Helicopter to Venus

For the last six weeks, as I’ve stood chained to the coffee machine, beans grinding in one ear, blenders blending in the other, microwaves beeping, extractor fan extracting, tourists trying to get my attention to ask me where the toilet/bus stop/start of the track is, where can they fill their water bottle, where can they put their rubbish… Through all this I’ve maintained a shaky hold on sanity by visualising myself walking in nature, pack on my back, not a care in the world other than making it to the next hut.

Last week I finally got to live out my fantasy. I went tramping for six days, by myself, in the Kahurangi National Park. My last day at work was a Sunday, and by Monday lunchtime I was walking along the Wangapeka River, revelling in the beauty of my surroundings, with only blue ducks for company. Not only did my tramp mark the timely completion of my job but it marked the end of the season as well. Taking a week out to just walk and think seemed like a symbolic way to shelve the summer that was, before blowing the dust off autumn and delving in.

I made a rookie error on this tramp: I didn’t take any tape or plasters in case I got blisters. I’ve had the same tramping boots for over 10 years and I’ve never got a single blister in all that time, even when they were brand new. But after my last tramp I let my boots dry out for too long before waxing them and I think they must have shrunk a little. By the time I cottoned on to what was happening it was too late and the blisters turned into raw, weeping sores that grated with every step. This certainly put a bit of a dampener on things but I managed to procure some second skin and then some tape from other trampers along the way. By the end, one of them was starting to get infected, but it’s come right now.

I covered about 100 kilometres in the six days. I travelled up the Wangapeka River, over the saddle and down into the headwaters of the Karamea River, then cut through the Lost Valley before reconnecting with the Karamea River and following it for two whole sun-soaked days. I then headed up the Leslie River to the Tablelands, over Gordon’s Pyramid and down to Flora car park where my guy met me with Baileys and ice cream.

Whoever named the creeks that flow into the Karamea River had gods and galaxies on their mind. After Moonstone Lake, the creeks of Orbit, Apollo, Mars, Thor, Atlas, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Silvermine join the mighty Karamea on its true left, while Lunik, Star, Comet, Satellite, Apogee, Perigee and Sputnik Creeks join on the true right. Maybe the name-giver was just buzzing out on nature as much as I was, and getting a bit cosmic on it.

All in all, it was a fantastic, although challenging, tramp. Sometimes I just had to stop and gaze in wonder at the sheer beauty that was all around me: the endless expanse of bush bisected by that stunning river. A river which spoke to me in a language that I couldn’t fully understand but could generally catch the gist of – a language of time and seasons, floods and droughts, landslides and earthquakes. Sometimes the river gurgled merrily, carefree, over and around rocks, other times she flowed sullen and silent, pouring herself lazily into huge, deep emerald-green pools, wrapping herself around her hidden treasures and secrets.

Other times, I couldn’t care less about the scenery and just had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, like during the three hour climb up out of the Leslie Valley. I tried to steer my thoughts away from the heaviness of my pack and the discomfort in various parts of my body. When I found myself cursing that damn hill for its steepness and endlessness I distracted myself with happy thoughts: I reminded myself of all the good things in my life, everything I’m grateful for and everything that I have to look forward to.

Finally, just when I thought that I couldn’t go on any longer, I emerged out of the bush into the expansive, open wilderness that is the Tablelands. Suddenly I recognise my surroundings: Mt Arthur and Gordon’s Pyramid, and all at once I feel very close to home. Gordon’s Pyramid sits squat and fat like a Buddha, teasing me, challenging me to climb its slopes. How could I say no?

Sitting on top of Gordon’s Pyramid I literally felt like I was on top of the world. A vast panorama of pristine wilderness stretched out in every direction before me, extending as far as the eye could see. I looked back in the direction I’d come, sometimes hobbling, other times galloping, but it was just me that got me here – no cars, helicopters, boats or aeroplanes, just me and my trusty legs.

There’s a very simple satisfaction that comes from getting somewhere under your own steam. Carrying everything you need on your back, leaving all of life’s trivial little stresses by the wayside. Walk, eat, sleep, walk, eat, sleep; life becomes very simple.

This post is named after two of the huts on the track: Helicopter Flat Hut and Venus Hut. I think I’ll do this tramp again, in another 10 years or maybe sooner; it was just so beautiful! The following photos are displayed in the order that I took them. I hope they will give you some appreciation of the landscapes I was travelling through.

I’m a neat freak

When I was a kid, I vowed that when I grew up and had my own home the crockery and cutlery would always and only be matching sets. In my childhood home you’d be lucky to find two plates that matched. Instead you’d find stacks of randomly assorted plates and bowls in varying degrees of deterioration, hand carved wooden spoons, an old handheld egg beater. Nothing matched and nothing was new.

My mum had a special knack for putting some ethnic garment of the dye-running variety in with my school uniform, turning my white socks and blouses a mortifying shade of pink. I quickly volunteered to do my own laundry, hanging each item with care, choosing two pegs of the same shape, size and colour and carefully pinning the item to the clothes line without stretching or creasing the fabric. Each Sunday evening I would iron my school uniform skirt so that the pleats sat perfectly flat and perfectly straight.

This was my way maintaining a little bit of order and calm when so many other things in my life felt like they were spiralling out of control. This was my way of coping. Coping with growing up in a family where there was favouritism, coping with my parent’s finally separating after years of bickering and squabbling. Looking on as one sister battled cancer and the other a teratoma. Watching my brother lose his mind and being terrified that the same thing might happen to me. These things I couldn’t control, but the colour of my pegs and the pleats of my skirt, they were all mine. If there were just one or two things that I could have complete control over, that I could rely on to be predictable and mundane and routine, well, it made the stuff that I couldn’t control just a little bit easier to deal with.

Now that I have the decision making power over my cutlery and crockery collection it’s amusing to see that there are no matching sets. Yes, the bowls are largely white and ceramic, as are the mugs, and they match because they are all appealing to me in form and function, they match in the sense that I chose them, and all together they make one large, semi-matching set.

These days I’m more inclined to relax the reins on my control freak tendencies – I won’t be mad if you cut the vegetables differently to how I would’ve cut them if we were to make a meal together. My sisters both got better, my brother’s stable, my parents are amicably separated. Time passes, the river rolls. There’s no point sweating the small stuff.

 

The nine day challenge that didn’t end

By the end of my last six weeks with no no-drinking rules I felt decidedly disgusting. I was bloated and lethargic and exercise had somehow crept right off my agenda. Sure, I move around at a moderate pace for most of my waking hours, and I train with my clients, but that’s at an intensity that’s right for them, not me. Plus, my last drinking day had been a doozie – Baileys, red wine and white wine all in one day. I needed to snap myself out of my stupor; a physical challenge was in order!

I’ve talked about Mike Chang’s workouts before, they’re fairly high intensity, 20 minute sessions made up of a variety of bodyweight resistance exercises, something that anyone can fit into an already busy schedule and do in the comfort of their own homes. You watch the video and you do what you’re told – easy. The first one is a fitness test where you do a series of six exercises, each for 45 seconds, for a maximum number of reps. Watch this video for the demonstrations. The next eight workouts alternate between working the upper body and lower body, and once you’ve made your way through them all you do the fitness test again.

Unexpected things started happening once I adopted a daily exercise habit. I thought it would be a real drag fitting the workouts in, especially on the three days where I work from 7:00 AM until 3 or 4:00PM, but I found myself diligently getting up at 4:44 AM (because it looked cooler than 4:45) and getting them done early. Within a few days it felt more normal to do them than not to do them – which is all a habit is really. Then I found myself wanting to do more exercise; it is only 20 minutes a day after all. One day I went for a run, another I went to Mum’s yoga class, and then the other morning I found myself casually picking up my kettle bell and giving it 50 swings in between my sun salutes and spinal rolls.

But this is the best part: once I got through all the workouts and did the fitness test for the second time (results are in the table below) it seemed silly to stop, so I just kept going. In the last 15 days I’ve only missed one day – I was tired and in need of a break so I met a friend at the beach instead of being a slave to my workouts.

Exercise 05/02/14 13/02/14 24/02/14
Push ups 22 37 33
Jumping squats 27 33 40
Mountain climbers 75 90 96
Burpees 13 13 16
Butterfly 23 31 31
Prone knee to elbow 20 28 38

I’ll keep going until it’s time to do the fitness test a third time, then I’ll decide if I want to carry on. This is what my back looks like at the moment, the light is in my favour, but the muscles are all mine.

I did the fitness test for the third time this morning – a pretty good result. I would’ve liked to have done more push ups but my triceps were still sore from doing a Muay Thai session with teenage boys a few days ago. At least I improved on the blasted burpees!

I love AFMs!

People talk about having an alcohol-free day (AFD) – that’s tiddlywinks. Round here I prefer to have an alcohol-free month (AFM). My first AFM was last August, and the first drink I had after a month sans booze was a bit of a let-down; I felt slightly off-balance and uncoordinated but that was about it. Then, after my six week alcohol-free stint through November and December I was even more loathe to break my fast. I knew once that first sip touched my lips I’d be right back to day zero, and I almost didn’t want to go there because I was quite proud of myself and my achievement. I felt a bit ashamed of myself while buying a bottle of wine from the supermarket, like I was some kind of juvenile delinquent who should’ve outgrown their bad habit by now.

I anticipated that by the end of January I’d probably be about ready to take another break from drinking, and so I have. Things are just better when I don’t drink. I feel better about myself and that feeling overflows into other aspects of my life: I exercise more, and when I exercise more I make better food choices, eat smaller portions, and cease to pick mindlessly at food when I’m not hungry. I sleep better too, and I’m far more productive with my time.

I always gain weight when I drink alcohol, it doesn’t matter what else I do or don’t do, it’s a simple fact. I guess it’s because alcohol is high in calories, seven per gram, yet it’s usually additional to the food one eats, not instead of. It also lowers one’s inhibitions, in the realm of food as well as other areas. Do you find all those healthy eating promises you’ve made yourself go flying out the window after you’ve had a few? Or is it the next day, when only a massive fry-up will soothe your hangover?

I’m starting to get the feeling that I might only want to drink once a month. One day, any day, out of each month I’m allowed to drink and that’s it. I need to make rules like this for myself otherwise bad habits start to creep in. Rules are good – I choose them, then I stick with them, and I get a sense of satisfaction for doing what I said I was going to do. Alcohol really doesn’t do anything for me these days anyway. I’m moving on and it feels good.

This AFM is actually five weeks. It started on the 3rd of February and will finish on the 8th of March. From the 3rd to the 8th of March I’m going tramping, like I said I was going to; I am a woman of my word, after all. The last day of the tramp marks my 34th birthday and my guy will come and meet me at the end of the track with Baileys and ice cream. Or maybe I’ll feel so pure after six days of being immersed in nature that I won’t want to pollute my body with alcohol and sugar. Ha, we shall see. I’ll let you know how I get on.

 

 

The brain tells the body how to feel

This will be a life-long lesson for me, I think. There was a time in my life, a few years ago, when I felt so good that I seriously started to wonder if there were steroids in the Chinese potions I was drinking for a mysterious illness I was trying to fix (more on that soon).

I was living in Dunedin and winter was approaching, which is usually a time to batten down the hatches in preparation for the grim months ahead. Yet here I was, bursting with energy and enthusiasm. There was a spring in my step and all I could see was beauty all around me. I was waking up early feeling excited about each day, exercising more than usual, and doing weird things like switching off the TV in the evening to do the vacuuming because I was too hyperactive to sit still. It was such a deviation from where I’d been that I was pleasantly surprised, but with equal measures of suspicion at how good I felt, like when a friend is uncharacteristically kind and helpful just before they ask for a massive favour.

It was a boy, of course, who brought about this change in me. Meeting someone new allowed me to finally and fully extract myself from the dregs of a relationship that was well and truly dead. And had been for some time. It was no one’s fault but my own, but sometimes when you’re so deeply entrenched in a situation you cease to see the wood for the trees, right?

What I was experiencing was like waking up from a very deep and troubling sleep to find that the world is beautiful, after all. Unfortunately, things promptly went pear-shaped with my new love interest and what ensued culminated into what has been the most difficult year of my life to date. But that’s not the point. The point is that I freed myself from a bad situation and I felt bloody good for having done it. I also completed my thesis that year and healed myself of my mysterious illness. I guess sometimes a bit of adversity can actually do us some good, in the long run.

More recently, I experienced the flip side. I felt so low that I was almost convinced I had hypothyroidism, or if not that then a brain tumour, or cancer. I wanted there to be a physical ailment which could explain why I felt so depleted. I was thirty-something, single, childless, career-less, penniless, and feeling like a complete failure, drifting aimlessly with no sense of place or purpose.

I was the same person as I had been before; I occupied the same body, I ate the same food, I exercised the same, yet my situation was completely different and that’s what was wearing me down. My mental happiness affects my physical sense of well-being one hundred per cent of the time, and yet so often I lose sight of this fact. Do you? It’s where my head is at that determines whether I wake up early feeling excited about life or whether I sleep late, unwilling to face the boring reality of my life. It’s my brain that puts the spring in my step, or makes my limbs feel like they’re made of lead. The brain tells the body how to feel. The brain is the master controller and the body is its vessel, to try and separate the two is folly.

 

The Needle and the Haystack

The first multi-day tramp I did was (unsurprisingly, as I live right next to it) the Abel Tasman. I was 16 and my four closest friends and I were disbanding: one to Christchurch, one to Wellington, and one on an exchange to Chile which left the remaining two of us to finish our final year at Mot High. We wanted to do something special together before we parted ways geographically, although we are all still good friends to this day.

I’d never been tramping before and thought it was appropriate to take a change of clothes for each day – a total of five I think. A mistake never to be repeated; one set of clothes for walking and one set for the evenings and that’s it! Every little bit of weight counts when you’re clambering up a precipice for hours on end like it felt like my guy and I were doing a few days ago. I always wanted a boyfriend I could go tramping with.

The hardest tramp I’ve done so far would have to be an eight day solo tramp I did in Foirdland in the middle of winter when I was about 22. It was four days out to the coast and another four back in again. On the fourth day the track deteriorated to a scrambly mess of mud and kie kie with the track marked occasionally by colourful buoys. It was hard going and I was tired. Once I finally made it around the headland there was still a long walk along the beach to get to the hut. Somewhere between the headland and the hut my period started, the discovery of which made me feel even more exhausted, and I think I actually cried and wished for my mum.

As I dragged my feet along that beach a small plane came and landed on it, the occupants hopped out and wandered around briefly before flying off again, all before I reached the hut. I felt like shaking my fist at them and yelling “fuck you! It took me four bloody days to get here and you think you can just fly in like it’s nothing, you bastards.” It got me thinking though, about the relationship between the value you put on a place or an experience and the amount of effort it took to get there. I’m sure the sun didn’t glisten on the sea in quite the same way for those people in the plane as it did for me.

I did a lot of tramping on my own after Outdoor Rec; 16 students and two tutors makes for quite a big group, and often when I feel like going bush it’s because I want solitude and to get some perspective. I went tramping when I had to decide whether or not to get my horse put down, and other times I sought solace in nature in order to try and make sense of my interactions with men who only wanted to know my body but not my mind. Bastards. My mind’s awesome.

My favourite tramp, to date, was the Wangapeka-Karamea-Leslie. It was six glorious days of summer, during which time I barely saw another soul, following one river and then another and then another before climbing up to the Tablelands and down to Flora. This one was a real journey: my brother dropped me off at the start of the track and my dad picked me up somewhere completely different six days later, no loops or there-and-back-agains. Each day my pack got a little bit smaller and a little bit lighter and I got a little bit stronger and a little bit fitter. There was a section of track on that tramp, maybe only a couple of hundred metres long, it was flat and easy going and the track was draped with giant podocarps hundreds of years old. It was still and calm and quiet and I felt so safe walking along under those big old trees, and I had an overwhelming sense that everything would always be alright.

When we were driving back home in Dad’s van it felt like we were travelling at the speed of light; I hadn’t travelled faster than walking pace for so long. Dad said he was consciously going slower than usual but it still felt insanely dangerous to me. One could rightly argue that many of our ‘modern’ problems stem from living in a world where time and space have been compressed too much.

I’m toying with the idea of doing the Wangapeka-Karamea-Leslie again. It was over 10 years ago, after all. I want to have that sense of being on a journey again rather than walking somewhere, having a look around and then walking out again. I’d tweak it so that it wouldn’t be exactly the same as the first time, maybe condense it down to five days, mix it up a bit. I want to walk along the Karamea River for days on end again, watching her get bigger and more beautiful with each passing day. Sort through the chaff and figure out what’s really important.

The following photos are from last week’s tramp which took us up the Matiri Valley, past the Thousand Acre Plateau and up onto the Hundred Acre Plateau – apparently these are New Zealand’s oldest landforms and were once a sea floor. The Needle and the Haystack are the two highest peaks in the area, one sharp and pointy, the other broad and squat.

700 reps

Seven hundred may sound like a lot, but before you get carried away thinking I’m some kind of exercise freak let me assure you that it’s not and I’m not! This workout consisted of four exercises:  50 squat-plough-squat-jumps, 50 don’t spill the bubbles, 500 mountain climbers, and 100 military squats – watch the video to see me demonstrate each exercise, as the names may well have you puzzled.

I’ve done this workout twice now; the first time was back in October when I chose the exercises as a reflection of my desire to tighten my front and loosen my back (i.e. I wanted to tighten and strengthen my tummy muscles while stretching out my lower back and hamstrings). I focussed on taking my time the first time round in order to make it easier on myself the second time round when I thought I would smash my initial time to pieces.

However, the second time round happened to be the Monday after the Saturday which marked the breaking of my six week alcohol fast. Not too surprisingly, I drank a little too much and was still feeling pretty rough around the edges on Monday. I was actually pissed off with myself for overdoing it and pissed off with the fact that I felt yuck, and thought a good blast of exercise might help alleviate my undesirable disposition. While I was doing the workout I honestly felt like I was going hell for leather and I was confident that I would indeed smash my initial time. Turns out I only scraped a measly 18 seconds off. The breakdown of the reps for this workout was more or less the same each time, as it was with 230 reps.

I don’t feel that the time the workout took or how easy or hard it felt at the time is a reflection on anything other than the conditions on the day – my level of fitness is pretty stable; it’s my energy that fluctuates wildly from day to day. Thus, fitness testing only works if the conditions are the same each time, which is actually pretty hard to achieve unless you live in a vacuum. Ideally you’d retest at the same time of day, day of week, having had the same quality and number of hours of sleep the night before, having eaten and drunk the same foods at the same times, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the non-physical stuff – relationships, friendships, work, money, and other external stressors that surround us all every day.

I’ll do this workout again when I’m not on a two-day hangover and hopefully I can keep improving my time.