So here I am rocking up to a Wicklow Wilderness destination on a Friday evening in late October. I am staying in a Tipi in a forest on an all-inclusive weekend organised by Nature Benefits in the hopes of reconnecting with nature and disconnecting from technology.
I think to myself, as I step out of my car into the autumn evening chill to open the forest gate, I must be mad, I’m going to freeze.
I am greeted by Catherine Christie of Nature Benefits and her passion and enthusiasm for Nature is contagious. “It’s about engaging with nature, getting away from technology to explore, switch off and relax into the calm of nature,” she had said on the phone. “I hope you are prepared to unplug yourself!”
The camp is in a small forest clearing, a short distance uphill from the Avonmore River which you can hear quite clearly.
I am showed into the Tipi and to my bed for the weekend – a very large, sturdy and comfortable camp bed with a new sleeping bag, thick rug and pillow along with a Welcome Pack containing a torch, tissues, a note book and pen – “In case you feel creative” says she!
There is an eco-toilet and shower which are basic as expected, this is, after all, a wilderness setting. There is no Wi-Fi and with one fluctuating bar of signal on my phone – I decided to switch it off.
The camp fire is lit, there are supplies of hot drinks and snacks available and I am introduced to my weekend companions who have all arrived straight from work like myself.
A delicious mug of homemade mushroom soup accompanied by fresh tomato & fennel bread is served and we all relax into the warmth of the wonderful food and heat of the campfire.
Catherine outlines the weekend theme and format while emphasising that we can wander off and do our own thing if that is what we need to do. She also runs through some health and safety issues and repeats the need to leave no trace behind us bar our footprints.
For me, it works almost immediately – we were only a short distance from the gate but here in a woodland clearing, with the crackling wood fire, the sound of the river and not a mobile or laptop in sight, the rest of the world seems a million miles away.
When I turned in for the night, I zipped myself into my sleeping bag and I was, to my surprise, snug and comfortable! I drifted off listening to deer calling, the river flowing and I think I even heard an owl!
I had hoped to wake to a dawn chorus but not at this time of year but I did get my face licked by Timmy, the dog who had worked her way into the Tipi and woke us all up! We cannot choose which creatures we share this space with but they will find us if they choose.
Following a substantial breakfast of traditional potato cakes, sausages and bacon, with porridge for the vegetarians, along with a variety of fresh fruit and gallons of freshly made coffee and tea, we truly begin our commune with Nature.
We were brought to a peaceful glade where we all sat among the trees and Catherine introduced us to some mindfulness and silence for a blissful 30 minutes and then took us for a walk through one of Ireland’s last remaining natural woodlands. We were shown the mosses and lichens on the forest floor, then the ivies and fraughans, then the hollies and birches topped with magnificent oaks and scotch pines – all the layers of native, deciduous and evergreen forest. We walked on a blanket of acorns and autumn leaves. We found mushrooms of every size and colour. We saw blue jays, tree creepers, yellow hammers just to name a few.
When we return to the camp, we are treated to lunch consisting of bean burgers with a form of raita accompanied with a fresh salad, followed by local cheeses and freshly baked bread. After lunch, we have a lesson in bush skills after being brought through a safety lesson in handling a very sharp knife.
By late afternoon, people began to drift off for some time on their own. There were plenty of quiet spots in the woods or down by the river to sit and take in the natural world around you. Personally, I took a fishing rod and went down to the river to do my own nature meditation. This to me was perfect, staying still, in one place, watching and feeling nature and the wildlife around me – I was so removed from the distractions of my daily life, I didn’t notice time pass.
Dinner was prepared on site and cooked over the open fire – a delicious chick pea curry served with more fresh bread, followed by dessert of strawberries, marshmallows and lots of melted chocolate.
Catherine took advantage of our silence while we eat dinner to talk about the confidence-boosting value of leaving our comfort zones and quotes Everest climber, Edmund Hilary – ‘It’s not the mountain we conquer, it’s ourselves.’
After another great night’s sleep and another substantial breakfast, we were brought to a different part of the woodlands for a final mindfulness session. We had time to contemplate the wonderful changes in colour, the rowan trees full of berries, the birches were turning butter yellow and the bracken was the colour of foxes.
Alas it was time to tidy up our camp and with a bit of team work, cars were loaded and bar the Tipi and campfire – all that was left was a few footprints and a group of very relaxed people with no rush on them to return to the city, their mobile phones, emails and laptops!
Nature Benefits opens the door to the health benefits of the great outdoors starting again in the new year with themes ranging from mindfulness, photography, creative writing, art and craft, nature walks, foraging and outdoor cooking, yoga to name but a few and I hope to be free to join in again.
A very contented and rejuvenated customer!