Written by Alex Pye (211 (Newbury) Squadron
We can’t lie – the last week has been fantastic! A culmination of 6 months of hard training for the cadets, and 2 years of planning & training for the staff team involved in delivering Exercise Golden Tarn.
In celebration of 75 years of the Air Training Corps, Thames Valley Wing decided to embark on an ambitious overseas adventure training expedition – the first within the Wing for some years – and the very first mounted overseas by canoe. The Exercise, Golden Tarn, saw 6 cadets undertake their Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Expedition, paddling unsupported over a 100km descent of the Tarn River in the Aveyron region of France. Starting in Montbrun – the highest point to paddle due to the low water levels – the cadets paddled through Grade 1 & 2 rapids, dynamically assessed a Grade 3 rapid (and portaged it), then continued through some amazing scenery, under the magnificent Millau Viaduct to their end point at St Rome Du Tarn.
Preparation for the expedition began 2 years ago with some ideas bounced around in the Mess, from which it grew into a reconnaissance and feasibility expedition in 2015. Here the staff team not only tested the feasibility of a number of venues, they also identified training requirements specific to the environment and built around the needs of the various routes under consideration. Additionally, the staff looked at transport, logistics, accommodation, catering, campsites and everything else which could help or hinder the expedition.
In November 2015 a calling notice was issued to which 14 cadets responded. Eight cadets attended the initial training sessions on a bitterly cold Saturday on the Kennet & Avon Canal in Berkshire. The training escalated over the next 3 months from initial flat water skills through to basic moving water skills. In March the team attended a 5 day paddlesport camp at Halton Training Camp involving their first paddlesport expedition on Coniston Water, followed by 3 days of Moving Water Training at a variety of venues across the Lake District National Park under the expert guidance of Sgt (ATC) Alice Pye and Nick Howard from Epic Outdoors. The cadets went on to complete further training, a practice expedition on the River Severn, further White Water training on the River Wye, a Rescue Skills course as well as an Expedition First Aid course. After one of the slightly more challenging training sessions, one of the team was overheard saying “I’ve got 99 problems – and they’re all canoeing related”.
The cadets from Newbury, Aldermaston, Woodley & Chipping Norton, additionally undertook evening paddlesport courses to help mitigate skills fade and keep everything fresh in their minds. The intensive training regime proved challenging for the cadets in its own right; many of which were studying at Sixth Form & College, as well as keeping their own ATC commitments and personal lives in order!
In mid-July the team departed for France via Newhaven and following a 16 hour minibus journey, finally arrived at their expedition headquarters, a Gite just outside Aguessac near Millau. Following a day’s acclimatisation and skills refresh near Florac, the cadets began their 4 day expedition in sweltering 36 degree temperatures; paddling from Montbrun to La Malene through the heart of the 400m deep Gorge Du Tarn. Initial water levels proved very low in places, requiring lining the boats down some rapids and riffles, but in the main, the paddling was excellent.
Day 2 saw the team, aged 16-17, move on to 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 siphon. The team successfully portaged this area, before paddling on to the canoe shoot at Les Vignes down the River’s 16ft barrage.
The penultimate day of the expedition saw the cadets leave the Gorge proper and start exploring the smaller villages as the meandering River Tarn wound from Le Rozier, through Aguessac to a campsite just outside Millau. The paddling was, again, hot – peaking at 38 degrees – but the River levels were falling. Despite this, the River continued to offer plenty of surprises with sufficient challenge – several lengthily stretches of rapids, several weirs and an epic canoe shoot which got the better of one of the canoes, leaving them high and dry beached on a rock.
The final days paddling saw the group descend from the Millau valley and move into the amazing 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 – some 270m above the River. The group reflected on this as their favourite day of the expedition – not just because they were on the home straight, but because, despite the lack of high Grade white water, there were still plenty of features and spots along the way to keep the paddling challenging, passing under the magnificent engineering feat of the viaduct and seeing the beautiful village of Peyre built into the cliff – not to mention countless Kingfishers, Herons and many fish along the route.
All cadets using this for the Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award successfully completed the expedition in accordance with the required conditions – and all had an amazing time in the process – producing some high quality photography and video which will be used to promote Adventurous Training opportunities and the Duke of Edinburgh Award within the Thames Valley Wing and beyond.
Flt Lt Martin Christlieb RAFVR(T), Officer In Charge of the Expedition said “we’d like to thank our Sponsors and Supporters for their help in making the expedition feasible. Supporters have included Ulysses Trust, RAF Charitable Trust, AWE and Hobkey – all of which have proven invaluable for us.”
The expedition team, Sgt Jemima Croggon (17), Cpl Jake Agar (16), Cdt Rebecca Palmer (16), Cdt Leila Whiteman (17), Cpl Rowan Hayball (17) and Cpl Drew Harding (16) would also like to extend their thanks to their Air Cadet staff for their support, advice and commitment to the expedition and putting their lives on hold to make it happen. They would also like to thank their parents for their early morning drops offs, late evening picks ups, ferrying them the occasional things we’d forgotten and their overwhelming patience when we come back from a weekend away cold, wet & smelling of river!
You can view further information about the expedition including our expedition video here: http://www.facebook.com/GoldenTarn2016.
Additional quotes from participants:
- I’ve got 99 problems – and they’re all canoeing related – Cdt Rebecca Palmer
- A fantastic and unique opportunity – definitely the best thing I’ve done in cadets – Cdt Leila Whiteman
- There are pros and cons to every situation even pinning a boat – Cpl Jake Agar
- I loved the feeling of independence we were given – trusted to make our own decisions, find our own way, cut our own path and make the expedition what we wanted – Sgt Jemima Croggon
- I expected to spend more time swimming the rapids than paddling them – I was surprised at how far our training had pushed us – and how prepared we were. The heat did make the swim feel quite inviting though! – Cpl Rowan Hayball
- The expedition made all the training worth it – Cdt Drew Harding
- We could’ve done this in Wales or Scotland or the Lake District – but doing it somewhere different set it apart and made some amazing memories – Sgt Jemima Croggon