Sweating palms has got to be the body’s most unhelpful fear response.
Balanced precariously on a wire, 12 metres up a kahikatea tree, I have to unclip and re-clip two carabiners – the only thing stopping me from plummeting through a canopy of ferns. Yet my body’s ever-so-helpful reaction to stress means I’m fumbling with the metal grips.
“Take a deep breath,” calls Paula, our watch instructor, from the enviably solid ground below. “You’ve got this.”
I don’t think I do. My body is rigid with fear and there’s a cold, fizzing sensation behind my eyes.
‘The course will be physically, mentally and emotionally challenging,’ I read on the Outward Bound website. But how hard can it actually be?
I’ve been tramping before – I know what it’s like to have blisters and keep walking. I’ve sailed a boat and felt a bit scared when it heeled too far. Surely it’ll be like school camp – challenging activities during the day but returning at night to a hot meal, a warm shower and a comfortable bunkhouse.
If only. We did things on our Outward Bound taster course that I could never have prepared for. Partly because they don't let you prepare. If I had known what was expected, I’d have either refused, or spent the whole time dreading it. Opting out is not an option.
We meet on the wharf in Picton and hand over our phones. But I’m literally in the same boat as eight other women. There’s a lot of nervous laughter and a palpable sense of trepidation.
At the mouth of Picton Harbour, we hoist the sails of the Sir Woolf – a 10-metre cutter, named after Outward Bound patron, Sir Woolf Fisher, of Fisher & Paykel.
It’s a small boat, just big enough for the nine of us and Paula, our instructor. She shows us the ropes and answers our questions, seemingly taking delight in our unease.
The wind picks up. Some of my watchmates stifle shrieks as the choppy waves crash over the bow; the hull dipping close to the water.
I grit my teeth. I’ve done this before.
As the sun drops lower, my anxiety increases when we are still sailing in the opposite direction to basecamp in Anakiwa.
“See that bay over there?” Paula asks, pointing to a small cove clad in emerald bush. “That’s Te Kainga. It’s a very special place, and,” she adds, with a devilish grin, “that’s where we’ll be staying tonight.”
Te Kainga, in Torea Bay, was gifted to Outward Bound in the 1970s by the Carey Family. We drop sail and heft the heavy oars into the rowlocks of the Sir Woolf. All is quiet in the sheltered cove apart from the rhythmic splash of oars and our unladylike grunting. Ashore, the bush rings with tūī song and the vibration of late summer cicadas.
The Sir Woolf has no dinghy, of course, and our mooring is in the middle of the deserted bay. I’d been expecting this bit. I step off the boat and plunge, fully clothed, into clear turquoise water.
I’ve worked up an appetite. Alongside, Kevin our second instructor has been helming the support boat laden with our provisions. I squeeze seawater out of my hair and we unload plastic tubs with rations.
As the sun sets and sandflies start biting, foam mattresses in the Te Kainga bunkhouse look appealing. But that would be too easy. Like a Cheshire cat, Paula reveals our sleeping arrangements: we’re staying on the boat. The tiny cutter we sailed in on. All nine of us exchange incredulous looks, with eyebrows shooting even higher when we’re told to take our stuff because we won’t be coming back ashore.
On the dark jetty, we stand in varying states of undress, trying to find everything we'll need for the night. And then we’re left on the cutter, with a sack of sleeping bags and foam mats that smell vaguely of vomit. Our essentials are a nylon fly that we tie to the rigging for shelter and a bucket, in case anyone made the mistake of not using the toilet ashore.
Nine women who met that morning snuggle together on the hard fibreglass. In our sleeping bags, we laugh under rustling fabric and starlight at the improbable situation we’ve found ourselves in. There’s no room for façades on Outward Bound. We've learned that by morning when the lack of onboard facilities becomes unavoidable.
Arriving at the sunny Anakiwa basecamp, we unload our gear. But Paula tells us not to unpack. She gives us half an hour to make sandwiches. Then we form a line. With one hand on the shoulder of the person in front, eyes closed, Kevin guides us verbally through the bush. There’s nothing stopping us from looking, but that, he says, would be cheating ourselves of the experience.
We slowly navigate tree roots and rocks until told to stop and lie down on the forest floor. I feel dappled sunlight on my face and twigs prickling my bare skin. “What’s the phrase,” Kevin asks us to consider, “that will make you keep going if you’re afraid or resistant to something? Keep that in mind and open your eyes.”
We’re in the middle of a kahikatea grove and far above us intertwined through the huge trees is a network of wires, tyres and a large wooden climbing wall. My heart sinks. But Kevin passes me a marker pen and on the back of my hand, in big red capitals, I write: ‘GO.’
Which is how I find myself clinging to small metal staples rammed into a tree trunk, an eternity above the ground. Limbs locked with adrenaline I can’t bring myself to move. My watchmates call out encouragement as I inch my way across the first wire.
The high ropes course is built around obstacles of increasing intensity. I reach the Leap of Faith: two small platforms, just over a metre apart, with nothing but thin air between them. I stand with my back melded to the tree, heartbeat thumping in my ears. “Jo, tell me what’s written on your hand,” Paula calls. I take a deep breath and step across the gap.
There are four types of fun, Kevin says. The first is unadulterated – an experience is great at the time and also in retrospect. Number two is not fun at the time, but afterwards the experience grows on you. The third type is fun at the time, but not on reflection. Number four: not fun at all.
With my cheek pressed into leaf litter, nearly sobbing with gratitude at being back on hard ground, I relegate the high ropes to the fourth kind of fun. It’s not until later, when I find black bruises on my arms from gripping the wires, that I’m proud of my tenacity. Perhaps it was the second type, after all. I stumble gratefully back to the watch-house after dinner. But it is not bedtime yet.
Paula rouses us from our bunks. We’re to pack, because before we get to sleep, we have to tramp. In the dark. Uphill. For two hours. We’re all too tired to protest. In the pretty purple dusk, we trudge wearily along the road from Anakiwa. I inhale deep lungfuls of night air and feel my headache lifting. Around us, the bush is studded with a galaxy of glowworms. Contrary to all expectation, I am enjoying this.
We follow the golden puddles of our torches to reach a grassy ridge – our bed for the night.
Rather than preposterous, this now feels perfect. In my warm sleeping bag, I gaze at the widest of skies. Orion’s belt is bedazzled with glitter tonight. I drift off to sleep soothed by a gentle breeze rustling the flax bushes and the call of a distant morepork.
At the first hint of daylight, I wake and gasp. The ridge where we've slept overlooks the shining expanse of Queen Charlotte Sound. Lights from the Interislander are a sparkly speck in a soft palette of pre-dawn blues and purples. The others wake one by one and we grin at each other, and then watch in comfortable silence as the mantle of clouds cracks open and golden sunlight spills over the hills.
On the first day of the course I had inwardly rolled my eyes at what seemed to be cheesy platitudes about ‘personal growth.’ This morning, in the crisp dawn, I have a lump in my throat.
I get it now. My cynicism has been dissolved by camaraderie, fear and discomfort. There is so much more to Outward Bound than deprivation and physical challenges. Every strenuous activity, every test of endurance, every uncomfortable night’s sleep is designed to teach you something about yourself.
There is validation in achieving things you didn’t believe you were capable of. There is pleasure in completing an activity, even if you hated every minute of it. There is freedom in leaning into the unknown.
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue
Towering mountain peaks, gushing rivers and deep caves make the perfect playground for the adventurous. New Zealand has some striking landscapes that encourage testing the limits. Try parasailing in the Bay of Islands, black-water rafting in Waitomo Caves, AJ Hackett Bungy’s Nevis Catapult near Queenstown, or go off road in a 4WD through remote backcountry.