Surviving like an eight year old
And now the Bear Grylls Survival Academy has set up camp in the spectacular Waterfalls Country of the Brecon Beacons National Park. They do a special 24 Hour Family Course for parents and children. Well, we’ve just got to try it, haven’t we?
We arrive at Pontneddfechan Village Hall on a blustery April morning, where five adults and their offspring will spend a day in the wild, being taught the fully monty of survival skills up to and including, we suspect, crossing icy torrents in our pants.
Our fellow adventurers are from London and the Home Counties, with offspring ranging from eight to teens. Our instructors, meanwhile, are friendly local lads led by Jeff, a tough ex-Royal Marine Commando who appears to have been hewn out of boulders.
Traversing Waterfall Country
We’re kitted out in Bear Grylls-branded survival gear, and it’s off into the woods alongside the fast-flowing waters of the Nedd Fechan, or Neath River. Sure enough, it’s not long before the first of many waterfalls appears. It’s so pretty, you hardly notice the rope which is slung ominously over the chasm. One by one, we clip on and launch ourselves into the air, gliding 30ft above the rapids. This is the first of very many obstacles that we’ll encounter during the next 24 hours.
Back down at the river, we’re taught how to filter water into our canteens, which we’ll purify later. Then there’s a lesson in foraging for edible goodies that abound in the lush valley floor. We gather ransoms (wild garlic) for our supper, and nibble at wood sorrel and hawthorn leaves. When we’ve gathered enough herbage, we set off along the river, where dippers and wagtails flit among the rocks.
Instructor Owen is about to hurdle the rotten carcass of a fallen tree when he calls us to an abrupt halt. ‘Here’s a stroke of luck,’ he says, peeling back a flap of decayed bark. It’s riddled with mealworms, a wiggling mass of beetle larvae. ‘Who wants to try one?’ Junior hands shoot up. Hmm. They’re not as bad as they look, actually. Barely an hour into the adventure, and we’re already turning into something else, something other than our usual urban selves.
Setting up camp
More rope challenges follow, until we climb out of the gorge to our camp. Except it doesn’t look like any other campsite I’ve seen. It’s a rough upland field, boggy and forlorn. There’s nothing there apart from a few gnarled trees, and a few roughly sawn pine trunks. We’re given three tarpaulins, a reel of paracord, and an hour to make somewhere dry to sleep. Go! A lot of sawing, sweating, swearing and knot-tying later, we have three structures that faintly resemble shelters.
Then we’re summoned back to the lower swamp for a lessons in knot-tying and knife skills, and scour the surrounding woodland for timber to stoke the fire before supper. On tonight’s menu: a one-pot slop of chicken legs boiled up on the fire with hacked up veg and foraged greens, a gourmet feast when you’re this hungry.
Snoozing under the stars
It’s 10 pm and pitch-black now, so after a quick lesson in how to navigate by stars, it’s time to sleep. We duck into our shelters, making the children as comfortable as possible given that they’re effectively sleeping in a chilly bog with a few microns of nylon and some rotten bracken for protection.
We lie in absolute darkness, listening to the sounds of the Brecon Beacons on a rainy night. Sheep bleating. Wind buffeting the trees. The smaller children in their shelter, laughing and jabbering away relentlessly. Someone gently snoring.
I groan, sink deep into my sleeping bag, curse Bear Grylls’ name, and yearn for morning. Next thing I know, there’s the sound of a farmer’s quad bike in the distance. Odd. I poke my head out of the sleeping bag to a welcome splash of sunlight.
After an army-ration breakfast, Jeff takes us for a lesson in setting traps and snares, before we hoist our backpacks on and head off on the last leg of our journey. A cuckoo calls from the woods as we cross the boggy field, up onto a moor, heading east.
Saving the best till last...
There are just three hours to go now, and we all sense that the weekend has been building to something. As we rappel down into the steep gorge of the River Mellte, there’s an ominous pile of buoyancy aids waiting for us. The good news is, we’re not going to strip to our pants to cross the river. No. We’re doing this fully clothed.
We wade into knee-deep icy water, edging out onto a rock shelf until it plummets into the brown, fast-flowing depths. Ready? Deep breath. Go! We throw our rucksacks in front of us and belly-flop into the water. God, it’s cold. We kick furiously with our heavy walking boots, urging ourselves to the other side, where we emerge gasping and soaked. That was both the worst - and oddly, the best - thing we’ve done all weekend.
By the time we reach a bunkhouse, a little more than 24 hours after we’d set off, we’re exhausted but elated. We survived. Actually, more than that – we had a total blast.