How would you choose to spend a weekend in December? Being dragged around the shops to find presents? Getting smashed at the office party and snogging the secretary from accounts? Or camping out on a freezing mountainside in the Brecon Beacons. Naturally being a man of great fortitude and a sense of adventure (as well as a lack of foresight when it comes to considering seasonal changes ) I went for the third option. Also, I don’t work in an office, so the second option was out.
So, late on Thursday night I piled into a van with Lev Wood, managing director of Secret Compass, and three of his interns to learn camp-craft and navigation skills in the Brecon Beacons. This is the home of the British Army Infantry Battle School, and also the landscape of SAS selection, so I was under no illusion as to this being a bit of Chilterns orienteering. Secret Compass is an expedition company set up by Lev Wood and Tom Bodkin, with the aim of taking people on genuine adventures and expeditions to remote and undiscovered locations. Each trip has a tangible objective to be accomplished and a genuine level of difficulty and personal challenge for clients: the recent trip to the Wakhan Corridor involved two solid weeks of trekking in wild mountain country with river crossings, no trails at all, and staying with local tribes. The aim was to find the source of the fabled River Oxus.
Wood and Bodkin are former Parachute Regiment officers and graduates of the aforementioned Battle School, which is where the sense of determination and objective comes from in their expeditions. And it’s also why Lev was delighted to show us around his old stomping ground.
Secret Compass have a truly fantastic internship programme – unlike many companies that make their interns pay to be coffee bitches, Secret Compass offer incredible opportunities and training. In return for preparing dossiers for expeditions they are interested in, SC interns are trained in Expedition Management, Navigation, Group Leadership, Camp-craft and Survival Skills. Plus, they get to go on the expedition they’ve helped plan. Ali Wilde, who is planning the Madagascar Coast-To-Coast trip explains, “We are able to go to places that no-one else is going, with a sense of genuine adventure. And we are learning from, and being mentored by, guys who have done this time and again, not just as soldiers, but in their own lives and civilian leadership too. We are learning life skills, adventure skills, business skills. All whilst going on incredible trips and having great fun!
It’s the best job in the world, and I’m learning so much. Lev and Tom are inspirational guys with a real passion for what they do.”
I was there to learn some much-needed man skills – navigation, camp-craft, safety in the wilderness. A pack full of water, food, tent, sleeping bag, dry clothes and various essentials came in at over 30lbs. I mentioned this in passing to Wood, who looked me in the eye and quite simply stated, “No-one’s forcing you to come.” Suitably chastised, I had a quick swig of Man-The-Hell-Up and strapped on my bergen. Nav theory involved learning how to identify features from contour lines, following bearings, re-locating, triangulating and various other, very important, things that Bear Grylls talks about on the telly. We spent some time trying to figure out where we were, and headed on up the mountain. Lev let us wander along for a few minutes before explaining an elementary mistake that had led us in the wrong direction. 180 degrees in the wrong direction. As we started to climb, the 30lbs started to become far more obvious – as had my recent lack of gym and rugby time! Some of us were struggling more than others, which led Lev to talk about group management – you are only as fast as the slowest group member and you have to get the right balance of setting a good, challenging pace and burning out – its a mix of reigning in the fastest and ensuring that those at the back are maintaing their spirits.
I was somewhere near the middle, but thoroughly enjoyed the snack and water stops!
With stories of SAS challenges ringing in our ears, we climbed Pen Y Fan, but rather than complete the gruelling Fan Dance, we took a lovely route out as the sun set and camped out in a forest block for the night. With the winter sun not around for long, we were tucked up in our tents by 7pm!
In all, we spent three nights camping out, with two full days on the hill. I learned a lot, not least of which is that practice makes perfect – I now know that some of my kit is surplus to requirements and that some needs replacing. Brecon was a great challenge, but as Lev says, you can practice anywhere. “Just head up to the Chilterns for a day or two and get used to camping out – packing your bag, your wet/dry routine, route selection. You can even do navigation practice in London! All you need is a compass and an OS map.”
Secret Compass’s expeditions are really worth a look, if you want to challenge yourself and win the “You’ll-Never-Guess-Where-I’ve-Been-It’s-Not-At-All-Touristy-Competition” at work. And if you are looking for a career in adventure and expedition, get in touch with Secret Compass if you’ve got some skills that they might need in return for an internship!