Fire your imagination
Published in The Scotsman, 12 April 2008
There’s a memorable film called If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, which is a hilarious parody of the “ticking the boxes” travel package. Why people would choose to put themselves through such things in the name of relaxation is something tour guide, Malcolm Handoll, finds very hard to comprehend – which is why he set up Five Senses, a tour company with a difference.
If you join Handoll on his Orkney-based outings you’re likely to find yourself exploring an ancient burial site by candlelight, visiting a present-day Celtic drum-maker or learning to navigate using a compass.
It’s all part of what he terms “the Five Senses experience”, an off-the-beaten-track adventure that is different, imaginative, and fun.
Handoll grew up in north Wales, between the sea and Snowdonia National Park. “My childhood was one of playing on the hillside, exploring nature and getting lost in my imagination – the timeless meandering of summer,” he says.
Holidays were spent in old cottages “with wood fires, smoky tea, candlelight and rattling windows”.
It all affected him profoundly. So much so that certain sounds and smells take him back in an instant. The experience he says was the foundation for Five Senses.
“My enthusiasm for exploring is matched by my awareness of the environment and my ability to find my way, naturally and simply. Using all five senses opens a whole new world and I get a huge buzz out of helping others to find it too,” he says.
He is aided and abetted in all this by his partner, Rachel DuBois, who was an inveterate globe-trotter until five years ago. Encountering both Orkney and Handoll in one go upset her equilibrium so much that she got engaged and put down roots within weeks.
And for sheer hands-on enthusiasm you can’t beat the pair of them. Their Orkney tours last three days and in that time you’ll try out fire-making with an ancient bow drill (an experience Handoll says is guaranteed to be magical) and learn how to find your way through natural landscapes. You’ll visit artists crafting pots, painting, taking pictures and creating sculptures. You’ll see how bodhrans (Celtic drums) are made and played, and you’ll find yourself testing the extraordinary acoustics of an ancient Neolithic drum – in its original setting. You’ll explore cliffs, beaches, hill and moorland and learn to use your senses to connect with your surroundings.
Orkney can test survival skills pretty efficiently. “People can learn not just how to survive, but how to thrive in the outdoors,” says Handoll. To this end, your accommodation is an old stone bothy – mod cons not an option. Party-poopers can upgrade to a B&B by pre-arrangement, but if you’re the type who needs to do that then you’re hardly on the right wavelength when it comes to getting the most out of this kind of experience anyway.
If it smacks of New-Ageness, Handoll certainly doesn’t come across that way. He’s a former instructor at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s national outdoor training centre, and he’s seen first-hand just how beneficial to mind and body these “back to nature” experiences can be. And no, you don’t have to be a fitness freak.
Because the groups are small, the activities are tailored to fit the level of fitness of the people involved. Those with mobility problems are catered for too, and the courses are child and pet friendly to boot.
Unsolicited testimonials on the internet are certainly complimentary. What comes across is the friendliness and enjoyment factor – which is the whole point, says Handoll.
“Our courses aren’t meant to be strenuous – unless you want them to be – they’re meant to teach you the skills you need to go outside and have fun.”
Variations on this theme include a Rites of Passage weekend to mark life-changing occasions such as birthdays, coming of age or forthcoming marriage. Built around the ancient rite of passage into adulthood that young warriors may have gone through, the course involves novices learning ancient life skills that they in turn can pass on to the next generation.
These skills include fire-making and night walking. It all culminates in “much celebrating around the camp fire” and the passing on of ancient secrets from the “elders” in the group. For those a little wary of what might be involved, Handoll – a qualified mountain leader fully versed in first aid – is in no doubt how much safer it is than the average booze cruise through the pubs that is the norm for most stag and hen nights.
And the fact that there are no central traffic reservations with lamp-posts to be tied to has to be a bonus.
For more information visit www.allfivesenses.com
By Kath Gourlay