To a Bothy crawl

26th September 2003 at 01:00
It's hell hiking in the Highlands. Or so Lynne Blackburn thought.

But she overcame her prejudices - despite the snores and the midges.

For the past 25 years, Malcolm Livingstone, the deputy head of our school, Oakbank in Keighley, West Yorkshire, has led an annual trip he calls the "bothy crawl". He takes a party of challenging students hiking for a week in a remote area of Scotland. The theory is that the skills they learn - self reliance and teamwork - increase their self confidence and reduce their wrongdoing.

It sounded ghastly to me. I hate camping, even with good facilities. I would rather contemplate works of art than look at hills - never mind climb them. And if any crawling was to be done, I would much prefer to do it through cafes and bars.

So I was horrified when Malcolm asked me to go on a trip to Ardnamurchan, 50 square miles of narrow peninsular on the north-west of Scotland. It was absurd and I just laughed. I could have refused, but I was flattered that my deputy head had asked.

Once I signed up, people began to volunteer ominous bits of information: you no longer use bothys - one-room huts - but tents, which you have to carry with you; you drink water from streams; and you do your ablutions behind a hill. And while you're doing this, the midges feast on you, and sheep ticks burrow into your tenderest places, and you have to get a friend to dig them out for you. Previous participants had endured infections in every conceivable place , not to mention the occassional broken limb.

I wobbled like a half-set jelly in the week before setting off, and went with my husband's words ringing in my ears: "You're just not cut out for this; it's madness."

There were 30 students and six staff on the trip. I sensed a kindred spirit in a first-yearPE teacher. She had volunteered for the trip thinking: "A nice week's camping holiday would break the term up nicely." Ha!

All the same, spirits were high when we arrived after a ten-hour coach trip. The first walk was short and my rucksack seemed as light as a feather. We pitched our tents effortlessly and I thought: "Maybe I'll get through this without disgracing myself."

My misgivings set in at nightfall, however. Deep, rhythmic snoring resonated around the site. This was enough to keep me awake, but I was also freezing. I shouldn't have worried. By the third night I was so shattered I could have slept on ice during a Meat Loaf concert!

We walked between six and ten miles each day, along valleys with hills stretching for miles into the distance. Quite stunning.

We did the walking in stages. Two members of staff would walk at the front, two in the middle and two at the rear. The fast walkers would press on for a set time, then wait for the rest.

The rear duty was hard. Some of the kids would be exhausted and refuse to move; you'd have to beg, promise Mars bars or drag them along. However, it was never too bad because the strong lads at the front would turn back and help the stragglers.

After the first day it never stopped raining, and you got used to wringing out your socks and putting them straight back on. Once my leg became embedded so deep in mud that I couldn't pull it out. My colleague had to haul me out like a sack of potatoes.

But it wasn't just the weather that was against us. We had a meningitis scare and had to call out the coastguard. One teacher developed debilitating blisters and another pulled an Achilles' tendon, but both continued despite their discomfort. Unbelievably, I just kept going. I didn'tget a single midge bite.

One highlight was climbing a hill and looking out towards the sea and islands on three sides and never-ending hills and valleys on the other.

Another was staying at the most wonderful beach I've ever seen, approached through a pine forest, romantically named "the Singing Sands". Seals played close to shore.

The sense of camaraderie was marvellous, and little acts of kindness meant a lot. One colleague got up at the crack of dawn every day and brewed the tea; another offered sweets at every stop, and told folk tales - lapped up by kids more used to digital games for entertainment.

The effect on the pupils was not immediately noticeable. During the trip, some of them were quite irritable because they were so exhausted. But in the months since, all of those who were there, staff and pupils alike, know how we coped under pressure, and how we overcame challenges. It was something we can all feel proud of. We were part of something special.

Afterwards we were told that the distance we travelled was half that of previous crawls and that a "full bothy" is planned next time. Surely it's obvious I'm not up to it. Or am I? Anyway, I'm in training.

Lynne Blackburn is an ethnic minority achievement grant teacher at Oakbank school, Keighley

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