Living the dream of Scouting at Kandersteg in the Swiss Alps

In the middle of April, the snow still covers the highest peaks of the mountains surrounding Kandersteg and apart from the lowing of cattle and the occasional tractor, the Swiss village seems almost deserted.

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But at the Kandersteg International Scout Centre (KISC) a 30-minute walk from the centre of town, staff are hard at work, preparing for the arrival of summer when more than 9,000 Scouts come to the centre in search of adventure and an international Scouting experience.

As KISC director Felipe Marqueis puts it, the Centre is “B-P’s dream come to life.”

Scouting’s founder Robert Baden-Powell was inspired to establish an international Centre for Scouting by the spirit of togetherness he witnessed at the first World Scout Jamboree, in London in 1920. He saw Kandersteg as a place where all Scouts could gather whenever they wanted in what is now known as the “Permanent Mini-Jamboree”.

“KISC is a magical place; the international home for Scouts,” says Marqueis, 28.”No matter what time of the year you visit KISC, you will meet Scouts from every corner of the world making this centre so special,”

From the original chalet that was bought for CHF15,100 and opened officially in 1923, the centre now sprawls across 17 hectares. The New Chalet was built in 1996, and the traditional Swiss holiday home, the Sunneblick, acquired in 2009. A more modern lodge building has been rebuilt on the other side of the river, while the campsite with its medieval “Tower” lies at the heart of the summer activities. Nearly a fifth of the site is wooded.

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Preparations for the peak season between June and August start early. The team evaluates the previous summer and refines and finalises activities in February ready for the opening of the booking season in March. As the melting snow swells the river that runs through the site, KISC’s housekeeping team scrub down the communal kitchens and chalet dormitories, and the maintenance crew clear the campsite of its winter debris and chop wood for the campfires that are the highlight of every summer. Small teams of adult volunteers, known as “work parties” come to help out for short periods.

Pau Jimenez Inglés, 24, better known as “Bru”, first visited KISC in 2013 for the European Agora and found it “super beautiful”. After three months as short-term staff, he has returned as the centre’s Programme Development Assistant, helping organise the activities for the year.

“I think it’s quite random my job,” Bru explains during a chat in KISC’s reception, which connects the Old and the New Chalet and is home to Olave, the centre’s elderly cat. “But mostly I’m in charge of the content of our programme, which means I try to make sure our activities are meaningful, and provide an educational experience to our guests as well.”

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KISC caters to more than 13,000 guests from more than 60 different countries every year, according to Marqueis. Between July and September, they can book some 100 different activities grouped in three areas: International Friendship, Eco and High Adventure (the original mountain activities based around hiking, climbing and KISC’s network of huts high up in the mountains).

“Summer is crazy, busy,” says Bru, who’s from Barcelona and wearing the distinctive pink shirt that gives KISC’s staff their name: the Pinkies. He’s tied a Messengers of Peace scarf around his neck. “We’re either in reception, helping guides, doing administration tasks – lots of administration tasks – or we can be outside on the campsite and running activities.”

Mostly it’s the short-term staff who take the visiting Scout groups on expeditions, but that’s only possible because Bru and the rest of the programme team have spent the preceding weeks organising the activities, allocating guides, making bookings and identifying the adventure companies who can help KISC offer a truly memorable summer (and winter) programme.

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But that doesn’t mean guests have to leave the centre to have fun. There are plenty of challenges around the Chalet and on the campsite itself including a 70 metre zipwire, abseiling, crate-stacking and the popular Jacob’s Ladder – a giant ladder of logs hung between two trees that can only be conquered with teamwork and determination. There’s even a sauna – a gift from the Scouts of Finland.

One of Bru’s favourites is the alternative energy workshop - part of the Eco programme - where Scouts learn about alternatives to fossil fuels. There are the more obvious examples – wind and water – but also the more unusual. One time, as an experiment, they tried to generate power from a potato. It didn’t work.

A learning experience, a sense of adventure and unique hospitality are what have many Scout groups returning to Kandersteg year after year. For many of the Pinkies the appeal is the same; a chance to live and share the dream of Scouting in the heart of the Swiss Alps.

“This place is really good to develop yourself as a person,” Bru says. “We have support. We have friends – people who are really different to you. It’s a very human place where you feel happy, comfortable and supported in what you do,”

B-P would be proud.

For more about KISC click here www.kisc.ch

KISC will host International Rover Week from August 5 – 14 www.kisc.ch/irw

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