Madagascar

“Security!” came the shout from behind as four of us threw ourselves into the bottom of the raft, clinging on for dear life. We didn’t need telling twice! As we headed down the first section of rapids this felt a wilder ride than the previous days’, a suspicion confirmed when the raft hit a rock, deformed, and catapulted 3 of the crew into the white water. Unfortunately I was one of them, taking my first dunking of the rafting phase in style with – I am informed – a double somersault over the heads of my teammates, to land head first in the water a good distance clear of the raft.

Madagascar Scenery

So what are the first things that spring to mind when you think of Madagascar? Jungle? Beaches? Maybe the catchy animated movie and hordes of dancing lemurs?

Once I had decided to branch out into expedition in warmer climes (not hard when you compare everything to Antarctica!), Madagascar caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go, fortunately I found an expedition by Secret Compass that seemed to tick all the right boxes,

As of 2014, Madagascar had only been crossed, coast to coast, 3 times with our route combining 4×4 vehicle (until we ran out of road – it only took 5 hours!), hiking through farmland, upland and jungle to summit the highest peak on the island and then joining the Bemarivo River for white water rapids and lazy paddles to the next road.

Madagascar scenery

So, in May, our little team of 7 adventurers, expedition guide and horde of enthusiastic locals flew to Diego in the far North of the island before driving south to our start point – let me just say that I will never again complain of potholes on British roads! After a wobbly canoe transfer in the dark to our campsite we settled in for the night with a quick bath in the river and some stargazing.

At the start of the trip our path stayed fairly low, winding between villages on cart tracks and shallow fords with idyllic lunch spots next to the water where we could escape the sun for an hour or two. Soon though the villages became scarcer and we started to attract more local attention as we tramped through previously peaceful areas with our expedition rucksacks and big jungle boots. In an effort to be more approachable, one team member asked a porter for a colloquial greeting to use and to his delight was promptly furnished with “itsa massacre”. Cue smiles, giggles and confused faces for the next week until it was revealed that our group of foreigners had been merrily tramping through communities asking “where is the meat?”.

Porter on the hillside

As we progressed further inland towards the highest peak – Mt Maromokotro – fighting our way through jungle vines, deadwood and the dreaded ‘sticky bamboo’, we left the villages behind and made our camps in whatever small clearings we happened upon, keeping our eyes peeled at all times for the elusive lemurs.

The rapid change in scenery to upland moor came at the end of a hard, solid day of uphill jungle trekking when we finally broke free of the vegetation and were instantly transported to the rolling moorland of the Peak District. Once we decided that we were neither lost nor hallucinating we made camp and enjoyed a campfire briefly before retiring ahead of our summit push the following morning.

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Leaving our bags at the base of the summit the whole team, including a rather fat, white chicken, made good time to the peak and ceremonially walked around the marker cairn. Once assembled, our local guide, Max, along with some of the more experienced porters stood to say a few words in Malagasy expressing thanks the team, the sacred mountain and similar sentiments. At the end of the speech, the (live) chicken was released on the summit as an offering to the mountain. Similarly a prize bottle of rum was opened and the first capful poured onto the stones before water was passed around to the team members. After asking if I should also offer this to the mountain, I was assured that no, I should drink it. Imagine my surprise, and the porters’ amusement, when I discovered it was in fact local moonshine!

Our summit celebrations soon turned into a full-blown party with music, more moonshine and plenty of dancing, not to mention the hilarity when the porters insisted we share some of our songs with them. After a moment of panic and an embarrassing attempt at ‘Happy Birthday’ we settled into a nearly complete rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which eventually became the theme tune to the entire trip alongside Hanson’s ‘Mmmbop’.

Summit Celebrations

Racing back down the slope ahead of the cloud and rain we made the most of the open uplands for the rest of the day and the next before once again delving deep into the jungle.

That’s where we picked up our newest teammates – the leeches. Despite our best efforts the determined creatures still managed to find some exposed skin, rapidly ‘looping’ their way towards clothing seams and warm veins. Undeterred we pressed on through a never-ending series of valleys, rivers, steep slopes and (very) muddy paths, pulling together– often quite literally! – as a team through the long days and increasing number of blisters.

Despite reaching the summit of Mt Maromokotro, we weren’t finished with our adventure. After breaking free of the clutches of the jungle with a final (deep) river crossing, we found civilisation again in the form of a large village with an even larger football pitch which became our home for the night, much to the delight of the locals. After entertaining the surrounding youngsters with cameras, counting games and wringing out my socks, we headed to bed before the last push to our rafts.

Curious villagers

If any of us thought the rafting phase would be relaxing, slowly drifting downriver surrounded by babbling water and beautiful scenery, we were right on only one count! Whilst the surrounding landscape never failed to amaze, the river was far from peaceful as it wound between large boulders, down narrow gorges and swept past remote villages.

Fortunately for us, the commands for rafting are simple: Forward, Back, Stop and Security. The louder and more frequently the commands were uttered, the more urgent the situation! As soon as you saw a group of villagers collecting in the distance the guides knew to pull over and inspect the route – the crowd always waited on the…interesting… stretches and we felt no shame in portaging the heavy rafts and equipment around dangerous sections.

Bemarivo River

Now, 2 weeks in to our expedition, we were used to trusting each other and working as a team – crucial in this environment whether paddling out of a ‘washing machine’ or coordinating the movement of a heavily loaded raft in the dark down a path less than half its width. In addition there was lots to learn from my fellow teammates, particularly Ian who managed to remain inside the raft for the duration of the trip – when asked for advice he replied “As soon as you even think ‘Security’, curl up and hang on with everything!” – obviously sound advice.

Whilst the challenges were different, the positive attitude from our trek continued and we continually found ways to amuse ourselves on the (very) occasional flat section, kept alert by hysterical screams of “CROCODILE!” – each and every sighting of which turned out to be a log! At night, we stopped wherever there was room on sandy beaches, boulder fields, borrowed kitchens or football pitches (with the added bonus of watching the local boxing competition) and made the most of the dark nights for stargazing.

After our final rafting challenge – which saw the unexpected swimming session – we cruised into a village, deflated the rafts and headed for the nearest tea shop. This was the end of the road, literally, where the local bus from Sambava turns around and heads back to the coast. Imagine the bus driver’s surprise when his small 4×4 (yes we packed 17 of us into that…) was overrun with porters, guides, team members, 2 deflated rafts, rucksacks, cooking supplies and a good supply of cold beer.

4x4 bus

Despite the obvious sadness about the expedition finishing, the bus had a party atmosphere all the way to our luxury hotel (luxury: noun – containing beds, showers, electricity and a bar) accompanied by karaoke with the man whose sole job it was to hold the rear doors shut and sporadic shouts of “Security!” which sent Ian diving into the passenger footwell…..

Sunset at Sambava

So for my first excursion into jungle expeditions, did I enjoy it? Thoroughly. I would love to return to Madagascar and investigate other parts of the island, national parks and culture. Unfortunately there are many new destinations to explore before I return to old haunts.

 

Bryony x

 

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Two Years On

Has it really been 2 years already?

The anniversary of reaching the South Pole seems a good time to pause and reflect on the events of the last 2 years.

In particular the latest 6 months have been full of change and excitement.

In June 2013 I (finally!) finished my Geography degree at Newcastle University, using the data I collected on subsurface snow temperatures to identify trends along the 705 mile route.

Following this I was able to move back to beautiful Derbyshire with my parents and look forward to new challenges post-education.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded a place on the Stellar Leadership Development Programme to Norway for 2 weeks in the summer which saw me canoeing amongst the Southern Fjords with other graduates and working on personal development goals and a community project (introducing Norwegians to the British community staple of a pub quiz). This was an interesting experience and provided a stark contrast to my previous expeditions with lots of leadership/management theory and the chance to meet like-minded people.

Throughout the summer I continued to work for Cotswold Outdoor – following their sponsorship of my record-breaking expedition I was fortunate enough to be offered a job. My mum often remarks that my favourite part of an expedition is seeing my new equipment arriving in the post – I would dispute this, I enjoy all stages of planning and preparing an expedition and even the actual trip itself! Nevertheless outdoor equipment and gadgets remain a hobby.

In a bid to break the monotony of 2 hours car commute each day, I began to cycle the 21 miles to work instead. I am fortunate that one of the routes between Melbourne and Nottingham (my place of work over the summer) lies alongside part of the Cranfleet Canal, Beeston Canal and River Trent, as well as the Attenborough Nature Reserve – a wonderfully peaceful alternative to sitting in traffic jams (at least until small dogs decide to attack your wheels).

After several weeks of this commute and finally getting the hang of cleats, I joined 3 friends on a bike ride from Nice to Barcelona. This ‘summer holiday’ was my first foray into cycle touring and it’s safe to say I’ve caught the bug, even if my knees decided to give up when crossing the Pyrenees – the training regime wasn’t quite up to my South Pole standards.

They say that variety is the spice of life and I feel very fortunate to be able to add canoeing and cycling to my expedition transport options.

Having survived 10 days of cycling and camping with no major incidences, or indeed even a puncture to my tricross, it was perhaps predictable that upon my return to the UK I would be immediately soaked by a combination of torrential rain and rush hour traffic. Unfortunately this was on my way to day 1 of a new career so many thanks must go out to the friendly staff at the conference centre who let me use the spa facilities as I’d turned up “a bit bedraggled” (their words, not mine!).

September therefore saw me trying my hand at a new line of work, encouraging teachers and students to participate in expeditions abroad.

I never cease to be thankful for the opportunities and experiences, as well as the personal development, that have come about as a result of my expeditions and adventures – right through from family activities to Scouts and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, trips with friends and my 2 months in Antarctica. Each experience has helped shape me, and I’m sure future escapades will continue to do so. Hopefully, similar opportunities are open to all students and young people, or if not, they have the courage and determination to make their own.

Since I returned to the UK 2 years ago I have been honoured to be invited to St James’ Palace twice to present Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards to scouts and discuss my experiences both with the scouting movement and in Antarctica.

Whoever the audience, I relish the opportunity to relive the expedition with all the (really bad) team jokes, trading at mealtimes of unwanted dehydrated food – normally in exchange for sweet and sour pork in my case and the wonderful, pristine environment through which we skied.

In addition to speaking engagements I was also featured in the ‘Inspirational Women of the North East’ Exhibition in Newcastle, celebrating the achievements of women past and present, in the hope of inspiring the future. The exhibition was a powerful series of interviews and portraits with the added bonus of online teaching material with a ‘draw your own polar explorer’!

Closer to home I have been a guest of NHR – discussing my expedition, training program and Antarctic playlist with the wonder Rajiv in a bid to entertain hospital patients – and even occasionally being called by the BBC for an ‘insiders’ opinion on Polar travel and exploration.

Through this exposure I hope to have inspired others to reach for their goals with confidence and determination – ‘moxie’. One young man who seems to have this in abundance is Lewis Clarke, the British 16yr old who broke my record, and indeed the world record, to become the youngest person to complete the Hercules Inlet route to the South Pole.

I have always said that my record was there to be broken and actively offered advice and encouragement to anyone interested in an attempt. The hard part with age records is that, once beaten, you cannot return the next year to regain the title – unfortunately I shall need to find another excuse to return to the frozen continent!

Lewis is to be congratulated on his success and I look forward to future adventures from him – at only 16 I’m sure there will be many – and I wish him all the best for his GCSE studies, it can be very difficult readjusting to ‘normal’ life after  expedition training and planning has consumed you for so long.

As I have often mentioned, I would love to return to Antarctica for another expedition, unfortunately I have many adventures planned and I accept I cannot complete them all at once! As I often say in presentations “at 21 and a record-breaker I refused to accept that I had achieved all that I could in my life” and now, 2 years on, I am looking for my next challenge.

Throughout this whole experience, in truth my whole life, I have been incredibly fortunate to have such fantastic support from my family, friends, teammates and sponsors, as well as the masses of well-wishers who supported my record attempt and charity fundraising.

Thank you all for your support and for coming on this particular journey with me, I hope that you will join me for the next adventure.

 

Bryony x

 

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“Self-Belief and Duct Tape”

A quick update for anyone who was interested in my last post.

As I mentioned previously, I was delighted to be asked to present the Gold D of E awards to Scouts at St James’ Palace last week. More information about the other presenters and the amazing recipients can be found here along with information for anyone who has been inspired to complete the award themselves. As a gold award holder, I highly recommend it!

In addition the Scouts have released a blog update about the events in the Throne Room (yes, we did get the best room!) which heavily features my favourite item of kit – Duct Tape.

Bryony x

 

http://scouts.org.uk/news/2013/05/the-power-of-self-belief-and-duct-tape/

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St James’ Palace

I was honored and delighted today to be invited to St James’ Palace to present 42 Scouts with their Duke of Edinburgh Gold awards.

They each had fantastic stories about their expeditions (not all in the British rain!) and the skills and services they had to complete. The gold award is a huge achievement and represents many months of hard work – these Scouts and the other awardees should feel very proud, as I’m sure their parents and supporters do.

It was only 3 years ago that I received my own Gold Award at St James’ Palace and returning as a presenter in the illustrious company of Theo Paphitis, Felicity Aston, Alistair Stewart and Carol Kirkwood was an amazing experience –  even better the Duke of Edinburgh himself was present to meet the awardees and congratulate them.

Being able to share my Antarctic experiences with like-minded young people is always pleasure and hopefully one or two are now thinking about where their Scouting experience and DofE award can take them.

Keep an eye on the site for photos coming soon.

Bryony x

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Opportunities

Hi all,

It’s been a very busy couple of months up here in Newcastle so let me just highlight a few of the amazing things I’ve been a part of:

- Secret project with the Scouts at Gilwell Park, stay tuned for photos and information coming up soon

- I was honoured to be nominated for the Inspirational Women of the North East exhibition taking place at Hatton Gallery in November, the amazing Bryony Bainbridge and Roweena Russell and I could be spotted around the Forum area of Newcastle University a few weeks ago taking photos – visit their website, twitter or facebook for updates on the project to celebrate the women of Tyne and Wear

- Following a successful presentation to the Scout organisation in November, I was invited to the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers Apprentice Dinner as guest speaker, the evening was really enjoyable with a diverse set of questions to keep me on my toes. As a direct result of this event I will now be rowing in the Oxbridge Waterman’s Challenge before THE Oxbridge Boat Race

- The data collected during the Coast to Pole expedition is fully written up as my undergraduate dissertation ready for hand in, it truly is the end of an era (at least 2 years) and a major stepping stone to leaving University and planning the next project

- I was kindly invited along to the Northumbrian Mountaineering Club’s evening meeting to talk about the expedition and training, great to see people interested in the equipment used and the progression from Duke of Edinburgh Awards and Scouting through to mountaineering and Polar travel

- Next week I am back in my home town of Melbourne, Derbyshire to present the inaugural Dr Freeman Award for a person or organisation who has made a ‘significant contribution’ to the Parish of Melbourne

- In addition to all of the above, training will be picking up again from next week now that my University workload has decreased (slightly) and i’m looking at assessing the base level of fitness I have now maintained compared to my last training break several years ago

Hope you are all enjoying the lovely weather of 2013, clear blue skies and sunshine in Newcastle as I write this, time to get the walking boots out

Bryony x

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Nottingham Girls High School Connect Magazine

The January 2013 issue of the NGHS connect magazine has now been released here.

Check out the covers and a 2 page article on the record-breaking expedition featuring extracts that I wrote for the magazine.

Seeing as one NGHS student has already decided to beat my record, lets see how many more challengers I’ll get as a result of this article!

info@southpoleadventure.com if you want to discuss the expedition or lay down the gauntlet or if you’d like to discuss a presentation for your upcoming event.

BBx

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Expedition Anniversary

Wow, a whole 12 months has passed already since that morning when Lisa, Bob and I finally trudged into the Scott-Amundsen camp site. As I’m sure many have said before me, there is no place quite like Antarctica. Having been back in the UK for a full year I can’t wait to go back, despite the blisters and sunburn and windchap.

That 15 hours of skiing, mainly in a white-out, catching the occasional, tantalising glimpse of the South Pole base was the culmination of 2 months in Antarctica and 3 years of training and planning.

Not only was the expedition the trip of a life-time, but the experience has opened so many doors since my return. I have spoken to schools, businesses and friends, renewed my ties to the Scouting movement (who, as previously mentioned are entirely to blame for my record-breaking expedition) and been invited to take part in many exciting projects to inspire the next wave of adventure-seekers.

I have also been solemnly informed by a 9 year old that my record won’t stand for long.

I’m pleased to pass on that the rest of the team are doing well and pursuing various interesting trips (seemingly often involving beaches rather than sub-zero temperatures!) and I really couldn’t have wished for a better bunch of people to have put up with me for a whole 2 months.

If 4 years ago I was full of anticipation, 1 year ago I was full of elation, this year I am full of excitement for the future. With the end (nearly) in sight of my Geography degree, and the greatest adventure of the first 21 years of my life well and truly behind me, I refuse to accept that I have achieved and completed all my life’s challenges already. So let’s see what the next 12 months and 21 years holds.

BB x

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Anniversary message from Helen (Bryony’s Mum)

Today is the first anniversary of Bryony Balen’s record-breaking achievement to become the youngest British woman to ski 713 miles from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole.

Paul and I (her parents!) are immensely proud of her – not only the fact that she managed to complete the expedition but also the way in which she conducted herself, raised large sums of money for The Calvert Trust and Mountain Rescue and, even though she has returned to her studies at Newcastle University, given many talks about her experiences, hoping to inspire others to live their dreams.

Well done Bryony!! And we think we’re hard-done-to with a few centimetres of snow and temperatures hovering around zero!

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1 Year On

So it’s hard to believe that one year ago today our team had just landed at the Hercules Inlet and completed our first day of skiing.

My feet are aching from the thought of that first 13km yet a very big part of me misses the experience, even though it feels like it happened to a different person.

In a way I suppose I am a very different person to the Bryony of 12 months ago, I’m over 2 stone lighter for a start! Having completed the 2 month challenge also changed me mentally and emotionally, I feel maturer and more confident in my own abilities and decision-making skills.

The flip-side of the coin is that I’m not settling into student mode too well, the experiences of 56 days trudging across the Antarctic coupled with employment in the ‘real world’ on my return have left me keen for the next stage in my life, exacerbated by seeing many of my university year-mates moving into either masters programs or work.

I suppose I’ll be patient for a little longer, assess the ways in which I have matured and changed from my experiences in Antarctica and put those lessons to good use for my next adventures…..

Bryony x

 

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Fundraising total for the Great North Run

I am delighted to announce that mine and Robert’s entry into the 2012 Great North Run raised over £900 for the Calvert Trust Kielder, smashing our £600 target.

Many thanks for all of the support, we couldn’t have achieved this without you.

Bryony x

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