OK – so I like to travel. And I like a hint of adventure as well – Bangladesh, Canada, Brazil, Ethiopia, France… well, no not France but hey, I like adventure. So when my good wife saw a Wildlife Expedition Training weekend advertised by none other than Monty Halls (the one who owns Ruben the dog) she thought it completely acceptable to pay some money to send me to the wilds one freezing weekend in January.
I’m so glad she did. The info said we’d learn some boat handling, rope access, shelter building, fire lighting, that sort of stuff. It was all of that and more. I arrived at the Sportsmans Arms about 5:15pm on the Friday. “Look out for Rich” said Rachel from the team. “He’s wearing a red top”. Rich was the first punter to have shown up and everyone who phoned to say they’d arrived after that was told to look for Rich with the red top. This meant Rich with the red top looked like the most popular person in the pub!
It was a mixed crowd, the usual alpha mail comparisons going on in a friendly way. “I climbed Killi in flip flops once. Took a couple of hours and would have been quicker if I didn’t have to carry my guide!”. “Yeah, I had a similar problem in the Gobi desert. Had to haul the camel when it got sick as well.” I was going to say I’d walked part of Hadrians wall but I thought I’d keep quiet.
And they were all divers. The half hour that followed was full of talk that inclued words like “re-breather” “blades” and “bouyancy compressor”. I sat with my pint of local ale and nodded like I knew what they were talking about. I thought I’d got away with it until Rich with the red top asked if I’d done much diving. “Well, you know, not really, no…”
“Really, we’ll have to sort that out.” he said and told me he was a diving instructor, living in Cumria and I’d be welcome anytime. At the end of the weekend we swapped details and I plan to take him up on his offer.
Monty turned up and we followed in convoy to the camp about 3 miles away, along some windy Devonshire roads and finaly to a muddy track that came out into a clearing in some trees. We got out of the cars and splashed through the mud to the main shelter where Rachel was cooking beans and jacket spuds on a wood burner. We found our tents, basic tarporlin shelters, dumped our bags and went back to the main shelter where we swaped more stories and let Monty give us the basics of where things were in the camp.
I had a good nights sleep and the next morning, after a bacon and egg breakfast, Monty gave us a run down of what we’d be doing. As well as Monty and Rachel we had Andy Torbet, Paul Mattin and Aldo, all ex-military guys ready to inpart their knowledge of survival in the wild. We split into three groups and first up for us was rope access. Aldo and Andy picked a nearby tree for us to tackle. I have to admit to being a ‘stand-at-the-back-and-let-everyone-else-answer’ type of person but the guys were good at making sure everyone was taking part without making you look or feel like you were on the spot. There was a young lad, Rob, who was on one of the other teams but had told me his biggest fear was the ropes.
I saw him coming down from the cliff we had to abseil with a huge grin going around for a second turn.
After the ropes Monty gave us a talk in expedition kit. He’s off to Venezuela so had the kit he’d be taking with him. I did feel rather smug that my kit wasn’t far off, though my destinations (the South Downs Way?) probably don’t call for some of the more extreme stuff.
We had a help yourself sandwich type lunch and then went up into the woods with Paul Mattins to look at a shelter the previous groups had buit. It was great, so we took it down and tried to fix it. Paul took a machete into the trees and hacked a few more branches for us, every now and then calling out “Look out Rob!” as a tree trunk would crash down next to me.
Our last session was First Aid and Wilderness medicine and I was pleased again to match up my First Aid knowledge with what we were being taught. Haydn, the instructor is a paramedic and works on the local lifeboat. He’s done his share of hiking and told us a few horror stories, mainly about ‘jelly-belly’. Perfect preperation for dinner.
There’d been a pheasant shoot that morning and the local land-owners had given us three pheasants and a pigeon to eat. We just had to prepare them. Paul gave us a first class lesson in how this was done and it was suprisingly less gory than I’d imagined. Rachel had cooked us a stew so the pheasant was cooked with the remaining onion and what seemed like three bottles of wine. It was a great evening of getting to know people, sharing some particularly nice ale and singing some songs. Monty gave us an interesting rendition of red-headed woman and Paul almost launched into American Pie.
The second night was freezing. There’s nothing I can say that will make it sound comfortable. It was cold. I was glad when the morning came and I could get back down to the wood burner and put my feet in the fire to thaw. More bacon and eggs and then my group headed off to Dittisham.
Now, Monty Halls has travelled the world. He was a Royal Marine and since leaving the marines has made TV programs about exploration and adventure. He lives about five miles from where we were. Could he find the landing stage where Rachel would be waiting to pick us up in the tiny village of Dittisham? Well, no he couldn’t, which was rather amusing!
We eventually arrived and Rachel was waiting for us in ‘Jason’ the RIB. I was pleased to learn that RIB stands for Ridged Inflatable Boat and even more so when Rachel told us we’d be able to take the controls and head out to sea. On the way up the Dart estuary we passed a pontoon the local grey seal population had comandeered. Rachel is a marine biologist as well as a mean jacket potato chef and told us about some of the local marine life. As we headed into open water, what had been a cloudless sky suddenly darkened and we were pelted with hailstones that made your face sting. We bounced over the waves that the local RNLI guys described a a bit ‘lumpy’ and headed back up the Dart. Huge fun and I informed my good lady that for my next birthday I would like a Rib. Hope she gets the right sort.
Back on dry land we had a help-yourself lunch and then went into the woods with Paul who gave us what was billed as a ‘Practical Leadership Task’ but turned out to be a team building task, which isn’t at all a critisism. We had a bag of various ropes, clips and straps and had to get from one tree to another across the ‘crack of doom’ wich in reality was a slight dip in the forest floor. We worked together quite well and I learnt various tricks from the other guys. We all had to get across and so built a zip-slide type thing that you had to pull yourself along. I was last to go over and did a rather good orang-utang impression as I went over.
The last activity for us was the 4×4 off roading. The guys had managed to get Steve for the Land Rover experience down to show us how it’s done. Unfortunately for me this wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. You see, I’d really like to know how to properly drive off road. Steve had bought a brand new, shiny white Land Rover Discovery for us to use. It’s kitted out with computers gallore, so much so that when your going down a muddy hill you press a couple of buttons and tell the car what type of terrain your in, take your feet off the pedals and let the car drive. You just have to hold the steering wheel to make sure you don’t drive into a tree or off a cliff. To be honest, it wasn’t really driving which was a shame. After the drive we wen’t through a pile of kit you might want to take in a Landy if you were heading out on an adventure.
The driving experience didn’t do anything to dampen the overall experience of the weekend. It really was one of the best weekends I’ve had for a while and I’d highly recomend it to anyone. If Monty, Rachel, Andy or any of the guys from Great Escapes are reading this then thankyou so much. It really was a blast!