Our team leader Georgios had asserted himself early on by arriving to our training weekend in a blindingly stylish grey-and-buttercup-yellow outfit. We will be hiking across the Greek island of Crete for three weeks this September with the financial support of Imperial’s Exploration Board, and we picked Dartmoor as a place to try out our new equipment. It was an early evening when we arrived so we needed to get to our riverside camping spot before the light of the sunset cast the moors the same warm yellow as Georgios’ coat.
With backpacks hoisted onto our shoulders, we made our way through the long grass to Bellever Tor (one of Dartmoor’s high points). The panorama from the Tor revealed the charming landscape waiting for us, which we admired cheerfully in the company of three wild horses. A short walk downhill past a forest carpeted in soft moss took us to the riverbank where we would sleep – a peaceful spot sheltered by gentle hills. We won’t be using tents in Crete, instead we will be sleeping under the stars wrapped in sleeping bags and bivy bags to protect us from the elements, and so we didn’t use tents in Dartmoor either. One of the main advantages of using bivy bags is their rapid set up.
Here’s a quick guide to our approach: lay down an emergency blanket silver-side-up to keep the dew out and the heat in, inflate your sleeping mat, unroll your sleeping bag and bivy bag.
It was getting late and darkness was creeping in but we still hadn’t eaten. This was not the time for cooking disasters, and yet… Fire singed the hair from Georgios’ arms. Michail shielded his eyes. I commando-rolled away as the flaming stove arched through the air and tumbled into the river. Our pile of spilt rice was instantly blackened. Between our seven scientific minds it had not occurred to us to keep our stoves more than 15cm apart from each other or our faces. The result was a rapidly expanding ball of flame. We had learnt our first lesson.
“Every time you open your eyes you are met with a sea of stars, crossed by the occasional satellite and centered on the moon. Only the scent of grass reminds you that you’re still of Earth”
With a new level of respect for health and safety, we tucked into lentils, rice, onion, carrot, and some wispy poached egg. We collected our waste in a bin bag and wrapped the remaining bags around our backpacks to keep them dry.
Sleeping in a bivy bag is somewhat like being wrapped up in a sock that’s floating through space. Every time you open your eyes you are met with a sea of stars, crossed by the occasional satellite and centered on the moon. Only the scent of grass reminds you that you’re still on Earth. However, we woke to a less romantic scene. The condensation of our breath had left our bivy bags wet, and the cold night air was pinching our noses. We learnt our second lesson: wear balaclavas, and only use a bivy bag if it is raining.
The clock struck 4am and we sprung awake, packing up under the light of our head torches and shivering sleepily. A quick hike back to Bellever Tor warmed us up, and we timed it perfectly with the sunrise. A deep stillness hung in the air, pierced only by birdsong and the stirring music from someone’s phone. Not a word was spoken while the glowing sun broke the horizon. We were entranced.
We breakfasted on tahini, porridge, and nuts, while Carla smashed out a navigation crash course, preparing us to take turns by guiding the team around the moors. We passed ancient archaeological sites, fell into squelching bogs, and came dangerously close to farm guard dogs. Our faces tanned and our spirits stayed high despite the occasional blister.
When lunchtime came, we hopped across some stepping stones and dipped our feet in the cool, clear river. Our lunch was the same as our previous night’s dinner, although now more skillfully cooked and with no fire-related panic. We scrubbed our pans clean with sand and river water, making a mental note to pack biodegradable soap and a scouring pad for Crete. As much as we would have liked to explore Dartmoor further, we needed to get back to the cars and our London lives.
A couple of hours through forests and fields brought our trip to an end. We have come away with lessons learnt, a strong team dynamic, and smiles on our faces, now all the more excited to begin our expedition across Crete.