Life of an outdoor gypsy

An insight into the life of an outdoor gypsy – the highs, the lows, and everything inbetween.

I adjust my straps, sling my big red backpack over my shoulder and make my way to the check-in desk. I slip my passport onto the counter, drop my bag onto the scales, and smile at the check-in lady. I daydream my way through security and finally I’m buckled in, watching the land blur as we speed down the runway. I close my eyes and begin to reflect. This is the 39th flight I have been on during the past year. Flights have become a time for me to zone out, to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going. I start doing some maths in my head. During the past 5 years I haven’t spent more than 5 months in one place. And during the past 20 months, I haven’t spent more than 5 days in one place, apart from one 10-day stint in San Francisco.

During the past 12 months I’ve worked and adventured across four different continents. I welcomed the year in doing the chicken dance in Hoi An, Vietnam. I’ve pack-rafted Alaskan rivers with flashes of bright red salmon running upstream. I’ve watched a mumma grizzly bear and two bouncy cubs frolick in the tundra. I’ve paddled with whales, sea otters, dolphins and puffins, with bald eagles flying overhead. I’ve walked through thunderstorms, watching lightning set the ground on fire across the valley. I’ve walked alongside elephants and giraffe in the Okavango Delta and slept under the star-spangled skies of the Kalahari desert in Botswana. I’ve slept in a hammock watching hundreds of beady eyes and bright fire-flies in the jungles of Borneo. I sat in the Nepali Himalaya, watching prayer flags dance in the wind, and I was part of the earthquake mayhem. I’ve pack-rafted down a lush green gorge in Bali, Indonesia. I’ve been on many hiking and packrafting trips in my home country of New Zealand. And I finished the year with a manu competition in Livingstone, Zambia.

My daydream fizzles, I open my eyes and press my face up against the plane window. Pillows of cloud are banked up as far as I can see. Time zones blur together and before I know it I’m touching down in Johannesburg, then Perth, then Auckland and finally, my hometown of Nelson.

Packrafting NZ: Acheron and Clarence Rivers from Dulkara Martig on Vimeo.

I am living the life of a modern-day outdoor gypsy. This is my normal. And there are many other people like me. We often live out of our backpacks, vans or tents. Some of us rent or own houses, but we spend more time away than at home. Some people work small chunks of time in high-paying city jobs, then quit and spend their money on adventures before repeating the cycle. Others move around the world, working seasonal jobs at ski fields, for kayaking or rafting companies, or holiday camps. Others freelance to a number of different organisations in the outdoor adventure industry and live totally out of their backpacks, not really belonging to any geographical community. Right now I mostly work on month-long wilderness education and travel expeditions. I can choose to work as much or as little as I like, and chunks of time off can be filled with personal adventures. When I work, I’m working 24/7, and when I’m off, I’m often off for weeks on end. Sometimes life is a logistical nightmare, or a masterpiece, depending on which way you look at it.

When I tell people what I do, the reactions are different. Many express dismay at how long I spend outside. “Over 250 nights camping in a year!” they exclaim. “You’re living the dream” or “When are you going to settle down and join the real world, Dulkara?” are common responses. Sometimes I give a short answer, other times I give a bit more: “I have contracts signed until early August and then I’ll see how I feel, maybe I’ll go to film school or start another business or consider going back to classroom teaching.” But of course I don’t really know how I’ll feel a few months down the track. “I’d like to spend some more time in one place at some point soon. Immerse myself in creative stuff again. I’ve been missing that lately.” Inevitably my ideas of having chunks of time off to do art and chill in one spot have often fallen by the wayside for bigger and seemingly better plans. The Himalayas call my name, Iceland, the seas of Alaska. They are not necessarily better, just different.

When I’m working on wilderness expeditions, the only contact I get with the outside world is through our re-ration days, when we top up our food supplies via helicopter or 4WD delivery. If we’re lucky, we also receive letters from loved ones. During a mountain contract in New Zealand I receive an envelope from a friend. As I open the card, fairy dust and stars fall out onto the beech forest floor. I laugh. On the cover is a quote: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” It’s another outdoor gypsy sending love from afar. We often go ages without seeing our friends in person. Communication involves letters in the post, Skype, email and Facebook. Inside the card, the message is perfect: “There are many people who think what we do for a living is ‘the impossible’. We are the lucky ones. And the unlucky ones. Taking on these opportunities can leave us without a community, without a close network. However, when I think back to the moments I have collected…the memories, the bucket showers, the sunrises. The growth of myself and those around me…I realise it’s all been worth it. Although my community is small and spread across many oceans, I’m so glad that you’re in it. Have a wonderful adventure.” My day is made. I’m in the middle of a month-long hiking expedition in the Spring in New Zealand and we’ve been hammered by bad weather for the whole trip. I love my work, but I also miss being part of a ‘normal’ community. It’s a balancing act.

Fast-forward a few months (a couple of overseas trips and some packrafting expeditions in New Zealand) and it’s early February and I’m about to head out into the field in New Zealand. I’m on Facebook chat, talking to my friend Oscar. “I love what I do, and I love the dynamic life. The freedom of the uncertainty,” Oscar says. I smile in agreement; there are many things that are wonderful about this way of life. “I’ll lose reception soon, we’re heading on a new route, paddling somewhere where nobody has paddled before.” Oscar’s connection drops out and he heads into the Patagonian wilderness and I head into the New Zealand mountains.

Many of us are addicted to the gypsy lifestyle. We enjoy the freedom, the time spent outside and the kinds of people who are in this industry. There’s a lot of good energy. It’s a kind of never-never land. Afraid of monotony, afraid of working in a stifling environment or in an industry where the values don’t align with my personal values, my life as an outdoor gypsy continues. An appetite for new adventures, uncertainty, and a relentless thirst for spending time in nature. Some days I smile to myself, wondering how on earth what I’m doing can be considered a job. Other times I daydream about living in some kind of Hobbiton, nursing a basil plant and popping over the back fence to a friend’s place for a cuppa. I know that one day I’ll juggle those two worlds a bit better.

Trekking in Nepal from Dulkara Martig on Vimeo.

In May 2015 I touch down in Alaska for the first time. A notification pops up on my laptop. A message from an old friend: “Can I take you out for dinner when you’re around next?” I smile, typing my reply from the NOLS staff house in Alaska. “I’d love to catch up but I’m not home for ages. I have three days free in the South Island in 5 months time.” I shut my laptop, reflecting on how hectic my life has been lately, and how I’m totally undateable. Within the past week I’ve spent a night in Nepal, China, New Zealand, Hawaii and Alaska. Many instructors are milling around base, from all over the world. A whole gang of outdoor gypsies. Some instructors work full-time, moving between different overseas bases. Others have full-time jobs in the states and work a contract or two over their summer. We are all united by a common thirst for wild places, and a commitment to helping others get amongst the great outdoors and learn things that they can transfer into all other areas of life.

I end up spending a couple of months in Alaska, mostly sea kayaking and packrafting.

Sea kayaking in Alaska – Kenai Peninsula from Dulkara Martig on Vimeo.

2 months later I’m lying on my bed at the Noble in Lander, Wyoming. It’s the head office of the National Outdoor Leadership School. I’ve just finished a month-long hiking contract in the Absaroka mountains and am now taking care of some ‘life admin’ while pondering my next move. My co-instructors are flying back home; Francisco to Chile, David to Scandanavia. I’ve got a flight out of Los Angeles in three weeks’ time, and nothing confirmed in-between. I lie on my bed, browsing the internet. Spain? Try to get on a last-minute Grand Canyon trip? Visit family in Switzerland? I settle on Peru; August is the perfect season there. I scope out flights, type in my details and hit ‘confirm payment.’ My debit card bounces, I’ve forgotten to tell the bank I’m overseas again. Between finishing off payment to Peru and calling the bank to clear the block on my card, I’m offered a ride to Yosemite Valley. I decide that Peru can wait for another time and I take her up on the offer. The next morning I pile my belongings into Josie’s car and we set out towards California. We drive across Utah and the desolate desert of Nevada.

We pull off down a dirt road and sleep in the car before continuing towards Yosemite. I find myself camping in a small tent out the back of the YOSAR (search and rescue) camp in Yosemite Valley. I feel out of place, in a weird limbo zone. I’m in a transition time. This is the first multi-week block of time I’ve had off in over a year and suddenly I don’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes you don’t realise how tired you are until you stop. Around the dinner table the girls talk about free-soloing El Capitan, and I have images of myself chilling out on a scenic top-rope climb. I can barely fathom these big walls. I explore Yosemite Valley for a few days, and try to decide on my next plans. I end up driving to San Francisco and spend the next 10 days jogging, sleeping in, eating gelato and salads, and living in a real house with friends. I continue South to San Diego in a truck, somehow successfully negotiating Los Angeles and a 14 lane motorway at the start of a long weekend, on the right side of the road. I then fly to Noosa, Queensland, for a couple of days before flying to Borneo.

Living a transient lifestyle results in a torbellino of exciting people who you cross paths with briefly but inevitably the season ends, or the expedition finishes and boof, the community bursts. I call this time – the time between different work contracts, countries or communities – a transition time. Transitions can often be lonely and sometimes you feel like you’re in limbo, or on the fence between two completely different worlds, not fully existing anywhere. Other times life is so exciting that you can barely sleep. The outdoor gypsy community is full of positive people who are creating interesting narratives with their lives. 

Come March and I’m sitting in a portabuild in New Zealand, taking a moment to chill-out following my contract in the mountains. I’ve had a whirl-wind life this past year. My phone beeps. “I can’t sleep”, says Oscar, typing from Patagonia, where it’s around 3am. He has just returned from his sea kayaking expedition. I smile, reminded of the fact that I’m not the only outdoor gypsy in transition. “Yeah, transitions are weird, I always get like this. Slightly overwhelmed being back in civilisation and then I’m faced with a whole lot of decisions that I have to make within the next week. It’s like we are inside a bubble that suddenly bursts, with people dissolving into space,” I say.

I think it’s more like a balloon that you’re holding onto. You let go of the string and it floats up into the sky,” Oscar replies.

Yeah, that makes sense,” I say, pondering what it is exactly that makes the transition phase feel odd. It’s a combination of a community dispersing, and also being reintroduced to civilisation after a month or more in the wilderness, which I like to call a ‘wilderness hangover.’ I’m still working out what the best cure is. For me it has often been just to keep going, or perhaps to even go back into the wilderness! Somehow I suspect that my confusion during the transition times may lie in a desire to be a little more grounded, yet along with that desire comes a fear of being too grounded, or too restricted in my life.

I take the short walk from the portabuild to the communal kitchen, where a couple of other instructors are milling around following their wilderness contracts. The usual small talk comes out: what next? Pete is heading home to a blank canvas. Fredrik talks about his plans to go on a two and a half month subsistence sea kayaking expedition in SE Alaska with his wife.

I bet you must get a little sick of fish,” I say. “Yeah, a bit,” he says, laughing, “but we bring an extensive spice kit, sugar and salt for curing meat – and wine of course.” He’s bright-eyed and smiling. In many other groups these plans would be considered radical, once-in-a-lifetime trips or completely absurd, yet within the outdoor gypsy community, these are normal plans, normal conversations; nobody bats an eyelid. Sea kayaking across the Bass Straight, or the Bering Sea from Alaska to Russia, paddling around Svalbard, going around the world by man-power, surfing for 4 months straight, buying a yacht and learning to sail. These conversations are thrown around in the same way as what university you went to. Stand-offs with jaguars, surviving flash-floods in the desert, being charged at by wild cows, traversing Iceland.

A packrafting adventure: Landsborough River from Dulkara Martig on Vimeo.

And now. What I’d initially pencilled in as a ‘chill at home’ month has turned into a month-long personal expedition in Nepal. In a couple of days I’m flying to Kathmandu, where I’ll meet my mate Tim for a hiking trip in the mountains. Then I’m off to Alaska again, where I’ll be spending almost 100 days straight in the wilderness. And then there’s August. I’m thinking about Central Europe, Iceland or Peru. Or perhaps Canada. I need to be back in Alaska in September, for a personal sea kayaking trip with 3 other kiwi girls. I laugh, thinking about how ridiculous my dilemmas sound. 

I’ll finish off with a poem by Don Blanding. ‘A Double Life’ sums up my dilemmas perfectly:

How very simple life would be
If only there were two of me
A Restless Me to drift and roam
A Quiet Me to stay at home.
A Searching One to find his fill
Of varied skies and newfound thrill
While sane and homely things are done
By the domestic Other One.

And that’s just where the trouble lies;
There is a Restless Me that cries
For chancy risks and changing scene,
For arctic blue and tropic green,
For deserts with their mystic spell,
For lusty fun and raising Hell,

But shackled to that Restless Me
My Other Self rebelliously
Resists the frantic urge to move.
It seeks the old familiar groove
That habits make. It finds content
With hearth and home — dear prisonment,
With candlelight and well-loved books
And treasured loot in dusty nooks

With puttering and garden things
And dreaming while a cricket sings
And all the while the Restless One
Insists on more exciting fun
It wants to go with every tide,
No matter where…just for the ride.
Like yowling cats the two selves brawl
Until I have no peace at all.

One eye turns to the forward track,
The other eye looks sadly back.
I’m getting wall-eyed from the strain,
(It’s tough to have an idle brain)
But One says “Stay” and One says “Go”
And One says “Yes,” and One says “No,”
And One Self wants a home and wife
And One Self craves the drifter’s life.

The Restless Fellow always wins
I wish my folks had made me twins.

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