Sailing in the Marlborough Sounds. © Outward Bound. 

Outward Bound: discovering the discomfort zone

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‘The course will be physically, mentally and emotionally challenging,’ said the Outward Bound website. 

Sure, I thought, but how hard can it actually be? I’ve been tramping before – I know what it’s like to get blisters and have to keep walking. I’ve sailed a boat and gotten wet and a bit scared when it heeled over too far for my liking. It’ll just be that kind of stuff, right? Kind of like going on school camp – challenging activities during the day, then coming back to a meal, a warm shower and a comfortable but basic bunkhouse? 

Ha. 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 – that’s the whole point. If they had told us in advance what would be expected of us, we’d have either flat out refused or spent the whole time dreading it. Because opting out is not an option. 

Our watch (a nautical term, stemming from Outward Bound’s Naval origins) meets for the first time on a wharf at Picton. We hand over our phones – we won’t be needing them for the next three days. I swallow a bubble of panic as my screen blinks to black.

Nine women, literally in the same boat, sit with a lot of nervous laughter and an inevitable sense of trepidation.

At the mouth of Picton Harbour, we hoist the sails of the Sir Woolf – a 10-metre cutter, named for Outward Bound patron, Sir Woolf Fisher, of Fisher & Paykel renown. It’s a small boat, just big enough to accommodate the nine of us and Paula, our instructor – all white teeth and enthusiasm. She shows us the ropes and answers our multitude of questions, but seems to be taking delight in our sense of unease.

The wind picks up. Some of my watchmates who have never sailed stifle shrieks as the choppy waves crash over the bow and the leeward hull tips close to the water. I’ve done this before. I grit my teeth. 

Having glanced at the onboard chart of the Marlborough Sounds, my anxiety increases when the sun drops lower in the sky and we are still sailing in the opposite direction to the Outward Bound base in Anakiwa. How long are we going to be out here? 

“See that bay over there?” asks Paula, pointing to a small cove clad in emerald bush. “That’s Te Kainga. We call it TK. Its a very special place for Outward Bound, 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. It’s a gorgeous spot. 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 out in the middle of the otherwise deserted bay. I’d been expecting this bit. I step off the boat and plunge, fully clothed, into clear turquoise water. 

An afternoon of salt spray and sea breezes has worked up my appetite. Alongside the cutter, our second instructor, Kevin, has been helming the support boat – the Kurt Hahn, named for the German founder of Outward Bound – with our luggage and provisions. I squeeze the water out of my hair and we unload plastic tubs with our rations for the next three meals. 

For teenagers, I imagine it would be daunting to have to plan and prepare meals for a group of 14, but as adults the food prep is second nature. We’re soon sitting down to steaming bowls of risotto and feeling a bit smug about our day’s accomplishments. 

As the sun sets and sandflies start chomping at my toes, the piles of foam mattresses in the Te Kainga bunkhouse look very appealing. But that would be too easy. Like a Cheshire cat, Paula reveals our sleeping arrangements for the night: We’re staying on the boat. Not the relative comfort of the cabin on the Kurt Hahn, but the tiny 10-metre cutter we sailed in on. All nine of us. We exchange incredulous looks, with eyebrows shooting even higher when Kevin tells us to take all of our stuff because we won’t be coming back ashore.  

We stand on the dark jetty in varying states of undress and panic, with five minutes to change and prepare for the night. And then we’re left on the cutter, with a sack of sleeping bags and thin foam mats that smell vaguely of vomit. Our essential provisions are a nylon fly that we tie to the rigging for shelter and a 10-litre Resene paint bucket, in case anyone made the mistake of not using the toilet ashore. 

I clutch my toothbrush and watch the Kurt Hahn slide away into the darkness. 

Nine women who met for the first time that morning snuggle up together on the hard, narrow fibreglass. We crawl into our sleeping bags and laugh together under rustling fabric and starlight at the improbable situation we’ve found ourselves in. 

So much #chill 😌👌

A post shared by Outward Bound NZ (@outwardboundnz) on Aug 30, 2017 at 9:46pm PDT

There’s no room for artifice on an Outward Bound course; no space to maintain façades. We’ve certainly learned that by morning when the lack of onboard facilities becomes unavoidable. There’s nothing like peeing off the side of a boat together to expedite familiarity. But no one wants to be the first to use the bucket. 

We fashion breakfast from our tub of provisions: cereal, powdered milk, tinned fruit – but no coffee – and set sail for the day. But we don’t go far, or fast. There’s no wind. Rather than rowing for hours, which is normal OB protocol in such circumstances, we get a tow back to Anakiwa by the Kurt Hahn. It’s the sole shortcut we take and only because we need to keep to our mysterious schedule. 

At Anakiwa, we lug our gear to a watch-house, which is basic, clean and spacious, but Paula tells us not to unpack. By now we’ve guessed what that means. She gives us half an hour to make sandwiches and tells us to be ready in our activewear.

The everyday essentials of phone, wallet and keys are redundant at Outward Bound. Here, the critical basics are a water bottle, practical shoes and a sunhat. 

Kevin gets us to form a line with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front and close our eyes as he guides us verbally through the bush. We have no idea where we’re going. There’s nothing stopping us from looking, but to do that, he says, would only be cheating ourselves of the experience. I screw my eyes shut tighter behind my sunglasses. We slowly navigate tree roots and undulations in the path until he tells us to stop, take a step forward and lie down on the forest floor. 

I feel dappled sunlight on my face and twigs prickling my bare skin. We lie quietly on the warm earth while Kevin delivers the next activity’s preamble. “What’s the phrase,” he asks in his soothing Irish brogue, “that will make you keep going if you’re afraid or resistant to something? The word that will give you the courage to push on? Keep that word in mind, and open your eyes.” We’re lying in the middle of a kahikatea grove and far, far above us intertwined through the enormous trees is a network of wires, platforms and, suspended from chains, a large wooden climbing wall. My heart sinks. But Kevin passes me a marker pen, and on the back of my hand I write my word in big red capitals: ‘GO.’ 

Sweating palms has got to be the body’s most unhelpful fear response. 

Balanced precariously on wires, 12 metres up a tree, I have to unclip and re-clip two carabiners – the only thing stopping me from plummeting through a canopy of ferns to certain doom. Yet my body’s ever-so-helpful reaction to stress means that I’m fumbling with the stiff metal grips. 

My watchmates call out encouragement as I inch my way across the first wire. I reach the leap of faith: two small wooden platforms, just over a metre apart, with nothing but thin air between them. I stand with my back melded to the kahikatea trunk, heartbeat thumping in my ears. Not a single fibre of my being wants to be doing this. “Jo, tell me what’s written on your hand,” Paula calls. I curse the cavalier version of myself who wrote that word, but I take a deep breath and step across the gap. My watchmates cheer. 

There are four kinds of fun, Kevin says. The first is unadulterated – an experience that is fun 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 so much on reflection. Number four is not fun at all. 

With my cheek pressed into leaf litter, nearly sobbing with relief at being back on firm ground, I immediately put the high ropes into the last category. It’s not until later when I find the big black bruises inside my arms and legs from gripping the wires so tightly, that I feel a bit proud of my tenacity and wonder if, perhaps, it was the second type of fun after all. 

After a broken, uncomfortable night’s sleep, a persistent headache from caffeine withdrawal, and the crushing fatigue that comes post-terror, I stumble gratefully back to the watch-house after dinner. But it is not bedtime yet. 

Paula rouses us from our bunks and tells us to get changed. We’re to pack packs with provisions because before we get to sleep, we have to tramp. Up a hill. In the dark. For two hours. My gut reaction to this absurd suggestion is: “I can’t.” But we’re all too tired to even protest. We organise our gear in grim silence, dividing up the weight of extra water and food between us. 

In the pretty purple dusk, we trudge along the road from Anakiwa before joining the steep bush trail. The Resene bucket rattles ominously from a backpack up ahead.

Soon, with deep lungfuls of cool night air, I feel my headache lifting. The exercise loosens my stiff muscles. Around us, the native bush is fragrant and studded with a galaxy of twinkling glowworms. Contrary to all expectation I am enjoying this. We walk through the dark, following the golden puddles of our torches, to reach the grassy ridge that will be our bed for the night. 

Instead of preposterous, this now feels perfect. I slip into my warm sleeping bag and lie gazing in wonder at the widest of open skies. Maybe it’s because I’m away from city lights or perhaps I’ve finally taken the time to really look, but I’m astonished by the full extent of the constellations. Orion’s belt is bedazzled with glitter tonight. I was so exhausted earlier, but now I’m reluctant to close my eyes. 

I eventually drift off to sleep soothed a gentle breeze rustling the flax bushes and the call of a distant a morepork.

We didn’t get our bearings in the dark, but waking with the first hint of daylight I see we’re somewhere truly magnificent. From my cosy sleeping bag, I can see the shining expanse of the whole Queen Charlotte Sound. The bright lights of the Interislander are a sparkly speck in a soft colour palette of pre-dawn blues and purples. The others wake one by one and we grin at each other, then watch in comfortable silence as the mantle of clouds is cracked open and gleaming sunlight spills over the hills. 

“Rise and shine the @outwardboundnz way” #regram thanks @joepublicrelations

A post shared by Outward Bound NZ (@outwardboundnz) on Feb 19, 2018 at 8:09pm PST

On the first day of the course, I had inwardly rolled my eyes at what seemed to be cheesy platitudes about ‘personal growth’ and ‘rising to challenges’. This morning, in the crisp dawn, I have a lump in my throat as Paula reads us the poignant insights from a previous participant's OB experience. I get it now. My cynicism has rapidly been dissolved by camaraderie, fear and discomfort. 

But 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 something you honestly didn’t believe you were capable of. There is pleasure in completing an activity even if you hated every minute of it. There is a strange freedom in leaning in to the unknown.

We travel back to Picton on the Kurt Hahn, clean and dressed for the real world. I watch the scoop of Anakiwa’s shoreline recede in the distance and feel a prickling in my eyes. I realise that I don’t want to leave.

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