It was billed as the trip of a lifetime. An Olympics-style meeting of 43,000 scouts from around the world, gathering in Seoul, South Korea, for a wild week of campfire songs, orienteering and patch trading. For the Naldrett children, Toby, 17, and Willow, 15, the 25th World Scout Jamboree was their first time abroad without their parents. “They had been looking forward to it for two years,” says their father, Peter.
They put on bake sales in their hometown of Sheffield to raise money for the trip — which cost about $4,300 a person. On July 29 Peter and his wife waved their children off and began looking forward to their first child-free holiday in a decade—a quiet week in Finland.
But when Toby and Willow and their fellow scouts arrived in Seoul, they were met with calamity. The jamboree has been a catastrophe from start to finish. An unholy combination of heat waves, insect swarms, Covid-19 and a profoundly unsuitable campsite turned the event into a debacle, part Fyre Festival, part Squid Game, with far-reaching consequences for global scouting.
Within hours of the scouts’ arrival, reports began to emerge from Seoul of hundreds of youngsters hooked up to IV drips with severe dehydration. There was a lack of food, filthy showers and lavatories spewing excrement. A cholera warning was issued and typhoon Khanun began hurtling toward camp. “I hate it so much dad,” one young British Scout WhatsApped their father. “I’m miserable.”
Koreans branded the jamboree a “national disgrace”. Parents were aghast to have sent their children into a nightmare. Given the Korean organizers had a multimillion-dollar budget and six years to prepare, how did it go so wrong?
An unholy combination of heat waves, insect swarms, Covid-19 and a profoundly unsuitable campsite turned the 25th World Scout Jamboree into a debacle, part Fyre Festival, part Squid Game.
Problems began long before any planes touched down in Seoul. The jamboree is held once every four years, and countries must bid to host it—competition is often fierce. South Korea won in 2017 and the organizers had a total budget of $89 million. British Scouts had to raise about $4,300 to attend. “You get a big kit list as well,” says Naldrett. “I spent about $1,100 in Decathlon. Most of it will never get used.”
Choosing the site of Saemangeum on the southwest coast, 3½ hours by bus from Seoul, was the first mistake by the organizers, the Korean Scout Association. The campsite was on reclaimed land prone to flooding and linked to the longest man-made sea wall in the world.
There was no shade and high humidity. Mosquitos were rife. Why was it chosen? The site had been earmarked as a possible location for the World Expo in 2030, so this appears to have been some form of trial run.
Scouts are trained to deal with challenging conditions, but temperatures in the mid-thirties and insect swarms proved overwhelming. “It was quite shocking when they first got there,” says Naldrett. “Our kids are hardy, but Willow said the medical tent was full. She was texting photos of her bites asking what she needed to do. She said it was common to hear ambulances and sirens at all hours.”
The campsite was on reclaimed land prone to flooding and linked to the longest man-made sea wall in the world.
With hindsight, there were warning signs. A month before the event, scouts and parents were sent an email from the UK contingent that hinted all was not well. “The drainage system is about 90 percent complete so there is clearly some final work to do in the space,” it read. “Organizers have told us that the recent heavy rain has meant that some parts of the site are temporarily waterlogged.”
One member of the international support team, drafted in to set up camp before the children arrived, was shocked. “What the kids saw was a very large improvement from where it was when we arrived,” he said. “The mosquitos and other biting insects were so bad many of us needed medical treatment, and were unable to work.”
A Welsh scout, “Jamboree Jamie”, documented the fiasco in vivid detail on his YouTube channel. “The campsite is just shit, there’s no other words for it,” said one teenager in the video, as the boys attempted to dig a trench to alleviate flooding. “The conditions here are like a refugee camp.”
Unsurprisingly, parents are furious. “There are questions that need asking,” says Naldrett. “The UK knew it was bad before they went out — should they have been taken to the site in the first place?”
Many parents are dismayed that the scouts’ complaints have been portrayed in the press as whingeing from the snowflake generation who can’t cope with a bit of heat. One parent, who asked to remain anonymous, says it makes a mockery of the organization’s “be prepared” motto: “They did prepare — but not for this. They are children — not soldiers.”
Rebecca Coldwell’s 17-year-old daughter Hannah had been raising money for 18 months before the jamboree, organizing quiz nights and raffles and hosting community coffee mornings near their home in Lancaster. She said the selection process was like the X Factor, with a written application and boot camp where 40 scouts were whittled down to five. Her excitement soon turned to dismay. Hannah Coldwell said that the opening ceremony at the jamboree felt “like Armageddon”, with ambulances traveling back and forth to hospital.
Because of poor organization, many scouts missed the opening ceremony, which included a speech from a rather sweaty survival guru and UK chief scout Bear Grylls, who speedily left the site.
“They did prepare — but not for this. They are children — not soldiers.”
The food, or lack of it, was another problem and Korean catering didn’t go down well with many vegan and lactose-intolerant Gen Zers. Again, accusations of snowflakery must be measured against the fact that some young scouts fainted in the heat from lack of food and a calorie deficit.
Photos of lunch surfaced on Twitter: a cereal bar and grapefruit jelly. Others had a single stale bread roll. One frantic WhatsApp message to a parent read: “dietary requirements not being met … It’s chiken [sic] steak plate and they don’t offer alternative.” The food at the camp was “grim”, according to Coldwell and her daughter was eating a lot of plain rice.
The lavatories were “literally overflowing and crawling with cockroaches”, Hannah told her mother. On the doors were “cholera risk” stickers. Scouts were advised to drink two liters of water an hour. “She was mainly living off water and electrolyte drinks,” says Coldwell.
There was also a lack of tents, with some children left to sleep on the ground. Things turned a bit Lord of the Flies. “Hannah said there was a bit of looting because there wasn’t enough equipment to go around,” says Coldwell. Nor was there enough supervision — just one adult volunteer to 36 children.
The event threatened to become a medical emergency. Within a few days there were 400 people in the medical tent, mainly suffering from dehydration and severe sunburn. Activities such as calligraphy and hikes were canceled because of the heat. Two days later, there were 1,400 people being treated in the infirmary and a Covid outbreak was tearing through camp.
The UK was the first to decide to abandon ship, evacuating its 4,500 attendees — the largest national delegation — in a Dunkirk-style retreat. Scouts from several other countries, including Rwanda, Thailand, Denmark and Ukraine remained at the site to tough it out.
“We got this fraught phone call from Hannah in floods of tears — absolutely devastated that they were being pulled out,” says Coldwell. “The feeling was, ‘we’re scouts — all of our training needs to be put to good use.’”
Naldrett’s children were also disappointed to leave. “They started enjoying it and just got on with it — even though it was a little bit grim,” says Naldrett.
On August 5, the Korean government decided to intervene, drafting in 700 lavatory cleaners, 30 military physicians and 60 nurses. At this point, the sick count was at 2,500 in the infirmary, with 1,300 arrivals on Sunday alone. With Khanun carrying winds of up to 100mph threatening the campsite, the plug was finally pulled on the event and 1,000 buses were drafted in to evacuate the tens of thousands remaining.
Having been evacuated from the soiled campsite, the British scouts then found themselves in the lap of luxury: air-conditioned hotels in Seoul paid for by the UK delegation. “They’re getting robot butlers to bring them room service,” says Naldrett. They’ve been taken to visit the residence of the South Korean president and the British embassy, while the Scottish scouts put on a ceilidh. Bus companies organized city tours; museums allowed free entry and football teams offered free tickets. The K-pop girl group Mamamoo were hastily booked to perform at the closing ceremony at the World Cup stadium on Friday night.
Appalled to have let their visitors down, Koreans are taking to the streets of Seoul and subway stations to hand out sweets. One man carried a suitcase with a sign: “Free Korean gifts to all the jamboree members who suffered in the swamps.” Naldrett says that on a visit to a street market in Seoul all the stall holders erupted into applause, cheering the scouts as they walked around.
Scouting parents in Britain have generally been quick to praise the UK contingent for turning the trip around and finding hotels for 4,500 people at no notice. “The leaders out there have a hell of a job trying to enthuse and console 40 kids per contingent and improvise on the fly,” says one father, whose daughter was there. “They are the epitome of scouting.”
One man carried a suitcase with a sign: “Free Korean gifts to all the jamboree members who suffered in the swamps.”
When the dust settles from the jamboree, Korean organizers will have questions to answer. The government has criticized the North Jeolla province government and the Buan county council office and ordered an investigation. Government ministers instead of chief scouts were appointed to plan the event, with no real insight into what provisions were required. The Korea Herald pointed to the fact that much of the budget was wasted, with 99 trips abroad on business trips related to Korea’s jamboree preparation, including an eight-day trip for five people to Switzerland and Italy. Lawsuits are expected to be filed. The fiasco has also set back Korea’s hopes of hosting the World Expo 2030.
Britain’s Scout Association—an independent charity—will also be hit in the pocket. Earlier this month, its chief executive, Matt Hyde, estimated that UK scouts had had to tap into $1.2 million of reserves, which could affect their finances for five years. Luckily, UK scouting is thriving, with 420,000 members last year— a 16 percent rise on the previous year, the biggest annual growth in 80 years. The organization has 140,000 adult volunteers and a waiting list of 90,000 young people. Other countries do not have as big a fund to draw on for emergencies.
“I won’t be going to the UK scouts asking for compensation,” says Naldrett. “As far as my kids go, there’s nothing that they’ve done in school or in any other club or activity that has matched what the scouts have provided. But I think the South Korean organization are the ones who should be compensating.”
When the first groups arrived in the UK, many will feel relieved to be back from what has been the holiday from hell. The 25th World Scout Jamboree will go down in history for all the wrong reasons.
And yet the scouts who made it through will surely be telling stories from Saemangeum at cookouts and camping trips for decades to come. “They’ll be talking about it for years,” says Naldrett. “Being there will be almost like a badge of honor, really.”
Katie Gatens is commissioning editor of News Review at The Sunday Times