A connection like no other, we are so often missing that special thing in life that makes us human; the simple appreciation of our environment and sense of wonderment in what it provides, the air that we breathe, warmth in our hearts and nourishment from the land and sea. In a busy rushing about day that so many experience, it’s no wonder we are at times feeling a little lost, lacking in purpose and just consumed by modern day life. That hustle and bustle, the always-on, connected culture, our phones with their messages, social media likes, commuting to towns and cities, rushing from one thing to the next, working hard for the chance of salvation, and then onwards to repeat that often crazy loop of repetitive behaviour that consumes our lives.
When you take a walk in a green space, the corner of a city or town with a few trees and plants growing out of crevices in walls, a river side path with ducks paddling along, a garden full of flowers, a leafy park with birds singing, there is that sense of release, a grounding that we all need in our daily lives.
And, if for a moment, we kick off our shoes, walk barefoot through the grass, sit upon the ground, close our eyes and wonder, what do we think? Yes, there are the distractions of the traffic, lorries delivering trollies full of convenience food, commuters rushing by, cocooned in their cars, planes flying people to other cities for work and holidays. But as we filter those out, what do we think? How do we feel? Might there be another way? How did we manage without the supermarkets, our phones, and near instant deliveries from all corners of the world?
There is a growing movement of people seeking alternatives, consuming less, vegetarianism and veganism too, growing produce to be consumed through the seasons, and far more interest in learning more and caring for our environment.
I count myself fortunate to be able to share my love of wild places, the building of a shelter, lighting of a campfire and cooking of meals upon it. Through this occupation, I have met many wonderful people, who like me, love spending time close to nature. One such gathering, kindly invited me to join them on The Old Way, a less travelled journey, one that opens your heart to the amazing world we live in.
Turn back the clock, imagine no supermarkets, no stores to buy food, no mobile phones to manage your life and no cars, trains or planes to take us to far off places. Just imagine for a moment, an environment, where if you had the knowledge and skills, you could not only live, but enjoy being close to and attuned with nature. That is The Old Way.
I was invited to join The Old Way to experience what is like to live, forage and learn as part of a community; a tribe of likeminded souls who are in search of a life that has for the most part been lost to times past. The tribe travel through different environments, experiencing each through the lens of foraging, learning how and then searching out what nature has to offer. Hunter-gatherers would have moved through the land, understanding where they can gather food, with the seasons bringing differing opportunities.
Starting in a woodland, they travel onwards to experience life on the river, where I joined them, then to the coast, from here to the moors, and then out into the wilds of the Kalahari, in Namibia, to be with the Bushmen. Then, all the richer for the year’s experiences, they return to where it all started, all those months ago.
The Woodland is the gathering point, where strangers become friends, sharing stories, eating together and learning skills to take them on this journey across the countryside. Each environment offers different opportunities for harvesting food. Here in the woods, there are spring greens and the potential of meat from the creatures that call this their home. A deer is culled, providing sustenance for the tribe, thanks are given and many meals made. Nothing goes to waste, even the hide is fat tanned using the brains of the animal. A few rabbits too provide another nutritious meal.
The River provides a new environment, we travel by canoe down the river, to our remote home, tucked away on the banks of a quiet tributary. Here whilst foraging the last of the spring greens, we search out what the river has to offer. Mindful of the tides, we paddle out to forage for shellfish on sandbanks and are amazed by the abundance that can be had when you know where to look! Shore crabs were trapped, and sensitively dispatched, and wow, we enjoyed a tasty broth. And here on the banks of the river, we were introduced to fishing, learning skills to fish the rivers and to use on the coastal part of the journey to follow.
Moving down river to the coast, the tribe use their new found skills to fish and hunt out more crustaceans. Wading through rock pools, they gather mussels and limpets, and net shrimps and prawns. There is the setting of long lines and nets to bring in larger fish. The table is set, and here at the sea, it’s time to appreciate the abundance of seaweeds too, nutrient rich, with vibrant colours and textures, the feasting is wonderful!
So far the tribe has moved from one environment to another, living in each location and venturing out on foraging forays each day. The time is now for travelling, moving across the land each day, carrying provisions and sufficient equipment to set up camp, sleep soundly under the stars, before moving onwards the following day. The change in environment and season, brings new opportunities for foraging, and with the onset of Autumn, the harvest of nuts, mushrooms and berries to add variety to the table.
Attuned with nature and a strong sense of community within the tribe, the journey takes us to Africa, to the heart of the Kalahari. Here we learn from the Ju/’Hoansi-San Bushmen, hunter-gathers who have lived here for more than 100,000 years. Whilst the 21st century has influenced their lives, and, as a tribal people they have suffered decades of persecution, they offer us such a warm welcome and are always friendly and happy to share their lives with us. We join the Bushmen tracking the wild animals through the veld, learn how they hunt with bow and arrow, and gather berries and dig for life sustaining plants. The wildlife is amazing, the call of the francolin birds in the morning, the buzz of the dung beetles, and the ghostly kudu are just some of those I love and remember! It was simply a wonderful privilege to spend time with the Bushmen, women and children and join them in song and dance under Africa’s big skies, I left with a strong sense of belonging, almost as if I have lived here before, it is indeed a very special place!
Returning to where we started this journey, this life less travelled, there is a sense that we perhaps know this place better now. This is the time for reflection and for thanks to those who have shared the experience, their thoughts and knowledge along this journey. Whilst this may bring us to a close at the end of the year, it opens the way forward for new journeys, to explore more widely, learn more deeply and enjoy the simpler ways of life.
Living in the wilds
There is something so wonderful about being camped out in the wilds, setting up camp and sleeping under the stars, warm summer breezes, and yes even the odd thunder storm and in the case of Namibia, on my visit, probably the best lighting show on earth, it was simply amazing!
For some, sleeping outside may at first seem a little scary. All sorts of anxieties creep in, worrying about what may happen in the night, is it safe and what about all the beasties and critters? Perhaps our group reflected this, some slept in tents, others hanging out in hammocks, under lightweight tarpaulins, and open to the elements in bivvy bags too. There was help at hand for those less familiar with camping, deciding where best to pitch their personal camp.
Our tribe is split into clans, small social groups, working together to help with the smooth running of the camp. There is food to be prepared, fire wood to be collected, sawn and chopped, cooking meals over the campfire and yes, we still have washing up to do too! As someone who spends time alone in the wilds, this community living, working together and friendly conversations as we go about our tasks, provided a real sense of belonging.
Meal times, wow, we ate healthily and heartily, mainly following a paleo diet. You could think of this as cutting out all the junk and processed food that pervades our lives. It does mean, creating wonderful meals from wild meat (a deer was culled locally), fish (yes, we go fishing), eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs (we go foraging for many of these), spices, fats and oils. No one goes hungry, and it isn’t long before your body welcomes this wholesome diet.
Facilities are primitive but certainly adequate, washing in the nearby rivers and streams, awakens and refreshes your primal self. A composting toilet is provided and they really do not smell, it seems strange to be using a flushing loo after a week in the woods.
Evenings were often spent chatting by the campfire, story telling and the gentle rhythms of a guitar being played, before turning in early for a good nights sleep.
Our days are spent learning, with small groups being taught skills that we then put into practice. Some topics are aimed more at the individual, such as basket weaving, while others like fire lighting by primitive means, benefit from working together.
Each journey provides opportunities for learning new skills in different environments – what they all have in common is foraging, be that spring greens, shellfish, seaweeds, berries and nuts and more throughout the seasons.
For example, on the river-side journey, we learnt how to make nets, these would be used for gathering on the coast. There were workshops for string making too, using reeds and nettles to make cord that itself could be used to make those nets. Then we moved on to fishing, learning about the pros and cons of different approaches to use of gear, and understanding the river, not just the water, but what is happening below, how the shape of the river bed changes what the fish do and how the tides impact your potential for success – fascinating, suddenly you just want to stay up fishing all night!
Have you ever got up early enough to listen to the start of the dawn chorus? We learned about bird language, and on a gentle walk through the woods, became attuned to their calls and singing. Like so many things in life, by slowing down and being attentive, we begin to see, and in this case hear things, perhaps for the first time. In simple terms, the beautiful song of a robin, will probably mean all is well and that little bird is happily singing it’s heart out. But then, we hear an agitated blackbird sound an alarm call, saying go away and leave the woods. And so with a new appreciation of bird language, we are awoken by the gentle strumming of a guitar early in the morning, we gather by the campfire for a coffee and await the start of the dawn chorus.
The people, our tribe
It may well be due to the nature of The Old Way and the audience that it attracts, but the members of our tribe were simply a wonderful group to spend time with. They come from all walks of life, living in cities in a back-to-nature kind of way, others travel around the country living life in a converted van, another in a narrow boat, and then there are those with families (at home), partners with different interests, with homes in the countryside and in cities, but all interested in finding inspiration for a different path.
The tribe had gathered for the first time the previous month, for the initial journey in the woods. But there was already a deep sense of caring for other members, friendly conversations and all willing to help with communal tasks and share experiences and relevant knowledge with others.
So far, I haven’t mentioned the team that have brought the The Old Way to life. And rather than naming them here I would suggest you take at look at The Old Way website, they have many years experience of primitive skills, knowledge of the land, and a great sense of community.
My lasting impression is with how we were guided through the whole experience, The Old Way isn’t just about the skills you learn along the way, as wonderful as they are, it’s also what happens in between, the working together, gatherings around the hearth, the conversations, sharing and the rhythms of the guitar playing gently by the campfire. It the rising early to listen to the birds calling in a new day, the bathing in the river, the foraging and communal meal preparations and cooking over the fire, and so much more. This is very much how life should be and if any of this strikes a chord or triggers your curiosity, then please do take the plunge, and sign up for this year’s journeys, but be warned life may not be the same afterwards!