Monday, 18 May 2015

Western Cape orienteering training camp

Last year, for our annual orienteering training camp, I was assigned to planning fun skill-related warm-up games. I was away during this year's camp, which is held annually for our youth, junior and senior orienteers to coach and practice advanced orienteering skills. Some participants are preparing for World Orienteering Champs (senior and junior); others are improving orienteers and the camp adds skills and experience.

We decided to offer a camp for our Cape Town orienteers; so instead of bringing them up-country we would bring the camp to them.

I was the coach for the camp, planning all the skills activities. I was ably assisted by Bruce, an experienced orienteer with local experience. Two dads, who also orienteer, were roped in to put out the control flags for the activities. And then we had six teenage orienteers from Cape Town and three from Jo'burg (plus one mom who helped out too). A fine team for the weekend.

We were based at Oak Lane Cottages, a popular mtb and event location just outside Grabouw. Accommodation there is simple but sufficiently equipped and clean and tidy. The location is superb - apple orchards, forests and farm dams. Our orienteering locations for the weekend were three forest areas - all popular weekend mountain biking venues.

Kobus, another Cape orienteer, kindly provided me with the OCAD (orienteering mapping software) files of the maps, which I could modify for the activities I planned to do. These are active forests and so chunks have been felled since the maps were last updated - and sections have burned. Kobus updated the files by blocking off these areas before sending to me.

I've never orienteered in this area. It was quite daunting planning activities without knowing what the terrain was really like. Would the floor of the forest be overgrown at this time of year? How rough are the 'rough open' areas? Are the features that I'm using for control locations still there?
Armchair planning has its limitations and risks.

We all met up on Saturday morning at Oak Lane to head off to our first forest - Klipdrif, which is accessed via the next forest that we would use, Eikenhof Dam. I kept our areas close to minimise travel time between locations. I had four sessions planned that I hoped to get through on Day 1. Timing on these camps can be challenging, especially when you throw less experienced orienteers into difficult skills.

We got lucky with generally superb terrain underfoot and even where it wasn't ideal, it wasn't bad. When our dads returned from putting out control flags they were able to give feedback like, "Don't expect big bushes for the vegetation features marked on the map; they're not that significant".

Session 1: Groovy Baby
To give our dads time to get control flags out for the second and later sessions, we started with an activity to get the orienteers into the groove of the map and the terrain and the scale. We had the participants in pairs, heading in opposite directions. Each person had to put out three controls (using cones), mark the location on their map and swap maps with their teammate at the map swap location marked on the map. I gave them 10 minutes each way as I didn't want them to go too far out.

It is far more challenging to think of sites and place controls than it is to collect them, so 20 minutes each way would have been better - and this is what most did anyway.

The session was fun and a few learned not to underestimate the ability of their teammates. They will definitely place cones in more challenging locations next time.

This is a super training activity that any pair can do any time. It solves the problem of putting out and collecting flags as it is done by each participant.

Session 2: Purple Circle (aka big circle, small circle)
This is one of my favourites for orienteers and adventure racers alike. Essentially this is an attackpoint activity that focuses on the final attackpoint - a feature that both confirms your location and leads you right close to the control, which may not be on such a distinct feature.

For this activity we placed the orange-and-white control flag at the attackpoint and used only a square card (less visible) at the control location.

I purposefully chose some less optimal attackpoint locations and in our feedback the participants suggested features that would have been more appropriate.

For this, and all sessions, I planned five loops per session. Each loop was colour-coded (so that I could keep track!) and varied slightly in length and difficulty. In terms of length, loops ranged from 500 metres to 1,2 kilometres, depending on the session. I planned for each participant to do 2-3 loops per session; even those with injuries that was them walking or taking it easy.

I'm not so big on breaking for lunch as it can get chilly in the forest. I encouraged everyone to snack bit-by-bit between sessions instead of eating a load in one go (not great for running!). Keeping our momentum going and bodies warm, we drove through to the Eikenhof Dam forest for two more sessions.

Session 3: Missing!
I chose a section of forest that looked like it had few obstacles and that the terrain could be traversed straight-line on a bearing. Missing! is a compass-focused activity where I removed all detail between controls.

It can be difficult to judge distance in forests and over rough terrain, especially where pacing techniques are affected by the terrain and irregular strides.

Compasses play an important role in orienteering but they're not always needed for much other than keeping your map orientated. We rely on contours, vegetation and rock features too. This activity takes these away so that the only tool you can use to find your way is the compass. This is actually a superb activity for adventure racing night navigation training.

Session 4: The World is Round
I love this one! We stayed in the same area of forest, just moving uphill for a new start location. For this activity I created a round map with no North-South lines and no other indication of North. I even cut the maps out so that the shape of the A4 page wouldn't create an up or down. I also rotated the control numbers so that these wouldn't give North away either.

This activity is all about using features (no compass) to navigate. It has a strong focus on keeping your map orientated at all times to the terrain and features. For extra fun, I made a map version for the longest loop option where I also removed the paths and vegetation and rock features.

Day 1 done
Having worked through lunch, we finished ahead of schedule. And by the time we'd collected controls, bundled into the cars, stopped past the shops in Grabouw and returned to Oak Lane, we still had lovely evening time available to shower and chill on the lawns and shoot the breeze. I went for a run; the orienteers played 'cricket' using a plastic bottle as the bat.

Instead of a night orienteering activity, we hung around together indoors to chat about training and skills and injuries and events. I asked each participant what it is about orienteering, for them, that has attracted them to the sport and keeps them coming back for more.

Their answers were interesting and insightful and all agreed that being outdoors, visiting interesting places and having the opportunity for travel were attractions. Orienteering is a small sport here in South Africa and our community is close. And this they also mentioned. The people of orienteering are not just competitors but family.

Day 2
Session 5: Squiggly Lines
Contour lines are so much more than decorative squiggles on a map. They indicate elevation, tell whether terrain is going uphill or downhill and they give you stand-out terrain features to use in navigation. This is the realm of hills, saddles, re-entrants (the beginning of a valley), depressions and spurs.

For this activity I removed all the rock and vegetation features from the map. In hindsight I should have removed the powerlines too but not quite knowing what it would look like out there, I decided to leave them in.

Everyone did really well and I was impressed with how well each orienteer self-corrected and analysed their errors.

Session 6: All together now
The other sessions were all about taking it easy, focusing on the skills and not worrying about time or racing.

This 'mass start' activity put the runners on two courses, with parallel controls, racing through the forest. People (and other nearby control flags) are big time distractions when you're racing and so this activity was all about that - keeping your head in the heat of racing with distractions all around.

There were three legs and each leg had two to four controls. We would re-group at the last flag for each leg and then re-start.

All done
It goes without saying that our orienteering children, youth and teens are generally really good and solid kids. Being on this camp I'm again reminded just how fabulous they are and what a pleasure it is to spend a weekend with them.

They work hard, run hard and play hard. They're always enthusiastic and keen to jump into the activities and eagerly head out to collect controls at the end of sessions.

They get along well with each other, welcome newcomers and are always keen to help those with less experience.

Andries, Carl, Dylan, Laura, Lindo, Matthew, Miguel, Tim, Roark - thank you for being such good company.

I couldn't have made it without Tania's (our head coach) hand in bookings and admin; nor without Sam and Brett placing controls and Bruce helping with coaching, shadowing and one-on-one interactions. Reece, Andries' mom, came down from Jo'burg and she jumped into taking photos and helping out where ever needed. Kobus kindly facilitated the maps and permits to access the forests.

We've posted photos in an album on the SAOF Facebook page.

And, of course, this camp happened because of the planning and foresight and focus of the South African Orienteering Federation on improving the skills of our coaches and orienteers.

What a treat it was for me to be down there for this camp and I look forward to following the exploits of those going to Junior World Orienteering Champs in a few weeks and seeing everyone at National Champs, Big 5 O and other events over the coming months.

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