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bushcraft jungle trek adventure

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #3 Into The Jungle

Cobras, rattlesnakes, giant spiders, termites, exploring caves, tasting strange foods – all part of my two day jungle adventure in Northern Thailand. Whilst on holiday with Lea (actually, our honeymoon) I wanted to get out into the wild and see the jungle up close…. so we discovered Pooh Eco Trekking who have a great range of trips that worked alongside the local Karen hill tribe, including them as guides and hosts, so providing an income for them from eco-tourism. Our trek would take us close to the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) through rivers, caves, villages, steep slopes and winding pathways. I wanted to go on the trek, not only to prove to myself that I could do it but also to experience a taste of the jungle and also see how the local hill tribe peoples lived in this environment and hopefully some of their traditional (though still very relevant) bushcraft skills for myself.

thailand jungleIt was 2 hour drive from Chang Mai to get to our dropping off point and if the craziness of the driver was anything to go by, the next couple of days would be filled with unpredictability. I’m not sure whether he thought his minivan was in fact a race car but he certainly drove like it was, weaving in and out of traffic and over-taking on blind corners. Our guide (Ting) seemed to take it all in his stride, so I assumed this driving was business as usual. As we climbed through the mountains to ever higher ground I noticed the broadleaf jungle gave way to scatterings of pine trees as our altitude increased. Then as we came down into valleys again, the number of pines would decrease again. I hadn’t expected to see such trees here at all. Despite our unpredictable driver, we got there in one piece, if a little shaken.

karen hill tribe weavingWe hopped into a pick up truck to take us down a bumpy track to a village which would mark the start of our jungle trek proper. Here we saw timeless Karen hill tribe crafts in action as a lady demonstrated the weaving of traditional Karen dress for women. The skirt she was weaving would take 2 weeks of constant work to complete. The colours in the cloth were almost garishly bright, reds, blues and yellows, which in Britain would look well out of place, but here they were beautiful.

Pulling my backpack on, we began what would be 3½ hours of trekking to our hill tribe homestay. We started down well worn paths which passed fields which had been cleared for the jungle using controlled fires. These areas were being made ready for the coming wet season when crops such as rice and corn could be planted up, growing in just 3 months, ready for harvest. It was the dry season now so there was less plant life on the jungle floor. We passed the occasional group of cows, bells clanking to give their location away to the farmers. I bet it would be easy to lose something as big as a cow in the jungle. Overhead we passed a few giant spiders (as big as your hand) sitting, suspended in their large webs between trees. I gave them a wide berth… I’m not the biggest fan of our eight legged friends.

bushcraft jungle trek

Beautiful, clear waters running through the jungle, friendly local wildlife and our intrepid explorer.

I also noticed something that was very familiar to me from back home. I spotted trees that had been cut down at their base and allowed to regrow again as multi stems, with rods reaching straight up to the sky. I hadn’t expected to see coppicing here. Coppicing is the traditional woodland management practise in which a sustainable crop of underwood can be produced for a variety of uses (from greenwood crafts to charcoal production). Our guide told us that the locals were harvesting the wood here for firewood on a regular rotation. In addition bamboo was being coppiced to produce straight rods of a useful diameter for building projects. The bamboo was allowed to grow on to a manageable size. All this cutting work was done by hand tools, much with the machete, which here is called simply “mid” the Thai word for knife. It was great to see this sustainable harvesting process in action in a place where it was truly relevant and thriving.

bushcraft jungle trek in thailand

Amazing, huge trees which keep growing all year round. Sustainable woodland management, jungle style, with coppicing for firewood and building material.

It was about this time that our guide spotted something we’d all missed, a cobra, hunting in and out of holes in the ground which had been burrowed by some small mammal. This was no small snake and I admit I felt a little sorry for the furry victim that would no doubt soon be on the receiving end of the hunt. But, that’s nature for you.

Another traditional woodland practise I saw was ring-barking, where a standing tree is stripped of it’s bark right around the trunk at chest level. With the life giving sap travelling through the outer layers of a tree this kills the tree and leaves a standing dead skeleton. This can be a useful practise (if done correctly) in Britain for creating standing dead wood to increase wildlife biodiversity. here though it had a more practical purpose… to create seasoned firewood that would stand and dry in the woodland, ready to be felled when needed. I imagine that this is something that was done in our country also back in medieval times and earlier.

The whole jungle seems browner and drier than I expected, even considering the season, but as we approached the valley floor everything became more lush and as I’d expect a jungle to look, you can blame Hollywood for that fixed vision in my head. As we turned a corner we came across a huge termite mound! Standing higher than me and feeling very solid, it’s amazing to think that such vast structures can be built by something so small. I’m very glad we don’t have termites in the UK as the damage they do to wood is impressive, if a little worrying. You’ve got to wonder at the awesome power of nature though.

jungle machete bushcraft

In the words of Crocodile Dundee… “now that’s a knife.”

Our guide had stopped ahead of us again, but this time I knew this meant there was something interesting to see. He’d heard a rattlesnake and seen it slither off away from the path as we approached. I imagine it would be so easy to be inches away from any animal (dangerous or not) and not know it was there, as the jungle is so dense away from the well trodden paths and many creatures are well camouflaged. I tried to remember the advice of Ray Mears in a programme of his I’d watched years ago… did he say “don’t step on a log incase you disturb the snake underneath it” or was it “step on the log so that you disturb any snake before you step on it” I honestly couldn’t remember… typical!

We came to the river at the base of the valley and I was able to cool my feet off in the water, which was very welcome. As I took a rest, I spotted a plant that looked very familiar growing near the riverbank. It looked like an oversized four leaf clover and I though it might be Wood Sorrel, which is edible and tastes like sour-apple – I love it. Asking our guide it turned out not to be Wood Sorrel but was also edible. It tasted like a salad leaf, and he said that’s how they used it.

jungle hill tribe river workshop

The remains of a riverside workshop where a machete has been hard at work. The beautiful river wound through the bottom of the steep sided valley.

Walking along the cool riverbed, with steep sided jungle walls climbing either side of us gave me the feeling of being nestled in the womb of the Earth, life was everywhere. This seemed more like the wild jungle and wilderness I had in my mind when I booked this trek. But looking around there was also plenty of signs of how the local people were living with the land. Remnants of a make-shift riverside workshop for crafting on-the-spot tools. Bamboo rods grew either side of the riverbank and there were plenty of splintered canes which were leftovers from previous activity. We also came across the remains of old campfires, with only the charred embers as sign. There was no modern litter though, as you might find in a similar situation back home, and that was heartening to see.

Eventually we arrived at our hill tribe homestay, a small village sitting on the hillside – to be honest I couldn’t tell you where it was. We met a few of the older villagers and one man proudly showed off his traditional tattoos across his upper legs. Our Guide also told us that they have these intricate designs all around their groin also, but the old man didn’t show us that… thankfully. These tattoos are done using a bamboo needle. I was starting to see how important the bamboo was to the local people here, it had so many uses.

I watched a local girl with her mother picking seed pods from high up in a tree using a very long hook. They were harvesting tamarind which has a few uses including the flesh as a flavouring in food, added to curry pastes. The shell is used to add to tobacco in hand-made cigarettes and the flesh can also be made into a glue. Having tried the raw tamarind I can tell you it tastes like sour-apple sweets, and is very strong. I actually quite liked it. Once harvested from the tree the flesh would be separated from the shells where they would all be laid out to dry on racks in the sun before being processed.

bushcraft jungle trek hill tribe village

A typical house in our host’s village. Drying tamarind out in the sun. Familiar shaped plants aren’t always what they appear to be.

Our host for the evening was Djoe and his family. The company that organise the treks have a close relationship with the local Karen hill tribe and have an arrangement that families will take it in turns to host trekkers and so payment for the service gets spread evenly through the village. Also, it turned out that Djoe would be joining us as an additional guide for day two of the trek.

hill tribe homestayTheir simple house had a central fireplace, the hub of the home. I noticed hanging on the wall a fine collection of machetes, which any bushcrafter would be envious of. Smoke drifted out of smoke-holes in the roof and as we rested before being served dinner I enjoyed how quiet everything was. No traffic noise here.

Our well-earned dinner included a delicious spicy minced fish, a very spicy soup, steamed rice, cabbage in soy and pumpkin. The food was simple and excellent. After being well-fed and watered all that was left was to watch the sun go do
wn behind the neighbouring mountain as the sounds of the millions of jungle insects rose around us. I think we’d definitely use the mosquito net tonight.

In the second part of my account of the jungle trek we would have a whole host of new adventures and experiences including exploring a river cave with flaming torches crafted from bamboo – which was pretty special. You can read all about those adventures very soon.

Thanks for reading.

James

jungle sunset

Sunset looking from the house of my hill tribe homestay. The end of a great day.

James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.

bushcraft leader with shelter

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #1 Building Better Shelters

Hello folks. My name is James and I am an outdoor activity leader at Woodland Classroom, where we pass woodland skills and nature knowledge onto others with our sessions. Bushcraft is an element of what we do, fire-lighting, den building and campfire cooking etc but mostly it’s at a basic level. For a while now I’ve been wanting to improve my bushcraft skills and really go much further in depth not only because I love being out in the woods but also so that I can pass these skills onto others someday and continue to inspire children to fall in love with nature and being outdoors.

So, I’ve taken the plunge and enrolled on a 2 year Bushcraft Instructor training course which is going to really push me to up my game which is not only going to be a lot of fun but will also help me to offer so much more to our customers in the future.

Fire by friction, wild food, whittling, advanced shelter building, natural cordage and plant identification are just some of the skills I’ll be covering over the next two years. I’m quite excited.

Who knows, perhaps I’ll be able to call myself a proper bushcraft instructor when it’s all done. Saying that though, you never stop learning and with any good subject worth getting your teeth into, bushcraft is one of those fields of learning that the more questions you answer, the more questions there are. I imagine I will never stop learning.

Part of my training includes keeping a journal of my time learning bushcraft skills, so I though why not make it a blog and you can share my journey, my successes and my inevitable failures too.

As an old teacher once said to me though, “There are no mistakes. Just learning opportunities.”

So without further ado, here is my account of a day spent shelter building.

bushcraft leader with shelter

Building Better Shelters

Aim of the Day: To construct a one-person shelter using only natural materials, preferably with no cordage, which would be rain-proof.

I had a dry and sunny winter day to do this with no distractions which was good because proper shelter building is a lengthy task. From my training I knew that it took 6 of us a couple of hours to construct an effective shelter from scratch, so I would have my work cut out if I as to get it done all in one day.

There had been some recent tree felling work in the woods, cutting down young hazel stools under the power lines, so this as perfect material with which to construct the frame with as hazel is strong, flexible and being freshly cut it should have a longer life span than using older, more seasoned wood from the forest floor.

I wanted to build a classic kennel shelter, sometimes called the a-frame shelter, which uses just 3 sticks to support the whole structure. The shelter also has little room for movement once you’re inside so that there is less air space to be warmed up.

building a kennel shelter

Above: In Ray Mears’ Outdoor Survival Handbook, he describes the stages of building the kennel shelter.

The first task was to find a piece of ground that is flat, no mean feat in Wales. Another tip I had been given was to get down low to the ground so that you can see the small undulations that make up the lay of the land. This way I could pick out a spot that was not only flat, but would not be a pool for water if the weather turned wet and also was slightly raised from the surrounding land, again to shed ground surface water if needed.

My tutor had told me the importance of of ensuring that the triangular frame is locked together well and that each pole is well supported. The most effective way to do this (without using cordage) is using the method seen in the next picture.

shelter build - interlocking polesHere, the ridge pole is resting on both forked sticks and these are also interlocked. This should help prevent slippage and ensures that the weight of the shelter is evenly distributed. I don’t want it all coming down on me in the middle of the night. For some additional support, I saw that there was a convenient stump which I could rest the base of the right-hand pole against. This is certainly not essential, but a bit of added piece of mind.

Next up I started placing the uprights on either side of the shelter frame. These were no closer than a good hand span apart as if they were too close then I would have trouble weaving between them later when building up the walls of the shelter.

I had also been advised to not allow the uprights to stick up too much above the ridge pole as this would encourage rainwater to run down poles and then drip through into the shelter – which I imagine could be very annoying at 2am.

For weavers between the uprights I mostly used birch branches that were lying around the woodland, as when green they are still flexible. Any that were too far gone and dry, went in  a separate pile for firewood. It was time to start a fire for a well earned brew in my billy can. Think birch is quickly becoming my favourite tree because the more I learn about it, the more uses it seems to have – perhaps that’s the subject of a future journal entry.

Birch’s associations with fire are well known in the outdoor pursuits world and it makes great kindling for getting a blaze going. As soon as the fire was going I felt like I had arrived properly.

building a natural shelter in the woodsAbove: Burying the end of the ridge pole into the earth to help prevent it from slipping. Resting one of the forked poles against a convenient stump for added stability. And getting my tea on with my new billy can.

During my Bushcraft Instructor training we had plenty of bracken around us to use as a thatched covering for the weavers on the roof. You can see an example of that in the first picture on this blog page. But at my local woods bracken was not an option so I would have to go with the less effective (so I’m told) leaf litter – which was in abundance at this time of year. There was plenty of beech trees about and their leaves make a carpet on the woodland floor and I know these leaves to last pretty well rather than rot away quickly so this seems a good choice.  Using a blanket I could gather up lots of leaves quickly and then drag the full blanket over to the shelter.

This was still much more work than I had anticipated though and I had been advised to have a full arm’s length depth of leaf litter on the shelter to make it effective against the worst the weather could throw at it. This was a real eye opener as it soon became apparent just how much material I would need just for my little one-man shelter.

shelter building in the woods of wales

Above: The complete naked skeleton of my kennel shelter, complete with weavers from fallen birch with some hazel brash too for good measure.

Another thing I noticed when using the leaf litter was that leaves had a habit of tumbling down to the base of the shelter so that I was ending up with a lot of material close to the ground and hardly any on top. Stuffing handfuls of leaves between the weavers seems to help this to an extent as it gave the leaves something to grip to. But I wonder if this is also a common problem when using leaf litter like this and whether with enough depth of material you eventually over come it? I wasn’t going to find out today.

The day was drawing on and I still wasn’t complete. By the time the light was failing I had to accept that the shelter would not be completed today (the luxury of not actually being in a real survival situation) and I would have to return another day. I had got one side of the shelter completely covered with a fair depth of leaves, but by no means enough, and I was satisfied that I could return another day and complete the job, ready for a trial sleep out.

My last job was to put out my small brew fire and scatter the cold ashes to leave no trace – an important philosophy in bushcraft.

So, what were the main learning points for me:

  1. Shelter building takes longer than you think.
  2. It’s important to get the 3 main poles locked together correctly to maximise stability and strength.
  3. Don’t put the uprights too close together.
  4. Don’t let the uprights protrude too far above the ridge pole, so avoiding night time drips.
  5. If using leaf litter – allow for A LOT of material.
  6. Stuff the leaves into the weavers to encourage them to group to the shelter sides.
  7. Get up earlier in the morning and start sooner *laugh*

half built shelter

Above: The end of a day’s work.. well a leisurely days work anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to complete the job and test it out.

That’s all for now. I hope to keep my Bushcraft Journal up to date with regular posts, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading.

James K

how the robin got its red breast

How the Robin Got its Red Breast

We love telling stories around the campfire with children at our outdoor activity sessions, especially those tales that are set in the woods and star the creatures that the kids could see for themselves. I think it helps bring the forest alive for their imaginations.

This short story, How The Robin Got Its Red Breast, is a great one to tell on a cold winters day with the campfire crackling away. For me, the story’s message is that no matter how small you are or seem to be, you can achieve great things.

“Long, long ago, when the world was new, as the winter Sun was setting, and the land was locked in ice and snow, all the creatures believed that the warmth they had enjoyed throughout the long summer was lost forever and might never return. They were cold and afraid.”

“As the winter winds blew through the forest, a small brown bird was sheltering in a holly tree and he thought to himself, ‘What could I do?’ Somehow he knew the warmth that had gone belonged to the Sun, so he decided to fly to the Sun and ask for it back. As he took flight the holly twig on which he was standing snapped off, so he took it with him, he thought it would make him feel braver to take a piece of home on his adventure.”

“He flew up, higher and higher he climbed, and as he flew, he felt the heat of the Sun increasing. He flew on, getting hotter and hotter, until he could hardly bear the heat any more and his feathers were scorching, he was so close to the Sun! But still, he was determined to get an audience with the Sun. Then suddenly the holly twig he was carrying burst into flames. He was so shocked that he fainted and fell, down, down, spiralling back to the Earth.”

“When he awoke he realised he still had the burning twig, clutched between his feet. He had done it. He had brought the Sun’s fire back to Earth, and everyone could warm themselves in the heat from the flames. He was a hero! And because he was so brave, and because his feathers had been scorched on his adventure, to this very day, he is still called Robin Redbreast.”

how the robin got its red breastArtwork by Karen Carter at Hedingham Fair

The Robin is probably the UK’s favourite bird. It’s known as the gardner’s friend because it’s often seen perched near to where earth and soil is being dug over, revealing lots of juicy worms. I’ve often had a Robin as my companion when I’m practising my bushcraft skills in the woods. he’s always hoping I’ll turn over some leaves or dead wood in the hope of a easy meal.

To find out more about the Robin, where it lives, what it eats and what it sounds like. You can visit the RSPBs website which should answer all your questions here.

Robin in the Snow

12 days of forest school

The 12 Days of Forest School

We’ve taken the classic Christmas song and given it our very own twist. So join us for a good old fashioned sing-along. We love singing this around our campfire with our kids groups throughout the festive season.

Forest School sessions are all about letting children be in charge of their own learning and giving them the chance to explore wild spaces on their own terms so they can grow emotionally and intellectually. We run plenty of outdoor sessions throughout the winter because we believe that children should have access to great outdoor activities all year round.

Enough of all that though, on with the song…..

We’ve made a series of pictures to celebrate each of our 12 Days, which also showcase many of the awesome activities that children get up to at forest school sessions. You can see these images by scrolling through…

first day of forest school christmas

 

second day of forest school christmas

 

third day of forest school christmas

 

fourth day of forest school christmas

 

fifth day of forest school christmas

 

sixth day of forest school christmas

 

seventh day of forest school christmas

 

eighth day of forest school christmas

 

nineth day of forest school christmas

 

tenth day of forest school christmas

 

eleventh day of forest school christmas

 

twelth day of forest school christmas

We love singing this round the campfire with the kids through December and you’re very welcome to use this song too. Here’s a run down of the lyrics:

“On the first day of forest school I had the chance to see…

A child climbing in an oak tree.

Two muddy boots

Three storytimes

Four crawling bugs

Five golden leaves!

Six kids a whittling

Seven mushrooms sprouting

Eight campfires blazing

Nine shelter builders

Ten monkeys swinging

Eleven axes chopping

Twelve hunters tracking”

 

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

nibbled nuts found on winter scavenger hunt

Awesome Winter Scavenger Hunt

So… it’s winter. The days are cold and short, but it’s still a great time to be out and about and see a host of things in the woods that you’d not see at other times of the year. Winter leaves our countryside bare, open to deeper exploration and let’s you poke your nose into all sorts of nooks and crannies that would be walled off with greenery come summertime.

Kenneth Grahame, author of the popular children’s novel The Wind In The Willows, painted an evocative picture of the countryside in winter, which hints at the secrets that are waiting to be discovered;

“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off… He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”

There were plenty of winter adventures for Mole, Ratty and Badger, so in order to inspire you to make your outdoor experience one that the kids will love too we have devised an awesome Winter Scavenger Hunt that will stimulate all the senses of your child. The only sense we haven’t got covered is taste – but we’re sure a nice hot chocolate at home after the walk will tick that box. We hope our scavenger hunt will make going outside in winter a memorable and exciting experience for the whole family. Give it a go and let us know how you got on.

DOWNLOAD OUR AWESOME WINTER SCAVENGER HUNT HERE

winter woodland scavenger hunt

You can share pics of your scavenging adventures on our facebook page, we’d love to see them.

We always host a great range of activity days right through the Autumn and Winter months, because we believe it’s important for kids and adults to get outside more than ever during these times when many people shut themselves away indoors. You can check out our upcoming events HERE.

parent and child at forest school

Got the Winter Blues? Nature Has the Answer

We NEED To Get Outdoors, even though it’s wet & cold. It’s essential for our health and happiness, here’s why…

Winter is a time of year when many people hide away indoors, mirroring the hibernation of some animals and with all this wind and rain we’ve had for what feels like forever, who can blame them?

Christmas and New Year are behind us and there doesn’t seem much to look forward to. Many of us feel like cuddling up on the sofa and watching a movie when it’s cold, wet and going dark so early. Spring feels like a lifetime away, doesn’t it? When we do have to go out to work or get the kids to school, we dive out of the car and straight indoors, then it’s back out into the car, dive in and out of shops and back home, back to the world of central heating and electric lighting. Although this might make us feel more comfortable, it’s no compensation for the benefits of fresh air and sunlight. Without direct sunlight our bodies cannot produce vitamin D, which is important for maintaining normal blood levels of phosphorus and calcium, and helps keep our bones healthy and strong.

The amount of daylight we get each day has a dramatic effect on our mood too. Without this daylight our body produces substances that make us feel lethargic and lacking in energy. Idun Haugan of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology says that when sunlight hits our retinas at the back of our eyes, light sensitive nerve cells are activated which stimulates the production of serotonin and cortisol;

These substances are important in determining our physical and mental health. Insufficient levels of serotonin can result in depression, lack of energy, sleep problems, mood swings and poor impulse control.” (Haugan 2013)

It is not always easy to get motivated to go outside in the middle of winter but remember this lack of motivation is caused by our lack of sunlight and the over production of melatonin (our body’s sleep hormone). So in the winter months with so little daylight available it’s even more important to get outside and feel the sun on your face, in fact, I guarantee you will feel more energised and invigorated for making the effort.

Check out our Winter Scavenger Hunt as a great excuse for a walk in nature with your kids. There’s plenty of other ideas on our Pinterest page too.

boys in forest school at winter

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