New Zealand Wilderness Survival Trip (Part 1)

After receiving a slew of emails regarding my last blog on my wilderness survival trip in Australia I was asked to write another blog on one of my many wild wilderness adventures. So, today I will diving into my Outward Bound wilderness survival trip in New Zealand in 2000. My recollection of this trip came back to me when one of my old teachers from high school sent me a 5 page email I sent him and the family after my voyage giving a detailed account of all of my adventures. It was wild to read something I had written 18 years ago. Quite frankly I was appalled at my grammar, lack of spelling, misuse of commas, and poor grasp of the English language. 🙂

Regardless, after reading the email it took me back to this trip like I was there yesterday. There was only one surviving photograph from my trip 18 years ago (see below) … The rest of the photos I found pretty similar photos from other folks who participated in this New Zealand Outward Bound Trip over the years.

“The 17-year-old “Ali” with a look of utter joy upon completion of the trip”

Growing up in Europe and then transferring to school in the United States I ended up graduating early from high school. I decided to take some time off before heading to Occidental College in Pasadena, Los Angeles. I decided to embark on a life-changing experience to Beijing, China. However, when I graduated I had several months to spare before heading over to Asia and I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with my summer. I had been on previous adventure trips in my early teens, but none of them really offered me a test of my endurance and will.

I rigorously started researching different outdoor survival programs and came across Outward Bound. Outward Bound was originally founded to help troubled teenagers using trips into the wilderness to teach them responsibility, leadership, accountability, etc. Initially I had hesitations as I did not consider myself conventionally troubled, but I really liked the idea of a challenge. I went on their website, but you must remember in 2000 websites were still quite primitive, so I did not have that much information to go on, but I signed up for a trip as far away as I could possibly go. New Zealand was the winner!

When I graduated high school I went back home to the Bahamas for several weeks to start training because I read that there was a physical fitness test one had to pass upon arriving in New Zealand. Every morning the Bahamas I would wake up at the crack of dawn, run several miles in 90° heat, stripped down to my bathing suit into the crystal-clear Bahamian waters and swim for hours, do an ungodly amount of sit ups, push-ups, and whatever else I could think of. I was 17 years old and the time had come to fly 27 hours to the other side of the world. I wasn’t quite sure what gear I had to pack, so I packed light, and I was told what I needed would be provided for me when I reached my destination.

There are two islands in New Zealand … The North and South. I flew to the very southern tip of the northern island called Wellington, and I had several days to explore this majestic little city. At the time the city was paved with cobblestones, the most friendly folks, called kiwis, you could ever meet, and backpackers from all over the world. The New Zealand locals are probably some of the kindest folks you will meet and I’m not quite sure if this is because New Zealand is a tiny island off the beaten path of life, but whatever the reason, I wanted to move there immediately.

Being foolishly young I completely forgot that in the summertime on the East Coast it was the winter time in New Zealand. I’m not quite sure how I overlooked this tiny little fact, but it was absolutely freezing! I was looking to head to a warm destination and I had completely muddled that up … None-the-less, I was committed to an epic journey despite the frigid temperatures. Perhaps I might be exaggerating slightly as freezing temperatures to me are between 30 to 50° if I’m going to be outside every day. So, some may describe these temperatures as temperate, but if I was going to be sleeping outside in the wilderness at night time… Well, it’s was not the most enticing thought.

The start of the trip entailed meeting up with 70 teenagers at the ferry port on the northern island. From there we had to take an hour ferry to get to the northern part of the southern island called Anakiwa. In Anakiwa the Outward Bound folks had an entire campground set up for our arrival. When we boarded the ferry boat the air was crisp, I could smell the aromatic salts from the sea in addition to a bunch of teenagers whom I’m confident had not showered in quite a while. I learned I was the only American who was crazy enough to fly all the way across the world to voluntarily participate on a trip like this. Many of these kids had been mandated by their courts or their parents to participate in, what they describe, as the worst trip in history. I kept to myself and eagerly smirked as I couldn’t wait to get bloody, dirty, and smelly 🙂

“The Southern Island of Anakiwa, NZ”

As we approached the southern island we were herded off the ferry like cattle and told to meet in the main hall, which kind of looked like a giant ski lodge. I had no idea what I was in for. They sat us down and gave us a talk about the history of Outward Bound, the trials and tribulations we would have to endure to complete this month-long course, and the physical fitness test we are about to undergo the next morning to see if we were even fit enough to participate. We were broken up into groups of 10 teenagers and assigned our cabins, which consisted of a hard small military like bed surrounded by four wooden walls. There was no heat and I had not packed accordingly, so I was not sure how I was going to even survive the night. Luckily, they assigned us minimal protective gear and the basics of what we would need.

“70 of us souls headed out for an adventure of a lifetime”

The Outward Bound camp was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by trees that appeared hundred feet high, despite being the winter time everything was lush and green, other than the manicured lawn around the camp it looked as though we had been thrown back in time to the 1700s where we were the first settlers in a new civilization. You could hear the wind blow, the birds chatting with one another, and not a modern technology device to be seen anywhere (remember smart phones had not come out at this point yet, so I’m generally referring to iPods and the old Nokia razor cell phones 🙂 It was just what I needed … serenity & wilderness!

The night before the adventure was about to begin the 10 of us in our group were silently sizing each other up to see who would make it the next morning. Our group was called Shackleton, named after an Englishman who braved an expedition to an article in the 1700’s, had his vessel encapsulated in ice, and spent nine months with his men surviving the winter. When the ice finally thawed he sailed back through Chile and up to England. He had left some men back in Antarctica because he only had a small lifeboat since he ice it crushed the hull of their boat. So, when he returned to England he requested another ship to return back to save his men.

There was quite a lot of anger and frustration for many of the members in my group as they had not volunteered for this trip as I had done. They labeled me the “crazy American.” Also, being teenagers we were all checking out one another to see who would likely get together on the trip, but little did we know, there would be no time for romantic dalliances as we would be covered in mud, sweat, blood, and likely smell just awful.

We woke up the next morning at 4:30 AM with a loud drill sergeant bell and told we had five minutes to get outside. I didn’t even have time to brush my teeth as I was trying to fiddle around with getting my contacts in my eyes so I could see what I was doing. The campsite was organized with a large central primitive dining hall in the middle of the camp and small surrounding cabins around the outside of it. We were right on the water, which looked so beautiful and pristine when I arrived, but little did I know I would soon come to dread even looking at water!

We were directed to run several miles within a very specific time frame for our first test. It could not have been more than 30° outside as we started running, trying to pass the person next to us, and wondering if the poor soul to the left or right of us was going to be the lamb to the slaughter, and get sent home. I was accustomed to running, but not in those temperatures, and certainly not uphill for several miles at a time. I was in shorts and a T-shirt and running for my life as I did not want to be sent halfway across the world back home after just arriving. I could feel the wind burn on my cheeks, snot running down my nose, tears welling up inside my eyes as I was in so much pain from running so fast with terrible shin splints. There were several points where I had to stop running and started to limp … To my pleasant surprise one of my teammates came running up behind me and literally pushed me. He told me not to give up, keep going, and he would drag me if he had to. I ended up becoming quite good friends with this guy and it is people like him who help me to constantly see the good in people.

I had tunnel vision … I did not notice the beautiful scenery around me, I could not smell anything other than my own sweat, and all I could feel was fear for not making the cut.  When we sprinted across the finish line although several of my original 10 teammates did not make it. They were immediately sent back to the cabin and told to wait there, presumably to pack up their things and leave.

The next test, which came right after our uphill run, was to swim half a mile with our clothes and shoes into the freezing temperatures of the ocean. Honestly, I thought they were joking … Was this not abuse? Was I not going to get hypothermia, stop swimming, and drown? We all hesitated for a moment, but I then decided to run full steam into the water to make the pain of the freezing water, which felt like sharp razor blades slicing open every cell of my body.

“The exact location where I was crawling out of the water from our swim at base camp”

About a quarter mile into my swim I realized I could no longer feel my legs anymore, I was quite certain my little toes had fallen off at this point, and I must have looked like a dog treading water because I did not think I was moving. I started flailing my arms about, and even though I was a strong swimmer, the seemingly Arctic temperatures were almost too intense for this Bahamian girl. I thought I was drowning as my head bobbed up and down while I was gasping for air when I heard a very loud speaker with a support boat, which I not previously seen, to the right of me shouting “Swim, Swim, Swim like your life depended on it!” I was thinking to myself at what point would they help a poor soul who was actually drowning? These instructors were the experts though and must have been accustomed to understanding people’s limits.

I certainly did not want my parents to receive a death certificate on my first day of Outward Bound. It must have been through sheer will, or perhaps in complete insanity, that I just kept going. Somewhere along the journey, unbeknownst to me, I had kicked off my shoes, which allowed me to swim back from the checkpoint. I was gulping in vast amounts of seawater, which tasted saltier than I had been accustomed to in the Eastern Hemisphere. By the time I reached the shore I was crawling on my hands and knees, but I wasn’t the last one… “Dammit, I wasn’t the last one,” … that is all I kept repeating to myself.

I literally crawled out of the water, soaking wet, nearly in a hypothermic state, and fully anticipated that we were going to be allowed to take a hot shower, and have a cup of tea. We all started to head for the cabin, but were abruptly stopped and told to head to the outside showers to start a regiment of push-ups, and sit-ups. At this point there were about seven of us still standing doing push-ups in an outside shower with little beads, which might as well have been little BB pellets, of water pouring down on our head. By now I was questioning my decision of whether I had made an intelligent choice. If the first day was this intense, how on earth was I going to survive 30 more days of this? What felt like hours later, but in reality was probably only 30 minutes, we were told our group had passed the test! We were given precisely 15 minutes to go take a hot shower, get warm close on, and meet back at the group dining hall for a quick breakfast where our leaders would then give us instructions for how we would spend the next 30 days.

“Folks at Outward Bound New Zealand… The only difference with my trip is that we had cold showers on the top of us while doing push-ups”

“Outward Bound, New Zealand base camp hall where we were being informed of what was to come”

 

The head of the Outward Bound program told us our trip would be divided into three segments ranging between 4 to 7 days. They did not disclose exactly what we would be doing as they wanted us to live every moment and they would only let us know what our expedition would entail hours before. I will summarize the main portions of our trip below:

For one portion of the trip we would be taking an old Viking style boat with oars and rowing to remote islands where we would be building our own camp, learning outdoor wilderness skills, and practicing our navigation.

For the second portion of our trip we would be hiking up a mountain where we would learn to navigate the mountain with topographical maps, build fires, and brave the elements.

For the third portion of our trip we would be assigned a specific location in the wilderness for a “solo” trip where we would be given minimal food, shelter, and we would learn how to survive on our own, reflect on life, nature, etc.

The trip would then finish up with us running a half marathon through the woods in order to receive a certification of completion of Outward Bound … one of the most challenging parts of the trip for me because I barely made it due to a number of serious wrong turns in the forest!

There were a few more mini-adventures, but these were the main three parts of the trip that were the most engaging. We did participate in multiple ropes courses, blindfolded rock climbing, and several others, which I will touch on briefly as well.

It all seemed incredibly daunting, but we were excited, scared, and eager to overcome the challenges presented to us… Well, I was anyway 🙂

Toon in next week to join me on the adventures that awaited me over the next month!

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