Secret Adventures

The element of surprise becomes more elusive with age. Social media hasn’t done much to help that either with every event, personal or professional, publicised from nascence ad nauseum. Which is why the new initiative, Secret Adventures, is so refreshing. You know a certain amount of what you are signing up for in advance, be it a kayaking, hiking or swimming, as well as the city, or the nearest station, but the exact location is left to your imagination until the last minute.

Credit: Ela Wlodarczyk
Credit: Ela Wlodarczyk

Consequently, as I pulled into Richmond staion in London at 6.30 pm on a Friday nnight in August, squished between exhausted looking commuters heading home for the weekend, I realised that I had an almost naughty grin on my face. Like I was breaking away from the norm and not just going home to watch a box set. All I knew was that I was to meet a group of other secret adventurers outside the station, and that we would be led first to a pub for a bit of socialising (and a bit of Dutch courage) and then to a secret location for a moonlit swim.

Our master of secret ceremonies, Madoc Threipland, was waiting for us. No sign in hand publicising his venture, just a smiling, quiet self-assured young man, in whom I felt instinctively I could put my trust. But hey, if I had told my mother that I was going to meet a stranger on a Friday night, let him take me to the pub and then to a secret location to take my clothes off and swim in the dark, she might not have felt the same way about it. But somehow, with Madoc, I realised that although his adventures are all about exploring wild places, they are not about going wild. They are actually just about just finding serenity in this case, in the city, in a civilised and social way.

Madoc led us through Richmond, and up its eponymous hill which overlooks the Thames, explaining that it is the only protected viewpoint in England, by law. This is not only because it is not only stunning, especially in this late summer evening light, but it has also been captured by the likes of Turner in his famous painting, The Thames from Richmond Hill. From here to the pub.  I was a little bit concerned about this bit, thinking that it might have a dating site sort of a vibe, but actually it wasn’t at all like that. There was a good mixture of ages, gender and professions, with one shared frisson of excitement about when the secret would be revealed.

Wild swimming in London by moonlight. Credit: Catherine Mack
Wild swimming in London by moonlight. Credit: Catherine Mack

What did surprise me, however, as we continued on our journey after dinner and, eventually, found ourselves all changing into swimgear, using large trees to protect our modesty in the moonlight, was that there were no tourists in the group. We were all Londoners, keen to explore the hidden corners of our beloved city. And all revelling in the fact that, despite the usual anonymity of fellow city dwellers as we rush and brush past each other on streets and subways, here we were being given permission to share a secret, sensual moment with strangers. Swimming in the moonlight. So, all that to say, tourists are missing a treat here.

We all went our separate ways on the last train home, segueing smoothly back into our usual public transport dispositions. But the naughty grin was still there, topped up with a dose of reassurance that we can all jump off the hamster wheel from time to time. I can’t tell you where we jumped of course. Because that would just spoil the secret.

For more information see Secret Adventures or follow them on Twitter @scretadventures

Wild swimming in a bog pool – beat that

Catherine swimming in a bog pool in Soomaa National Park, Estonia

It’s not every day you get to swim in a bog pool in real wilderness. But head to the Soomaa National Park in Estonia, just two hours drive from the stag-filled bars of its capital, Tallinn, and you will find yourself in the middle of Soomaa. Which translates as ‘Land of Bogs’ where you can meander through meadows and mires by canoe,  hike across squelchy sphagnum moss with the aid of ingenious bogshoes, and cool off in the most divine natural pools you will ever come across.

Unlike many other peat bogs around the world, Soomaa’s grew out of the ground, “rising slowly like a loaf of bread”, Aivar Ruukel, my guide says, ” forming cracks on the crust where rainwater lakes have now been formed – these were our swimming pools when we were children”.  Soomaa National Park is one of twelve protected wilderness areas in Europe, and a member of the Pan Parks Foundation (panparks.org), an organisation which aims to protect some of this our most undisturbed land and seascapes, and here on Kuresoo bog, the largest of Soomaa’s bogs at 110 square kms, you really do feel like you are at one with wilderness.

Catherine canoeing in the Soomaa National Park

Aivar Ruukel is the founder of leading ecotourism provider, Wilderness Experience in Estonia and knows every hidden path, concealed creek and foraging treasure trove in this part of the world. He is a wonderful ambassador not only for sustaining the ecotourism he truly he believes in, but also for the Estonian people and their innate sense of being at one with nature. As we hike across the dramatic landscapes of  their ancient woodland, which then opens out into a vast bogland, where cranberries are tucked in under layers under moss,  like jewels hidden and forgotten by pirates in times gone by. Aivar and his co-guides Algis and Ain’s eyes are always open to nature’s surprises, their focus on the fecundity of it all – from Chantarelles to Cloudberries, always sharing their innate joy of this forage into their own backyard even though they have spent all their lives here.

But for me, the real way to connect is to dive straight into these pure dark waters. Encircled by reeds which glisten in the autumn sun I strip off and jump in, having had the sense to throw my swimmers in my backpack. The Estonians do it their way of course, au naturel, but it will take a few days for me to shed my urban modesty.

Catherine bog shoeing in Soomaa National Park, Estonia

Back at my charming riverside guest house, Riisa Ransto, where my lovely host has preheated the wood burning sauna, I bash myself with birch and sweat out whatever impurities are left. However, a few days hiking, canoeing and swimming in this stunning wilderness will detox and destress you quicker than any spa. Until you notice the price of the beer, that is, and all that goodness is undone, the upside being that you have just another excuse to dive into the wilds again.

For more information see Wilderness Experience in Soomaa , soomaa.com. From €510 per person (minimum two people) including airport transfer from Tallinn or Riga in Latvia, four days of guided activities, five nights’ accommodation and all meals. Activities include canoeing, bogshoeing, foraging, wild animal tracking, or back country skiing and kicksparking in winter months.  For more information on Estonia, see visitestonia.com

Wild swimming for families

Kids love to go wild swimming too Photo: Catherine Mack

Ever since returning from my swimming holiday a few years ago, my kids have been pestering me to know when they can do one too. Most swimming holiday providers don’t cater for kids, or families, being aimed more at the long distance neopreners. However, there is a place for everyone, and Dan Graham and Gabby Dickinson who founded the new outdoor swimming company based in North Wales, Gone Swimming, have filled this gap in the market.

This coming October half term, from Saturday 27 – Tuesday 30 October, they are running a family wild swimming long weekend, teaching not only the skills of open water swimming to parents and children, and as Dan is a water safety expert and Gabby is a child care professional (as well as complete water babies themselves) they are well qualified to do so too.

They are basing the trip in Cwm Pennant Hostel in the Cwm Pennant Valley close to the base of Snowdon. From here, they have a plethora of outdoor swimming spots on the doorstep, and the choice of swim will depend on the weather conditions and also the sort of thing that families are hoping to do.

Gone Swimming want to provide families with the knowledge they will need to make sure that they carry on wild swimming long after the Half Term. They will be reading the maps, deciding on locations as well as learning about how cold water affects both adults and the kids. Dan and Gabs will be with them in the water and every step of the way, but this is not a coaching or training weekend, more a blast in the open water sort of weekend. And yes, wetsuits are a must!You can also hire them from Gone Swimming if needs be.

Learning to embrace the cold while wild swimming Photo:Catherine Mack

There is an early booking offer on this trip of £300 per person, adults and children alike (a saving of £50 per person over the regular price) – that is for an all inclusive three night stay (arrival Saturday and depart Tuesday). It is also worth noting that they will pick you up from Bangor station if you choose to go by rail, so dig out your Family and Friends’ Railcard and get a great offer on the train too.

 

 

 

Wild Swimming France – one long aquasmic adventure


Photo: Wild Swim France

Wild Swimming France is full of warnings about health and safety, and how wild swimming must be treated with caution and care. However, what it did not warn me about was the extreme pain I was going to get when reading it, caused by an acute case of resentment that I wasn’t jumping off  the white dolomite rocks of the Mercantour National Park into the turquoise pools beneath, or letting the River Dordogne carry me downstream on my back, as I float under fern adorned rock arches. Or, I admit it, that I wasn’t married to the guy who wrote it.

As I lay in bed leafing through every river, lake and gorge, in a Sunday morning lazy lie in sort of a way, groaning each time I looked at an even more seductive wild swimming location my (equally wonderful of course) husband became rightly curious about the fantasy land the book was taking me into, as he listened on from the kitchen making coffee.  My greatest ‘When Harry met Sally’ moment had to be in The Var, however, where Daniel Start, the author, slides down slot canyons into concealed plunge pools using  waterfalls as modes of transport from one pool to another. This is extreme wild swimming, however, and he rightly advises readers to only attempt this with canyoning experts. The majority of the swimming locations (and there are over four hundred of them) are more accessible, all inland, and mostly in the southern part of France.

Photo: Wild Swim France

The book is a brilliant guide to France too, especially if hiking is your thing, offering  the perfect introduction to the French pastime of ‘aqua-randonnée’ , where you scramble your way along rocks and through water wearing good aqua shoes and a waterproof back pack. Divided into regions, with excellent maps, and more detailed latitude and longitude readings, as well as details on how difficult a walk it is to access the swim point, Wild Swimming France will make you want to explore parts of  France you may never even know existed before. More groans.

Another handy breakdown in the index is the ‘themed’ swimming points, so if you love waterfalls you can check out all of Daniel’s G-ushing spots in one go. Or if freestyling past a chateau, such as the glorious Chenonceaux in Normandy which sits on the River Cher is your scene, then you can find several such bourgeois bathing points. There is also a great collection of locations suitable for families, as well as some with small camping facilities nearby, such as the riverside tipis at Les Cournoulises on the banks of the River Lot.

Photo: Wild Swim France

I love the fact that this book isn’t all health and safety obsessed either, although it does warn you about the dangers of wild swimming, of course. For example, there is a useful explanation of how many of France’s river levels are controlled by the EDF (Electricité de France) due their being an important source of hydropower. The book points out that there are EDF signs on many of the rivers to warn that water levels can suddenly increase due to dam release, and that care should be taken at these times.

However, Daniel does turn a blind eye to rules and regulations in the book sometimes, making the book even more readable, of course.  For example, at the magnificent waterfall Sillans-la-Cascade in the Haut Var region, where the main pool is closed to swimmers due to a freak rockfall,  Daniel tells us most local people ignore the signs, and there is a photo of someone, possibly the author himself, diving into its stunning waters.  And although wild camping is illegal in France, he isn’t afraid to admit that he, like many others, do partake of it, albeit responsibly, and reminds us to ensure that wild campers should arrive late and leave early, should not light fires, and must absolutely leave no trace.

So, buy the book as a gift to yourself or any other water loving Francophile you know, or just to drool over on a Sunday morning, if that is your thing. Daniel has also written Wild Swimming (UK) and Wild Swimming Coast and there is also an app for these. He is one Smart guy. But not as smart as the woman who married him.

www.wildswimming.co.uk/wild-swimming-france