Sunday, 1 May 2016

Climbing, Abseiling, Obstacles

 
When members of Girlguiding Middlesex East ventured to Iceland for a week, we stayed at a wonderful campsite called Úlfljótsvatn, which was huge and beautiful, and has its own lake and mountain.  Seriously!  We loved the time we spent on site - you can read about our archery session in the post linked here, and today is the tale of our experiences of climbing.
 
 
Our senior section are a pretty go-getting bunch, and were keen to tackle the challenge of the climbing wall.  We harnessed up, applied helmets, and the ascent began. 
 
The thing about climbing is that it's very easy to imagine: you put your right hand there, your left leg here, and you shimmy on up.  In reality, complaining muscles, little grips that are just out of reach and, y'know, gravity, make it so much harder!  But perseverance was the order of the day and our Senior Section girls did admirably.
 
 
Even when they'd got the hang of this climbing lark, the overhang seemed a bit unfair!
 
Most impressive of all, even those with a fear of heights gave it a go, and finished their session feeling proud that they had conquered their fear and managed to give it their best shot.
 
 
Next, came the abseiling.  Walking down the side of a building was definitely easier on the muscles than climbing up it, and some of the senior section zoomed down.  The views from the tower were lovely: it was a still day and the mountains were reflected in the still surface of the lake.  While it was quite sunny, there was still a chill in the air.
 

 
With everyone back on the ground safely, much to the relief of some girls, it was time to give the obstacle course a go!
 
 
Working round the course in the normal way seemed just too normal and straightforward for our merry band of nutcases.  Instead, everyone arranged themselves suspended from a tyre, and then tried to see if they could all swap places without getting down.
 
The answer is yes, if you are prepared to endure someone standing on you while your arms protest that you can't hang on any more but you're far too stubborn to give up.  Excellent work!
 
In fact, this proved to be quite entertaining as well so we had other attempts later in the week!
 
 
After all that effort, it was time to chill out.
 
 

In case you were wondering, the most sensible and obvious place to chill out is upside down under the monkey bars.


It was such a pleasure to spend time on the site, making the most of their activities amidst the snow-topped mountains.  And knowing that once we've dashed about working up an appetite, it's almost certainly going to be cake-o'-clock very soon thanks to the brilliant efforts of the fabulous staff and their freshly baked chocolate goodies!
 
Kisses xxx
 
P.S. You can read more about our adventures by following these links: our day in Reykjavik is here, our visit to an amazing waterfall is here, and our scramble across a glacier is here.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Behind the Waterfall

 
During the Easter holiday, a group of 14 Senior Section members and Leaders from Girlguiding Middlesex East set out to explore Iceland.  And this is the story of the day we climbed behind a waterfall...
 
 
I think Iceland as a country exceeded all our expectations. It's a spectacular and beautiful landscape and it feels like every turn in the road reveals a new and breath-taking scene.  One morning found us paying a visit to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall: a huge cascade that seems to appear from nowhere, flying out from over the top of a cliff and crashing into the lagoon below. The water was always white and churning and the spray was everywhere.
 
This particular waterfall had a secret though.  And as we narrowed our gazes and tried to peer beyond the curtain of water, we could make out a rift in the cliff face: a natural break in the rock forming a path big enough to walk on behind the waterfall.
 
 
You don't need to tell us twice!  And so began a slightly slippery scramble over slick, wet rocks to venture forth beyond the cascade.  Making stops for photos, of course. 
 
Being members of Girlguiding, we are naturally prepared for pretty much anything.  But sadly, given that it was a cold but clear day, we had left our waterproofs on the bus.  Our hoodies were left to the job of keeping the spray at bay.
 
We were drenched.
 
 
Drenched through and through.  But the beaming faces as we got nearer to our goal proved that nobody cared!  The roar of the water became louder and fiercer and our intrepid little band tottered behind the falls.


I hung back with my camera, and shrieks of delight reassured me that all was well.  If you can make out little blue blobs in the photo above, they're our girls, standing in a crevasse in a cliff while a giant waterfall pounds down above them.  Pretty cool!
 
At this point, I joined the group and the constant stream of water flying up from the rocks proved too much for my camera lens. And fair enough: it was dripping wet.  But it was an amazing experience standing behind the cascade, peering through the water, being deafened by the noise and watching our Senior Section scale the rocks up the other side with frozen fingers and enormous smiles.
 


A short walk produced another couple of waterfalls for us to view, and a small cave.  Two of the girls attempted to move in, but I think the lack of facilities would have frustrated them after a while so we hauled them out and made them come home.
 
The final waterfall was concealed in a canyon and just visible through a gap between the canyon walls.  To get to it demanded wading through the river, so we had to give it a miss, but it was beautiful to catch a glimpse of the waters between walls of sheer rock.


Kisses xxx
 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Icelandic Archery at Ulfljotsvatn


During Easter, I spent a week leading a fantastic group of girls and leaders from Girlguiding Middlesex East on a trip to Iceland. One morning was spent on our beautiful campsite Ulfljotsvatn, (you can see their website here) and Elin, one of the centre leaders, taught us a little archery.

We spent some time learning how to shoot, and then using a sight on the bow to improve our aim.  Mine somehow got worse. However, we soon got the hang of it, and we managed to get more and more arrows on target.


Once we'd got our technique down, the competition started!  We played a range of team games involving target practice with point scoring, target practice with balloons - trying to pop some, and avoid others! - and trying to put an arrow in small bit of paper with your name on to stay in during a knock-out competition.  Yours truly was sadly defeated in the final.


Then it was time to head outside.  The lure of this amazing site is unmistakable; the views were wonderful from every angle, the campsite is vast and we were able to roam around and take in as much as we could!


As we visited Iceland in April, we stayed indoors, in these lovely cabins which were warm and cosy, and the staff made us very welcome.  A firm favourite was the QM who quickly learned about our love of cake and produced fresh baked goods daily, not to mention freshly baked bread in the morning for breakfast, amazing, warming, cinnamon porridge which heated us right through, home-made pizza and tasty fajitas.


Nothing short of magical.


But back to archery.  Elin offered us the chance to take our bows outside and see how far we could shoot an arrow.  This suggestion was met with an enthusiastic chorus of agreement, and we grabbed the stuff and headed out.  We had two rules: Rule 1 was to aim at the lake.  Rule 2 was that you had to go and collect any arrows you fired. 

Ready? Go!


And so here are the gallant Senior Section hunting for arrows and getting a bit distracted by playing in the snow.  We fired a lot, and only lost one, so I don't think that's too bad. We had the opportunity to try shooting both the recurved bows and a longbow, and the air was filled with the sound of twanging strings and gleeful shouts as arrows pinged into the air and we all imagined ourselves fearless warriors.


Now let's get the leaders to show how it's done. The most important aspect is striking a dramatic pose and looking good. Take it away ladies:




As you can see, the Senior Section look appropriately impressed.  And so they should.  It was a fantastic morning in a great setting: I couldn't recommend it more!  The Scout Moot in 2017 is going to be held here and 5000 Guides and Scouts will arrive to camp and explore.  We were certainly lucky to have the site to ourselves!

Kisses xxx

P.S. I'll be posting about our different aspects of our trip over the next week or two.  You can read about our day trip to Reykjavik here, and our Glacier hike here.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Girlguiding Glacier Scramble


14 adventure-loving members of Girlguiding Middlesex East visited Iceland for a week during the Easter break.  We had an amazing time and had so many brilliant experiences, but the day we hiked on a glacier was probably my favourite. This is the story of our glacial adventure, and Senior Section member Louise has shared her memories below too.

The Glacier was a couple of hours away from our campsite, and yet somehow even the journey there was magical.  You can't help but love a country where you can spot volcanoes out of the window, where snowy mountain peaks glimmer around you and cliffs and rocks arch in formation down into the sparkling sea. We were so lucky with the weather: our glacier expedition had originally been planned for earlier in the week, but storms and gales caused all activity on the glacier to shut down to keep everyone safe.  So our wonderful hosts simply rearranged our schedule and we went later in the week in glorious (slightly chilly) sunshine!

We arrived near the base of one of the tongues of the Sólheimajökull Glacier.  In reality, the glacier is big.  Very big.  Like, I mean HUGE.  I'm not sure you're getting it, so however big you're thinking, multiply it up, add 6, and square your answer.  Everything you see in these pictures is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended); it's the equivalent of hiking on a little tributary of a giant river. Except that the river is made of ice.


I demanded the obligatory pre-activity photo of the group, and got my camera all poised.  However, our friendly guides thought that I might like to be in the photo too. Obviously that was a very good idea and the composition of the image was much improved by my standing in it.  Although not everyone agreed.


We had by two guides on our hike, Octovia and Grimur, who knew the glacier inside out.  They kitted us out and we walked the 15 minutes along the banks of the lake until we reached the glacier's tongue.  Due to climate change, the glacier is retreating at a surprising rate and Octovia pointed out a little flag to us in the middle of the lake. The flag marks where the glacier used to begin just a few short years ago.

Once we reached the ice, we stopped to make sure we were fully prepared.  Octovia gave us a lesson in fitting our crampons: metal plates that strap to the bottom of your shoes with spikes that dig into the ice and help you grip. They were incredibly effective, and meant we could stroll up and down steep, icy banks with relative ease, and all the false confidence of someone wearing metal shoes made of spikes.

We weren't sure what the ice picks were for, and Octovia told us quite seriously that we could use them to help us walk if we wanted, but mostly people just like to carry them around and pose for cool photos.

Oh.  Right then.


Out on the ice, we were expecting good views, and an exciting hike, but I don't think we anticipated how much we would learn.  Our guides were brilliant: patient, enthusiastic and willing to answer any questions we could throw at them, and both were clearly very passionate about the glacier and the surrounding environmental issues.

The glacier is moving, albeit slowly, as it continually melts and freezes in a cycle, the tongue reaching out to form a lake which ambles its way serenely to the ocean. Octovia explained that the glacier forges a large canyon for itself, and fills the space it erodes. As it widens, large cracks and crevasses open up in the glacier that can go deep down into the ice.

However Grimur told us, in extremely deadpan tones, that actually there's another theory about how the cracks open up: it's actually dwarves coming to mine. I had some follow up questions:

Me: Do they mine in the ice?
Grimur: Yes.
Me: What are they mining for?
Grimur: Gold.
Me: Are they successful?
Grimur: No.

I abandoned this line of questioning.
  

 As the glacier melts, the water creates swirling patterns in the ice, and little circular funnels know as 'Moulins' (meaning windmills) open up.  Sometimes these can develop into quite lovely caves of blue ice, with water trickling down the walls.  


So we had a go at licking the glacier.  The trick is to find a nice clean patch, but the taste is fresh, wonderful and delicious!

Again, Octovia was a mine of information: this ice looks blue simply because of the way it refracts light.  It's actually crystal clear and enormously dense. Most ice we encounter freezes at a certain density which means that if you had 1 cubic metre of ice, you'd get roughly 5 litres of water from it, as water expands as it freezes.  However, the glacial ice is subject to enormous pressure as it's own weight bears down on it. So 1 cubic metre of this blue ice would yield 900 litres of water.  That's 180 times more, which is phenomenal. This ice was once prized by expensive hotels and restaurants which liked to use it to serve in drinks; because it melts so slowly, it can keep a drink cold without diluting it.  However, that practice has now been stopped to help preserve the glacier.


We also finally managed to put those ice picks to their proper use.  


 As we climbed higher onto the Glacier, the girls wanted to know why it looks black in places. It's not dirt, as you might think: its volcanic ash.  Octovia proved to be a volcanic-ash enthusiast: when volcanoes errupt (like the infamous eruption in 2010 which closed lots of airports) black ash is spread far and wide, and settles in a layer over the glacier.  If the layer of ash is thin, it absorbs sunlight and makes the glacier melt more quickly.  However, if the layer is thick enough, the warming effect never reaches the glacier and instead the ice is insulated and melts more slowly.

The ash also fills crevasses and is washed into them.  However, as the ice melts, the ash in the crevasses is revealed and appears in long streaks down the glacier.  Until it rains or the ash is washed away and the process begins again.  It's a continuous cycle.

Octovia then shared her favourite kind of ash with us; I've never met anyone before who had a favourite kind of ash. This kind had a strange consistency.  Squeeze a handful of the stuff and it feels hard and powdery.  However, if you then let it rest in the palm of your hand, and shake it a little, it becomes liquidy and runs between your fingers.  Or all over the faces of your Senior Section group!


We reached the snowy-looking plains at the top of the glacier tongue and learned about an experiment carried out by students who are monitoring the glacier.  Their findings are a little alarming as Octovia showed that the point where we were standing was actually 15 metres higher a year ago. We will all think twice about what we can do to help the environment in future,

So we had a wonderful time!  And to finish off, here's a little bit about our day from Louise, one of the fabulous Senior Section members who took part in the trip:
On our final day we walked up a glacier, which was awesome! I really loved learning about the history of the glacier and how it's changed over time; it was very cool having a drink from a glacier! We learnt that in a year the glacier had melted down by almost 15 meters, which is very sad as it means the glacier might not be there for much longer. When we had reached the top of the glacier there was a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and the lake in front! It was such a breath-taking view and a moment I will never forget! Everyone in Iceland was so nice and kind, and the camp site we was staying at was lovely, they had delicious food! Also the people who came on the trip made it so much more wonderful and I am glad I was able to have shared such a unique experience with them! I would definitely recommend participating in a county international trip, as you'll be able to try out so many new activities and meet so many amazing new people! 


You might just be able to make out the sea in the distance: this is a southward view and if you travel in a straight line south from this point, you would cross the Atlantic Ocean and the first land you would reach would be Antarctica.

But first you'd have to get around the fearless and savage Girl Guides of Middlesex East with their faces daubed with ash, their sharp, spiky shoes, and their threatening props...I mean ice picks.  And that war cry you hear?  Actually they're just belting out a bit of Frozen.

Let it go.

Kisses xxx

P.S. I'll be posting about our different aspects of our trip over the next few weeks.  You can read about our day trip to Reykjavik here.


Monday, 18 April 2016

A Day in Reykjavik with Girlguiding


During the Easter Holiday, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to lead a trip to Iceland with Girlguiding.  This trip has been in the pipeline for some time, and my county, Middlesex East, had never done an international trip before.  But international projects are my favourite part of Girlguiding, and so after months of planning, we made it happen, and group of 14 intrepid explorers made their way to the most beautiful arctic island.  Welcome to Iceland!

We numbered 14 in total: 5 senior sections members and 9 adult leaders.  And pretty much all excited when we assembled at Gatwick to board our flight. We stayed for a week in a scout centre which was wonderful (more on that later) and packed in as many activities and excursions as we could. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some of our experiences as I think it's safe to say we had a fantastic time!



Our first full day in Iceland was spent exploring the capital city of Reykjavik, and we went on a walking tour with a history teacher who was an absolute wealth of historical and political information, and who had a great sense of humour! She shared so much of her cit with us and we really felt that we got an insight into the Icelandic way of life.

For instance, while visiting the Parliament building, that Iceland first gave women the vote in 1915, and they had their first female MP in the 20s.  Today's parliament is made up of 63 members, 29 of whom are women.

Our girls all cheered!



Our route took us all around the city and Sara, our guide, pointed out places that we might like to return to.  We learned that the crime rate in Iceland is the lowest in Europe, which makes it a very safe and welcoming place to visit.  Iceland produces all its own energy renewably through geothermal energy, and the energy is free to Icelandic citizens: they pay only for the maintenance and upkeep of the system.  We felt there is probably a lot we could learn about being environmentally friendly from Iceland.

After our tour, we had a picnic lunch on the banks of The Pond (it's actually a large lake) but by then we were pretty chilly as the temperature wasn't high!  We tried warming our hands on one of the vents that releases trapped, warm steam from underground...


...but a round of hot chocolates actually did a better job.  Everyone we met was so helpful and friendly, and even when we all piled haphazardly into a coffee shop requesting hot chocolate, the staff laughed and offered to make us caramel or mint hot chocolate as bonus.  YUM.  And whipped cream is a must.  For purposes of keeping warm.


In the afternoon, we handed over the reins to our Senior Section members.  We said they could go and visit any of the sights they liked, but they had to navigate.  This led to some robust debate and discussion, and eventually, they worked out which way to go and we set off.

5 minutes later, we walked back down the road in the opposite direction, definitely on the right path this time.  When we were dropped off in the centre, the lovely driver of our minibus told us it's impossible to get lost in Reykjavik, as you can always see the church on the hill, and you can remember that the mountains are to the north.  Well, I found there were plenty of times when we had no idea where the church was, and mountains seemed to be on at least 3 sides of the city, so for navigation, we stuck to the map.  Boom!

Reykjavik is a lovely city; in fact it doesn't feel like a city at all.  It's colourful, with pretty houses in pastel shades peeping around every corner. (See previous post here)  The streets are wide and the buildings don't crowd you, and there's very little traffic.


We made it to Hallgrimskirkja Church, one of the tallest buildings in Iceland, and spent some time admiring the beautiful, light interior. You can also climb to the top for views across Reykjavik. (More on that in another post!)

With only a couple of hours left to explore the city, we headed to a flea market in order to pick up some much needed souvenirs.  Where would we be without postcards to send home, and the all-important badges for our camp blankets?!


We decided to get in a visit to the concert hall on the banks of the habour as it's a spectacular building, but lunch was starting to seem a long time ago, and it was drizzling a bit.... Only one thing for it.  A snack stop at the hotdog stand recommended to us by our guide Sara!  The stand had a queue every time we walked past it, which was a good sign, and we decided to share the hotdogs so we could all get a taste.  We weren't sure what to expect, but had been told to order one "with everything".


So we ordered our hotdogs with everything!  It turns out this means a sausage made with beef, lamb and pork, served in a bun with crispy onions, raw onions, ketchup, mustard and a pale brown sauce that doesn't seem to have an English translation.

SO YUMMY!

But not the easiest thing to share.  Still, the group gamely experimented with a variety of different approaches.



This gave everyone just enough energy to make it to the concert hall before meeting the bus.  And before having a go in search and rescue team's vehicles... but that's another story for another day.

Kisses xxx

P.S. I'll be back for more adventures of Girlguiding Middlesex East over the next few weeks.  But for now, I'll just leave you with the thought that it's a good job that we shared the hotdogs.  Because when we got back to the scout centre, the wonderful QM had decided that as the weather was so warm, it was time to break out with the barbecue and have burgers for dinner!

It was about 6 degrees.