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Out of a rut and on the map

Alas! It's that time of year when the editor asks me to "try some new sport and give us all a laugh". For educational purposes. Eschewing the bungee jumps he had in mind, I proceeded in a westerly direction with compass, nine-year-old and middle-aged caution towards Edinburgh South Orienteering Club, to be consumed by a swarm of hungry midges at Bonaly in the Pentlands.

Now all you lean tanned teachers who crash through the woods twice a week already know the addictive fascination of the big O, once colourfully described as "doing the Times crossword while running for a train". Alternatively it's like a treasure hunt, though instead of pocketing chocolate eggs when you find a numbered control point you only get to punch your card. The kids don't seem to mind at all, and I can really recommend it to the uninitiated.

This summer weekday evening was a "colour coded" event. Courses of different length and difficulty at the same venue can range from white (for children, and even parents with pushchairs) to brown (for people who can run at speed through bracken, brambles and fallen branches, up hill and down dale.) You record your personal time, which in my case matched a tortoise with a broken leg, and can compare achievements with others if you choose (grouped according to sex and age-band).

After I had laboriously copied my course from the master map on to my map sheet Janet Clark, an ESOC committee member, rashly volunteered to guide my stumbling walking pace efforts up, down and round the Orange (pretty easy) course . A fit wiry person of even more mature vintage than myself, Janet has that youthful, infectious enthusiasm common to the best ambassadors of sport.

"No matter how many years you do this," she exclaimed, gleefully spotting the next control (they looked a bit like sporty red-and-white shopping bags), "you never lose the excitement of finding them."

Of course arrogant mountaineers like myself, used to navigating the high tops in driving snow and permanent dense drizzle, think this will be a piece of Kendal mint cake. Beware rash pride as you flail totally lost in the bog and bramble bush, or hang perilously from a crag. Map scales are so different, you search half a mile for a fence post that's 200 yards from your nose. The map features are in bewilderingly different colours too (such as orange for open land) while never have Munro-baggers had to decipher signs for park benches or manhole covers.

And don't even think about cheating by sneakily following that efficient-looking orienteerer you spot in the bushes or, in my case, in a glutinous bog amid dense shrubbery. First, they might be pursuing a different course, like Green or Red. Second, everyone is given different start times. Third, they might be wrong.

Enthused novices often try their luck next at a permanent course, which sounds easier because the control points are fixed, and you can visit at any time. Do not be deflected by our experience at Lochore Meadows country park, impressively carved from one-time industrial dereliction. Crashing through dense undergrowth, blundering into boat-yards, car parks and reedy creeks, I hardly found a single control without Rowan's help, but every 100 yards imaginative wooden creations loomed up for children's acrobatics and she forced me to leapfrog, swing from poles, do press-ups and heave along parallel bars.

Abandoning me in disgust she waded into the loch and after pulling out a large dead fish, had to be hosed down and disinfected.

I'll probably stick to mountains, but at least this orienteering has now made me very observant for saxifrage, moss campion, cliff edges and park benches, which would be most welcome on the Five Sisters of Kintail. There is something refreshing about a sport where you can choose whether or not to be competitive - and one which welcomes people from three to 73, as well as people with disabilities, who take part in Trail Orienteering.

Sadly, funding cuts to outdoor education have hit hard at schools orienteering and it tends to flourish best where individual teachers are keen. But four Scottish clubs are now appointing junior development officers. The British Orienteering Association can supply a useful starting-pack for schools, and even a practical guide to orienteering the 5-14 curriculum (sorry, that should read orienteering in the 5-14 curriculum).

For a flavour, why not head to the Highland '99 Inverness Scottish Six-Day Festival of Orienteering. It will cater for everyone from international stars to novices and the under-fives (who navigate by following string - just what I needed). For details, telephone the organisers on 01463 714712.

Sarah Nelson

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