Maverick Life


Magic mushrooms: A Wild Coast journey

Magic mushrooms: A Wild Coast journey
A container of Psilocybe mushrooms at the Numinus Bioscience lab in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I have thought long and hard about writing this story. There is surely nothing more boring than hearing old hippies recounting their psychedelic experiences. However, given the current climate around this subject, I’ve been persuaded that this account might have some relevance. But under no circumstances would I ever advise anyone to do what I did, especially the uninitiated.

In September last year, I listened with interest to a programme on WUNC, a radio station broadcasting from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Dr Jerrold Rosenbaum was being interviewed about his research into psychedelics. Rosenbaum is a heavyweight dude, he is Psychiatrist-in-Chief emeritus and director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

It was when he started talking about the positive results in treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction that my ears pricked up. I’ve had run-ins with all these maladies in varying degrees at different times of my life, including one of my own not on the list, a thoroughly bashed and broken heart.

I was also interested to see the Daily Maverick article on 9 January by Iza Trengove titled Magic mushrooms: Journeying into one’s psyche. As an avid follower of the BBC and NPR in the US, I’ve noticed several stories over the past few months reporting on increasing research into psychedelics.

I have thought long and hard about writing this story. There is surely nothing more boring than hearing old hippies recounting their psychedelic experiences. However, given the current climate around this subject, I’ve been persuaded that this account might have some relevance. But under no circumstances would I ever advise anyone to do what I did, especially the uninitiated.

Soon after hearing this interview with Rosenbaum, my wife Karen, who keeps my Kindle supplied with library books, sent me an extraordinary book by Michael Pollan called How To Change Your Mind. Pollan is a fascinating man, he’s a journalist and author who is currently the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He’s written extensively on issues of food security, our relationship with plants and food production, and in How To Change Your Mind, on the use of psychedelics to treat mental illness. His book A Place Of My Own tells the story of a house he built with his own hands, a story that resonated with me because I’d done the same thing 25 years ago in the foothills of the Limietberg, overlooking the Breede River Valley. My house was an attempt to heal the many wounds I’d collected on the journey thus far, and in many ways it was successful.

In How To Change Your Mind, Pollan goes through the entire history of psychedelics, from their use by Mexican Indians 7,000 years ago to the present day. He trawls tirelessly through archives and medical journals and interviews dozens of scientists, psychiatrists and what he terms “psychonauts”, a wide variety of people interested and involved in psychedelics. He paints a detailed picture of the early trials that were done after chemist Albert Hoffman – at the time working for Sandoz in Basel, Switzerland – accidentally discovered LSD in 1938. He examines the dreadful tests done by the CIA and the writings of Aldous Huxley, whose 1954 book The Doors Of Perception described his journeys on LSD.

I read this book at age 18, having had every intention of taking LSD as soon as I could get my hands on some. Pollan goes into fine detail about how Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” brought the initial research to a rapid end. It was only in 2010 that The New York Times reported that researchers had been giving psilocybin to terminal cancer patients as a way to help them deal with their “existential distress” at the approach of death. It claimed that, “Several of the volunteers reported that over the course of a single guided psychedelic ‘journey’ they re-conceived how they viewed their cancer and the prospect of dying, many of them saying they had lost their fear of death completely.” It wouldn’t be long before the scientists realised that psilocybin could also be useful in treating a variety of mental illnesses.


Cards on the table

At this point it is probably only fair to put my well-thumbed pack of cards on the table. As a youth, I was a great disappointment to my dear-departed mum. My school career was a disaster and after being expelled from a couple of fine educational establishments, went out into the world armed with nothing but a standard eight (Grade 10) and a head full of dreams. I did do that LSD trip and it was a wonderful and enriching experience, but that’s another story. As life went on, with each dream that collapsed, I found yet another substance to help me through the night, and for a couple of decades I took every drug I could lay my hands on and drank enough booze to kill 10 men twice my size.

But that is all in the past and as they say “I cleaned up real good”, so much so that by my mid-fifties I landed a scholarship to do a Masters degree at Duke University in North Carolina. It was there that I met Karen, the love of my life. Yeah, I know that sounds schmaltzy, but I’d had a couple of false starts before and this time we both fell deep, hard and quickly. It wasn’t long before we both knew that we’d be travelling that road together to the chequered flag. Four years later we came to live in South Africa, and settled in the little village of Napier in the Overberg.

Twelve years after we met, 10 years after we married and six weeks into the first lockdown, Karen made the devastating decision to return to America. Her reasons have nothing to do with this story, but they were perfectly valid and as she said, “It was not from a lack of love.”

Her departure filled me with a grief I’ve never felt before. Unlike previous breakups where I’d picked myself up fairly quickly, after a year and a half, I still felt bewildered and in deep pain at my loss. At one time I’d been a fairly prolific songwriter, nothing on the hit parade mind you, but now it seemed I had plain run out of creativity. I’d written one song but it was so damned sadassed, I couldn’t even get myself to play it. Since her departure, we still speak regularly and have never exchanged a harsh word; we still love and care for each other enormously. And while I knew that our marriage was over, I still could not come to terms with it.

This is when I encountered How To Change Your Mind, and when I read Pollan’s descriptions of the trials with cancer patients, it got me thinking. I would do a psilocybin journey, but unlike Pollan who did all his journeys with a guide, I would find a safe place to do it on my own. After all, I had some experience with psychedelics, my first trip was almost 50 years ago and my first on psilocybin, five years later.

The last time I took LSD was the day that I hammered four white poles into the hard fynbos ground of the Breede River Valley, to mark where my house would stand. That was 25 years ago and while it all ended well, there was a time during that journey when the wheels almost fell completely off. What started out as a bright October morning quickly degenerated into a cold, wet blustery day and by midday when the sleet started, I was lost out in the thorny thickets, out of my tree.

I now felt that I was ready to take that journey again. Dwesa is a magnificent Nature Reserve on the Wild Coast, 50km from Willowvale. The road from Idutywa to Willowvale is fine, but after that you’re barely able to go more than 30km an hour. Which is fine if you’re not in a hurry. It’s even possible to have brief, friendly exchanges with the locals as you pass.

Karen and I had long been wanting to visit Dwesa and once even made a booking, which we had to cancel for some or other reason. Now the time seemed perfect and I booked myself into a self-catering chalet for eight nights. I didn’t want to rush and knew that I’d need time to do a good recce, and plan the journey I was about to embark on.

I managed surprisingly easily to find a source of the mushrooms, and soon had five grams of the earthy-smelling fungi stashed away in a glass jar, waiting to be eaten. In my previous encounters with psychedelics, I had no idea of what was going on in my brain, while I went on these mind-expanding journeys. But this time, thanks to Michael Pollan, I was fully armed with a head full of information detailing the neuroscience behind the journey.

Pollan did extensive interviews with Robin Carhart-Harris, a young neuroscientist at the Centre for Psychiatry at Imperial College, London. In his book, Pollan goes into extensive detail about Carhart-Harris’s work, way too much to report in this story. But a central detail that emerges is during a trial with volunteers under the effect of psilocybin and “Carhart-Harris’s working hypothesis was that their brains would exhibit increases in activity, particularly in the emotion centres,” says Pollan’. “I thought it would look like the dreaming brain,’’ he said.But when the first set of data came in, Carhart-Harris got a surprise. ‘We were seeing decreases in blood flow.’’           

And so Carhart-Harris started looking deeper into this unexpected result and came across a paper by a neurologist at Washington University called Marcus Raichle. The paper was published in 2001 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Raichle identified a part of the brain previously unidentified by the neurological community. It is called the default mode network-DMN – and is right in the middle of the brain, linking the cerebral cortex to deeper, older structures involved in memory and emotion. Says Pollan: “Raichle had noticed that several areas of the brain exhibited heightened activity precisely when his subjects were doing nothing mentally. Put another way, Raichle had discovered the place where our minds go to wander – to daydream, ruminate, travel in time, reflect on ourselves, and worry.” 

Armed with this knowledge, Carhart-Harris continued his experiments measuring the activity of the DMN while under psilocybin. Harris reported that the steepest drops on DMN activity correlated with his volunteers’ subjective experience of “ego dissolution”. (“I existed only as an idea or concept,” one volunteer reported. Recalled another, “I didn’t know where I ended and my surroundings began.”) “The more precipitous the drop-off in blood flow,” continues Pollan, “and oxygen consumption in the default network, the more likely a volunteer was to report the loss of a sense of self.”

I have a clear recollection of the journey in the Breede River Valley and the experience of the dissolution of the self, or ego, although that particular journey was marred by a spot of bad weather. This is also the experience that the Buddhists describe as nirvana and can be achieved through extensive meditation. It can be a very frightening experience and can feel like you’re losing your mind. If you’re going to lose your shit, this is when you’re going to lose it, big time. It is also the place that some describe as “seeing God” or “becoming God”. As an enthusiastic atheist, this was not my experience but it nonetheless had all the hallmarks of a mystical or spiritual experience. Pollan deals with this seeming contradiction at length. If one’s experience of this part of the journey is positive, this is the time when the potential healing takes place.


At the top of 50 rough-hewn steps

My chalet is at the top of 50 rough-hewn steps through the thick coastal scarp forest, which then pokes out into the open with a magnificent 360-degree view over the canopy. I had to do about seven or eight trips up those steps to get all my food, whisky, wine, firewood, Martin guitar and little glass jar of psilocybin to the top. I arrived on Tuesday at about midday and after unloading, took a walk down to the ocean, five minutes away on a path hacked through the bush. The beach is long and wide, a full-moon low tide reveals beautiful rock pools at the far end of the beach. The water is clear and refreshing and warm enough to loll about in for as long as you feel like it. 

The following morning I got out of bed, opened the front door and put the kettle on. I went into the bathroom and a minute later heard a rustling in the living area. I walked out of the bathroom and three monkeys were on the table, each with a plump, red tomato in its mouth. In a second, they were out of the chalet, but then sat outside within spitting distance looking at me, before scampering off with their prizes. Just as well I’d brought several cans of Italian tomatoes to use in my culinary endeavours. 

After coffee, I walked down to the south end of the beach adjacent to the main gate into the camp. I met Jikala on the rocks, an old man with milky, cataract eyes and teeth like tombstones, sticking out of his mouth in all directions. He was cleaning a batch of mussels as big as I’ve ever seen in a rock pool. We quickly agreed on a price, but first had to walk to the gate to have his haul inspected for size and number by the parks official. He has a permit to collect 50 mussels a day, but the super-low tides are only around full moon and Jikala has to find his catch at the very edge of the rocks when the water is at its lowest. I walked back to the chalet with my mussels and turned the first 25 into a delicious mussel, tomato and herb pasta sauce. The other 25 were eaten straight out of their shells for lunch.

That Thursday, I planned to do the first of two journeys with the psilocybin. The first one would be a bit of a trial run and I only took about a gram and a half. The second one I hoped to do on that Sunday, when I’d take the rest of the mushrooms. Hopefully they would be strong enough to take me to the heights I was looking for.

After breakfast, I mixed the dried mushrooms with yoghurt and tried to get them down. They tasted like dried camel shit, and after trying a few chews, swallowed hard and followed with a glass of water. I had my second cup of coffee on the stoep, while hurling abuse at the monkeys eyeing me avariciously. Within half an hour the journey started, surprisingly with no nausea, which is a fairly common response. Just a warm feeling in the stomach and as I walked down to the beach, I noticed that the bush seemed far more radiant, the spider webs were glistening and glowing, and the sand seemed to be alive as I crunched across the pristine beach. It was a beautiful five or six hours, ending with a wonderful dunk into the ocean, but as I predicted, it did not take me to the place of the dissolving self.

Pollan has a wonderful way of simplifying complex ideas in order to illustrate what he’s trying to convey. He talks about depression as essentially worrying about the past, intellectually we know that there is little we can do about whatever traumatic event or nasty experience we had, but our neural pathways get into habits from which we cannot break. He says that anxiety is similar but it is worrying about the future. He refers to a researcher at the Imperial College lab, Mendel Kaelen, who talks about imagining the brain as a small hill covered in snow. Our thoughts are like sleds, gliding down the hill one after another. Eventually the tracks made in the snow become deeper and deeper.

In time, it becomes virtually impossible to change those deeply entrenched routes that we have made for ourselves. Then one day, a cloud appears and drops a fresh layer of snow on the hill, obliterating the old tracks and leaving us free to choose new routes and indeed new directions. This is the moment when the self or ego dissolves, dislodging those entrenched pathways in the brain that can so trip us up in an endless cycle of pointless worry. One of the scientists has referred to it as “defragging or hitting the control/alt/delete on the mainframe”.

This is the core of what Carhart-Harris has been looking at through his many trials. Pollan says Carhart-Harris “believes that people suffering from a whole range of disorders characterised by excessively rigid patterns of thought-including addiction, obsessions and eating disorders, as well as depression – stand to benefit from ‘the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behaviour by disintegrating the patterns of neural activity upon which they rest’”.

Dwesa was utterly beautiful, I swam every morning and evening, and had now walked several times to the far north end of the two long, wide beaches that are reached before the cliffs that drop precipitously into the ocean. I’d eaten gorgeous meals and had hardly seen a soul. I once saw an old birding couple and once a younger couple with a child, but apart from the very discreet staff at the camp, no one.

After breakfast on the Sunday morning, I once again struggled to swallow the mushroom and yoghurt mixture. I found that by chewing a bit more vigorously, it went down more easily. I sat with my second cup of coffee and picked up my Martin GPCPA4 custom guitar and started playing.

It’s a beautiful instrument and before I knew it, the resonance from the strings started pulsing through my stomach, into my chest, sending warm vibrations into my head. I played a while longer, loving the sensuality of the notes, and then put it back in its case and headed for the beach. It was a warm, overcast and humid day. 


Like millions of bursting jewels

As I walked northwards, the sand was coming alive, the light off the breaking waves was like millions of bursting jewels. I looked down at my tiny feet, a looong way down at the end of my legs. I kept having to gasp for great gulps of air, not in discomfort but in awe of the way the world around me was becoming.

I had to cross a river, wading thigh-high through the warm, opaque water. It was more difficult than the previous crossing. I was slightly unsteady on my feet, and as I crossed, I noticed two shapes on the beach. A black one close to the water, and a brown one further up the beach. As I got closer, I saw a cow, but when it stood up it revealed a huge pair of pendulous gonads. The bull appeared to be fairly small, like the ones seen in Spanish bull rings, but it had horns that pointed down towards its nose, one of them almost covering his eye. He had a look of pure malice on his face and a stance that seemed to say, “C’mon China, bring it on.”

I headed into the shallows, knowing that if he did charge, he wouldn’t come too far into the water. As I made my nervous way around him, he didn’t move, but didn’t take his eyes off me for a second. Nor did I take my eyes off him, not for a second.

Safely on the other side of this vicious little “El Torito”, I calmed down and walked slowly and happily to the end of the beach. That was a moment that in another time could have been calamitous.

I sat on the rocks with my feet in the lapping shallows and drank deeply from my water bottle. I could feel it gurgling through my body and it was about then that I start reaching the high point of the journey. In fact, the feeling of the dissolved self came and went several times over a period that I could not gauge. In those moments, the sense of oneness with everything around you is so powerful as to bring tears to your eyes. And yet “you” are not “there” but are nonetheless a part of it all. I had many other glimpses into my impossibly complex psyche during the journey but they are not for this story. Pollan goes deeply into the science, neuroscience and philosophy of this experience, with no definitive outcome, only that it is as close to a mystical experience that anyone who is not a mystic will ever have.

I walked safely past El Torito once again, and once again wobbled through the river. Two days later, I did the same walk again, and again El Torito was standing in exactly (I think) the same place as before. This time, I could see that he was much bigger than he appeared previously, but with the same down-turned horns and pendulous gonads. I walked straight towards him, but this time I could see there was no look of malice in his eyes, just the dumb insolence of a large bovine. As I got closer, he turned and trotted away up the beach.

Back at the chalet, I was coming down at the end of my journey. It was as if I were coming in for a perfect and gentle landing, no turbulence, no fear, just a lovely mild day.

It was slightly bemusing to find myself here, back to total normal, no hangover, no fatigue, no physical indication that I’d just been on this stupendous journey. I found myself thinking about Karen and instead of the deep well of sadness that always overcame me whenever I thought about her – which was always – there was nothing. I didn’t feel any different about her, I still felt enormous love and affection, I simply wasn’t overcome with grief.

I later walked down to the beach in nothing but my bare feet and budgie smuggler, and started thinking about the other matter that had been on my mind recently. The changing body of an ageing man. Some of these changes had been haunting me to the point that I was googling remedies and potions and what to do to recapture a semblance of my youth. As I walked along the beach and into the waves, I looked down at my bulging stomach and crinkly skin and felt totally happy with who I was. I’m a sixty-eight-year-old man who has had one hell of a life, and this is who I am now. What’s the problem? It truly seemed that a little snow cloud had come and showered my hill with a fresh layer of clean, new snow. Pollan is at pains to point out that this effect can last forever, or only a couple of weeks or months. At this point I’ll take whatever I can get.

As I write this, I wonder if by doing so I am being irresponsible, seeming to promote the idea of the use of what is essentially a banned and “dangerous” drug. I acknowledge that it’s how it may seem, but I am merely reporting on my own experience and wish again to emphasise that I would never encourage anyone to do what I did. However, the psychedelic train seems to have left the station and I can only hope that it won’t be long before the myriad of people in deep suffering can legally benefit from these medicines.

On my last night at Dwesa, I lit the braai and settled down with a cold Zamalek and a whisky chaser, to watch the evening descend over the canopy. Birdsong was reaching a cacophonous, chaotic magnificence and as the smell of wors and tjops permeated the air, I wondered if indeed anything was different.

Here I was, an ageing South African man dopping and braaiing, enjoying the sunset. Had those habitual neural pathways indeed been defragged? It certainly seemed so. One thing I know, is that when that man left Dwesa and hit the shocking road to Willowvale, he was in way better shape than when he arrived. DM/ ML

How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan is a groundbreaking book about a very sensitive subject. My story is a tiny and inexpert scratch on the vast surface that is Pollan’s remarkable study.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Arnold Shapiro says:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting personal story. “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley is an account of his experiences with mescaline (not LSD) which is a naturally occurring substance found in the mescaline cactus.

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