Home / Articles / Wild People

Camp therapy

Image of the December 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
December 2021 Issue

An organisation is using adventure therapy to help young people overcome challenges and find their inner strength.

Sometimes you find inner strength where you least expect to. 

In the case of 16-year-old Nelson high school student Rylan Marshall, he found it in a remote mountain tarn in Kahurangi National Park. Perched high on a saddle beneath Xenicus Peak, near Fenella Hut, with stunning views into the Aorere Valley, the tranquil tarn was both inviting and foreboding for Marshall. The dive into its icy waters was a challenge and an achievement wrapped in one. 

“I struggled with that waterhole,” he admits, looking back on a day he’ll never forget. “Someone else jumped in first and was complaining about how cold it was. I wasn’t too keen at first. But I did it.” 

Marshall’s leap was in a way symbolic. Sometimes we all struggle to find motivation, it’s often easier to opt out rather than in. But if you don’t take the plunge, you’ll never know your capabilities. 

Socialising with other people had been a struggle for Marshall. He was also experiencing learning difficulties at school. When it was suggested he might benefit from spending five days in the bush with people he hardly knew, he didn’t exactly jump out of his skin with excitement. 

“The most appealing part was that it meant a week off school,” he laughs. 

For Beckie Marshall, the difficult part was getting her son to show up.

“The lead-up to that day, trying to get him to go on this camp, was a nightmare,” she says. “It wasn’t so much the camp as going with other people he didn’t know very well. I pretty much had to dump him and run.”

The camp was part of a five-day adventure therapy programme organised by Whenua Iti Outdoors, an organisation that helps young people achieve positive change in their lives through ‘experiential learning’. Kids who might be struggling with mental health issues, childhood trauma, drug and alcohol problems, behavioural difficulties or social exclusion, take part in various outdoors activities. These can range from sea kayaking to rock climbing, caving, mountain biking or tramping, and are led by a skilled team of instructors and psychologists. 

The organisation, in partnership with local iwi, recently received just under $1 million funding from Jobs for Nature to run programmes across the top of the South Island. It’s one of the largest outdoor education centres in the country.

Whenua Iti’s kaupapa is about harnessing the restorative and healing benefits of nature to create an environment where young people feel comfortable, supported and connected. 

Marshall took part in whaikaha, meaning ‘seeking strength’, the heart of which is a multi-day wilderness journey. The group of five kids and two instructors spent three nights camping near the historic Tent Camp in the Cobb Valley before tramping to Fenella Hut. 

Adventure therapy is the clinical approach that Whenua Iti psychologist Shane Sutton employs on the programme: it’s traditional therapy provided in a non-traditional environment. 

“I’ll work with kids on our journeys, sit under a tarp one-on-one and work through their issues, but we’ll also sit around the campfire as a group.” 

Sutton speaks of “goosebumps” moments; those special times when the level of talk has transcended beyond shallow chatter and the kids have opened up honestly about what’s happening to them. 

“We’re trying to create those magic moments where the whole group is engaged and feeling it. It’s cathartic and therapeutic and a really rewarding aspect of these camps.”

For Whenua Iti participants, Papatūānuku – the land – is the therapist. Photo: Ricky French

Providing therapy in the outdoors rather than in a clinical office has a myriad of benefits for the kids, says Sutton. “They are less guarded out here, there are no barriers to engagement. I’m walking alongside them having the same experience, and to see me struggling is a great leveller. There’s a real equality that leads to trust and rapport-building. And sort of gives permission for the therapy to take place.”

Being able to overcome the physical challenges offered in the bush is a big part of building inner strength, says Whenua Iti instructor Joe Dawson.

“You find that resilience within yourself. If you’re put in a situation that’s challenging (in the bush), you don’t really have a choice. So you find that resilience, and you can learn to shift your focus to other positive things in life, rather than the bits that hurt.”

While traditional therapy does happen on the camps, Dawson sees the bush itself as the healer.

“Papatūānuku is the therapist,” he says. “The outdoors is a wonderful place to feel calm and to reflect. It’s very peaceful. The kids now know that the bush and nature – that green space – is always there. It’s a place for them to go when they need some reflection time. We help the process and guide the kids’ reflections, but the land is the teacher.”

The physical challenge is also important though. “Achieving something you thought you couldn’t do is a big thing,” says Dawson. “And then being able to apply that to other aspects of your life so that every time you have a challenge, you know you can overcome it and have a more positive perspective.”

Picking up her son at the end of his adventure therapy camp, was a nervous moment for Beckie Marshall. But she couldn’t have been prouder.

“I was so happy when I saw him, and I noticed changes straight away,” she says. “His confidence levels were so much higher. He was just this cool, calm, confident kid who wanted to tell us everything that had happened.”

Marshall says Rylan’s big achievement wasn’t so much in coping with the outdoors, but going with a group of people he didn’t know well. Rylan might have entered the bush under duress, but he emerged a changed person and was “over the moon”.

Recently, the group met up again to go caving. Reunions like this and ongoing support from Whenua Iti is essential for lasting positive change.

“When I saw Rylan again, I saw a young man who could look me in the eye,” says Dawson. “He had a positive and optimistic outlook on life. He was engaging. It was wonderful to see.”

Rylan still wears a friendship bracelet he made on the camp and his mum is still hearing stories from the great adventure.

“I’m better friends with all those kids now,” says Rylan. “We really clicked and I feel like I’ve known them forever. I’d definitely recommend this experience to anyone.”