Be back in a couple months.
Lost in a network of coves on the far north-eastern point of Aotearoa’s Te Waipounamu/South Island. The island here has being consumed by ocean over millennia, valleys filling with water and creating a myriad of jutting points and hidden bays. Loosing my bearings a little, my neck cranes left to right searching for what I think could be Meretoto/Ship Cove, the starting point for the southern leg of the countries national trail, the Te Araroa (the ‘TA’).
I was pumping with energy, excited and hanging to get hiking. The boat pulled up to the jetty, and so did I, grabbing my loaded pack from the legend of a captain as I did so. A quick smile, thanks, and beginning the 1500 kilometre stretch down to the southern tip! The cool weather rainforest here is gorgeous, the sun shining through the dense, brilliant green canopy and a path lined by tree ferns and nikau palms. Following the contour over a spur, I caught a glimpse of the ocean below, stunning blue and gently washing against an undisturbed shoreline below me.
Another TA hiker and I strolled into camp together an hour or so from the jetty, meeting a third TA hiker in the process. At this stage, our earliest of expectations were totally fresh, and I truely had no idea what the terrain and challenge ahead was going to be. I knew there’d be heavy packs, and lengthy week long stretches between towns. But these were just shallow, inexperienced expectations of a thru-hike. Over a dehydrated meal and spoons of peanut butter, we delved into the details of the trail ahead and what food we had packed in. The other hiker had hiked the Te Ika-a-Māui/North Island too, and I begun to learn a bit of the lingo (‘most people walk SoBo’ that is, ‘South Bound’), hear of other people ahead/behind us (we’d started between two ‘pulses’ of hikers, about three days apart), and what else I could expect from walking for months on end (podcasts, podcasts, podcasts).
From fresh faced beginnings the distance unraveled underneath my feet as the scale of the undertaking hit me. I can tell you the exact location it began. For those playing at home it was in the Richmond Ranges, on the ridge line between Slaty and Old Man huts, staring south west to Mount Rintoul. After a lunch in the shade I stood there, staring at peaks innumerable in every direction, snow capped in the direction I was heading. Here’s an excerpt from my diary that day: ‘[the view] was humbling.. I felt alone for the first time in a while.. The scale was just huge, and my mind started to put it all together and went into shut down mode‘.
Here it hit that I was only on day eight of an expected seventy, and the vastness of the challenge sunk in. The sensation reminds me heavily of my time on Frenchman’s Cap, staring out over the Tassie Wilderness World Heritage Area, overwhelmed as I yet again reassessed my interpretation of the grandness of the outdoors.
Throughout the TA on the Te Waipounamu/South Island, you pass from one area to the next mostly surrounded by spectacular mountains on the eastern flank of the Kā Tiritiri o te Moana/Southern Alps. Mt Rintol in the Richmonds, Wiauo Pass in Nelson Lakes, Avalanche Peak in Arthurs Pass, the Two Thumb range and more. In evenings the sun sets behind the mountains, striking brilliant silhouettes and casting crisp shadows, even in February.
The shock of distance and the remote nature of my time on trail meant I had to reprogram my attitude to the hike. I realised that I was undertaking a mental marathon, not a sprint. The wild and remote backcountry of Aotearoa is what drew me here, and it provided the challenge I was seeking.
Feeling this remoteness is a crucial element to the wilderness experience. Some of the challenging moments of a lengthy, backcountry hike are tied to remoteness – the challenge of trails exposed to the elements with lengthy distances without water, of traversing free flowing rivers, or interactions with wildlife. In A Life on Our Planet, our favourite, David Attenborough, shares his changing experience with nature whilst the wild places of the earth have dwindled rapidly over the past sixty years.
Hiking through the remote places on the TA shines a light on how motorised transport can impact the nature of wild-ness. When your choice is purely by foot, the size and scale is almost incomprehensible; the challenge totally different. Yet you can drive the length of the south island in a day, or fly it in under three hours. Doing so the surroundings might ‘look’ wild (and well worth seeing none-the-less), but they really ‘feel’ and ‘act’ as wild by traversing them powered by your own energy. If a place retains a disconnection from transportation intrusion, the more remote and wild it can remain, and the richer the experience for those on trail.
We felt the tainting of the challenge when, after a serious and difficult day of hiking, a helicopter flew in people to the valley. Not only did the helicopter shatter the quiet completely, but it reduced our remoteness completely. The pilot even offered to take our rubbish out – a nice offer, but dropping 50 grams of scraps from my pack will never be worth it. Another element to this example is that we were hiking with speed to avoid the cyclonic weather pushing from the north east over the alps – whilst those in the chopper had a lift out with the chopper regardless. The extended consequences of introducing motorised access are broad and permanent – and I’ll delve in to some of the elements of this in future parts of Back Home..
The extent of wilderness – remote, challenging, and typically iconic areas – has a unique ability to humble. As we hiked/tramped on the TA, I relished sharing this experience with others. Our skill levels were different, so too our expectations of ourselves. But rolling into camp with pals and sharing a yarn from the trail – totally enriched the value of a wilder experience. I reflect on these moments a lot. Not a day passes where I don’t think about the TA and trail, and no week passes by where my pals from the TA don’t reflect on the experience with me.
Returning home was a whirl wind of adrenaline. Crossing the Te Waipounamu/South Island from north to south on foot was an emotional stretch. The pain and changes of twenty-nineteen being trampled into the path, or more poetically, set to rest in my mind in exchange for burning through kilojoules like they’re going out of style. Come a week into trail a was able to power through multiple burgers, pizzas, litres of milk, and keep operating, still retaining room for more food!
We were drawn together for a variety of reasons, but most common was the allure of the scenery and interaction with the islands wild and remote landscapes. How we share, care for and nurture these landscapes into the future will determine the quality of experience for those that follow in our footsteps.
Though ‘Back Home..‘ I’m going to delve into what wilderness is a little more.
If wilderness is ‘out there’, then what’s here at home? What does our future of wilderness look like? How do we protect wilderness areas at threat from human activity? Does a true wilderness include people, or not? There’s so many questions, and given the number of trails and making up for lost time we’re teeing up for 2021, plenty of time to mull over the topic in more refined nature.
So, here’s to turning a bit of home thinking time into home writing time, and looking forward to sharing this over the coming summer with you all.
What does wilderness mean to you?? Comment below and join me on Instagram here!
Happy trails my friends,
During the week I study wilderness at University of Tasmania, I campaign on wilderness protection with the Wilderness Society, and on days off I hike in the Tassie Wilderness World Heritage Area. You could say I’m a wilderness tragic. Outside of this I’m a sucker for melody, cook a mean pasta, and need a third dot point.
Hiking, tramping, trekking – whatever you call making your way across the land by foot – is an ancient activity. The original inhabitants of Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Maori, have travelled across the land by foot for aeons. Pathways have been trodden into song-lines and stories that are, in some cases, millennia’s old. Many modern-day paths, including portions of long distance trails such as the Te Araroa, incorporate these routes as part of the journey.
I pay my respects to the many and varied iwi and hapū whose land I was able to traverse and appreciate on my journey across Te Waipounamu/South Island. The land was my inspiration for this piece and where these photos were taken.