It began with a root. At dawn. On the side of a mountain.
“You have to go deep,” Dr. Greg Emerson instructed as his sharp blade penetrated the frosted ground. He pulled gently and reverently as it relinquished its hold on the cold, crusted earth. With a look of intense satisfaction, the good doctor turned to us and grinned. “We’ll drink this later.”
I do sometimes wonder how I get myself into these situations. The expression, ‘curiosity killed the cat’ springs to mind…
However, this adventure, this journey into the heart and soul of the wild, wasn’t really going to get me killed – unless I fell off a cliff, literal, not metaphorical. In fact, I was hoping it would give my butt the kick it needs to reset on every level – physical, mental, and spiritual – and inspire me to live a better, healthier life.
I believe we all secretly, or not so secretly, yearn for the one ‘thing’ that will change our lives and our attitudes; that miraculous reboot of our tired, stress-infested systems that is utterly, physically and emotionally accepted by our body and mind. We soul search in far-off places; we commit to days/weeks/months of the latest diet resets; we invest in spiritual retreats, cognitive therapy, astrology, and ancient remedies.
This adventure, developed by two of the healthiest and kindest people I’ve ever met, is a little bit of all of this, kind of none of this, and really, so much more than all of this put together.
It’s a course designed to empower, to inspire, and to remind the body and mind, that it was made to be a kick-ass survivor. It’s designed to show humans how much we’ve forgotten over decades of progress – read indulgence – and how much of our evolutionary resilience we actually still have access to.
Imagine waking up feeling great. Getting up and wanting to stretching a body that’s just itching to get moving. Imagine not crawling mindlessly to the coffee before even attempting to start your day. Imagine laughing in the face of Mr. Cereal box, knowing intrinsically from the epicentre of your being that your body does NOT need Fruit Loops. Imagine feeling rested, stress-free, energised, motivated, and as if you can do cartwheels – so you do, just a few, on the lawn before work.
This is what I got from two days in the snowy mountains of New Zealand’s Southern Alps with Dr. Greg and Ben from New Age Primal.
Sounds awesome, right? Okay, where should I begin…Getting my kit off and jumping into a -2C, snow-crusted river at an altitude of over 4000 feet? Hiking deep into the mountains in a blizzard? Drinking off old men’s beards? Hmmm, so many totally life-changing moments!
First of all, I should really tell you that this two-day immersion adventure was not the idea of a masochist. The guys behind New Age Primal are unbelievably super-sane – probably the sanest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with.
Dr. Greg Emerson is a senior emergency physician, ex-professional athlete, and sustainable off-grid permaculture farmer. He believes the philosophy of survival, the way we as humans think about, react to and understand our natural evolution and ancestry is key to our quality of life. He champions choosing foods that contain medicine, burning fat, not sugar, and understanding how we work as a whole from the inside out.
Ben Logan is an elite athlete, men’s health strategist and ancestral health explorer. He loves to get people moving, preferably towards a below freezing pond, and moving naturally. Moving the way our ancestors did. I first met Ben in Soul Food café in Wanaka, New Zealand. His passion for food that is not only natural and organic, but fundamentally, unadulteratedly, good for us on a medicinal level, is admirable, but also fantastic if he’s your friend. Dinners at Ben’s are always outstanding! Wild foods, ancient foods, organic, hearty and filling. Often you think ‘organic health food’ and you think of a plate of kale with some nuts. Not with Ben. And certainly not on this adventure – but more about food later.
Because first, we fasted. And it made more sense to me than any fad diet, fad fasting, juice cleanse or cabbage program! Here’s how I understood it.
Our human genome has barely changed in thousands and thousands of years. Biologically we are still pretty ancient creatures. Our systems, the hormones and systems like our nervous system are pretty much the same as our ancestors of generations past. So what would they have been doing in the morning? Filling up on cereal and coffee? No. They would be getting up with the dawn, kissing the cave-Mrs. goodbye, and setting off with their buddies to hunt. They ran on reserves. They were sharp, on it, running miles a day, barefoot, focussed on the kill. They were burning FAT.
And while the boys were out running and hunting and waving their sticks at each other, the ladies were home, a couple of cave-babies strapped to their backs, foraging, gathering, and digging for roots, tubers, edible bugs, leaves, fruits – whatever they could find. Sometimes walking miles a day on nothing but a handful of dried bison. They were not eating Kellog’s Special K and drinking tea with only half a sugar. They were in the wild, on their hands and knees, crawling, searching, fetching and stock piling what they could to survive. They were skinning things, making utensils, crafting with their hands, and making sure the local saber tooth tiger didn’t snatch one of the kids. They were functioning, multi-tasking the hell out of that shit, all on reserves. They were burning FAT.
They were not burning SUGAR. Revelation! A huge breakfast is not actually what our biological history demands. Oh, and most of the foraged foods back then were unsullied and full of naturally occurring medicines, unlike now where the bitter goodness has been stripped out of our food in favour of artificial sweetness. Travesty!
So, yes, first, we fasted. Greg and Ben gave our bodies the little jolt they needed to remind them they are fat burning machines, able to leap small streams in a single bound. And we gathered. Which is where the root comes in. Thistle root, full of natural medicine, and Rosehips, New Zealand’s answer to Tea Tree – the Kanuka bush – and a good old handful of Old Man’s Beard – a lichen found on trees. Every item foraged by hand – our own – and put in a little bag for later. Greg and Ben’s commentary the whole time tells us what medicines are found in each plant and why they are good for us.
Then we headed for the hills.
Mountains to be exact. Big ones. Those ones you see in epic films that aren’t CGI. New Zealand’s Southern Alps. We drove as far as we could in 4X4’s, headfirst into an oncoming snowstorm. Was this going to be a problem? Apparently not. According to the very excited Greg, this was ‘perfect’ weather. Boy were we really going to see what it would be like to live in the wild in extremes! This was going to be a hell of a reset!
One of the major things we have trained out of our bodies is resilience. Humans can survive some really hairy stuff. Learning to survive, to ‘be’ a survivor, is one the most important aspects of the two-day course and one I relished. Pushing my body to limits I wasn’t sure I had anymore, showed me that hey, I might look like a pampered middle-aged mother of four, but by gosh I can push the boundaries.
It’s all about attitude. And knowledge. Greg and Ben talked us through a survivor mentality, discussed tactics and the steps of survival over a snack of fire-roasted almonds, eggs, butter, and real herbal tea from our foraged goodies. We listened, asked questions, got nervous – then it was time. Water therapy. Oh yeah.
Cold water immersion is kind of like shock therapy, in my opinion. Ben and Greg prepared us as best they could, making sure we understood the process, how our bodies would react, and what the phases of immersion would bring. We could refuse to do it, which was fine. We could get out immediately – no problem and no bad feelings. Or we could suck it up and get wet. I sucked it up. It was awesome! Honestly, I thought I was going to have a cardiac arrest, but I didn’t! I did what Ben said, listened to his calm voice talking us through it, shaping our breath with his words. Calm, breathe, relax – and feel. Feel? I thought I might never feel my toes again! But then something happened…
I felt alive. Awake. Enlivened. I felt INVINCIBLE.
Every sense sharpened. Hunger, cold, exercised to hell, I felt better and more real than I’ve ever felt. My eyes were open, not just lids up off the balls, but open – like wide, seeing everything. Every snowflake seemed to be teasing me with it’s own special dance and I could see every coquettish twirl. I could taste the air, the wind, and I felt full, full of something much better than food. I could smell the earth, every feral creature that had passed this way in the last ten days, even the rocks – I could smell the schist. I could hear beyond the wind, the rustle of tussock and every individual splash of water from the waterfall at my back. The touch of falling snow settling on my hair, my face, my eyelashes, felt like the raspy lick of a thousand tiny kittens.
I lasted 10 seconds.
But it was 10 seconds in which I felt the world turning, and knew, really believed, that I was part of it – a vital part, a living, breathing extension of the Earth, the Universe, the unknowing past and the eternal future.
In all things, there is a time to rest. We’d worked hard, pushed our bodies beyond tired, beyond comfortable, to natural exhilaration, and it was time to rest. Just like our ancestors, we gathered at a mountain hut – thankfully not a cave! We lit a fire, lit the candles, practiced yoga, and then in the wonderful, heartening camaraderie that comes with facing intense experiences together, we cooked a hearty, wholesome, primal meal of spiced lamb, kumara, pumpkin, seeds, nuts, butter, and more of our special tea. It was the best damn meal I’ve ever had!
Settling in that night – at 8pm for heavens sake – snuggling deep into my sheepskin and sleeping bag, I did a mental check over my body. Feet – not frost bitten, warm and toasty. Legs, tired, but tingling with strength. Torso, focussed on an internal feeling of happy, healthy digestion, rested and calm. Arms and hands completely relaxed, not bunched into fists like usual. Shoulders, also decidedly un-bunched – amazing! Head? Head? Hello, head? Oh, just like that, with a beatific grin on the face, I am heavenly, gracefully, peacefully asleep. For the first time in a really long time, I don’t dream of being chased, being buried alive, being eaten slowly by a black lion, or being in an animated horror film where the lead character is a rainbow water horse voiced by Beyoncé.
And I’m so looking forward to doing it all again on day two. Like, for real. Thanks Dr Greg and Ben. Can we do this every weekend?