Iceland under a microscope

24th September 2004 at 01:00
For 20 years, Ardingly College in West Sussex has visited the same spot, building up a comprehensive fieldwork log. But will new rules and rising costs make such expeditions a thing of the past? Carolyn Fry reports

With soaring travel costs and ever more stringent health and safety regulations, many schools are reining in fieldwork programmes. But Ardingly College in West Sussex believes the benefits of pupils taking part in its regular four-week expedition to Iceland far outweigh the negatives. With pupils just back from this summer's adventure, their minibus still crammed with tents, sleeping bags and water sampling equipment, geography teacher and expedition leader Richard Robson is turning his thoughts to future visits.

"We used to go every five years, but we changed it to four so that every pupil in senior school gets at least one chance to go," he explains at the school's leafy campus at Haywards Heath. "We've been going to the same place since 1986 and we're considering running an extra trip in two years'

time to mark the 20th anniversary."

The expeditions take place at HNosafell, in the Geitland region of south-west central Iceland. Base camp is a remote spot surrounded by rivers, glaciers and volcanoes; the perfect outdoor laboratory for aspiring biologists, geologists and geographers. Over the years, participants have carried out 24-hour river surveys, repeatedly mapped a grassy tussock for signs of erosion, classified plants, and monitored the impact of 4X4 vehicles on the environment.

"Each trip has been based around a one kilometre square area," explains Mr Robson. "The work is continuous and we refer back to previous expeditions'

results before we go."

This year's group carried out a detailed examination of river channels within the study site. They compared flow rates, depth and water temperature over 24 hours in two rivers. One, the Lamba, drains from the side of a volcano, but the other, the Geit , comes from the Langjokull glacier so rises and falls more frequently with the daily melting of the ice.

For 15-year-old David Cooper, the trip provided the perfect opportunity to see geography in action and get ahead of his classmates. "I managed to get all my coursework done in advance for my geography GCSE next year," he says.

The trips are designed to be fun as well as hard work, so this year pupils went tobogganing down the side of a volcano and took it in turns to go on a four-day trek. In groups of four, with two or three staff to accompany them, they trekked for 10 to 12km a day across rolling lava fields before putting up two-man tents up for the night and cooking steaming bowls of spaghetti for supper.

"I really enjoyed the trekking and I want to do as many expeditions as possible now," enthuses 18-year-old Kevin Ramnauth, who has just completed his International Baccalaureate. "The trip definitely helped me realise what I want to do. It will influence what I choose to study in the future."

Arranging the logistics of the expedition is a drawn out process, but one which Ardingly has down to a fine art. Planning begins 18 months before the start date with a video presentation to students and parents.

Pupils sign up over the following months until the 20 or so places are filled. Mr Robson books the flights and arranges for the minibus to be packed and shipped out to Iceland via Immingham docks on the Humber Estuary. Most of the food is bought in advance and sent out with it, although there is a supermarket an hour's drive from base camp if rations run low.

"We keep costs down by making the arrangements ourselves, but it's getting more expensive," says Mr Robson. "In 2000, it cost pound;900 to ship the minibus out packed with our equipment and food for convenience, but this year it was pound;1,700 because of the extra security required since September 11.

"The students had to pay pound;1,300 each to come on the trip. But if we went with the commercial sector it would cost a lot more for a four-week expedition."

Stricter health and safety requirements have forced the school to rethink some of the expedition's more adventurous elements. As a mountain leader (awarded by the Mountain Leader Training England) and first aider, Mr Robson is well qualified to head the trip, but activities such as glacier walking have had to be shelved in order to pass risk assessments.

While previous groups from Ardingly College travelled incommunicado, this year's must-have kit included a satellite phone. Primarily for summoning help should an emergency arise, it also enabled base camp to stay in contact with the trekking groups.

"The trekkers had to phone base camp every night at 8pm," explains Mr Robson. "Mostly they just told us it was raining or complained that there were too many flies, but it gave us peace of mind to know they were safely in their tents for the night.

"It's a great experience for the students to go into such a remote environment and to have to fend for themselves. Running expeditions is something the school does well and I very much hope they'll continue to run in the future."

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