Bush School 2016

Date: 7th – 8th May 2016

Location: Whatipu

Trampers: Sarah Daniell, Matt Battley, Blair Ramsdale, Sophie Jenkins, Yi Xin Heng, Timothy Gray, Tanya Peart, Nikki Reed, Alistair Newcombe, Pattarasuda Rawiwan, Zak Stark, Carl Barnhill, Fran Osten, Sandra Tonstad, Matthew Pearce, Andrew Battley

Bush school

Swamp. This was the word that captured my attention. Deciding that I wanted to fulfil my dream of being waist deep in mushy muck and goo, I signed up for Basic Bush School.

The black sand greeted us at Whatipu. Caves loomed over us, imploring us to explore them. We acquiesced. We grabbed our torches and squinted at the dark entrance. Someone had been there before us; there were neat tracings made on the sandy floor. I wriggled into a small opening that led to the back of the cave. Cool sand slipped through my fingers and brushed my face as I squashed myself, much like a caterpillar.

With black sand marks on our track pants, we bade farewell to the caves. A cool stream greeted us, and we laughed nervously at the thought of wading in. Unprepared, it was at this point where some of us got our tents and sleeping bags wet. We hurriedly borrowed pack liners from each other after the mini ordeal.

That was, of course, just the beginning. The real swamps awaited us and, gulping, I plunged in. Being a small figure, the water quickly came up to my chest. It was nothing like how horror movies depicted swamps to be though. In fact, it felt like a pleasant dip in a big bathtub. I could feel my legs getting colder as I reached the centre of the swamp. I stared curiously at tiny bubbles that were being issued from underneath. We soon had to put up a fight against the reeds though, that were resisting our every movement.

Soaking wet, but pleased, I threw myself against the banks of the swamp, struggling to climb up against the heavy weight of my backpack. I looked up, triumphant… and paused. We had found ourselves right in the heart of the wilderness. Flax scrambled everywhere. It was impossible to make out any sort of route, which, we were told, was the whole point of it all. Thus begin hours of bush bashing. In other words, we had to make a heroic attempt to reach our campsite before nightfall – with only our sense of intuition and the compass to guide us.

I did not think much of it when we were reminded that our campsite was located in a valley. But it slowly sank in that we would actually have to climb a hill, with our bare hands, to get there. I had never done that and it thrilled me initially. But as we climbed higher, and higher, I began to have doubts. Rocks rolled down as we climbed and we had to be very careful that it did not hit others below. Treacherous rocks gave way, feet slipped on loose soil and very soon, I was fearing for my life. At one point, unable to cross a particular branch, I exclaimed in frustration.

‘Are you okay?’ asked my friend.

‘No,’ I said wearily.

Unnerving it was, but I gradually found myself having the time of my life. Every grip was a decision to be made, every step had a tremendous consequence on whether I could regain my balance, or not. It became like a puzzle to be solved – should we take this way, or the other? I made friends with the plants, recognizing which would support my weight steadfastly, and which were merely deceiving branches that would snap upon my touch. Not unlike the different kinds of people in this world, I thought. I became lost in the present moment, relishing the climb.

A chocolate bar was waved in my face as I gave the final push to reach the top of the hill. I accepted it gratefully. But the rest was short. We had to make haste as dusk was falling quickly. We had barely made it to the top when the last rays of daylight started to fade. Stumbling into the dusk, we quickly headed off in a vaguely plausible direction.


We heard cries from the other half of the team, who had taken a different route earlier (one with more swamps, in fact) and had reached the campsite before us. Grateful, we quickened our pace and, lo and behold, we found ourselves grinning at the other half of the team.

I remembered eating a lot of onions for dinner because they smelt so good. Now full, but still cold, it was suggested that we should do ‘the penguin dance’. I watched in wonderment as the instructors demonstrated. ‘Basically, everyone huddles up and we stamp our feet repeatedly on the ground – left foot then right foot. Furiously.’

And so we did, laughing at how hilarious we looked. I leaned back in contentment as we settled on the ground for some serious talk. Survival 101 was delivered to us that night – the importance of EPIRBs and PLBs, the to dos and not to dos of tramping … I asked a barrage of questions and was grateful that each was responded to in full.

The night was spent shivering for some of us whose sleeping bags remained wet. It was unfortunate that some awoke bleary-eyed the next day but the later half of the course was not too difficult. An excursion to Tunnel Point, past the sandy dunes, was delightful. Heading back to Whatipu through a steep 20 minutes climb, we were rewarded with the sight from the ridges.

‘We were there yesterday!’ we pointed proudly at the swamps, the messy patches of flax, the streams. Standing at a high point, we could now clearly see the obstacle course we had been through. The crashing waves from the sea were a sight, and I remember sighing at their beauty.

We emerged from the forest in a good mood, ready for some ice cream as a treat. Sinking into my ice cream at the little café we stopped by, I felt satisfied and ready for a good rest. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I thought. It was an experience like no other, and one that I would not easily forget.

Trip report by Yi Xin Heng