On 25th March this year, a group of twenty seven students and staff from the Bristol and Oxford University Royal Naval Units set off for Scotland for the first phase of an adventurous training expedition unlike anything we had done before, Exercise Dark Blue.
The purpose of the University Units is to educate students about the Royal Navy’s role in the modern world, and to have fun doing so. The expedition was designed to push us physically and mentally, give us vital leadership and teamwork experience, and overall strengthen us as a unit. Some of us had already spent time together on a ship, but for many this was their first introduction to the challenges of working together under unfamiliar conditions. We would be living together at Rothiemurchus Lodge, and during the day, in two groups, doing various adventurous activities with the outdoor company G2. The two phases had similar objectives and structure, so below is a short outline of phase one.
Group one was canyoning first, probably the least familiar and most rewarding experience. It began with a series of natural rock slides and a short jump, but soon we reached a much larger waterfall. Some of us had abseiled before, but for the rest, lowering ourselves horizontally backwards over a sheer drop was entirely unnatural. We continued like this, until finally we reached a 30ft drop into a deep pool, an ‘optional jump’. Once again we were forced to overcome our natural fears, and the vast majority made it down. After a few more obstacles, we dragged ourselves up the banks and, aching and cold but happy, drove back.
Day two was hill walking. As it turned out, the instructors’ ideas about the differences between hills and mountains were somewhat different to ours, and this was one of the most challenging days. Despite being used to the charts on board ship, we learned a lot about map reading and speed estimation, and successfully made it up some steep and unstable rocky slopes. The day culminated in a snowball fight at the summit, as well as some amazing views and the sighting of some WW2 fighter plane wreckage. We walked about 20km in total, and we all fully enjoyed it.
On Wednesday the groups swapped between gorge walking and zip lining. The former was similar to canyoning, but shorter and faster, and climbing up as well as down. Climbing up was tough in places due to the power of the water, but we helped each other, and two of us even opted to go down a third time. The latter was the least physically taxing activity, but one of the most exhiliarating. There were nine wires spread between two hills, and plenty of opportunity for competition and experimentation with run-up techniques.
Thursday was mountain biking. The route was long and beautiful, encircling various lochs. The first half was the most difficult, with a few short hills, but morale was high, with one particularly enthusiastic member deciding to carry their bike across a river despite there being a bridge within a hundred yards. The second half was downhill back to Aviemore, and a chance to relax and enjoy the surroundings. In all the ride was tough for most of us, but we stayed together and there was a great sense of achievement at the end.
On Friday we spent the day on the river Spey, with G2’s inflatable canoes. For most of us it was our first introduction to paddling on a river, but despite a few overshoots we quickly learned how to turn into eddies, and stay upright through the rapids. A few of us even progressed to being able to stand up in the canoe, and there were plenty of amusing moments where people ended up in the river. We stopped for a swim halfway through, and by the end we were all freezing cold, but felt it was entirely worth it. We spent the evening cleaning the lodge, and prepared for our 06:30 start back home.
In all, this expedition achieved every intended goal. These were experiences we would probably never have had elsewhere, and we are now far more integrated as a unit. We have learned new skills, and discovered a lot about ourselves in the process. G2 were helpful in every way, and we would like to thank everyone who helped to organise this – Exercise Dark Blue was a complete success.