Outward Bound offers Steve Kilgallon the opportunity to be the best he has ever been.
Alone, truly alone: no music, television, books, electronica. What awful company your untrained mind can prove to be. Snippets of songs on rotation, and not the ones you'd choose (Roger Miller's King of the Road, Van Halen's Jump), half-forgotten memories, strange daydreams. The boredom so intense you end up playing Poohsticks (you know - childish river-based twig-racing) against yourself. I was constrained to a 10-metre patch of the Marlborough Sounds. The occasion was the infamous "solo": a two-day retreat into the bush with a tarpaulin, sleeping bag, two apples, two carrots, two flapjacks and a 10-litre paint tin. It's the centrepiece of any Outward Bound course.
Outward Bound, a residential course of physical and mental challenges lasting from eight to 21 days, was conceived in 1941 by the German educator Kurt Hahn, who also established five leading independent schools and the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. Hahn saw a society in decline, lacking in fitness, initiative, skill, self- discipline, imagination and compassion. Outward Bound was his response - the proof of his belief that we can be better than we ever imagined. It's a world of mottos and homilies, but the most-repeated is Hahn's favourite: "Plus est en vous" (there is more in you (than you think).
The New Zealand version of Hahn's great idea began at Anakiwa, in the Marlborough Sounds, in 1962, and remains there still. Inside the main dining room, a framed clipping from the Evening Post of November 2, 1962, records the opening. Headlined "Where every day is an adventure: youths revel in tough training", it notes "there are no girls, this is a man's world they are in" and considers the deprivation of giving up 30-a-day smoking habits.
It's a truly beautiful spot. Last stop on a winding one-track road, the centre looks out across a deep blue sound to the wooded hills opposite. The site was farmed from 1863 and the original guesthouse (in which the writer Katherine Mansfield holidayed) was built in 1927 but it's been mostly replaced in recent years and now has the look and feel of a benevolent boarding school.
More than 50,000 New Zealanders have enrolled for a course there - and the offer of a free place on an eight-day Discovery course (aimed at 27 to 40-year-olds) sounded like something not to pass up.
And so on a bright day in early November, I found myself standing on the quayside at Picton with 10 other people, performing silly dances. We handed over our phones and wallets (there was to be no contact with the outside world for the next eight days), and our first task from instructors Dan and Kim was to invent an alliterative tag and an action for ourselves. And so we became Lively Lee, Magic Matt, Can-do Caroline, Cautious Carl, Crazy Chris, Jammy Jarrod, Sunshine Silvi, Approachable Alex, Killer Kate, Rainbow Rosanne and (an aspirational) Strong Steve.
We were an interesting mix: the median age was 35, and we included IT professionals, a couple of former semi-professional sportsmen, a mother-of-four and an animal welfare inspector.
The weird little games, I realised eventually, were all tailored to creating a team bond really quickly. It worked. Within a day, our group of 11, known as a watch (we are Batten 587, named for Jean Batten) became a tight unit with our own little rules: We'd always be early, we'd always get there together, we'd all do the job, there would be no single leader and there would be no backstabbing.
It's unusual to be in a group situation so intense and yet have no Lord of the Flies moments; in my experience, someone normally tries to seize control and someone else sinks to the bottom. But not on our trip. We were asked at one stage to come up with four team values and act them out: We chose unity, positivity, "open mic" [meaning everyone gets a say] and Yes!
Rather like Fight Club, I feel I can't give away too many specifics about what was said and done because one of the big things at Outward Bound is not knowing what will happen next. Ask the question, and you're likely to get a sly smile and some gnomic response like "respect the mana of time". It's living in the moment. And if you're even half-considering going, I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise of being asked to jump in a freezing sea during a downpour.
So I could summarise the first day by mentioning that we sailed a historic cutter, camped out in a heavy rain without a tent, went for a 6am run and had two plunges in a rather chilly ocean.
None of that was as significant as what initially seemed to be the easiest moment of our early endeavours. Fed, warm and nestled on sofas, we sat in a circle and took turns explaining why we were there, what we wanted to extract from the experience and what qualities we could offer the group. My new watchmates, people I'd known for eight hours, were brutally honest in sharing the personal circumstance that had led them there. My pre-prepared answer about always being ready for a challenge was not enough. Instead, I confessed that the opportunity came along at a time when I felt at a professional and personal crossroads, and hoped the week would offer some insights.
This hour set the tone - there were to be no secrets within the group. I left the circle committed to being open-minded, to not over-analyse anything, and be prepared to have a genuine crack at everything we would be asked to do. It would be unfair to share everyone's personal stories, but among the tales of family bereavements, relationship issues, career-change and parenting problems, the common thread was about wanting the chance to step back from life, and to see where it could be made better.
Atop a 10m pine tree, issuing a volley of swearwords, I heard instructor Dan's voice float upwards: "Remember: process not outcome."
He was right. I searched for the next foothold, then the next. Then the next. It didn't quite get me through to the end of the high ropes course, but it did - after several false starts - drag me to the top of a 20m rock face. My rather substantial fear of heights meant they were the week's most challenging moments for me. For others, abseiling and high ropes were a breeze. But there was something that tested each of us. I'm an experienced marathoner, so the morning run was a refreshing cruise for me; painful for those who'd never run before. For some the test was public speaking. For others, sharing their thoughts and feelings each night with the group.
When it came to something difficult, Dan and Kim sometimes quietly asked our strategy for conquering it. They occasionally suggested "quite strongly" that we pushed harder. Everyone, without fail, did. The strategy I liked most was described by a watchmate as "choose your attitude". I know I can, sometimes, be negative, pessimistic, anxious, angry, paranoid. That week I was not. I chose my attitude.
I enjoyed the kayaking and mountain-climbing, tolerated the sailing and found conquering the abseiling rather enervating. But I hated the cold water, which was a twice-daily feature. There was one day when the wind ripped in, the rain slanted sideways and the water looked decidedly murky.
I chose my attitude. Jumped. It was horrible. Climbed out. Sprinted up the jetty. Ran through the cold shower. Felt good.
Hot showers, incidentally, were rare - we were permitted three all week, a maximum of three minutes at a time - they become incredibly cherished, a remarkable lesson that something can become a luxury when you are deprived of it.
Choosing my attitude received something of a test when we arrived back at Anakiwa from a long day's kayak. We'd had our compulsory cold-water dip, eaten, and were anticipating bed. Then they said: "You're going on solo tonight . . . for two nights." I felt murderous. We had an hour to pack up rucksacks and we were away. The paint bucket, in case you hadn't guessed, was for both ones and twos.
Before we went on solo, Dan told the old story about the jar full of rocks and sand and asked us to consider our "rocks" - the important things in our life - and our "sand" - the detritus that got in the way. We weren't allowed to take books, iPods, or have any human contact, but we were given notebooks and a pen and told to return from our solo with some ideas for what we would change about our lives.
However, this consumed only so much time. There were spells where I felt very calm, relaxed, and glad to be away from the madding crowds. And times when I was excruciatingly bored; the most exciting thing that happened was when one of my jandals fell off in the river while washing and I had to chase it downstream.
When we emerged after two nights, we had to stand in a circle and come up with one word for our experience. Mine was "stoic".
The most poignant moment came at the end of our eight days, which variously felt like almost no time at all and half a lifetime. Each watch was permitted to plant a tree, with an accompanying wooden stake bearing their name and watch number. After we planted our tree, we walked back as a group, in the twilight, towards our dorm room. One watchmate, a philosophically-minded senior executive, turned to me and said: "Wouldn't it be good if real life was like this?" We all knew what he meant. And he was right, not least because we all became such fast friends. There were still some formalities to come - our certificates, goodbye hugs with the instructors and the "signing out" from a series of commitments we "signed in" to at the course's start - but this was the moment where real life, rather unwelcomed, began seeping back in.
One morning, during the daily camp meeting with all the other watches, the centre director Rob McLean had spoken about why were all there. For many, he had explained, Outward Bound was about "re-framing" your life, stepping back, seeing it from a distance, and seeing how it could improve. Outward Bound did offer me that perspective, even the dreaded solo.
One of the best things I've ever done in my life? Absolutely. I hope I have come back with a more positive attitude - am able to keep choosing my own attitude. A more clear-headed approach to life. A commitment to being a better parent. I'm not alone. There are inscribed bricks in the camp's central courtyard, with messages from former students. "Here is where the real me began, " one reads.
"I can say without a single doubt, that Outward Bound fulfilled all my expectations, and has in fact far exceeded them, " one watchmate said a few weeks later. "The physical challenges were tough and so was being thrown together with a group of complete strangers. But the toughest challenge for many of us was the work we did in the evenings after a long and gruelling day on what's really important to us, and how we can ensure we actually live these values . . . this has truly been a life-changing experience."
Another course-mate said: "I actually think back daily about the course and think about my values and what they mean to me. I'm always trying to improve them for my own self. It has changed my life. It's hard to put my finger on some of them, but I just seem to be a lot more happier and comfortable with who I am. I think I'm dealing with day-to-day things better, making a lot of them the 'sand' between my 'rocks'."
I left Outward Bound with some small but important personal goals. More importantly, I hope, I have a desire to change my attitude to life. How long the Outward Bound effect can last, I don't know. But Batten Watch 587 has its own resolutely-upbeat Facebook page, loose plans for a one-year anniversary reunion - and a shared commitment to fulfilling Hahn's words: Plus est en vous.
"The purpose of Outward Bound is to protect youth against a diseased civilisation" - Kurt Hahn
"This above all: to thine own self be true" - Shakespeare
Quotes taken from the Outward Bound book Challenge of Words.
- Sunday Star Times