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Hitting 30 – Its not all about Work (Part 3 – Gemma’s Perspective)

May 9th, 2013

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Russell suggested I write the third and final instalment of the blog on our Swedish adventure. I thought this was a fabulous idea, not just because it’s nice to have someone else’s perspective on such a unique experience but also because I hope someone like me will read this and be inspired to try something they’ve never tried before!

So let’s start by backtracking slightly. I think it’s important to understand a little bit about me to help ‘set the scene’ as it were. I am a stubborn creature with a ‘can do’ attitude. I like a challenge and I like to make things happen. I like to organise people and events and I like to make people happy. When Russ spoke to me so passionately about his desire to go on this survival holiday I was inspired by his enthusiasm and disappointed for him that no-one had ever had the drive or seriousness to get it organised. I trusted Russ 100% and even after researching the wildlife that roamed the Swedish landscapes (Wolves, brown bears, Wolverines – (really big badgers, not Marvel characters) I was still convinced Russ would keep me safe if I dared to embark on such an expedition. I liked the idea of the outdoors and although I probably underestimated how ‘back to nature’ I was about to get, I felt ready to try something completely different to my previous holiday experiences.

As Russ mentioned, I was in charge of the city break part of the holiday, ensuring we had a glamorous start and a taste of R&R to finish. Booking and organising the logistics was a breeze. It was when Russ took me shopping to Go Outdoors for suitable attire that I started to be concerned that I may be well outside of my comfort zone. I like to think I gave Russ lots of new experiences – the joy of European city breaks, Swedish massage lessons, bars made of ice to name a few. But bless him….he was taking me on a survival holiday and until I met Russ I had NEVER owned a rucksack, a pair of walking boots, any item of clothing remotely waterproof or a sleeping bag. Amazing that at this point he hadn’t worked out I had also never slept a full night in a tent (I had tried camping in my garden once and chickened out and gone in the house) or ever been in a canoe – something he later discovered when we were trying to paddle upstream unsuccessfully! But nevertheless I was prepared to give it go. After 2 nights inStockholmI was ready for the outdoors, now used to carrying a rucksack almost as big as myself and feeling inspired about the raft cookery I could create on my 2 stoves…..

So day 4 on the raft….I was a bit sad to leave our treasured spot in a clear field away from the evil mosquitoes. Waking up on day 3 had involved a minor meltdown as I unzipped the tent to find hundreds of the dreaded things just waiting to feast on me. After running to the raft and launching off up the river still in PJs I hadn’t thought it was possible to find anywhere mozzie free and was concerned it was going to be a very long trip and I may look like Elephant Man by the end if the bites continued! But we had managed it; my canoe hero had landed us the perfect spot and I had a bite free evening, a relaxed trip to the outdoor loo (outdoor meaning a self dug hole in a field) and the ability to dress slowly enough to get my trousers on the right way round. However, I knew we still had around 70km to cover and had to crack on downstream. So off we went.

By day 4 I was used to the rather intimate surroundings of the raft. I had learnt that Russ had strapped all our belongings up high to stop them getting wet, not just to stop me reaching them. My days revolved around cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner in a compact area and being organised enough to get everything out that I needed before setting up my work surface on top of the box of food. After cooking I had to wash up, preferably without losing our equipment. Russ still doesn’t know (well he does now) that I lost one of only two spoons on day 3, but managed with the limited utensils I had left! In between meals I would snooze, read or simply watch the world go by from the raft. It was one of the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever been lucky enough to experience. Occasionally we would pass another raft, waving and checking everyone was ok. I admit I hadn’t a clue when we were building our raft how good Russell’s modified design of a 30 year old model would be. Whilst other rafters looked wet and bedraggled from having to paddle their 2 tonne rafts out of backwater in the rain, we could sit casually drifting downstream, always dry and sheltered from wind. Admittedly I wasn’t always quick off themarkas we drifted into low branches and got stuck. Hanging from the raft like monkeys we would have to try and unhook ourselves whilst catching our poles and paddles and duck from the branches sweeping at us. It made for a bit of excitement in an otherwise blissfully peaceful day.

Our general plan was to start looking for a place to land in the late afternoon, knowing that this process could take up to an hour. After 2 nights of vampire mosquitoes and 1 night of perfect peace we, or rather, Russell had developed a case of camping perfectionism. The process would start with us looking at our map, which was really just a wiggly line on the lid of a box where we would make a guess about roughly what side of the river would be best to land. Russ would then use his best boat cox skills to encourage me to paddle, whilst we tried to manoeuvre the vessel. For about 20 minutes to half an hour Russ would chant ‘PaddleGem, paddle’ (as if it made a difference) and I would frantically paddle, often almost wobbling overboard but giving it my best in an effort to shift us to the other side of the river. I have a feeling, after doing this for a week that maybe we didn’t have much control over this….I think the current of the 8 metre deep Klaralven river told us where we were going and our futile efforts at paddling merely gave us a daily work out. Nevertheless, we tried. After ‘spotting’ a suitable landing pad Russ set out in the canoe, tied to the raft to reel us in. Watching Russ lasso a tree was a bit like watchingSteveIrwin wrestle a crocodile. It was his most manly daily task. I felt quite bad that there was no way on earth I could complete this task. My job was to usefully paddle the 1 tonne raft, on my own in roughly the direction we were supposed to land. I was not supposed to laugh as it was a super serious moment but as Russ set off ahead, still shouting ‘paddleGem’ I couldn’t help but giggle at our Chuckle Brother style effort at landing the raft. So today Russ was looking for the ultimate spot, mosquito free, accessible….impossible. The high water seemed to be against us today and around every corner was yet another high sand bank, treeless and impossible to climb. After over an hour paddling ahead of me, Russ returned to the raft tired and temporarily defeated by the sandbank. We decided to sail on for a while, knowing we had until almost 11pm before we ran out of light….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15 hours of sailing and an empty bottle of sloe gin later Russell became decisive about our evening fate – we would land on the left side of the Klaralven, just after the next bridge. The chant of ‘paddleGem’ started as we attempted to keep the raft along the left side of the river working with the current and paddling with determinism. As the bridge approached Russ jumped in the raft. Earlier in the day we had decided the he may need a longer rope to enable a broader view of the banks and I had tied 4 ropes together giving him around 30 metres of rope between the raft and canoe.SteveIrwin, ahem, I mean Russell Rafton, mounted a sandbank just after the bridge and tried to anchor the raft but to our dismay, as the 1 tonne monster sailed past with me still aboard we realised we still had excess metres of rope between us that needed shortening. With Russ shouting ‘tie the rope around the front of the raft’ I frantically tried to lasso the rope around the raft to stop us drifting too far, It was midnight, it was dark, men are from mars, women are from venus and 15 hours of drifting down a river diminishes the majority of communication skills anyone has! Russ was pulling, I was attempting to lasso, Russ tugged on the rope that I had hold of, imagining he was pulling a 1 tonne raft when in fact he was pulling a 9stone female directly into the Klaralven River at midnight! I plunged head first into the water, managing to stop at waist depth, before dragging myself back onto the raft. As refreshing as it was it wasn’t really the experience I was looking for, so, slightly less patient than usual I shouted to Russ that landing on that particular sandbank was impossible and he jumped back in his canoe. Sailing past me, exhausted he commented ‘Gem, you are all wet, are you crying?’ Me ‘No Russell, you pulled me in the water….’ Before this could break into a domestic we turned round the corner to find the most heavenly site – a campsite!! Manoeuvring at break neck speed, Russ jumped out the canoe and hauled our raft to the shoreline. Admittedly we were still thigh deep in water as we dismounted the raft, but it was good enough for me. I declared I was off to find a shower after my impromptu dip in the river and Russ said he’d put the tent up. 15 minutes later I emerged, warmer, calmer, to find no tent and Russ casually sipping beer aboard our floating home. Admittedly it had been a long day and I could read his mind as the words spilled out of his mouth ‘shall we sleep on the raft?’ We hung the giant mosquito net from the apex and got cosy under the stars. The best idea we had had so far…..sod the tent…lets do what we came here to do and sleep on what was to become our favourite place in the world!

Next morning we awoke to a crowd of curious Swedes, Danes and Germans admiring our 4 poster mosquito net. The owner of the campsite, a Brit, originally from Lancs bobbed down to meet us. After a brief chat we confirmed we’d be staying for a couple of days in order to explore a little of ruralSwedenby foot. Still self sufficient in terms of food and drink, we weren’t cheating; we were just in a small village which we could utilise. We spent the next couple of nights at the campsite, exploring the beautiful villages and valleys by day and relaxing aboard our 3 metre square floating home by night. After a cloudy start in the mountains the skies had turned blue, with cotton wool clouds and glorious sunshine. We were on the most simplistic, perfect holiday either of us had ever experienced. It was that moment where you wish it would never end, but it was 10 times stronger than ever before.

On Day 7 we thought we had better set off again and with clean hair and heavy hearts we set sail down the river. The determined current bounced us along the banks and under the trees, pushing our apex into an ever increasing parallelogram instead of the perfect trapezium we had started with. Merely half an hour after setting off we hit a wall, or rather, the dreaded back water. Back water is a swirling myriad of current, a mini whirlpool if you like. With a square vehicle of great weight like our raft as you edge towards the far side of a patch of backwater it kindly spins you back around and holds you in its grip, almost letting you believe you can sail out of it before tossing you back into the void. We span there for a while, discussing strategy, utilising our poles and paddles, sweating and feeling almost defeated when one of our German comrades canoed over to haul us out of our black hole. Kindly they tied themselves to our raft and paddled for dear life until we were clearly back in the centre of the river. Eternally grateful we waved them off before continuing on our journey.

As the light faded we knew it was that time of day to send Russ out in his canoe to land the raft. Today, on our last evening aboard our floating paradise he found us a lovely spot by a grassy riverbank. Deciding we were going to continue sleeping on our raft we didn’t need a low bank, just a clear area to avoid the vampire mosquitoes. Our last night and time for me to make the best of our ingredients and create a chorizo and tomato pasta to enjoy with our beer as we cherished the time we had left on such a unique adventure.

We awoke to see the sun rising on out last day. The peace and tranquillity that emulated from our river adventure was never felt so much as on that last morning. Before we knew it the signs for the Vildmarkcampsite were in sight. We knew we had to stay right and Russ chanted his ‘paddleGem’ as we kept tight to the riverbank in order to land the raft at the campsite. Landing by the steps perfectly Russ dragged our vessel in and I hopped off in disbelief that I had survived our adventure. The final part of the holiday is dismantling the raft one log at a time. Russ started to take down the apex, untie the lashings and release the logs. We watched them drift off into the log trap ready for the next set of intrepid explorers. For us it was back on the bus and train back toStockholm.

 

Back inStockholmI felt more of a fish out of water than I had when I first set sail on the raft. The institutionalism of survival in a 3metre square space is extraordinary.  With 8metres of water beneath, 15 metres of water either side or countless metres of woodland and wilderness beyond, evenStockholmin all its cleanliness and breathtaking architecture felt hemmed in. Nevertheless we wandered to the hotel I had excitedly booked prior to our arrival. The Malardrottningen Boat Hotel by the river in centralStockholm. Small but quirky, it felt welcome after our unique trip.

 

The day before we leftSwedenwe indulged in our child at heart and headed to Skansen,Stockholm’s answer toFlamingoLandcrossed with Beamish. A mix of native animals and Swedish history, Skansen is a must for any visitor toStockholm. Afterwards we headed to the theme park. The thing to understand aboutStockholmis that everything is accessible within walking distance and it has EVERYTHING. from a zoo, to a theme park to dozens of museums, bars, restaurants, beautiful buildings, clean streets, a port and tree lined park areas. It is a plethora of entertainment, and despite being a little pricey for a G&T it is friendly, cultural and welcoming. Equally it appears to be free spirited and not obsessed with health and safety regulations! Apart from the obvious (sailing down a river unaccompanied for 8 days) we were amazed to enter a theme park where numerous rollercoasters intertwined and people screamed above us as they whizzed past. Not at all phased, we attempted as many rides as we could with our unlimited wristbands, even daring some rides twice in attempt to smile at the camera when we realised we had our picture taken at the most death defying moment! After an afternoon of exhilaration we retired to our room in our boat hotel to get ready for our final evening on the town. We indulged in Thai food and sushi, our eternal favourite before hitting the bars along the main strip by the station. On Russell’s toilet break I managed to ‘attract’ a few friends and engaged in conversation with a couple of Swedes, a couple of Mexicans and a Londoner (small world). After an evening of making new international friends we headed back to our bed.

 

Our last day inStockholmstarted with a hearty breakfast and a traditional sauna. A little worse for wear I think Russ though he’d sweat the hangover out! We checked out of our boat hotel, donning our back packs one final time before heading off to the train station. We were hard to miss…big backpacks, bigger grins…we were tourists personified but we never expected the attention we were about to receive….

A chap with a camera and a lady with a microphone approached us to ‘check’ we were on holiday inStockholm! Turns out they were from a Swedish newspaper doing a feature on tourism. Well, they struck gold with us! Avid fans of Sweden and on our way home after the ultimate holiday we were more than happy to answer questions and have our photos taken for the paper. A few cheeky kissing snaps by the harbour, with our backpacks still on and the paparazzi were happy! We were ready to head home.

Touching down in theUKfilled us with the usual post holiday dread. But as soon as we arrived back inYorkwe threw our rucksacks through the door and headed to the pub for a last taste of holiday freedom.

There are dozens of anecdotes from our Swedish adventure, many of which you just had to be there to appreciate! What is countless and insurmountable are the memories. Take it from a girl with hair down to her waist and a PHD in bronzer; I do not even expect to experience anything as satisfying as sailing down a river, barefoot, barefaced, with the sunshine on my skin. It gave me a new perspective on what matters in life and a valuable insight into where true happiness lies. The memories are priceless and the experience untouchable.



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