Imagine this scene –
- a rock ledge overlooking a six metre almost vertical drop to a small rocky creek bed
- a doubled climbing rope, anchored to a large tree, falls from the ledge to the creek
- Julia, a largish, middle-aged woman in a climbing harness, is attached to the rope and is striving vainly to lean back in the harness and let the rope support her
- a second person, obviously an instructor, is gently coaching her to trust the equipment, to keep her legs straight and to let the rest of her body slowly slide to the abseiling position
- a third person (also an instructor) is at the foot of the drop holding the rope in readiness to help the woman control her descent
- after struggling for several minutes to overcome her fear and let herself lean even a few degree backwards, the woman suddenly loses patience: “This is bloody ridiculous. Make me do it Les. Bully me!”
Yes, I am the Les to whom the order was addressed. The amusingly ironic thing is that Julia, a well-known political activist, human rights champion and all-round formidable campaigner was certainly NOT a person to be bullied. Needless to say, I disobeyed and resorted to plan B which involved a shorter and gentler rock face on which Julia could build trust in herself and her equipment.
Julia was one of the 500 or so people that passed through a beginning bushwalking and camping course
for adults with which I was heavily involved for over 25 years. Guided by the principle of “gradualism” (as distinct from the “into the deep end” approach), the course took people through a series of activities, beginning with an
indoor introductory workshop and culminating in an overnight, moderate grade, full-pack bushwalk in the Blue Mountains National Park.
“What has abseiling to do with basic bushwalking and camping?” you ask.
“Nothing”, I once would have said, but my mind was changed by a chance occurrence on the very first presentation of the course.
This is what happened. With a view to underscoring the message that safety in outdoor activities is largely of one’s own making, my co-leaders and I hit upon the idea of illustrating the principle in a demonstration of abseiling. There was no intention to do other than show the course members safety procedures before and during an abseil. But when we had finished the exercise, one of the participants said, “I’d like to have a go at that”. And he did – successfully and without fuss – and, in doing so, encouraged almost everyone else in the group to follow his lead.
The group that returned from the abseiling site was noticeably different from the one that walked there an hour or two earlier. Morale and camaraderie had surged and one sensed a heightened motivation for the course and for bushwalking more generally. The sentiment seemed to be, “If we can manage an abseil, bushwalking and camping will be a breeze”.
This change was not lost on my co-leaders and me. It was clear that the abseiling “demonstration” had to be a fixed part of all future courses – to be conducted in the same way with the move “to give it a go” coming from the participants (which, quite remarkably, it always did).
I am sure that Julia was fully aware of the value of giving challenges a go. She knew intuitively what she stood to gain from walking backwards down that drop. On another occasion during the course, she had this to say (in her characteristically forthright way) to us course leaders:
There should be more courses like this for older people. Everything is done for the young these days. We have to stop older people bringing down the shutters.
Her urging not to bring down prematurely the shutters on life has stayed with me – indeed inspired me – ever since.
Nature-based activities, including those like bushwalking or hiking that are not usually associated with “adventure”, are especially good ways of keeping the shutters wide open.
- They take us into a world that stimulates our mental faculties and emotions, sometimes very powerfully;
- They increase our openness and resilience to novelty and the unexpected;
- They help us to discover mental and physical resources within ourselves that we may not know we have;
- They nurture friendship, foster empathy and co-operation in personal relationships;
- They can help us to re-frame and resolve personal problems and issues – and even to give added meaning and purpose to life.
And you have more than my word for all of this. Susan, a course graduate who became one of my regular bushwalking companions, was kind enough to let me record some of her thoughts about the benefits she derived from walking in nature.
This is a summary of what she said:
- From the physically challenging walks, she gained a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem. The camaraderie that came from sharing challenges with others fostered a sense of belonging and of being accepted by the group. Interestingly, she had valuable periods of alone time even when walking with and in the security of a group.
- In addition to increasing her existing friendship network, she also saw her socialising in bushwalking as an important part of maintaining connections and engagement in her more senior years.
- Susan valued the non-competitive nature of bushwalking and appreciated very much the way the activity could encourage caring attitudes and behaviour.
- Her bushwalking also strengthened her sense of purpose in life and her desire to keep well (“I do not want to be a little old lady with osteoporosis”).
- Not surprisingly, Susan admitted to having a “craving” for nature, revelling in its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness.