Why I went bush and had my own Bear Grylls experience

A swag and a sweet potato: One woman goes bush to curb her cellphone addiction

Life & Style
Photographer and author, Alice Mabin outside the New Zealand hut she isolated herself in over the Christmas break. Ironicially, the only decent photos during the experience were taken with her mobile phone.

Photographer and author, Alice Mabin outside the New Zealand hut she isolated herself in over the Christmas break. Ironicially, the only decent photos during the experience were taken with her mobile phone.

Aa

Ever felt like mobile phones were ruling your life? Alice Mabin took drastic steps to manage her addiction.

Aa

Leading up to Christmas is the busiest time of year for many businesses including mine. With all the last-minute orders to send out and customers to attend to, I felt like I was a mouse on a wheel as days moulded into weeks and Christmas loomed faster than I could say the word. There just weren’t enough hours in the day and days in the week.

I was asked to speak at a Christmas function for an agricultural business in the Barossa in mid-December so I dragged myself to Qantas Club one last time for the year. I was spending the weekend at the Novotel resort and had a day to myself before I had to speak at the dinner. I hadn’t stopped in months and had planned to use this weekend as a “holiday” for myself. I was keen to switch off and pamper myself a little and have some ‘me’ time.

I checked into a lovely room overlooking the golf course and vineyards in the hills. The next day I rose, checked my emails and text messages then turned my phone off as I headed out to get some breakfast.  And this is where it all fell apart…..

While waiting for my coffee and breakfast at, what seemed to be the most popular café in town, I found myself turning my phone on, checking and responding to emails, text messages and scrolling through all of my social media accounts.

To begin with, I was oblivious to what I was doing, but when I got back to the resort I was furious with myself. I had failed at the simple task of switching off for the day. I was addicted to my phone. And to solidify this thought, conveniently, up popped the screen time information for the week. I was horrified. I had spent hours and hours on the phone….but what had I achieved?

I started to think broadly about the situation and phones in general.  The progress we have made in some areas has been amazing, but one could argue that it has caused backwards steps in other areas. I thought back to when I got my first mobile phone. I was 15; it sent and received text messages and phone calls and that was it. It was 50 cents a message and you wrote things sparingly as there was a character limit. It was all black and white and didn’t even have an internet connection on it.

I also remember dinnertime at my house when I was a kid. The TV got turned off and we had to make conversation around the table...yet if you take a look anywhere today, people go out for dinner and sit there on their phones texting and communicating with other people and don’t give their undivided attention to the people they went out to see.

Failing face-to-face

How often do we catch ourselves talking to someone and being on our phones at the same time? This is affecting the quality of human connections we make/don’t make – no wonder relationships don’t last today – people don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations, we do everything through technology because we can hide behind the screen for things that are confronting to discuss. We post pictures of our “amazing” lives on social media but behind closed doors, we are miserable. 

And social media has us all by the short and curlies. You can’t afford not to be on it as a business, or as a consumer. If you are not on social media, you are missing out, but if you are on social media you are missing out! It is key, and people are scouring it all the time for information. So we need to engage with it, but I think the trick is to find balance. How much more productive could we be in a day if we were not constantly looking at our phones and stopping momentum?

Read more: Why we need to act on mobile phone addiction now

Back to the Barossa, I realised the only way I was going to switch off was to get out of reception altogether, so I called some friends and got them to arrange a hut for me to go and stay in, in the mountains of New Zealand. I flew out two days later. When I hit pay on the flight, I thought to myself, what have I done? Will I be able to follow through with this? This was a bold move, a very spur of the moment decision. This was my own version of Bear Grylls. I had only booked a one-way ticket and was to stay as long is it took to unwind, switch off and curb my phone addiction.

At the airport I changed my voice mail to say I would be out of reception for the festive season, put an automatic reply on my emails and frantically did last-minute jobs online. I smiled as I observed what I was doing, but was content that I had enough awareness of my addiction and that I was about to do something about it. 

I flew to New Zealand and with the help of many friends, I managed to get picked up from the airport and delivered to the station where I would spend the next however-long. Some of my surrogate NZ family that I saw on the way to the mountains were envious of my decision to get out of the rat race, but managed to come up with excuses about why they couldn’t do such a thing. I challenged their thinking by saying, ‘well that’s your choice, you could do it if you really wanted, but it sounds to me like you are putting barriers in front of yourself’. Others were half worried about my mental state and worried that I would do something silly.  Some thought it was just weird that I would want to go and be on my own in the mountains with no reception, no power, no shower or any of the luxuries we take for granted today, especially over the Christmas period where traditionally it is socially accepted that you spend this time with family. 

 “What if something happens to you?” “It’s too dangerous to go out of reception on your own”, “how will you survive without your phone”, “what if people need to get hold of you?”  “What about work?” The questions came thick and fast from those I told of my plan. It made me realise that I was not the only one addicted to my phone….and it dawned on me how we rely so heavily on our phones to ‘save’ us. 

Safety is pretty much a given right today. And one could argue that communication IS safety. After all, parents give their kids phones today to always know their whereabouts and be able to get hold of them at the click of a button. People worried for my safety because I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone. The truth is, where I was going, if something happened to me, it was going to happen and I’d have to deal with it in the moment. 

And it is perplexing when you read about a family who perished after breaking down in the bush and having no phone reception. If communication is considered part of human safety, shouldn’t it be paramount to have reception all over the country? Has this concept of ‘safety via a phone’ created a society that does not have the common sense to think that when they decide to go to a remote location, that they might take some extra supplies for safety’s sake?

‘I ate rabbit’

One of Alice's rabbit stews. On Christmas Day a friend brought some lamb chops.

One of Alice's rabbit stews. On Christmas Day a friend brought some lamb chops.

I was going to a remote location, and knowing NZ weather, I packed for all seasons. But by choice, the only food supplies I took with me to the hut were a dozen eggs, a jar of honey and a couple of sweet potatoes. If I wanted to eat, I had to hunt for it. I ate rabbit. I made a stew and every few days I would add some more meat to it. I took hard boiled eggs with me on my daily walks and the honey was for if I had a sugar urge or if I got cut. It was also good with hot water on the cold days.

As a safety precaution, each day when I left the hut to go climbing, I would write on a piece of paper what time I left, and in which direction I was going. I packed a raincoat, a hat, extra clothes, water, a hard-boiled egg and sunblock. You never know what’s going to happen on the mountain in the day. I had watched the clouds and fog roll in in the first few days so fast that before you knew it you couldn’t see the top of the mountains. It would possibly be sleeting up there, while it was blowing at the hut and freezing cold, and in just a few short hours the sun would be out and it would be steaming hot.

Read more: Driven to live life to the full

One day I left the hut early and climbed out to the west. Half way up, fog came in so fast that I couldn’t see across the other side of the valley. I had started off on my adventure with long johns, shorts, a singlet, jumper and jacket on. This was fitting for the cold start and the fog that crept in. But by 10am it had burnt off, and I had stripped off to a singlet and shorts. I lathered my body in sunblock, but with no ozone layer in NZ, and being in the sun for seven hours, I was sunstruck by the time I got back to the hut. I collapsed on my bed. I couldn’t move; I wanted to be sick. I knew I needed to eat something as the tank was empty, but the thought of food made me want to spew. I lay there for an hour or so just trying to concentrate on not being sick. 

Eventually I got to my feet and headed down to the river to wash. It was hot, so I was going to brave the snow-fed river and have a swim. Before long the wind got up and the day cooled down. I curled up in my sleeping bag wearing long johns, and two icebreakers with my socks pulled up to my knees. I was having hot and cold chills from the sunstroke. I hardly slept a wink that night. And to top it off, a possum came to the hut that night and scared the living daylights out of me.

Alice's living quarters.

Alice's living quarters.

Each day when I returned from my walk, I would note down on the paper what time I got back. This was my only method of communication. If Hamish came to check on me and saw that I hadn’t returned one day, he would know where to go looking for me.

On Christmas Eve, Hamish came to check on me, I was out climbing so didn’t see him, but he brought me a treat – some lamb chops. I cut them up and added them to my stew. It was amazing. But funnily enough, I didn’t crave anything while I was out there. In the first few days I longed for coffee, but I soon got over that. I didn’t eat often, but I didn’t feel hungry.

‘I thought I would last a couple of days’

I thought I would last a couple of days then fall in a heap and want to come out. But I lasted 11 nights, 12 days. The first few days were a novelty, and when I listened to my brain, there was so much going on in it. It was like it was running its own little world and life and I just sat there listening to the stuff going on and thought to myself, boy do I waste energy on trivial stuff that I cant change. 

The sun didn’t set until after 10pm at night but on the first three days I was asleep before 7pm and I didn’t wake up the next morning until between 10 and 10.30am! I must have been totally exhausted and my body and mind was relishing the break. 

I found myself trying to create routine, but I would tell myself I didn’t need it. I could do what I wanted, when I wanted and it didn’t matter. Some days the weather was really bad, so I would only go walking for a few hours, other days it was magic and I would attempt to get to the top of the mountains to see the view. Some days I just read books, or wrote in my journal, or listened to my thoughts. Eventually my mind quietened and I was able to take control of my thoughts and direct them where I wanted, to things that were worth the energy and that would benefit me.

Believe it or not, I didn’t think about work once, or my phone. I had no desire to know what was going on with social media, or how many emails or messages I’d have and I made a decision that when I got out of the mountains, I wouldn’t turn my phone on for a few more days as I wanted to just appreciate being back in civilisation first before I really “switched back on”. I really grew to like being disconnected. 

The hut and the terrain Alice was secluded in, in New Zealand.

The hut and the terrain Alice was secluded in, in New Zealand.

It is no wonder that kids don’t last on stations when they leave school and head west to be a ringer. They feel isolated because they have no reception to communicate with their friends who, up until leaving school, they have been able to communicate with 24/7. And their addiction with their phones cripples them from experiences of a lifetime that bush living has to offer.

I didn’t speak to or see anyone for 12 days, other than the seagulls that followed me around the mountains. I was a little nervous the first few days, I am not sure why, because it wasn’t like I was a fish out of water. I use to do this stuff for a living. I worked on stations and was always camped out in the mountains mustering sheep. But it had been over 10 years ago so I didn’t know if I was still capable of doing it. And so much has happened in my life since, that it was hard to believe I use to do that.

Bluffed by fog

One day I got bluffed when the fog came in fast and I couldn’t see five metres in front of me. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back. I was on my hands and knees and the tears were welling in my eyes, a lump developed in my throat and my heart was pounding. I couldn’t see the hut. Briefly there was a gap in the fog and I realised I was not on the right spur. I had gone one too far. 

Thunder started and about 30 seconds later, so did the hail. And to top if off the seagulls turned up and squawked at me frantically like they were warning me to get off the mountain. I clung to the rocks as I slid to my bum and dangled my feet over the edge to drop to the next rock a few feet below. I told myself to breathe deeply and that there was no one coming to save me so I had to calm the farm and that I could get myself out of this mess. 

The thunder and the hail and the seagulls created a level of urgency in my mind to get down as fast as I could. But one wrong step and I could have broken a leg, or worse, my neck. A few big drops to get down a few metres and I was into a shingle scree. I used it to slide myself down the mountain and below the clouds where I could see. Then I hit matagouri bush. This is a thorny hedge-type bush that engulfed most of the gullies and banks of the river and was near on impossible to get through unless you didn’t mind slicing your skin open. 

I didn’t have the energy to climb back up and around the matagouri so I opted to go through it and onto the river. I took about three scratchy steps through it and fell a good 10 feet down. I didn’t land hard as I was standing in the middle of the springy matagouri bush. But I had cuts from my eyelids to my ankles. I had fallen into a crevice that dropped down into the river. I looked up and the matagouri was over my head. The only way out was to grab onto it and pull myself up. I knew I’d spend the next week picking splinters out of my hands. I got out, picked another way and pushed through the thorny scrub to the river. I sat down and took my boots and socks off and dipped my toes into the water. It was freezing.

Making it back the hut that day was one of the best feelings. The weather and bluffs had put the wind up my sails and I was rather shaky. But I survived. The next day I did a lower climb to try and get my confidence back. It was on this walk that I came across wild pigs and I sat down to observe them and take some photos. And yes I said I took no technology….not even a good camera! I had a disposable camera with the ability to take 27 pictures and that was it. So I was very picky. 

That first conversation with Hamish when he picked me up was amazing. I couldn’t draw breath. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in 12 days. And the first shower, wow it was nothing short of amazing. Hot water hitting my skin, washing my hair and not having to rush to avoid getting a chill from the wind. And then there was coffee. Albeit, instant coffee, I didn’t care. Caffeine hitting my veins was indescribable. Oh and cheese, I have always had a relationship with cheese, but as the saying goes, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.  

I had buzz about me, I was motivated, everything was heightened and my awareness was sharper than sharp. I felt like I had got my mojo back. I had lots of great ideas and felt calmer and more in control than I had before. I didn’t feel like I was in the rat race I was running before Christmas. I was relaxed and felt like I didn’t need to know what 2019 was going to bring just yet.

Back at work for two weeks now, I have found that I don’t need to be connected to my phone 24/7 and that I am more productive if I am not pandering to its every ring tone and beep of a message. In fact, I even removed the notifications off the phone so I don’t know when they come in. If I check it a few times a day, it is amazing the flow I have and how the messages are still there two hours later and no one died because I didn’t get back to them straight away!

Aa

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