The bliss of the bad hair week

How many of those ‘essential’ items do you really need?

How many of those ‘essential’ items do you really need? Intrepid tramper Hazel Phillips goes minimal

Could you go an afternoon without your mobile phone? How about a day? Or even a whole week without the internet, showers, electricity, flush toilets, shampoo, or even a comb?

In a quest to see what life would be like without all the mod cons, I recently set off for a week in the wilderness, taking along as few props as possible. Could I manage without the reassuring presence of Google in case at a pinch I needed to resolve a heated debate? Or what about forsaking a hot shower at the end of a long day’s tramp? Do you really need all those things you consider as essential? Come to that, do you really need to continually acquire more stuff in the name of retail therapy?

Rounding up a friend, Sarah, as my partner in crime for the challenge, we selectively pack our 65-litre backpacks in preparation for seven days we’re planning to walk the 66-kilometre St James Walkway, just out of Lewis Pass in Canterbury.

Packing light is trickier than you’d think. While you might happily leave your smartphone and laptop at home (along with shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser, makeup, perfume – the list goes on), New Zealand’s wacko climate and changeable weather mean you need to take clothes for every occasion. Not so much a cocktail dress or ski pants, but rather shorts and t-shirt for stinking hot days, through to waterproof pants, jacket, hat and gloves, in case of snow.

Did I mention it’s January? The month of the year means nothing to the weather – it’s been known to snow on the St James in the middle of summer. And indeed, we end up experiencing everything in the seven days, from suffocatingly hot to freezing cold.

By the time we add food, a tiny gas cooker, survival bags, an emergency locator beacon, sleeping bags and a spork (a hybrid piece of cutlery with a spoon’s scoop at one end and fork tines at the other), the pack weight is up around 17kg each.

Turns out, travelling light weighs an awful lot, but thankfully the packs become lighter with every muesli bar we consume. It takes a while, at first, to accustom yourself to going without the things you take for granted. Walking down expansive fields of alpine flowers, I keep hearing my text message ringtone, only to remind myself I’d actually left my phone turned off in a spare bag back in Nelson. Call me deranged, but I also heard the email ‘mail received’ tone, the ring of the home phone, traffic noises, and cats. (Particularly odd, given I don’t have cats).Such inner-urban noise pollution soon gave way to the real sounds of nature – cattle lowing, birds chirping, and the surprisingly loud sound of the river rushing past.

At the huts in the evening, organising yourself with so few items proves a simple task; cooking dehydrated food over the tiny gas flame is quick and painless. The absence of complications leaves plenty of time for gazing up at the snowcapped mountains (the epic Faerie Queene, at 2236m, and its sister mountain Gloriana, at 2218m, are imposing and breathtaking at the same time). The night-time sky is inky black with a frightening number of stars in the absence of city lights – and no phone app to make sense of it all.

It’s with a tongue-in-cheek irony that one fellow tramper suggests putting on a DVD to pass the time, but it’s soon revealed some punters just can’t go without – one has brought a Kindle, another a full makeup kit, complete with multiple glass jars of moisturising creams (oh so heavy!), and yet another misguided lass has brought in hair straighteners and asks where the power point is.

There’s something perversely fantastic about being off the grid and uncontactable for a week, and something especially delightful about not seeing your own mirror image or having to bother with showering and primping. And six nights, eight huts, five rivers and many, many swingbridges later, we’re walking out to the Boyle Village Road end with packs light due to the absence of food – and even lighter spirits. Going without seems to help you gain so much more.

Hazel Phillips is the editor of Idealog magazine. Her last Good column had her quaffing wine in a high-altitude hot pool

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