Tramp big, feel small

Life gets big. Though hardly a profound statement, I think it summarises the student experience with pleasing concision. Tests, deadlines, and exams occupy the front of your brain; relationship dramas battle for territory against global politics in the neighbouring lobe; and some recessed wrinkle of your primitive brain murmurs something unintelligible about an “appropriate sleep schedule”. It can get busy up there — and not all the tenants are welcome. Life balloons before your mind’s eye until it cannot focus or find perspective. As life gets big, you may feel insignificant, inadequate, ineffectual. Small. 

It’s at these times that I’m grateful for the environment, and its ability to make me feel small in the best way. Through this beautiful planet, and the tramping I use to explore it, I learn to embrace my insignificance as a carbon-based blip on the timeline, seize my bodily inadequacies, and strive to better my life’s impact, regardless of its magnitude. 

Tramping trips leaving from Christchurch generally begin with a steady decline in civility, regarding both location and company (often, we drive through Sheffield.) While cruising along the highways in a typically cramped car, it’s easy to consider yourself the master of your domain — the planet’s apex species, effortlessly piloting a complex machine across vast distances, all in the comfort of air conditioning. 

How this illusion is demolished so ruthlessly within mere minutes of tramping is nothing short of poetic. As we slog, trudge, sweat, and cuss our way up the brutally steep climb that seemingly marks the beginning of almost every tramp, our deluded master-hood of the planet is rightfully shattered. The magnitude of the mountains is made abundantly clear in comparison to each step, each stride barely denting the distance remaining, our footprints unfathomably tiny against that of the alps, sprawling off to the horizon. As we push above the treeline, the Earth’s scale expands yet further. Craggy ranges tower formidably over the surrounding plains, clad with treacherous glaciers and waterfalls. The road we arrived on is but a gossamer brushstroke on the globe. 

Moments like these, where I look out over this stunning planet from a mountain summit, fill me with immense gratitude for the immensity and grandeur of it all. Between rather laboured breaths I take in the scene. The tussocks billowing and buffeting, the clouds rolling like treacle over far-off ranges, the sunlight glimmering off the rippling tarns, the Pacific Ocean forming a tumultuous borderline of white, frothing waves at the union of its sapphire waters with the emerald Canterbury plains. 

In such a world I am glad to be small, as it makes the experience, comparatively, so much grander. Likewise, it makes my issues seem so comparatively insignificant. My worries are dulled and my stresses are untangled as I bathe in the beauty before me. My problems are not forgotten or ignored, but re-evaluated through a new lens of perspective, and are immediately more manageable. And even if I can’t quite shake my doubts and demons, the splendour of the scene reminds me that whatever I face, I will always have this wonder to return to — nothing motivates me to tackle my commitments head-on like the promise of a weekend in the mountains. 

After we regroup and refuel on foods so calorically-dense they’d give Jenny Craig an aneurysm, we continue our trek onwards. We scramble our way over rocky crags, through icy rivers, down scree slopes, and over saddles. Wherever our adventures take us, flora and fauna can always be found. In these environments so harsh that we often find ourselves bundled in ridiculous numbers of layers for warmth, requiring poles and axes to stay upright, and lugging a pack half our size on our backs, there is an unburdened falcon riding an updraft or a plucky snow berry clinging to the rocks. 

It’s difficult not to envy the falcon’s freedom or the snow berry’s resilience — but the ability to conquer our deficiencies as hairless apes by using our brains and teamwork gives me reassurance for any other inadequacies I might be feeling in life. Though my equipment has been made halfway across the world using techniques I do not fully understand, humanity’s distribution of skills and collective knowledge allows me to prosper from their use, and for that I am grateful to be a small part of a whole. On a more local scale, I am made immensely grateful for the friends and family in my life helping me be the best version of myself, and I become determined to return the favour. 

It has become clear that most people on our tramps share this commitment to goodwill, though quite possibly not originating from the same disjointed train of thought. While on the move, my fellow trampers are always looking out for everyone around them; sharing food, drink, conversation, advice, and generally being great company. 

But it’s once we reach our hut, bivvy, or tent site that I feel most proud of our little community. If you’ve forgotten something, just ask if anyone might lend it to you — before long, someone wearing a humorously large or small amount of clothing will jog it over to you, crocs in sport mode. Conversation flows and everyone’s good spirited – not much of a pecking order when you’re all equally sweaty, smelly, and happy to be there. The awkwardness of meeting new people is all but nullified by the prioritisation of warmth over personal space.  Perhaps it’s the exhaustion, maybe it’s the bond formed by sharing a tiny slice of civilisation amongst the wilderness, or possibly the goon bag — nowhere else do I feel so happy to be but a small human on a planet so big. It’s probably the goon bag. 

Eventually, the last day of the tramp rolls around, either too soon or not soon enough, weather dependent. Sometimes, you’ll crest a rise, and see Christchurch sprawled over the plains in the distance. It’s home — but from here, it looks like a hazy grey blob of distinctively manmade shapes. It seems to clash with green and gold plains, until you realise the geometric patchwork of hedges, roads, and irrigators are no more natural than a high-rise. I recognise the need to produce food and the efficiency of urban living, as much as I might dream of unending wilderness. What strikes me most is the expanse and scale of how we’ve transformed our planet. Christchurch sits toward the horizon, at this distance bearing a striking similarity to an anthill — each of its many thousand worker ants having a seemingly insubstantial impact on the world but having an undeniable effect as a whole. 

To me, this perspective always hammers home the importance of an individual’s behaviour in changing the planet. I see with striking clarity the impact of thousands thinking that theirs is insubstantial. I see the ability of humans to bend the environment to their needs, but also the fragility of a city bounded by warming seas and intensifying weather systems. At these times, when the memory of what’s worth protecting is fresh in my memory and the evidence of ability is right before my eyes, that I’m most determined to protect our beautiful planet – for its sake and ours. 

So, please, tramp to feel small.  Tramp to feel physically tiny amongst a landscape breathtakingly huge and beautiful — revel in the magnitude. Tramp to gain perspective of your problems, watch them shrink away like the valleys below you. Tramp to know that small can be big. We may be small individuals, but we can do big things together. And if you don’t know what big things we should be aiming for, you guessed it, go for a tramp. I’ll see you out there. 

By Hamish Dodd