Setting the gold standard

Liam Coffey's blue group
Liam Coffey's blue group

THIS summer a party of 21 sixth-formers from the Academy set out to complete their Gold Expedition section of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.

They proposed to attempt an 80km hike in all terrain, whatever the weather and carrying all their provisions and tents.

The chosen area had to be ‘wild country’ and the Antrim Hills area was chosen. It may not be as high a mountain region as the Lake district in North England but it is infinitely more difficult - there are no paths, it is very heathery and boggy underfoot, there is no-one else to ask the way and there are no easy peaks to aid navigation.

The group, accompanied by leaders Mrs Camblin. Mr Magill, Mr Miskelly and Mr Cupples went up to Cushendall the evening before to finalise their planning. This would be the last luxury and decent cooking they would experience for four days.

On day one all of the groups were delivered by minibus to their chosen starting points. Unfortunately the cloud base was quite low but they could still see where they were going.

Progress through the heather was slow but steady but then the cloud came down. A potential nightmare! This was the first time all the groups had experienced poor visibility and the staff wondered how they would react.

They need not have worried. The groups all depended on their compasses and still made good progress to their first camp site, weary but with a great sense of achievement. This was mirrored by the staff’s relief at seeing the different groups emerging out of the mist at the correct locations.

Camp was also inhabited by midges but all got a decent meal and a good sleep.

Day two started with a better forecast. They all started off with a hike over high, exposed terrain full of heather.

The purple group also had to negotiate around an irate farmer and add several kilometres to their route. Unfortunately the weather closed in by the afternoon with thundery showers.

Remember the flooding during the summer in Belfast and Cushendall? Well they survived that and, even though they were drenched, they were able to make a dry camp and cook a hot meal.

Day three started off with only a slight drizzle but more mist. After blisters were dressed all groups headed off for another horrible day. A horrendous yomp over Trostan, the highest mountain in Co. Antrim.

Part of the route was along the Moyle Way but this was probably worse walking than the adjacent soggy heather. The only life present was the odd wild sheep, plenty of sheep carcasses, a few red grouse and hordes of hungry midges.

All four groups managed well through the mist, they were becoming experts at blind navigation. Camp had to be changed due to flooding and routes had to be changed due to high rivers, but with good planning they all achieved their objectives and even had some sun to dry off their wet gear and brighten the spirits.

The final day started off dull and quickly got worse. The morning started cloudy and the weather continued to go downhill. By now the groups were confident in their navigation, even in low cloud.

Twenty-one sodden bodies reached their destinations successfully despite the odd bull and many more barbed wire fences. They were all packed, wet, steaming and fragrant into their bus and headed home to a good long soak in the bath and a good dressing and TLC on the raw feet.

The 21 successful hikers still have four other sections to complete in the scheme. They have to complete a physical section which takes the form of participation and training with their rugby, hockey or netball teams or even regular exercise in the Leisure Centre.

A service section requires the pupil to assist in a youth organisation or a charity. The skill section can include the playing of a musical instrument or umpiring a sport. These activities take as long as 18 months to complete.

Most of the students have already completed their Residential section. This entails a spell away from home among strangers for at least five days. Some of the students went as far afield as the USA and Africa.

After all these sections are completed, by next Easter, they will then be sent an invitation to St James’ Palace or Buckingham Palace to receive their certificates from The Duke of Edinburgh.

A well earned reward, but of even greater significance is their personal development, having experienced many problems which they have faced and solved by working within a group.