There's nothing to fear at Outward Bound – except for fear itself

by Lauren Buckeridge / 26 May, 2018
The writer tests her balance at Outward Bound.

The writer tests her balance at Outward Bound.

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The Outward Bound school at Anakiwa makes you stare fear in the face and conquer it. Lauren Buckeridge does just that.

We lie on a warm bed of dried leaves, our group of nine. There’s a light breeze. A man with a lilting Irish accent tells us to open our eyes. As our vision adjusts to the dappled afternoon light, my sense of serenity is replaced by fear. A large sheet of wood hangs overhead, studded with coloured lumps of all shapes and sizes. It’s a rock-climbing wall. Shit.

I had mentally prepared myself for this but now it’s here, it is much higher than I had imagined. That’s what an Outward Bound course is for, they say: you are meant to stare your fear in the face and conquer it. Plus est en vous (There is more in you) is its motto. All I feel is panic.

Our instructor, Kevin, asks us to write a word or phrase on the back of our hands that we can refer to in a moment of existential crisis. I’m pretty sure I’m in that moment already. I write “Why not?” in jade-coloured marker.

I’m at Anakiwa, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, surrounded by strong and supportive women, lucky to have this opportunity, and most important, safe. Why not scale these soaring kahikatea? What do I have to lose? Why not be fearless?

So I’m fearless. Until I freeze. Halfway through the ropes course. I am koala-hugging a tree, 12m off the ground, wondering how my limbs can stretch to the next obstacle. I look at the back of my hand for support. My quote has been smudged by panicky sweat. “Why?” it reads.

Anakiwa.

Anakiwa.

“There are four types of fun,” Kevin says later. “The first kind is just fun; it was and will always be fun. The second kind is not so fun at the time, but in hindsight, it really was fun, after all. The third type is fun at the time, but actually wasn’t so fun looking back. And the fourth kind will never, ever, be fun.”

It’s hard to be convinced that the high ropes course is anything other than type four. Some of our group swing through the ropes like spider monkeys and dance along the climbing wall. I am not one of them. I cling to the trees and bite back tears. Kevin says the course is a four for some and a one for others. Later, I rank it a two. Back on the ground, hindsight improves the view.

I am more at home on the cutter we learn to sail in. We are literally learning the ropes as we hit 30-knot winds in Totaranui, as the sound is known to Māori. The Interislander ferry races up behind us as we sail down the spine of the sound, the ropes burning our soft city hands as we try to tack closer to shore.

At times the cutter dips a little too close to the water and the roaring waves wash over the gunwales. For me, this is category one fun.

The rock-climbing wall.

The rock-climbing wall.

Outward Bound, or OB to the locals, was created to put young men through physical, mental, and emotional challenges to ready them for the rigours of being at sea during World War II. It’s progressed beyond its first school, which opened in Wales in 1941, and now has more than 30 establishments worldwide. More than 60,000 students have attended the Anakiwa course since its inception in 1962.

The idea is that students who may never have seen themselves as capable or strong can find those qualities. “We’re not an army camp,” says Kevin. “It’s not figure it out or die.” That’s reassuring, particularly when students aren’t told what’s ahead.

From the moment we meet Kevin and fellow instructor Paula in Picton, we are asked to surrender our cellphones and valuables. I begin to wonder if my editor has secretly signed me up for a New Zealand series of I’m a Millennial, Get Me Out of Here!

Without cellphones, internet or any other connection to the outside world, we are asked to live in the moment, to not worry about deadlines or emails. No device can capture your surroundings as perfectly as the mind can, Paula says, and with those words my phone and the concept of the internet completely lose all value. These “OB moments” punctuate our trip, exemplifying why we should not live life through a lens or calendar.

The cutter under student power.

The cutter under student power.

Each night is spent under the stars, and without any light pollution, the night sky in the Marlborough Sounds is a spectacular kaleidoscope. The stars are so dense and captivating that although my body aches from the day’s efforts, I lie for hours, unable to close my eyes.

From the deck of the cutter, anchored in Torea Bay halfway up the sound, the clarity of the Milky Way is mesmerising, the only noise a gentle snore from a watch-mate sleeping at the stern. Running my hand through the velvet water sparks a blue fizz in the dark, as tiny bioluminescent fish light up the sea and mirror the stars above, just for a second.

The following morning, we sail to a marine reserve where one of the group feeds porridge to greedy kahawai from between her toes.

At dusk, we set off for a two-hour tramp up a farmer’s track in the hills to our accommodation for the second night – a grassy knoll. In fading light, we make our way along the Anakiwa shore and begin the steep ascent.

Dawn breaks over the sound.

Dawn breaks over the sound.

Strangely, walking in the dark offers many sights: our torches give us glimpses of statues and dolls placed along the track by the farmers, purely for their amusement. Some dolls are dining al fresco; others ride bicycles alongside the track. Previous OB students have left bracelets on tree branches. Some have made Christmas trees, complete with tinsel.

At times, we switch off our torches, and stand in silence in the warm night. We are not alone. Glow-worm lights stretch up the hillsides, disappearing down little creeks and rising up to the top of the track, a living light path to where we will spend the night.

The following dawn, cocooned in our sleeping bags, we watch the sun rise over the hills. Pink and gold clouds soar over the deep teal of a calm sea. As the heat rises, so do we, and we turn to see Kevin and Paula beaming with delight at how captivated we are by a view that is commonplace for them.

New Zealand can be so breathtakingly beautiful, even if sometimes you need to be pushed outside your comfort zone – or up a hill – to see it. The view, coupled with a cool breeze, revitalises us for the day ahead.

No one mentions coffee; I don’t think it’s crossed our minds. An outlook like this beats a double flat white any day.

At the course’s end.

At the course’s end.

Outward Bound alumni on their experiences on the course.

Carly Flynn: Journalist

Resilience. It’s what OB is designed to build, and it’s something that is lacking in today’s society. That is why I would encourage every Kiwi of every age and every stage, every teen, to just do it. It should be a rite of passage. It was hard at the time, brutal even, but I feel proud of what my body and my mind achieved. The experience gave me a new strength, new clarity and a new conviction to seek what I really want and to prioritise what’s really important.

Maggie Barry: National MP and former Cabinet minister

OB is rightly famous for changing lives, and although it’s not renowned for romance, it was at Anakiwa that I met the man who is now my husband. The true character of people emerges when they are under pressure and well outside their comfort zone, and his resilience, tenacity and unfailing humour won my admiration – and heart.

Sarah Walker: Olympic BMX silver medallist

It gave me the confidence to take the leap into the unknown. To take everything into consideration and to look at the big picture. It gave me the tools to make big life decisions a little clearer.

Peter Taylor: Olympic rowing bronze medallist

I was a know-all back then, and this 10-day personal adventure definitely shook me up. Mountain climbing, traversing high ropes and sailing came easy – it was the mental stuff that was hard. I’ve used the experience from then on to challenge myself in all areas of my life, with great rewards.

OB's refreshment plans

A humble guest house was developed during the 1970s and 1980s at the Outward Bound site we know today, thanks to financial contributions from dedicated families. But after having accommodated hundreds of students each day for all those years, the site is ready for a makeover.

Project Refresh Anakiwa is a three-year campaign to raise $4 million to upgrade the infrastructure and build new facilities. New student accommodation, waka ama equipment, a Tortuga launch and a docking pontoon are planned, as well as upgrades to staff and student accommodation.

“We will be building on the legacy of the 1980s to take the school into 2050 and beyond,” says board member Dick Hubbard, who chairs Project Refresh. “This work is necessary to ensure the Outward Bound Trust can continue its excellent work with transforming New Zealanders’ lives.”

Making more sophisticated courses, lifting student numbers, improving standards of health and safety and increasing emphasis on environmental awareness are among the project’s aims.

Donor enquiries can be made to Outward Bound funds development manager Karla Paotonu at kpaotonu@outwardbound.co.nz.

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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