Alone in the wild

Jini Reddy travels deep into the French Pyrenees on a solo wilderness quest that promises respite from the emotional and physical distractions of modern life. Can she get by with only her thoughts and nature’s whisper for company?

I’m high atop Hartza Mendi (Bear Mountain), a sacred peak in the French Pyrenees, surrounded by waist-high ferns. Beyond them lies dense forest and a setting sun; intense ribbons of orange cloaking an undulating chain of more sacred peaks with quixotic names. I shiver in anticipation of the long night ahead.

Most people come to these lands to walk, for there is a poetic beauty to the Basque country: here are cascading mountains, sinuous waterfalls, emerald moss-cloaked forests and ancient cromlechs (stone structures).

For me there will be fewer footsteps and more repose, for I’m on a solo wilderness quest. A compulsion to hear nature’s voice, to connect with a living but non-human ‘otherness’ and to still an intangible but deeply-rooted need for belonging that, no matter how hard I try, can’t be answered amidst the distractions of modern life has led me here.

“The call to ‘rewild’ ourselves is growing, and rapidly”

My shelter is a small tent. I’ve six bottles of water and, as this is also a fast, two apples and some nuts to keep hunger at bay. I’ve relinquished my phone and watch. ‘Radical trust’ is a phrase that keeps playing on my mind. Can I rest in the unknown, be still and have faith that I will be safe?

The promise of transformation under a vast sky is compelling. It’s a Native American idea, a rite of passage: you immerse yourself in nature and return filled with insight, a sense of wonder re-ignited.

Whether it be from a desire to commune with the Earth or to withdraw from the modern world and our enslavement to its distractions, the call to ‘rewild’ ourselves (to borrow a phrase from George Monbiot) is growing, and rapidly. This is reflected in the many ventures that have sprung up to celebrate and foster personalised relationships with nature both in the UK and abroad. You might say that nature’s time has come. Again.

This is a welcome revival – and not just for reasons of ecological awareness. Traditionally, Britain’s most prolific thinkers, poets and artists, among them the likes of Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, John Constable and Christina Rossetti have drawn inspiration from our hinterlands, seascapes, woodlands, valleys and meadows. Today, the benefits of reflective time spent in wild environments is indisputable. Scientific studies show a boost in creativity and higher levels of insight among those who spend extended time far from the built environment. I don’t need proof: my own experiences tell me this is so.

My quest is in the hands of a Basque American shaman, Manex Ibar, who has trained with Lakota, Algonquin and Tibetan Bon medicine men and women, among others.

I spend my first nights buffeted by storms, camped in the grounds of his sprawling farmhouse outside of Biarritz. By day, with four others who will also venture solo, I learn graceful Qi Gong movements to calm and rebalance my mind, for it’s vital to feel grounded before such an intense immersion. But the atmosphere is also one of bohemian charm and there are lavish home-cooked feasts cooked by artist friends of Manex. On the eve of the quest, we participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, another native American tradition, to purify both body and mind and to ask the elements for protection.

The next morning, I set off from the foothills of the mountains. Manex carries my water, and after a steep start, we walk on a gentle trail: it skirts a valley, meanders across streams and leads us into a fairytale forest. He tells me, with absolute certainty, that nature spirits and the Yeti dwell here. I feel as though I have entered the twilight zone.

The minute I reach my mountain peak, he departs with a wave. At last I am alone. I hurriedly set up my tent and then, in relief and exhaustion, and because for too long I have carried a weight inside me, I cry. I’m curled up, foetus-like, when a wild chestnut mare and her shy grey foal gallop through the ferns and stop a few feet away. Hazel eyes bore into mine, unblinking. It’s a moment of grace – and something more. In the space between us, the sacred arises.

Eventually, the horses depart and I collect myself. The magnificent sun sets and I crawl into my tent, fearful of the dark. And then the unimaginable happens: a silence decends, so deep you could cut it with a knife. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

It’s as though the mountain, the forest and all of its creatures are holding their breath. I hear it, close to my ear, just beyond canvas. It’s an unearthly, disembodied whisper, filled with conscious intent, and yet unheralded by footsteps or the crackling of branches. The otherness I’d eagerly sought has come to visit and I’m engulfed in terror. On and on it goes. And then as suddenly as it began, the whispering stops, the forest exhales. Yeti? Nature spirit? It’s a mystery – one I will puzzle over for the rest of my life.

Come daylight, it’s another story. The heat is searing so I shed my clothes. The fast feels cleansing; it opens my senses and it’s a letting go. Three vultures – a sign of purification Manex later tells me, unlike the more sinister western symbolism – circle above my tent. They soar and dip their wings, vast as condors.

One afternoon, I thrash my way through the ferns to sit amidst a circle of trees, branches bowed like wise elders. I watch the sun arc slowly across the sky. Alone in my eyrie, stripped of distractions, it dawns on me how spoiled I am in life: nourished literally and figuratively with food, good fortune, friends and family. But here atop the mountain, I find I am giving voice to the profane as well as the profound.

Weakness and boredom plague me. On my tryst with the wild, I feel myself raging at those who have hurt me. So I beat a stick, hard on the earth and let her take my pain. And then I wonder, just who is hurting who? I wrestle with the darkness in me.

On the last day I awaken to cloud and drizzle and my spirits plummet. But two hours later, I’ve descended the mountain and am reunited with my fellow questers. In our elation and relief, we laugh, hug, bond.

In the weeks to come, I feel unusually serene. Inevitably, conflict and challenge intrude and blight it all, but still I feel emboldened. I’m aware that I’m not alone; that my allies in nature see me, just as I see them; that in stillness both the sacred and the mysterious are present in my life and – though I have yet to fathom this fully – that perhaps nature’s voice is my own, whispering back at me.

Jini Reddy travelled with www.bio-energetica.org. The Pyrenees vision quest costs 1250 euros (850 euros for students) and includes all meals when at the farmhouse, Qi Gong and Tai Chi tuition, Native American sweat lodge, and pick-up and drop-off to Biarritz airport. For more info and to book, visit www.bio-energetica.org/services/workshops/vision-quest-workshop
Tel: +33 (0) 6.77.27.51.68

Ways to get wild

Ventures that are helping people to connect with and celebrate nature have sprung up all over the UK, from small grassroots outfits in cities and rural areas to wider organisations. Among them are: EarthWhisperer and Way of Nature UK , which offer immersive experiences in the wild surroundings of London’s urban woodland (and beyond); the Devon-based Regenco which offers supported vision quests, including fasting and solo time, land-skills based retreats and reflective walks out on Dartmoor; Wildwise which offers a range of courses including nature awareness, forest skills, wild food walks and walks which help you to explore nocturnal nature; and Wilderness Minds which runs mindfulness and wild camping trips in Snowdonia. Earlier this year, the National Trust launched The Wild Network, a movement of over 300 organisations which aims to connect children and adults to nature.

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