Psychology

The Real Voyage of Discovery

Tararua Ranges Waterfall

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes. - Marcel Proust

Richard Margesson at Lake Lucidus

Spending just a few hours in nature's therapy room helps me see the world with fresh eyes.

It's not just that the colours in nature are so harmonious or that the process of putting one foot in front of the other allows the mind and body to work in synchronicity.

I put the change in perspective down to the brain rewiring itself.

How we think filters our experience of reality.

For example, severely depressed people report that they see in shades of grey. The brain has literally filtered out vibrant colours.

But if a brain can do that, then it can rewire itself to bring colours back into life.

There is no better place to do that than in nature. And there is no better activity to encourage the process than walking in nature, with other people.

Going Home

 “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It is my last day on Stewart Island's Northern Circuit trail, where the Tasman Sea, South Pacific and Antarctic oceans meet. The cold wind and lashing rain speak of frozen wastes lying beyond the southern horizon.

It is also my last day of the te ararao, long pathway, which I've followed from the balmy headland of Cape Reinga to here. In four days, I will meet my wife Rosa again after two months' apart. I will see friends, talk with family and live in a city.

The tangled trail matches my feelings on this final day which started well before dawn. After eleven days of walking, I'm weary, my food bag is near-empty and I have a long day before me if I am to reach Oban before the supermarket closes. The weather presses closely on me as if Stewart Island, having laid out all her charms, has now turned nasty.

Gusts of wind tearing through the tree branches overhead disguise the sound of my footsteps enough for me to walk into a small herd of deer and trip over foraging kiwi birds. My head-torch struggles to light the path ahead until a grey dawn illuminates knotted roots, muddy pools and slippery rocks.

At around midday, as the weather eases and the island releases her grip, the rough back-country trail merges with a smooth track that soon leads me to North Arm Hut, a Great Walk hut.

I stop there for my last meal of this long journey: dehydrated mince, mashed potato and vegetables with dried mushroom soup thrown in for taste. Recklessly, I squirt the last dollop of carefully hoarded condensed milk into a mug of coffee. The hut is barren and cold although the wood-fired stove still retains a whisper of warmth. After eating, I wander about taking photographs, thinking about clients I would love to bring here and pondering the return home.

I have mapped out the next few days: playing tourist in Oban, busing to Dunedin and flying to Auckland. I am moving into the unknown again but I have been doing that for months, every day. Returning to a fast-paced city life holds no fears for me if I can keep what I have found in places like Stewart Island.

Back on the trail, moving swiftly over an excellent track and with the fickle sun breaking through swiftly passing clouds, I expect with relish a hot shower, cotton sheets and a feather pillow (after a pub meal washed down with a bottle of wine!) Mentally, I am already leaving Stewart Island behind and gazing forward to new horizons.

Having faced southward for so long it is time to look northward where Auckland sparkles like the principal gem in a diadem gleaming with islands, bays and 53 dormant volcanoes. Deservedly, pollsters rate it as one of the world's most livable urban centres. Walking trails and bike paths lace the suburbs. If you have to live and work in a city, this is a nature lover's dream. It offers the best of both worlds and will make a wonderful launching pad for the walks I want to take people on.

Soon I will emerge from this solitary way of life. It has changed me in ways that are hard to express in words. Does living so close to the natural world transform a person at a cellular level? We are not separate from the web of life but a part of it. Is that invisible molecular connection the reason we feel so good out here?

It is not just about gaining a sense of connection with the world out there. It is also about connecting with yourself.

When you walk through wild places, you become your own best friend. You have to. There is no escape from "you". You rely on yourself, advise yourself, encourage yourself, argue with yourself, beat yourself up, blame yourself and, on a good day, laugh at yourself.

After a few days, you gain the uncanny sense that "you" is observing "you". If you have sat on a lengthy meditation course, you will know what I am talking about.

Through movement, breath and solitude, you harmonise your inner world and become friends with it.

Thoreau got it right. Solitude is the most companionable of companions and the great banisher of loneliness.

Home isn't out there. It's in here.




How to Heal Trauma in Nature

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. - Henry David Thoreau, Walking

For Thoreau, a path in nature was a pathway of healing.

When he connected a path on the ground with a path in the mind, he did not know about neuroscience. Since then, a medical revolution has revealed the wonders of neuroplasticity. Our thoughts travel along neural pathways that become more ingrained with repetition.

This is a message of hope because anyone with a little knowledge and determination can change their thought patterns in about 42 days. It's a process called "rewiring".

However, the same research shows that the subconscious emotional mind, functioning below conscious awareness, operates up to nine seconds ahead of the conscious mind. It's not enough to have a single thought. You need as much knowledge, training and practice to override powerful and instinctive subconscious patterns as you do to move safely and joyfully over a wilderness track.

I ponder this while walking the rough track between Big Hellfire Hut and the next destination, Mason's Bay Hut. After so many weeks of walking, the mind soon slides into an easy groove  while the body does what it needs to do. It's a wonderful feeling of inner cooperation that allows the imagination to take wing.

However, not all trails are smooth and not all thought patterns are joyous.

Take trauma. Today, we know so much about how the chemical composition of the brain changes in response to a terrifying event. People who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are quick learners. They have learned to fear a situation, person or event in milliseconds. In an instant, a new neural pathway is laid down and becomes reinforced over time.

Trauma is an uncontrollable, runaway process that lies beyond conscious control.

Yet, walking down this trail, I'm reminded again and again that our ancestors lived close to nature. And nature is as much a place of violence, blood and death as it is of peace, growth and life. The Maori who lived here engaged in warfare as a lifestyle and trained boys from the age of five to be warriors.

What process allowed Maori warriors to reintegrate safely back into their iwi or tribe after extended and brutal war expeditions?

The question is relevant because today we're seeing unprecedented levels of PTSD and associated symptoms in American, British, European, Australian and NZ servicemen and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am told that more US servicemen have taken their own lives than have been killed in combat.

Out here, it is possible to tap into a sense of grief that this is the case and a renewed feeling of determination to play a role, no matter how small, in preventing further loss.

From the perspective of a former Army officer who went to war three times and from the viewpoint of a therapist who works in this area, I believe it is not the event that is the problem.

The problem is how much stress a person has at the time of the event. Our modern, fast-paced, over-crowded and socially-isolated life creates high levels of stress. The higher their stress level, the more sensitive a person is to an event.

It seems it takes only one too many stressful events to tip a stressed person over the edge into full-blown trauma.

Maoris, with such a strong sense of belonging to their iwis and tribes as well as to nature and with a rich history of myth and legend, were not stressed. Therefore, they could cope with the daily traumas of life, so much better.

Fortunately, we have a simple and elegant solution.

The way to heal traumatic memories is a three-step process. First, relax the mind and reduce stress levels. Second, neutralise the fear associated with the event. And third, "rewire" new and much more positive thought patterns.

It works in an indoor clinic setting. I've proved that over and over. However, this process will work even more swiftly in nature's therapy room.

I am going to bring former servicemen into wild settings like this to show them how to walk a trail of healing on the ground and in their minds.

 

How Walking Shapes Your Brain

Could it be that we only understand our environment when we move at a walking pace?

The question pulled me forward from the fly camp I'd made under wind-tossed beech trees  and on to Big Hellfire Hut two hours distant. It stayed with me while I slid down the sandy trail made by penguins and deer to the beach 200 metres below.

It's an extraordinary feeling, knowing you are the only person for many kilometres. There's a sense of loneliness and vulnerability as well as freedom and belonging. I can't find this combination anywhere but out here. It feels right.

While I pad down the beach, I scan constantly. There's so much to see, touch, smell, hear, taste.  This is what it must have been like for our ancestors, walking in the midst of so much land with so few people.

I stop short by a stranded kelp plant, stretched like a marooned alien on the sand. The stem clutches a stone so tightly that I can't pry it loose. Next, I track penguin footprints up and into the scrub, seeking the mystery of a roosting place. From there, a cleft in a rock attracts my attention. I explore and experiment with photography. At the end of the beach a rock ridge bars the view. Of course, I must climb it to see what is on the other side.

The innate urge to go further is a reminder that we are born to explore and to walk. Our ancestors literally walked themselves out of Africa to populate the planet. They used their brains to change the world. Today, contemporary hunter-gatherers still walk prodigious distances, about 16 kilometres a day for men and about 10 kilometres for women. Over a year, they walk about 5,000 kilometres. Imagine walking the length of New Zealand and back again, every year.

The idea makes me wonder, "How has walking changed the human brain?"

I think an evolutionary argument can be made that walking led to the development of our brains. Based on experience, my hunch is that our brains absorb information best when walking.

We've designed a world where we move too fast, zooming along in miniature time-capsules, trying to beat the clock and meet illusory deadlines. It's stressful because the subconscious mind doesn't understand "tick-tock" time. It operates on a sensory and primal rhythm. When we move too fast, we cease to see our environment as it really is.

Out here, walking in wilderness at about 5 kilometres an hour or less, the conscious and subconscious can learn to work together in relaxed harmony. As a result, our experience of the world opens up. When walking, the world unscrambles and becomes intelligible in a way that doesn't happen in cities and towns.

I freeze. Something doesn't fit. I look around. There! Three white-tailed deer are grazing on salt grass about 50 metres away, upwind. An alert doe lifts her head after five minutes and stares at me. She drops it again to feed and I release my breath. Unconsciously, I had been holding it. The wind is chilly, though, and I walk on. At once, their tails flash warning signals and they bound effortlessly uphill.

I walk more briskly now, breathing deeper. The brain needs glucose and oxygen in the right proportion for clear thinking just as an engine needs fuel and air in the correct mixture for smooth running. Walking gives the brain what it needs.

At the beginning of every tramp, it never ceases to astonish me how walking sparks clarity of thought. If our conscious mind is a problem-solving, solution-finding tool, then walking is the sharpening stone.

The ancients understood this. Hippocrates said, "Walking is man's best medicine." Aristotle walked while he thought. Diogenes the Cynic may have coined the Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando: "It is solved by walking".

We are not designed for the modern fast-paced, stressed-out, sedentary world so many of us live in.

We are designed to walk in natural settings, alert, relaxed and tuned in.

At the end of the beach, I meet another tramper. I'm glad to see him and look forward to a companionable evening. The people you meet out here are kindred spirits.

For a few days or longer, we each find a way to reject what has become the norm and return to the nomadic ways of our ancestors. Walking a long trail reshapes our brains to match theirs.

"How do you spend long nights on the trail?"

Long Nights

One of my readers asked, "How do you spend long nights in the outdoors?"

The answer is, "Much as I'd spend a long night indoors."

I toss and turn, read a book on my iPhone, snooze and wake up again. If it's raining, I feel for leaks and tweak guy ropes. If I'm chilly or overheated, I put on more clothes or I take some off. If I'm sore or aching, I take an aspirin. I may even go through the effort of making a hot drink. If I want an adventure, I break camp and walk by head-torch.

At the start of a tramp, I curse, moan, question what I'm doing and laugh in disbelief at my stupidity in thinking this would be fun and enjoyable. Why forego the haven of a warm cosy bed next to my luscious wife for this?

The reality is that long nights will outnumber short ones but if I put comfort to one side, they are no different to ones indoors.

You still have to master your mind and this is where it gets interesting.

I remind myself that waking during the night has been the norm for most of human history. In fact, broken nights (or segmented sleep patterns) are still the rule and not the exception in many cultures around the world. For example, anthropologists embedded in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies report that their subjects are some of the happiest and well-rested people on the planet, despite waking up at night for extended periods.

Social scientists and historians also reveal that our pre-industrial forebears followed similar segmented sleeping patterns. The "Myth of the 8 Hour" sleep may be just that. When you take a longer term view, it can come as a pleasant surprise to acknowledge that we are "hardwired" to have two distinct chunks of sleep a night.

I tell myself that long nights on the trail are simply nature's way of recalibrating a more natural rhythm of rest. I don't need  a unbroken sleep to perform well the next day and nor do you.

One of my delights is to slip into a sound and refreshing at midday sleep in the same way that a modern day hunter-gatherer does. It is good for the brain as well as the body and surely contributes to the sense of intense well-being nearly all trampers experience after just a few days on the trail.

Knowledge is power. In this instance, knowing that it is normal and beneficial to awaken during the night helps me relax about it. The more relaxed I feel, the shorter the night seems.

I may not be as comfortable on the trail as I would be indoors. But when I lie awake at night, knowing I am cradled in the arms of Papa-tu-a-nuku, the Earth Mother, and blanketed by Rangi-nui, the Sky Father, I feel at home.

"The Map is Not the Territory"

I love maps. The ability to "read the ground" and navigate is a highly prized military skill.  I spent hours poring over contours, features and landmarks and still enjoy doing it. Maps are codes that can be partially unlocked by imagination. However, the only way to fully crack their mystery is to set your eyes on the land and put your feet on the trail. A map can show you the way but it cannot tell you what it is to like be there.

For example, no map, however well-detailed, can give you the full experience of moving through a forest at night. You follow a dim trail by your headlamp while a bright moon casts shadows and gleams on rocks and branches. A map cannot tell you what it is like to hear a kiwi calling or the liquid murmur of a rushing stream rising from a dark valley. Nor can a map give you that strange feeling of being vulnerable and being completely at home in wilderness. A map is not the territory.

I thought about this while I climbed through the dark forests of Mt Anglem/Hananui. At just under 1000 metres, it is Stewart Island’s highest mountain. I had left Christmas Village hut shortly after 4.00 AM in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise about four hours later. A glowing moonrise the night before had auspiciously forecast a clear dawn.

The trail looked straightforward on the map but two days ago in Oban, the DOC ranger had warned, “It’s steeper, further and tougher than it looks." Pulling myself up yet another ladder of muddy roots and rocks, I agreed with him. Yet the experience was worth every step. When the sky lightened behind me to the east and I could see more clearly, I hastened upward over spongy tussocks and moss, like a troll trying to reach sanctuary before the first rays of dawn turn him to stone.

Too late! The sun caught me on the ridge overlooking a black tarn and I turned, struck dumb and motionless with wonder at how the land flooded with colour.

The spreading blush reminded me of the common Maori name for Stewart Island, Rakiura. Translated and shortened, it means, “The great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamai”.

It comes from an ancient story about a proud young Maori chief, Te Rakitamai, who led his retinue of warriors to Stewart Island in search of a high-ranking wife. We can imagine this tattooed warrior stepping ashore from his waka in pursuit of his prize. After the customary greeting formalities, he would have taken his place of honour in the other tribe's marae (meeting house) where perhaps a hundred or more men, women and children had gathered to witness the high-profile offer of alliance.

The pride, dignity and reputation of both parties lay at stake. In an electric atmosphere, the visiting chief made his offer. But some misunderstanding had occurred. The eldest, highest status woman was already betrothed. The young chief blushed but manfully made an offer for the younger daughter. She too had been promised to another. Te Rakitamai's deepening blush of shame made such an impression on his hosts that they renamed their home and even its highest mountain after him. Mt Rananui means, "the great blush."

Like so many Maori myths, this one speaks directly of human experience. Who has not experienced the embarrassment of rejection, failure and loss of dignity? I think these legends are like maps. They show you the way but not until you enter the territory of experience can you fully understand.

What's Your Goal?

The tired Toyota mini-van shuddered and wheezed to a stop outside the Glenorchy Hotel. Chris the driver slid open the battered door and my new tramping companions and I tumbled out onto the hot tarmac and stretched our cramped limbs gratefully.

Chris grinned at me, white teeth bared in a tanned face bristling with stubble. “Ready for a beer, mate?”

He didn’t need to ask.

On the trail, people form loose affiliations that may last for a day or a lifetime.

Chris and I had met three days earlier in the Dart Valley where he was running a hopeless race against sunset, a strong wind and nearly 1000m of elevation to reach the Cascade Saddle. I had met the others later. Walking separately by day and meeting up by evening, we’d climbed Rees Saddle in a freezing gale and walked down the Rees River flats to Chris’s van under welcome sunshine. Once again, the weather god’s smiles had followed a tempestuous but short-lived tantrum.

After the first beer, I tottered over to the large map of Mt Aspiring Park with one of my companions. I put a finger on Makarora and another on Glenorchy. The iPhone clicked while I grinned self-consciously. It didn’t feel quite real, finishing. Gladness, relief and regret mingled while a second beer followed the first.

“Eleven days, four passes, one man. Well, I did it!” I basked for a while in a glow of alcohol and achievement.

However, during a spell of post-completion melancholy later that evening, I thought, “The numbers are immaterial. It’s not about the kilometres or hours walked or counting nights in huts vs nights under the stars. It’s about the inner journey.”

I remembered a quote by the renowned Italian climber, Walter Bonatti.

“Mountains are the means, the person is the end. The goal is not to reach the tops of mountains, but to improve the person.”

His words matched my experience and gave it a new context. It’s how I want to work with people in the future.

I called Rosa a second time just to hear her voice once more. My melancholy evaporated. We’ll be reunited in less than three weeks time. She's proud of me and I'm grateful for her support.

Between then and now, lies the final trail of this four month te araroa, this long pathway down New Zealand. It winds through rain-soaked native forest and along wild beaches far to the south. It's a place where kiwi birds feed on sand and penguins roost under trees.

Stewart Island, here we come!

No Security

At the start of the trail leading up and over the Cascade Saddle to the Dart River valley, I stopped in my tracks to read the conspicuous warning sign.

Many trampers and climbers over the years have fallen to their deaths on this trail. Over-confidence, lack of knowledge, inadequate equipment, bad weather and slippery snow-grass have all been contributing factors to the accident rate.

In Mt Aspiring Hut the evening before, the DOC  hut warden and I had settled into a leisurely conversation about the joys and the perils of this trail. “The problem,” she’d said, “Is the 'run out' if you start sliding. There is simply no protection on sections of the trail.”

It's a compelling metaphor for business and for life. To go higher and reach further, there are times when you have to leave safety behind and move into the unknown. While I climbed through a beech forest, dappled with early morning light, I reflected. One part of my mind concentrated on footfalls while the other roamed free.

It’s a choice: to stay with the known, the comfortable, safe and familiar or to extend yourself and step into the new. I believe we humans are born to walk, to venture into untrodden territory, to open new possibilities and to prove that the only limits are the ones you place on yourself. This irresistible compulsion to explore and grow must be wired into our DNA. What better place to experience it, than in a setting like this with Mt Aspiring a beckoning symbol of our individual ambitions and dreams? How better to extend  your capacity to take risks in daily life than to test it here in nature’s therapy room?

“Steady on, Major,” I smiled, stepping beyond the tree line. The orange marker poles marched up the slope above me to the distant ridge, crisp and stark against the dazzling clarity of a southern sky. “Here comes the fun part.”

The higher I climbed, the more the gulf to my right yawned, exposing teeth of rock, just a metre or so from the trail. Where a tongue of rock jutted out to hang over the blue-shadowed valley 1000 metres below, I stopped, knowing what I had to do.

“You want to bring people into a place like this for personal growth? Then let’s see what it’s like!”

I wanted a photograph to show people what it’s like to stand on the edge of the unknown. I just prayed the photograph would not be the last record of this tramper's terminal slip into oblivion. As soon as I heard the self-timer's electronic voice counting down, I crept forward, hunched like a soldier under fire, knees trembling, instinctively trying to make myself smaller and resisting the urge to cling to the ground. My senses whirled. No security here!

“Bugger!” I said after gingerly returning and examining the photograph. “Not good enough! Do it again, Major!”

The second time was easier. Nonetheless, it took an effort of will to stand upright, extend my arms and open fully to Mt Aspiring. As if on cue, a hawk wheeled and shrieked. I answered with a long, “Woo! Hoo!”

Later, up on the saddle and during the long descent into the Dart Valley, past the dripping snout of the glacier and along the river toward the hut tucked into the protective shoulder of a mountain, the elation of that moment remained.

In the late afternoon, I met a tramper running up the trail, wearing shorts, singlet and a daypack.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?” I asked with a smile.

“Up to the saddle,” he panted. “Is it far?”

“You won’t make it up there before nightfall let alone get back to the hut,” I said.

He considered and sensibly decided to lower his sights something more achievable and less risky.

There are times when the hard reality of the trail constrains our sense of unlimited potential.

Get High

Today, I decided to get high with Eli from Israel.

Before you judge, I’m talking about a natural high, not a drug-induced one. It’s splitting hairs, though. A good steep climb up through a tangled beech forest and out onto an exposed ridge-line sends a  powerful stream of chemicals through your brain.

The reward? A state of blissed-out euphoria. After lunch, I sunk onto a patch of alpine grass a hundred metres above French Ridge Hut. Cradled in a sun-warmed bowl that sheltered me from the cutting wind, I focussed dreamily on rainbow curtains shimmering from a wind-blown waterfall and on clouds boiling over a pass only to evaporate against invisible fingers of warmth rising from the valley.

Eli, my equally spaced-out walking companion is my age but an inexperienced tramper. He’s having a bad “trip" because he feels anxious about walking back down on his own. He’s brought a little food and a sleeping bag but no stove or fuel. I offer to share mine and he relaxes.

I came up here for solitude but now I find how enriching it is to share an evening with this kind and thoughtful stranger. There is nothing like getting high in nature’s therapy room.

Most people want an instant fix without effort. Doctors, psychiatrists and drug dealers are happy to oblige. But you can’t get this natural high without stepping into the pharmacopeia of nature’s therapy room.

Come on in and blow your mind.

The Dark Side

Tramping is not all sweetness and light. It has a dark side too.

For most of the day, a dark shadow had prowled at the edge of my mind like a hyena slinking around the glow of a campfire.

I did my best to push it back and focus on the simple pleasures of walking through this wild landscape under clearing skies. Elat, the Israeli “racing snake” had left the Young Hut at dawn and Akira, the young Japanese hiker had departed soon after. I had been third in line.

Many trampers enter wild areas looking for solitude. It’s an unspoken rule that we give each other space and often make loose arrangements to depart in sequence. At the same time, more experienced trampers keep an eye out for the less confident ones. When I came across Akira hesitantly contemplating the majestic waterfall-ribbed cirque girdled by Mt Awful’s snow-capped flanks, I invited him to join me for the steep climb up and over the Gillespie Pass.

At the summit, I showed him how to shelter from the freezing wind while we took photographs. After descending, I guided him to the camping spot my stepson and I had used the year before. There we ate lunch in the warm sunshine. I’m deeply interested in Japanese culture and their reverence for the natural world expressed through Shintoism. Despite the language barrier, we had a good connection. After a short but restorative nap, we continued our descent through sun-dappled beech forests to the wide grasslands of the Siberia Valley and the glittering sapphire pools of the stream flowing through it.

However, Mt Awful rising behind me and Mt Dreadful looming in front reminded me why a dispirited 19th Century Pakeha explorer suffering severe privations in these high valleys had projected his experiences on them. The day after tomorrow, I would be facing both Waterfall Flat and Rabbit Pass alone. Frankly, the prospect scared me witless and everything I had researched about this passage standing between the Wilkin River and the East Branch of the Matukituki River added to my anxiety.

Siberia Hut diverted me for an hour for afternoon tea. Akira would spend the night there. It's becoming an increasingly popular hut with a permanent summer warden, clean toilets and solar-powered lighting. There's even a mountain radio to book a seat on a jet boat or aircraft if you just want to spend a day or several enjoying short walks without the effort of humping a large pack upriver. One of these walks leads to Lake Crucible. Valentino and I had walked to it last year and finding it still filled with ice from overhanging Mt Alba, we had dared each to become polar bears.

I made some notes and mentally flagged the hut as an ideal place to introduce future clients to nature's therapy room. Then I shouldered my pack and continued down the valley towards the Wilkin River. Beyond its broad but relatively shallow waters lay Kerin Forks Hut, my destination for the night. Perhaps I was more tired than I thought, or maybe the growing sense of foreboding had weakened my confidence, or it could have been disappointment at finding the hut crowded but I found myself on edge. As the last arrival, I would be sleeping on the floor.

That night, lying on my skinny mattress and listening to quadrophonic snores, the shadow rose again. This time I could not hold it back. My stomach churned with anxiety as I imagined myself trapped on the high ground between Waterfall Flat and Rabbit Pass in driving rain, unable to advance or retreat, my way barred by wet snow-grass, slippery and treacherous as ice. Two years ago, a British tramper had been found in his sleeping bag a month after he had gone missing. He had survived a 50 metre fall but not the exposure that followed. The image gripped me in black claws.

I forced my tired brain to loosen the cold grasp of fear. "This isn't a life or death mission. You can always turn back if you have to," I consoled myself. Then I chuckled at another thought. "I'd like to see Anthony Robbins awaken the giant within when he's stuck half-way up Waterfall Flat." In my mind's eye, I shout encouragement, "Keep going, Tony, mate! You can do it!"

He can't respond because he's gripping a clump of snow-grass between his perfect white Californian teeth.

The dark shadow recedes. I've shone a spotlight on my fears and they've shown themselves to be the illusion they really are.

Tribal Trampers

Have you ever wondered what types of people come from all corners of the world to spend time in nature’s therapy room? Or, what sort of people carry all their worldly possessions on their backs, fall in freezing rivers, live on simple rations, sleep in spartan accommodation, plod along trails in wet shoes for hour after hour, knowing that if they take a wrong turn it could end in drama and still call it fun?

Let's find out, shall we?

Six hours after wading out of the Makarora River, I reached Young Hut. Perched just below the tree-line and above the upper reaches of the South Branch of the Young River, the hut is a modern refuge. The coal smoke curling from the chimney pipe foretold a warm welcome. I climbed the steps to the verandah, brushed past the familiar row of gaiters and socks hanging from a clothesline and stepped inside the warm wood-panelled room to join other members of the tramping tribe.

We're an international group. Tonight, we're here from Britain, Israel, Sweden, Australia, Japan and Germany as well as New Zealand. Retired grey-haired elders chat happily with twenty-year old students. Business executives swap stories with tradesmen. Only here could such an eclectic mix of people find so much common ground.

We’ve got finely-tuned bullshit detectors because spending so much time away from modern distractions allows intuition to flourish. Deeds count more than words.

We're modest. Whatever our status or income at home, we like living on a shoestring budget out here. The stripped-down, spartan lifestyle is part of our pleasure. It’s a link with how our ancestors lived: pared down and close to nature. In our own ways, we find joy in treading lightly. We have different tastes for luxuries on the trail: for one person, it’s chocolate, for another a pair of fluffy sleeping socks, for another a home-made pillow. We have our little quirks and rituals. We’re strong individuals but we’re also tolerant of others.

And we’re kind-hearted. On the trail, strangers stop to say, “hello”. We’re generous, not just with a helping hand or small items of equipment, but with how we relate to each other. Arguments and hurt feelings on the trail are unheard of; opinions are expressed with tact if at all. We never gossip. We’re cheerful: a good drenching is a great story. It's easy to laugh at your own misfortune and you like others joining in. We’ve all been there. It's like a badge of honour.

We don’t care what we look like because it's who we are on the trail that counts.

We feel fear and move through it.

We know discomfort and rise above it.

We push into our limits and expand them.

I think trampers are incredibly cool people. They're a tribe worth joining. It's certainly been fun and rewarding for me.

Some of us tonight will never see each other again. And some will meet on another trail. Yet others will become friends or customers or colleagues. This is a very different kind of networking event!

Fortunately, tribal membership is easy and cheap.

If this excites you, then try out a nice easy trail of just a few days. If you need some direction, then send me an email or ask in a comment and I'll put you on the right path.

You'll come back a happier, more relaxed person with a renewed sense of purpose.

Get Naked

When was the last time you took off your clothes in the wilderness? I had stopped for a breather on a sun-dappled wooded ridge in the Tuaruas when a glowing patch of sunlight on my forearm arrested my attention. Focusing on it, the slide into trance was easy.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

Leaving the Comfort Zone

For two days, I'd been living in relative comfort and luxury in a backpackers hostel. The longer I stayed there, the harder it was to leave. Even worse, I could sense my enthusiasm draining away faster than the battery in my iPhone.

Last Night in Crazyland

It's our last night before I start the trail again tomorrow. I'm lying in bed with Rosa and we're staring at the ceiling. It's painted with moons and stars that glow in the dark. We know the plaster walls are painted in psychedelic swirls of blue and yellow, A frieze of painted wave forms girdles the room just below the ceiling. We're in Crazy-land.