hikers three hours to walk the tortuous five miles down the mountain to where they were setting up camp.

Their boots and heavy shoes were in shreds from the trek over billions of clinkers, the sharp-edged, rough aa and pahoehoe lava.

It took five hours for a truck loaded with supplies to drive a circuitous route through a smoother lava flow to get within a mile of the campsite, as close as it could get.

Tents, chests ladened with tools and food, bundles of wire fencing, all had to be carried by hand from the truck across the strange surface by the young adventurers led by Capt. Nigel Stafford of the United Kingdom's 9th/12th Royal Lancers.

Unusual Situations

Stafford, 23, in his five years in the British infantry, has been in some unusual situations--a guard at the Grand Maze Prison in Belfast where IRA prisoners are held, six months in the Falkland Islands, a stint in the jungles of Belize, Central America.

But this, he said, topped all.

Here he was, a British army captain on active duty on a faraway American island in the Pacific, leading a party of British civilians marching through the incredible Ka'u Desert over a natural bridge across the Great Crack, a 40-foot-wide, deep chasm, to set up camp in the heart of the Great Devastation.

"I suppose it is rather bizarre to find someone like me in this godforsaken place," said the red-faced, blond, handsome 5-foot-11 soldier. On the sleeve of his right arm was a tiny British flag.

"The truth is," he added, "being here is unlike any kind of soldiering I have ever encountered."

The group of foreigners set up two bright green tents and a blue tent. They also set up a kitchen.

Some of them spent the afternoon knocking out a smooth path in the lava with sledgehammers, a path leading to a weathered, rusted, mile-long section of old fence they would be replacing in the next three days.

Others hiked back and forth to the truck unloading the fencing and supplies.

They had come to the Big Island to serve as a volunteer labor force at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park--a reverse Peace Corps, if you will.

"We're here helping you Yanks. We're helping less fortunates all over the world," said Linda Noble, 21, a hair dresser from Fraserburgh, Scotland, who quit school at 16. She snickered when she said it, pulling off her boots and socks to see how her feet were faring.

Mike Read, 20, a bank clerk from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, jumped into the conversation: "America has neglected this beautiful place. We have come to assist this national park which boasts some of the most unusual flora and fauna on earth."

For six weeks the young men and women have been toiling long hours everyday, clearing undergrowth from Puukohola Heiau, the last major religious temple of the ancient Hawaiian culture built in the islands. They have been removing non-indigenous plants from a rain forest, helping ranger Dena Leibman, 25, in her work with Nenes, the rare and endangered goose that is Hawaii's state bird, and rebuilding a fence on the gigantic lava flow.

Distinctive Flora

The fence prevents wild goats from reaching lush sections of the park where, in the past, animals have destroyed acres of rare and endangered plants.

In the last 10 years, the National Park Service has killed 20,000 goats to protect one of the world's most distinctive flora, more than 1,700 species, 98% of which flourishes only in the Hawaiian Islands.

The English volunteers are members of Operation Raleigh, a creation of Prince Charles, patron of the organization. It is made up of 4,000 young men and women, who, in the words of the heir to the British throne, "are making practical contributions to better the world in science and service."

Operation Raleigh honors the memory of that notable Elizabethan, Sir Walter Raleigh, and marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of America's first English-speaking colony by the famed adventurer at Roanoke Island, N.C.

The organization's four-month project on Hawaii's big island is one of 40 expeditions being carried out by Operation Raleigh on six continents between autumn 1984 and spring 1989.

Members of London-based Operation Raleigh are young people ages 17 through 24, 1,500 from the British Isles, 1,500 from the United States and 1,000 from several other nations in Europe and Asia.

They are in Africa working with medical teams; building irrigation systems in Indonesia and New Guinea; assisting archeologists in the jungles of Honduras; constructing schools in Bolivia and Peru. They are in many more places throughout the world as members of scientific parties, helping people in need.

Operation Raleigh groups will be working in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tibet, Antarctica, the Solomon Islands, the Falkland Islands, Zaire, Kenya, Australia's Gibson Desert, the Empty Quarter in Oman and many more exotic spots.

"The idea is to provide young people with a unique opportunity to seek challenges, to develop their skills, to provide them with confidence and awareness and help them accept the responsibility in a difficult world," Prince Charles said in defining the role of the "venturers" as participants are called.

"These are young people from vastly different backgrounds (Ph.D. candidates to high school dropouts, from poverty-level to affluent families) working together on exciting worthwhile projects in unfamiliar places, often under conditions of hardship, growing to respect each other's cultures and attitudes, helping break some of the barriers of prejudice and intolerance."

But why Hawaii? Why America, retired Royal Navy Lt. Commander John Townend, 62, an Essex insurance executive and leader of the expedition to Hawaii, was asked.

"Since the program commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first English-speaking colony in America, Operation Raleigh wanted to do something worthwhile and adventurous in the United states," replied Townend.

A decision was made to set up a volunteer work program in one of the national parks.

"Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was chosen because," said Townend, "it is one of the world's prime heritage parks, its ecosystem is so unique and important internationally."

Townend took a four-month leave from his business and is paying all his own expenses, as do all expedition leaders. Each of the young "venturers" spends three months on an expedition at a cost of $2,500 to $5,500. Participants raise money through sponsorships by companies or businesses and by staging raffles, rummage sales and similar activities.

It was Townend's daughter who first heard about Operation Raleigh. "She told me she would like to have a go at it," recalled the expedition leader. "When I phoned to get particulars, I said I wished they had something like this when I was a lad. I was told they were looking for older people like me as well, and here I am."

His daughter did not go. She had other commitments.

As for Capt. Stafford, he, too, is a volunteer. But unlike the others he isn't paying his own way. He's still on active duty, on temporary assignment from his base in West Germany. Each expedition has a similar young serviceman or woman in a leadership role in the field.

"This is something new, a bit weird for the National Park Service to have a group of volunteers from a foreign country come into a park and provide us with a free labor force," said Jon Erickson, 40, public affairs officer at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

"Especially since America has the Peace Corps and thousands of others in nations all over the world involved in volunteer projects to help better the lives of others, doing scientific research for the enlightenment and betterment of mankind."

Allen Ramos, 30, supervisor of resources management for the park working with the Operation Raleigh group on replacing the Ka'u Desert fence, said the park service's cutbacks in funding have made it necessary to shelve or postpone many priority projects.

"In these times of government austerity, we suffer greatly from a lack of manpower and lack of funds," said Don Taylor, 47, the park's chief of resources management who is coordinating the efforts of the Operation Raleigh expedition.

"Operation Raleigh's presence here is really quite astounding and unprecedented. Their spirit of enthusiasm and attitude toward work is inspiring to our people."

There will be three Operation Raleigh groups in the park--about 50 individuals in all--during their four months here. Each group will spend seven weeks (one group overlapping another) doing a variety of work of ecological importance.

Succeeding Operation Raleigh groups in the park will include young people from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland.

Following a seven-week period working in the national park, each group will spend five weeks sailing through waters off the Hawaiian Islands on the 72-foot British brigantine Zebu, which sailed here from England through the Panama Canal with a stop-off at the Galapagos Islands. The venturers will help scientists conduct oceanographic research while aboard the two-masted square rigger.

Capt. Stafford and John Townend will remain on land throughout the four months supervising each group's work on the various projects in the national park.

During their stay in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Operation Raleigh members are living in primitive quarters at Ainahou Ranch. There is no electricity or running water and they pay for and prepare all their own meals.

When not working on their various projects the young people spend hours with native Hawaiians learning their language, crafts, history and culture.

Said Robert May of Suffolk, England: "This is the chance of a lifetime. Hawaii is not well known at all to British people. Most of us in our group had no idea before coming here that there was a unique Hawaiian culture. We did not know that the native people had their own language. Until I came here I thought there was just one Hawaiian Island."

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