Leadership, navigation and smoked fish were all on the agenda for 16 students from the Kaitaia College Services Academy's Charlie Class when they took part in a Northern Region Services Academies bushcraft course at Kaipara Air Force weapons range at the northern end of Woodhill Forest, at the Kaipara Harbour's South Head.

This was the third of six New Zealand Defence Force courses for the Kaitaia students, who lined up alongside their counterparts from the Onehunga High School, Glenfield High School and Northland College academies.

The aim, Kaitaia College director Dudley Andrews said, was to teach them how to navigate, tramp, camp and survive in the wilderness, but most importantly they picked up valuable life skills, unique leadership training and credits from a tough, demanding programme.

"When we arrived the Charlie Class students could finally see the land and forest they had heard so much about from other academy students," he added, and there was no gentle introduction.

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They were immediately handed over to NZDF staff, who formed them up, gave them their first safety briefing and conducted a pack and equipment check, which parted them from their phones and any sugary foods they might have taken with them.

The rest of the day was devoted to lessons and training that would assist them over the next few days, including the 'lost' procedure, navigating in bush, six-figure grid references, an introduction to ration packs, following a bearing and building shelters.

"They had spent weeks training and preparing for this, including first aid, map work, tramping and camping safety, so they were ready and prepared," Mr Andrews said.

The next day was all about navigation and tramping, with each academy was split into sections under the guidance of their NZDF instructors and academy directors, the students establishing their location and leading the way to a series of checkpoints, in some cases via tracks, in others fighting their way through thick undergrowth.

It is important to note that the this area of the forest is highly populated with deer and wild pigs.

At the end of the day they built shelters, using only what they could find around them and adhering to the National Environmental Code, to minimise their impact on flora and fauna.

"They spent a night in their shelters with nothing but the clothes on their backs — no sleeping bags or pillows, just the hope that they built a shelter that would keep them warm and protect them from the elements," Mr Andrews said.

On their last day they tramped 6km to an area known as The Lookout, high above the harbour entrance, where they were rewarded with two hours rest on a small beach where they played touch, ate, laughed, and even caught fish in a pre-set net that was later smoked and eaten.

Mr Andrews said he was very proud of Charlie Class. The course had not been an easy one, but they had tackled each day and challenge with enthusiasm and drive.

"For five straight days they worked and lived out of their comfort zones, pushed past their boundaries, and every time came out with a smile," he said.

"They spent a night in their shelters, trusting in their structure, and although they would not have had much sleep it did not deter their high spirits and standards for the remainder of the course."