Besides exams, one of the main worries on my mind throughout the start of the Summer Term was the perils of the final Duke of Edinburgh Expedition. We had discussed going to Croatia or Thailand, and James Halliday even went as far as planning a full trip to Turkey, but in the end, we thought it best to stick to the Highlands of Scotland where we would kayak 62 miles across the renowned Caledonian Canal. Only one third of the length of the canal is man-made, the rest being formed by Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness (slight nervousness about bumping into the monster), Loch Oich, and Loch Lochy. We had been through two practice expeditions, the first kayaking through the choppy Lake Bala and the second through the waves of Anglesey. Both of these had been exhausting and a true test of our physical and mental strength.
Tuesday 5th June
I was slightly apprehensive at the early morning wake up in comparison to the previous wake up times during half term, but all the team managed to make it to the CCF block for Major Billington’s start time of 0800 hours. We were delighted to meet Major B’s friends Charlla and Wendy who were going to join us on the eight hour mini-bus journey to Scotland, along with her two energetic dogs Millie and Jasper, who kept the journey interesting. As Dr Case who had gone up several days earlier with the expedition boats and kit, we weren’t too cramped in the 17-person minibus.
A few hours into the journey, we stopped at a service station in Cumbria – the very same one that the cast and company of What You Will had stopped at on our way to the Edinburgh Fringe last August. Quite a contrast, a musical in Scotland to kayaking across Scotland, I thought to myself. Soon we were back on the road and before we knew it we were in Scotland, and most of the team had answered the 55 questions that our instructor Doug could ask us and we had familiarised ourselves with the route. We battled through the long winding roads of the highlands and arrived at the Inchree hostel, only to be hit by the midges. I quickly instructed Katie Williams to start sharing her Avon Skin So Soft so as to reduce the number of Midges around us. Soon after we met our instructor Doug who asked us about the route, then we finalised our last minute packing and went straight to bed - ready for a tough first day of kayaking.
Wednesday 6th June: Day 1
An early start and a full English breakfast in the youth hostel, and then we were ready to set off for a 25 kilometre kayak from Neptune’s Staircase at Fort William. The team soon got onto loading the boats and that is arguably one of the most worrying things: will we fit everything in the boats (including Harry Boutflower’s kitchen bag and kag trousers)?
Soon we were on the water and I started to regret not doing much gym work before the expedition because even in the first half an hour I was starting to feel the pain in my shoulders. After a pleasant paddle with a slight wind against us we came to Loch Lochy which was our first portage of the expedition. The total time for portage was more than we had estimated - over 45 minutes - due to our lack of experience in portaging. After this, we had a well needed lunch, which for myself included water crackers with tomato puree and grated cheese, and of course the much needed calories of quality chocolate. Loch Lochy was extremely large and it opened out with strong winds going against us causing waves to go over the kayaks; Katie and I were terrified of capsizing half way through the first day of the expedition. To take our minds off the strain we sang songs from the musicals which included, The Phantom of the Opera and Oliver! - my favourite song being the ‘Music of the Night’ from Phantom. We also decided to entertain ourselves with ridiculous and over the top American accents which kept our spirits up and spurred the team along to finish an exhausting first day. We turned the corner at the end of the Loch and saw the campsite and we stopped for the night in Laggan Lochs.
Thursday 7th June: Day 2
Bruised. Back pains. Sore shoulders. My tent group woke up at 5am which consisted of Harry Boutflower and Ratanon Suemanotham where we started cooking golden syrup porridge straight away. To our delight the sun beamed upon our faces and my gaze was locked onto the cloudless sky.
The day started with another long portage which felt like running The Tucks for the second time. However, an hour passed and we successfully managed to get all of the boats on the water after meeting Major B who gave us a motivational talk. I think the beautiful summer’s weather made me feel at ease on the beginning of the journey and soon the kilometres seemed to quickly go by. After passing one of the lock gates our sights were soon set on arriving where we would break into the world-renowned Loch Ness. We soon arrived in Fort Augustus which was our last portage of the day when we saw Major Billington, who told us that the weather on Loch Ness was a force five, which meant we were too inexperienced to cope with paddling against that weather. Soon we had to think of an alternative route where some of us were worried at delaying the expedition an extra few days. However, luckily when Major B’s back was turned her friend Charlla let us into her plans and we were able to impress Major B with our exact match to her plan. Our faces couldn’t stop grinning so it didn’t take her long to realise that Charlla had told us. The plan was to camp in Fort Augustus and go to the planned finishing line on Day 4 and paddle back to Fort William, meaning that we would be going with the wind. This was an exciting prospect and so we could just about smell the first aromas of the finishing line.
We had a long and exhausting portage to the campsite where Non and I started cooking a curry which we had been looking forward to for most of the day - it was definitely worth the wait. We were all zipped up in our sleeping bags by 10pm for an early set off time to Inverness at 7:30am.
Friday 8th June: Day 3
5.30am start, and a cold morning. The hour’s drive to Inverness soon went by, as I slept for most of it. Our third day of expedition began with another long portage, but we were certainly getting the hang of it by then, so we were soon all on the water.
The final day was planned for 15km and so we were soon racing down the narrow stretch of water with the wind going with us this time. We arrived at the lock gate just before the Loch Ness in extremely quick time and so we thought we may as well push on and have lunch in Loch Ness. We then attempted a bit of sailing with the group shelter which wasn’t very successful, but our faffing around with the shelter did mean that we had drifted another kilometre down the Loch. We weren’t 100% sure where we were going to stop for the night, but our intention was to get as far as possible.
It was quite a shock when we entered Loch Ness. The waves of the Loch were relentless and the boat felt as if it were a bucking horse, thrashing around violently. At this point my concentration was so focused on not falling in, that all of the pain I was going through seemed to disappear. Water was falling over my spray. We were actually making great progress raced to the campsite after breaking for lunch. The ferociousness of the waters actually made for a more exciting journey and we were travelling at around 7km an hour which is nearly double our usual pace. We were greeting my Major B and Charlla on the water an hour later and an additional hour ahead we saw a wild campsite with the luxury of a dilapidated barn, and so we decided to stop there for the night. The final straight was soon in sight…
Saturday 9th June: Day 4
I would love to say that our final day began with glorious sun shine, a calm flat Loch Ness beckoning us to venture on to her and the sound of birds waking us to our final day of travel, but I cannot as we woke to the sound of rain pattering on the tent, the loch was choppy and the wind whistling. However, the end was in sight, a final home straight and in the words of Chris Pearce, ‘A bloody long home straight!’ In the excitement of getting onto the water, we almost forgot our VHF radio!
The last 18km stretch of loch Ness was a daunting prospect, as we still hadn’t seen the end of the loch, and the gentle breeze on our backs didn’t make much difference. As we got into the stride of paddling, people began to fantasise about the first acts they would do as free men and women from D of E. ’A shower for half an hour,’ ‘sit down and do nothing for an hour.’ To an outsider these may seem a bit boring but after 4 days of solid travel these are fantasies that you wish to come true. At around 12pm we caught our first sight of Fort Augustus, the end of our trip; 6km to go. After a final break, 18 cereal bar wrappers produced and 1.5 litres of water drunk, we got into the kayaks for the last time.
We headed towards the end at full steam, but the toll of 4 days of solid kayaking and nearly 90km travelled was beginning to show through, and we became slightly detached. We were all tired, worn out having survived midges, force 5 wind, midges, long tiring days, midges and more midges, but we pulled together into formation for the final 300m. As a line we crept ever closer to the finish. Ed Mallet began to modify one of his York City chants, which he had tried, and failed, to teach us over the past few days; ‘Que cera cera, whatever will be will be, we’re finishing D of E, Que Cera cera.’ The whole team started to sing along as Dr Case began to snap our arrival. Katie and I were celebrating as we came into the end, exhaustion and happiness was all over our faces. As the final act of our D of E experience Harry Boutflower, who had worn a full body wetsuit the entire trip went for a swim in loch Ness, with the water at a modest 7 degrees. We unpacked to find out that the Olympic torch would pass through the town that day so overall the trip ended with a moment of glory, one way or another.
Sunday 10th June
We all woke up with sore back muscles and aches and pains all over, and the prospect of another eight hour journey home, but Doug our assessor had been to see us the night before at the Morags Youth Hostel, and had seemed to be very impressed with our efforts. We had time to reflect, and we really felt we had come together as a team, and there had indeed been ups and downs.
We were soon on the minibus and one couldn’t hear a pin drop for most of the journey we all caught up on much needed sleep.
I would like to thank the team the members for helping write parts of this ‘Week in the Life’ and also to Dr Case who was a fantastic photographer throughout the expedition. Lastly, and on behalf of the whole expedition team, a thank you to Major Billington who took the time to train us and then motivate us through the expedition.