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Why getting lost in the bush might actually be good for you

By stepping outside your comfort zone, the extraordinary can happen, says Polly Greeks. Photo: Supplied

There was one good thing to come out of a frightful night lost and alone in the bush: for the first time, Polly Greeks realised she could depend on herself.

One of the most significant things that happened to me as a teenager was getting lost in dense bush for 24 hours

I was 16 and on a weekend of bushcraft instruction. Groups of two novices were assigned a seasoned guide who would lead us off-track in the Tararua Ranges, then show us how to find our way to a river valley campsite relying solely on compass and map. 

My heart sank when I saw Rodney was our guide. A tall, gangly, fiercely competitive man who always had to be first up any mountain or to any hut. It wasn’t in him to meander along forest trails, admiring the scenery. Snack breaks were an annoying interruption. Why walk when you can run, he would ask. People were known to secrete heavy rocks in his pack in retaliation to his boasting of how easy steep hills were to climb.

No sooner were we divided into groups of three, than Rodney called that it was time to go. Doreen, the other of my party, hesitantly mentioned something about boiling the billy for a preparatory cuppa but Rodney hustled her into her pack before disappearing out of sight. Doreen and I ambled conversationally along the bush trail. We came across him after a couple of hours, jogging impatiently on the spot as he gestured at a distant saddle.

“What took you so long? This is where we leave the track.” 

He showed us several ranges and valleys on the map to bush-bash across before reaching the Waiohine River. There was a manic gleam in his eye as he said, “Let’s be the first ones there.”

I jogged to keep up. We darted around trees, clambered over logs and pushed through foliage that snagged our packs. At some stage, I realised Doreen was no longer behind us. I called Rodney but heard only a vigorous rustling as he forged ahead. When Doreen never materialised, I set off to alert Rodney but he’d vanished. My shouts also went unanswered.

I walked all day and light was fading before I acknowledged I was lost. I’d figured if I kept climbing enough ranges, I’d meet the river, but the New Zealand bush is filled with unexpected spurs and hollows. Everywhere looked the same. Dusk shadows played with my imagination and the forest creaked and moaned in a stiff wind.

As darkness approached, I emptied my pack and crawled into the pack-liner, grateful for the oversized plastic bag as it began to rain. It filled my hiking boots and provided water to drink. There wasn’t much food – we’d divided the evening meal between us before setting off. I had the dry noodles. It was a long, wild night but I felt exhilarated as the roaring storm crashed around me.

Fear arrived the next morning after I re-entered the dripping forest. It was dark and gloomy and as time passed, I began to suspect I was walking in circles. I sat on my pack and sobbed. That was my darkest moment. From it came the realisation I’d have to rescue myself. All I had to do, I reasoned, was find a stream, follow it to a river and follow that to the Wairarapa coastline. 

I found water trickling down a narrow gut. After much clambering and slipping I hit a stream. It widened and the valley opened; sunlight flooded in. There was a trail. I rounded a bend and was startled to encounter a man. We stared at one another before he questioningly said my name. He beamed when I confirmed it. Numb with tiredness, I was led to the hiking club’s truck and eventually driven home. 

Initially, I felt ashamed for getting lost but it was my dad who added meaning to the experience. 

‘That was your initiation into adulthood,’ he said once my story was told. ‘You proved yourself. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve shown you can look after yourself. You’ve earned my trust.’

There were no curfews after that. I felt different, too. A small internal fire had been lit. Knowing I could depend on myself brought a warm glow. 

I reflect on this now, not only because I have children who I wish one day to help cross a meaningful threshold into adulthood, but because we live in a society hell-bent on keeping us ‘safe’. Our wild selves don’t flourish when wrapped in cotton wool. Denying the abyss doesn’t stop its existence. Adventurers and explorers discover extraordinariness because they leave the safe zone. There’s a depth to us all when we aren’t confined to life’s shore.