Eskimo rolls in the Dordogne

WAY back in the seventies and eighties, when the world was young, Big Brother was just something that featured in a Terry Scott comedy song and I had hair, I was much taken with the idea of going on school trips of the outdoor education variety.

I wobbled on a bike between Newtonmore and Kingussie on the old A9, had the tent blown from over me while camping at the Shelter Stone in the Cairngorms, wriggled my way in and out of the Piper's Cave on the Solway Coast and capsized dinghies almost at will on Derwentwater and Loch Tay.

Then my son came along, and weeks spent away from home seemed less attractive. However, as his taste in music has veered from grunge to heavy metal and back again, and the noises emanating from his CD player have become less and less easy to take, the odd sojourn away from home with other people's children has slowly become more desirable again.

So it was I found myself in June heading for deepest France on what was termed a "multi-activity break". Never has the English language been so woefully inadequate!

The site was perfect: a converted hamlet in the Dordogne, nestling among fields of walnut trees and under a perfect blue sky. "Oh yes!" I thought. "I've really landed on my feet here." As it turned out, this proved to be a particularly apposite thought as I contemplated our first two "activities": the Zip Wire and the Trapeze.

The Zip Wire was a variation on the old "Flying Fox", except it appeared to be about 100 feet off the ground. The Trapeze was a high-tech version of the old "Tarzan" in which you climbed what seemed to be a telegraph pole for about 20 minutes, stood on a tiny platform and hurled yourself at a trapeze bar in the hopes of catching it - and having caught it, holding on for more than 10 seconds. For some of our pupils, this was so tame that they volunteered to do it with a bag over their head.

The fact that you had to be trussed up in more mountaineering hardware than Dougal Haston probably saw in his whole career only served to heighten my terror. I stayed safely on the ground grasping my camera and wondering whatever happened to Val da ree and a knapsack on my back.

It wasn't all bad. The archery was fine once the instructor explained exactly what would happen if you got an arrow in the eye - and the pony-trekking looked fun, once you got used to the idea that the horse laughably christened "Big Jimmy" was of an irascible nature and much given to wandering off in the general direction of Bordeaux.

When we got to the lake for the water sports, I relaxed a bit. Hadn't I won my three-star Scottish Canoe Union Badge in the tempestuous waters of Craiglockhart Pond? Without saying as much, I indicated to the pupils in the kayaks closest to me that they would be all right with me about.

Then, in the manner beloved of film directors in flying epics such as Top Gun, I noticed the sky and the horizon change places in double quick time and a mouthful of lake water alerted me to the fact that I had performed the first, involuntary, Eskimo roll of the morning.

When the absurdly fit, tanned and young instructor approached, I embarrassed myself further by burbling about my three-star badge. He smiled. "Right, you'll know how we're going to get you back in the kayak, then."

Sadly, I didn't. With much heaving, I eventually found myself in an upright position, only to roll over again almost immediately. After birling virtually non-stop for another five minutes, I was laughing so hard I couldn't summon the strength to get back into the kayak, so I gracefully abandoned the enterprise. It hadn't seemed this hard back in the eighties.

Eventually I discovered an activity I could still perform with consummate ease. This was the wine and cheese evening, organised by the centre staff for the school staff. As I munched contentedly on Brie, washed down with a very pleasant local red, and contemplated the fresh strawberries fairly glowing in the evening sunlight, I realised that time and tide wait for no man.

However, in a last desperate grab at youth, the third year did manage to convert me to the music of the Venga Boys: "Oh we're going to Ibeetza!" Now there's a thought.

Sean McPartlin

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