So fresh and so clean

Three ways to wash in the wild

I was flicking through Facebook today when I came across a post by Outside Magazine that said ‘You’d Be Healthier If You Never Bathed’ and it got me thinking about the many places we washed on our journey.

We tried to bathe most days. I know that doesn’t sound very bushman-like, but that’s what we did. When you’re hiking for up to seven hours with 20-odd-kilograms on your back over steep terrain you sweat a lot. The sweat from the morning dries in the creases of your skin when you stop to snack. The sweat from early afternoon creates a brown paste with the dust and dirt. When you wipe your forehead with your forearm it smears a dark streak, like warpaint, across it. The after lunch sweat reacts with the other layers of sweat, creating a pungent stench, like cannabis dusted with stale corn chips, that emanates from the arm pits. It’s not that teenage B.O stench. It’s worse. It’s not that post-match rugby club shed stench. It’s worse. Even though you’re standing with your mate who smells just as bad (worse, at times) it’s the kind of stench that you’re embarrassed to admit is exuding from your body. On several occasions I even said out loud, in reference to my odour, “I am ashamed.”

Bathing in the backcountry

There are so many great memories of washing in the wild. Here are a few of my favourites.

1. The drink bottle bath.

We used this technique several times and it was never pleasant. It was only necessary if there was no natural water source nearby. It consisted of standing outside a hut in our undies, filling up our one-litre water bottles and tipping them over our bodies. This was usually done in chilly alpine locations once the sun had disappeared. So when I tell that you that we were whimpering and yelling and shivering and swearing you’ll understand. Won’t you? Once we were wet we’d lather up with soap (the all-natural ones) and then go through the torturous ordeal of pouring more drink bottles of icy water over our bodies. It was always awful, but always so much better than crawling into our sleeping bags all sticky and gross.

A bathing place on Stewart Island. Photo: Ben Curran

2. The unexpected visitors bath.

There are two occasions I recall this happening. Once on the Whanganui River and again on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. Just imagine two hairy men soaping up in a river. They think they’re alone, waist deep in a secluded section of glassy, green water. Then, without warning, a convoy of six canoes glides around a corner and a dozen innocent travellers are exposed to the unwelcome sight of near-naked men taking a bath. What do the men say? “Uh, hey” and “Uh, sorry.” Imagine the exact same scenario but on an isolated, golden beach and a ferry full of tourists suddenly appears. They take out their cameras and rather than photograph the beautiful bay, they turn their lenses to the two primitive “natives” scratching their armpits in the surf.

3. The bath of a million stabbing needles.

We endured this bath on countless occasions, in rivers, lakes and streams. We washed in some of the most beautiful places in all of New Zealand. But, at times, it hurt. Here’s a typical scenario. We’d arrive at a hut in the late afternoon and scope out a spot for washing. We’d debate whether it was worth it. It would usually only take a quick sniff of our armpits to decide that, yes, it was worth it. We’d scamper down to the water in our undies with a bar of soap each and our useless quick-dry travel towels. Then we’d invariably pause, shudder, and take the first step into the water. Bear in mind that some of our baths were surrounded by snow-covered mountains and the water was, for the most part, freshly melted ice. The cold felt like millions of tiny needle pricks. We’d start exhaling in sharp bursts and grunting. The noises were involuntary but seemed to help. Once we were knee deep we’d start splashing water over our upper bodies and lathering up with soap. With every splash the noises became more dramatic — screams, shivers, yelps, sobs. If anyone ever heard us they would be forgiven for thinking a violent murder was taking place. The needle pricks soon gave way to a burning sensation and then numbness. By the end of these alpine baths there was often no feeling at all in our lower legs. While it was agonising at times, I have never felt so fresh and alive as I did after those washes. There’s something about ice cold river water that cleanses more than just sweat and dirt.

And just because…

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