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Theoretically, orienteering is simple. It is car rallying on foot, as John Disley puts it in his standard work, Orienteering ( London, 1967), but with one individual being the driver, navigator and power plant as well. The organizers choose a rough tract of ground, preferably with plenty of features such as streams, hills, forests and rock outcrops. They plot a course around it, with a number of control checkpoints situated en route. Competitors start at one-minute intervals, and the winner is the man who completes the course in the shortest time, having checked in at every control.
Naturally, though, it isn't as easy as it sounds. The control points are tucked away behind boulders, in deep woodland or in thick bracken. The only rule is that the red-and-white plastic indicators that mark them must be visible inside a 10-yard circumference. There is no standard length of course. A novice's circuit may cover two or three miles and that of a senior event may be 15 or even 20 miles long. The controls may be a thousand yards or a mile apart and separated by imposing natural obstacles, so it becomes a vital decision whether to scramble up a hillside on a direct route or take the easier, longer track around its base. The easiest thing of all is to get lost.
You are allowed certain aids. They tell you to bring along a red ballpoint pen, a thick plastic envelope and a Silva compass. They provide you with a large-scale map of the area, a check-in card and a typewritten list briefly describing the control points such as "Turn in Track" or "The Boulder in Hedge," plus a six-figure map scale. The plastic envelope is to protect your map against rain, mud and, I suspect, bloodstains. The Silva compass is a special Swedish one incorporating a protractor, so that if you have a degree in mathematics you can plot your route.
When they call your name and you leave the starting point, you are directed, with no complications, to the master map area. There, pinned up on boards, are maps identical with yours but having the control points and direct routes marked in red. You whip out your own red ballpoint and copy these details as accurately as you can. After that, you are on your own.
And, they say, old ladies can do it. In Sweden it's just a family Sunday outing. In 1963, 182,000 competitors started out on a single contest. Some of them, at least, must have been as ill-equipped physically and mentally as I was. They couldn't all have been ex-Olympic runners and Ph.D.s. So, with only a little gulping, I rang a Mr. Charnley, said to be the secretary of the English Orienteering Association. "What have you got on this weekend?" I inquired.
"There's one on at Reading," he said enthusiastically. "You'd enjoy that. It's a night event."
Thanks, but no, I told him. I had read all about night events in Disley: "After dark orienteering is a very sophisticated game indeed and demands a high level of skill for successful participation.... A pitch-dark night with lashing rain is a salutary experience for an adult." And you had to carry a whistle and a miner's headlamp.
"Well then," said Charnley, "we can do a schoolboys' event at Guildford, Surrey...."
"That sounds just the...."