I love Christmas decorations! The vibrant magic they bring to this time of the year is so special and something to which I always look forward. Ever since I travelled to Germany for a student exchange and experienced a wonderful snow laden town with its windows lit up with the flickering of candles and shrouded in red and green, I’ve loved it!
Having said that, I must also qualify this with the fact that I don’t like the crappy tacky decoration people buy whilst shopping for their groceries and the sort of things people like to adorn themselves with at their work Christmas party. No, this is trash and I don’t like that in the slightest.
For me, Christmas decorations have depth and meaning. How does a decoration have depth and meaning I hear you yelling at your device?! Are you insane??? Well, possibly, but the jury’s still out on that one. Anyway, decorations, as with many other things people like to collect, derive meaning through the way in which you come to have them. If you did get all your decorations in aisle 17 next to the chips, dips and some plastic plates, then perhaps not, but if you’ve collected them from around the world, then they take on a whole different meaning.
A couple of years ago when I began travelling a lot more than I had ever done before, I started collecting Christmas decorations from all the places I visited. Since I didn’t want to waste money on pointless souvenirs that are great for five minutes, but once you’ve arrived home and shown everyone, it’s then put down and forgotten, often placed in a cupboard to gather dust. I have an entire collection of teaspoons and badges which has suffered this fate and is somewhere lost in the garage. However, unlike most souvenirs which suffer this fate, Christmas decorations appear each year! It might only be for a month, but for that month, all of those wonderful memories of travel and experiences you’ve had around the world, come flooding back.
For example, when I was in Japan a few years ago, it was really hard to find Christmas decorations. It’s not something the Japanese celebrate, but being a westerner, I was not deterred by their cultural indifference to this important festival that I thought they should have filling their stores and so was determined to find a Christmas decoration somewhere. I received many strange looks when trying to ask Japanese people without much English where I could buy Christmas decorations. What I thought would be an easy task, turned out not to be. I was told that the only place to find them would be in some western stores in the major cities. However, I wasn’t in a major city. They had snow, they should have Christmas decorations. It was like a pre-High King & Queen Narnia.
However, one day I decided to give skiing a break and went for a day trip to the seaside town of O, which is renowned for its seafood and glass blowing. Walking up and down the streets for hours, I finally came across this out of the way place where I had a delicious lunch of tempura prawns. Next to this restaurant, were a series of different glass blowing shops. After buying what I thought was a custard bun, which turned out to be an awful tasting black bean bun, I wandered through the glass shops, which had some astounding pieces of artwork as well as other beautiful and ornate glassware. Casually wandering through, looking at all the cool things I couldn’t afford, I came across a tiny shelf in one of the shops. It had about dozen tiny little glass objects in the shape of reindeer and a tiny Santa! I had finally discovered Christmas decorations in Japan!!!
Quickly buying them so no other sneaky westerner would take them before I could, although the chance of that was probably slim, I’d found some really cool decorations for home. For me however, it’s not the decoration itself. It’s the story that goes with it. When I see those little glass decorations, they not only look cool, but more importantly they remind me of my first adventure to Japan, which was planned and booked in about ten minutes whilst sitting on the front deck of a boat at work as we were in the process of reconnoitering a new outdoor trip. Another one I have is a wooden Santa from Breckenridge in Colorado. This was my first trip to the USA, when I was cooking for a snowboarding training school. One of the best days I had there was when Peak 10 opened and I was able to ski down chest-deep double black runs all day... it was awesome!
However, back to the decorations. The more I travel or the more experiences I have, the more I collect and when they’re all out each Christmas, they bring back wonderful memories which brings so much more meaning to this time of the year so. Next time you’re travelling or on an adventure, instead of buying a crappy souvenir pen or snow globe that will disappear into the abyss of your garage five minutes after you arrive home, buy a Christmas decoration, which you can put out every year that will bring back all the cool memories of the experiences you had when you first received it.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Wonderful New Year!
Canberra is an awesome place for mountain biking. With a range of well-maintained tracks close to town, they're convenient, accessible and a great way to spend a day or just wind down after work.
Mount Stromlo is a premiere location for Mountain Biking, with hundreds of different interconnected tracks and trails, all maintained by the local council. There's something for everyone here. For the beginner, there's an awesome playground area which is sign-posted with handy hints on how to ride each section. Full of logs, obstacles, berms, rollovers, seesaws and a pump track, this is great for basic training and skills development.
On the mountain itself, there are six major courses to ride, which can be combined or chopped and changed to create countless unique riding experiences. There's everything from the green beginner tracks to some wild double black diamonds for the expert rider. Stromlo has many days worth of tracks to ride and it's well worth planning a trip there with this in mind. From skills development to adrenaline pumping down hills, this is one fantastic place to ride.
For the adventurous rock climber, Mount Arapiles in Tooan State Park Victoria is an absolute must! This is a world class climbing spot and regarded as the best in Australia, attracting locals and international climbers alike. Four hours North West of Melbourne, the mountain range suddenly rises up out of the near dead-flat Wimmera plains, a stunning sight in itself, but wait till you get to the top!
The nearest regional centre to the Arapiles, is Horsham. Head west from there on the Wimmera Highway until you get to the small township of Natimuk. There’s a really good general store there for some basic last minute supplies. From there, you can’t miss the mountain range. It’s dramatic, stunning and rises up out of the Wimmera plains to dominate the landscape.
There are over 2,500 different routes to climb on this mountain, which provides a massive range of options for the beginner, right through to the advanced lead climber. Even though you’re bound to find other climbers around, there’s plenty of options from which to choose.
To get started, there’s a number of small, short climbs with easy road access and simple to setup top belays without having to lead climb up. These are perfect for the whole family, training the kids, or just bouldering to improve your own technique.
Further in, the mountain opens up into a massive collection of climbing routes for all skill levels and abilities. There’s an abundance of multi-pitch lead climbs up challenging rock faces, chimneys and stand-alone rock pillars. For less experienced climbers, guided climbs are available from the local area. For the experts, grab yourself a route map and get climbing!
The views from the top are stunning. The mountain is a stand-alone feature on the landscape, so all around you it drops down to the beautiful agricultural plains of Western Victoria as far as the eye can see.
There’s way too much to do here for just one day, so plan to make a trip of it. If you want to stay onsite, you must book camping in advance via the Parks Victoria Website. The camp ground has a great international atmosphere, with people from all over the world hanging out and taking on the variety of challenging rock faces. Whilst this is an all year round location, Summer here does get really hot, so from a risk point of view just keep that in mind.
If you love climbing, then this is by far the best place to do it in Australia!
• Sleeping Bags
• Sleeping Mat
• Gummy Bears (because you just can’t go wrong with them)
• Camping Stove
• Firewood (You're not allowed to collect wood from the site.)
• Insect Repellent
• Clothes for hot midday and cold nights
• Climbing Gear (helmet, ropes, harness, devices, shoes)
• First Aid Kit
Travel to the very edge of Kakadu National Park in Australia's remote Northern Territory, where you’ll discover ancient aboriginal artwork dating back tens of thousands of years. Not only will you see some of Australia's most remarkable rock paintings, but Kakadu National Park is a unique and stunning experience in itself.
Ubirr is deep in Kakadu National Park, which is one of Australia's most unique and beautiful national parks. The township, which consists of a general store offering take away Thai food, is a totally random outpost in an otherwise sparsely populated area. Ubirr is flanked by the East Alligator River (originally the crocodiles were mistaken for alligators, but when it was realised, the government didn’t want the expense of changing all the names on the maps, so it stuck). The East Alligator River is also the border to Arnhem Land, a traditional aboriginal territory, entry to which is strictly by invitation only.
To get there from Darwin, drive south along the Stuart Highway until you reach the Arnhem Highway. It’s then a 221km drive until you’re almost at Jabiru. Take the Ubirr Boarder Track. It’s sealed all the way to the border, so no worries if you don’t have a 4WD. The trail head is approximately 37km from Jabiru, which is also the last fuel stop. Advice for the drive: Do not drive at night. Between sunset and sunrise the proliferation of wildlife on the road is phenomenal and you shouldn’t drive at all in the dark.
Kakadu National Park is a wondrous landscape filled with an abundance of rare wildlife, including crocodiles. Make sure you avoid the temptation of wandering off to check out low-lying marshlands and stick strictly to the highway, as the risk of crocodile attack in this area is extremely high.
Arriving at Ubirr, there's clear well-signed tracks. The hike itself is not a particularly challenging one and is suitable for the whole family. It's relatively flat, with a single rocky peak to climb, giving you an amazing 360 degrees outlook right around the landscape. However, from a risk point of view, the heat is searing and there's precious little shade throughout the area, so make sure you have plenty of water.
Wandering along the dusty track, you soon come to the first of the stunning rock formations. The overhang, used as a shelter for aborigines in the past, has provided the perfect protection for the artwork, some of which date back around 20,000 years. Added to this, you can see how the landscape has changed over the millennia with some paintings located high up on the rock faces where once the ground was much higher, but as time weathered and eroded the softer parts of the land, the paintings crept down the wall. Many of these remain at eye level, so you can glimpse the amazing complexity of design.
There are different paintings throughout the area and something to take note of is the variation of what the art work depicts, depending on ice ages and periods of global warming, as the landscape dramatically changed. The pathway eventually takes you up to a stunning lookout. The awesome combination of remoteness, rare wildlife and ancient rock paintings makes this a wonderful and unique experience.
Dotted along the way with diverse and unique pockets of Australian wild flowers, The Wog Wog to Corang River hike is a great little overnight hike trek through rugged bushland on the edge of the Budawang Wilderness area. With a narrow, yet clearly distinguished track, this is a great taste of some of Australia’s most rugged wilderness areas located on the South Coast of NSW, just three hours drive from Sydney.
To get there from the sleepy town of Nerriga, travel south west along Nerriga Road for 17km until you reach Charley’s Forest Road. Turn left and continue along this road for approximately 6km until you reach the Wog Wog car park. The trail head is on the eastern side of the carpark, next to an information sign.
The walking trail is clearly marked and initially takes you down into a wide gully with some narrow boardwalks helping guide you over the first section. At the end of the boardwalk, the trail then morphs into a well-worn track that winds around for approximately 3km before you reach an intersection at GR 932 330. Take the left hand track at this point. This takes you through some more dense bushland, up and down gullies and through some low lying scrub all the way down to the Corang River.
Whilst this is a tracked walk, don't be lulled into a false sense of this being easy. It's a challenging track and the roughly 7km hike can take several hours depending on your fitness and the heat. This is a real wilderness area and quite remote, so you need to come prepared.
As you’re approaching the campsite the area opens up to some great views of the surrounding area before funnelling you down into the camp ground next to the serene and picturesque Corang River. The river meanders through ancient volcanic rock, leading to an amazing swimming hole a couple of hundred metres from the camp.
This is an amazing overnight trip and well worth doing as a way to introduce yourself to the stark rugged beauty of the Budawangs.
NEED TO KNOW
Length: 14 km (Return)
Time: 8 hours (Overnight recommended)
Grade: Difficult / Grade 4-5 (according to the Australian Walking Track Grading System).
Park: Morton National Park
Closest Town: Nerriga
Car Access: From Nerriga, travel south west along Nerriga Road for 17km until you reach Charley’s Forest Road. Turn left and continue along this road for approximately 6km until you reach the Wog Wog car park. The trail head is on the eastern side of the carpark, next to an information sign.
With outstretched arms the statue of Jesus (Cristo Rei) is a prominent and commanding landmark on the outskirts of Dili, capital city of the World’s youngest country, Timor Leste (East Timor). Built by the Indonesians to keep the predominantly Catholic population happy, hiking to the top of the mountain on which it stands is a great experience, giving you a bird’s eye view along the coast and over the city.
The walk starts at sea level from a car park at Cristo Rei Beach, East of Dili. The roads to the base of the walk are decent, but take a car, don't ride a bike as the roads can be quite dangerous due to the distinct lack of clear road rules and limited driver training. Opposite the car park, the rustic beach area has a few shelters which are prefect for a picnic lunch. The beach is popular with the locals, but don't expect too many waves as it's within a protected bay. The walk itself is an invigorating stair climb, dotted along the way with murals depicting the life of Christ. From the base you climb around 500 steps.
About three quarters of the way up there's a large amphitheatre where services are held on important occasions. From here, it's not far to the summit at which point you’ll find Jesus standing on top of a large globe and looking out towards Dili with his arms wide open. The views from here are stunning, as you have a commanding view right up and down the rugged coastline and over the city itself.
There’s always a lot to think about when preparing for an outdoor ed camp. Assuming you know where you’re going and what you’re doing sorted, then it’s time to prepare the finer details.
For most teachers, this is where it can become overwhelming. Often the feeling is, “I want to run an enjoyable and safe trip… but where do I start?”
The first thing to do is develop your risk management plan. Many other things will simply fall into place once this is done. Although the bane of many teachers’ existence, a good risk management plan can save you considerable time and effort down the line.
When building your plan, look at your daily routine and work out what the key risks are for each activity and how you will accept, eliminate or mitigate these risks. You’ll need to consider things such as time of year (season), weather, temperatures, location and emergency exit points. Add to this the specific risks for each activity in those locations at that time of the year and you’ll start to build a picture of what your key risks are and how you’re going to address them.
With your risk management strategy created, remember, this is a living document not a copy and paste job which just makes up part of the ‘annoying paperwork.’ All staff need to be aware of risks and mitigation strategies and be prepared to react and respond if and when it’s needed.
The next step is to sort permission notes, get updated medicals and provide a student packing list with all the items they need to bring (and things they shouldn’t). Have a detailed plan ready to go before you send this out to parents. You’re bound to get lots of questions so the more detailed the itinerary you can provide upfront, the better.
For the equipment list, clearly specify quantity and quality of what’s required. Whilst I know some parents might not be able to supply this, as a matter of safety, it’s important that you’re able to cater for any shortfall. One of the most important pieces of equipment is a set of thermals. Even in warmer months, it’s good safety practice to carry some thermals in case of emergency and if you’re running an autumn or winter camp, it’s essential that all students have a set. The reason being (not just to support our great wool industry), hypothermia is always a significant environmental risk due to wet and windy conditions in Australia.
With permissions notes, medicals and gear all sorted, it’s time to brief everyone! This is often overlooked, but it’s vitally important to run a pre-camp briefing for staff and students. This goes back to pro-active risk management. Set the scene, set the expectations and build the excitement for camp. After all, you’ve just spent weeks preparing something very special it’s now time to tell everyone about it! Showing images from a previous camp and location on a map, is a great way to put into perspective some of the experiences they’re about to have.
With all this done, it’s down to the last items and you’re ready to go! First Aid kits, spare Asthma Puffer, spare EpiPen, any medications, groups lists, medical summaries, food and you’re good to go! By the way… did anyone book the buses?
A while ago I wrote about finding myself outside my comfort zone on a reccie trip with some colleagues. We were white water canoeing, something I’d never done before. It was something I found quite challenging, but a rewarding learning experience.
Learning new skills in outdoor education is a great way to keep things interesting and expand your skill set. However, what happens with something you’re very experienced in? Should you be practising it outside of work? Is what you do on the job enough practice for something at which you’re good?
Snow skiing is something I’ve done since I was 5 years old and an industry I’ve worked in for around 7 years. In terms of outdoor skills, I can safely say, snow skiing is my strongest one. However, despite this experience, I still have plenty to learn and so much more upon which to improve. However, it’s not until your skills are actually put to the test, that you realise just how much more there is to learn and why it’s so important to continually up-skill.
Recently I spent a couple of weeks overseas skiing, as it’s been a number of years since I’ve done an entire season of work at the snow. When doing seasons, you have the time to truly build your skill-set and challenge yourself in so many different ways. However, it’s surprising how quickly you lose some of your finer skills when the season’s over.
Getting back on skis for the first time in a year is always an interesting experience. I love the sound of the boot clicking into the binding, fixing my helmet and lowering my goggles ready to jump on the lift. However, despite having skied many double black diamond runs over the years, I’m not going to head for the highest peak and fang it down the most hectic run as fast as I can, launching off everything I can find. No, that would be idiotic. Instead, I like to find a nice green or blue trail to run up and down to warm up and get a feel for everything again. I’ll probably spend an entire day doing this.
When I’ve had a chance to get my balance back and regain the feel for my skis, I’m ready to start rebuilding my deteriorated skill set that time has eroded. With any outdoor skill, you’ll reach a point where you’re highly competent and things will come back to you quickly. However, without practice, similar to physical fitness, all these hard skills, deteriorate over time. For an instructor, this deterioration is not good and can come from both lack of practice, or only operating at a much lower level of intensity.
If for example I was with a group skiing day in and day out, as is often the case for experienced instructors of any outdoor activity, I might just be cruising all the time on green or blue runs to match the level of ability of the group. However, cruising can lead to complacency and dull your senses to the wider challenges and risks of the activity that you’re leading. To avoid complacency, often called an expert blind spot, you must therefore continually practise and test your own skills at a much higher level to ensure you’re prepared for any contingency. You never know when you’ll need to quickly switch up from cruising instructor to rapid situational risk assessor and responder.
For me, this realisation came when I took a ‘short-cut’ on Whistler Mountain. I wanted to get to the furthest section of the mountain and I could see the lift to where I wanted to reach. I’d been skiing along the top of a ridge line, on a blue home trail. However, I saw what appeared to be a nice descent into the next valley and onto the lift. It was soft and powdery to begin with, but suddenly, on my right appeared a cliff and in front of me was a massively steep chute littered with rocks.
Most skiers have a home mountain, which they know like the back of their hand. For me this is Thredbo and so I can criss-cross it all day knowing where my random short cuts will take me. However, again this home mountain confidence can lead to complacency and over-confidence in other situations. Practising your skills on different mountains however, and getting into situations such as I did, is a real reminder of how aware and vigilant you need to be in the outdoors.
Rather than panicking, as I stared down the incredibly steep descent, I quickly dug in and attacked the chute, swiftly switching back and forth one sharp turn after another to control my descent, whilst avoiding the jagged rocks protruding from the snow. With a few crunching sounds from under my skis, I cleared the worst of it and glided out the bottom into a wide open section of deep soft snow. Glancing back up, I could now see the insanity of the ‘short cut’ in all its glory. Let’s do that again! I thought…
Whilst this wasn’t an ideal situation in which to find myself, the ability to switch up to a higher level of thinking and respond swiftly is an important thing to be able to do with any of your outdoor skills. This requires practice and pushing your own limits outside of your regular work. Whilst you’d never take a group with you into a situation like this, this sort of experience reminds you of the risks that are inherent with an activity such as skiing, as well as the need to continuously build and improve upon your own skills.
Expertise does lead to complacency and as outdoor educators and instructors we need to practise our own skills and be reminded that there are always limits to our experience and expertise. This helps us to be aware that there are always going to be risks involved and that we must eliminate, manage or mitigate those risks for our programs. However, if we don’t practise and test our hard skills outside of work, the chances are, your comfortable daily operations will become increasingly exposed to potential complacency as the instructor skill-sets deteriorate and activity risks don’t appear as dangerous as they really are.
To help resolve my over confidence and need to rebuild my alpine skill set, it was time for me to go back to ski school and take some lessons again.
Just a short one this week about an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years in outdoor ed programs has been that of clustering. What I mean by this is the group dynamic of needing to be close together when in large open spaces. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s interesting to watch how this can change over a longer-term program as students become more comfortable with their surroundings and the natural environment. For students from cities, most of the groups with which I’ve worked, big open spaces tend to be uncomfortable. When it comes to hiking, canoeing and camping, no matter how much space you have, the students tend to need to be very close together, even if they’re not friends.
I started to notice this across a number of canoeing expeditions where we were paddling on quite wide lakes. Whilst you never want a canoe group to be too far away from boats to boat, quite often students will paddle right on top of each other, rather than giving everyone else room to move. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents at the campsite. No matter how large and unoccupied the camp ground, the students tend to cluster together with tents almost on top of each other and rather than use free time to socialise with friends, they often cluster into one large group.
This is definitely a very primitive comfort zone issue and the fact that students feel safer in large groups when out in the wilderness. From a management point of view, this is great, as it’s easier to keep track of where everyone is. Just look for the massive group and listen for the noise. However, the problem with this is that as a group they can miss so much about the environment around them. They can miss the opportunity to switch off and just enjoy the peace and quiet of the unique landscapes and environments they will most likely never see again.
As I mentioned however, for longer programs, this distance seems to increase. Students feel more comfortable in the environment in which they’re in and as this comfort increases, they don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. They also develop an attitude that it is quite safe and this adds to the de-clustering effect. It’s interesting to watch this transition too as it creates greater moments for reflection and relaxation and opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world. Students can focus also on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
I know what you’re thinking! This is going to be about a trip to Disneyland. Well, in a word, no! Although I have been to Magic Mountain in Disneyland, this is about an environmentally sensitive power station in Wales that’s built inside a mountain.
Before going to Llandberis, I’d never been to Wales, let alone heard of Electric Mountain. The drive there in my tiny rental car was challenging to say the least as that morning it had started to snow in the English Midlands and continued throughout the day. Although no stranger to driving in the snow, it’s usually been in a 4WD or with chains on. Driving the smallest, cheapest front wheel drive rental I could find through an unfamiliar landscape and foreign country is an experience not to be missed, especially in England, where nobody seems to be used to driving in the snow and the entire road system seems to shut down at the first hint of a snowflake.
Consequently, the four and a half hour drive, turned into a seven hour white knuckle ride and at one point it was snowing so hard I could barely see out the window. It was a great relief to finally reach the hotel without having skidded on ice or become lost in the Welsh Highlands.
Waking up the next day, it was amazing to see the snow-capped countryside through which I’d unknowingly driven in the dark. There were mountains, a lake and a wonderful town filled with slate roofed houses. Nearby, I was told there was a hydro electric power station called Electric Mountain. Whilst the landscape was scarred from centuries of slate mining, there was no power station to be seen. Deciding to go on a tour of the mysterious (and somewhat invisible) power station, there was nothing more than an information building to suggest it existed. However, once the introductory video started, it began to come clear, the entire power station was built into the mountain, not on the top, nor on the side. An enormous cavern was dug out and the entire station was built inside the mountain.
Similar to other hydro electric stations I’ve seen, this is one which works by releasing water from an upper holding dam to produce electricity in peak times of demand and then pumps the water back up during off peak times. Not a sustainable form of energy, but a really clever one. Add to this the fact that they can bring the power station generators online in twelve seconds, rather than hours for a standard plant, then you have one amazing feat of engineering.
Apart from the insanely brilliant idea of hiding the power station in the mountain, the other environmental sensitive aspects of the design include venting the water uphill to slow its speed, before it enters the lake. This ensures that there’s no visible output of water, as well as protecting the integrity of the lake and the fish that live inside. They also built a tunnel for the fish to go through so they can leave the dammed lake and head back upstream to spawn.
Inside the mountain itself, the enormous cavern houses the power generators into which the water rushes, to spin the turbines at 500rpm and produce electricity. The ability to rapidly switch on or off means continuity of power supply across the UK.
From an educational point of view, this is a wonderful day trip if you’re in Wales. It’s an opportunity for students to see how innovation, industry and environmental concerns can all be effectively managed without a detrimental effect. With a power crisis looming in Australia, it might be worth building a couple of these and a nuclear plant for good measure to provide clean and reliable sources of energy.