Mike Purtell is 42 years old, married, with four children. He works from home in the Blue Mountains. For most of the week he works on his own, but recently he has discovered the potential joy of...


Joining a men's group was never a burning issue with me. However when I was asked if I would be interested in coming along to a small group, I thought the company would be good. I suppose it brings up memories of a night out at the pub with the boys many years ago.

Our nights for me have been a chance to extend myself beyond the close family life. One night some of us attended a Steve Biddulph talk on Fathers and their struggling relationship with their sons. This kindled in us the idea of trying out primitive bonding in the wild.

A few months ago we decided to go out into the bush to sit around a campfire. I asked my fourteen year old son, Tim, if he wanted to come. He was pretty wary as this is not the sort of thing he is used to, but he was also intrigued. We set out about 8.30pm on a Friday night in the back of an old Falcon ute with our drums and gear. We wound through the national park to arrive up at a lookout overlooking western Sydney.

We met up with John, a teacher, and five of his sixteen year old students. They had obviously had a few extra curricular activities with this teacher for he had an amazing rapport with these guys.

We were right on the escarpment and I was a bit anxious as we collected firewood in the dark, but soon we had a blazing fire and security immediately returned. Out came the drums and after a hesitant start we all found our niche belting out a rather strong rhythm. I was amazed by the communication that develops through listening to the others beat and trying to work with it. Tim and I tried our hand at the two bass bongos. Because of their loud deep beat these drums tended to set the pace. We lost ourselves in hours of clapping sticks, drumming, beating, and clapping to the didgeridoo that raised its head every now and again.

Halfway through the night we even managed to make a damper which was cooked on the end of a stick and imagined ourselves as gold miners in the last century as we ate around the campfire.

Soon the tempo upped and some of the guys stripped to their waists and performed a fire dance. That was magical - and a bit frightening. A branch was left in the fire so that it burned both ends and then twirled like a baton to form the most amazing red patterns in the darkness. I was worried that a burning branch would land in our laps, but I think the feeling of danger was merely a product of the darkness.

Tim and I had a great time together. It was valuable to share time on equal terms with him. Tim's initial scepticism evaporated quickly, and afterwards he said it was the best time he had ever experienced. He even asked if he could bring his friends along on his birthday.

Recently we ventured out again into the darkness. Tonight the group was larger. A friend of Tim's, who plays didgeridoo, came along too. This time we were quick to strip off as soon as the fire was going. We collected different coloured rocks which we ground down to make coloured rock paint. Father painted son and son painted father on the chest and face. I was so surprised. What would my father think if he could see me now? Not in his wildest dreams would he ever have thought of doing this. Tim was really taken with the painting I did on his chest. It resembled the face of an owl. He repeated it several times during the weekend and I wondered if we had discovered a family symbol. We danced the hunt of the emu and kangaroo round the fire. I suddenly realised out here in the dark that you needed to be careful at what emotions you allowed to surface. A dance like this round the fire stirs the emotions so that you find yourself growling, yelling, stamping feet and I found it so surprising that you could get carried away, possibly ending in injury. Mark and John performed a striking didgeridoo duet. I found this an awakening of something deep within me.

The deep guttural animal sounds that can emanate seem to be active in bonding us to this land. The playing of the didgeridoo feels like a living spirit.

The hours flew by and then John and some of the young guys performed tree gymnastics. This was a display of sheer physical skill; I couldn't get over the fitness and agility of their younger bodies. Their energy and quest for excitement was boundless and working themselves into a frenzy they literally ran into the dark bush at full pace daring fate to see what scrapes and wounds they could clock up. This was a bit too adventurous for me. I expected them to limp back with an eye hanging out or perhaps the awful news that one had fallen over the escarpment. No such fate, all returned to show off their hard-won wounds. These are wonderful nights of growing challenges. Danger is present but really it's safer than it seems. It seems to draw on the ancient magic of the campfire. Various levels of challenge are presented but you can opt out if you sense a danger that is beyond you. It was essential that there was no pressure at all to participate. Tim was quite happy to opt out of the bush romp.

The guys that organised these outings are very aware that careful supervision is required. It has helped in going along with a person who is well versed in the ritual of campfire spirituality. In my younger days a fire was just a fire and no fun without a beer. The experience with my son was so different from my memories of how group pressure could instantly turn insane and anything could happen. I have experienced this side of the male existence and it is powerful, dominant and very, very ugly. The group would often pick on weaker subjects to get a thrill.

My wife worries a bit about the danger and the tribal element involved but at the same time realises the importance of a chance for Tim and me to grow together.

Tim's reaction was interesting. He says that being an all-male group made the experience extra special. He found it easier to do and say things without girls and women watching or listening. The boys and the men found it easier to be themselves. The day after the second outing, Tim was out collecting coloured rocks and suddenly it had become a kids' activity.

I can really recommend these nights. If properly organised the campfire becomes a primal focus for activities approaching the initiation rites that were once the norm of this land. Much of the language of ritual seems to have been lost in our lives. We seem to be obsessed with eliminating all risk. But the excitement of properly managed risk that brings us alive, spurs us to new and exciting levels in our lives. We find ways to be more fully alive.

Why don't you try it?

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