Night Operations

When you quit your job, you'll feel inspired to try new things and you'll reclaim parts of yourself you thought you'd forgotten (although it certainly helps if your partner is as understanding as my wife is.)

Last night, I crossed the boundary between a tramper and a tramp by sleeping in a public park on the outskirts of Palmerston North.

The experience stretched me. It wasn't simply because I might have broken some municipal law. The real reason is that people can frighten can me far more than any other animal. Even though New Zealand consistently achieves impressive annual rankings for being one of the world's safest countries, it only takes one bad person to turn a whim into a nightmare.

Just a month ago, a backpacking couple ended up in hospital with serious injuries after a teenage gang  beat them up in a park like this one. So, when I decided to give sleeping in a park a go, I fell back onto what I learned in the Army.

"It's no different to occupying an ambush or close observation position," I told myself, trying to stifle the little voice of alarm that whispered, "Yes, but back then well-armed, steely-eyed soldiers protected you. Your last posting was over a decade ago. Now, you're just a solitary, grey-haired, bespectacled, middle-aged civilian who frankly should know better."

I went through a little checklist in my head. I briefed myself. "This will be a four phase night operation. Phase 1: Insertion. Phase 2: Occupation. Phase 3: Sleep. Phase 4: Extraction."

One other rusty memory came to light. "Action on discovery: run like hell!"

Getting into the park was easy. Although the sign on the gate warned, "Park Closes at 9.00 PM" and it was now at least half an hour after that, the gate hung open. Furthermore, the park fence stood only knee-high. Easy to get into and even easier to get out of, I hoped. I strolled into the park, senses on high alert. A few rabbits scampered away into the trees as I walked down a winding footpath, peering into the gloom. Harsh fluorescent lights twinkled through the trees. A minute's stroll later, I found a public toilet.

I needed water and the door was open. I ruined my night vision by filling a bottle in the glare and slid back into the shadows, as stealthily as a half-blind ex-officer could manage. "You own the night, Major," I whispered. "Too bad you don't have a balaclava and camouflage paint.

Before I could rub some dirt on my face, a flashlight beam stabbed the darkness. "Bugger! A security guard!" While smaller creatures ran for cover, I froze, pretending to be a tree with a hump on its trunk. The guard banged on the toilet doors and bellowed, "Anyone in there?" Keys jangled as he locked the doors, I relaxed as his flashlight beam danced away.

I wanted a vantage point from which  to see without being seen. Where the park dipped towards the river, I found it. A nice level spot lay under the trees, screened by shrubs, giving me a clear view of a bicycle and jogging track.

I took off my pack and sat down. "Wait, watch and listen for thirty minutes." A few late night joggers puffed past. Later, a chap on a bicycle wobbled into view and out again, leaving behind a faint whiff of beer. No sign of the security guard, no one walking a sniffing dog. It would do.

"Even if you're deep in possible enemy territory, you can sleep without your shoes on," I told myself. I slid fully-clothed into my "onesie" after running my hands over the ground to remove sticks and twigs.

I had trouble falling asleep. Lying down, I felt vulnerable. I imagined Gestapo guard dogs at my throat, drug-crazed muggers looking for their next fix and punks  wielding baseball bats. Instead, a few more late night fitness freaks panted past followed by a couple locked in an argument. Eventually, I slept fitfully on high alert, just as I had in the Army.

I awoke to the sound of the early morning jogging crowd. My iPhone showed, "6.30". A perfect time to enter the extraction phase. I crept out of my bivouac to the footpath where I morphed from a tramp on the run into an every-day tramper getting an early start on a beautiful morning.

I washed and shaved in the toilets and made breakfast and coffee under a tree. I felt marvellous. Mission over!

A supervisor from the local council eyed me carefully while he punched an inventory of toilet fittings into his tablet. He asked me where I'd been and where I was going. When I told him, he seemed to gaze wistfully towards imaginary horizons.

"How do you do that?" he asked.

"It's easy. Just quit your job," I said. "There'll always be another one somewhere along the trail."

And there will be, too. We all know that but it's so easy to forget it until you go for a good long walk.