School Camp in the Grampians

A few weeks ago I spent five days camping in the Grampians National Park. That would have been pretty amazing, save for the fact that I was supervising a group of Year 8 students on their annual school camp.

School camp is a pretty normal thing in Australia, and most teachers are expected to attend at least one camp each year. Somehow I have managed to escape this duty during my time in Australia thus far and this was my first school camp experience. I was really dreading it, but it actually turned out to be pretty fun. A nice escape from the daily grind, although I did really miss Ella. Luckily my mom is here so Andy wasn't on his own taking care of her.

I was in charge of a group of twelve 13-year-olds, along with a trained outdoor ed staff member employed by the camp. My duty as a teacher was to look after the wellbeing of the students, along with managing any disciplinary issues that might arise.

We left nice and early Monday morning for the four hour bus journey. We had about 90 students and 8 teachers divided between two buses. Despite the chatty and excited kids the journey was pretty painless and smooth.

Upon arrival at our campsite, the misleadingly named Grampians Retreat, we got straight into our first activity - mountain biking. When our instructor asked the students who had experience with mountain biking, I was surprised to find out that one of the students had never rode a bike before! So I ended up spending the session teaching him to ride a bike while the others learned some mountain biking skills and did a few rides through a track on the property. I felt a bit bad for my student who didn’t know how to ride a bike as that would surely be a bit embarrassing for a 13-year-old, however to his credit he persisted with learning for nearly two hours and was able to ride in the end. (Stopping without crashing was another story.)

The first two nights we slept in cabins at the retreat. With no heating it was pretty cold in the cabin, especially the first night when the temperature dropped to 3 degrees. Thankfully our outdoor education department had given me a super warm sleeping bag to use for the week. I also spent a small fortune at Kathmandu and Uniqlo the week before stocking up on thermals and other warm clothes in preparation, which definitely came in handy.

We spent our second day at Mt. Lion, mountain climbing and abseiling. Even I got to participate which was cool. I was pretty impressed with the students who were climbing an actual mountain and belaying each other quite confidently by the end of the day. We had cold but sunny weather and there were some spectacular views from the top of the abseil.

On our last morning at the Retreat the students worked as volunteers with Parks Victoria clearing bush walking paths. This was a good way for the students to give back to the community where we were camping.

On Wednesday afternoon, after two nights spent in cabins at the retreat, we headed out on the hiking portion of the camp. The students had to carry all their food, supplies and tents for two nights camping in the bush. I was really dreading this part of the week but it ended up being a lot less difficult than I thought it would be. It really helped that as a teacher I had a few perks, such as my tent being set up at each campsite in advance, and the option to have some of my things transported between campsites so I didn’t have such a heavy backpack to carry.

Our first afternoon we hiked 6.5km and reached camp just before it got dark. The kids did a pretty good job setting up their tents and then they all pitched in to make dinner, a big veggie and turkey stir fry. For dessert we had a camp style cheesecake: lemon curd mixed with Laughing Cow cheese, spread on ginger biscuits. It was actually very, very yummy!

At about 7:30pm the kids all went into their tents as it had started to rain. The outdoor ed leader and I stayed up for about another half an hour, making sure the kids weren’t making too much noise and were staying in their tents before getting into our own tents. It was pretty nice to just have an hour or so to read in my tent and then get to sleep at a decent time. Luckily the nights that we were camping weren’t too cold, I think the lowest temperature was about 11 degrees.

The next day we had a slightly longer hike of 11km, but we had the whole day to do it. Part of the hike was called a “Solo” where the students were spaced out in five minute intervals and had to hike on their own. This was to give them some reflection time, and although they weren’t looking forward to it to start with, most reported that they did in fact enjoy having some time to themselves to enjoy nature.

Views during the solo hike
We took quite a few breaks that day as 11km is not actually that far to walk in a whole day. The best bit was after lunch where we did a bit of scrambling on boulders, again giving us some great views of the national park.

On our last night the students had their “Survivor” night. Instead of sleeping in tents they had to work in groups of 3 or 4 to set up tarps and sleep out in the open. They were given a compass and some directions on where to find the tarp, their food and some ropes. They could only bring with them the clothes they were wearing, rain gear, a sleeping bag, and one luxury item. It sounds pretty intense but in reality they were only about 100m away from where me and the outdoor ed staff were camping.

Once the kids learned a few basic skills around tying knots for their tarp we sent them off for the night. They had walkie-talkies and had to let us know when they completed tasks such as setting up their tarp, making dinner, and when they were going to bed. Other than that they were not to contact us unless it was an emergency. I spent the evening around a campfire with two outdoor ed staff and it was all really quite pleasant, as if I was on holiday (though I probably wouldn’t choose to spend my holiday camping, but still).

The next morning the students came back tired but pretty proud that they had spent a night “roughing it”. We discussed things they were now more grateful for at home, such as heating, a roof over their heads, food in the cupboards, and how difficult it must be for those who do not have a home, and for who spending nights outside on the streets is an everyday reality. It was a small experience for the students but hopefully a start to them having more gratitude for the everyday comforts of their lives, and more awareness of homelessness, which is a big problem in Melbourne.

After hiking back to the Grampians Retreat on Friday morning, we had some lunch and then headed back to Melbourne on the bus. It was a very full and tiring week but nice to be out in nature and have a break from the very busy school term.


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