Into the Wilds

I follow a small trail over a sandy creek, through a thick wattle heath, and upwards through flowering geebungsto where it clears into open forest. Wanting to make as little disturbance as possible, I carefully choose the placement of each barefootfall, avoiding the snap of a twig or crunch of dry leaves. The track snakes past the bloodwood tree dripping with red sap, the golden threaded web of the orb spider, and up a series of natural granite steps to where the land plateaus.

At the junction tree, I take the left fork and continue down the trail until I start to see the huge egg rocks that pepper the upper slope, and for a second hold in my mind an image of the person sitting under a rocky ledge, staring out to the horizon.

I arrive soon at the first ‘box’, a square of bare soil demarcated with bark and sticksat the edge of the trail. Inside are three solid rocks placed neatly next to each other, one for each day. Continuing on the trail, I check a dozen more of these ‘boxes’, each one eliciting a small amount of relief with the knowledge that the person out there in the wilds by themselves on ‘vision quest’ is safe.

The vision quest, or vision fast, is a solo bush experience where a participant spends four days and nights within nature seeking a deeper understanding of their life’s purpose, and often marking a significant transition stage in their life. For Native Americans, the vision quest is a rite-of-passage in which initiates sit within a small circle on a mountaintop, fasting and praying. The modern vision quester has a few more luxuries - water, a tarpaulin, clothes, sleeping bag – but fasts from all other things familiar,including food.

Since earliest times, peopleshave sought to receive profound insight about themselves and their world by means of some kind of vision quest - the Aboriginal walkabout, for instance. The basic universal elements include a remote wilderness setting, fasting from food, solitude (with the exception of animal companions of course), direct exposure to the forces of nature, and a significant period of time. It’s a trial of sorts, designed to break the habitual patterns of the mind and allow a deeper knowledge to arise. ‘The sledgehammer’ is the other word I’ve heard it described, a less romantic but perhaps more apt name for the fierce beating the ego receives every minute that passes with almost zero stimulation.

During my first quest I was worried about fasting, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how incredibly vast ninety-six hours could feel. The experiences of blissful reunion with nature and the cosmos that I expected were brief blips in an otherwise monotonous sea of tedium and physical pain. Still, for months afterwards, I felt clearer and more sure of my purpose than I could remember.

On the fifth morning, the three of us ‘protecting’ the quest spark up a small fire before first light and wait. Rosie is first to appear, almost ghost-like in the half light. Greeting her with a hug, I can see she hasn’t yet gathered together words or gestures, still somewhat out there in the silence of her vigil. Helping her down by the fireside, I hand her a mug of miso which she sips hungrily. Pretty soon a quiet circle joins her, the return complete.

After a while, the salty soup brings the questers back to earth, and small scatters of laughter emerge.Although I can see the thirteen faces around the fire are the same ones I farewelled four days ago, they feel quite different; lighter, radiant even. Sometimes it takes a test of our strength and commitment to know our own worth.