‘What’s the longest you’ve ever been alone? And I mean really alone, no fucking Facebook or T.V or… or anything or anyone?’
I looked at the dreadlocked stoner for sometime before answering. Cigarette smoke hung in the air between us and we both squinted in the harsh orange porch light. A muffled song consisting almost entirely of base banged away from inside the rundown flat. A platoon of drunken students sang along to the one line lyric that was repeated throughout.
‘Maybe four hours’, I answered honestly.
‘Exactly!’ he yelled, spitting the word.
His eyes were wide, like an oracle surprised to hear their own prediction come true. I didn’t think much of it then, as I make a habit of avoiding philosophical chat when I’m drinking, but a week later I recalled the conversation. It angered me. I was embarrassed. I grew up in the city but my parents had made a point of getting my brothers and me outside. We grew up with the bush; as kids we spent our summers building forts in the Marlborough Sounds and our winters in the mountains. But I was amazed to find I had never been alone in nature, which is perhaps the only place one can be alone.
So here I am. Alone. Three hours into my experiment, for lack of a better word. The Atiwhakatu track, which follows its namesake river, is deserted. Rain is falling in persistent sheets, dividing the hazy valley like slices from a blade. We join my narrative as I arrive at the first hut I will pass along my journey to the tops. Unable to resist the idea of a drink break, I drop my pack under the shelter of the hut eaves and sit down on the dry earth. A black figure moves inside and I quickly turn away in order to avoid eye contact. A man in his early thirties comes bounding out. His beard is patchy and his smile is missing several teeth, but it is a friendly one all the same.
‘G’day mate!’ he says enthusiastically.
Bugger. All I want is some bloody solitude. To know what it’s like to not see another face for a few days and this asshole has to ruin it all. We exchange pleasantries though I keep me responses to as few words as possible, feeling as though it may cancel out this flaw in my experiment. He goes on to warn me about the weather where I am heading and boasts how he had pulled a sickie to be here. ‘Good,’ I can’t help but think, ‘the weather should keep people away’.
‘Righto, yeah I’ll be right,’ I say as I wrestled my pack to my shoulders and make to leave. ‘Have a goodie’.
I start to feel bad for my rushed manner and look over my shoulder with a rectifying smile, but he is concentrating on lighting his cigarette. Back on the track it takes a sharp left turn away from the valley floor and beings to climb a ridge at a slope best described as an upright ladder. Small steps the size of pockets have formed amongst the beech roots and mossy rock. An impromptu stream flows down the steep track, forming tiny waterfalls and disguising the depth of my footholds. My pace falls with each step while the rain and wind seem to be getting stronger. After an hour of climbing my head begins to swell, the remnants of a head cold and the heavy pack have begun to take their toll. The wind whips through the ever-thinning bush and cools my soaked body. A shiver runs down my spine and the intoxicating ‘what if’ enters my mind. What if I don’t make it to the hut by nightfall and I can’t find it in the dark. The light is beginning to fade after all. What if I get too cold? I don’t like to admit it but this is one of the reasons I keep coming back to the bush. To feel vulnerable and the inkling of fear nature can install, and then to over come it. There is an understanding that it doesn’t matter who you are in the bush; nature is the only thing that matters here. There is no social standing, only ones ability to look after yourself. I could be anyone here.
We were running, arms out stretched pretending to be aeroplanes. It’s my earliest memory of the bush. I was five. We heard the distant yells of Dad behind us drift though the bush, so we stopped. He came hobbling around the bend waving his walking pole and yelling about how we shouldn’t run off. A younger, far faster adult come from behind us and snatched the pole from Dad’s hand. The unknown gentleman had thought Dad was about to hit us, though Dad was as far from that side of parenting as any. A chase ensued along the track, with us kids in tow yelling encouragement in Dad’s favour. The assailant was dressed in cotton pants and an open shirt; his feet were bare and he had long hair to match his thin flailing limbs. I later learned that this was a ‘hippy’. Dad caught the hippy and their dispute soon turned into the first fight I had ever seen. They became locked up in a sort of bear hug and Dad head butted him square in his face. The latter accepted defeat with a mouthful of blood and an escort back to the car park and the awaiting police. So this was what the bush was like I thought to myself. Where my father, a suit wearing, law-abiding citizen could become a cowboy, a law enforcer or a bandit. The rules were abandoned here, and drama unfolded. I was addicted.
The bush finally gives way to the alpine tussock and Jumbo hut where I am to spend the night appears out of the rain. It is relieving to see the sky even though it is a two dimensional grey. The hut is deserted. The only remnants of its last inhabitant is a milk bottle and a note which reads ‘opened today 14/5’ (a week ago). I set about getting my soaked body dry and lighting a fire. Before long the grey light turns black and the fire becomes hot enough to load on coal. The wind howls and shakes the hut violently despite the thick steel cable holding it in place. I eat my dehydrated camping food under the white light of my head torch; it animates the steam billowing from my bowl and reminds me of the cold outside. I’m too tired for dishes and instead lie back on a wooden bench, satisfied. My back aches and my feet hurt but I am alone. Truly alone. The warmth of the fire coaxes my eyes into closing and the hard bench becomes my mattress. The scream of hail on the corrugated iron roof wakes me with a startle. It is deafening and unsettling to my calm. But it reminded me of something curious. The first time I ever felt alone.
I was eighteen and off to Fiordland National park on my first ever climbing trip away. I met the team of four in Wanaka with who I would be climbing with over the next two weeks. The average age of the team was forty and they all had far more experience than me. Straight away the team set our sights on Mt Madeline, the second highest peak in the Fiordland region. I had been to Fiordland before, but I remember on this occasion driving into Milford and seeing the impossibly sheer cliffs, the snow capped mountains and the hundreds of waterfalls. Fiordland is a place of impossible size, and I felt very very small in the back seat of our car. A heat rose from my chest and a panic consumed my body, I couldn’t breathe or think. The rest of the team were unaware of my state, not even I knew what was happening. Of course, I later realised this was my first and last panic attack. I concentrated on breathing, closed my eyes and told myself I wasn’t crazy. I never told anyone of what happened, and I ignored it out of fear of being labelled the baby of the group. The next day I was back to my usual self, the memory of that panic locked away. We helicopter into our bivvy where we would be spending the next week waiting for a weather gap. Turners Bivvy sits high up in the Darren Mountains on a small plateau. In every direction is steep rock or unstable glacier. The bivvy itself is a boulder the size of a two-story house. We slept at its base in the small caves that formed from it positioning. Mt Tutoko and its glacier sat on the opposite side of the enormous valley. At night Paul, our guide, would tell us stories of the rescues he made on Tutoko’s slopes and the lives that had been lost in the Darren’s. On our first night there I was woken by a distant avalanche or a chunk of the glacier dropping to the valley floor. I lay still, my eyes open and listened to the tremendous roar that put even thunder to shame. I would become very fond of Paul and the others, but in that moment I remember thinking ‘If I die on this mountain, I will die alone’.
The hail and wind makes it hard to sleep and I wake regularly throughout the night. Jumbo hut faces east and at dawn its cold interior is filled with a stark, sanitary light. I lie in my bag, unable to muster the motivation to brave the cold. Snow has dusted the ground during the night, and the cloud has lifted slightly. I eventually stumble outside to collect some water for a coffee and stand bare foot in the snow. I haven’t given much thought to the fact that this is the longest I have ever been alone. The quiet is beautiful and I lingered despite the cold. I have proven to myself I am quite happy in my own company. I think that’s what sparked my interest in solitude to begin with; perhaps I feared I wouldn’t enjoy it. I’m an extrovert through and through, so perhaps I thought I couldn’t cope with the quiet, the lack of stimulation. Is it possible to become introverted? Or at least develop tendencies of an introvert? I find myself desiring more and more time with my books or time alone running, or working in the library where no one will bother me and I can slide between the pages of my work. My flatmate voiced his concern only a week ago. ‘Why are you so interested in being alone?’ he said. I think he feared I was considering a life like Christopher McCandless from ‘Into the wild’ where he becomes a hermit, or maybe he thought I was sad. My flatmate associates being alone with loneliness, but they are two very different things in my opinion. I have no desire to be lonely and I know I am not sad. I have seen what a person looks like when they are lonely only once in my life. I could feel the sadness radiating from them and see the vapidness in their eyes.
It was the summer just been, and a friend of mine and I were off hunting in the Kahurangi National park. After several nights in the bush we returned to Takaka for a night at his mothers before I returned to the Sounds. The next morning we set off to visit his grandfather and see the sights. On our way to the car we came across several sparrows lying immobile on the driveway, but alive. My friend became flustered and embarrassed, confessing his mother poisoned the birds because they were not native. I rather liked sparrows and saw no benefit in killing them. I don’t know why it got to me so much, but to unsettle me further we went about the humane thing and put them out of their misery with a shovel. I thought I was going to be sick as we drove along the farm roads to his grandfather’s. Before we arrived my friend told me his grandfather was unwell. His wife had passed away a year ago and he was depressed. We found the ninety year old closing a farm gate at the entrance to his property and we got out to greet him. I’d heard people talk about auras and radiating an emotion but I had never seen it until then. There was nothing in his eyes though I could tell they once sparkled, and his movements were torpid as if his dying task. I introduced myself and felt the sadness he embodied infect me. My mind began to swirl between the present setting and the dying sparrows. My friend did the talking, explaining our trip, while I stood like an idiot with a twitching fake smile.
‘I’m not well’ he said to his grandson. ‘My mind’s not what it used to be’.
We drove up to the farmhouse without his grandfather, who insisted he needed to tend to something in the shed. The farmhouse was a beautiful old building, though its curtains were pulled and its lawns unmown.
‘Mum found him with a .22 in his mouth there not long ago’ my friend said, pointing to a spot on the lawn as we climbed out of the car.
I was given a tour of the property that my friends’ grandparents had built together, in a life that seemed impossibly distant.
‘Grandad can’t live without her, he wants to die’.
I was happy to leave that place and started for Picton as soon as I could. I let a few tears swell and drop to my lap as I drove over the Takaka hill. I hadn’t cried in years, the sensation felt strange so I put it all out of mind and focused on driving.
I’ve decided to spend most of the day reading and writing in the hut. It is too peaceful to leave. I cook and clean, stoke the fire and drink coffee, but find my thoughts lingering on my friend’s grandfather. He was a master bushman and had had an exceptional life. The years that mattered had been spent in love and he had been happy. Christopher McCandless said that ‘happiness is only real when shared’ which is completely true, but I think being alone does not mean loneliness. My friend’s grandfather knew this. His passion was the bush and he would spend weeks in it, building huts and covering ground. He had mastered being alone, but that did not matter when his wife died. It was the loneliness that got him. My flatmate thought it strange I wanted to feel what it was like to be alone, but I think it is strange most people I know have never been alone. Being alone can build confidence in yourself and make you stronger as a person. It give you time to reflect, and time to understand. It brings calm and tolerance, clarity and truth. As I venture outside to retrieve a bucket of coal I see the sun breaking through the cloud in rays of defined golden light. Patches of rain sparkle as they pass through the light, rainbows drop to the valley floor below and fantails capitalise on the drowned worms. I am the only person watching this scene. I feel I could stay in this hut for days reading my books and watching the snow be washed away by the winter rains. But I have found what I came here to find.
Originally published as ‘Alone in the bush’ by Upcountry Journal.