Discover the World are a travel company we have used a good few times for our trips to Iceland, plus a non-student trip to Morocco. I’ve always found the company so helpful, with great administration and very well organised. The tour guides we’ve had in Iceland were always excellent and really made an effort to enthuse students, sharing local stories and myths. DTW have recently starting looking into offering a new destination of the Azores, and so a group of twelve teachers (mostly Geography or Earth Science) were invited to go on a teacher inspection trip this week in order to road test the trip
The idea of this week is to visit as many locations as possible, and sample a wide variety of activities in each place that you might build into a student trip itinerary. We are also investigating the accommodation and services in order to see how feasible the trip is, and whether it would meet with curriculum requirements / health and safety / logistics etc,. Since the Azores has not been used before for student trips this is quite a big undertaking, and we have discussions throughout each day about what kinds of activities you could ask students to participate in and what they would get out of the trip itself. Since direct flights are limited (only one flight, once a week on Saturdays) this means you would be most likely looking at an 8 day trip including travel so is is quite a chunk of time to fill
Part of the evening time is given over to focus groups in order to troubleshoot and to plan suitable teaching style activities as well as considering what ‘awe and wonder’ activities you can partake and evening entertainment etc,. On our return to the UK we will also be involved with creating teacher study guide resources for teachers throughout the country or access for free (akin to the excellent Iceland and Norway study guides already available for free through the Discover the World website). Discover the World are teaming up with the Geographical Association for a three year contract to create a broad bank of resources for teachers and students to use before, during and after a trip as well as just use in the classroom to teach about place or case studies – this will be being launched soon and will build up over time to including every destination they include in their package
This week has been led by Nick and Sonia from DtW as well as Simon Ross, an experience Head of Geography, senior member of the GA and author of various teacher resources, textbooks and GeoActive resources. And the team of teachers who have been chosen come from a wide variety of backgrounds, of differing lengths of career and varied teaching styles, with a range of skills and with a wealth of experience of planning and leading school trips. So it is in good hands!
So, the trip. We had arrived fairly late on the Saturday to São Miguel Island so only really saw the drive from the airport at Ponta Delgada down to our accommodation at a youth hostel in Pousada de Lagoa. The accommodation appears very new and crisp on first impressions, and with a restaurant attached that is also clearly used as the local restaurant.
Day 1. We were collected by Eduardo our local guide who has been a really keen activist in the drive to try to bring Azores more into the public eye and to encourage tourism. He has an excellent breadth of knowledge on seemingly everything throughout the archipelago which is reassuring. We travelled to Furnas, meaning furnace which is an area of intense volcanic activity past and present. Present is purely geothermal, past included some large eruptions in the 15th and 17th centuries. There is an excellent tourist centre here by the lake Lago de Furnas. The staff of the Furnas Monitoring & Research Centre were clearly passionate and well informed. There is a broad range of information about the geological history, volcanic activity and interestingly what the local government, university and activist groups have been doing in the name of sustainability.
At Furnas the local watercourse has suffered badly from eutrophication and soil erosion as a result of semi-intensive dairy farming (with associated clear felling of vegetation for pasture and use of chemical fertilisers. The lake is within the large caldera created by the last eruption. It was discovered that within the watershed there was a clear tendency for leaching of minerals due to the heavy rains, and that these were being channelled straight into the lake causing a sediment residue build up and then subsequent eutrophication, algal blooms, vegetation blocking out sunlight and reducing photosynthesis elsewhere in the lake, etc,. So local charity and university workers decided to try to reverse this. There had also been a large problem with the introduction of non-native and invasive species such as the Japanese Cedar and Australian Box that had been used as borders around farmland and tea plantations, but which were spreading and choking native plants as well as reducing biodiversity. On top of this, the change of land use to dairy and clearing for pastures meant soils had been exposed and so soil erosion had taken place with vast channels sometimes up to 8m deep being created due to the heavy rains and lack of interception.
There is a programme in place to reclaim the lake, replace the land use and replant the area. The aim is to create a Landscape Laboratory. There is an educational and outreach aspect too. Local farmers were bought out, which has caused some social conflicts although many farmers have also been able to retire comfortably but since the area has naturally rich soils it is understandable how the conflict exists. Part of the agreement also sees farmers being offered silage and food stuffs at reduced cost that have been grown in their old lands that have now been replanted and afforested.
Planting has occurred on a large scale and is still ongoing. Reintroduction of native indigenous species such as blueberry and clover have then attracted more bees which in turn has led to opportunities for local farmers to produce honey and caramels which is then sold in local gift shops. The clover when cleared and harvested is used to create silage for the farmers for feeding cattle. They are also trying to encourage farmers to return to more traditional methods of using natural dung fertiliser to reduce chemical dependency.
It is clear that the project is well underway but has a long way to go. Many jobs have been created through forestry, beekeeping, tourism, etc,. It is hard to tell if water quality has improved much as it is early days but the flow of nutrients has at least stabilised and sediment production into the lake has slowed so that the lake bed is beginning to drop back to original levels. However, it is also clear that the project is lacking in funding for the next two years and so how can sustainability be achieved?
The centre has great resources for children of various ages, and keen staff. You can also arrange with the centre to conduct projects in the area, such as planting / tending / harvesting the area or testing water quality, soil quality, biodiversity, etc,. So this could be a really great place to call base camp for a day and then conduct your own enquiries in the area, perhaps even comparing to other sites in the island.
We also visited a tea plantation factory – the only commercial tea plantation in Europe and which is run on traditional machinery and with leaves hand picked and checked for quality
We explored Furnas hot pool in the Terra Nostra botanical gardens in the pouring rain! Feeling like crazy geography geeks we scrambled around in the cold in the gardens getting soaked and then swam around in huge hot pool for a while – alongside some swans! Very surreal. The water was heavy with iron and sediment so very brown and opaque but a lovely temperature and quite atmospheric with steam produced by the evaporating rain. We also visited some of the village fumeroles and hot springs, including the bubbling hot pools where our food was cooked – a cozido lunch. Large earthen pots laden with potato, kale leave, and a variety of meats are lowered into these pools and covered in earth then slowly boil / roast for 6 hours and then served. The meat did have a slightly eggy sulphury flavour but was very soft. And the Azoreans are very generous with their portions!
Back at Pousada de Lagoa for the evening meal some of us explored the town a little (it is very little!) and saw some fantastic crashing waves against the basalt cliffs and rocky beaches. There was also a stunning sunset.