Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Outward Bound: Find out why you're here

Michael Burgess grapples with Outward Bound's tradition of testing mettle.

Climbing Mt Royal on the Outward Bound course at Anakiwa. Photo / Michael Burgess
Climbing Mt Royal on the Outward Bound course at Anakiwa. Photo / Michael Burgess

It was day four on Outward Bound and the "frog" was winning. Way up in the trees, on the high ropes course, two thin wires stretched out in front of my feet. I couldn't take a step.

As a metaphor for conquering fears, one of our instructors would often say, "If you have to eat a frog, don't stare at it too long."

Great advice, not taken as I wondered how this could possibly be done with absolutely nothing to hold on to. We were harnessed in, but your mind plays funny tricks 15m above the ground.

Eventually, I shuffled slowly across - inch by painstaking inch - as my "watchmates" below yelled encouragement.

"That's great Michael," said my instructor as I reached the end.

"Now do it again - backwards."

It was a running theme of the eight days. The Anakiwa outdoors was our classroom and the subject was ourselves, our potential and ability to interact with others.

Every activity had an underlying purpose (some not immediately obvious) as we tested our limits, examined our comfort zones and found, as the Outward Bound motto states, that "there is more in you than you think".

The Outward Bound school was founded in Wales during World War II by Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt. Since then, more than 40 schools in 25 countries have been established. The New Zealand operation celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with over 50,000 attendees during that time.

Our group came from around the country, mainly wanting to hit the pause button on busy daily lives and re-evaluate what is important. One man had been sent by his wife. "I don't really know why I'm here," he recounted with great honesty, "but she thinks it will be just what I need."

Any barriers that might normally exist between 14 adult strangers were gone by the first night. After sailing to an island in the Marlborough Sounds, we had been fed, led through group discussions and now contemplated bed. With two huts and a smaller building there was plenty of room for all it seemed. How naive. Our instructors Dee and Ben reappeared with two large groundsheets and two tent flies.

"Choose any spot you want," they told us with a smile, "just don't go too close to the beach."

Soon, seven of us were snuggled together under the stars, sharing stories and snores.

It already felt a bit like school camp - on steroids - and I hoped the doctor sleeping beside me didn't roll off the edge of the small cliff nearby, as I thought she could be quite handy.

One of the biggest constant challenges was never knowing what was coming next. We would finish one activity, meal or session and our instructor would say, "Okay folks, now we are going to ..." as some held their breath.

Sometimes the surprises were physical: after a hard day's kayaking, the van suddenly came to a halt 5km from the school. An instructor appeared with a box of our running shoes. You can guess the rest.

Surprises could be more mental, like being told at 9.30pm that we had 20 minutes to get ready for our solo bush experience.

This piecemeal reveal system encourages you to be in the present moment (a rarity in multitasking times) and truly focused on what is happening right now rather than fretting about an upcoming activity.

Our instructors liked to talk about "impelling people"; nobody is made to do a particular activity but you will be forced to cut through the excuses.

With the supportive culture of the group and the unique skills of the instructors, you are pushed to mental, physical and emotional limits, though always in a safe way.

We did a 13-hour tramp, crunched out sit-ups under a cold shower and did push-ups in the rain; we sang and danced to our own version of YMCA (don't ask), spent time upside down in a kayak, and stretched every sinew rock climbing.

We endured 7am swims in frosty Marlborough Sounds, savoured the occasional hot shower and learned to sail a boat. We had to criticise other group members constructively - often a delicate task - but after everything we had been through together it came quite naturally.

There was plenty of great food, lots of laughter, the occasional tear and almost enough sleep. All of us reassessed our goals, developed the strengths of our character and identified our weaknesses.

CEO Trevor Taylor likes to say that "Outward Bound is not a boot camp" and he's right. There are demanding physical challenges but it is often more a test of your mental muscle.

Bring 14 people together, inspirational instructors, breathtaking surroundings, time-honoured methods and pure magic occurs.

On the first day most of us struggled to identify "our proudest moment" of the previous six months; by the end of the week we could have waxed lyrical.

A reunion of our group, Hawthorn Watch 568, has already been talked about for next year. While connections may naturally fray over time, our shared experiences forged a strong bond and a collective appreciation for la grenouille - the frog.

Night visitors

The most famous element of Outward Bound is the overnight "solo", in which you spend one to two nights alone in the bush. It is a course highlight. My enthusiasm dipped when we were given our ration packs (one carrot, two apples and two cookies). There was no tent; just a groundsheet, a fly and a patch of forest. iPods, phones and books had been surrendered at the start of the course to minimise distractions.

There were few nocturnal visitors to my site, but others were less lucky. One fellow woke with a possum crawling across his arm, another with a family of the marsupials, which ensured a fairly restless night. Another girl spent almost the entire time zipped in her sleeping bag, such was her disdain for bush inhabitants. Overall, it was an intensely powerful, unique and enjoyable experience. You could almost feel your mind recharging as you sat with no sense of time, place or pace.

Find out more

The eight-day Discovery course costs $2265 including all accommodation, equipment, food and two highly qualified instructors. Fundraising help and funding assistance is available. In 2011, 61 per cent of students received some level of funding assistance. Outward Bound attracts a wide range of participants, from schoolkids to graduates, mums and dads, corporate clients and 55-year-olds still going strong.

Further information: Call 0800 OUTWARD (688 9273).

Michael Burgess took part in the Discovery course courtesy of Outward Bound.

- Herald on Sunday

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