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.

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.

It’s the little things

I live in a valley that runs in an east-west direction. The house I live in is on the southern slope of the valley, so it faces north and gets plenty of sun, even in winter. However, because the arc that the sun traces across the sky is so much lower in winter, the sun gets trapped behind the northern slope of the valley for what seems like an eternity on those cold frosty mornings. In the depths of winter the sun finally peeked out from behind the hill at around 9:10 AM, which, cruelly, is about 15 minutes before I leave for work.

I’ve been watching with avid interest and childlike fascination as the sun becomes less coy and breaches the hill a minute or so earlier each and every day. Today, it came up around 8:30 AM, so I’ve already gained 40 minutes of glorious sunshine in the morning alone. It’s the little things.

Not only is the sun coming up earlier each day, but its arc is getting higher, so the point where it breaches the hill is constantly moving eastwards. The sun is on the move and I’m very happy about it! It won’t be long now until it rises completely clear of the hill.

Why I Run

I don’t run to build muscle or burn fat. I know enough about exercise to know that running doesn’t really achieve either of these two things. I don’t run to compensate for my poor food choices of the day before, although I have done this in the past. I run because it makes me feel alive. To me, running feels like the most natural, primal movement the body can make. And bodies are designed to move, not to sit at a desk looking at a computer screen.

I don’t meditate, but running is as close as I get to a meditative state. All I need to worry about is breathing and placing one foot in front of the other on the track in front of me. Sometimes, if I have the energy, I’ll open up into a full sprint when I’m nearly at the end of my run. I’m going so fast my feet feel like they’re barely touching the ground; I may as well be flying! This makes me feel invincible.

I always run alone. This is my opportunity to get away from everyone and everything. This is when all my best thoughts come to me. Or sometimes there aren’t any thoughts at all. Sometimes I have conversations in my head, conversations that will one day be had with the person they’re intended for. They’re draft conversations. Sometimes I get so animated that I catch myself gesticulating with my hands while my lips are moving as if in speech. I must look rather odd.

When I run I strike with the ball of my foot first, not my heel. I learnt this from reading the book ‘Born To Run’ by Christopher McDougall. It’s an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in running. Before this book taught me how to run properly I used to strike with my heel first, and it made my hamstrings tight and my joints sore. If I revert back to my old style of running, just to remind myself of how poor my form used to be, it feels heavy and jarring and cumbersome – no wonder it made my body hurt.

I like to run in nature, not on a treadmill. The last time I ran on a treadmill was at a gym in Auckland, about a year ago. I was struck by the realisation that I was running forwards, looking at a brick wall in front of me, but going nowhere. Plus I’d paid $25 to do it – is that crazy or what? When I’m living in Marahau, as I currently am, I run in the Abel Tasman National Park. My standard 5 km run takes me to Tinline, around a loop track, and back out again. I’ve done this run so many times I could probably do it with my eyes closed.

While I was living in Brightwater earlier this year I started experimenting with some longer runs; around 12 km, and was pleasantly surprised by how do-able they were. Over summer I’m planning to do some longer runs in the Park. I’ll decide how many kilometres I want to run, catch a ride into the Park with a water taxi, then it’ll be up to my trusty legs to get me back out again. I can’t wait!

This is the track I run on when I’m in Marahau

And this is the view! Better than a brick wall, right?