Learning to be happy campers

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MILES and I are driving around the rocky shoreline of Otterswick Bay on a sun-baked Sunday evening, heading up to our old stomping ground of Burness, the north-west wing of Sanday. Lambs frolic in fresh green fields while skylarks sing their hearts out in the blue sky above. The famous Burness hedgerow, a rare sight on this virtually treeless island, is in full bud.

We're off to a Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme training session - Miles to participate while I loiter in the background with my journalist hat on. The DofE, as it's affectionately known throughout the world, is (and I quote here from the DofE website) "a voluntary, non-competitive and flexible programme of cultural and adventurous activities for all young people, whatever their background or ability". In my words, it's a chance for teenagers to get together as a team and have a go at a whole range of activities.

Here on Sanday the scheme is run, voluntarily, by Martyn and Rosemary, a tireless couple who deserve a multi-tasking award themselves (farming, school teaching, gym teaching, sports coaching and lifeguard training being among their other weekly activities). At the door of their farmhouse, Jess, one of our young puppies, hurls herself at me and we have five minutes of playtime while Martyn points out all the things she has chewed since she left our house and moved here.

The evening trip begins with a drive up to Whitemill Bay, one of my favourite beaches, and the northern coast of Burness. Our mini-bus is stuffed with seven teenagers, each with a rucksack, four tents and six sets of cooking equipment. One of the four aspects of their Bronze award is a two-day expedition, including an overnight sleep under canvas. Before they can do this there's a whole host of stuff to learn. Tonight is their first attempt at pitching tents and cooking on camp stoves.

Everyone spills out onto a handy grass patch just inland of the dunes. Martyn opens the lesson with a timely warning, "do not sit down on your rucksack, if you do you'll probably squash your food or bend a tent pole". Then he asks that the team imagine they have just arrived at their camping venue, cold and wet or hot and thirsty, having walked the hills all day. Their instinct is bound to be to collapse in an exhausted heap and tend to any blisters. But their key to survival is to a) put the kettle on and b) pitch their tent. An organised camper can be inside a warm dry tent drinking hot tea within half an hour of arrival.

To pitch a tent, first choose your site: flat, smooth, sheltered and dry are the watch words. Know your weather forecast and seek permission from the landowner in advance. Follow the tent-pitching procedure to the letter: ground sheet down, peg it out, frame up, dollies on, inner up, peg it out, flysheet up, peg it out, guy ropes out. If all is square you should end up with a watertight and wind-resistant structure. The kids divide into three teams and make valiant efforts to follow Martyn and Rosemary's detailed demonstration and remember all the extra advice thrown in. The results are pretty good for first timers.

Now it is time to cook. Stoves, water, fuel, matches and food packages are shared out. As the teams prepare meatballs and mash, pasta and sausage, and rice and chicken, Martyn and Rosemary circulate among the groups to encourage, offer snippets of advice and share memories of previous groups' cooking accomplishments.

The feast is eaten as the sun settles toward the horizon. In good team spirit, those with bigger appetites mop up any leftovers and all set to the task of washing up with an enthusiasm that presently exceeds their expertise in this department.

From the top of the dunes is the most stupendous view over our northern ocean. It's such a clear evening that I can pick out each house on North Ronaldsay. A lone grey rock on the horizon to its left is a rare sight of Fair Isle. Everyone pauses to look - appreciation of one's surroundings is all part of the experience.