Instead of a couple of mini-buses and lorry load of kit bound for a farmer’s field in Dorset, the meeting point was 6am at Heathrow Terminal 3, with kit bag packed containing everything needed for a 9 day expedition to the Spanish Pyrenees. Our destination: Griebal, a remote campsite run by the Scouts of Aragon in a deserted village some 4 hours drive from Bilbao, high in the mountains, within sight of the French border.
The expedition party comprised 27 Scouts / Young Leaders (aged 10 to 15 yrs) and 11 Leaders, for a trip that was almost 2 years in the planning. But finally we were off, and by late afternoon on the day of departure, our convoy of vehicles wound their way off-road, up a steep 5km dusty track to the old settlement of Griebal, a collection of buildings that were being painstakingly restored by volunteer Scout labour, as a base to enjoy, and from which to adventure.
At any one time over the course of the summer, there can be as many as 300 Scouts onsite, across the sprawling wooded terraces cut into the hillside below the main village centre. Since 1990, Griebal has welcomed Scouts from all over Spain and Portugal, with regular visits also from Scout Groups from Belgium and Germany. As the very first U.K. Scout Group ever to visit Griebal,
we were welcomed enthusiastically by our Spanish hosts. But it was pretty easy to spot us – we were the ones wearing hats against the fierce sun and 37C daytime temperature.
We couldn’t quite carry everything with us to Spain. We hired a number of patrol tents from the campsite to complement our own lightweight tents, as well as hiring a large cook tent with both fridge and freezer (a legal requirement in Spain), a single large Paella burner, and a single cooking pot that could have accommodated an entire Beaver Colony.
After a day exploring the site, and an evening trading campfire sketches with groups from Mallorca and Zaragoza (entertainment that stretched long into the night), on the following morning we drove out further into the mountains, for a day white-water rafting. The deep gorges that run out of the Pyrenees, framed by still snow-capped peaks, were spectacular, and the timed release of water from the series of hydro-electric dams affords an opportunity for sport not possible in the U.K. In subsequent days our activities also took us hiking up to the head of the valley above the small town of Bielsa, and also into the Ordesa National Park.
A highlight of the expedition late on in the trip was a day spent with mountain guides in a still more remote valley on a “canyoning” adventure – a mental as well as a physical challenge in which we navigated down the course of a snow-melt river, by means of a combination of scrambling, swimming, abseiling and a final 8m leap into a plunge pool.
There was time too on the expedition to explore the cultural offerings of the region. The ancient fortified local town of Ainsa, with its narrowed cobbled streets, was an exciting place to visit in a late night trip by minibus from the campsite. Market day in Ainsa was a further opportunity for the Scouts to practice their Spanish – not just to buy souvenirs of the trip – but more importantly to buy ingredients, from the vast array of local food producers, for a “top tapas” competition back at the Griebal campsite.
But an important part of our trip – and a rewarding experience for all – was also a “service” day in which we laboured to contribute to the Griebal vision of building a Scouting community from the semi-ruins that had long been left behind.
It is hard to summarise succinctly what the trip meant to all who took part. It was hot, physically demanding, and the toilet blocks weren’t necessarily quite everyone’s cup of tea. The logistics of travel (maximum of 9 seater minibuses!) required both careful planning, and the extraordinary commitment of a brave team of leaders. Shopping for 38 mouths in small village supermarkets, and then cooking for 38 on a single burner presented its own challenges: planned Menu A, was soon abandoned in favour of Menu B, which embraced the local produce and patterns of eating.
But the mere existence of the beautiful and awe-inspiring campsite is of massive credit to Scouts of Aragon, the vision of its leadership team, and the dedication of the volunteers who run the site – purely and exclusively for the benefit of Scouts. It was meant to be a challenge and an adventure in one of the most spectacular and indeed unspoilt areas of Europe, and it certainly was that. And we loved it.