As a self-admitted, highly-strung, workaholic it was quite a challenge for me to switch off my screens and step outside. Here’s what I learnt from Mother Nature when I did. . .
I’ve always been an outdoor person. I have many, many fond memories as a child playing in the garden, riding my bicycle or building hideouts in the trees. As I grew older, however, I began spending less and less time outside – despite my inherent love of nature.
This was partially because my social activities (for most of my teenage years and early twenties) revolved around nightlife. But, mostly, because I (like many others) became heavily reliant on technology, and completely obsessed with my work.
Help! I’m addicted to technology
When I was 24, I traded my social life for my career and dived, head first, into the rat race. For the last six years, I’ve been working full time, studying and juggling my responsibilities as a wife simultaneously.
Despite loving what I do for a living (you don’t get much better than being in a creative field), long hours and permanently chasing deadlines took its toll.
I woke up, a few weeks back, to realise I’ve become a caffeine-fueled, square-eyed mess. I’m permanently glued to screens. If it’s not my laptop, it’s my phone, when it’s not my phone, it’s the TV or Xbox. My husband, Steve, isn’t doing much better (although he at least isn’t addicted to social media).
The bags under our eyes are almost big enough to carry the groceries, and up until this past December, we hadn’t spent a full weekend doing something together in years. Yes, years.
Somehow, during our efforts to build a home and become financially stable, we’d completely neglected our mental and physical well being – not to mention the well being of our relationship.
How did we get here? We swore blind we’d never be those people!
Between the two of us, we decided to make some changes – one of which was to spend more time outside in nature.
Hiking our way to health and happiness
Why we chose hiking as a hobby
After much research and debate, we settled on hiking as a great way to spend time together and reconnect.
I grew up hiking with my parents. We spent countless holidays in the Drakensberg, at family-run gem called The Cavern (undoubtedly my favourite spot on Earth). I was never particularly athletic – in fact, as Steve so endearingly puts it, I have the reflexes of a blind tortoise. But, in spite of my clumsiness, I’m an enthusiastic participant in outdoor activities.
Steve got his love of nature from Nin (his grandmother), who is one of the most knowledgeable human beings I’ve ever met. Between Nin and Steve, they share a common interest in things like camping, survival and local fauna and flora.
Given Steve’s love of nature and survival, and my fondness for hiking as a throwback to simpler times, it seemed like a good fit for us.
I signed Steve and myself up for The Cavern’s Big 5 Hike (an 18 km day hike) and, without further ado, the two of us set off on our first real adventure since 2015.
As you can imagine, my years as a couch potato meant my fitness level dropped below zero, somewhere into the negatives. I’ll admit, my ambition and enthusiasm well outweighed my actual physical strength and endurance. But who doesn’t love a challenge, right?
5 valuable life lessons I’ve learnt from the outdoors
1. You’ve got to stop sweating the small stuff
Work gripes, quarrels with friends, road rage and receiving your burger without the piece of cheese you ordered aren’t worth worrying about.
None of it matters when you’re hanging off the side of a cliff.
Yes, I had no idea what I’d signed myself up for – it turns out you don’t just go gallivanting in the mountains without training. I spent most of that day with my teammates pushing and pulling me to safety (time for some rock climbing lessons).
The lesson I learnt here, is that I spend a lot of time worrying about silly little things that don’t really matter. My day to day problems were completely dwarfed when I scrambled my way up the side of a mountain. For the first time in years, my frantic mind was still. . . all I was thinking was “whatever you do, don’t let go”. It really put things into perspective for me.
Despite my paralysing fear of heights and lack of upper body strength it was, retrospectively, one of the best days of my life. I learnt that my body (even in the state it was in) is capable of amazing things. In fact, it was my attitude that let me down.
And so, on to my next lesson. . .
2. When you feel like you can’t push yourself any further, you can
Blood, sweat and tears went into reaching the the top of Hlolela (the first peak), but the view was totally worth it. It only got better from there. The further I pushed, the more breathtaking the landscape became.
My knees felt like they’d been clubbed with a baseball bat, my arms had no idea what had hit them, my lungs were rasping for air. . . But, I’d do it all over again any day (in fact, I’m going to have to – I’ve got to finish what I started).
I didn’t make the full hike that day. I only made four out of the five before taking a shortcut back to the resort. I regret that decision. I wasn’t aware that the last stretch (between Cold Hill and Camel’s Hump) was in fact the flattest, easiest (and most enjoyable) part of the hike.
I only got back to our room about 30 or 40 minutes before the rest of the party. Even worse, after a fifteen minute rest I already felt better. It was then that it dawned on me that I should’ve persevered. I felt like a fool.
The lesson here is that perseverance is the key to success. If I’d pushed myself just a tiny bit harder, I would’ve completed the hike. Instead of sitting here wallowing in my failure, I’d be celebrating an amazing achievement.
I’ll never give up that easily again!
I wasn’t properly prepared for the hike though, which was a huge contributing factor to my failure to complete it. That’s my next lesson.
3. Want the view? You’ve got to put in the work
If you don’t have a desperate need to reach the top of your “mountain” in life (whatever it may be – a job, a fitness goal, a relationship), you won’t.
Had I put in the work and necessary training beforehand, I would’ve finished the hike. Had I stayed positive and kept my eye on my goal, I would’ve finished the hike. My need to reach my goal was overshadowed by my want for instant gratification. That’s why I failed.
I have a brand new, very healthy respect for the hours of training that athletes (and others at the top of their fields) put in to achieve their goals.
The lesson here: if you want something in life, you’ve got to do the groundwork – no matter how mundane it may seem. Want that promotion? Put in the overtime. Want to be a top designer? You’ll be spending many, many hours practicing your sketching.
Unless you sprout wings, that “view” isn’t going to come easy!
4. You’ve got to trust other people
This was my hardest lesson.
I’m a control freak – unhealthily so. It’s not that I’m able to do things better than anyone else. It’s not that I’m OCD or particularly neat or organised. It’s just a straight up case of fear of the unknown. When I do it myself, there’s a known outcome. If I put my trust in someone else, there’s that hint of a chance something doesn’t get done on time or to my satisfaction. Apart from my controlling nature, I’m also insanely shy and battle to interact with strangers. I’m constantly worrying what other people think.
On our hike, there were stretches of climbing where I didn’t have the physical body strength to make it on my own. I’m also terrified of heights. There were points where my fear paralysed me and my body froze.
I had to rely on my teammates to guide me. They told me which footholds to use and which branches were safe to hang on to. They guided my feet and, when I was too scared to move, lifted me to safety. Throughout the hike, everyone kept encouraging me to keep going – despite the fact that I was slowing the team down.
What I learnt from this, is that other people want you to succeed. They’re willing to help you succeed – all you have to do is let them.
The world isn’t filled with strangers hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting for you to embarrass yourself. Yes, there are a few people who delight in the failures of others – but they’re few and far between.
That leads me to my final lesson.
5. Approach everything with a positive attitude
“I can’t” is a very dangerous statement. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’ve learnt that my ability to do (or not do) something lies squarely in my mind. I may not have been physically fit for the Big 5, but my body would have made it with the right mindset.
The minute I started to doubt my body’s ability to carry on, I gave in and turned back. My failure to complete the Big 5 taught me that I need to adjust my attitude.
If you approach something with a negative (or uncertain) attitude, you’re setting yourself up to fail. If you start a project saying “I don’t think I can do this” or “I’m not sure if I can do this” you’re almost certainly going to prove yourself right.
I’m looking forward to trying my hand at the Big 5 again. This time I know exactly what I’ll be signing myself up for – and although those climbs still scare me, this time I’m going to finish what I started!