Wilderness staff writer Josh Gale learns there’s more to going bush than knowing how to read a map
Staring out across the river valley toward the snow capped Southern Alps, a pounding house beat secretly fills my ears.
Accompanied by dizzying keyboard and saxophone loops, a cacophony of electronic samples and the stirring vocals of an American diva, the track lifts my spirits.
I’ve been pushed too hard and my mind has decided to rebel, increasing the feeling of fatigue. I halt my steep climb for a minute, my heart’s BPM is in time with the music, and that ain’t right.
Ahead of me, the rest of the group seem to be making better progress up an evil gradient designed to shatter desk jockeys like me.
The sultry lyrics of the diva step in and, like a mystery dancer in a night club, leads me through the crowd of my thoughts back to the music.
‘No, no, no,’ she sings. ‘I’m going to change my life.’
Her voice fades and the sax sweeps in, taking me away with it as its notes rise, fall and spin like the wind blowing around.
‘Going through changes, going through life changes,’ she sings. ‘Life changes.’
I take a deep breath, gaze out at the Waimakariri River Valley and carry on trudging to the tops of Arthur’s Pass National Park’s Black Range.
Life really does change. It’s constantly changing and so are we, along with everything else – including the mountains and rivers.
As the body ages, our values and priorities change too.
Which is why I found myself at 1700m on the Black Range in late November last year.
I had just turned 35 and for the previous two years changing values found me reversing my nature-deficit by getting into New Zealand’s wild places.
So, since joining Wilderness in January 2011 I’ve been gradually moving from clueless Jafa to backcountry Jedi.
I enrolled in a series of Mountain Safety Council courses, began the long and costly journey of buying gear and trying to improve my photography skills.
My photography still stinks and backcountry Jedi is probably an overstatement, but I’m on my way. Clueless Jafa, however, is right on the mark.
Growing up on Auckland’s North Shore life was about the beach, not the bush. Our spare time was spent shooting hoops, speeding in Mazda rotaries, going to beach parties in Mairangi Bay and raving all night at clubs around the city.
But after two years overseas I decided to compensate for my misspent youth and at age 28 went to university.
Four years later, with a degree and a postgraduate diploma in journalism, I had no idea I’d wind up writing for an outdoor magazine.
But life has a mysterious way of sending us just what we need.
Problem was, I had no idea what I was writing about; I thought spurs were something cowboys wore and col was short for colonel.
I confessed this to Mountain Safety Council’s bushcraft programme manager, the energetic and optimistic Chris Owens, and he started me on my journey.
On the first information evening of the basic bushcraft course I was expecting to find a roomful of hunters and aging trampers.
Instead I found two young couples who knew as little as I did.
Kerry Adams is a music producer, DJ, photographer, blogger and professional marketer. His partner Alice Farrell, also a marketer, is a photographer, dance party girl and left-leaning politico.
Adams, 33, and Farrell, 30, attended the next two courses with me and as we marched through bush in the Waitakeres and Hunuas, we discussed, and bitched about heavy topics like the state of music in New Zealand and the increasingly bland corporate anti-culture eating away at our social fabric.
The other couple were from Canada and kept their cards and their conversation close to their chest.
MSC volunteers and partners Elizabeth Mead and Philip Sharp ran this first bushcraft course and used it as an opportunity to espouse the benefits of lightweight tramping.
As the deputy director of maths at Auckland University, Sharp used his mathematical genius to calculate weight down to the smallest, and seemingly most irrelevant, number.
Eliminating outer pockets on packs and decapitating toothbrushes were a couple of weight reduction tricks he touted. He’d “deployed” these and other lightweight tactics when walking the Appalachian Trail in America.
On all of these courses, I was amused to discover that words like deploy, brief, debrief and tailend Charlie – borrowed from the military – were an important part of the MSC lexicon.
Sharp and Mead’s enthusiastic promotion of lightweight tramping ultimately failed for the simple reason that no one cared. In fact, their audience appeared much more interested in ultra heavyweight tramping.
Both couples brought nearly a full catalogue of tramping gear including fanny packs, clunky water filters, fold out chairs, coffee plungers, cameras plus multiple lenses, tripods, spice Tupperware and, of course, Mp3 players.
Sharp seemed disappointed.
Alan Stone, an easy-going MSC volunteer, was equally disappointed, but for a different reason.
He’d been deployed by MSC to observe Sharp and Mead in action and felt the “airing out” of the lightweight agenda was outside the brief and potentially hazardous for newbies.
His alarm increased when on the overnight trip into the Waitakere Ranges it was discovered we all had the wrong Topo50 maps.
This ended any chance of us learning much about map reading and navigation. But that didn’t seem to be the point of this course.
It focused on the different types of gear, fabrics, cookers, shelters, food options, boots and layers we would need to survive in the backcountry.
Anyway, I decided I wouldn’t be decapitating my toothbrush anytime soon.
With Alan Stone in charge of the intermediate bushcraft course, there was no further talk of lightweight tramping and Philip Sharp was nowhere to be seen.
On this second course we tramped through Mataitai Forest Reserve, the oldest and largest kauri forest in the Auckland region, and camped beneath flies at its northern end.
After an easy day walk with some basic navigation exercises, we set up camp close to a stream and Stone displayed and explained the contents of his survival kit, encouraging each of us to make one ourselves.
The next day he pointed out bush tucker we could eat if ever caught in a survival situation. Supple jack tastes like a cross between cucumber and asparagus, but with so many possums on the prowl there were few tips left for consumption.
By the end of the course I started to realise map reading, compass skills and time, distance and location awareness take a lifetime to master. Whenever Stone tested us on how far we’d travelled, how far away a landmark was or where we were, I felt as clueless as on the first course.
Instead of developing technical skills, the intermediate course focussed on what type of tramper I wanted to be and what props I need to remain peaceful in the wilderness.
One of those props, I discovered, is music.
While researching an article on expedition psychology, a sports psychologist and physiologist explained to me how music delays feelings of fatigue and increases the likelihood of experiencing a flow state.
Tuning in to some sounds gives me a deeper experience in the wilderness because it quietens my usually busy, analytical mind.
Other props I’ve found I need include a good inflatable pillow, a wide sleeping mat, an hydration bladder, walking poles, a pad to sit on, camp shoes and a tent big enough for me to sit up in without my head touching the fly. When I first started these MSC courses I thought I would be above all this, that I’d be a minimalist tramper, taking only the bare necessities. It turns out I’m not familiar or comfortable with austerity.
If someone wants to be the next Bear Grylls, fair enough, but for me I need to enjoy the wilderness in comfort and style. This includes looking good too.
On all four MSC courses the generation gap was most noticeable in terms of style. True to the old rough and ready Kiwi style the tutors looked like they’d just stepped off the farm while the rest of us could have shown up at a Ponsonby café or a BBQ and fitted right in.
Looking the business, however, is no substitute for being prepared.
On the advanced bush craft course – an overnighter in the Hunua Ranges – I learnt a hard lesson; don’t drink the night before you go tramping.
I had mindlessly thrown gear in my pack, slapped together some food and, thanks to a few too many vinos, not got a good night’s sleep the night before.
I learnt quickly that proper footwear, sustaining food, minerals and liquids are more essential than an Mp3 player, or looking good. It took my body and mind more than a week to recover from the trip and resemble anything other than mush.
But as my energy returned so did my spirits and I vowed to become smarter.
I purchased a pair of new boots, a water bladder, a Therm-a-Rest mattress and got serious about preparation. Now when I go tramping I take plenty of water, electrolytes, dissolvable vitamin tabs, sweets for instant energy and fat-rich food high in carbohydrates. And I don’t drink wine the night before.
Before we set off on the loop trip around Thousand Acre Clearing we experimented with a variety of fire lighting methods. Kerry Adams whipped out his flint and tried unsuccessfully to set a bunch of dry moss alight. Stone pulled out two chemical liquids in separate containers and when he poured one onto the other they burst into flames. Effective, but I wouldn’t want to walk around with the two of them in my pack. My favourite method was a lighter and strips of rubber from an old inner tube. The rubber lit quickly and generated a sustained hot flame that made it easy to build a bigger fire.
Low cloud cover and mist made it difficult to do map and compass work on this course. Instructor Peter Waworis, however, kept us busy with regular tests and questions about where we were, how far we’d travelled and how much further we had to go. Location awareness continued to challenge me and thanks to the weather conditions I realised how easy it is to get into trouble in the backcountry.
As for skills though, rather than lifting me to the level of advanced bush crafter this third course taught me the lesson of preparation.
Comparing my map reading, compass navigation and location and distance awareness skills to MSC buchcraft master Emlyn Wright is like comparing a young Luke Skywalker’s Jedi ability to those of Master Yoda. I’m only just starting to feel the force.
If I were to lead anyone into the remote wilderness, I would probably head straight into the Death Star.
Even so, having completed the advanced course, I was now prepared for the fourth step on the path to shedding my clueless Jafa status: the above the bushline course and a trip to the Black Range in Arthur’s Pass National Park.
On a Friday night we began the journey with an in-the-dark walk up Broad Stream. We camped by the stream and set off in the morning on the climb of my lifetime.
When Wright pointed up the ridge we were to ascend, my heart sunk. It looked impossible, even mad. On the climb I cursed to myself, tasted blood and felt my ticker turn into a thumper. Even with the breathtaking vistas, I hated every moment of it. But I learnt what tramping, especially above the bushline tramping – where the views are to be had – actually is. It’s trudging, slow, painstaking, take four steps, then catch your breath, trudging. It’s not all prancing through forests and joyful scampering along the open tops. It takes patience, perseverance and determination. And a bit of suffering.
With music thumping in my ears I managed to complete the gruelling climb to the tops. Wright then challenged us to explain the whereabouts of a tarn on the map we would be setting up camp by. I looked at the map, worked out roughly how far away it was, then looked at the ridges folding away in the distance. I guessed it was much further away than because where the tarn was actually located appeared to be too steep for a camp site. I was wrong. We trudged over a saddle and eventually found our tarn on a snowy ledge at about 1700m. With my wet feet, thanks to multiple river crossings, freezing on the snow I hurriedly assembled the tent, made dinner and hit the sack. It was then I noticed I wasn’t functioning properly. Taking off my boots made me puff. So did turning over in my sleeping bag.
I couldn’t get warm and I started hearing a strange sound I initially thought was the kea that had loudly protested our arrival.
Then I realised it was coming from my nostrils.
When I breathed in through my mouth a ghastly wheezing followed. For a few minutes I almost panicked.
Back in Auckland, my GP diagnosed asthma and prescribed two puffers which I now use on a daily basis.
The conditions on the Black Range – the sharp scree, cold air, harsh sun and near vertical slopes – have tempered my ambition to do off-track tops walking in places like the Kaimanawas and Ruahines. Jumping in the deep end has always been my modus-op, but tops walking, I realised, ain’t for newbie punks like me. I need to earn my stripes, cautiously and gradually.
On our walk off the Black Range we bush bashed through beech forest for about three hours. Wright led the way, but left us to navigate our own direction down.
As we descended my energy picked up so I stormed through the forest, accidently knocking over rotten trees and making a racket.
As I thrashed about I used map and compass to ensure I was on target to find a track that would lead us back to the cars.
Finally, after doing four courses, I discovered the basic skills had actually sunk in; I could orient my map, take a grid bearing, estimate time and distance to destination and leap frog from landmark to landmark to stay on course.
Once we hit the track, I plugged in my headphones and returned to the diva singing Life changes. As her sultry singing stilled my mind, I felt pleased with what I’d accomplished.
I’d set out to walk the talk of writing for Wilderness magazine, starting small with the basics and making it back from the open tops. I may not be a tramping Jedi just yet, but I am a tramper.