Wild ideas

Robert Upe gets valuable survival lessons from a Queenstown bushman with a death-defying story of his own.

A knife wielded by a drug gangster at a British nightclub slid into the midriff of Peter Hitchman. It didn't hurt at first; the blade had been rubbed in garlic, which is said to dull the nerve endings. But by the end of the evening Hitchman had "died" twice and had been revived in intensive care. "My mother's hair turned grey overnight," he says of his 1980s ordeal.

Hitchman, once a bodyguard for pop group Duran Duran as well as a British nightclub operator, now has one of the biggest knives seen since Paul Hogan flashed an oversize Bowie knife in the movie Crocodile Dundee.

But the Englishman doesn't carry the glinting steel to protect him in mean streets; it's part of his bush survival kit.

I'm with Hitchman in a beech forest next to the roaring Twelve Mile Creek near Queenstown, a place of waterfalls and snowcapped mountains. We're on a You v Wild adventure, a trip that Hitchman has unashamedly modelled on the style and popularity of television survival celebrity Bear Grylls.

The adventure is one of the newest offerings of Hitchman's Guided Nature Walks, New Zealand's oldest guiding company, which he took over about a decade ago and which was recently voted best tour operator at the New Zealand Travel Industry Awards.

"I think this may be the only survival tour in the world," he says. "You can do survival courses, but I don't think you can go out anywhere else and just have fun with it."

With his wife, Karyn, Hitchman also conducts glacier walks, snowshoe excursions and bushwalks, including the Routeburn Track, a world-renowned trail popular with both overnight and day-only walkers.

But I'm in it for the Bear Grylls experience, minus the danger. It's not long into the gentle 3.6-kilometre Mount Crichton loop track through the beech forest that Hitchman starts demonstrating what can be eaten and what can't.

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As a general rule, brown and green are edible but bright-coloured vegetation should be approached with caution, he says.

He taps a knife into the trunk of a birch tree which oozes water, makes a fish trap out of a plastic bottle and rigs a snare to catch small animals: all lifesavers if you are out there without food or water.

He shows us where we can find huhu grubs (in a tree, but I figure I would eat one in only the most dire of circumstances), wild oregano and plants with medicinal qualities. He finds north with a watch and starts fire with two sticks or with a steel flint.

Families and couples have been flocking to this adventure tour since it started late last year; now there's a possibility that Hitchman may guide Bear Grylls himself.

Grylls is expected in New Zealand in summer to shoot a new series, reportedly a wilderness program with similarities to the reality TV hit Amazing Race.

Hitchman, who worked alongside former SAS soldiers in the job that followed bodyguarding pop stars, says he and his colleagues would take time off whenever they could to play survival games in forests and mountains.

"It was our way of letting off steam," he says.

When he came to New Zealand 15 years ago, he formalised his survival skills at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre and as the senior outdoor instructor for the Christchurch YMCA, where he led survival camps.

We pause for instant coffee and biscuits halfway through our trek, sheltering in a stone hut built in 1930 and used by goldminer and hunter Sam Summers. It's in here that Hitchman hands me his knife to examine. It's called a Raptor because it is shaped like a claw. The longer edge is sharpened to a point similar to an axe for chopping; the smaller inside curve is razor sharp for finer work, such as feathering a stick to make it easier to burn.

He warns me: "Don't drop it on your foot." Point taken.

Four-hour You v Wild walks are $NZ140 ($113) an adult, $NZ105 a child. Privately guided trips are $NZ240/$NZ205. There is an option to be dropped into the bush from a hovering helicopter, for $NZ890 for two people. See youvswild.co.nz, nzwalks.com.

Robert Upe took part in You v Wild courtesy of Guided Nature Walks.

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