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The lure of the wild and what draws some people into the hills alone
MARTY SHARPE, Jun 08 2019 (photo from one of Matt's nights solo up in the mountains)
For people like Tiki Marra the question isn't why would you want to go into the bush alone; it's how could you get by without doing so.
Marra, 57, is a perfectly happy married father of four who usually spends at least a day or two each week hunting alone in the Ruahine or Kaweka ranges.
It's not about the hunting (though the family's meat freezer is never empty), or the exercise, and it's not particularly spiritual (although he refers to the ranges as his "church").
For Marra it's a strange combination of complete focus and intense peace.
He started going into the hills alone when he was a nine-year-old, and it was just he and his dad on the last farm up the Tukituki Valley, at the eastern foot of the Ruahines.
"I was like any rural kid. I've read nearly every deer-culler book and we all seem to have the same background. You'd go for miles and miles with a slug gun," he said.
Marra doesn't see much difference between solo hunters and trampers.
"We're up there for the same reason, I think. It's the solitude. It's the best thing. You go where you want, you walk at the speed you want, and you stop when you want. If you're with someone and you stop, you'll tend to talk. That's human nature. I like to talk more than anyone, but in the bush it's different," he said.
"Why do I walk alone? When I'm alone my head clears. It's like a cleansing, if you like. Or de-fragging your computer. You can see things as they're supposed to be seen."
You can get it on a long day trip, or an over-nighter, but for the best results you want to be away for at least two nights, he said.
It's not unusual for Marra, if he hears people approaching along a track, to step back and watch them pass without them knowing he's there.
"But if it's one person, I'd never do that. I'd always have a yarn. I'm not sure why that is ... It's just what I do," he said.
"I never ever feel lonely, ever. It's the opposite. You get so into it, you don't want to be disturbed. If I'm in the middle of nowhere and I see a boot print, I'm bitterly disappointed. You search for the solitude."
"It's about challenging yourself. I'll pick a direction then hunt all day. I'm usually lost within the first 20 minutes," he said.
And lost is how Marra likes to be, until 3pm, when he will ritually sit down, pull out his map, GPS and compass and work out exactly where he is and which way to get back.
"I'll never go without that gear, and a PLB (personal locator beacon). I know how easy it is to get lost. I've been lost plenty of times, but I've never had to spend an unplanned night in the bush," he said.
"The only time I get spooked is in the high country when you get clagged in. You're high, you're exposed and you lose all sense of direction. Instead of slowing down, as you should, you start speeding up, and if you're going in the wrong direction you just get more lost," he said.
At the same time Marra is clambering over the ragged ridge lines of the Ruahines, Jan Finlayson will more than likely be bounding up the scree slopes of the Southern Alps west of Geraldine.
Like Marra, Finlayson, who is president of the Federated Mountain Clubs, usually spends at least a day a week walking the hills alone.
"I think everybody who goes into the hills alone goes for different reasons on different occasions. One of the reasons is to gain perspective and the chance to refresh you mind, to look around and to gain your own impressions of the world around you. It's also about enjoying the satisfaction of finding a way through on your own, for a short period of time," she said.
Being in the hills alone can make you feel both large and small, Finlayson said.
"You feel that it's not just you, that you're just a fragment of history, adding your footprints to land that has been traversed by many. You get a very real sense of your place in the world, that you don't get anywhere else so acutely."
"If you are alone you do go to an extra level of care, I think. You watch the weather, you let people know your plans, you're well equipped with more food and clothing than you'll likely need. And you need to be prepared to turn around if the weather or circumstances change. But it's all worth it," she said.
Finlayson lives in Geraldine, "where every road leading west takes you somewhere exciting". Her stomping ground is anywhere in the ranges between the Rakaia Gorge and Aoraki.
"I do also enjoy tramping with others. There is something about sharing some of the experiences with other people. The cooking, the watching the sun go down, those things can be very pleasant with other folk," she said.
Canterbury University senior lecturer in Outdoor and Environmental Education Chris North said there were similarities between the ideas of wellbeing and mindfulness and being alone in the hills.
"The idea is that you're taking notice of what is around you, and arguably when you're with someone else your main focus is your relationship with that person. Solo mountaineers have written about this, about how being on an expedition with many people means the people side of things tends to dominate the experience. If you're on your own the dominant thing is the relationship between you and where you are," North said.
"The relationship is undiluted by social distractions and allows a much deeper way of taking notice, which is a key way to wellbeing," he said.
"There's a hyper-connectiveness to everyone in the world today, and a solo trip in the outdoors is a way to physically remove yourself from that".
North describes himself as a social person, but loves tramping alone. He made a two-week solo crossing of the Southern Alps once.
"For me that was probably too long to be alone, to be honest. It's different for everyone. For someone who's busy or has a young family, a solo walk for as little as half-an-hour can be hugely beneficial," he said.
There were elements of self-reliance and what academics call "self-efficacy" that can develop from time alone outdoors.
For experienced outdoor adventurers, this can be in remote or wilderness areas.
"The thinking is that by placing yourself in challenging situations you develop a pool of experiences you can draw on in your life. The key thing for me is that getting out and enhancing your wellbeing, but also taking precautions. It's pretty easy to do these days by following the outdoor safety code and doing things like throwing a PLB in your pack," North said.
"What this guy was doing in the Tararua Ranges was challenging, but it wasn't unreasonable. May be as a society we could say 'don't go out on your own because it's too dangerous', but for a section of society, the benefits of doing so are really valuable and the risks are manageable," he said.