This Winter I took the opportunity to work on the Orienteering Australia Coaching Scholarship in Melbourne, Victoria. I spent six months from September to March racing, coaching and training across Australia. But what do you expect orienteering to be like when you step foot into terrain on the other side of the world?
I have been lucky enough throughout my orienteering career to have the opportunity to race in extremely diverse environments across Europe and China. Australian terrain, however, was different. What more would expect from a country on the other side of the world? Yes, the contours can generally be interpreted in the same way, but nothing can prepare you for the way the Australian forests have grown.
The most common terrain I encountered was “Spur-Gulley”. Often governed by large hills and vague contours, it is all about using the shape of the land and getting your head up. There is little in the way of undergrowth to halt your progress, generally it is open and runnable. This may sound easy, but the forests in Australia are hard and unforgiving and the ground takes a toll on your body. It is often rocky and dusty, and with the added speed you must push your body and technique to the edge if you want to win.
There is then the goldmining terrain. These unique, manmade contour features are amongst the most complex I have ever witnessed in orienteering. In my first week in Australia, we ran the Australian Championships in Bathurst, New South Wales. This was truly a baptism of fire, struggling to discern the contour shapes and what they meant – in fact, after orienteering on a contour only map at an area called Rowdy Flat in December, I quit training for the day, I found it so mentally challenging.
Picture: Hunting for gold at the Australian Long Distance Championships
And then there is Kooyoora. This map is different in itself. With part of it Christened the “Bermuda Triangle” by Australia’s best orienteers due to the amount of time lost by the world’s elite at the World Championships in 1986, you can imagine the technical challenge at play. It is a world cut off from the rest of Australia, a solitary hill in Victoria, north of Bendigo, green and rocky. The trees criss-cross to block your path, the granite rocks tower above you and the interminable heat saps your energy and pushes you off-line.
Picture: Kooyoora State Park Orienteering map (the Bermuda Triangle in the top right)
It is not simply the geology, but the wildlife and the forests themselves. Gone is the soft leaf litter and heather of British and Nordic forests, in comes the loud dry fallen branches of the eucalyptus trees, which lie strewn across the Australian bush (they insist it is the bush, and not forest). Gone also are the deer and squirrels, with the inside of forests governed by kangaroos, screaming kookaburras and cockatoos, and snakes (the less said about these the better).
But what of sprint orienteering, surely that’s the same? Well, possibly not. In the UK we typically sprint around housing estates, university campuses or town centres. In Australia, their staple diet of sprint orienteering was around primary and secondary schools. These often made for two contrasting types of sprints: fast and relatively simple, or incredibly technical with little time to open up your running. Though there were also numerous sprints around university campuses, these were altogether a different affair from their British counterparts, with the architecture and buildings not following what we would typically be used to if we arrived at a British university for a weekend event.
Everything was a change, it was unfamiliar, but this provided part of the challenge; there was never a technique session where I was truly in my comfort-zone.
But what of the events they hold in Australia? Due to the risk of bush-fires in Australia, there is a limited amount of forest orienteering on offer in the summer, with Australians preferring sprint orienteering. This was quite a change to Britain. In Britain we seem to forgo sprint races for urban middle and long-distance courses. Whether this is for cost-effective reasons (we think that we are getting more for our money) or for the tourism factor (we get to see more of the town we are racing in), there is a general lack of sprint orienteering in favour of urban events. In Australia however, short sprint races are a staple of the training diet. For both the elite and the general orienteering public, these are approached with the same focus and drive, being used as practise for the national championships – something we can learn from in Britain.
Picture: Sprinting in the Australian heat
In the forest too, the race formats are different. Whilst the process remains the same, their weekend events have far more of an overall, stage-race feel. Each weekend event with multiple races has in turn an overall classification to fight for; in Britain so often, it is only the Scottish and the JK which have an overall prize for the races. Add into this mass starts, chasing starts and mixed sprint relays, there seems to be far more on offer in the Australian orienteering calendar.
Spending 6-months in this environment helped me to push my technique to new boundaries and improve it tremendously. The terrain, the challenges of it and the local environment of the Australia calendar led to me approaching my winter with a completely different training mentality. My host family the Keys helped me to get to new maps each week, to experience as much of this terrain as possible before heading back to Europe. They encouraged me to race differently and to change my technical processes and how I navigated, continually getting me to improve as an orienteer.
Many many thanks to the Keys, and Orienteering Victoria, for the whole wonderful experience.