Plants, birds, rocks and Jamie Oliver: Shipping out to a desert vision fast
In which I recount salient vision fast features including embarrassing revelations regarding my inherent cowardice and sclerotic neuroses while at the same time paying homage to my vision fast guides and fellow participants and to the 1970s song A Horse with No Name via title and to my favourite writer David Foster Wallace via subtitle and introduction.
I’ve sat on a drop-pit toilet in the blazing sun.
I’ve seen skinny lizards and vast salt plains and the precise moment of sunrise and sunset ten days in a row.
I’ve been smoked with sage maybe twenty times.
I’ve had people sing and shake rattles outside my tent.
I’ve seen desert-fly battalions land on tuna salad and someone make a Jamie Oliver curry on a camp stove.
I’ve fasted for three days and laminated myself with Bushman’s Extreme insect repellent.
I’ve slept alone under the stars in a Sherpa hat, lumber jacket and with my sleeping bag zipped to my eyeballs.
I’ve been bored and listless and incoherent.
I’ve shouted at jets.
I’ve been anxious and scared and one night for 45 minutes outright terrified.
I’ve seen adults cry and laugh and care for each other in ways as bullshit-free as you can imagine.
I’ve been listened to like as if I really mattered.
I’ve lit a camp fire with a tea-bag wrapper and learned how to tell where north is with a stick and two rocks. I’ve practised a hundred times how to tie a slipknot.
I’ve tried to erect a tarp. And failed.
I’ve put up a tent (with help).
And most of all, I’ve realised that YouTube is essential survival preparation for the Australian desert.
The reasons I’ve seen and done and realised these things
Recently, I went on a ten-day vision fast with Beyond The Threshold (BTT), an organisation that offers nature-based wilderness retreats in the Western Australian desert.
BTT is steered by Gary, a man of lugubrious demeanor, noble carriage and mordant wit and his warm and ebullient wife Glenis. Also from BTT are our guides Allan, who reminds me of Obi Wan Knobi because he just does, and Richard and Annie, who don’t remind me of anyone from Star Wars which is just as well because it would be too distracting.
A brief vision fast explication
A vision vast is a rite of passage undertaken to mark a significant life event such as midlife, adolescence, divorce, marriage, or the death of a loved one.
Its purpose is to challenge old ways of thinking and being, to reconnect with self and nature and to provide insight and clarity into one’s life.
It comprises four days at base camp, four days and nights fasting alone in the bush and three days reintegrating into the world-at-large.
It is, to put it mildly, an ordeal.
And this ordeal begins months before I go to the desert.
For example, I have a handbook to read, forms to complete and supplies to procure. I must book plane flights and accommodation and make a Statement of Intention about why I want to go on a vision fast and what I hope to get from it.
I also watch the following YouTube videos:
- The Lancashire University Hiking Club’s How to Put Up a Tent.
- Lothian’s — or maybe Lachlan’s, I can’t tell because he speaks with his lips shut — How to Put Up a Tarp in the Wilderness. Lothian is a snappy dresser. He wears a cowboy hat and knee-high boots and what looks like a designer bison jacket and I am so distracted by his outfit that I hear nothing he says.
- Ray the Bushman’s How to Light a Campfire Even When It’s Raining.
Additionally, I have loads of totally unhelpful worst-case-scenario worries to indulge such as death and snake bite and hypothermia and dingo pack attacks and birds-of-prey mistaking me for a bush pig and tearing me apart with their talons.
Ordeals take time and effort to arrange.
Anyway, here’s a sometimes linear, mostly present tense and thoroughly discursive exposition of the actual desert experience, including a Basic Fear Table, an introduction to the other vision fasters and a What I Learned dot point summary.
Date: October 1st, 2013.
Event: Arrival at base camp.
Location: 335 kilometres east of Perth.
Time: About noon.
The indigenous people of Western Australia call this land ghost country and pretty much leave it alone.
I see why.
It is windy and dry and hot. The flies are obdurate: the mosquitoes assiduous.
There are plants and birds and rocks and not much else.
But at least I’m prepared.
I’ve packed everything on the equipment list. I have bionic hiking boots, two pairs of sweat-sucking socks and three snake-bite compression bandages. I have a first aid kit, thermal underwear and enough batteries to power the Hubble telescope. I have a psychotic blow-up mattress, a “sub-arctic” sleeping bag, clothes, toiletries, lots of toilet paper and two packets of jelly beans.
And I have one tube of Bushman’s Extreme insect repellent.
I arrive at base camp with five other vision fasters:
Bryce: I have this man on apocalypse speed dial. He teaches me how to tell north from south and what to do if I get lost: “Sit down, name the emotion, have a cup of tea.” He also tells me that the world uses 86 million barrels of oil a day (which adds up to 30 billion barrels a year) and that no matter what anyone says, we’re going to have hardly any oil one day and we should stop pretending it’s going to last forever. He says if anyone tells me otherwise then I just have to look at them and say “eighty-six over thirty.”
He also tells me to wear gloves when I collect firewood.
Derek: The absolute best desert dresser with a great laugh and lots of amusing anecdotes. Everything feels a bit classier and cultivated when Derek’s around. Even the flies look more respectable.
Gavin: A genial man with a kind of stoic, hypersmart Tom Hanks-in-Castaway-minus- Wilson disposition. He kindly gives me a compass which I have no clue how to use but I sort of pretend to hold it intelligently and look like there’s hope. He also teaches me how to wear a bandana. (He looks really good in his bandana so that’s why I ask him.)
Bruce: Bruce is tall and deep and a bit mysterious. His eyes twinkle when he talks and he reminds me of Heath Ledger, only cooler. He has a pet dingo called Vinnie.
Raghav: This man is the monkey god Hanuman in human form. He’s irreverent and wickedly funny and he’s also unbelievably kind and generous and helpful.
“This is not a Rambo exercise.” ~ Gary
Days One to Four we spend in preparation for our solo wilderness act.
We are given time to orient ourselves and to express our fears and expectations. I have many fears and expectations. Specifically, I fear things crawling on me in my sleep and I expect them to bite me.
Bruce, who spends lots of time in the bush, tells me snakes and spiders have better things to do than crawl over me in the dark and bite me. I’m not so sure, but I trust Bruce because he is brave and kind and knowledgeable and he shows me pictures of his dingo Vinnie and tells me funny Vinnie stories.
We also drink lots of water because our urine needs to be “copious and clear” and because Glenis says it’s a very desiccating environment out here. I do as I’m told because the only thing I’ve seen that’s desiccated is the packet of coconut in my pantry and I never want to look like that.
Humanity has hope
Then we go on day walks to find objects of beauty and significance. I find a kind of powdery clay and rub it over my face and hands. It feels good to do this. I am now an authentic desert native. We bring these things back and talk about what they mean to us.
What I notice when people talk is that everyone listens. And it’s definitely not the half-distracted pretend listening most of us get in the world-at-large, but real, intense listening that’s a bit scary at first because I’m not used to it. But after a while it seems natural and I think humanity may just have a future.
I especially like the sessions where Allan reads Rumi poems before we start.
And then on Day Two we discuss navigation. I’m glad we do this because I have no clue where I am. When I think I’m looking south, I’m actually facing east, or maybe west.
I get even more confused when Annie says, “The sun travels in the northern sky in the southern hemisphere.”
I tell her I don’t understand because I always thought the sun was just up there and not hanging out in any particular direction as it moves.
I’m out of my depth so Bryce helps me orient during the breaks. At one point I think I’ve got it and confidently tell him I’m walking south. Bryce says gently, “Let’s go over it again, Claire.”
I’m out of my depth in other areas as well and I tell people my worries in a kind of whiny, high-pitched gibber.
But everyone is polite and patient and compassionate and no-one tells me to stop gibbering.
Then we have a lesson on how to find north with a stick and two rocks.
Before we start Gary says, “If you were lost Claire, would you know how to find north?” I tell him I have no clue.
Then Richard demonstrates. He puts a stick in the ground and places a stone at the end of the stick’s shadow. Then we go away for 20 minutes. When we get back, the shadow has moved and Richard puts a second stone where this new shadow is. And then he puts his left foot on the first stone and his right food on the second stone and he tells us that he is now facing north.
I love this. It is so simple even I understand it.
The food is also good. I eat lots because I know soon I will have none. I especially like Allan’s porridge. It is smooth and of a perfect consistency.
The flies like it, too, but no-one likes the flies. Especially the March flies because they’re pitiless and sting for no obvious reason. Also, they’re vindictive and have long memories. For example, Annie tells me she smote a March fly on her last desert fast and then for the rest of the time they hunted her in swarms and generally made her life miserable.
I make sure I kill no March flies.
We’re advised on emergency procedures and how to notify our appointed “buddy” that we’re okay.
Emergency procedure expatiation
Gary and Glenis explain the two ways we will know things have gone ape-shit:
- Gary (or someone) will blow a mega-horn thing three times in a row. When we hear this sound we must drop everything and return to base camp. Gary blows the horn so we know what it sounds like. It is loud enough to be heard in Cape Town.
- This one involves a buddy system. I’m paired with Bryce and we will be camped approximately 500 metres from each other during our solo time. We will need to build a simple structure in which a stone will be placed. In the morning, one of us puts the stone inside the structure. In the afternoon, the other person takes the stone out of the structure. This goes on for four days. If the stone isn’t where it’s meant to be, my buddy will check if I’m okay. I worry that five minutes after I put my stone in place that I will have a brain aneurysm and fall in a hole and that my buddy won’t find me for 36 hours.
We go to bed a few hours after sunset. My blow-up mattress is limp and I have to blow it up again. I feel dizzy and sick by the time it’s inflated. And then it goes down in the night and I have to blow it up again. I think it’s trying to kill me.
We take turns to cook breakfast and lunch and dinner and to do the washing up.
On Day Four, we go out with our buddy and choose a solo site. I find a shady spot under two trees. Bryce finds a spot that is a long way from me. We build a little pyramid for our stone-signalling system.
At dawn on the fifth morning it’s time to go and Gary and Glenis and the other guides sing and rattle stuff outside our tents to wake us. We get dressed and pack our bags and stand in the sacred circle. One by one, after words of encouragement and wisdom from Allan, we step out.
And Buddy Bryce and I head off together over the salt plains and into the unknown.
Four days solo in which I envision Jamie Oliver, cloak myself in insect repellent and languish on the psychotic blow-up mattress.
This bit is hazy.
This is all I recall:
I can’t put my tarp up in the howling wind and the flies have reached a level of Drosophilic intensity that is frankly disturbing.
It’s too hot to think about a camp fire so it’s only when I notice the sun setting that I rush around to get all the kindling and logs that Ray told me to get in his YouTube video.
And then I can’t start the fire. I hold my lighter to the kindling but nothing happens. Luckily, I have a tea-bag wrapper in my coat pocket and I use that to get it going.
Then I sit for hours and hours keeping it alight because the darkness is very dark and I’m scared. Every now and then a jet flies over and I yell pointless things like, “Do any of you people have any idea what I’m going through down here?”
Each night when I run out of logs and my camp fire dies, I dash to my sleeping bag and slip inside and zip it up to just above my nose. I keep my Sherpa hat and fly net on. I feel safer that way. I sleep fitfully and wake each morning at first light.
Each morning I am grateful to be alive.
I drink lots of water and feel ill and bloated but I want to avoid desiccation.
When I get off my mattress and walk around it’s like I’m a human tsunami.
I lie encrusted in sand while the wind howls and the March flies hover. At one point I sing a sea shanty.
I have visions of Jamie Oliver. I think of his Evolution Potato Salad and his Posh Chopped Salad and of his grandmother’s lemon teacake and resolve never to take Jamie and food-in-general lightly again. Jamie is my salvation.
And then it all ends suddenly.
On the third night I wake up to my heart beating really fast.
It goes on like this for about 45 minutes and because I think I’m maybe sort of dying, I resolve to return to base camp in the morning.
Which I do. I leave a note for Buddy Bryce, pack my stuff and leave.
I do not feel like a failure.
Annie brings me a cup of herbal tea and a bowl of the best miso soup I’ve ever had. I’m in heaven.
The others return the next morning in various states of dishevelment. Except for Derek — he still looks immaculate.
The next three days are spent telling our stories and re-affirming our personal intentions and getting ready for the world-at-large
During these three days, I have time to reflect on my pre-and-post vision fast fears and whether they were warranted.
I have now summarised these reflections in the following table:
BASIC FEAR TABLE INCLUDING MITIGATION PROCEDURES AND THEIR ULTIMATE SUCCESS OR FAILURE
BF Mitigation Procedures
Success of BF Mitigation Procedures (in percentages)
|Ad libitum mammal, insect and reptile incursions – especially those of a crawling nature and very especially after dark.||Slept with sleeping bag zipped to fullest extent and with Sherpa hat and insect net over face. Bushman’s Extreme insect repellent.||Mammals: 100 percent success.
Reptiles: 100 percent success.
Insects: 32 percent success.
|Unable to erect tent and/or tarp.||Watched YouTube videos, to wit, Lancashire University Hiking Club’s How to put up a tent and Lothian’s How to erect a tarp.||Tent:100 percent success.
Tarp: Zero success.
|Hypothermia||Warm apparel, to wit, thermal underwear, Sherpa hat, thick coat, and woollen socks.||100 percent success.|
|Death (including non-specific, all pervasive existential angst).||Read Emily Dickinson poetry. Pondered the fleeting nature of existence.||90 percent success (a ten percent reduction because of heart-palpitation-induced Near Death Experience).|
|Failure to ignite fire.||Ray’s YouTube Video How to make a fire in the bush even when it’s raining.||100 percent success.|
What I Learned (in dot points)
- Civilisation has its faults, but on the whole is worth preserving.
- A really good Jamie Oliver vegetable curry can be cooked on a camp stove.
- Jamie Oliver visions may not sound all that ethereal and spiritual and wise for a vision fast, but they got me through some rough times.
- March flies are vicious creatures with no redeeming features.
- Take two tubes of Bushman’s Extreme insect repellent when you go to the desert.
- Pay attention to YouTube videos when someone’s trying to teach you something.
- The sun travels in the northern sky in the southern hemisphere.
- Humanity has hope.
- I know what it’s like to have ten people listen to me even though I have no idea what I’m talking about.
- Most basic fears are baseless and even when merited can be overcome with simple mitigation procedures.
- Eighty-six over thirty.
What a ride.
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About the author
Claire Bell is the health and wellbeing editor of Midlifexpress. She is the author of Stone Age Secrets for Mind and Body and Comma Magic. Print and ebooks available on Amazon.