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Finding strength in the wilderness

Image of the July 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
July 2023 Issue

Outward Bound is celebrating its sixtieth year in New Zealand. In March, 48 years after completing a standard 23-day course, Wilderness reporter Kathy Ombler returned to see how things have changed.

It’s after dark in Torea Bay. We are relaxing on the lawn outside Outward Bound’s Te Kainga cottage, where we are staying overnight. Or not, as it turns out.

“Tonight, you will sleep on the cutter,” says instructor Kate Gloeggler. “First, you will need to row it out to the buoy. We will give you sleeping bags. You will need to be back at the jetty and dressed ready for physical training at 6.20am.”

Our little group processes this bombshell. We’d assumed we’d be sleeping in the cottage. Our PT gear is still in our luggage. We are Sheppard Watch, Course 699, on the first of an eight-day Discovery course and our first discovery is that Gloeggler is good at dropping bombshells.

We later learn that she’s just warming up. Gloeggler and co-instructor Stephen Kuni’s ‘surprises’ are key to the mantra that underpins everything about Outward Bound: plus est en vous (there is more in you). It was a favourite mantra of Kurt Hahn’s, the school’s founder, and reminds us that no matter how great the hardship, how tired we think we are, we can do more.

But I knew this, from 1975. Why am I even here again? Blame the mid-winter blues. I needed a challenge. A kick. And as a writer, Outward Bound’s 60th anniversary was a good story. So came the brainwave: why not do another course, be challenged, and write about it?

The challenge began the moment I signed up when it hit me that I was no longer that fearless, fit 21-year-old of 1975.   I fretted about how I’d feel on those high ropes or if I’d keep up, tramping with younger watchmates. A daily run is part of the course. Due to a shonky knee I hadn’t run for years.

Our course began at midday in Picton. It was not a gentle start. After handing over our cell phones (‘digital detox’ is a course requirement), we were sent on a 3km run then a swim to board the cutter, moored offshore. (Okay, two of us on a late ferry missed that fun, we caught up with a cushy boat ride direct to the cutter.) We’d spent a pleasant afternoon on Queen Charlotte Sound learning how to sail before rowing the big solid cutter with its long heavy oars into Te Kainga.

Sleeping on the cutter, as it turns out, was great. The stars were stunning, bioluminescence sparkled in the water, a seal splashed around us. It would have been boring inside. The group’s bonding had begun.

On day two, after our early exercise and compulsory swim, stingrays scattering in the water around us, we sailed to Anakiwa, where a formal pōwhiri awaited. I felt a burst of emotion. My first Outward Bound course had hugely impacted my life. It had opened my eyes to outdoor adventure, and made me stronger. I was moved to be back.

School director Hamish Reid welcomed us. Ewan Potgieter, our just-appointed watch kaikōrero, responded and we sang an admirably confident ‘Tūtira mai’, possibly not the first watch to do so.

In 1975 there was no tikanga Māori at Outward Bound. Reid later told me he is proud of the school’s formal relationship with local iwi Te Ātiawa.

“This means we feel more grounded and at home in this place, and better able to welcome students to Anakiwa no matter where they come from,“ Reid says. “The iwi also blessed us with a name for our new launch, the Rāhiri, after the hapū that once occupied the Anakiwa site. That was special. In return we’re working hard to incorporate more tikanga Māori and te ao Māori into our courses.”

Thus, along with our course’s physical challenges, we also shared daily discussions based on te whare tapa whā, the four cornerstones of wellbeing: hinengaro (emotional), tinano (physical), whānau (family) and wairua (the spiritual dimension).

Guided by these themes, and by Gloeggler and Kuni, we talked about how we were coping. We shared our fears and doubts about the course and our lives back home. We trusted each other and bonded some more.

We didn’t have these sessions in 1975. Reid said that mental and emotional wellbeing and resilience have always been central to Outward Bound, but in the past it was left to develop from the experience of physical hardship.

“Today we spend more time facilitating these discussions,” he says. “Outward Bound was founded to help the survival of young merchant sailors. During World War Two, many simply gave up and died in their lifeboats after being torpedoed in the Atlantic. Today, instead of surviving in lifeboats, people are facing mental health challenges, a pandemic and a climate crisis. But the fundamental building blocks of resilience remain the same.”

So here we are, Sheppard Watch, building resilience.

Instructor Stephen Kuni let students find their own way through challenges
School director Hamish Reid says much has changed at Outward Bound but the fundamental building blocks of resilience remain

Day three starts with its usual jolt: 6.20am exercises, a 3km run, a swim in the sea and a cold shower, by which time we are wide awake and ravenous.

After breakfast we are back in the sea practising kayak rescues. This entails much head-under-water stuff, reliance on our partners to rescue us, self-rescues, and even more challenging exploits involving kayaks on the wharf that scare the heck out of me. We all survive.      The afternoon’s high ropes course is marginally less daunting. I’ve done this before, though not for a long time, and even though we are double-clipped onto safety lines the adrenaline is coursing.  To think, at 21, I ran around these ropes with not one safety line in place.

When it comes to safety, times have changed, says Reid. “Our courses need to provide authentic adventure and challenge, but we have to do that with contemporary safeguards in place,” he says. Outward Bound is a registered provider under the Adventure Activity Regulations and undergoes regular external audits.

This is a good thing, especially right now, because one of our group is approaching a small climbing wall. It spans a scary gap, high between two towering kahikatea trees. She’s shaking, crying a bit. We call encouragement from the ground and she shows huge resolve to cross the wall. It’s fascinating how something that scares one person can be fun for others. The key is that we all pitch in; for anyone struggling there is support at hand.

The ropes are done. It’s been a long, challenging day and we are ready for a hot shower, dinner and bed.

But Kuni has other ideas. “Tonight, you’re going to go up to that rocky knob,” he says, pointing to a high ridgeline behind the school. He’s not joking. “You’ll need to get your packs, sleeping bags, gear and food. We’ll give you a fly for shelter, and tomorrow you’ll tramp around that ridge and back to the school. It’s a beautiful track. Oh, and you’ll need to be quick, you’re on kitchen duty tonight. You’ll go up after that.”

Mā te wā all in good time – is another Outward Bound thing. We’re told what we need to know when we need to know it. No advance planning here.

We pack. We have dinner. We do the dishes and mop the floor. Lovely chef Ruby slips us the leftover chocolate brownie desserts for a camp supper. Gloeggler gathers us up and we set off. Along the road, into the bush, up a steep track in the dark. We have headlamps. There are glow-worms. We walk an hour or two. We share loads. We carry way too much water. One of us, not used to tramping, says this is the worst day of her life. We get to the top. Gloeggler says goodnight and that Kuni will be here at 8am to walk back to Anakiwa with us.

Teamwork on the cutter

We work together in the dark to erect the fly. All eight of us fit beneath it. It’s not raining, yet. Our sleeping bags are really warm. We can see down the sound in the moonlight. It’s quite beautiful, and kind of fun, all being up here together.

In the morning, Kuni arrives with a map that clearly identifies our return route to Anakiwa. After a cursory lesson about map and compass reading, he potters behind and lets us find our own way. (It has long been standard practice for instructors to shadow every group on tramping routes. Unlike in 1975, when we got seriously lost.)

We climb into beech forest, it rains, we climb some more, it gets misty and cold, we descend a forestry road, we taste some wild fuchsia berries. We realise we’ve inadvertently left most of our food rations behind, all the fresh stuff. But there’s no time for lunch anyway because we are busy searching for the track to get back down. Forestry roads confuse us. We go back and forth and back up a steep hill. One of us is having the worst day of her life, again. It’s raining again. Eventually, we look at our map properly and stumble on the little track. We eat biscuits as we bush-bash down the steep, muddy, overgrown trail. For several hours we slip and slide, some more than others, but everyone is covered in mud. We have to laugh.

We’re back just in time for dinner and then settle with ​​Gloeggler for the inevitable reflection. “What were you most proud of today?” she starts. But we are exhausted, not in the mood for the deep and meaningful stuff. Instead, the session morphs into laughter as we recount our mistakes and muddy episodes. We reduce Gloeggler to hysterics.

I’m proud of everyone. Lost, wet, hungry, we’d all rallied and here was our reward, the best belly laughs with this great bunch of people who’d been total strangers only four days ago.

“So, are you tired?” asks Gloeggler. Yes! “Are you ready now for a nice, long rest?” Yes! “Good, that is why you are going to pack your packs now because tonight you are all going out on solo. You will stay out for two nights.”

There’s a huge sense of accomplishment at completing the high ropes course

We did not see that coming.

“Your solo sites are about an hour’s walk from here,” she says. “You need to collect your rations and be ready to leave in 30 minutes.”

Solo, on your own in the bush with basic shelter, minimal food, no phone, books or watch, is a well-known element of an Outward Bound course. Plus est en vous, this time, is focusing on the mental challenge.

We all survived solo. Some of us slept a lot, some cried a bit, one overcame her fear of the dark, another normally busy person embraced having ‘permission to do nothing’, and one was saved from despair by her weka companions, especially, she said, the cute black chicks. We wrote inspiring thoughts into logbooks. We enjoyed the peace, the birds, the stream rushing nearby and, afterwards, we enjoyed getting back together again. It was the same in 1975: after forging bonds with my watchmates as we’d faced adversity together, we were sad to be separated.

Walking back we laughed when other people, passing us on the track, asked what was in our 10-litre buckets, then perhaps wished they hadn’t. For the record, the contents of our solo buckets contributed to the school’s wastewater treatment plant and local wetland enhancement and kept the solo sites clean. It’s a good system.

We’re no sooner back from solo before we’re off rock climbing. This is my happy place and I scramble, albeit with little style, up the rockface. Others resemble mountain goats (one is given a blindfold for extra challenge – it barely slows her down), while some struggle. We help each other, and everyone manages to touch that piton at the top.

Instructor Kate Gloeggler, at left, has plenty of surprise in store

Tonight we actually sleep in our bunkrooms but remain on tenterhooks until our course ends. What will be the next bombshell, and when?

We were all adults and one might ask: why would we acquiesce and do these crazy things thrown at us last minute? Because we’d signed up for it, is the simple answer. More importantly, because each time we really did learn that we could do more. In 1975 it was the same. A challenging three-day tramp that turned into four after navigational mishaps, when I thought I couldn’t go on but had to, and did, has held me in good stead ever since. Plus est en vous.

My own tramping trips have often been physically harder, but at Outward Bound there was something deeper going on, drawing out sterner stuff.

Watchmate Ewan said the course gave him a fresh perspective on his behaviour at work and at home. “It also reset my thinking of my life purpose and how important it is to keep dreaming and striving towards my goals,” he says. “It showed me that the seemingly insignificant, basic things in life are often the most important.”

Emma Kelman said that after the course she felt calm. I could relate. There’s definitely something calming about learning that you can tramp in the dark, hang upside down in a kayak, get lost, rely on others, climb the high ropes and digitally detox (which I’m still doing, largely. Cutting the noise).

As for pre-course concerns? Our ages ranged from 28 to 69 and it’s fair to say we were all challenged, mentally and physically in different ways at different times. And through all those challenges, or rather because of them, we forged a wonderful supportive bond. And how we laughed. It’s a good way to live your life. Thanks Sheppard Watch 699, and thanks Kuni and Gloeggler, for your surprises, and for your care.


When Outward Bound NZ began in 1962, it offered a standard 23-day course for young men aged 18 to 23. The first female course was in 1973. Watches were segregated until 1980.

Today, Outward Bound welcomes people of all ages, cultures, abilities and backgrounds. Courses range from five to 21 days and age groups vary. There is no upper limit. (In 2020 Rob Waldron, 84, completed an 8-day low-impact Inspire course)

Several courses cater for specific needs, such as intellectual or physical disabilities, mild physical conditions and early-onset Parkinson’s. There is Leaps and Bounds, which teenagers share with a parent or caregiver. Mind, Body and Soul targets senior high school students. Professional and Women in Leadership courses are for business leaders. Journey – Te Waiau Toa is essentially a river journey, away from Anakiwa. The Southern Cross course targets young people from migrant backgrounds and includes input from the Human Rights Commission.

Accessibility is also important. Outward Bound’s Ka Mahi scholarship programme aims to make these courses available to all New Zealanders, regardless of their socio-economic background.

And the school has grown. There are now 10 watchhouses, named after Māori and women leaders as well as early New Zealand and British adventurers. A recycling facility, wastewater treatment plant, energy-efficient water-heating systems and solar-powered drying rooms are part of the school’s focus on environmental care and sustainability. Outdoor gear – packs, sleeping bags, wet suits, tents – is top quality.

One thing hasn’t changed. The meals at the school are still amazing. All diets are catered for. Most of us bought the cookbook.