Bombs and Building Roads

It's safe to say that Lieutenant Peter Gordon-Finlayson is lucky to be alive after his light tank set off a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He, and two other soldiers, walked away without a scratch. However, before signing up to the army and being deployed to Afghanistan, Peter took a gap year.

In 2005 he volunteered with The Leap in Africa. His main task was to build a road. We caught up with Peter as he reflected on how his gap year shaped his career and life to come...

"I want you to build a road." He said in such a dead pan voice that I thought it must be some kind of joke. I stuttered some rather lame excuse about how I didn't have the first idea how to build a road and I was rather expecting him to laugh at my weak response, but instead he remained totally serious and told me to find out.

I was 19-years-old and had rather thought that I knew everything about everything until 20 seconds before. I was on my gap year, working in a very remote safari camp in deepest Eastern Zambia on the banks of the Luangwa river. It was a stunning spot; regularly transited by a family of elephants, the resident hippos, the odd buffalo and any other beast you may care to imagine. I was rather imperiously accommodated in what I thought was a very smart thatched house, although I think the novelty of having a two story house to myself was enough to make me feel rather self-important.

Elephants in Zambia

I was immensely proud of my little home; I kept it very neat and tidy and reacted with incredulous rage when the vervet monkeys pulled the thatch out the roof and threw it at me as I showered. Despite this relative luxury I worked hard and enjoyed every second of it, especially when I was confronted with a challenge as obscure as the construction of a road.

The managers of Flatdogs Camp were a British couple who were to have their wedding during my three month placement there. They had found an idyllic spot deep in the middle of the bush for the wedding, with Mopani trees overhead bathing it in an ethereal green light, and an enormous ant hill at one end of a clearing that would serve as the alter. The only problem was there was no access. My task therefore was simple; build a road to the site.
For the ensuing 10 days my routine was similar. The first task of the day was to gather my workforce of about 10 local guys, including drivers for the two vehicles, the vehicles themselves and the tools for the job. This in itself was not easy as gathering the team was like herding cats as I don't think any of them relished the prospect of a full day in the unforgiving sun like I did!

Eventually we would leave camp with our full complement and drive out along the single tarmac road until we reached the junction with our track. We cut the tall grass, used spades to fill in the deep elephant tracks and graded the 'road' by driving over it several times. Day by day the track grew and progressed until we reached the wedding site. We cut a generous sized car park and I marvelled at our work. Little was I to know that this week's work with The Leap, amongst the many other lessons that I learnt in Zambia, would furnish me so well for the future.

Lieutenant Peter Gordon-Finlayson

As I now write this I am sitting in Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I have come to the end of a long six month deployment on operations as a Troop Leader commanding six 'little tanks' or CVRT as they are correctly known. My job has involved living in the desert, sometimes for weeks on end with a troop of 18 soldiers conducting different missions and tasks.

The leadership skills that I developed on my gap year in many small situations such as 'The Road Build!' have undoubtedly aided me not only in my job today and over the last six months but also in my securing employment in such a competitive and sought after role within the British Army. Having the experiences to draw on is a huge help in real terms as lessons learnt at a young age are put into practice; but also having the examples to use during the interminable interview processes to make oneself stand out is crucial in this world where a degree is commonplace.