'Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go’
T S Eliot, poet
Photograph: Inga Hendriks Terblanche
Life is not defined by the number of breaths we take, but rather by those moments that take our breath away – and one of my most memorable was when I took a giant leap of faith and stepped over the cliff-edge alongside Maletsunyane Falls in the African kingdom of Lesotho.
None of the preparatory training or gut-wrenching middle-of-the-night moments of fear equipped me for the breathtaking reality of the next few seconds. First I spiralled alarmingly on the end of the rope, gradually stabilised and stopped spinning, then realised with a sense of wonder that all fear had evaporated, to be replaced by adrenaline-charged awe and gratitude.
The view was like no other I’d ever known, especially as I dropped lower and lower until I was engulfed in spray from the waterfall. This is one way of confronting a fear of heights, although the surprise was that it was magical beyond my wildest imaginings. This is living, I thought, picturing all those poor souls toiling indoors in offices far removed from the loving and exhilarating embrace of Mother Nature.
Maletsunyane Falls might lack the sheer thundering spectacle of Victoria Falls, where the mighty Zambezi River plunges over a series of gorges separating Zimbabwe and Zambia to earn its status as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Nor does it pull tourists with the power of Iguazu Falls between Brazil and Argentina, or Niagara on the US-Canadian border. But it is significantly higher than any two of this famous trio combined.
And better still, if you are an adrenaline junkie, it provides the setting for the world’s highest single-drop commercial abseil – the dizzying 204-metre descent guarantees it a place in the Guinness Book of Records!
I’d ostensibly signed up for the abseil to help my friend Inga Hendriks confront her terror of heights, while in truth I was meeting my own demons and learning about faith and trust. “What if the rope tangled or snapped? What if the mechanism jammed?” I’d tortured myself with all those questions before discovering the sheer joy of the experience.
Clad in a yellow waterproof jacket and protective helmet, I pondered the words of my host Jonathan Halse, who explained: “The abseil brings you down to earth. You are just a yellow dot hanging next to these giant cliffs that are millions of years old. It gives a sense of scale and a measure of your importance in the scheme of things.”
This adventure was back in 2008 and since then I’ve had many more opportunities to test my theories about the importance of sucking the juice out of life. When I’m 90 and sitting in my rocking chair, I don’t plan to look back on any regrets. Fears maybe, regrets no.
At the beginning of 2011 I scared myself silly during an expedition in Antarctica where I became the first person to drive a conventional 4x4 from the edge of the ice shelf some 300km inland to the South African research and scientific base. Once, when in the grip of a terrible dread, I even wondered if I might die in this frozen and lonely place.
Instead I encountered indescribably beautiful landscapes and the magnificence of the human spirit. It is an impossibly harsh and dangerous world that seems to bring out the best in us, and has done so for more than a century of exploration.
Entertainer and writer Andrew Denton summed up my feelings when he said: “If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater: the only place on Earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it!”
A few months after my personal mini-exploration of the white smudge at the bottom of the world map, I went from Petrolhead to Pilgrim, turning my back on my former life of money, materialism and expensive cars. I chose instead to walk with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth. And while it should have been scary, it mostly wasn’t, a strong sense of purpose propelling me forward.
Now, at Findhorn, I continue to explore inner and outer landscapes with the challenge – and the gift - of meeting my true self along the way.
Probably my greatest fear is of living a life of mediocrity where I don’t fulfill my potentials. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said it nicely: “ The biggest risk is not taking any risk … in a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
I guess my daughter Bonnie understood that sentiment when she gave me a present of a coffee mug that features a quote by Neale Donald Walsch, author of the Conversations with God trilogy. It says simply: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Thanks Bonnie.
Mission accomplished … Geoff (left) at the South African scientific and research base in Antarctica
‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’
Frederick Buechner, writer and theologian
What would possess you to go alone into the wilderness without food or formal shelter, to do so at the scorching height of summer, and to pay perfectly good money for the dubious privilege?
I’ve been asked that question more than once, enjoying the incredulity that invariably greets the idea of voluntarily going without food for four days and four nights, and invariably sleeping only fitfully between a rock and a hard place.
But the essence of a modern-day vision quest, or wilderness fast, is to leave the trappings of so-called civilised life behind and become totally immersed in the womb of nature while seeking a new way of being in the world. It’s a death and rebirth. And for a while it’s goodbye to watches, smart phones, computers, TV, jobs, deadlines and comforts we take for granted like hot water and flush toilets.
Instead it is an opportunity to discover that alone can become ‘all-one’ when we rediscover our identity within the natural world and experience the interconnectedness of all life. It’s a place of magic and mystery where time slows down, life is simple and, if we are lucky, we meet our true selves.
Author and poet JRR Tolkien famously observed that not all those who wander are lost, with solo wanderings into the wild heart of nature often providing our most profound insights and visions. And of course the concept isn’t new, time apart from the everyday ignited the spark of inspiration for the leaders of the major religions. Jesus found his true calling after 40 days in the wilderness, Muhammed in a cave outside Mecca, Moses on Mount Sinai and Buddha beneath a bodhi tree.
This is my fourth quest in six years so I’m excited and well prepared for my re-entry into wild nature where I’m most at home and at peace. The trio of earlier wilderness fasts revealed clues to my soul purpose and propelled me towards Findhorn, where I knew that I’d find more answers and perhaps begin to ask better questions. Why are we here, what’s my part in it, why is Spaceship Earth in the mess that it is, and how do I find true happiness?
This time around I’m more at peace, but want confirmation that I’m on target with my plans to immerse myself in Findhorn Foundation co-worker development opportunities during 2015, also participating in a pilgrimage in California to raise global awareness around issues of the sanctity and preciousness of water. It’s called Walking Water, and in the company of Native American elders and other role players, a small group of us will walk from the source of the water in the parched Owens Valley to the thirsty county of Los Angeles, that is home to 10 million souls.
My guides on this latest journey to the core of my being are Capetonians Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris, who trained with the American School of Lost Borders, and in more than two decades have not lost a quester to terminal injury or illness, a lethal snake bite or deadly scorpion sting.
So what’s it all about?
Author Bill Plotkin, a veteran wilderness guide, writes in his book Soulcraft: “The soul is like an acorn. Just as the acorn gives instructions to the oak about how to grow and what to become, the human soul - a type of spiritual blueprint - carries an image or vision that shows us how to grow, what gift we carry for others, the nature of our true life.”
He argues that at least once in our lives we are likely to experience emptiness and a sense that something important is missing and that our lives don’t make sense, having somehow disconnected from our soul purpose. It can be terrifying and disorientating.
For some a vision quest is a way to meet and understand our true selves.
“There’s so much more to who you are than you know right now. You are, indeed, something mysterious and someone magnificent,” he writes. “You hold within you - secreted for safekeeping in your heart - a great gift for this world. Although you might sometimes feel like a cog in a huge machine, and that you don’t really matter in the great scheme of things, the truth is that you are fully eligible for a meaningful life, a mystical life, a life of the greatest fulfillment and service.
The view from my 'cave' in the wilds
“To enter that life, you do not need to join a tribal culture or renounce your religious values. You do not necessarily need to quit your job, sell or give away your home, or learn to only eat vegetables. You do, however, need to undertake a journey as joyous and gratifying as it is long and difficult.”
He adds: “The gift you carry for others is not an attempt to save the world but to fully belong to it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift - your true self - is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.”
Sitting in a circle after our solo time, the faces are tanned, hair tousled and eyes clear-eyed, each of us radiating gratitude for nature’s gifts and harbouring a fresh resolve to forge ahead for a date with our individual destinies. We’re not the same people we were only days before, each having undertaken an inner and outer journey and seen some of the inspiring qualities of nature reflected within ourselves.
I’ve shared a rock overhang with bats and largely banished my claustrophobia around confined spaces, also better understanding the gift of rain as a heavy downpour fills dry streams and creates waterfalls, transforming the landscape into a celebration of wondrous new life and possibility.
I stand naked and exhilarated on a rock as the water sluices over my body, feeling deliciously and gratefully alive. I’ve let go of many things that no longer serve me and am ready for whatever comes next. Yay!
My fellow questers after our solo wilderness adventure
The beautiful Cape Town beach that was the unlikely scene of my burial and exhumation
‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’
In a great gift to myself during holiday time away from the Findhorn Foundation community, I signed up for a Vision Quest with two major objectives: to reconfirm my vows to Mother Earth and to confront my demons, facing my darkest fears.
Why, I wondered, had I recently suffered some severe asthma attacks, one of which scared me enough to visit a local Scottish hospital where I was put on a ventilator machine to assist my shallow, laboured breathing.
Instead of medicating the symptoms, I decided I needed to explore the underlying causes for my breathing challenges and a claustrophobia that had always made it uncomfortable to be in any confined space - even my snug-fitting sleeping bag!
I expected to examine these secret fears during the four days and nights of solo time in the wilderness that are at the heart of most modern 11-day Vision Quests. Instead, in what seemed like a flash of inspiration to me, it was suggested that before our departure from Cape Town for the mountains, I bury myself in the sand on the neighboring Fish Hoek beach adjoining the home of facilitators Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris.
Geoff digging his own 'grave'
Other questers were invited to engage in individual tasks ranging from finding the fun again by playing games on the beach, creating an artwork from driftwood, shells or even litter, or perhaps climbing a tree in the local park to gain a different perspective on life.
Instead of a bit of childlike playfulness, my assignment triggered considerable anxiety and the clear realisation that I couldn’t do this alone. I invited Simone Dale, a charismatic 34-year-old facilitator-in-training and leadership development coach, to help bury me and then hopefully assist in exhuming me from the Earth.
To be truthful I felt rising panic as she packed the sand tightly around me, compressing it firmly enough to totally restrict the movement of my limbs, while still allowing me space to take shallow breaths. Only my head projected from the sand and it was buffeted by a fresh wind that sent sand flying, clogging my ears and nostrils and getting into my mouth. Calling on my meditative experiences, I invited calm and the help of Mother Earth and the natural world to provide insights and possible solutions.
Simone was also reassuring: “I’ll be nearby, if you need me.” I’d shown her how my asthma pump worked and closed my eyes, handing over to a trust and faith that has deepened during my time at Findhorn.
Gradually a great peace spread over me, like a comforting blanket, and four significant childhood memories flooded my awareness.
My first asthma attacks had coincided with my troubled time at nursery school in Durban when I was punished for being too talkative, the teacher taping my mouth over each morning and forcing me to sit still and watch while the other children played. It was cruel and excruciating.
Geoff facing his asthma and claustrophobia fears
Then there were three potentially life-threatening incidents in water, in one my delight at grabbing at an octopus in the shallows turned to fear when it wrapped tentacles tightly around my arm and retreated deeper into a rocky lair. Moments after calling out to my Dad that I’d caught an octopus, I realised to my horror that the reverse was true and I couldn’t prise myself free.
Perhaps more scary was the time I stepped onto a slick, muddy surface, not realising that a river flowed beneath it. I immediately sank and was sucked relentlessly towards and through a pipe that channelled the flow beneath a road bridge. I was powerless to resist and found myself being suctioned through a dark world devoid of any airspace.
But more was to come. On another occasion I was in the surf and was pulled relentlessly down and out to sea by a treacherous current. I kicked and clawed desperately for the surface, but to no avail, until a great peace began to overtake me. The transition from panic to peace was a totally beautiful otherworldly experience. I was drowning but why had I imagined this would be something terrifying?
Once again my Dad the Hero came to the rescue and strong hands lifted me from the ocean, coughing and spluttering while lamenting my departure from that magnificent place of love and peace. I’d liked it there!
Fast-forward to Cape Town a few days ago and I became aware that I was indeed one with the Earth and all life, feeling calm and connected while noticing a powerful pulsing and series of contractions through my body. It felt like a loving massage and I decided the slow, steady rhythm was the heartbeat of Mother Earth herself. What a blessing!
The ordeal over, it's time for a selfie with Simone Dale
All fears around my predicament had evaporated and I realised that if ever I was in a place of terror and confinement again, or perhaps facing the ultimate transition from this life to the next, I had only to remember that near-drowning experience and the wonderful peace that had enveloped me then.
Nature had worked her magic - I felt refreshingly light and bright as a smile tugged at my lips and I cheerfully called out to Simone: “I’m done! Can you please help me out of here.”
‘To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances and respects the freedoms of others’
Nelson Mandela, Icon of Forgiveness
From birth until a few months beyond my 45th birthday I was a prisoner in my own country and only finally set free - along with millions of others - when I placed an X on a piece of paper during South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
In recent days I shared some of that journey with my elder daughter Bonnie as we entered the initially sombre and brooding atmosphere of Johannesburg’s award-winning Apartheid Museum, which tells a story of tyranny, tragedy, violence, heroism and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.
For me it was a pilgrimage to my past - lest I forget - and for Bonnie the opening of a door into a tortured history she knew little of. She was eight years old when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, and her sister Tammy was just six.
Setting the scene, museum visitors are arbitrarily issued with a ticket classifying them either as white or non-white, and enter through the gate allocated to that specific grouping. I walked through the white entrance, Bonnie entering as a non-white in a reminder that racial classification was the foundation of apartheid. Society was then divided into four groups determined largely by skin colour: Bantu (black), Asian, coloured or white.
Our exploration of the museum triggered a flood of memories and transported me back to my days as a young reporter almost four decades earlier when I’d been at the epicentre of the cataclysmic events that ultimately emancipated and united all South Africans in a common destiny.
It was on June 16, 1976, that black outrage at an unfair education system that discriminated ruthlessly against children of colour, finally spilled over, intensifying the struggle that would one day see the world’s most famous prisoner taking his place at the head of South African society.
To truly get to grips with the soul of democratic South Africa I heartily recommend a trip to the museum - or better still, make it part of what I think of as the Freedom Trail, spending at least a day going back in time and attempting to follow in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela and other struggle heroes.
A few years ago it was activist-turned-tour guide Joe Motshogi who introduced me to the idea of a struggle pilgrimage, driving me from the leafy suburbs of Sandton to the vibrancy and squalor of Soweto, Johannesburg’s younger and less affluent sibling.
And far from being simply a serious history lesson, it turned out to be a celebration that was often characterised by fun and laughter, especially when we tuned in to the heartbeat of Soweto, the country’s largest and most famous black township.
My ideal itinerary starts at Liliesleaf in the plush Sandton suburb of Rivonia, where a number of Mandela’s co-conspirators were arrested, followed by the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pietersen Memorial, Freedom Square, the Regina Mundi Church and Vilakazi Street, the Soweto equivalent of Hollywood Boulevard where you might easily spot celebrity stars of the freedom struggle.
Vilakazi residents proudly claim that their street is the only one in the world that has been home to two Nobel laureates, Mandela and his friend Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town who headed the pioneering Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But mostly the street is about having a good time and on past visits I’ve found myself in animated conversation with locals and a sprinkling of enthusiastic international visitors at lively restaurants and shebeen bars. At one called The Shack, the drink of choice was chilled Windhoek lager drunk straight from 750ml bottles, a group of women gyrating to loud music while the menfolk played a game of pool, amid much good-natured merriment.
I’m always struck by the great warmth and sense of community that’s missing in many cities where neighbours don’t know each other and live behind high security walls. The friendliness is in sharp contrast to my earliest memories of Soweto as a roving reporter on the Rand Daily Mail, witnessing running battles between heavily armed police and protesting schoolchildren armed only with stones.
Of course, no visit to Vilakazi Street is complete without a tour of the modest ‘matchbox’ home that Mandela shared with his former wife Winnie, the original facebrick house now dwarfed by a huge museum façade.
If you’ve started at Liliesleaf, you’ll recognise the simple and effective architectural style that has been adopted for recent apartheid memorials, recapturing the dark, brooding mood of life under a repressive regime.
It was at Liliesleaf Farm that a police raid in 1963 dealt a major blow to the leadership of the African National Congress and the struggle for liberation. Mandela, wearing blue overalls and posing as a servant named David Motsamayi, was arrested along with 11 others, the now-famous Rivonia Trialists including Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, father of former President Thabo Mbeki.
The accused had anticipated the death sentence, laughing with relief and disbelief when life sentences were handed down at the end of the courtroom drama.
At an earlier visit to the Hector Pietersen Museum I met the sister of the 13-year-old schoolboy who was among the first to succumb to a police bullet on June 16, a famous photograph showing the dying boy being carried by a teenage youth while she runs alongside, her horror and grief captured in that awful image.
Today, she’s Mrs Antoinette Sithole, a respected member of the community, who says: “I can forgive the people who did this, but I can’t forget.” Now she insists: “We must mix all God’s colours, including black and white, to create something quite beautiful.”
That spirit of reconciliation is a theme at the Apartheid Museum, where we’re invited to choose a favourite Mandela quotation which corresponds with a colour, the idea being to ‘plant’ a stick of that colour in a garden of appreciation.
Bonnie and I linger over the many famous quotations, among them two favourites about courage and resilience: “I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” and “There are few misfortunes in the world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.”
We also admired the former president’s unwavering commitment: “I will pass through this world but once, and I do not want to divert from my task, which is to unite the nation.”
In the end I chose a green stick that corresponds with the observation: “Deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity.” Thanks Madiba for persevering and enduring that long walk to freedom.
Bonnie plants a stick in a colour that corresponds to a favourite Mandela quotation
Peter Cairns' remarkable photograph captures the majesty of the sea eagle www.northshots.com
‘What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another’
A rewilded Scotland – from restored forests to the return of predators such as the lynx and wolf – is the vision of acclaimed writer George Monbiot and award-winning conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone of Trees for Life.
Their shared dream was presented recently at the University of Edinburgh as part of a Rewilding the World event, which echoes the theme of WILD10, the 10th World Wilderness Congress held in Spain last year.
With enthusiasm for the large-scale restoration of damaged natural ecosystems spreading quickly in the UK, the event highlighted the significant benefits that this could bring to Scotland, together with a discussion on its global and ethical implications.
George Monbiot said: “Rewilding offers us a big chance to reverse destruction of the natural world. Letting trees return to bare and barren uplands, allowing the seabed to recover from trawling, and bringing back missing species would help hundreds of species that might otherwise struggle to survive – while rekindling wonder and enchantment that often seems missing in modern-day Britain.”
The reintroduction of the lynx would help bring ecosystems into balance
Photograph Peter Cairns
Alan Watson Featherstone, Trees for Life’s Executive Director, said: “Rewilding offers an exciting vision of hope, through the positive and practical work of renewing and revitalising ecosystems. In the Highlands we have the opportunity to reverse environmental degradation and create a spectacular, world-class wilderness region – offering a lifeline to wildlife including beavers, capercaillie, wood ants and pine martens, and restoring natural forests and wild spaces for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”
The latest thinking on rewilding – including recent and remarkable scientific discoveries – has been captured in George Monbiot’s acclaimed book, Feral, that lays out a positive environmental approach in which Nature is allowed to find its own way.
Today few areas of the world are truly wild and Scotland is no exception. Long-term deforestation and overgrazing by too many deer and sheep has left the land depleted and barren, with much wildlife in retreat or missing altogether. The Caledonian Forest – Scotland’s equivalent of a rainforest – is now one of the UK’s most endangered habitats, with many of its rare species in danger of extinction.
Yet action across Scotland in recent years has offered signs of what could be achieved by restoring natural processes and protecting wilderness areas, and by reducing human interference in ecosystems.
Rewilding is seeing the return of the beaver to Britain
Photograph Laurie Campbell www.lauriecampbell.com
In the Highlands considerable efforts to restore and expand native forests have led to the establishment of a new generation of trees – and their associated plants, insects and other wildlife – at many sites. High-profile successes include the re-establishment of healthy populations of birds of prey such as the sea eagle, osprey and red kite, and the trial reintroduction of European beavers at Knapdale in Argyll.
George Monbiot and Alan Watson Featherstone argue that far more needs to be done and outline how a more ambitious approach could bring wide-ranging benefits to wildlife and people, while putting Scotland on the map as a wildlife tourism global hotspot.
Scotland is also ideally placed to be a world leader in an international drive to slow, halt and reverse global forest loss. In a major announcement at the UN Climate Summit in September, world leaders, companies and campaigners pledged in the New York Declaration of Forests to restore 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forests by 2020 and end deforestation by 2030.
Future rewilding could involve the reinstatement of missing species, including apex predators such as the Eurasian lynx and even the wolf, both of which play a crucial top-down regulatory role in ecosystems.
While the reintroduction of predators is often proposed as a means of reducing excessive numbers of red deer in the Highlands, its main impact would likely be in disturbing deer populations, causing these animals to move more frequently so that their grazing is less concentrated in specific areas.
The wolf is the most demonized of creatures but has a vital role to play
The lynx – already reintroduced to areas of Europe such as the Alps and Jura mountains – offers little threat to sheep, with no record of the animals ever attacking humans. It is a specialist predator of roe deer, a species which has multiplied in Britain in recent years and which holds back the natural regeneration of trees through intensive browsing.
While there would be many benefits resulting from reintroduction of the wolf, realistically this is a longer-term project because of its fierce reputation and the social and economic issues it poses. The reality is that it is a shy, intelligent and elusive creature that avoids contact with humans.
Leading volunteering conservation charity Trees for Life is restoring Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest, and has pledged to establish one million more trees by planting and natural regeneration by 2018. To mark its 25th anniversary this year, it is offering expanded opportunities for volunteers to support its work and gain conservation experience.
George Monbiot – well known author and columnist for The Guardian who has praised the pioneering rewinding role of Trees for Life - is currently setting up an organisation to catalyse the rewilding of land and sea across Britain. See www.monbiot.com
Richard Bunting and Geoff Dalglish
A remnant of the original Caledonian Forest
Photograph Alan Watson Featherstone
‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’
Mary Oliver, poet
Wild ... it is arguably my favourite word and it is both a delicious state of being and an enticing place.
I love the way it rolls off the tongue, almost like a caress … or reverberates when I shout it, echoing off the walls of canyons or competing with the roar of the surf. It is a word and concept I thought about a lot as I walked thousands of kilometres with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth.
According to my dictionary, wild can mean uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable; primitive or not civilised; lacking discipline or restraint; or it can imply a state of excitement and enthusiasm. It draws me, like a moth to a flame, and friends joke that I’m in danger of going completely feral and heading into the wild, perhaps never to return to so-called civilisation. What a happy thought!
The word also increasingly finds itself in the titles of books, movies and organisations that inspire me. Into the Wild is a book and film that haunts me as it retraces the steps of Christopher McCandless, an idealistic young man who went in search of himself, braving the Alaskan wilderness on his own and eventually dying an excruciatingly painful death. But not before living his dream and being gifted with many valuable insights.
“If you want something in life, reach out and grab it,” he recommended. And he certainly did that, displaying a curiosity and fearlessness I admire.
Oscar Wilde famously declared: “Any map without Utopia on it isn’t worth looking at.” I guess Christopher McCandless had found his Utopia, although he might have figured a way out of his predicament and survived had he not thrown his maps away.
Two years ago I had a similarly strong urge to walk into my own wild, something that I did on California’s Lost Coast when I defied repeated warnings about the danger of bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and even murderous cannabis farmers. Instead I enjoyed the loving embrace of wildness and wilderness, finding peace and solace away from humans. I celebrated aloneness without experiencing loneliness.
Last year was another wild feast as I walked as an ambassador for WILD10, the 10th World Wilderness Congress, my 124-day, 2,500km pilgrimage serving as both a marketing tool and a spiritual quest. Sometimes I felt that I was a wolf – hunted, persecuted, demonised and revered by some, as I attempted to follow in their tracks, marvelling at their resilience and resourcefulness. Against all odds, they’re staging a remarkable comeback in parts of Europe. As farmers and rural villagers migrate to the cities, wildlife is returning to make the world a wilder place again.
While I’ve sometimes struggled to find a balance between nature connection and connecting to the virtual world, in my wanderings I’ve come to appreciate that there is space enough for both. I need technology to spread messages about the magnificence of Pachamama, our Earth Mother and source of all sustenance. After walking for a year without books, because of their punishing weight, I invested in a Kindle and now carry a library of treasured electronic books, among them Shadow Mountain, a Memoir of Wolves, a Woman and the Wild, by Renee Askins. She famously helped reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
“Something mysterious happens when we look into the eyes of an animal, whether it be a panther or a poodle,” she writes. “We see something familiar looking back. Ourselves? Yes, but we also see an ‘other.‘ We see something that is in us and yet without us, something we recognise and yet is unfamiliar, something we fear but for which we long. We see the wild.”
At a time when our relationship with nature is sadly diminished, we still turn to animals as a conduit to healing, she says. “And through our animals - those of our childhood, those in our homes, and those in the wild - we can begin to find our way back to being whole.”
This week I escaped into the pages of Wild, an autobiographical story of courage and redemption, as 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed walks the gruelling Pacific Crest Trail along the mountain spine of California and Oregon, ultimately meeting herself along the way. I identified with every painful step and recognised the kinship we develop with our backpack – even a punishingly overweight one nicknamed Monster.
Wild is due for release at the end of the year as a movie starring Reese Witherspoon (refreshingly sans makeup) and promises to be a hit if it is half as entertaining as the book.
After months of being based in one place, much of it parked in front of a computer screen, my longing for wildness is again stirring strongly, even though I begin every morning with a generous helping of nature on my solo sunrise walks through the nearby woods to the beach. My bare footprints are invariably the first in the freshly washed sand; my soul washed clean by the walk.
We all need wilderness and wildness in our lives, especially as so many of us are suffering what author Richard Louv has termed Nature Deficit Disorder. He wrote Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, another favourite on my Kindle that has deepened my understanding of the healing powers of nature.
Soon I’ll again be in the wild, camping with close friends among the legendary black-maned lions of the Kalahari within the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles a remote corner of South Africa and Botswana.
It promises be a pilgrimage into the wilderness of my own soul and a place where I can again look deep into the eyes of one of Africa’s most feared and admired predators, perhaps waking with a hammering heart to a roar outside my tent.
And to make the wild feast complete, I plan to follow on with an 11-day Vision Quest that will include solo wild time without food or formal shelter, where I can reconfirm my vows to the Earth and all its beings.
From a very young age I believed it was my role to serve the natural world, although I no longer arrogantly believe that it is my duty to save it, sharing the inspiring sentiments of South African author, poet, psychiatrist and wilderness guide Ian McCallum, who I finally met last year during the World Wilderness Congress in Spain.
He insists: “We have to stop speaking about the Earth being in need of healing. The Earth does not need healing. We do. Our task is to rediscover ourselves in nature. It is an individual choice. And how or where do we begin? We begin exactly where we are right now, when we look at the world as a mirror, when we discover that our sense of freedom and authenticity is linked to the well-being and authenticity of others - and that includes the animals, the trees and the land.”
Peace Pilgrim wore only what you see her in and carried a toothbrush, hairbrush, a pen and notepaper in pockets sewn into the tunic
‘I will remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food’
It is a source of wonder that a remarkable silver-haired 72-year-old woman I never met has had such a profound impact on my life and that of countless thousands of others.
Known simply as Peace Pilgrim, she walked tirelessly for 28 years throughout the United States and Canada on a personal pilgrimage for peace.
“A pilgrim’s job is to rouse people from apathy and to make them think,” she said, insisting: “Love is the greatest power on Earth. It conquers all things.”
Penniless and walking without any organisational backing, she touched the lives of countless thousands who were inspired by her message of achieving peace between nations, individuals and that all important inner peace that is the vital starting point. “One little person, giving all of her time to peace, can make news,” she said. “Many people, giving some of their time, can make history.”
Thirty-three years ago today she died instantly in a car accident while being driven to a talk. A day earlier she had confided in a radio interview: “Death is a liberation into a freer life.”
I’d first heard about her from another legendary pilgrim, spiritual and ecological activist Satish Kumar, the 77-year-old editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and presenter of BBC2’s Earth Pilgrim programme, who as a young man walked on a peace mission from India to the nuclear capitals of Moscow, Paris, London and Washington.
He sees life as a sacred journey and the Earth as our sacred home.”
Meetings with him at Findhorn during 2010, and especially a workshop about Exploring Inner and Outer Landscapes, were to be life-changing; a spark of an idea catching flame and powering my transition from Petrolhead to Pilgrim.
“Tourists value the Earth and all her natural riches only in terms of their usefulness to themselves,” he said, “while pilgrims perceive the planet as sacred and recognise the intrinsic value of all life.
“As a pilgrim I discover the mystery, the magic, the meaning and the magnificence of life in every step I take, in every sound I hear and in every sight I see.”
New ideas about my life purpose crystallised during informal chats with Satish and were reinforced by the messages in his books No Destination and Earth Pilgrim.
On 7 July 2011 – exactly three decades after the passing of Peace Pilgrim from this earthly life - I took my first steps on the Isle of Iona on a walk of more than 15,000km that brought me to the Spanish medieval city of Salamanca in October last year. I’d walked with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly on the Earth, the last few months as an ambassador for WILD10, the 10th World Wilderness Congress.
“Above all we must realize that each of us makes a difference with our life. Each of us impacts the world around us every single day.”
Dr Jane Goodall, primatologist and animal rights campaigner
What is it that breaks your heart?
The provocative question, posed by spiritual activist Andrew Harvey, engages me daily as images play out in my mind of the almost unimaginable suffering of animals and the devastation of their natural habitats.
Andrew, the best-selling author of the book The Hope and a co-presenter at Findhorn’s Love, Magic and Miracles conference, asked: “What, of all the causes in the world, breaks your heart the most?
“When you follow your heartbreak, instead of following your bliss, you’ll uncover the cause that you are prepared to do something about because it burns within you with such an intensity of outrage and pain.
“If we wake up to our heartbreak we’ll find our mission and when we enact our purpose we’re filled with energy and passion and joy.”
Like Andrew I’m triggered by the incredible suffering we inflict upon the animals and other beings with which we share this Earth, somehow imagining that we are separate from nature and not accountable for the havoc we are causing.
Of course, it’s easy to stand back and point fingers at the suicidal greed of the oil companies or the avaricious mining and logging industries that reduce vast tracts of our beautiful world to a wasteland each day. The madness has been likened to sawing away at the high branch we’re sitting on!
But are we so different? Each of us makes choices that depend on fossil fuels to power our cars and sustain lifestyles characterised by an addiction to comfort and convenience. So its easy to apportion blame, pointing a finger everywhere but at ourselves.
Often I’ve felt anger and helplessness, without having the honesty to acknowledge my complicity in a system that’s stripping our only home of its resources. In my travels I’ve witnessed the slash and burn policies in Central America that left blackened, smoldering stumps where once there were towering trees stretching endlessly toward distant horizons.
I’ve felt nausea and revulsion in equatorial Africa when I watched helplessly while ancient trees toppled and convoys of logging trucks raced towards the nearest harbours with their plunder. Could I have made a difference?
In war-torn Congo and Angola tears welled up in the eyes of members of my overland expedition team when we came face-to-face with the agony inflicted by ruthless animal traders and the bloody bushmeat business. Cruelly tethered animals, including endangered primates, were changing hands at the roadside for a few dollars apiece.
In many African countries it is illegal to traffic in wild animal meat and yet in expensive restaurants in Cameroon or Gabon you could find a veritable Noah’s Ark on the menu and sophisticated and well-padded diners happy to pay the price. This isn’t only about hunger and survival!
So was it a futile gesture of kindness when we spent $20 to rescue a young antelope? My friend Adelle cradled the terrified animal in her arms, whispering gentle reassurances and feeling its heart hammering, while we drove a few kilometres before untying limbs bound tightly together with wire that bit deep into its flesh. Then stepping aside, she released it into the wilds. Sniffing freedom, the animal ran, and then stopped to look back at its rescuers. Was the silent telepathic ‘Thank You’ a figment of our imaginations?
We debated whether we’d merely encouraged the bushmeat industry and agreed that it is up to each and every one of us to do what we feel is right. Saving that one life had been non-negotiable.Which brings me back to the question: what is it that breaks my heart?
Perhaps more than anything I’m tortured by what is happening to baboons in South Africa, the country of my birth. Baboons, and especially dominant males, are being shot, poisoned and persecuted, sometimes by people in authority who masquerade as conservationists. The beleaguered primate’s crime is that it is desperately fighting for survival in the face of human encroachment where it has lived for thousands of years.
Admittedly baboons do raid kitchens and rubbish bins in the suburbs and can be a nuisance, but the issue isn’t about their appeal or usefulness to us. What matters is that they have an equal right to be here and like humans are an important strand in the intricate web of life. We’re all in this together as part of a massive collaborative quest for survival.
My way of dealing with this crisis of consciousness has been to walk the equivalent of a third of the circumference of the Earth with messages about treading more lightly, and along the way I’ve been inspired by countless individuals who are responding to the challenges, each doing their bit, whether motivated by simple survival or a love of life.
Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who famously led the incredible wartime rescue of the animals of Bagdad Zoo, wrote in his book Babylon’s Ark: “When one registers the fact that our very own survival depends upon the wellbeing of all life on our planet, one starts to understand that we are the ones responsible for the state we find Earth in today.”
“Life survives through biodiversity and biodiversity is achieved only as a shared initiative with and through all life-forms on Planet Earth... Homo sapiens must live in close collaboration with the plant and animal kingdoms in a healthy, life-sustaining environment. There is no other way. We are all in this game of life together. There is no divide, no ‘us’ and ‘them’; no ‘man’ separate from ‘nature.’ Homo sapiens as individuals and as a species are as much a part of life’s overall thrust for survival as any other species. As living organisms, we are all part of the greater whole, and as such, we are embodied with exactly the same purpose: to survive. And to do so - as individuals, families, groups, and as a species - we have to live in dynamic collaboration with the plant and animal kingdoms in a healthy, life-sustaining environment.
“There is no greater imperative. Mankind’s superior intellect and deep spiritual heritage will count for naught if we fail in this quest. Life will simply pass us by as we succumb to our own devices, and more successful life-forms will evolve to replace us... “
Perhaps my friend Braam Malherbe, an adventurer, author, motivational speaker, youth developer and TV presenter, is on the right track with his D.O.T campaign, where he invites everyone he meets to ‘Do One Thing’ for the planet. He believes collectively we can make a huge difference!
Having studied climate change in recent years he insists that the single greatest challenge facing humanity is how we deal with global climate change and the effects it is having and will have on us.
“Our planet is just a dot in the universe; we are just dots on our planet; but if we each just Do One Thing, we can make a radical difference”.
‘If you have God on your side, everything becomes clear.’
It was 20 years ago that my world was turned upside down with the death of a racing driver who was my personal hero and a role model for determination, perseverance and unwavering focus.
Just four days after my joy and exhilaration at taking part in South Africa’s first democratic elections that enshrined Nelson Mandela’s place in history, another event on the other side of the world precipitated heartbreak and grief on a global scale. I too was devastated!
Millions of television viewers were witness to the final countdown of Ayrton Senna’s life as the steering on his grand prix car failed in mid-corner at 307km/h, allowing him a scant two seconds to brake before slamming into a concrete wall at around 233 km/h. The impact was massive and a suspension rod speared the Brazilian hero’s helmet.
As the world watched in shocked disbelief he was lifted from the wreckage, his helmet removed and an airway inserted into his body by the medical team led by his friend Professor Sid Watkins, an English neurosurgeon many years his senior.
“He sighed and his body relaxed, and that was the moment - and I’m not religious - when I thought his spirit had departed.”
Afterwards the doctor, who campaigned vigorously for improved safety, spoke of the deepest personal relationship he had enjoyed with any driver, noting that Senna “had that wonderful humility that is not common with racing drivers.” Invariably his face would light up in a warm smile when he encountered his friend at the racetrack.
Senna was just 34 but had already emerged as a triple world champion and won more races than any other Formula One driver, his genius shining brightest in adversity and in dangerously wet conditions. He also restored a measure of pride to Brazil, inspiring his compatriots at a time when the country was mired in desperate poverty, social unrest and a sense of hopelessness. Suddenly they had something positive to believe in.
I’d met Senna only on brief occasions but was captivated and wrote: “I was awed not only by his devastating speed and supreme confidence, but his deep faith in God and single-minded commitment to being the best he could be.
“I believe that with that passion, uncompromising focus and sense of purpose we will always win at whatever we set our sights on.”
A highlight was watching him win at Monaco where he had had one of his most profound spiritual experiences, lapping ever faster and afterwards describing a mystical experience he likened to driving down a tunnel while being acutely aware of being one with the Divine. His speed had defied belief, and also frightened him.
Always analytical, he noted: “And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension.”
Rivals and especially his nemesis, Frenchman Alain Prost, expressed alarm at contesting corners with a competitor who believed that God shared the cockpit with him.
“Ayrton has a small problem because he thinks he can’t kill himself,” Prost declared scornfully.
That wasn’t true, Senna insisted. “Because I believe in God, just because I have faith in God, it doesn’t mean I am immortal, it doesn’t mean I’m immune, as has been claimed. I’m as scared as anyone of getting hurt.”
He also observed: “That same moment when you are seen as the best, the fastest, and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile.”
Despite that vulnerability, fear excited him and he worked hard to ensure that his learning curve never flattened out, always seeking ways to push the boundaries of his understanding. “With your mind power, your determination, your instinct ... you can fly very high.
“If a person has no dreams, they no longer have any reason to live. Dreaming is necessary, although in the dream, reality should be glimpsed. For me this is a principle of life.
“Champions are made from something they have deep inside them. A desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina. They have to be faster. They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
I was intrigued by how he used driving as a means for self-discovery and racing as a metaphor for life: "The harder I push, the more I find within myself,” he said. “I am always looking for the next step, a different world to go into, areas where I have not been before. It's lonely driving a Grand Prix car, but very absorbing. I have experienced new sensations, and I want more. That is my excitement, my motivation."
He recognised that the career of a driver is short, but hoped he had many years left to learn and grow as a man. “I believe that we start to see our true personalities when we go through the most difficult moments. This is when we get stronger.”
Often he spoke of the influence of the Divine in his life, and in an heroic drive in the rain from 16th place to first to claim his first world title victory, he said: “I started being grateful as I completed the last lap and I thanked God. I could feel his presence. I visualised, I saw God. It was a special moment in my life.”
Three years later, against all odds, with his gearbox jammed in sixth gear he won his home grand prix in Brazil for the first time, passing out after crossing the finish line, and being wracked in pain as he staggered to the podium and struggled to wave the national flag.
“God gave me this race,” he said, pointing upwards.
His sister Viviane recalled: “On that final morning, he woke and opened his Bible and read a text that he would receive the greatest gift of all, which was God himself.”
After the crash it was revealed that he had carried a furled Austrian flag in the car alongside him, intending to raise it on his victory lap to honour driver Roland Ratzenberger who had died the day before.
The government of Brazil declared three days of national mourning and an estimated three million of his compatriots lined the streets of Sao Paulo, 200,000 of them filing past his coffin in an outpouring of love, grief and gratitude.
Team boss Frank Williams said that as good a driver as Senna was, ultimately "he was an even greater man outside of the car than he was in it."
Coastal redwoods lining California's Avenue of the Giants
The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
Nelson Henderson, pioneer farmer
“Tees, tees,” I exclaimed excitedly from my lofty perch astride my father’s shoulders as he strolled through the local park hand-in-hand with my mother.
As first they were mildly taken back, surprise at my first-ever words turning to delight when they realised that I was saying ‘Trees.’
I have a fuzzy memory of that day and of a child’s sense of wonder at being surrounded by so many huge trees. And I guess those feelings of awe and connection with the natural world have stayed with me ever since. Many subsequent encounters with majestic trees have had an increasingly profound impact on my life.
I recall my horror during 1995 when I hiked through a Central American rainforest reduced to a smouldering ruin by reckless slash and burn policies. Why, I demanded, and was told the ancient forest was needed as pastureland for cattle. One cynic angrily insisted that it would satisfy a hunger for hamburgers from mostly overweight Americans!
Logging in Equatorial Africa
More than a decade later I could have wept with helplessness at the scenes of devastation wreaked upon pristine equatorial rainforests in Africa. I watched an endless succession of logging trucks speeding by with their plunder, mature trees, some a thousand years old, destined to become commodities in furniture showrooms from Berlin to Beijing.
When one logging vehicle collapsed beneath the colossal weight of a giant of a tree, I felt like cheering. Score One to the trees!
Still more recently it was a tree that saved my life as, terror-stricken, I hid behind it after being charged by eight enraged elephants. It was then that I made a pact that if I survived, I’d devote my energies to the Earth and all its beings. But how to do that!
Walking with a message became a way and during 2012 my pilgrimage took me from the epicentre of car culture in Los Angeles to the ancient redwoods of Northern California that are the tallest trees on the planet. What I jokingly refer to as my walk from Carmageddon to Redwood Heaven. It also introduced me to the sequoias that are the largest trees on Earth by volume, and the bristlecone pines that are the oldest. A famous grove high in the White Mountains dates back around 4,600 years - one tree germinated in 3051 BC, today celebrating a life spanning 5,065 years!
The rape of the rainforests
My wanderings have taught me humility in the presence of so many amazing trees, and introduced me to no less remarkable humans who have chosen uniquely inspiring paths of service.
Among those is Alan Watson Featherstone, a Scot with a giant 250-year vision to restore the Caledonian Forest of which just one percent remains in isolated remnants in the Highlands of Scotland. This is rewilding at its best, to use a popular buzzword.
A quarter of a century ago Alan founded the Trees for Life charity and during 2012 he and his team of enthusiastic volunteers planted their millionth tree. That’s walking your talk.
It’s harder to quantify what I’ve been doing, although I hope it has helped to raise some awareness around the importance of the natural world with which we enjoy a symbiotic relationship, drawing sustenance, inspiration and with each breath exchanging carbon dioxide for the oxygen on which we depend for survival. Have you ever hugged a tree and said ‘Thanks’?
Recently I read the book Feral by English writer and environmental activist George Monbiot, who says: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way ... the rewilding of natural ecosystems that fascinates me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to let ecological processes resume. In countries such as my own, the conservation movement, while well intentioned, has sought to freeze living systems in time. It attempts to prevent animals and plants from either leaving or - if they do not live there already - entering. It seeks to manage nature as if tending a garden.”
“Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”
He has visited Trees for Life and come away impressed with Alan’s vision and approach.
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to again spend time with Alan, both on his 60th birthday and on a day trip to the Dundreggan Conservation Estate, near Loch Ness, which is the focus of a major rewilding project.
And my timing seemed perfect: only days earlier all the lobbying had paid off and the noble Scots pine had been declared Scotland’s national tree.
It’s a step in the right direction although Alan warns that higher priority must be given urgently to the conservation of Scotland’s pinewoods.
“Declaring the Scots pine – bastion of the Caledonian Forest and one of the world’s most beautiful trees – as a national symbol sends a signal to the world that Scotland values its trees as an important part of its culture and identity,” he says.
Trees for Life volunteers at Dundreggan
“But with alarm bells ringing for this remarkable tree’s future, we should strengthen conservation action now. Our national tree is under siege from climate change, extreme weather and disease. We owe it to future generations to ensure its long-term survival by being world leaders in reforestation.”
A giant of a tree at Dundreggan toppled during this winter’s severe storms, highlighting the vulnerability of even well-established Scots pines to extreme weather, something that is likely to increase with climate change – and equally worrying is the lack of young trees to replace mature specimens.
But there’s no place for despair or overwhelm and a day out at Dundreggan is an invigorating tonic. I find myself in the company of cheerful volunteers potting tiny plants, some of which might only reach maturity in a couple of centuries’ time.
There’s something quite magical and hugely healing about working with young trees, being careful not to damage their roots and tenderly easing them into the soil that will nourish them on the first phase of their great adventure.
Long-serving volunteer Diana Brockbank enthuses: It’s wonderful to have a day out here in the country and I’ll do this for as long as I can.”
She looks lovingly at rows of tiny plants in the greenhouse, knowing she’ll not be around to sit in their shade. “This is the future,” she says. “These are just tiny little plants but they’ll grow into 250-year-old trees.”
Visit Trees for Life http://www.treesforlife.org.uk