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June 12, 2012

IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE:Pushing the boundaries for incentive and motivation events

Incentive and motivation event organisers are always looking for new and, often, more challenging destinations and activities, but has anyone really taken things as far as UVU Jungle Marathon organiser Shirley Thompson?


Shirley Thompson has a fascinating past. Born into a musical family in Belfast, her father and uncle funded seminal sixties radio station Radio Caroline. But rather than being drawn into the music business Thompson spent most of her working life in private aviation. This saw her catering to the needs of a host of pop stars, celebrities, politicians, royalty and other high-net-worth individuals. A self-confessed heavy smoker, Thompson decided to give up smoking in her early forties and took up running… swapping one addiction for another.     

Not content with simply taking part in marathons, Thompson got into ultra-distance running (100km plus), and set-up a new race that has become infamous for being one of the toughest on the ultra marathon circuit: the UVU Jungle Marathon, an annual ordeal that takes place in the depths of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. This experience led Thompson into organising group trips into the area – known as much for its inaccessibility as its inhospitability – that offer participants a truly life-changing experience.

“Groups can expect an unforgettable experience,” says Thompson. “The chance to visit a remote virtually untouched region, interact with the locals and see how they live, witness incredible flora and fauna, and test one’s own tenacity against nature.”




Jungle fever
The Amazon rainforest is the mother of all jungles; it is a unique, fragile and often hostile environment. “It is a privilege to be able to experience it first hand,” adds Thompson. “Imagine the thrill of sleeping in a hammock amid the sounds and smells of the jungle at night. Lots of orange eyes staring at you though the foliage. The sounds of howler monkeys. A tarantula the size of a dinner plate running across the ground beneath you. A huge campfire for safety and armed guards to protect you from the jaguars. It’s truly mind-blowing.”

One person who has used Thompson’s skills and is effusive about the experience is Ray Zahab, founder of not-for-profit organisation Impossible 2 Possible. 

“We create experiential learning opportunities for young people through adventures,” explains Zahab. “We link up with extraordinary people that can pull together amazing experiences in remote parts of the world, and we combine each expedition with a relevant educational programme. The chance to not only visit the Brazilian Amazon, but also work with Shirley was almost a perfect opportunity.”

Zahab took a team of around 20 people into the Jungle with Eventrate, a challenge that comes with its own unusual logistical issues. “We were flying people in from all over the States,” he says. “It’s a hell of a journey – a real tale of planes, trains and automobiles. Once you’ve flown into Sao Paulo it’s only the start. I think we then had a 10-hour boat trip and various other amazing transport experiences before we arrived at our destination. The logistics were all handled by Shirley, which is nothing short of an incredible feat.”

Thompson and her company pride themselves on top logistic support. They are the specialists in this region, and have built up strong relationships with the people and communities.

“There are indigenous villages that welcome no one from outside their village, even government officials, and yet they work with us and welcome us,” she explains. “We are hugely lucky that we have such a special relationship with these people, and it means that with us people see things no one else does. We only work with local people. I am the only non-Brazilian, but I've lived there, I understand the people and speak fluent Portuguese, which is imperative if you're going to operate in the region.”



Challenging environment
This is an environment that's challenging in every respect, so safety is Thomson’s top priority. “This is a hostile and remote location, so we need to have excellent communications,” she says. “We use the military and a combination of HF and VHF radios. Satellite phones seldom work under the  jungle canopy. We use the fire service for evacuations, and if there is a medical problem, such as a snake bite, we always have a doctor with the team and a fast boat to take any casualty to hospital. We even have an on-call consultant in the local hospital in case they are required.”

On top of this, water needs to be distributed to strategic points in advance of any event and this can involve a day of carrying on foot by the locals on steep jungle trails. Routes need to be meticulously planned and Thompson works with locals to create detailed hourly itineraries. “We also need back up plans if areas become inaccessible with reserve vehicles and boats on hand in case of breakdowns,” adds Thompson. “Each route needs to be checked and double checked and marked with biodegradable tape so people don't get lost – it is very easy to get lost in the jungle prior to an event.”

Understandably, planning an event here is not something you can pull together overnight. “We like to have six to eight months to plan in detail, but we can do it in less time if required,” explains Shirley. “We need to get permissions from the government and then from all the villages and villagers, this is a lengthy process. We need to get catering planned and purchased. Fuel purchased, stored and a host of other stuff before we even begin to think about the theme of the event. We also need fall back plans as often things need changed at the last minute down there.”

But it’s something that really is worth taking time over. “The feedback from the people on the tour was that it was truly life changing, and completely altered the way they look at the world. And that’s really the best way we can measure the return of experience like this,” explains Zahab.

Giving back
CSR is something that also plays a huge part in what Thompson and her team does in Brazil. “It’s very important for us that we have a positive economic impact anywhere we go and we knew Shirley would give back to the community,” says Zahab. “She employs local people as guides and we ate local food. She even arranged for us to build a school for the locals when we were down there.”

Thompson explains: “Giving back is imperative, and we never stop. First we give them employment – if we are planning an event in their jungle, we include them every step of the way. Our event with I2P involved using two of the oldest most revered jungle guides to show them some of the wonders of the environment. They love to impart their specialist knowledge about medicinal plants, animals that live there and life in the jungle.

"We built an eco tourism base camp that houses 150 people and we gifted it to the community of Itapuama to use as an eco tourism business to generate an income. We set up a project using the tourism students of the local university to help them develop this. We gave them a boat to give some of the more inaccessible communities access to the hospital boat in the rainy season. We organise kids events, started a rubbish recycling project, donate to education and built a school with I2P. We never stop giving.”

So if you’re looking for something really different for your next motivational experience, why go for something really life changing?

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