Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A few weeks in the Manga


“The Mangatarere Valley eh? It's just batteries and horses up there mate” he said with a grin.

And he was right. Power from domestic hydros, and farms managed from the saddle. Sweet.

A huge thanks to Pippa, Steve, Emily, Jess, Sophie and Vicks for a wonderful stay. It was a fantastic end to my trip through NZ - experiences I will never forget - and I will miss you all heaps!
 

The most beautiful thing I ever saw

I'm just following in the sun. I have no idea what to expect, I'm sitting on Cochese just trying to look like I can ride. I'm so busy making connections with Cochese that I don't realise we've come across the cows we're supposed to move.

They lie in a gut below us, and need to move up to the gate way up ahead of them. Vicky's already stopped. She says something but I realise it is not to me, it is to her dogs, or her 'ladies' as she puts it. They've been running with us since we set off. A low hum from Vicky gets all the dogs around her, barking loudly. I don't know what's going on at this point, but find out later that the barking up tells the cattle it's time to move. The herd lift their heavy heads from the grass.


In a word she sends “Green”, one of her header dogs out from the pack and around the back of the cattle. Then “Ngaio” into the middle to get them moving. She speaks to Ngaio and Green as if they were only yards away, but in fact they are nearly 50 meters away, down in the gut. Miraculously they hear her commands, foreign to my ears. In between breaths, she whispers to the dogs at her feet, keeping them calm as the cows start heading off to the gate.

We walk parallel with the herd. I keep a distance as Vicky talks with her animals, handling five dogs and one horse, all at the same time with ease. I am stunned into complete silence, seeing the cows move as planned. We continue walking for a minute, then stop in a position where Vicky can talk the dogs into pushing the cattle through the gate.

As she works them through from the saddle of her horse, I feel overpowered by the experience. There's an incredible natural beauty here, something words can't even touch on. The animals moving steadily through the lie of the land emphasises an amazing connection between it all, and seeing Vicky doing it so naturally, with a skill beyond belief... it brings a tear to my eye.

Pig feeding!

For a few days I fed Steve and Pippa's pigs in the morning. Getting the feed in the bucket was a mission. Slithering through mud to throw the peas in the bucket before getting stampeded by the wholes herd. There were times when I was hanging at 45 degrees from a tree, my legs swept away in a current of pigs. I got to know a few of them by the end of it. They all had unique personalities. The medium-big sow that jumps into the feed trailer, the orange male that always got infront of the quadbike etc etc.


The final job was to hack into the bush to find Shadow. She'd had piglets and gone bush to look after them, so she needed a special trip. It meant hacking over a superb off road track up a large gulley on the quad, Milo the dog hairing on in front. Occasionally she'd be at the feeding spot when I arrived, and she'd always say hello before eating.

The last time I saw her she came out with her piglets. I felt really honoured – they all looked in great health, she must be a good mum.

Charge

I sit on Cochese, napping, watching Vicky expertly move the cows (these are the earlier days before I started to help herding). As I watch, I notice two dogs are missing. I turn around to see them behind us, returning a loose cow.

The cow is moving fast in a bid to rejoin the mob, and it is with a sick stomache that I realise I am directly in the way. All of a sudden the cow is bearing down on me and Cochese, and as it gallops towards T-boning us both I can see the whites of its eyes. It weighs half a ton and could destroy us.

I think of asking Cochese to jump forward, out of the way, but know that cows being cows it might choose to run right into where we'd go. Better to give it a chance to see us, give it a known location, and somehow will it away...

I hold fast and looked into the eyes of the speeding animal. I use every bit of mental communication I can, forcing the message into the cows eyes, and, at the last second, it chinks its stride and passes infront of us, missing us by what feels like a whisker. Exactly over the spot we would have moved to.
I look around. Vicky and Scoot are facing me, smiling. I realise my mouth is open, and exhale.

(After that I stop napping, and get helping).

Communication

I saw how Vicky talked to her animals. Every dog moved with her as she told them what she needed. As I watched, I guess I picked a bit up. These wonderful animals were no "pets", they were working members of a team, obediently waiting their command. There was little shouting or mayhem, just spoken words from Vicky's mouth, and lo and behold it happened.


I tried talking to the animals, especially with Cochese, and could feel that I was exercising the rear lobes of my brain. As soon as I did this I could feel their minds too, and it would attract immediate eye contact awaiting instruction. I only got a fraction of the full experience that Vicky was able to demonstrate, but it blew my mind.

The boys


Cochese is smokin hot. In bike terms he's a Honda CBR Fireblade. A speeding bullet, but with huge intelligence and control. We both looked out for each other, and he was amazingly considerate at all my rookie mistakes. Man, I miss him when I think about him.
Vicky's ride, Scooter Mahooter, was so named when he slipped all the way down to the bottom of the hill in his mother's afterbirth. As a youngster, when Vicky came into the field he would gallop up to her feet, slide to a stop inches away from her, do a 180 and double hoof kick at her. He was an outlaw as Vicky put it. He went to get trained twice, and the final cowboy said he was the hardest, wildest horse he'd ever tried. Now, at 10 years old, he is a stunning animal - Vicky rides him effortlessly, to watch them move together is close to seeing perfection. I am in awe.

Fingertip


I didn't know what fingertip riding was until Vicky and Cochese taught me. And man, is it good.


Imagine a joystick in the air. Obviously the joystick is the reins, but you're only holding onto them with one finger, and you can't even feel the mouth. Move hand right, we go right. Move hand left, we go left. Lift hand up, we go forward – the higher up the faster you go, from walking speed up to speeding bullet. Put hand down on the neck, we stop. Move hand backwards, we go backwards. Flick hand left, we spin 180 to the left. Flick hand right, we spin 180 to the right.

But the majority of riding on Cochese was through thought alone. Use of the reins was merely confirmation of thought, and towards the end, barely needed. As we galloped over the ridges, along side Vicky and Scoot, our minds were connected – I could feel the occipital lobes in the brain working overtime. Like Avatar, but for real. If I hadn't experienced it I wouldn't have believed it. Western riding is phenomenal, less like riding, more like flying.

First ride

I have slowly realised that, for me, epics usually start with thoughts like: "tell me you're joking?".

I'm in the Wairapa again (North Island, NZ) at the base of the Mangaterere valley, standing outside Vicky's ranch, badly hungover. Four months ago I'd asked if I could share a couple of weeks with her. Vicky runs her entire farm on horseback – it sounded incredible. After a good look up and down at me her last words had been “well you better toughen up then!”, laughing. So to some extent, that's what I went away and did.

Now it's exactly how I imagined – I'm back and she wants to find out who I am, and whether I can cut it on a horse. But I haven't ridden for ages and after that beer, wine and rum last night my guts are about to fall out of my arse. Even if I wasn't half dead, she's a professional rider and I'm just a kid with no clue. I learnt to ride on a farm as a kid, and I've spent one year riding a horse once a week, but that was like school yard footy. This appears to be the premiership. The huge steep sides of the valley (/riding country) loom overhead like an arena where inexperienced Pommes come to die.

I turn round to see her expertly clip clop into the yard. Steve makes my excuses for me: "Ed might be a bit vague today, we had a bit of a celebration". She laughs from her western saddle. "Well I guess we better rattle his head then eh! Ha!". My stomach rolls.

She shows me to my ride – Cochese - a nine year old, red stock horse in his prime. He's full of muscle, full of strength, full of speed, salt of the earth. His presence is huge. We make eye contact for the first time – his look is one of supreme intelligence, wisdom and a hint of surprise – who's this new joker? To break the awkward silence I turn away and ask Vicks "His name, Cochese – what does it mean?". I'm sure she enjoys the next few words... "RUNS LIKE THE WIND" she licks. I absorb this for a few seconds. And then that thought kicks in... "tell me you're joking?".



I look at Vicky. I don't think she's joking. Nope. She's not joking. I look back at Cochese. Cochese looks back at me. He's not joking either.  

But in the real

There wasn't the camp fire in front of me as I'd imagined, or the night, but the rest of a dream from the UK was realised as I sat in the horses field and Cochese freely wandered up to me and nuzzled my shoulder. I gave his nose a stroke, and we looked out over the mountain ranges together. We'd be flying over there again tomorrow, and neither of us could wait...

Monday, 24 May 2010

Between Worlds

Sometimes it can be a few hours, sometimes 60 seconds. Just me and the bag, at the end of one experience and on the brink of the next. I’ve taken to drawing the moment out. I guess I enjoy the detachment that comes with no-man’s land, briefly floating, as if weightless, before plunging into a different flow.

The last was lying on a platform in Welly, bathed in sunshine after a volcanic mission with a journalist, before jumping on a train to the Wairapa after the promise of pig farming and shepherding. The time before that, a coffee bar in Auckland airport: saying goodbye to Annabelle and waiting for the mystery journo to turn up. I find these moments a good opportunity to look back on the rollercoaster that just happened, and a chance to get excited about the next bit of the unknown.

Now my bag and I stand in a no-man’s land again. This time the setting is a grey pavement in a town called Masterton – a stark contrast to the bush I’ve been living in for the last two weeks. I wave Vicky’s wagon and trailer off down the road. Reality condenses into a spectacular memory of pig feeding, flying around the mountains on horseback, herding cattle with dogs, swimming for Pawas on the beach at dawn, and being with some great, great people.

But now reality is a pharmacy in front of me. I stand outside a little longer, and savour the memory of the last two weeks, smiling. Inside the glaring green neon shop front is a friend I last saw three years ago back in the UK - I can see her working inside under a florescent light. Who knows what will happen when I move from this spot. The excitement of the unknown builds until I can’t stand it anymore, and I practically run through the doorway.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Dusky Track


This post is a 12 page account - probably not something you'd want to commit to without tea and biccies.


Balancing negativity

I fear that if someone else were to read this account of the Dusky Track they might find it negative. But the descriptions are honest (I cannot type with tentative fingers), and necessary to achieve a greater good. Let me explain…

I wanted to do something hard, hard enough to push me to my limits, to see how I’d fare on the ragged edge. We all survived, but now as time rolls on I fear that the lessons from the Dusky Track are slipping from my conscious thought. To relive the experience I need to remember the pain… so the negative parts are here to help me do that. To an extent it reminds me that if I can do the Dusky then most other things are possible, but more importantly it reminds me of an incredible state of mind when it started getting tough – that carries more weight for me than all the negatives the Dusky could ever muster together.

Other wonderful imprints in my mind are Tim, Lea, Benjamin and Tom: four other trampers who set out on the boat with me. I have the Dusky to thank for meeting them. And finally there is the incredible imprint of Fjordland. The track took us deep into the heart of New Zealand’s finest, most impressive bush. It was our home for 9 days and hopefully, with the angles below, it’ll linger in my head for a bit longer…


Hanging

I dangle over the river. I am completely stuck. The bank had collapsed and now the only thing supporting me are my poles and a small tree which I cling to with all my strength… but the tree is slowly detaching itself from the remains of the overhang.

“20 seconds” I shout back to Tim.

I hear him behind me trying to get over a massive root system towards me.

“15 seconds then I’m going in…” I say desperately, clutching at mud. The bank is vertical and the weight of my pack is slowly sliding me towards the deep waters. We’d been moving fast for six hours, and in the tiredness we were starting to make mistakes.

“I’m coming man, just hold on…”

The Dusky Choice

I’ve done all the big tracks in NZ I want to do, but none of them have pushed me to a limit. Before I leave the country I need something that can break me.

Oz spots it in a Lonely Planet publication of the worlds most remote locations.

The Dusky track is deep in the heart of Fjordland. Billed as the toughest marked route in New Zealand it takes 8-12 days depending on the weather, crosses countless rivers and swamps and cuts over two mountain ranges to the remote Dusky Sound. There are no roads in or out, you have to catch a boat over a lake to the start the track, and then boat out across another lake.

Yep, that’ll do it.

Beacons

In the society that I am accustomed to, there’s always a lot of choice. So it is no surprise that when you go into the wild there’s a choice you can take with you. Emergency beacons offer the option to quit, if it looks like you’re going to die. Push the button and a satellite scrambles the Search and Rescue who zoom in on your position. At great cost, I should add.

“You’re here for a good time, not a long time, mate”. Steve had handed me the huge oyster, grinning. He told me some numbers to back up the fact that it was one of the biggest oysters in the world. We squat in the back of his fish and chips wagon. During the high tourist season he sells the best fish and chips in the world. But during the quiet season he hunts into the deepest parts of Fjordland and knows his way around it better than most. He has enough knowledge and respect to live out there and I can see from a wild look in his eye that he gets a real buzz off it.

“Some joker pushed the alarm recently just because he broke his shoelace. Wanker. Search and Rescue put their lives on the line for shit like that makes me sick bro. Another bloody tourist getting in over his head. People just don’t know what they’re getting themselves into out there, they don’t know what it’s like till it’s too late. Happens a lot.”

I nodded because I too was a tourist and also been in over my head. But I’d never pushed the button. I also knew that the shoelace break was probably no accident – if you truly want to survive you knot the two broken halves together and continue. But when discomfort saps the will to carry on you look for excuses, any kind of excuse, to choose to push the button and drastically improve your reality.

The Dusky track had been the polar opposite Steve’s attitude: time is hard and long out there - days and days of relentless punishment with little reward. When you’re waist deep in mud, exhausted, out of cooking gas, scraping by on emergency rations with still so far to go the escape button is a horrible itch.

We’d all ignored it out there, or tried to. I’d had to remind myself that I’d made my choice when I signed myself up to the track at the start. After that, the Dusky had been a lesson in endurance and wanting to quit was simply part of that lesson. I was proud that whilst we’d been severely tested to our own limits and beyond, we had all successfully negotiated the need to choose a rescue.

This oyster tastes spectacular. After living on bare necessities for weeks out there, I can see why Steve might run a business which sells the best, freshest nutrition in the world:

“Thanks Steve, that’s like crossing the finish line…”

Boating in

Val is essentially the guardian of the Dusky track. It’s his boat that will take us over the lake to the start of the Dusky. He plays the bagpipes and gets flown all over the world to play them. And if he doesn’t think you can hack the Dusky, he won’t let you on his boat.

And so on a mucky morning at one of Fjordland’s outposts, five of us walk up the jetty and pile our kit into Val’s boat. We are Tim (American), Leia and Benjamin (French), Tom (Pomme) and myself. Despite passing Val’s scrutiny, I’m still nervous. Some of the search and rescue stories I’ve read about on this trail are pretty severe, like “swimming up the track” when it rains. Can that really happen? And if it does, will we cut it?


All aboard, Val looks sideways at us… “You might want to hold on”. He bangs the throttle all the way forward, the engine roars, we pitch up 30 degrees and everybody dives for a handhold to stop from falling over the back. Side waves wash in and we burn through the spray to the start of the track on the other side of the lake.

The Fridge

It took us two days to get up to the first mountain pass, and now the weather's stuck in. Heavy rain means we're trapped for a day. We nick name the hut the fridge. The temperature lingers at 5°C and we wear all available clothes to save energy.


At night it's so cold that I make an insulative hutch out of three matresses and a piece of string. I feel like a Japanese business man on an impractical deadline.



Waving Tri-wires

We wake up at Dusky sound. It took 4 days walking, and one day trapped in a hut, to get here. Instead of a glorious sunrise, we hear heavy rain clattering down on the roof.

“Is anyone else worried?” I murmur from my sleeping bag. Grunts come from the other bags. Everyone else is awake, but fearing the worst. We have committed to the furthest point on the track, and now with this much rainfall we might not be able to get back for a while.

The weather doesn’t even allow us to take the Sound in properly. Getting out of here is the priority now.

The Frenchies head out to look at the track and twenty minutes come back with shaking heads. This doesn’t look good, but Tim and I have to see it for ourselves. We kit up in trepidation.

The track is submerged in a foot of water and we push blindly into pools of mud to make it to the first tri-wire bridge. What was once a gentle river is now a raging torrent, surging half a meter below the bridge. We push over the insane rapids to see more. The other side of the track is completely unrecognisable. We immediately come upon a new obstacle – yesterday it had been a stream, now it’s a river of mountain drain water flooding the entire section. It rains harder. After much debate we get sensible and turn back. This is only going to get worse, and if the rivers rise over the tri-wires we’ll be trapped for God knows how long.


When we get back to the first bridge we realize we’ve made the right decision – in twenty minutes the river has risen another 30 cm and is now brushing against the bottom of the tri-wire. If a tree comes down the bridge will be geography. We hurry across.


Back to the hut for another day of incarceration I split my emergency rations again and set about drying sopping wet wood for heat. It’s cold. We’re all sick of the idea of being trapped again. For every day we spend out here food rations diminish, energy is wasted staying warm and the niggling, irrational worry, that we might not ever make it out, intensifies.


Dream food

As I sit on the long-drop, flies buzzing round my head, I hear a chopper buzz in to Dusky Sound. I miss the event, but Tim tells me about it afterwards. He says that as he saw it come in he was filled with pride as the chopper was a reminder as to how remote our position was, but as a reminder of civilization, after so many days out, he also caught himself thinking: “But I want my cheeseburger nooooooooow…!”

We all dream of our ideal food when we get back into civ. For me it is pie. A New Zealand pie is a rare thing of beauty. We make precise arrangements for all hooking up for pie when we get back to civ. Mine’s going to be steak and cheese with a moccachino as I sit on a bench in the sun, degreased with Cusson’s Imperial Leather soap, my hair still slightly damp from the hot water. And no sandlfies.

Double drop

My leg falls into the slop. I find myself waist-deep in mud again, and the momentum of my pack pushes me forward, pinning my shin against an invisible tree root. I wince in pain and flail out. Every time I screw up my muscles burn and I feel the calories evaporate.

Five meters later exactly the same thing happens, but this time I smack the same shin on a rock. I roar in pain and frustration.

We’re trying to do a 16 hour hike to make up for our lost day trapped at Dusky sound. Knowing the severity of the track, this is pretty mental, but neither Tim or I verbalise it – optimism is the key right now. We’d set off pumped full of adrenaline to take on the monster “double-day”. The weather, unbelievably, had been good and we even managed to save an hour by fording a section of the sound at low tide.


This was one of Dusky’s brief resbites in the whole trip - as we forded the sound we got to dip pack-deep into its waters and for once take in a view and surroundings that were totally breathtaking. She showed us what her colours can look like when she’s in a good mood. It was almost like a look up her skirt.


But we were on a mission - seduction was now not a luxury we could afford to entertain. We took an hour of paradise fording the sound and put it in our heads forever before committing to a motorway pace out.

Our speed was blistering – our incarceration had us well rested - and we made the first 6-8 hour section in only 5 hours, stopping only to for tea and noodles over Lake Roe. We picked up our food depot (yet more weight) and then pushed out again, fuelled on optimism and cashews. Now, after 6 hours at full throttle the mistakes were beginning to show.

“GET UP” I shout at myself, and slowly extricate my legs out of the muck. As the day wears on, balance is hard to maintain and falling over becomes a regular event. Every time my poles take a beating - they snag on tree roots and bend beyond the limits of regular metal under my falling weight, but these Leki’s are made of 7 sheets of laminated alluminium and, incredibly, do not snap. They are a saviour.

The trail opens up as it comes towards a river. I throw myself over a root system, and conserve momentum by jogging down a clear section of the track which runs over the side of the river. But I didn’t have time to check integrity and the track, which overhangs a few meters above the river, collapses. I fall onto a precarious arrangement of walking poles and tree roots, my nose at the level of the track, my feet dangling meters in the air. I feel myself slowly slip downwards towards to the river, powerless…

Fresh choice

I am back, two meters into the supermarket, and confronted with sheer splendor. My feet are rooted to the spot as I look around. Rows and rows of food, wall to wall, surrounding colorful islands of exotic fruit and vegetables, meats and cheeses. And somewhere in here is a bank of chocolate.

Between the aisles I imagine the monstrous infrastructure needed to deliver this stupendous amount of choice. But ethical and sustainability issues to one side, after only 9 days of lentils and mud this place is a genuine paradise.

Pulling each other through

“10 seconds” I think to myself.

“Wait, I’ve got to get safe.” I hear Tim shout from above me. I dig in with everything I can, but only seem to slip faster…

And then I feel him pluck my pack, and my attached body, out of the air and we fall back onto the track. We look down at the water below. That would have really messed up our diaries.

“Cheers buddy…”

Tim’s one of the most hard core trampers I’ve met out here. Web-developer turned pizza chef, he throws pies to sustain hiking around the majesty of Fjordland and he knows this place pretty well now, including a fair bit of off-track. He also has a beard which he’s been growing for 6 months.

 

His American accent is the perfect medium to fully, and eloquently, express the words “fucking muddy”. During this trip we must have set a new world record for the number of expletives shouted in the bush, but French aside, we have a lot to talk about. It’s a real shame there’s not much of the season left as we both have a lust for getting out into the unmarked jaws of nature. Meanwhile we both agree this is the toughest thing on the map, by far.



We are now 9 hours in, still at full speed – our minds exhausted from the concentration needed to progress through such thick, slippery bush. Every step is critical. The bush relents for a few hundred meters and, now at the top of a valley, we see that the sun is now close to the mountain ridges. A waterfall descends a hundred meters above us before disappearing back into the greenery. We take a break. Taking breaks is a luxury we cannot afford for longer than 5 minutes every hour and a half. I take on a ration of water, dried cereal and the last luxurious square of chocolate. I can feel the sugar quite literally fire up my muscles. The low light casts long shadows over the basin and the two ants struggle on.

 

Ahead lies an hour of relentless ascent followed by another hour of swamp. Tim and I rotate on point to keep the pace high – we are fighting a war of attrition and whilst conversing in single words to save energy, we keep each other moving. We are a damn good team, I can think of few people to hack this with.

We stand at the edge of the last lake for the day.

“How you doing man?”
“I’m still here.”

I can hear my voice, but it sounds odd, like my body has detached from soul again – which is probably for the best. There’s no more food to sustain it. I am out of water. For the last half hour my mind has become a tiger prowling the bush.

Eventually, after 11 hours of high speed trail bashing, we stagger into the hut. It’s rectilinear architecture feels out of place in all this jungle, but then putting the pack down feels equally weird. It worked, we’ve made up a day. Now our food rations are back on track.  I give my bearded buddy a big, sweaty, muddy hug. We did it – it took a marathon – but we did it. And there’s no way I could have done it without him. Tim Farley I salute you.

Relentless

Every time we come in from a day on the Dusky we think it can’t get much harder. But each morning we wake to face a bigger challenge, making the last seem routine in comparison.

New we face a mountain pass ascending and descending an altitude of 1000 meters. Normally this would be a pleasure, but our bodies are pretty broken from yesterdays mission, and Tim’s knee is causing him agony. And it’s pissing with rain again.

We haul ourselves up the pass, our pace dwindling. We detach from reality by planning, in miniscule detail what we’ll do when we get back into civilization...

Resbite comes in the form of a crash shelter near the top of the cloudy pass and nutella spread over an OSM bar. Tim’s knee takes a beating down the back of the pass and is deteriorating rapidly. I have no idea how he’s managing to carry on. Poor bastard left his sticks in the car.


Coming in

We see the hut… I mutter to myself to keep focus after a hard day out.

Bag down on decking. Strip off muddy gaitors, hang up, separate feet (clammy and white) from sodden boots. Shut down all nasal breathing to avoid stench. Move fast, sandflies are descending now and they’re starting to bite. Pull wet inner soles out of boots, hang to drain. Pull off outer socks. Pull off inner socks. Twist socks to squeeze out a litre of brown water. Throw in soggy pile. Sandflies attacking face now, brush all exposed skin. Strip rain pants, gloves and jacket, hang up. Grab pack and socks, dive in to the hut, opening and closing the door as fast as possible to keep the sandflies out.

Throw the dry innards of pack onto the bunk, return outside to hang wet pack. Come back in, strip remaining clothes and hang inside (in the vain hope that they might be less wet tomorrow). Dive into thermals. Wrap in dry clothes. Dry feet. Sit. Enjoy the moment, briefly. Don’t stop or you’ll sleep – you’ve still got to cook…

Sandfly on penis

I look down to see a sandfly sitting on my privates. I brush it off and watch a thin trail of blood trickle its way towards the bottom of the long-drop. Bastard.

I had been sitting on the loo for 40 minutes, drifting off in boredom. All I brought with me for evening meals was lentils which have completely blocked me up. In an attempt to get things moving I’ve made cigarettes from note paper and dead leaves.


Tim’s even been kind enough to sacrifice his morning coffee to the cause. It’s getting to the stage where I can’t get any more food in, which, during this much activity, could be really bad.

Lessons

At the end of a hard day this is the final kick in the balls. I ran out of gas two days ago. I’ve got just enough for an emergency meal, but apart from that I have to cook on wood. I sit, shivering. I need to start a fire but, like at every hut, any firewood is scarce and soaked through.

Tim’s offered me his stove but I won’t take him up on it. This is my lesson.

I muse over some Dusky survival tips:

-         Take extra gas.
-         If they say a walk will take 8-12 days, that means you might be there for 12 days, so bring 12 days worth of food. Don’t average it to 10 days, like we all did.
-         Don’t have any plans for when you need to get out by.
-         Every piece of kit will get tested to breaking point, so make sure it’s the best.
-         Don’t share emergency equipment. Everyone needs their own PLB to account for variations in pace.

Socks in the morning

The hardest part is kitting up in the morning, specifically the bit when I have to put my feet into my cold, sodden socks, and then bind them into my muddy boots whilst getting bitten by sand flies. That bit really sucks.

Motorway pace

Tim and I move up to motorway pace. It’s something which we’ve developed on the Dusky to combat attrition – it’s somewhere between walking and running and the momentum is high enough to get us quickly down the track and throw ourselves over mud sections, streams and wind-fall (click to enlarge photo).


On our 11 hour double-day, I thought about the parallels between motorway pace and business life. These are some notes I’ve made for myself for he next phase of my life.

Motivation: needing to get to the other hut that day really makes sure it happens. Just like deadlines.
Stimulation: coffee makes the world go round, both on the trail and in the office.
Doubling the end goal: when we imagined we had to walk double the normal distance to go we hardly noticed when we’d achieved the normal distance. Distance was all in the mind. Ideal final results in business are worthwhile.
Having a good buddy: someone who can get you out of the shit, rotate with on point to maintain the pace, bounce ideas, share resources and enjoy it with – essential in both walking and business.
Stride: Lengthen your stride and you avoid a significant amount of smaller obstacles (rocks, roots etc). The day-to-day ‘todo-list’ should be made up of big strides to avoid the unnecessary niggles, but not so big that you loose momentum.
Pack momentum: Having a heavy pack is great for momentum to chuck yourself through streams, but generally a pain in the arse to get up mountains. And you need stronger legs to support it. The fewer heavy assets you have in business the faster you can move. Maybe.
Sticks: Walking poles massively increase the ability to maintain balance when tackling obstacles on the trail. During the course of business, it is really helpful to have support from as many points as possible. Seek it out.
Boots: Good ankle support is essential when flying over scree and mud – it prevents injury. Legs and ankles represent your own mechanisms for progress… make sure all your business support mechanisms are strong: communication, transport, IT, IP etc.

There is a pace which everyone moves most efficiently at. It’s a pleasure to find that pace… it feels good.

Entering the zone

I reminisce back to Day 5, the mission to get to the sound...

We’ve been on the trail 5 hours now and thankfully the GPS says we’re only 3 km away from the hut at Dusky Sound – the trip’s prize. But this is the Dusky track and in this last little section mother nature raises a middle finger to us piddly little human beings. Its defences are fully up.

3 km takes 2 hours. We are at a low as we tackle yet more mud pools, fallen trees, steep angled granite bluffs covered in greasy slime, streams, thick bush, knee-breaking descents, missing track markers, rain and always treacherous tree roots ready to put your face in the mud at any opportunity. The Dusky is a beast, ready to mess you up at every turn. It feels like we have woken the Dusky, and it’s turning all the screws.

“F**k you dusky…” Tim and I grimace as the slopes get steeper and rockier.


I go to a new part of my head as I stagger over the obstacles. The Dusky is a game of chance and pain. A crazy advert loops through my mind. Not enough hurt in your life? Need to test some limits? Think you’re tough enough? Try DUSKY. Dusky’ll break you. (Survival not guaranteed – don’t forget your beacon). Call 0800-DUSKY for a free slap in the face and kick in the ass.

My sticks skitter over slippy rocks, boots jamming into cracks, pack swinging under trees and down mud banks…

You think it’s over? You saw the hut on your map and you thought you heard the fat lady didn’t you… hahahaaaa, Dusky ate the fat lady.

I’m past pain now, I don’t know where I am in my head. My mind is completely detached from the body, which just flies me through the bush on autopilot. After an eternity I arrive at the hut but it means nothing.

Tim comes in 5 minutes later. I see it in his eyes too. Our minds are gone. Neither of us really know where.


See no view

“The race is long, and hard, and in the end it’s only with yourself” – Baz Luhrman


Over 9 days we had sunshine on 2 days. We got trapped in the huts twice and when we crossed the two mountain passes we saw nothing. Mostly it rained, but occasionally it snowed.

But this was what I wanted: I wasn’t in it for the views, I wanted to see how I’d fair in the face of adversity. Dusky was grumpy, and he spat a few things our way… maybe not views of the world, but certainly views of ourselves.


In the clutches

I scream in pain and frustration, now blind. It’s our last day.

We are briefly lost in thick bush. I’d pushed too fast past a marker and shot off down a deer track. As we looked around for signs of the track a fern had snapped back and hit me hard in the eye. I’d gritted my teeth and turned around to recover, another fern hitting the other eye, this time scratching the surface of the eyeball.

I double over and try to steady myself. I hear Tim scream in agony. As I slowly regain my vision I see him waist deep in mud. His knee has completely broken down and he’s in a lot of pain as he staggers onto dry ground.

We backtrack for 5 minutes and find the trail again. We restart, our pace redoubled – this is our ninth and last day and if we’re too slow we’re going to miss the boat. A tree trips me up: “FOR F**CKS SAKE – I JUST WANT OUT…” I bellow as I stab the ground with my pole. Mother nature has never pissed me off this much before. Nothing, for that matter, has ever pissed me off this much. I don’t think I’ve ever stabbed the ground, I’m a bit shocked. It’s our own fault – we’re riding against the current. Rushing is a really bad idea in this final section.


Steep, overgrown rockfalls make Tim’s exit a nightmare. I’m on point and every ascent I wince at the amount of pain it’s going to give him. I occasionally hear shouting behind me. I don’t know how he’s been able to make it this far, he’s made of tough stuff. He can barely bed his leg, and is double stepping every stride uphill.

After five hours we break out onto a road. It’s the first we’ve seen in nine days. We have 40 minutes to catch the boat which is 4 km away. That’s a fast walk.

So Dusky

We arrive in the port, our reflections a state. We’ve made the boat! We’re out!!! Today we’ll be back in civilization – it’s going to be like being in Disneyland!!!!!! YAHOOOO!!!

A waiting tour boat has beer on it. But the captain won’t sell us any thanks to a license issue. I try every trick in the book, but to no avail. That’s just “so dusky”, the final little “screw you guys”… we laugh about it.

A tour bus drops some day-trippers next to us before the boat leaves and I marvel at their clean clothes and day packs. I trade my kingdom for a cigarette and burst into hysterical laughter when a kind lady asks “was it muddy?”. I didn’t mean to be rude, but it was really funny.

Sun on a boat

So that was it. I can’t really get my head around it. I’m on a boat and already surrounded by the luxuries of technology. Seats, hot water on tap for coffees. Carpet.

Of course it’s sunny now.

I sit on the deck and wonder about it all. Readjusting after this one’s going to be fun. It always is, coming in from the bush, but after this one I imagine I’ll be a little different for a while.

It is fun. Getting into Tim’s car and playing amazing music all the way back to Te Anau. Checking into a YHA. Having that shower, drinking that beer, sleeping in that bed.

Oh, and the pie the next morning. Christ that was good.

But I couldn’t help chewing on one of the Dusky’s insights. Whilst it had always been clear to me that science had previously been used as a tool to understand where we came from, I have recently become convinced that the initial conception was from a completely different motivation. I believe that science was originally born to secure comfort, to gain advantage over the elements, thus creating the luxury of free time: time in which to enjoy that comfort. And when that time was created the science of survival was extended to, well, further discovery. Science was now a toy which could be played whilst well fed and in the comfort of a sustainable home.

As our earth becomes more and more crowded science must once again take the stage and solve the problem of diminishing resources. How we’ll get to do that in a capital based society I don’t know. We need to take lessons from the wild again. In the wild, money means nothing. In true survival, gold spits uselessness in your face. There is a deficit in the value of resources and the sooner capitalism reflects this (perhaps with harsher taxation?) the better it will be for our future generations. It certainly doesn’t make any economic sense, but we work in a monetary framework - the sooner to buy our way back into the value of the planet, the longer it will be able to support us.

Thanks Dusky.

Look up, look down, look all around

The hitch was with two awesome Ozzie girls on an adrenaline rush tour of NZ. Luckily for me they have a GPS because it’s the only thing that confirms that the Cliften town hall is actually the Cliften town hall. I get out. It’s certainly a hall, but there ain’t no town. Just a church on the other side of the road and nothing for miles but fields. This is NZ. I flick my torch on.

As I pull my bag out of the warm boot into the dark carpark it starts to rain. The Ozzies push fruit and biscuits into my grateful hands as I wave them off, which is great because I don’t have dinner, and then I scurry up a bank across the road to the welcoming shelter of some huge pine trees.

I look up. The needles are so dense that I cannot see the dim glow of the night sky through them – perfect protection from the rain. I look down. A flat, dry nest of bark and leaf litter – perfect insulation from the cold. I stamp out my bed, chuckling to myself – this is the life - pull all my kit out of my pack and make my bed, shoving biscuits and apples into my mouth to make up for missing lunch. Just need to take a piss then I’m set for the night.

As I stand on the verge I notice something strange. There’s a cut mark on the spruce bough next to me. The end seems driven into the ground. My headlamp follows the long, heavy branch back up to the trunk. Seems fine, until… oh shit! The entire limb is wind-blow, hanging on to the trunk with only an inch of bark. It’s poised right above my bed, swaying gently in the breeze. Jesus.

I tip-toe over to my bed and immediately fling everything I own as far away as possible, into the dark. As I leave the “perfect spot” I idly kick the end of the broken limb. The entire thing (must have been at least a ton) crashes onto my imprinted bed.

That night I lie awake, unable to sleep thanks to the apple, in mental loops of near misses. I laugh to myself… pride comes before a fall.

The evening before the Dusky

This is really stupid, but I couldn’t be happier. It’s sunset, and I’m walking in the middle of the road. There’s no traffic, it’s too remote for traffic. I haven’t seen a single car for over an hour. I remind myself that in the south island there’s way more sheep than people. All around me are fields, the occasional stand of trees and beyond them mountains.

I pass a road sign. Cliften in 30km away. That’s half of the stupid part. The other half of the stupid part is that I have to be there for 7.30 in the morning to meet the boat to start the Dusky track. If I miss that then the two Frenchie’s I’d met earlier don’t get to share my emergency beacon, and then if they die it’d be my fault. So not making it’s not an option.

The happy part is just walking through the middle of nowhere. It’s exactly what I’d imagined when I’d been back in blighty: watching the sun wane over the valley with just a bag on my back, evolving colours in the fields, a light breeze in my face and the only sounds coming from my souls treading down an endless road. This is it. YES. I should be looking for a place to camp before night comes, but life feels so much better whenever I push on so I just keep walking.

I am fuelled by the moment and get myself ready to walk through the dark. Not exactly the rest day I’d imagined before starting the Dusky, but screw it, I love all this.

An hour later the sun hits the deck and the vista dims… now I am left with only the stupid part. But then I hear a car miles away, it’ll be the last I see today. I whip out the high-viz jacket from Freedom and stick out my thumb.

The car flies by at 100 kilometers an hour. Oh well. Night walk it is then. I watch the car disappear…

…and then at the last minute I see its brake lights! The car comes to a stop a few hundred meters ahead. I imagine the conversation up front. Will it? Will it? Then a white reverse light… Woohoo!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Move along

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Balance… $0.00

Crap. The numbers don’t work for me anymore.

I am at the southern most point, the end, of New Zealand and the travel cash has finally dried up. Well, it’s got me this far. But I still have Tim’s car, a tank full of petrol and my pack. I spend the last of my wallet cash on sending some heavy things home – so I can walk if I have to – and some bare food.

Camping out here is not an option as there’s a severe weather warning so I set the car up for a night’s shelter. I am out of cooking gas, so meals for the next few days are Nutella spread over dry super noodles and more of the same.

It is night, raining hard. A beam of torchlight cuts through the car window, skipping over the folded backseats and there’s a loud banging on the door. A security guard has found me and he wants to seize the car. It takes 5 minutes to talk him down.

Time to leave Te Anue. I drive off into the night, pointing the engine north. Without money it feels great to keep moving.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Knowing

The idea of travelling alone scared me a bit. But then I realised that if it got sticky, I'd just deal with it. Turn every problem into an opportunity and you can't go wrong. I'd totally forgotten I already knew how to do that.

This is something that I got from soul-gazing with Oz in Christchurch park, seeing the past, present and future as one and differentiating between spiritual and physical energies. And seeing energy in monochrome, a bit like when Neo sees everything in code in the Matrix. None of this paragraph seems real - I have a bit of reading to do before I can express it properly.

The Israelis, love ‘em

Most Israelis I've met have blown me away with a lust for life. None more so than these two... we stand in the gut of huge glacial flue, they stand on the opposite bank of the melt-water river and we try to shout small talk over the roar. The conversation, as with all encounters with people in the wild, started with a stunned silence at seeing another human being coming out of nowhere.



What gets me, with jaw dropping impact, is their kit. Trainers and hoodies, off-track half way up a 2500m mountain. They wave a clear plastic bottle in the air and point at the glacier way above. Nutters! I laugh as it clicks. They'd just gone up there to get some ice from the glacier and were now returning to the valley with their prize. I let out an American Indian war cry to sum up my reaction and they jump up and down with redoubled enthusiasm before tip-toeing down the scree to the main track a couple of hours below.

Pat

Annabelle and I sit on the verge of the quiet road in the montanes of the southern alps. We wait for the fruition of what would normally be mission impossible. But with Pat on the case, impossible is nothing. A bus comes over the horizon pulling with it a trailer and four kayaks. He's only gone and bloody done it!



Luckily for me, my brother happens to be a rock'n'roller. A master at inspiring the ragged edge and riding the tiger, his 20 day trip to NZ is a rollercoaster. We hooked up half way through and within 2 days of being with us in Arthur's Pass he'd managed to arrange a four day adventure to float from Arthur's Pass down the Waimak to Christchurch.

Between here and there is the complete unknown. Wild country. The nearest road will be 50km away. Just Annabelle, Oz, Pat and myself and the river. I always knew it'd be big when he came over - but then I expect nothing less from Pat. And of course it turned out to be one of the best highlights of my 6 month trip. N1B.

Down river, part 1

Three days ago we'd put the kayaks on the banks for the first time. Luckily for us (Annabelle, Pat and myself) Oz had done this before which made him the most responsible out of all of us.

"So has anyone else ever done this before?" he ventured.

We all shook our heads. Nope. The river surged by.

"I've got a phobia of water" said Pat.
"I'm a crap swimmer" I chipped in.
Annabelle reserved an ominous silence for her own hopes and fears.

I kind of imagined what went through Oz's head, and proceeded to laugh my ass off. This had all the signs of a real epic. Bring it on.

Oz did a cracking job of teaching us how to capsize which was a big deal because apparently there was a gorge section ahead. None of us really liked airing thoughts on what the gorge section might be like, it was important to maintain optimism at this stage. The first practice of "falling out" I got my boot trapped in the boat and nearly got swept down the river. The second time I came up under the kayak and it was... well... embarrassing. And a bit worrying really. Everyone else did fine. Pat was particularly smooth at it, which was good, coz he'd be doing a lot of that later on.

The gleam in ranger's eye

A smile, a twinkle in the eye, the sharing of a secret. Information usually reserved for the locals, released only after achieving mutual respect. She told me where it was and how to get there. She smiled the smile of someone who knows I going to have a good experience, but knows I couldn't possibly imagine how good. "You don't have to thank me" she said, "I'm just the messenger". I pretty much run out of the Mt Cook visitor centre, my pack airborne behind me.

Bye Oz

Its been four fantastic months on and off the road travelling with Oz. He's an outstanding bloke - I don't know many people who share the same views on going with the flow, and our experiences have rubbed us deep into the fabric of New Zealand. It's been a privilege to have set off into the unknown with him.

Now, we both have specific things to do in our last days in NZ so this is goodbye for a while. Him the tramping hippie, me the hippie tramper.

I watch as he pads off with guitar slung over his back, melting into the crowd. I hope he finds what he wants in Takaka, I smile as I know he will. The lucky bastard gets to work in one of the nicest kitchens on the planet and experience a community in one of the most beautiful hippie capitals in the world.

As for me, it's just one thing... the Dusky track. I jump on a local bus and get the hell out of Christchurch city centre.

The pancake and the stone

I am one of the throng visiting the "pancake rocks". Punakaki is famous for its "pancake rocks". Its "pancake rocks" bring in thousands of tourists every year. I look at them. It's true, they do look like pancakes made out of rock. Lots of them stacked on top of each other, like the ones I had in a diner in New York, but without the maple syrup.




But are these the only rocks on the coast? I think not. It's amazing how everyone, including myself, has descended on this bit of coast when there are literally thousands of miles of incredible natural elements to be seen. The reason we are here in Punakai of course is because some smart person gave these rocks a name. We all know what a pancake is so we can relate to this natural phenomenon. And now Punakai makes a lot of money.

It made me think. I think we give things labels primarily for survival, and later philosophy. Words speed up our ability to function in the physical world. If someone ran at you with a spear, questioning the nature of the spear wouldn't be much consolation while it's poking out the other side of your torso. If we spent all day analysing what is meant by a chair we'd probably never get round to sitting on it. So things get labels, or words, to speed up our comprehension of reality. Words provide generic meanings, and getting specific about a single entity can take up books of words. Nothing new there.

Two months later I scrabble up a mountain and put my foot on a stone about 30cm across. Everything about me stops. I put the pack down and look at the stone. At first glance there is nothing amazing about this stone. I have trodden over a million stones in my life, but there's something very strange about this one. I feel a huge connection with it, which is crazy because it is just a rock. I have no vocabulary to explain anything about the connection, other than it makes me stop for five minutes questioning whether there is something special about this stone or I'm just loosing my mind. The connection I have makes it the most incredible rock I have ever witnessed in my life.

If I hadn't "felt" it, I wouldn't have noticed it. This thought makes me look up and around. At this point in time I don't have words for anything else I can see. Maybe crude ones like mountains, glaciers, forest... some general features I can see even have pet names given to them by explorers. But all of a sudden I am hit by the things that don't have a specific name. Which is pretty much everything. And everything looks back, and laughs at my traditional thought process. Every other individual "rock" is insulted by my limited vocabulary, as is every individual "tree" and every individual "cloud". I am paralysed with wonder and cannot move for several minutes.

Hut of huts

I sit in the doorway of Sefton bivvy - this hut echoes every definition I ever had of 'idyllic'. I'm so high up that I am looking down at a chopper flying up the Mount Cook valley. It took 4 hours of off-track scrambling to get here, and on arrival I immediately got on the radio and changed my plan of intentions with the DOC to stay here for not one, but three days.




I have the place to myself. There is everything I need here. No beds, just a floor space 2m x 3m, a water butt, a candle and a glacier 100 meters away. I hadn't even planned on coming here... as with most trip highlights.

The days are bathed in beautifully warm sunlight. In the dark the temperature lingers at 4°C and I lie on every bit of insulation I can find. Last night I crept out of the hut to go for a piss, only to see the valley below carpeted entirely in cloud, the tops licking at the base of the hut. The moon illuminated the vista, giving the impression that I was standing at the edge of an ethereal lake. Or was I dreaming?

The fear

Panic pushes my mind into a spin and I start running. Uphill. With a 20 kg pack on. After 3 hours of continuous off-track climbing. At an altitude of 1400m.


STOP! Idiot, stop. I force myself to stand still and assess. I listen to my heart which is banging like a machine gun. Jesus, if I keep this up I’ll have a coronary in a minute. I wait until my heart stops trying to break my rib cage open and try to assess what the hell is going on. Above is a gnarly cliff hiding the horizon with no obvious route, 800m below is the Mt Cook valley which looks like it wants to eat me and I'm on an exposed ridge. The end is nowhere in sight and I have 60 minutes before it gets dark. I need mental control NOW. Panic had stemmed from shock, shock had stemmed from fear, fear had come from a bad situation. And as my good friend AK would say, you should never push a bad situation.



I'd arrived at the trail head earlier that day. There had been just enough time to research the route, throw my excess kit into a bush and hit the trek. I'd got rough directions to Sefton bivvy hut, but as it was all off-track the going had been tough hands and knees stuff. I'd missed a good line on the way up and paid the price with a difficult traverse. To make matters worse, after finishing the traverse and coming out onto the main ridge I saw what I had previously thought was the hut. But now I could see it wasn't the hut. It was a big boulder that looked like a hut, but it definitely was not a hut. Hence the moment.

And now time is running out. Apart from having nowhere to bivvy down on the harsh slope it feels so exposed that the smallest cloud could pick me up and blow me into the chasm.

I was impressed at my STOP. It was the right thing to do. I had controlled my mind, reigned in my grip on reality. Now I can rationalise. I figure if this fairly worn line is going uphill it MUST go to the hut. Or at least to a point where I can see it. I'll just keep plodding on, keep the BPM down, chill Winston.

Forty-five minutes later I crest another ridge and there, in all its sunset splendour, lies Sefton Bivvy hut. Its location is so totally spectacular, and my relief is so great, that I scream and punch the air. "YOU F**KING BEAUTY!!!!" just about sums it up. Epic over, I grin all the way up the last section, and make the last radio call with enough time to cook lentils.

Glaciers alive!

I'd seen glaciers from a distance before.

"Oh you've got to go and see the glacier up close, it's so stunning!" everyone had said.

Really? I mean honestly, aren't they just persistent swathes of snow? Which bit are you getting excited about exactly? Conversationally, I didn't get it. So when I was in Mt Cook a few weeks ago I thought I'd go up to a glacier. To see if I could get it.

The noises took me by surprise. It would talk, using a massive vocabulary for the short time I was there. The occasional groans during the nights, as you'd expect from any sleeping giant, were on the same bassy frequencies as thunder. As the sun warmed it in the morning it made the kind of noises you'd expect from any mottled blue brute getting out of bed. Hours of silence would be punctuated with scrapes, grinds, gushes of melt water, crashes, cracks, collapses, slips, rockfall. I could never see exactly where they came from of course - each noise was "from inside" and without warning, which only added to the prowess of the phenomenon. Its formidable aura prompted me to read my book on a well protected spot, but I kept it within arm's reach and occasionally patted it.


On the last sunset I did naked yoga on it, assuming crampons don't count as clothes. As I tried to connect my mind to it for the first time I immediately felt an enormous sense of pity. It was dying. As are we, but somehow because it's bigger and defenceless, it's much sadder. The longer I sat there, the more I realised that it's not just stunning, it's alive. This made me realise a lot about our misperceptions of the label "life". I think a lot of us are in the wrong paradigm, but that's another blog post.

I spent three days up there. I have just finished the descent and now I sit in a field in the valley watching a stupefying sunset over Mount Cook. There is not a cloud in the sky and Cook is shrouded in glaciers similar to mine, all melting. No one around me speaks. We all get it.

Boiling point

I was fifteen, or thereabouts, when our physics teacher explained how the boiling point of water drops the higher you go. I imagined taking a stove up to the top of a mountain to boil water would be quite exciting. But, as I sat there in on an uncomfortable wooden stool, dressed in a ridiculous uniform with the rest of my life ahead of me, it never occurred to me that the experience might also be beautiful. This was what I could see above the boiling lentils... click to enlarge.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The perfect hitch

The sun wanes on a dusty highway. My boots lead me and my pack towards the plains. I parallel a commuting exodus out of the Christchurch metropolis, my thumb high in the air, my back to the mechanical fish.

A black car swings off the road and stops in front of me. It's a Toyota Celica, my teen-dream car... the nineties model, with more curves than Jessica Rabbit and a custom spoiler which could send us all Back to the Future.

Cars like this don't normally stop for hobos like me. I jog up to the window, confused. I do the usual scan over the driver seat for alcohol and weapons... but all is squeaky.

"Need a ride?" he says.
"Er, yeah! Thanks... where you headed?" I ask.
"Wherever you like mate, I'm just going for a drive."

I kind of hesitate, am I dreaming?

"Sweet! How does Mount Cook sound?"
"Cool, I never been there before."
"Me neither..." I grin, "Let's do it!"

I trade stories for cigarettes and bubble gum. We pull away and I navigate him up the ranges, bass pumping out of his 1.2 kW sound system, blowing bubbles all the way. At the end of a three hour ride he drops me off at two perfect hammock trees and gives me his hi-viz jacket, which in a week or so will save my ass.


"What's you name" I'd asked at the beginning.
"FREEDOM" he'd said.

True.

A theory of relativity

S'been a while. Maybe just because the extraordinary experiences have become the norm. Life being amazing and all, can have a lot to do with change. I have noticed that it's usually only the second differential of cumulative experience - that is the rate of change of change - which drives me to write. It's almost like it's the twists and turns of the flux remind me I'm alive. And for one without a memory, reminders need to be pounced on before they slip away. So here's some more...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Lumination

It is the closing ceremony. Sunset has given way to night.

In the centre, a huge fire. A glowing ring of organisers close around the flames, some holding hands. Around this circle gather maybe 600 who have shared six days high up in the mountains. I am priveleged to be one of them.

The drums stop. Thanks are given to the round of organisers, this moment is about appreciation for them. They had believed in something so strongly that they had been compelled to make this festival happen and we look on at them with abject respect.

A wise lady begins speaking for us all to hear. It is one of those speeches which should have been recorded and replayed for the good of mankind. As she draws to the end a man from the circle interrupts to argue a point, but he is shouted down by the group. We 600 are captivated and moved by her every word and want to hear the final message: simply, if we do not like the world as we see it then we can change it.

After the speech is finished the man who interrupted earlier attempts to take the stage again and continues to argue his point. There is no message in his argument, no points, just sheer negativity. The entire circle becomes aware that if something isn't done quickly the incredible vibe of appreciation around the fire will be swallowed by the mind of somebody who's completely out of touch - someone who's missed the entire point of the festival.

From the jaws of despair comes perfection. The 600 spontaneously break out into a collective Om. As each and every individual generates a hum the accoustic energy is deafening and swallows up the piercing negativity, replacing it with a magnificent taurus of energy. It resonates a mile high towards the stars.

After a spectacular minute the vibration subsides and a single voice the crys out "WE LOOOOOVE YOOOOOOUUUUU!!!". The entire circle erupts into cheers and whoops and applause for those in front of us who, through the power of belief, had changed most of all of our worlds for the past six days and beyond. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, a truely awesome moment.

We, that is myself, Oz, Annabelle, Nadine, Darius and Tramper the tiger, are all completely blown away. As the moment subsides a voice shouts out from the back "It's all working out exactly as it should - everything's going perfectly!!!".

Amist the shouts and crys of joy fromt he crowd we all realise that it kind of is.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Christmas Fish




I roll up my trousers and walk barefoot into the sandy ripples. Ahead, Ozzie floats our small rowing boat out into the mountain lake. His figure, together with oars and boat, cut a stunning silhouette into an ochred rainbow of dawn colours. It is Christmas day and we must hunt for our dinner.

Water laps at the bow as we coast stealthily along the river bank. Oz drags the line behind us as I paddle as quietly as humanly possible – the ocassional, rhythmic grind of metal from the rollocks emanates into the lake. It ruins our cover, but every 10 minutes or so we are greeted with the spashing sound of a fish on the water, so tantilisingly close.

Half way around the lake we drift into a bay and back in time, to the Jurassic. The beginnings of a new sun pick up an ethereal mist which wanders as a pink demon over the clear glass. Dead wooden limbs stretch petrified out of the water and claw their points at the air. A big fish swims beneath the boat.

We catch nothing.

----

I wake to feel the sun chewing off my skin. I shrug myself upright to see Oz passed out on the middle bench of the boat. The hull knocks against a bank I haven't met before... the breeze has blown us to the other side of the lake. The sun beats hard. I have a fish hook buried painfully into the sole of my foot. We'd stayed up all night before pushing out, and I feel destroyed. My face seems to drip from my skull.

 


I try to wake Oz. He doesn't want to move. No catch, no food, no energy and a huge distance to row home. I don't blame him. We are low. But we must get back. Agonisingly, I poke him again.

We row. Forever.

At long last we arrive back at our camp, I hop through the shallows as Oz drags the boat up the sand and we collapse back into our hammocks. Our sentences are of single words only. Through midday and early afternoon, sleep does not come, the heat does not relent. Sand bugs hound my ear drums. I begin to feel at a loss. We have failed. Reality turns brittle and chaotic. What am I doing again? Why am I here facing this wall? It consumes me, the realisation that we are incapable of surviving on our skills is horrible. I try desperately to staunch the loops of worry that accelerate through my mind, try desperately to cling to context. I admit to myself that I look forward to going home, right now that thought is a solace. But four months seems an eternity.

I am consoled with a memory – this is exactly why I am here: to meet this reality face to face.

I cannot lie here thinking any more, worrying, but I am so exhausted it's the only thing I, Edward Sells, am able to do. I have tried to sleep and cannot. I need reality back, I need a plan. I reach for my watch and strap it to my wrist. I have not worn it for a few days, and the digits on its face offer a grip on time. Relativity returns. I swing my legs to ground – they feel like sacks of potatoes - and mutter a mantra to myself so I do not forget: hydrate... hydrate... hydrate... I fumble for a cup and some salt sachets and neck a litre. I blow weakly on the fire to boil another billy can with two tea bags and the rest of the sugar, pouring myself another half of tea. I fix Oz the same, and nag him to down the lot. I hate it, it's hard, he's waking-grumpy and I hate forcing it, but we need to rescue this Christmas.

The ingredients stimulate my head and I reach for my music and the axe. Using the ipod is a defeat, but now I've admitted it, my moral needs a repair job and I take comfort in familiar tunes from technologies far far away. Oz cranks himself out of the hammock. “Kraak and Smaak”'s funky house beats pulse through my earphones as I hack up a limb for the fire, and I force myself to dance. Energy flows through my fingers again, and there is work to be done. We can still do it. This Christmas ain't dead yet.

----

In retrospect this was the best Christmas ever*. Curiosity was satiated. I got to see the ragged edge I've been looking for. Now I've been and met it face to face I can get on with avoiding it. I never want to go back there again. The whole point of survival seems to be to establish hope – we sew up the holes of despair by completely integrating with the resources around us, through tools and skills. Oz and I are integrated in fire, shelter and water, but not food. Without all four things we can never be truly wild. Christmas's lesson to us was that hunting is not a dream you can just go out and immediately realise. It is not an easy gift. It takes years of practice and awareness. But unfortunately it is the most expensive of the four things, burning a huge amount of calories and time. And when we return with an empty catch, it has been devastating to our mental states.

I now think the best we get out of this trip will be the skill to sustain food - that'll be all the big gaps sewn up. I hope Father Christmas brings us hunting lessons.

-----
* this post is only about the hard fish, I could write a book on all the good stuff that happened ;-)