SI Vault
Subterfuge on a Sylvan Rally
Clive Gammon
January 13, 1969
You still have an hour of light left," said Fred Travis, snapping out a hairy, muscular wrist and consulting the complex of dials held there by a steel-link strap.
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January 13, 1969

Subterfuge On A Sylvan Rally

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Actually she gave me plenty of time for a quiet rest. I watched her cover a couple of hundred yards, then stop to consider. Then she was off again in short bursts, quartering the ground like a gun-dog. I waited until she had come to a clear decision, then set off after her, keeping low behind a wall. More forest awaited us. But first there was a gate—plentifully festooned in barbed wire—to be negotiated. From cover I watched her attempt it. You had to admire her spirit. She was a big girl, and she should have taken her time, but she went at it like an Olympic hurdler. Her takeoff was marred by a mudhole that cattle had churned up. Fascinated, I saw her teeter at the top, anchored there by the wire that had seized hold of the slack of her track suit.

Should I go to her aid like a gentleman? What would Fred Travis have done? "In orienteering you're on your own," I could hear him say, "just you and the forest." It grieved me to watch, as painfully she went into reverse and gingerly reached around and freed herself. But she wouldn't thank me, would she, if by my assistance she took the junior ladies' trophy? Not if she were a true orienteer.

And she was that, all right. She ripped into the woods again, and now I could close the range. I was picking up distinct audio signals—heavy breathing and panting—as well as the visual one of the track-suit bottom. Then she disappeared behind a tree and stopped. Something was happening. I froze and awaited events. Perhaps a 30-second pause ensued, then she was off again like a wild thing. I gave her a few seconds' start, then made for the tree myself and peered behind it. It was there all right. Control Point No. 1: Boulder in Hedge. A small raised bank ran behind the tree, and there hung the control marker over a boulder, a red-and-white plastic thing like a box kite. It was like Christmas morning as a child, going downstairs and finding the lighted tree. I peered over my shoulder the way I had come, in time to see two professional-looking runners—bedaubed in mud, compasses in hand—coming up fast. Hastily I marked my card with the self-inking stamp and melted into the foliage. Let them find their own russet track suit.

I had lost some time, though, and now my guide was out of sight and hearing. It looked as if I was going to have to return to legitimate orienteering and use the compass again. I got out my map and went through the drill. This time the direction looked as if it could conceivably be right. In any case, the brief description was: "The Ruin." I could hardly miss that, could I?

There was some rough uphill work to begin with, and I realized how wise I had been to attend so strictly to training. A measured walk did nothing worse than bring me out in a slight sweat and cause me to open my collar a little more. At the top, I didn't pant for more than a moment or two, and I felt entitled to a short rest and another Gauloise before scaling a stone wall that cut across my appointed course.

Then, clutching my compass as if it were a talisman, I levered myself up over the rough limestone blocks and lay on the top for a second or two before rolling off on the other side. Not stylish perhaps, but effective. Now there was clear country in view again, with small knolls of trees scattered about it. There were runners, too, moving about in different directions, apparently aimlessly. It was too chancy to select one of them and follow him. Probably he would be a senior man, and the control points might be different. I checked again with the direction-of-travel indicator on my compass. It pointed to a small copse that looked promising, and I lurched toward it. The Ruin turned out to be the easiest of the lot. It was just on the other side of the trees, which screened it from the wall, and it seemed to me to be an old sheep pen. Cheating a little to call it a ruin, I thought, and I realized I'd been looking for something like a Gothic castle. I'd have to have a word with old Fred Travis on the subject of semantics when I got back. With the now familiar thrill, I found the red-and-white marker hung on the far side and stamped my card with some �lan.

Next was Checkpoint No. 3: Rock Outcrop. I took the map from the plastic case, and fumbled for my compass. No compass. I had started off with the thing hung around my neck on a cord, in the approved manner, but it had been irritating, bouncing there, so I had decided just to carry it. Almost certainly I had left it on top of the stone wall when I had spotted the copse. Should I go back? It was a quarter of a mile and uphill all the way. Should I waste time and precious calories? No, I decided bravely. The map would have to take me from here on, that and my squalid disregard for the ethics of orienteering. But Russet Pants was nowhere to be seen, and without that banner advancing in front of me I was just fumbling.

The map plainly indicated, though, that I was going to have to cross the main road before I came to Checkpoint 3, so I moved off with that limited objective in mind. It was easy going over grass for a little while, then the country dipped down into woodland again. At the bottom of the valley there should be a small stream, then the road. ("We always make sure the route crosses a main road," Travis had said to me, "just in case there's anyone fainthearted enough to give up halfway.") I'd given him a hearty laugh, indicating what a remote possibility that was in my case. Now I wasn't so sure.

The road, when I found it, was a lovely one, well surfaced and civilized, the kind that has cars and buses on it, all proceeding without the aid of compasses. I lingered there for a little while, appreciating it and testing its fine, firm surface with my sneakers. Just conceivably I might have given in to temptation then, but I heard a panting runner coming, and I bent quickly over my map. It was too much to hope that it would be my junior lady, and it wasn't, just a senior man or maybe a veteran thrusting hard for his next checkpoint. Hopelessly, I gave him a second or two, then followed. The trouble was, the junior ladies' course was 2� miles long. The senior men had to travel six miles. If I made an error here I was in for some severe punishment.

I plodded along the road behind him for 50 yards or so, not caring about concealment, then followed him back into the woods at a little bridge. The mud was thick, and once I went up to my knees in it. I was losing my early bounce, and I knew what the trouble was, too. It was lunchtime, and all over the north of England people were settling down to great plates of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. All that planning and I hadn't had the wit to bring a packet of sandwiches with me. No wonder I was flagging. What's more, I had lost my latest guide in the green shadows of the trees.

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