As a country we love the outdoors, writes Greg Bruce. As a country.
I hate the beach, I hate the bush. All my worst experiences have been outside. Whenever I am out in nature, I dream of being out of nature.
I have only ever wanted to live in the city. Even the suburbs are too rural. My dream holiday is New York. I always dreamed of going there, went there on my honeymoon in 2012 and dream only of my return. Backup dream would be a trip on a cruise ship, one where I never have to go ashore, but instead move dreamlike between cabin, bar, library, restaurants and a lecture theatre where I can listen to pop psychologists deliver erudite and inspiring TED-style talks.
I never saw the movie The Beach (2000) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, because I violently disagreed with its premise that an untouched golden sand beach is some sort of Shangri-La. I did see the movie Castaway (2000) starring Tom Hanks and I hated it. I've never been to Cathedral Cove or the other one everybody likes. No, I haven't been and I won't go, unless my kids demand it, in which case I will go because A) my parental style is appeasement and B) I don't believe my view of the world is necessarily a good one.
The beach is always either too cold, too windy or too sunny. The sand is unpleasant on your legs and in your ears, and the water attracts the sand. You rinse it off but back it comes, more aggressive than ever. Once on you, as far as I can tell, it never leaves. It's with you, in your house, your bag, your clothes, for days, weeks, eternities. How do you get rid of it? Nobody knows.
The endless preparation! Hats and sunscreen, food and drink. It offers all the pain of packing for a holiday with all the excitement and anticipation of going to the bank.
Having to take my shirt off: my wife and I went to Waiheke a few months after we were married and were lying on the beach at Little Oneroa when a man walked up and said, in an English accent, "Are you English?" When we told him we were from Auckland, he laughed and said, "That's just wrong!" The following week, in Melrose St, Newmarket, a guy walked past us and yelled, "Get a tan!" When my wife was pregnant, we went to get our semi-regular skin cancer check with noted skin cancer specialist Sharad Paul and when my wife joked, "People this pale probably shouldn't be having children," he didn't laugh.
I don't like spiders. I don't like things that feel slimy. I don't like unusual or surprising sounds, especially from anything I can't see, especially in the dark. I don't like the quantity of murders that have happened in the bush. I don't like bugs, I don't like click beetles, I don't like cockroaches or wetas, I don't like animals really, apart from the cute ones and completely domesticated dogs or cats. I don't like a lot of people, especially the type of people I imagine meeting in the bush. I don't like gaiters. I don't really know what gaiters are. My issue with gaiters is more to do with the word.
I have never been camping and I never want to go camping. Oh boy, is this a conversation starter! My wife loves telling people this at social gatherings: "Our kids will never know what it's like to go camping." I assume she does it to shame me. People laugh about it and ridicule me and I laugh along and ridicule myself and all of us lose a little of our humanity, but I guess we have fun.
I assume I am part of a large cohort of people who hate camping but I have never been able to verify that because anti-camping sentiment is considered unpatriotic in this country. Camping-shaming is the last acceptable prejudice.
I'm not good at solving practical problems, eg tents. I don't plan well. I'm lacking in spatial awareness. I'm not good at barbecues. The threat of a gas explosion or fire is real and frightening to me. I dislike mosquitoes and the time and diligence it takes to effectively apply insect repellent. I don't like the feeling of being constantly dirty. I have many times run the cost-benefit analysis on swimming in rivers, creeks and holes and it always comes up eels.
I do quite like the dappled light of a glade in the late afternoon sun but if I think back on all the times I've really enjoyed it, each has been from inside a car. I like the way the outdoors looks and I like the way it's frequently depicted in the work of the romantic poets, the paintings of the old masters and in various televisual works and movies. From this evidence you could argue it's not the outdoors I hate but the discomfort and effort inherent in its experience. You could also argue that effort and discomfort is an essential part of its experience. You could argue that I'm a pathetic baby, but in my experience babies - the least smart version of humans - love the outdoors.
There's an evolutionary argument to be made for an appreciation of the outdoors: that our ancestors lived outside and therefore blah blah blah. I'm so sick of evolutionary arguments. I've got my own argument to make about evolutionary arguments: they suck. Why do they always start with cavemen? Cavemen weren't our earliest ancestors; they evolved from something too, and that thing evolved from something else. Why do we never aspire to live more like those things: chimps, amphibians amoeba and so on.
Q: Why did cavemen move into caves?
I have sometimes felt happy in the outdoors, but if I interrogate that feeling I find it's underpinned by time's inexorable forward movement pushing me ever closer to a return indoors. I spent weeks dreading the prospect of my form two class trip to the mangroves, specifically the thought of sinking into the purple mud and watching my gumboots fill with crabs. Such joy sitting afterwards on the grass bank under the leaden Pakuranga skies!
My dad was a sales rep. His territory covered most of the North Island. In the school holidays I would often accompany him on long sales trips in the car, which felt like pure, cosseted luxury. I remember one grey morning, sitting in his Ford Telstar Ghia for what felt like hours, reading the Reader's Digest's Big Book of Unexplained Mysteries while he made a sales call at Kerikeri New World. The car offered protection from the cold and the wind, but also from the more human buffetings of whatever was going on out there in the world while I was immersed in the horrifying story of the day the devil walked in Devon.
As a teenager, I once tried to articulate to my parents the thrilling, womb-like safety of those trips, of being embraced by the comfortable warmth of the car, and they looked at me with real concern. I guess no one wants their teenager to prefer the solitude of regional New Zealand carparks to beach hangouts with 15 or 20 of their sexiest friends and acquaintances.
On one of our later trips, Dad suggested I go and do some tourist-type activity - Waitomo Caves, I think - while he did some calls. That shocked me, because I'd never thought of our trips as the type of thing that might include activities. I had no intention of doing activities and I never did activities, and Dad never again brought up activities, but the trips felt different after that.
The day after he made that suggestion, I slept in and stayed in bed for much of the morning. I was woken by the motel's cleaner / owner, who asked me if I would like her to put something on the in-house movie channel. This was a mid-market breezeblock motel and they didn't have a wide selection. I chose The Hitcher. It was scary.
When people talk about tramping in front of me, I know we won't be friends. I will never go tramping. After the embarrassment of a day spent in gaiters, you get off the trails, cold, tired, sore, covered in spiders, and your reward is to eat minestrone soup and talk about Gore-Tex with well-meaning Austrians? No thanks to that. Can you even watch Netflix on your phone in a tramping hut without being confronted by a group of haughty, pious, tea-drinking, Milk Arrowroot-eating Brits from the Peak District policing some arbitrary trampers' code? Obviously I have no idea and I never will.
No to tramping, no to the beach, no to a gentle stroll in Rotorua's redwoods, where my wife and I took our three children on a bright, cool day last year. I can still locate and recreate in my body my physical revulsion on seeing the sign "1 hour walk".
No to visiting the park (any park), no to running around aimlessly on a sports field. No, no, no to the contemplation of the fading late Saturday afternoon sun from a windswept plateau. No to gannet colonies. No to gannets.
Maybe part of my problem is a desire for structure and constraint, for life to be well-defined. Maybe I'm scared of what might happen when I don't know what's going to happen. The outdoors represents a surfeit of uncertainty - I guess some people are better equipped to deal with that than others.
It feels good to say no to things. What could feel better than the declining of a whole subset of human experience? There is too much choice in this world, too much opportunity, too much to achieve. The world is so full of possibilities! Just Do It! Eat Pray Love! Overshoot The Extreme! Max The Envelope and so on. But because the possibilities are endless, with them comes inevitable regret. We cannot have it all. To shrink a world full of unfulfillable opportunity down and stuff it in a single, well-insulated dwelling is such a relief.
Yes to limiting all this ludicrous desire and ambition. Boil it all down, ball it all up, roll it inside where everything's pleasant and safe and where the dominant mode of interface with the animal kingdom is robot-administered insecticide.
Read books, watch Netflix, talk with people you love, avoid people you love, have a bath, eat good food and bad food, drink mulled wine, concoct extravagant Weetbix-based smoothies, organise friends and family to come over, provide strict parameters for their conversation, play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach AND the late 90s albums of now-defunct Swedish rock band Kent. Inside, you can have it all.
Arrange your environment to fit your particular needs, give birth to children who first destroy it then change it to suit themselves, learn to live with that, wish they would go and play outside, feel frustrated by what may be their genetic tendency not to.
On Sunday afternoons in the 1980s, my dad and I used to drive to Mission Bay and buy very good hot chips from a caravan parked next to the beach. Those chips were so good. We would sit in the car and eat them. I remember many blue sky days but I don't remember once getting out of the car. Sometimes, after getting the chips, we would drive to the Mt Wellington go-kart track and watch the racing from the car.
Why did we never get out? Was it me? Was it him? Or was it the interaction of multiple dynamic factors, environmental and non, thrown together like a giant ocean wave, cresting then crashing on a beautiful untouched beach, seen not from the sand, not even from the dunes, but from some safe and comfortable remove - dry, sheltered, safe, temperature-controlled - preferably using binoculars.