2018 DofE

Norway recce July 2018

Our Ryanair flight crossed over the southern tip of Norway, the ground below spread out in the clear conditions looked barren and empty, devoid of any real infrastructure. No patchwork of fields, no real major conurbations, just trees and a spattering of isolated houses, small communities and more trees. The coast line was riven by inlets, the definition between land and sea defrayed by innumerable islands of all shapes and sizes. We continued flying northwards descending as we progressed; we could see the land was mostly covered by either trees or glacier scoured granite sheets, it looked rough.

We landed at Oslo Torp and with breathtaking efficiency passed through the pristine airport to exit into lovely bright sunshine and 26 degrees of heat. The hire car (the cheapest I could find) turned out to be a state of the art Toyota Hybrid. We whined out of the car park and under the direction of our onboard sat nav were pointed in the direction of Evje.

The roads, like most things in Norway were quiet, empty and very well maintained. We drove unhurriedly southwards (you do not want to get a fine for speeding here) keeping up with the leisurely pace of the other drivers in their Tesla’s through an endless forest on a gently undulating road. We never exited from the trees for over 200km, except where there was an expanse of water on one side of the road.

We met Brian who was facilitating our visit and providing our in-country services in Evje  he showed us around the small spotless town, pointed us in the direction of a clean and tidy cabin in Odden campsite, gave us a low down on our suggested itinerary and left us to sleep pending our departure in the morning.

Next morning after a quick breakfast and repack of our essentials we departed for the Setesdal mountains. The road followed a big fresh water fjord, the very one we would later paddle down, for the first 90 mins then climbed westwards into a barren landscape.

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Satellite view of the Setesdal Mountains, our trekking route took us from Oyarvatn to Langeld in a wide sweeping southerly curve

The Setesdal mountains are one of the more southerly areas of high rocky plateau in Norway, until very recently they formed a fairly extensive north/south barrier between east and west coasts, but the road we travelled on had been forged only a few years previously through the middle of the plateau giving summer access to the high ground.

Brian pulled into a gravelled area on the top of the plateau and we spilled out of the car on stiff legs into a very Scottish landscape and very Scottish weather. The heavy grey clouds were trundling along not far above our heads and there was a distinct smell and feel of rain in the air. I pulled waterproofs from my rucksack and suitably attired headed south on a rough path through a rather Hebridean landscape of granite boulders and wind scoured vegetation towards the DNT hut on the shore of the Oyuvsvatnet lake just less than 1km distant.

The Norwegian Trekking Association operate and maintain a network of huts across the country, these are very well stocked (with food) and have very comfortable dormitories. They are there to be used by anyone on a pay as you go honesty basis, not cheap at £36 a night (£26 if you are a member) but they are a God send to winter travellers when the temperatures are below -20.

DNT Hut

Looking back through the rain towards the DNT hut at Oyuvsvatnet

At the hut Brian wished us well, then, somewhat half heartedly in my opinion, assured us he wished he was coming with us. He however turned back towards his car and left us  standing in the sheeting rain, in the middle of a somewhat dismal landscape with a promise to meet us in two days time at a fjord with a boat… We just had to walk there.!

I felt the first trickle of cold water dribble down my back. Rain was driving through my jacket already. There was nowt else for it, I braced myself physically against my heavy rucksack and mentally against the rain and headed off on a faint depression in the grass that might one day be referred to as a path, if it ever grows into one.

Path Marker

One of the more noticeable path markers which is actually right next to the “path”, even I could see that one.

There is a route marked on the map and it is marked on the ground by cairns and splodges of paint at irregular intervals on the rocks. The ground however is very rough, a bit boggy in places, rocky in others and the “path” is not very clear at all. The paint used to mark the path is, of course, red. Not much use to someone who is red/green colour blind and I kept losing the route. Jude with his 20/20 colour vision and the map, kept putting me right. And soon the clouds broke and a hopeful sun bathed us in watery light.

Jude on the path

Jude stands on the “path” in one of our rare glimpses of the sun.

After two hours of walking we stopped to check our whereabouts and look for an area further on which might give us a decent camp for the night. I looked at the map in stark disbelief. I had not been taking it easy but in two hours or so we had only covered just over 5km. No way! Jude checked his GPS which confirmed our position and rate of progress. This took the wind out of my sails. The ground was very rough, the path very indistinct and around about 2km an hour is as much as you can do – if you are lucky!

We pressed on into the increasingly craggy wilderness until 1900hrs when I had quite frankly had enough and convinced Jude, who was all for keeping going, to camp on a reasonably level and dryish bit of ground that was sheltered from the wind by a big crag and next to a small river with a good strong flow.

Wildcamp site 1

Our camp for the first night

I slept well and woke up feeling a lot more positive about things generally, we decided to put some miles down before stopping for breakfast so packed quickly and were on our way before 0700hrs.

I lost the path within the first 1000m and ended up at the wrong lake, oops.

Suitably chastised for my lack of focus we climbed up and onto the right path which we found somewhat by accident and continued on in the increasingly grey and dismal weather.

It was 1200 before we stopped for “breakfast” at another DNT hut. Neither of us wanted to be on the tops before the rain, which we knew was coming in, hit us. The ground had continued to be challenging, with no real ascents/descents just continually rough and rolling, the path indistinct and we were already tired from constantly focussing on foot placements and our whereabouts.

The first rumble of thunder got us back on our feet and underway downwards towards the treeline, by the time we made the trees the rain was torrential, the crash and flash almost continuous, we stopped at a woodmans’ hut to get some shelter but were by that time soaked through.

Jude sheltering from the rain

Jude sheltering at the woodmans’ hut after the biblical thunderstorm.

The rain eased and we continued onwards, a high bit of ground in the trees on the opposite side of a small lake looked welcoming so we took advantage of a break in the rain to pitch our tents and call it enough for the day. The rain did not stay off for long and the sound of hammering water on nylon pushed me into the land of nod after I had eaten and put on some dry clothes.

It’s amazing: no matter where you are and how awful the weather is outside how a tent, a warm sleeping bag and a full stomach makes you feel so positive and protected; tomorrow is another day, bring it on, whatever it gives you.

I awoke to utter silence with the first early rays of sunshine finding their way through the trees onto my tent. I stuck my head out. Every bit of vegetation had been turned into a sparkling chandelier of sunlit raindrops, the little lake next to us was a perfect mirror, the fish were jumping and disturbing the reflections. We hung our kit in the sun to dry as best it could in the time we had. Trees around us became makeshift washing lines. Dry bags, jackets and trousers steamed in the sun.

Morning Lake

Early morning reflections, my tent can be see in the trees on the RHS above the lake

We packed up and made our way downwards on a good track, the sun lit clouds swirled and writhed through the trees. Rounding a corner we were greeted with a view down to the fjord we were about to start paddling. It was narrow, more like a river at this point but under the still early morning sunshine it looked more than welcoming after the trials and tribulations of the past 48 hours.

Morning sunshine

On our way down through the trees from the high plateau of the Setesdal mountains

We arrived at our prearranged RV point in lovely warm sunshine, spread all our worldly possessions out to dry and awaited Brian and boat. The fjord at this point is not much more than a wide river: there is very little flow, even with the previous days torrential rain and the water reflected the surrounding trees and soaring granite cliffs with perfect clarity. We were dried and warmed and feeling very different by the time Brian arrived  bang on time of course with our transport for the next three days.

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The fjord as this point was little more than a wide river.

We packed all the kit we needed for the remaining journey into large dry bags,  gave Brian our rucksacks, walking poles and rather smelly boots (I think they might have jumped out of his car when he got back to his stores) donned sandals and paddling gloves and pushed our boat into the water.

Now… I am not a paddler and as we pushed out into the water it was not without a fair degree of trepidation on my part, Jude on the other hand knows his stuff so he had wisely put me in the front of the boat where I simply had to apply a bit of brute strength and be the engine, he kept us out of the trees and from going around in endless circles.

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Floating on a crystal clear river.

After a wobble or so I settled into a comfortable routine, the fish startled and ducked into the long flowing weeds under our boat, the water was crystal clear, the sun warm on our backs and the world went by unhurriedly with minimum effort. I could enjoy this! I was enjoying it! No heavy rucksack. No getting lost. Time to let the mind drift and enjoy being in a real paradise. At times I felt adrift from reality, it seemed I was floating in some kind of three dimensional world, the water was so clear it did not even appear to be there, we would be crossing a forest of floating weeds which would disappear into an area of black depth producing a real wave of vertigo. Awesome!

We pulled into a real campsite next to the river with lovely flat ground for the tent, a beach and bank on which to stow the boat. Life was indeed good as we relaxed in the late afternoon sun. We swam in the warm river, had a chat with some fellow brits who were in the campsite, ate a relaxed meal and just chilled. The sun sank into the west at around 2200 turning the sky cerise and the perfectly still fjord reflected the surrounding landscape with perfect clarity.

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Evening reflections

Next morning was a bit overcast, which in its self was a bit of a blessing: it could be trying to be out on the water under a merciless sun. Jude gave me a spell at the back and remained remarkable patient as I steered the boat everywhere it was not supposed to be going. It did however give me a reason to stay focussed, being at the front just paddling can become a bit tedious, especially as muscles start to ache from repetition of movement. We stopped for lunch on a lovely beach then continued on looking for a suitable island on which to pitch our tents.

This was my idea. We couldn’t paddle 50plus km down a fjord without camping on a small island in the middle of the water. It was a rather romantic ideal that I had in my head. The stunning scenery drifted by, the massive granite cliffs soared above the water, the forested banks riven by rushing rivers plunging from the heights above gave some of the only sounds to  shatter the silence. In the distance an island appeared, we paddled down and around it looking for the flattest bit of ground we could see. A granite slope gave us access to a flattish bit of tree covered ground which after a 20mins of gardening produced a nice soft bed for the night.

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An ethereal light from the setting sun on our island retreat

We swam and washed, Jude tried to catch a fish but decided, quite quickly, that fishing was not his thing. The setting sun lit our surroundings with an ethereal light, it got dark we slept.

Island retreat

The next day, after being woken by a gaggle of the noisiest geese I have ever come across,  we paddled off of the island and within 20 mins passed one of the most idyllic campsites above a beautiful sandy beach that we could have stayed at if I had not been so  fixated on an island campsite – hey ho. We stopped for lunch on another beautiful beach and then continued down towards the finishing point deciding to crack out the 20km we had to do all in one day.

The heavens of course opened as we pulled into the jetty outside Brian’s house, giving us a soaking which we were completely ambivalent to; we had a campsite to go to, a warm shower to luxuriate under, bacon and eggs and a table to sit at in Brian’s very comfortable and well appointed house. A fitting finish to a more than challenging five days’ journey.

This was a recce to see if this venue would work for a DofE expedition. Outcome: it’s awesome! It ticks every box that a Gold expedition should provide: it’s challenging, it has a real edge, it is in a fantastically beautiful place and it teaches new skills throughout.

I cannot wait to take groups here.

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Suffer the Little Children.     Easter March/April

Two weeks previously I had spent 18 hours stationary, in a blizzard, on the M80. It had taken me almost 48 hours to complete an eight hour journey from Scotland, all due to a phenomena dubbed “The Beast from the East”.

Motorway

M80 Hotel

Funny really, giving it a name, anthropomorphising the conditions stops us from recognising what it actually is, a vortex caused by rapid warming polar temperatures changing the circulatory nature of the earths air currents, in other words climate change.

The resultant change in the jet stream allows north easterly Siberian air flows to dominate our climate, yup, it was cold.

Phantom

The lorry parked next to me on the M80

Two weeks later I was heading towards the Cotswolds for the first expedition of the year, a bronze for 14 teams from Kings Worcester. The forecast was dodgy, the Beast from the East 2 was being threatened, a yellow warning for snow was in place but it seemed to be threatening the South East. What to do, cancel and throw the academic calendar for 90odd kids into disarray or take the chance and go for it, cancel ? what does that word mean anyway.

I made my way up towards Broadway, the temperature gauge in the van showing a healthy 2 degrees, that was nothing compared to the outside wind chill which in my estimation was around -7. Snow flurries blew across the road in front of me in side winding motions any desert dwelling snake would have been proud of.

The coach arrived disgorging half of the teams, the other half some 40 odd miles to the south. I had real concerns about the temperatures but they were all smiling, well most of them. The sun came out and provided a small degree of  warmth, all relative, we checked kit, repacked rucksacks and off we went, well the teams and the instructors did, I headed back south to start another expedition the next day.

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The scene at Cranham before everyone got up.

I lay in my bed that night worrying, I got up at 0100 and looked out the window, it was snowing heavily, I went back to bed but did not really sleep. At 0530 my phone started ringing, I was advised the campsite was under 4 inches of snow, ah well at least we tried. Chris, Choire and Rob went into full evacuation mode, I phoned the school due to start that day and binned the trip, the first expedition I have ever cancelled in my career.

In the Cotswolds a sense of carnival took place, the north side were evacuated by minibus to a point where the coach could pick the kids up, in the south the teams had to walk some 5 or 6 K to the Gloucester south bound services on the M5 to be picked up.

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The evacuation commences

We had prepared for low temperatures by bringing extra blankets, extra sleeping bags and I did not hear one report of any of the kids being cold, I think the snow had insulated the tents and provided a degree of comfort we had just not anticipated.

However bragging rights firmly established, camping out overnight in a blizzard, we managed to do the bare minimum to ensure these guys were able to proceed to their assessed expedition in the summer.

Black Mountains

In the Black Mountains

Roll forward two weeks, five expeditions, two silvers in the New Forest and three golds in the Brecons taking place over the bank holiday weekend. Beast from the East No 3 threatening, yellow warning for snow and rain in place. Lets cut a long story short, the New Forest expeditions gave conditions that were simply dreadful, it rained for all three days of each expedition. The campsites were underwater, the paths were now rivers and the whole process became a matter of basic survival, things were no better in the Brecons, the wind chill on the tops was again well below freezing, what fell as rain at low level was snow above 300/400m and the campsites turned into quagmires with the passage of many booted feet.

New Forest

New Forest or is it Lake.

Most of the schools and other providers cancelled their expeditions we elected to continue and facilitated the practice and assessed expeditions. I am not sure that it was either enjoyable for the participants or the instructors, it was a trial but there its absolutely no doubt in my mind that these guys are all absolutely prepared for their assessed expeditions in hopefully more clement times of the year no matter what the conditions throw at them.

If they do not actually appreciate what they have achieved let me be clear, I would not have done that unless I had no choice, they did and that is what sets these guys apart.

Well done to you all from us, you have what it takes.

 

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