After lunch we were driven out to the deepest darkest wilds of the Welsh wilderness (out the back of the Dolygaer Outdoor Education Centre, but still pretty wild!). As classrooms go there are much worse places to be than in a wooded glen on a sunny day. I’d love to wax lyrical about watching the dappled sunlight play across the ground and the sound of the stream rushing past on it’s way from mountain to sea…but all we could see and hear was Instructor Pete getting excited about plane crashes and starting fires!
Going through the essentials of survival and how to find them or make them, Pete kept his class rapt. Sharing survival stories with various endings (no-one expected the Canadian pilot to shoot himself, especially not our own pilot Stephen who was hoping for a happy ending!) and revealing the contents of his own survival kit (that sits in his chest pocket whenever he’s deployed…I told you these guys were the real deal!) I think he left us all hoping that maybe one day we’d have to survive in the wild ourselves, but maybe only for one night while our hotel rooms were being cleaned! Having gone through the theory of surviving on rain water in a shelter of palm fronds whilst cooking iguana on a fire stolen from the Gods it was time for some more practical demonstrations and for us to have a go ourselves…with mixed results.
By this point we’d been joined by another Instructor, Andy. He’d actually joined us the night before and been an instant hit with the ladies (especially Anna during the night hike, who had her own helping hands while the rest of us waded over waterfalls!) and now was his chance to win the lads over by burning stuff. Every bloke likes a good fire, we could sit and watch a bonfire for hours, poking it occasionally with a stick, or battle with a barbecue in conditions that would have the average Aussie firing up the aga and putting on a waterproof. Learning to make fire from everyday household items was a revelation. (by everyday and household I’m assuming that you live above a Boots shop with a well stocked cleaning cupboard and a chemistry teacher for a housemate)
Having seen the expert doing it and feeling endowed with manly super powers to harness the elements and create fire we paired off to have a go ourselves. Carolyne and I worked together and we started well, gathering stones to form a fire circle, and lots of kindling and wood to fuel the flames once we had it going. Next came the contents of the fire making tin and trying to tear up cotton wool in to a fluffy little air-filled cloud ready to burst in to life when a spark went anywhere near it…or at least that was the plan. I can’t imagine anyone ever saying “James couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag” but if they said “James would lose a fight against a cotton wool ball” they may well have a point! It took several (and then some) attempts to get a spark from the flint only to discover our wad of cotton wool melted rather than flared beautifully. With the sounds of success and roaring fires starting to fill the air we had another go and, with a little help from some fuel blocks and a sympathetic instructor, we finally got a little fire going just in time to save our embarrassment. I came away from the day with a couple of fire starting kits so hopefully I’ll get the chance to practice again soon, but I don’t think the landlord would be too happy about me building a raging inferno on the garden lawn so it will have to wait a while.
One of the keys to survival, and it’s important you remember this, is if you find yourself stuck in the woods it’s very useful to have a glamorous assistant you can send to Tesco. Luckily for Instructor Pete his glamorous assistant returned right on cue for a demonstration on how to turn our new found flame in to dinner. Hot rocks were taken from a fire that had been set a good while earlier and placed in a hole dug previously to create a “hangi oven”. On top of this went some nice green foliage and then we added the contents of the emergency survival supermarket bag. Having gutted a trout, and invited Lyndsay to do the other which she did superbly, these were put in the oven alongside some vegetables (carrot, potato, swede) and some chunks of beef expertly taken from the plastic packaging they arrived in. In hindsight I’m quite glad we didn’t spend the afternoon preparing fresh caught squirrels but it would certainly have been an experience! The food was covered with more fresh leaves, buried and left for later while we worked up an appetite…
Over the course of the afternoon Instructor Pete introduced us to the various deadly snares and traps he’d set up around our camp. Explaining where the best places were to set traps for rabbits and squirrels and showing us some of the ingenious ways of catching dinner we could use in the forests you got the distinct impression this man had practiced what he preached.
We went on to learn about collecting water in the wild. Everyone had suggestions they’d seen in films or read about in books, some more appetising than others! We were shown how to harvest water from trees, make condensation catching pits and where to source drinking water in the wild. I came away with knowledge and, maybe more usefully, a handful of puritabs for cleaning water, which will come in especially useful on the wild camps I have planned soon.
Our last tutorial for the day was Instructor Andy sharing ways of navigating using the moon, stars, flora, fauna…pretty much anything but a compass. There were loads, including the watch method (good for impressing people), using the stars (handy at night, obviously) and the stick in the ground method which takes an afternoon to do so isn’t much use on the move. Some of the things he said were so blindingly simple yet it took someone to tell you for you to realise. The easiest to remember and most obvious once you heard it though was navigating using the sun. We all know the sun rises in the East and sets in the West (we did all know that, right?) but also it travels through the sky South of the U.K. Knowing where the sun is, has been and is going makes it very easy to orient yourself and a map. Obviously it isn’t exact and changes a little with the seasons but in terms of facing the right direction it’s a great thing to remember!
The training was almost at an end but not before we had dug up our dinner and feasted on flesh. Okay, we weren’t actually going to feed 14 of us on 2 fish, that would have needed a miracle, but everyone got to taste the contents of the hangi oven. It was surprisingly delicious! The veg could have done with slightly longer but there was no denying it was on the way to being cooked and perfectly edible. The beef was delicious, amazingly tender and moist to the point that I was thinking about how to fit a hangi oven in my kitchen, but the real triumph was the fish. It was falling off the bone and tasted so fresh and unadulterated, we quickly picked the skeletons clean like a school of hungry piranha!
With that it was time to return the glen to it’s former beautiful state by removing all trace of our fires and traps, and start the journey back to base. The excited chatter about the afternoon’s activities slowly died as all thoughts turned to the final chapter of our 4 days together and the reason we were all there.
Tomorrow morning was the Fan Dance.