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.

The Intuition of Cows

You must study deeply the hidden laws of Nature, and when you know them arrange your life according to them, using always reason and common sense.  - Krishnamurti

Who would have thought cows know so much?

On Wednesday morning, Rosa and I watched a herd of about 20 adult and yearling cows cross the stream between one pasture and another. Judging by the volume of mooing, it sounded like an ordeal, especially for the younger ones.

"Why do they bother? Is the grass greener over there?" Rosa asked.

"God knows. Cows aren't that bright," I replied.

How wrong I was.

That night, the tail end of a cyclone whacked New Zealand harder than expected. Through sweeping curtains of rain the next morning, we watched the normally placid stream outside our house rise and swirl. At about 11.00 AM it burst its banks and flooded the field the cows had left the day before. The water also trapped us in our house for the next 24 hours.

Not until the storm passed, the floods subsided and the cows gathered to look wistfully at the pasture they had vacated two days before did we understand.

"Those cows knew exactly what was coming while we had no idea," Rosa said.

Cows aren't so dumb after all. We got stuck and they didn't. We left it too late and they anticipated. We have conscious rational minds and they don't.

I think I need to study the hidden laws of cows a bit more closely.

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.

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!

River of Compassion

River of Compassion

Walking down the river road with sunshine breaking through the rain clouds and the river swirling, murmuring and sometimes roaring over shallow rapids, felt delightful. I bounded along the tarmac in high good humour, breaking into snatches of song, talking to myself, just your average tramping oddball.

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.