Thames Valley Air Cadets Golden Tarn II Expedition was a culmination of 12 months of planning and training for its 19 participants. The expedition to the Gorge Du Tarn, France carried 2 elements:
- a challenging and ambitious unsupported and unaccompanied 100km canoeing venture for a group of Air Cadets who were undertaking their Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award
- a joint staff and cadet adventure training development opportunity – giving both staff and cadets alike an equal footing in developing their skills in an international setting.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award stream saw five cadets paddling. The group started preparations for their expedition last September with a briefing evening. Over the months that followed they increased their skills, knowledge and experiences, slowly developing their paddling competencies to the point where they could paddle unaccompanied – not just of benign flat water environments, but also on graded white water.
In March, the team attended a 5 day paddlesport camp at Halton Training Camp in Lancashire. Accompanied by the team’s canoeing coach, WO Alice Pye RAFAC, and Nick Howard from Epic Outdoors, the group undertook a range of moving water specific skills – from reading the river and running rapids, through to what happens when things go wrong – dealing with breakages, pins and rescues. They also undertook further training in campcraft, aquatic first aid and scenario based decision making tasks.
Following this, the team of cadets from Newbury, Earley and Maidenhead Squadrons embarked on their practice expedition on the River Wye where they experienced soaring temperatures of an early May heatwave. This gave them an excellent insight into the likely conditions in the Tarn Gorge during July – particularly the importance of adequate hydration. The success of their practice expedition didn’t stop their training – the team agreed upon further weekend and evening training sessions to help keep skills fade at bay and keep themselves fresh and current. This intensive training regime proved challenging for the cadets in its own right; many of which were studying at Sixth Form, College, or employed, as well as keeping their own Air Cadet commitments and personal lives in order!
In mid-July the “Go Date” finally arrived and the the team departed for France via Newhaven – and there followed a 16 hour minibus journey, eventually arriving at their expedition headquarters, a gite just outside Aguessac near Millau. The group undertook a day’s acclimatisation training near Compregnac – a very successful day, offering them an excellent skills refresher in comparable conditions to the Gorge itself – practicing rescues, reading and scouting skills, as well as testing out final gear setups.
On the morning of the 16th July, the team finally got the chance to put all their training into practice as they put on the water at the small village of Montbrun. The group descended 30km of mixed grade rapids as they headed into the Gorge Du Tarn. Whilst temperatures soared to 35 degrees, the heat became only one of their challenges; the weather became unsettled over the week, with thunderstorms and intense rain showers in between periods of overwhelming heat and burning sunshine.
Day 2 saw the team move deeper into the gorge from La Malene to Le Rozier; a stretch which took them through the Pas De Souci, a huge rockfall and boulder field which includes a unpassable siphon. The team successfully portaged this area, before paddling on to the canoe shoot at Les Vignes down the River’s 16ft barrage. Shortly after the team undertook a grade 3 section, Le Sabliere, which they chose to portage around rather than run due to the low water levels increasing the technical aspects of the rapids.
The penultimate day of the expedition saw the cadets leave the 400m deep gorge, and weaving through the small villages of Le Rozier, Le Cresse and Aguessac to a campsite just outside Millau. Despite the falling river levels, the river continued to offer plenty of surprises with sufficient challenge – several lengthily stretches of rapids, several weirs and an epic canoe shoot as you enter Millau. The section also saw man made features in the flow – one of the most memorable being an entire island covered in balanced stones.
The last day of paddling for the expedition group saw them paddle the River Tarn from Millau through its incredible foothills, capturing the beautiful villages of Peyre, Compregnac & Candas before moving to St Rome Du Tarn itself. On the way the team paddled under the Millau Viaduct – Europe’s tallest bridge – 270m above the River. Arriving at St Rome Du Tarn 8 hours after leaving, and having covered an incredible distance in some challenging river and weather conditions, the group were in high spirits.
Whilst the Duke of Edinburgh Award provide one element of the Golden Tarn II venture, there was an additional Adventure Training stream who undertook climbing, walking and paddlesport. This mixed group of Cadets and staff were accompanied by a mix of qualified instructors from different disciplines, and managed to undertake several days of climbing, canoeing and a memorable (if wet) stand up paddleboard session.
These activities have helped extend their own personal skills, bringing them a range of international experiences, but also stretching their comfort zones – making them more confident as they progress towards qualifications themselves. The group also managed to see kingfishers, herons, a beaver and even a unicorn – albeit an inflatable one outside Millau.
Flt Lt Martin Christlieb RAFAC, the Thames Valley Air Cadets Wing Adventure Training Technical Officer, OIC Golden Tarn II and the Team’s DofE Assessor, identified one of his favourite parts of the expedition as the moment the team successfully portaged Le Sabliere – having watched the team pull up and scout the rapid, dynamically risk assess the conditions and rapid itself, they concluded (correctly!) that they needed to portage;
“What followed was a beautiful example of coordinated teamwork; slick and effective. The result of a lot of training, great communications and a holistic team approach to problem solving.”
“The support from Ulysses Trust was fantastic – it enabled us to deliver a fantastic opportunity to both the DofE team who successfully completed their expedition section, but also the Adventure Training development stream, who between them accumulated 69 log book days – helping aid their development and nurturing potential instructors of the future.”
Hazel Fell from 211 (Newbury) Squadron ATC, the youngest member of the Golden Tarn II Expedition Team, shares her experiences of the Thames Valley Air Cadets The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition.
“Canoeing 100km over 4 days down the River Tarn, avoiding thunder and lightning, and paddling through intense, blazing sunshine was an amazing experience that I would do over again if I could.”
“Through training for the expedition I developed my paddling skills and now want to continue canoeing in the future. I also developed my people skills and teamwork abilities to a level that I had previously thought was unattainable.”
“It was an incredibly rewarding experience, and I cannot thank the rest of the team enough, the staff supporting us, and our funders and sponsors for such a memorable Gold DofE expedition.”
Sgt James Walsh, also of Newbury Squadron, said:
“I’ve gained some skills which I would never have come across if it wasn’t for where we went and the activity we took part in. These skills will improve myself in becoming a better person and trying to push my limits.”
“I never thought at the very start of the training sessions I’d be able to do the 100km and do it in 4 days and 3 nights. The expedition made me focus on the small things to help improve the big things for example keeping the morale up was one of the keys to our success and led the expedition to become and unforgettable experience.”
You can view further information about the expedition including the expedition video here: https://www.facebook.com/TVWATCAdventures
Our thanks go to the generosity of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust for supporting this expedition. www.rafct.com