It all began with a quick trip to Lismore. I found myself nominated as a finalist for the Alumni of The Year at one of my old unis. (If you’re wondering, I went to three different ones, if you’re not well… it’s too late now!) It was a nice feeling to be nominated and heading back to Southern Cross for the dinner.
The evening itself was a great one and I ran into a number of people I already knew and met so many more interesting people from across Australia who were now doing some amazing things. I always enjoy hearing about other people’s challenges and experiences in whatever they’re doing in life, as it puts your own busy world into perspective. I even met the musician behind the “Bob the Builder” song, which was fun.
After the dinner, I’d planned a quick getaway for a couple of days in Yamba, which was another place I hadn’t been since graduation. It was a warm and wonderful change from the icy conditions of the late winter we’d had in Southern NSW. I went for a couple of runs, ate some local seafood and had a generally relaxing time. It wasn’t until I was heading home that the dramas began.
I left on Monday morning, giving myself plenty of time to get to the airport for my 11:45 flight. Arriving in Ballina, I stopped for coffee and managed to find a wonderful café called …. It was a very smooth double shot latte and just what I needed.
Arriving at the airport, I checked the rental car for marks before dropping the keys back in the box. On check-in, I was informed that the flight was going to be delayed by two hours because of a meltdown of the air traffic control system in Sydney. I thought, ‘Oh well these things happen. I’ll go for a walk.’
I headed off down the road in search of something to do.
I found a homemakers centre in the industrial area and wandered around the air conditioned showroom until I’d seen the same lounge far too many times and considering I don’t own a house to fill with furniture, it was rather pointless. Heading back to the airport, I covered some 5km and was now quite hungry. Stepping into the terminal, I heard over the PA system that there was a further delay in the flight and the airline would be providing food vouchers for everyone on the flight. With my lunch paid for and a new departure time, I was happy to sit and catch up on some work.
For the next hour, I answered some emails and wrote an article, another advantage of being able to work from anywhere. However, as my battery charge diminished, the delays in the flight seemed to increase. There was a momentary reprieve when it was announced the plane had left Sydney and was on its way.
As I had to get a connecting flight to Canberra, I was starting to get a bit concerned about the time. Regardless, I’d worked out that even with another delay I’d still make it. The plane landed and the arrivals area flooded with the passengers out of Sydney. Thinking it would be a fast turn around, I put my phone away and started chatting with a lady who had just sat down next to me. Turns out she was a teacher and had been up scoping out new jobs. We chatted for some time, as the small departure lounge filled with expectant travellers returning to Sydney.
There was a tense anticipation in the air as the plane sat commandingly on the tarmac. Another announcement… ‘We’re sorry to inform you that the pilot of flight JQ451 is over his allowable hours and therefore is unable to fly again today. As a result this flight is cancelled.’ The voice over the PA was suddenly drowned out by hysterical moans and exclamations! The service desk attendant said something to the effect ‘We apologise for the inconvenience…’ but it was barely audible due to the ruckus of bogans swearing.
The departure lounge emptied quickly amid a rabble of angry curses. I remained sitting, thinking of alternate possibilities that could be slightly more constructive and profitable than swearing and yelling at airline staff. In situations like this, you have a couple of options. Quickly turn into an abusive dickhead, or strategise around the problem. As we were already well over the abusive dickhead quota, I decided on the latter.
What were my options? I had three meetings the next day in Canberra starting at 10am. I really wanted to be at all three, but two were moveable. The final meeting in the afternoon had been a long time coming and would’ve been hard to reorganise, so that gave me the hard deadline of 12:30pm landing back in Canberra the next day. Not too bad a scenario!
I quickly looked up alternate flights from other nearby airports, which in Australia is still quite a trek. Goldcoast was the nearest, but no flights given the lateness of the day. The only other one was Brisbane, which was further away, but had a flight at 7:10pm. I checked the map, I checked the time… I could make it. I quickly rang the airline to see if this were possible and after an anxious wait with my battery running low, it was! Feeling relieved, I dashed to the car rentals to get a car. Nothing was available at any of the 6 different rental businesses!
I was back to square one. That solution wasn’t going to work, so I joined the back of the enormous queue with the other 180 people as the airline scrambled to find accommodation for everyone at short notice in a small town. After almost an hour in line an announcement came over the PA. The airline was willing to reimburse customers up to $150 for their accommodation if they organised it themselves. Fearing the sort of accommodation I was going to get given anyway by the low-cost airline, this was a great alternative. With what little battery I had left, I checked out places to stay and found a nice boutique hotel for $169.00. It looked really interesting and was a heritage listed building so I immediately booked it, as there were only a couple of rooms left. Getting there and back was a minor detail. At least I had a bed!
I waited in line for another hour, as transport into town was arranged to the various motels. It was disorganised chaos however. Buses had arrived and passengers were being ushered onboard. I hung back as a wild rabble of bogans who’d been standing in line drinking for the past hour appeared as if they weren’t going to stop anytime soon. I felt relieved as I overheard they were going to the Best Western. Two other ladies had boarded that bus, but it was full and the bogans ungraciously told them to get off the bus.
Meanwhile, I was standing just inside the terminal with one other lady by the name of Jill. I chatted with her for a few minutes before the other two who’d been thrown off the bus joined us appearing rather frazzled. We were the last four at the airport and after being given an assurance that another bus was on its way and going exactly where I needed to go, I was happy to wait a little longer.
Relieved to get on the bus, despite not knowing the area, we had to direct the bus driver to the hotel. As we pulled up, a feeling of relief and excitement came over me. It was a magnificent old Victorian style two storey mansion. Inside the foyer, it was a beautifully restored building that had once been a girls’ boarding school. With some old uniforms and tennis racquets on display, it had a distinct St. Trinians feel to it!
As we waited on the lounges for the receptionist, it was calming to be out of the din of the airport. However, the tranquility was about to be disrupted again. The receptionist walked out, saw four of us sitting on the lounge and a worried look appeared on her face. I knew at that moment, despite the ladies having asked the airline staff several times if there were enough rooms, there weren’t going to be enough rooms!
Having booked the place myself online, thankfully she had a room for me, but then there was only one room left with a single bed and three ladies! At this point after the rolling problems the looks of horror on the ladies faces said it all. They weren’t going anywhere. They were all staying and that was final. It was almost like a scene out of Fawlty Towers. I asked if there was a spare bed in my room, but no, nothing, just a single. Luckily the hotel had a roll out bed for one and they put that in the room for the ladies, who then worked out the rest.
With my stomach growling having missed lunch and the restaurant in the hotel closing, I said I’d freshen up and then meet everyone in the dining room. The dining room was more Fawlty Towers than reception had been, with everything but a hamster and a man from Barcelona. Despite the historic look and feel, the food was great. With the dramas of the day over, dinner was a wonderful experience. I was able to get to know three total strangers and enjoy a really enjoyable meal with them, an experience that would never have happened if it weren’t for a computer malfunction in Sydney.
It’s often the most unusual circumstances which can lead to the best adventures. The only thing you need to be able to do in this sort of situation is have a sense of humour and always remain adaptable as the situation evolves. If you stress too much about it or just believe the solution is through yelling and swearing at people, you’ll miss out on the possibility of having a much better and memorable experience than what would have happened with the original plan anyway. I ended up shopping for sofas, meeting new people, sleeping in the old headmistress’ office in a slightly quirky and most likely haunted Victorian mansion and ended up back in Canberra for my most important meeting the next day.
In any situation, where tensions may get high due to things not going to plan, never forget that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is one and the same. In the words of Homer Simpson embrace and enjoy the ‘Crisitunity!’
As a teacher you work hard throughout the year, but as with all hard work, there’s a payoff and for me, it’s the summer holidays! Having seven clear weeks to do whatever you like is something that many people never get to do until retirement. For me, that’s way too far away to even think of and I don’t want to save up all the fun and adventures for when I’m not physically able to do them. Bit pointless and a bit too industrial revolution style for me!
However, back to the annual pay off! Now if you’re doing teaching just for the holidays, perhaps you need to find another profession. What I’m talking about is not just getting away from work. For me, this break is a great opportunity to travel, discover the world, experience new things and ultimately learn something new.
Unfortunately, too many people waste all this time doing virtually nothing! I’ve never really understood this. Sure, I could spend a week at the beach, relaxing, sunbaking and going for swims and this could be extremely refreshing, but if I did this for seven weeks, I’d be bored and I’d be thinking I’m wasting opportunities. Even with a week of hanging around, that leaves six weeks for something new, exciting, challenging and meaningful.
A few different things I’ve done in this time over the years have included a TV & Radio presenting course, being an extra in a feature film, playing a corpse in a short student film and being a cook for a snowboarding program. This last one was a great opportunity to travel to the US, challenge myself to improve my culinary skills, live at altitude for an extended period and push the boundaries with my snow skiing. Next year, I plan to travel overseas to do an intensive language course to try and learn a new language in a really short period of time.
None of these experiences have been the stock standard ‘holiday’ experience. They’ve challenged me in different ways, opened my eyes to new possibilities and other cultures, enhanced my world view and ultimately helped me to improve my teaching. Every year I get more professional development value from this extended break than I have ever gained from any conference, workshop or the dreaded first day back PD sessions. This time is important for your professional development as a teacher and what you learn yourself can have a marked impact on the way to teach.
This year, if you don’t have any plans, it’s time to make some. If you say it’s too late, then you’re just not trying hard enough. The first time I went to Japan, I booked it all the day before. By 9:45pm the next evening I was off to discover a new culture! Be bold, be adventurous and do something completely different. Nobody wants to hear about how you sat at home for over a month and did chores. That’s boring, so don’t be boring! There are plenty of accountants and lawyers who have already monopolised that talent, so do something people might be interesting in hearing about. Do something totally left field that others wouldn’t expect!
Normal people never change the world and as a teacher, you have the power and influence to change a generation. However, without understanding and experiencing a wide range of things in your own life, you will never truly be well placed to effectively shape the lives of others. Get out there! You have the time, you have the opportunity so this year find something new and exciting to do and have a wonderful and memorable summer break!
Located on the tropical coastline of far north Queensland, the Daintree Rainforest is an extraordinary location teeming with unique flora and fauna. Unfortunately, two days were no where near enough time to explore this World Heritage listed location. However, having had a glimpse of the beauty and diversity of the area, I'm ready to head back for another trip.
Before I do that though, here is just a short insight into the extraordinary landscape that makes up far north Queensland. A trip away from the cold of the south coast in the middle of winter, is always a pleasant change. Flying into Cairns, I was hit by the airport shock, the feeling when you land somewhere, get off the plane, and find yourself in a totally different climate to where you were a couple of hours ago. It was a warm and humid evening, a drastic change from the sub-zero temperatures in which I'd been camping the previous week.
View Of Daintree National Park From Walu Wugirriga Lookout
I went straight from the airport to the hotel after both of my flights were delayed and crashed in bed after what was a very long week. The next morning however, I woke up early and headed to the Tjapukai Cultural Centre, owned and operated by the local aboriginal people. It was a fascinating insight into how the rainforest tribes lived, as well as a journey through their dreamtime creation story. This was interspersed with boomerang throwing, spear throwing, a look at bush foods and medicines as well as some traditional aboriginal dancers.
While aboriginal history is not a new experience for me, there were some interesting differences between what I've learnt about the tribes and traditions of the south coast of New South Wales, versus the cultural traditions of the tribes of the tropics. Of course, there were massive variations in diet and cultural mythology, due to the extremes of the wet and dry seasons. It was interesting to find out that these are the only tribes who used the three and four pronged boomerangs, which I had never seen before.
Tjapukai Cultural Center
It often amazes me how little we know about our own countries and it's not until we start to explore in more depth and detail that we find out how diverse the experiences are of others who are living in the same country.
After the conclusion of the cultural tour, I caught the Skyrail, which is a gondola that takes you high above the rainforest canopy. There are two stops along the way, where you can get out and walk through some of the rainforest. There are some amazing ancient trees dating back over 500 years dotted through this area, tree ferns and palms everywhere and enormous basket ferns perched high up in the trees. The diversity of species here is astounding, far too many for me to even comprehend.
The boardwalk leads you to several vantage points, enabling you to look out over Barron Falls, which is a massive rock face at the top of the gorge through which a trickle of a river runs, as it's been dammed above the formation. I can imagine though, that when it floods, these falls would return to their former glory and it would be one huge raging torrent through the gorge.
Continuing on my historic journey, I ended up in tiny town called Kuranda, where I boarded the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Apart from the fact that they need to apply some grease to the wheels of the train to stop the ear piercing sound they made going around bends, it was another amazing journey. Built to service the local mines and transport goods to and from Cairns, this railway is a feat of engineering genius, as it negotiates its way along the side of astoundingly steep terrain, crosses massive gullies and tunnels through the mountains. Except for using dynamite to loosen the rocks, all of the tunnels were dug out by hand. As the journey progresses, you're provided with an historic narration of the building and early uses of the railway. The most amazing part of it however, is where the rail line is suspended not far off the cliffs as you roll by a beautiful waterfall dropping hundreds of metres from the top to the river below.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
Stunning Waterfall, Cairns
Finishing the day, I ended it with a giant leap back into the future. Standing on one of the beaches and looking up into the sky, the international space station glided directly overhead. It was nothing more than a bright shining light in the night sky, but seeing that makes you realise how far we've come in a very short space of time.
I always find it exciting exploring new places, but being able to explore new places in your own backyard is even more interesting. From the ancient aboriginal world to the stunning rainforests, this was truly a unique experience and I've learned more about cultural heritage and rainforests in two days, then I had in years of reading books.
The next time you get an opportunity to travel around this great country, if you want to really appreciate some of the history and natural beauty of our nation, then far North Queensland is well worth a visit.
Over the past three years, as I've worked on various outdoor ed programs, I’ve seen a pattern repeating itself over and over again. With a new group every few weeks, I've found the same kind of engrained beliefs the students have about themselves presenting again and again at the start of each program.
When the students arrive, I run a session on goal setting. In this, we outline why we set goals, how we go about achieving goals and why we should be setting goals outside our comfort zone! Despite this, it’s not until we actually get out into field and start doing some challenging activities that students get the opportunity to field-test their skill level and resilience.
Often we’ll be running an activity where the students have little previous experience. As a result, they’re hesitant or even fearful of the activity. The feeling of pushing outside one’s comfort zone starts to solidify in the students’ minds. However, I've noticed an increasing number of students shy away from activities that involve any form or risk, or perceived risk of failure.
Some of this feeling of fear is perhaps due to lack of experience. Other fears however, are often inherited from external sources such as parents and family who may have misguidedly told their children to always ‘Be Safe!’ ‘Don't take risks!’ and because their children are so perfect, they can't possibly fail… at anything!
One of the problems this creates is an irrational fear of dangers that don't actually exist and the fear of failure to the point that it's better not to try, than to risk being seen as less than perfect. The number of ‘perfect’ children I now find who have such low self esteem and lack of self belief is astounding!
When setting up activities we run, especially when we’re looking at abseiling, surfing, high ropes courses and even riding a bike, I say to the students beforehand, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think!’
I usually get blank stares, ‘What’s he talking about?’ I leave it at that.! I don’t go into any other details before starting the activity.
Whatever the activity may be, I make sure that it's designed to push the comfort zone and boundaries for each and every student.
Because of their pre-existing self-beliefs and low-levels of resilience, more often than not the students will go into an activity thinking, ‘I can’t do it!’ It's really just their first line of defence to avoid their fear of failure.
Whenever they tell me, ‘I can’t do it,’ I generally respond, ‘Why not?’
In return I usually get ‘Because…. Blah, blah, blah!’
By this time, I've tuned out as they’ll throw up every possible excuse to avoid trying. These excuses tend to come out in rapid-fire succession, just in case the first one doesn't sound believable enough, they've got the next one ready to go!
What they're basically saying is, ‘What excuse can I make up to protect myself from possibly failing?’ and it's this fear of failure that's increasingly driving behaviours in students.
However, unless there’s some pre-existing medical condition, or some real reason as to why they can’t participate, I ignore their complaints about not being able to do it and instead encourage them to give it a go!
Whatever the activity, we’ll graduate it throughout the day to increase the level of challenge. For example, in mountain biking, we’d start with simple biking skills, how to set your seat height, how to pedal, how to change gears, how to brake, a very important aspect. We move on to how to go over an obstacle, how to go over an obstacle when moving at speed, how to go over multiple obstacles in succession and how to negotiate around berms, downhill at speed. The activity is therefore getting harder and harder, but it's graduating at a pace with which the students can manage.
Suddenly, without realising it, the students are riding on relatively steep terrain covered with some serious obstacles. A couple of hours ago they were telling me, or more to the point, themselves, that they couldn't do it!
With a ropes course, we start with low ropes, which are literally one step off the ground. They're simple stable challenges. However, after this, we ramp it up to a high ropes course where there's an increased perception of risk.
We often have students who are afraid of heights and this is a great activity to seriously push them outside their comfort zone. It makes them feel fear, it allows them to confront their fears head on and I work closely with these students to pushing them through that fear and enable them to truly challenge themselves and their firmly held beliefs. Once you can get them to punch through those self doubts, then their attitudes change, their confidence growth with it.
The same is true with surfing because a lot of students have never surfed before. Some are afraid of the water. Some are afraid of the surf. Some are afraid of getting eaten by sharks. The reality is though, you’re more likely to get killed by a vending machine falling on top of you than you are getting eaten by a shark. But people are still afraid.
No matter what the activity, the biggest challenge for students always comes down to all of the irrational fears that run through their minds telling them they can't do it.
However, once you get them involved and engaged in an activity, the fears disappear from their mind. They forget about all the excuses they made up as to why they couldn’t do something because their minds are now focused on the here and now and before they know it, they’re actually doing the thing they told you they couldn't.
I love to see this when it happens and I use this to positively reinforce those affirmative risk-taking behaviours that the students have pushed themselves to do.
In debriefing the activity, I revisit the issue of facing fears, happily saying to the student, ‘You’ve just achieved something that you told me you couldn’t do. Two hours ago you told me, “I can’t do it,” but what’s happened?’
I encourage all the students to respond individually. Invariably they’ll say, ‘I did it!’ And they’re really excited about it too. You can see it in their faces and in their smiles. They’re excited to have conquered their fear. They’re excited to have done something they’ve never done before.
To conclude the debrief, I’ll do a summation then reinforce my original statement, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think.’
Suddenly, I see lights going on! Some students are having an aha moment! What I said at the start is now making sense. Whilst they mightn’t remember it at the start of the next challenging activity, I’ll remind them of it and consequently they start to further process how to better approach challenging situations.
When students begin to realise their thoughts can shape so much of their lives in both positive and negative ways, this can become a powerful tool to help them master their approach to new challenges and experiences. Instead of telling themselves they can't do something, they've now got a power reference point of how and why they can do something they never thought they could.
Using briefing and debriefing frameworks to provide relatable learning moments, is vital when working with teenagers who might not always feel comfortable nor confident in everything they’re doing, even if they pretend to be.
Whilst life’s not all high ropes, mountain biking and shark dodging, when students can use these more challenging experiences and relate their success in these back to every day life, they start to become more resilient and realise they can push through other challenges they face.
Relating outdoor activities back to a wider context in this way, can be extremely effective in helping teenagers to push themselves outside their comfort zones and grow. It helps them to adopt a better mind-set for the way they should approach the next activity, or the next family matter or the next big decision they need to make in their lives. Chances are if you do the same, it could help you to push through some of your own long-held fears and apprehensions.
So remember, Don’t always believe everything you think!
It’s back to school for the year and as always, due to the beautifully warm weather, it's one of the most popular times of the year for outdoor ed trips. It's also prime snake season and given the fact that Australia has the world’s greatest collection of deadly snakes, including the deadliest and second deadliest that can kill you within an hour, if you're bushwalking or camping, it's one risk that seriously needs to be addressed.
Australia has around 140 different species of snake and about 100 of these are venomous. Yes, we do indeed have the most poisonous creatures in the world. However, out of all of these, only a few are likely to inflict a wound that could kill you. These include, but are not limited to the Inland Taipan (Fierce Snake), Brown snake, Tiger snake, Death adder, Black snake, Copperhead and Rough Scaled snake.
Each year in Australia, there are around 3000 snake bite injuries, of which 400 - 500 casualties receive anti-venom. A fact is that snakes don't always envenom their victims and more often than not, it's a dry bite. However, you must assume if bitten, that every bite is venomous and treated as such until otherwise proven. Also be aware that baby snakes are more likely to inject a massive dose of venom into you if they bite, as they don’t have the maturity to decide to venom or not to venom, that's the question on all snake’s fangs.
A fatality as a result of a snake bite is quite rare. It's roughly between 1 and 3 people out of the 3000 who receive bites year that will result in a fatality. Around 60% of recorded deaths in Australia have been due to brown snake bites; the remainder are generally shared out amongst the inland taipan (world deadliest snake), the tiger snake (super aggressive) and the death adder (scary name).
Therefore, how do you manage this risk? Well for starters “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!” With the exception of the tiger snake, most snakes aren't aggressive. By leaving them alone, you've basically managed most of the risk involved. I've encountered countless snakes over the years and I've never even come close to getting bitten, because they tend to make a fast getaway. However, when provoked, poked, prodded and picked up, they do tend to become quite responsive. The fact that most bites occur on hands and wrists when people try to capture or kill them, should say something. Stupid people have a tendency towards picking snakes up and boys in particular find that they can't resist the temptation and on average more young males get bitten than anyone else. So again, “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!”
To highlight just how docile they can be, one of my colleagues last year was setting up a shelter when a red belly black snake slithered over his foot. He stood still, possibly frozen from the initial shock and associated fear, and the snake just continued on its way, not even noticing that my colleague was there. If you're hiking, ensure everyone is wearing sturdy footwear and heavy long pants and/or gators. The fangs on Australian snakes can't usually penetrate through these materials that prove great protection against the fangs. The one snake bite casualty I dealt with had been hiking in reef sandals and been bitten on the arch of her foot after stepping on the snake. Had she been wearing hiking boots, she would never have been bitten.
Signs & Symptoms:
With everything, no matter how well you try to prevent these things, people still get bitten. (If only we could leave the stupid people at home). Most bites that occur when out hiking, occur when someone accidentally steps on them. The pain has been described from being struck by a baseball bat, to being like a stick flicking up at you, to people feeling nothing at all until they start showing the signs and symptoms of envenomation, which include headache, tingling, stinging, burning or abnormal feelings of the skin, feeling anxious, tachycardia (increased heart rate), irregular heartbeat, nausea (feeling sick) vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, dizziness, breathing difficulties, problems swallowing, muscle weakness, confusion, paralysis, coma or death in the most severe cases. You may also see redness around the area of the bite and residual venom. However, it's possible that you won't see two clean fang puncture wounds and so rely more on the signs and symptoms.
To treat a snake bite wound, use the pressure immobilisation method. To do this, lay the person flat and do not let the victim move or walk anywhere as this will increase the pace at which the venom travels through the body. Take a compression bandage (preferably a snake bite bandage if you have one in your kit) and apply pressure directly over the top of the bite. The bandage should be firmly on and not so tight that it restricts blood flow. Snake venom travels through the lymphatic system, not the blood stream and so the compression bandage slows this process. If you have a second bandage (which you should), start at the toes, or fingers and apply the pressure bandage all the way to the top of the limb. Use another bandage each time you run out and then test the toes or fingers for capillary refill to ensure it’s not too tight.
Once you have the entire limb bandaged, immobilise that limb. If it's a leg, tie it to the other leg. If it's an arm, splint or tie it to the body. Basically, just make sure they can't move it. Then get them to professional emergency medical care as fast as possible. To be clear, this is just a general overview and for accurate up-to-date first aid advice, check the Australian Resus Council’s Official Guidelines
It's important to be aware that snake bites can cause a severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis in some people. If you're treating a snake bite and someone has an anaphylactic reaction, treat it in the same way you would any other anaphylaxis as it becomes the priority and then apply the pressure immobilisation bandage.
Whilst snakes are a risk when out and about in the Australian bush, the most important thing to remember in the effective management of this risk is, “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!” Happy summer camping season!
Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!
What better way to freak out a bunch of teenagers than to take them into a cramped cave in which your chest is flat to the ground and the roof grazes your back. Then turn out the lights!
If this sounds like something you'd love to do, then Bungonia caves is the place to do it! Deep in the Southern Highlands and on the edge of the Shoalhaven Gorge, lies Bungonia National Park. It's an easily accessible area not too far from the Hume Highway. Here there's a stunning cluster of caves with a variety of challenges for all skill levels. Now even though I really enjoyed this experience, caving isn't really my thing, so I'm not going to give you any technical details about the caves themselves. If you're going to do this, make sure you have an experienced guide to lead you, as every cave is different and this presents its own set of risks and challenge.
However, for a simple explanation, caves are cramped and dark and this provides an excellent opportunity for some great experiential learning. The cave I mentioned at the start is quite a short one, literally tens of metres long. However, it can take your group ages to get out in total darkness!
This activity is a fantastic one for developing communication skills and teamwork. The fear factor that's added in with the total disorientation that comes with being in complete darkness, is the perfect way to test even the most confident of students (and teachers). Now this exercise isn't about messing with people's heads. It's about building a team that can communicate, work together and develop a cohesive plan minus one of their most important senses. You really don't understand total and utter darkness until you've been in a cave like this. Some kids totally freak out, but if you're leading the group, resist the temptation to just turn the lights back on. That's a last resort and defeats the whole point of the exercise.
Once everyone has crawled down into the cave with their lights on, there’s an area in which you can gather everyone together and brief them on the task. Once you're done, it's lights off! Time to work together to get out! Now you get to see the group dynamics either gel or implode and it happens really quickly. Robbed of their ability to see, basically someone needs to take charge and use their other senses to start leading people out. But it can't be reliant on one person. Everyone must do his part! That's why I love this activity, because it forces people to quickly accept or reject the team and the team leaders.
There’s no glimpse of light from anywhere. You can literally hold your hand in front of your face and you still won't see anything, no subtle movement, nothing! It feels weird!
After the initial excitement of being in total darkness is over, you can expect the stress level of the group to increase, and they suddenly realise you're not joking about getting out. This activity can bring a group together, in which case they're usually out in a fairly short amount of time. (Remember, it’s not that deep a cave). However, it can also tear a group apart with nobody wanting to take responsibility, poor communications and internal fears overwhelming students. This sort of experience is raw, challenging and can lead to some amazing learning outcomes.
No matter how long it takes your group to get out, the two most important elements of this activity for you are the pre-lights-out briefing and the post activity debrief. By carefully framing the activity and letting the students know this could be challenging, but they've got each other, then this can guide their purpose and focus their minds. In the debrief of the activity, let them run through how they felt and how they found the communication and team dynamics and let them know how you felt in there as well. Even though it's a safe activity, it can still be unnerving and make you feel uncomfortable too.
This activity is great for putting people right out of their comfort zones. However, we only ever grow in our lives when things are uncomfortable and by adapting to meet the challenge of that discomfort. By providing positive feedback for when the team pushes past their discomfort and grows, is ultimately the goal of this amazing experiential education activity. It’s well worth a trip to the Southern Highlands!
Coming from Australia, there’s not too many double black diamond runs on our ski fields. In fact, when it really comes down to it, a double black in Australia is like comparing a gentle paddle along a river, with a grade 5 rapid. They’re just not the same. So when I went to ski Colorado, I was excited, yet nervous at the same time because the runs are steeper, longer and harder than anything back home.
Fear and excitement is what makes skiing so much fun and I couldn’t wait! The first thing I noticed when I landed in Denver, was how ridiculously cold it was compared with home, where you can get away with skiing in a t-shirt sometimes (that’s if it’s not raining). It felt good walking out of the terminal into that bracing cold, knowing I was in for some awesome runs! It also felt good getting out of the airport because of those weird murals!!! Has anyone else seen them? They’re messed up! I was wandering along and noticed there’s a soldier with a gas mask on painted on the walls of the arrivals lounge. Kinda weird… As this was my first trip to the US, I didn’t think much more of it, as I assumed that all airports in America must be the same, given the love of guns and stuff! But then later found out about all the conspiracy theories about the airport!!! If you haven’t heard any of them, please check them out! They’re insanely awesome, messed up and funny and I can’t wait to fly back in to Denver to see it all again. Anyway, I digress, back to skiing!
I headed to Breckenridge, where I was based for the season cooking meals and helping out in the house with an Australian snowboarding team. The job was simple. I cooked meals for the 25 people in the house and did the shopping and I was able to ski each day! Basically, my dream job. So each morning I went out skiing and then after lunch I went back to the house, prepped dinner and cooked. This gave my heaps of time to explore the four peaks of Breckenridge, as well as Keystone, A-Basin and an awesome day at Beaver Creek.
The Moment It Got Real!
I’d been skiing there for a week and kept seeing expert only signs plastered around the slopes. My doubting inner voice kept telling me, ‘Don’t go there,’ you’re not an expert, you’re from Australia. However, my much louder more adventurous inner voice kept telling me, ‘Get there now!’ What are you doing on this lame single black diamond? There’s two more categories higher! Hurry up and do it!!!’ Needless to say, adventurous inner voice won out! There’d been a couple of decent snow falls over the previous few days and they’d finally opened up Peak 10 at Breck, which they’d been holding off doing to ensure depth to the base. I rushed over thinking the whole peak would be tracked out, only to find it relatively empty. This was fantastic! I jumped on the chair and headed up. At the top I saw the sign that drew me in! It pointed to a fresh double black run! It called to me, it dragged me in… It was Dark Rider! My stomach churned as I thought of all the things that could go wrong. I was pushing things too hard, I could break something, I could hit a tree, I could set off an avalanche (something we definitely don’t have in Australia). But once again, adventurous inner voice won with such well-formed arguments as, ‘Just shut up and go for it!’ Ok, you’re the boss! And with a skate of the skis and push of the stocks, I shot forward and down the incredibly steep run, plowing through waist deep powder with every turn. Bam! I copped a face full of snow, pumping up, I turned, dropped back into the powder and Bam! Another face full of snow! This was awesome! My heart raced as I weaved through the pines and danced through the deep powder around me.
I soon reached the bottom. I could feel my chest pounding, my legs burning and a smile on my face I couldn’t wipe off. Turning back, I glanced up to see what I’d ridden, my single set of tracks curving down the insanely steep run! I’d made it! It felt amazing. For me the fear of the unknown double black was finally put to rest. I’ve skied since I was five years old, but I’d always had the self-doubt around taking on a seriously challenging run. However, a few days before Christmas, I’d finally done it and I couldn’t have been any happier! As with anything in life that pushes the boundaries, if you put in the effort, build up to it and are confident in your ability to take that final leap which scares the hell out of you, then you can do anything!
As soon as I caught my breath, I was back on the chairlift, to do it all over again!
This week, I’m in Thredbo for what is often the busiest week on the ski fields. It’s a combination of the last week of the school holidays, coupled with the Redlands Cup and a number of other inter-schools snow sports’ competitions. Many teachers use the draw card of snow sports to organise a school trip and at the same time get themselves a nice expenses ‘paid’ vacation! Whilst I’ve gone on one of these trips before, there’s often a lack of understanding of the risks inherent with snow sports that comes with this and having been part of a major snow sports’ program for six years that ran for the whole season, we would often see other schools’ groups on the mountain that were less than prepared for the conditions and the overall environment.
Whilst I’m not saying that teachers just throw caution to the wind, however, the risk profile of snow sports is one of the highest of any outdoor activity. Combine, speed, trees, ice, freezing conditions, lots of equipment, kids and other people who are out of control on the slopes and you get a challenging recipe for injuries. However, this shouldn’t be the case and through careful planning and management, every trip can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
So what are some ways to help plan for a safe and effective ski trip?
Have fun! Skiing and snowboarding are awesome sports and they challenge everyone in a different way. Ultimately you’re there with your group so everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience. If you setup the trip with clear guidelines and structures in place, you’re going to have an enjoyable and awesome experience.
Ok! I’m going to preface this by saying that there’s been way more than just one weird encounter when I’ve had kids out with me on an excursion. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences too, so feel free to get in touch and share some weird moments, I can’t be the only one having fun out there on excursions. I won’t say 'wilderness,' because some of my strange encounters have been in the city. Having said that, this week, I will actually be talking about an encounter in the Australian bush!
A few weeks back I talked about running into random people who weren't quite prepared for their hike, this week is another one of those. This happened mid-October and I was leading what was called a parent hike. This was part of a year 9 program, in which the boys spent six months with us and faced a range of different challenges. I’ll talk more about that program another time, but back to the hike! The parent hike was an overnight trip where one of the boys’ parents came down and we took both parent and son away, the idea being a complete role reversal where the kids were looking after the parents! We’d been hiking in the hot spring afternoon. Having stopped for lunch at the top of a spur, we’d then descended the steep 300 odd metres down to the river flats. It’s quite a spectacular area and once on the water, it’s this amazing funnel of cliffs and narrow banks.
A View Towards The River Valley
Coming into camp, the parents were quite weary, most of them not used to the heat and exertion of the hike. I was at the front of the group with one of the boys, whose dad couldn’t make it, so I was fulfilling the role and had happily chatted away all afternoon. I was suddenly stopped in my tracks however, by a lady standing over a Trangia (camping stove) boiling water. It was more of the surprise of coming across someone in our camp ground more than anything else. It was rather remote and in the years of coming here, had never encountered anyone before. I politely said hello (thinking oh dear, we’ve just wrecked her night out with the forty people I had with me). She asked me where I was from and almost immediately following that asked me “What do you know about snakes?”
“I know a reasonable amount,” I replied. “What would you like to know?”
The lady look slightly relieved and proceeded to describe to me the colour, tones and features of a snake.
“Hmmm, that sounds like a baby brown snake!” I said.
“No it wasn’t a brown snake!” She curtly replied.
I did go on to explain that brown snakes do vary in colour quite a bit and given the area (which is known for its brown snakes), there was every chance that it was one.
“No definitely not a brown snake!” The lady reiterated.
“Ok, so have you seen one here at the camp site?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just that a friend of mine has been bitten by it.”
I looked around…
“She’s down along the river a bit, I’m just making her a cup of tea.”
“Oooh, that’s no good! Have you sent for help?” I enquired.
“Yeah, some of our friends are walking back out and we’ve wrapped up a t-shirt around her leg.”
I immediately replied with, “We’re first aid trained, we’ve got first aid kits with us and we’ve got a doctor with us.”
“No, it’s ok, she’ll be fine with a cup of tea!”
Inland Taipan - Deadliest Snake In The World! (Not The Snake In Question, But Looks Cool)
This is the first sign of weirdness. I can understand if they had first aid training, if they had communications, if they had a decent first aid kid, they’d be ok… But I wasn’t expecting that reaction. My concern was immediately the fact that if it were a brown snake, then the person who’s been bitten had about an hour untreated to get to a hospital! Not something I’d be comfortable with knowing the area, knowing the fact that it’s a two hour walk out and that once at the car park, it was a fifteen minute drive to get mobile reception! This picture was looking ugly, even though the tea was smelling rather nice.
I walked over to my group of parents and to the one who was a doctor for some advice. He was equally concerned and said to call the poisons unit at the Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney, get an ID on the snake and present this information to the lady. At the same time, we also offered compression bandages out of our first aid kids and literally forced them into the tea lady’s hand!
Reluctantly she took them. I know at this point many people would say, it’s not your problem as they’ve declined our help. However, with puzzled looks between myself and the doctor, we still had the feeling we should explore every possible avenue before leaving them to their own devices. Evening was fast approaching and the last thing we wanted to have to deal with was a body 200 metres from a camp full of kids and parents. At least we had someone who could call it… But we didn’t want that.
I made the call back to base on my radio, which had massive coverage throughout the area. I asked for an ID on the snake and gave full details of our location. Meanwhile, our doctor parent walked down, spoke with the lady who had been bitten and provided the offer of assistance to her directly. She thanked him and declined, saying that her foot was sore, but her friends had gone for help. Again 2hour walk! 15mins drive to get Comms. Meanwhile I was talking with base, who were on the phone to the poisons unit! I’m not seeing the logic in this, and even less when the poisons unit replied saying they think it was most likely a brown snake and you need to get the lady out of there as fast as possible!
Ok then… Now how do we approach this one? I thought about it as I walked down towards the lady who’d been bitten. I may as well just go with the honest blunt approach, that may upset her cup of tea, but I guess we could always make her another one. I did break the news in the most gentle way and said, "We’ve been talking with the poisons unit at the Westmead Children's Hospital and they’ve identified the snake as a brown snake. Because of that we believe it’s in your best interest for us to call emergency services for you."
She thought on this…
The seconds felt like hours as I kept glancing at my watch, calculating the time that had already elapsed. We’d burnt a lot of time. The one saving grace was the fact that she was at least somewhat relaxed (perhaps too relaxed about this).
Finally she spoke!
“Oh ok I suppose so!”
Bam! We had consent!
I felt a rush of adrenaline shoot through me, because we were now responsible for making sure this lady didn’t die.
My manner changed from negotiator to dictator. Back on the radio to base.
“I urgently need emergency services to figures grid 659483!” (not the real location) At this point I started recording everything I did in more detail. Glancing at my watch, I tagged the time of the call and started the timer.
Back to the lady, I clearly outlined the details of my call and their response. She then gave us consent to rewrap the shoddy bandage on her leg and we applied a proper compression bandage. We started to monitor her heart rate, which was elevated, but her being relaxed, was keeping this in check (lucky she had a cup of tea!)
Another glance at the watch to record my observations, a couple of minutes had passed. Continuing to reassure her, I could see some redness emerging and signs of envenomation. Now my heart rate was shooting through the roof.
In the distance I heard a mechanical hum. It was getting closer! The purr grew louder and louder. Suddenly, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter roared over our heads. You never realise how amazing and powerful these helicopters are until they fly over you just above the tree line! Checking my watch it had been 12 mins from when I gave the grid reference to when they flew over us!!!
About 2km Down River From Where This Happened
I’d organised my gappies (our young staff from overseas) minutes earlier to setup a ground signal for the chopper, given that there was nowhere to land in the valley. To give you an idea of the lay of the land, it was essentially a river, flanked by stunning sheer cliffs. I could see the pilot wave as he descended, hovered over the water with one of the skids just touching the land. A medic jumped out from the back and walked over to where we were. The helicopter roared back up into the air and flew with its nose down along the river a few hundred metres before it lifted up spun 180 degrees, back toward us, skid down on the river bank, collected the lady and the medic and they were gone!!! If you had blinked you would have missed this extraction. It was amazing in its speed and co-ordination.
The doctor and I stood looking at each other with relief!
“Well that escalated quickly!” I laughed to him.
We wandered back down to the camp site where the rest of the group were setting up tents. Back to camp leader mode, I checked on how everyone else was going and got started on setting up my tent.
That evening we chatted around the fire, a quiet and relaxing change from the excitement of the afternoon.
A few days later we received a call back at school from the lady thanking us for our help. It turned out it was a brown snake and she had been poisoned! All I could think was thank goodness we persisted and had good communications back to base.