When I was in my mid-40s, I completed an adult Outward Bound course at Anakiwa, the Cobham Outward Bound Centre in the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sounds, Newzealand. I was the very first Firefighter to be sponsored by the Wellington City Fire Brigade and their thinking at the time was, as I was a Senior Firefighter when I returned from the course I could teach everyone else everything I had learned. Unfortunately, the Fire Service management had never taken the time to study the Outward Bound philosophy, thinking it was just another course similar to existing courses to improve Firefighter’s leadership skills and in a way, they were almost right, but not quite.
Outward Bound can’t be taught indoors and even though it is an outdoor course, to be frank, it can’t even be taught outdoors, it is all about ‘living the experience.’ Participants are given the opportunity to experience many different types of activity, sleep out at night with just a sleeping bag, treck for long distance with just a map and a compass, through unfamiliar heavy bush, and cook all their own meals on a campfire. Other experiences include rock and mountain climbing with associated rope work including abseiling, Kayaking, sailing and pulling (rowing) a whaler and lots and lots of runs including half marathons. There is even an element of service to others.
Near the end of the course individuals are dropped off by boat, at night, at remote locations in the bush or on islands and left for two days and two nights with just a canteen of water some bread and cheese, a sleeping bag and a small tent. This exercise is to allow the participants to be completely alone in nature, with the sky and the sea and their own thoughts for company and if they so wish, they can meditate on their lives and possibly decide on what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong and if any changes are needed. This is quite a spiritual and psychological experience that could only be achieved in complete isolation, surrounded by nature in all its forms, the beautiful blue sea by day and cloaked by the black starry, starry night the rest of the time.
These days there are Outward Bound schools in many western countries, so, what is the philosophy of Outward Bound and who started it off. The driving force behind the idea was a German educationalist called Kurt Hahn, who after the First World War started a school in Germany called Salem where Physical fitness, experiencing the natural world and service to others was taught alongside academic pursuits. However, when Adolf Hitler came to power, Hahn, who was Jewish and ant-Nazi, was imprisoned but due to British intervention was released and fled to Britain where he lectured at Oxford and eventually founded the now famous Gordonstoun School in Moray Scotland, in 1934 and in 1938 became a Naturalized British citizen.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, the school moved to Wales and it was here that the first establishment that we would recognise as a modern Outward Bound School began at Aberdovey. Kurt Hahn had been approached by Mr Lawrence Holt Chairmen of the Blue Funnel Line who had become very worried about young seamen, from war-casualty ships who had made it into a lifeboat but then succumbed to cold fatigue and shock, while the older men who were used to a hard life at sea, survived. Lawrence and Hahn concluded that the young sailors who had little or no experience of what the human body could endure and still survive, were shocked and overcome by the loss of their ship, so just gave up mentally and allowed themselves to die, while their older colleagues, who had faith in their abilities, survived. Hahn also despaired at the then modern, what he considered the sick way of life, with the general lack of fitness amongst youths, lack of self-discipline, and the decline in imagination and compassion. The motto of the Outward Bound Association is “To serve to strive and not to yield. And the philosophy is “Impelled into Experience.”
Outward Bound came to NZ in September 1961 and I did the course in 1980, in one of the most beautiful places in the whole world, Queen Charlotte Sounds at the top of NZ’s South Island. I was aware that the course was very physical, and the fitter you are the more you will enjoy it and I took that to heart and trained hard and arrived as fit as I’d ever been. But not all of the participants had got the message, and one young girl, who I’ll call June, was definitely not fit. She related how she had never intended to come on the course but her best friend who had intended coming had died suddenly of an unsuspected brain tumour just a month before. Then it came up in conversation with the bereaved family that June should take the dead girl’s place, which she agreed to do, which I thought was a very nice, kind and brave thing to do.
On our very first hike through the woods carrying full packs June, who was not as I have described her ‘a young girl’ but was actually a 30-year-old Hospital Sister, was in trouble. Her new boots, which she hadn’t had time to break-in were hurting her feet and the straps of her pack were rubbing her shoulders. Now I have always had a soft spot for nurses so I stopped with her and readjusted her straps which were all wrong and stuffed some padding on her shoulders to stop chafing.
While we were stopped one of the men came by and made a rather sarcastic remark, He was a great big rugby player who obviously thought bulk strength was the only thing that mattered in this situation, but time would prove him wrong. By late afternoon my little Sister friend had found her second wind, overcome the problem with her boots and straps and was cheerfully keeping up with the rest of us, Not so the big strong rugby player, he had completely run out of energy and required us to stop early for the night’s camp. That day he learned something I’d known all along, women may not have the strength of men, but they have much much better stamina. On that tramp, I also learned a useful bit of tramping lore, “If your feet are cold put your hat on.” It sounds nonsensical but is really quite logical. If your feet, or any part of your body, feels cold then it means you are losing body heat and as your head and scalp are richly endowed with blood vessels, it means you will be losing a lot of body heat through your head. So, put your hat on and conserve it, just good sense really.
Our two days of open sea and whitewater Kayak training was a joy for me and taught me so much, from being a comparative novice to on the second afternoon navigating down a whitewater river and actually ‘jumping’ several waterfalls, the last one with about a ten-foot drop. I not only stayed afloat but lived to tell the tail and thoroughly enjoyed every terror-filled soaking wet second.
When we got around to rock climbing we had another young woman who was terrified of heights. Not only that, but she was aware, having read the report which I hadn’t seen, regarding a fatal accident at Anakiwa, which had taken place on the very rock face we were about to climb on, only a month or so before. When the two instructors became aware of the situation, they sat us down and related the whole story of how the student who died had been climbing all day and was obviously a competent climber to the point of being a bit of a show-off. At the end of the day when everyone was finished climbing, he decided to do one more abseil from the top, without clearing it with the instructor. When he lent back he wasn’t hooked on properly and fell to his death. After that, a few of us decided to climb with the girl who didn’t like heights and with the whole team encouraging her on, she reached the top and actually abseiled back down.
When we got into the Whaler I was in my element, although I never mentioned it to anyone, 20 odd years before I had qualified in the Royal Navy as a Cox’n in whalers and had always loved sailing. The Whalers at Anakiwa were built from the plans of the boat from His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, that Captain Bligh so successfully navigated 6,000 kilometres from Tahiti, through hostile seas to the Dutch settlement of East Timor. One Afternoon I got the boat to goosewing, which is with the wind from astern and the foresail poled out one side and the mainsail out the other. Even the instructors had never seen it done before on that boat.
Our two days and nights of solitary living was very interesting, to be dropped off in the dark in waist deep water and told: “if you wade into that island you’ll find somewhere to sleep.” I didn’t attempt putting up a shelter but got into my wet sleeping bag and looked up at the millions of stars. There were lots of rustling and strange noises, including the snorting and squabbling of a couple of wild pigs not far from my position, but they didn’t stop me sleeping. In the morning I put up my tent lit a fire and made toast for breakfast, By late afternoon I had eaten all my ration of bread and cheese so went down to the beach and collected some muscles which I cooked in the embers of the fire, the second day I went mostly hungry, but spent a great deal of the day watching fish jump, the birds flitting about and became fascinated with a wasp that had flown into a spiders web and was in real danger from the spider, until I took up his case and safely extracted him from the web without hurting the spider. I did feel really close to all Gods creatures and had a strong wish not to harm any of them with my presence, apart from the muscles I’d already eaten.
A number of the members of our course claimed their time alone had changed them and from now on they were going to make changes in their lives, one guy claimed he was going to try to be a completely different, but better person. As for myself, being the oldest person on the course who had served in the Royal Navy, in the London Fire Brigade and was then serving in the Wellington Brigade and was married with two young children, I was pretty sure who I was and didn’t contemplate any big changes to my personality, although I was more than a little bit concerned of how I was going to explain to the Chief Fire Officer that the money he had spent on sponsoring me doing the course would not be repaid by me teaching the rest of the Brigade Outward Bound skills. The simple truth is you can’t teach Outward Bound it has to be experienced in the mountains and on the water and amongst Gods creatures of the natural world.
FOOTNOTE. When I think back over my experience at Outward Bound and how much I had enjoyed it, I can’t help but compare myself back then with young people of today. I enjoyed Outward Bound because all my life I had been an outdoors person, completely familiar with camping out, roughing it at sea and on land, keeping fit and always working hard physically, but at the same time ready to face mental challenges and strive to succeed and not to yield. When I joined that course the first thing I had to do was hand over, for safe keeping, my wallet, Swiss Army pocket knife and my Navy divers watch. So I was obliged to complete the course without a watch and just estimating the time, which surprisingly, becomes second nature after a while.
I’m wondering if young people of today could give up their watch, cell phone. tablet, MP3 player, computers and all their other gadgets and go out at night and sleep in a wet sleeping bag with wild pigs snorting around them, and at the same time enjoy watching shooting stars and the constellations moving across the night sky?