Princhester Road to Coal Creek
The helicopter chose not to land. It just hovered in wait as I crawled on my hands and knees through the waist high tussock, head down against the propeller blast. I dragged myself aboard, determined to make the most of this unanticipated break in the journey.
March 26th was a rest day, my second spent in Te Anau. Having completed my resupply, laundry etc. the day prior, it was truly a free day lingering and soaking up Te Anau’s relaxed vibe. When the subject comes up, every hiker has shared a similar fondness for Te Anau. The morning was spent blogging, and the afternoon spent napping, strolling around town, and later a stop at the cinema to take in a tourist film featuring the scenery of Fiordland. The film was recommended by Maria (GER) a few days earlier, and it was very well done, featuring dramatic helicopter shots of the mountains, lakes and fjords of the area.
Later in the evening, with my backpack already packed up and ready to go, I met up with Joss and Rob for one quick beer and catch up. Again, we danced around the subject of finishing the walk, and what that might or might not represent.
The shuttle bus picked the three of us up at 7 am on March 27th, and dropped us off at the intersection where we had left the trail just before 8 am. I headed backward on the road for about 400 metres in order to start at the spot where Bruce had picked me up three days before. This may sound silly to some, but having travelled this far the length of the country I did not want to leave any unwalked gaps, however small, in my journey.
Rob and Joss headed down the trail ahead as I went the other way. I found the spot, turned around, and headed forward again along the trail behind them. From the highway, the trail followed a public farm road, through cattle pasture, before ascending into the wet forest and the beginning of the Takitimu mountain range. The first couple of hours of this were, as promised, reminiscent of the North Island: lots of ascents and descents, thick forest, wet ground, slow progress. Somewhat technical in parts, particularly in the descents.
The Aparima hut was the destination for the day, so there was no need to rush, so I didn’t. I continued to trail Rob and Joss until midday, when I caught up to them having a lunch break in the forest. I said a quick hello and walked past them, preferring to stop for my own lunch break an hour farther along, where the trail entered flatter ground on a sunnier clearing at the beginning of a saddle.
I took my time, walking at an easy pace. After a half hour lunch break, I continued walking under a blue sky through thick and tall tussock grass, from marker to marker. In and out of small patches of forest, before returning to more tussock grass.
A couple of hours later, less than 90 minutes from Aparima Hut, I followed a break in the tussock where the path descended a small slope ahead of Coal Creek.
That is when I slipped.
The ground was dry, but the soil was loose. My body turned to regain balance, as it has done a thousand times in this journey.
This time, it turned the wrong way.
All my weight leaned into my ankle. My poles could not support me fast enough. I collapsed to the side and lay on the ground for a few seconds. I could see the swelling immediately.
The creek was just 5 metres away. Carefully, I righted myself and hobbled to the edge to sit down. I pulled off my shoe and sock and gently lowered my foot and ankle into the cold water.
There I sat for 20 minutes. I felt stiffness, but no pain. Figuring this was a sprain, I put my shoe back on, crossed the stream, and headed another 70 metres through the tussock and part way up hillside. Gradually, though, pain presented itself more and more.
Fearing I would be doing more damage, I stopped in my tracks, threw off my pack, and lay on my back in the grass for a few minutes. My heart racing with adrenaline, my body was trying to tell me something.
I listened. I propped the foot up on my pack and rested. Staring back towards the spot where I had fallen, I decided to wait for Joss and Rob.
They approached 20 minutes later. Rob slipped (but recovered) on the same patch of loose ground.
I shared my dilemma, and mentioned I was thinking I might need to use my Spot locator beacon. This wasn’t something I would be able to “walk off”, even if Rob had done as he offered and carried my pack for me. Even though we were just 6 km from the hut, I wasn’t safely going anywhere under my own steam.
I talked it through out loud and in my head, and Rob and Joss listened. After 10 minutes deliberation with myself, Rob helped me retrieve the Spot locator beacon from my pack and I pushed “the button” on the device.
Rob did a time check, then we waited.
Joss offered me a coffee, which I gratefully accepted. I opened a bag of candy. We waited.
An hour went by. Unsure what to expect in these situations, I fussed with the Spot device and pushed the button a few more times to be sure.
We didn’t talk too much. Probably because our ears were tuned to the sky for the sound of rescue.
We heard a low pitch flutter before anything. Then a rumble and whirr. The helicopter appeared over the ridge facing us, approached, and flew right above us as Rob stood and raised his arms to signal distress.
Then it passed by. Continued on. The noise of the rotors faded to silence.
“Maybe that wasn’t for me?” I asked the sky as I pushed the Spot button another time.
My confidence faded as fast as the sound of the helicopter rotors.
Ten minutes passed, when Andy and Maria (GER) appeared on the trail behind us. This time, it was Andy’s turn to slip (he recovered). They continued up the trail and joined us. I filled them in, and Maria prepared a cold bandage for my ankle as we continued to wait. Once alone on a hillside, I was now part of a group. All of us waiting for one thing.
In a sudden instant, the helicopter reappeared from behind our heads. We all looked up. Twice as loud as before, it was travelling lower this time in order to better spot people on the ground. The rotor blast was in our faces as it stopped mid-air in front of us, circled around the flat ground below, then crept up the side of the hill to our left, partly out of our sight.
As we watched and waited, John suddenly appeared from the tussock where the helicopter had hidden, dressed in a flight suit and helmet, hauling his large St. John Ambulance first aid kit.
The helicopter backed off enough for us to hear one another as John assessed the nature of my injury with a few questions. After a few more words exchanged on the radio, he directed me to crawl to a spot 10 metres along the side of the hill.
John carried my pack as I followed him through the grass on my hands and knees, my injured ankle arched above the ground behind me and my walking stick dragging the ground at my side. The helicopter maneuvered as we did, stopping in a hover in front of us with the nose inches off the ground, leaning into the hill, while the back half of the aircraft hung feet in the air behind.
When we were two feet away, John stepped aside and waved me towards the open door. I dragged myself up, inside, and across the floor behind Sam, the pilot.
Five seconds later we were in the air. John reached across and buckled me into my seat as I looked out the window and waved to the rest of the group. All of them still seated on the hill, now many feet below me. Unsure if any of them could see me clearly, I gave a “thumbs up” to the window hoping to tell them I was okay. I caught them all waving in broad strokes as the helicopter turned, pointed its nose down the valley, and accelerated away.
The flight to the heliport was incredibly quick (12 minutes) and incredibly pretty. I had never been in a helicopter before, let alone one skirting a beautiful landscape of mountains, creeks and streams. We cleared a final ridge as we exited the mountain terrain and the horizon broadened in an instant. With distant views of Lake Te Anau and the Fiordland mountains in the distance we cruised above the Mararoa river and the sheep and dairy pastures along the flats before Te Anau.
We landed, John braced my leg and ankle and got me onto a stretcher before loading me into the ambulance for the short drive to the medical centre in Te Anau. That is where Stephen, the doctor, assessed that my injury was more than a sprain. Likely a break, so he called for some x-rays.
That’s when I met Fay. Another remarkable, kind, adventurous soul.
Fay did my x-rays. She is a nurse, and x-rays are part of that job in the small medical clinic in Te Anau.
As she worked the x-ray machine, we got to talking about what I was up to, and she shared her own Te Araroa story. Turns out, Fay and two friends completed the TA in 2007, before it was an official trail. As one of the members of the Endless Step Club, she was one of the earliest pioneers to attempt what is now the Te Araroa walk. They are acknowledged as such in the Te Araroa book.
The x-rays confirmed a break, and after some consultation it was decided to cast my ankle and send me to a specialist in Invercargill the next day for further assessment.
Surgery was a possibility. Gulp. I was terrified by this prospect. For the first time in this journey, even during the events of that day, I had only in that moment felt any true sense of fear. I felt for a moment the weight on my soul, the burden of anxiety that this journey had helped me shed so successfully until then.
In Fay’s presence, though, I pulled myself back. Drawn by her positive energy and generous nature.
I returned again to what was in front me. Not what could be, but what was. I was calm.
Fay offered to take me wherever I wanted to go, but offered more than once to take me to her home. I took the offer.
After a short drive out of town, we arrived at the top of a hill and a house overlooking Lake Te Anau and the mountains beyond. Fay and John settled me onto the couch, put a beer in my hand, and gave me a few moments to decompress and enjoy the view before dinner. We talked over dinner about the TA and Fay shared some of her experience doing the walk over a three year period.
Before bed, I took some time to lighten my pack, happy that Fay and John would be able to make use of some of the hiking food and fuel that I would not now need before I left New Zealand.
This was the moment that the reality of my situation truly sunk in. My plans were out of the window. I would not be finishing this journey anytime soon. I needed a new plan.
By the time I awoke the next morning, March 28th, I had my new plan.
I gave Fay a hug of thanks before boarding the 7:15 am bus to Invercargill. The driver made sure I had a back row of seats to myself so I could stretch out and keep my foot elevated the whole two and a half hour journey. Then he arranged for a taxi to take me to the hospital.
And then I waited. And waited. And waited. Some x-rays were taken. Then I waited more. And more. For six and a half hours. Sitting in the emergency room waiting area until a specialist could find the time to look at my x-rays, come to some assessment, and meet with me. Thankfully, Netflix happened to have launched its service in NZ just four days earlier, and my Canada Netflix account worked. Seated with me was another man with the same cast as I had. Same leg. Same crutches. Same wait. He was a surgeon from the UK. He had the same break, only had accomplished it by mountain biking in Queenstown. He shared a quick rundown of what the surgery could involve: pins or plates, general anaesthetic or spinal block, catheters or longer recovery time. This made the clock move slower…
I was called in first. At 4:30 pm. The surgeon was happy with how my break was “placed” and felt with 90% confidence that surgery would not be required. As a precaution, a senior surgeon would review my case the next morning before a final decision was made. I would be admitted overnight and prepared for surgery in case that was called for in the end.
Upstairs in the surgical ward I settled in with two roomies: Sid and Steve. They were hilarious and charming company who were dealing with really serious conditions, way beyond anything I was facing.
As I went to sleep that night, these two were yet another reminder that there was so much more to be grateful for over the past two days then there was to mourning the abrupt halt in my walking.
Come the morning of March 29th, I got the news I wanted: no surgery. I was directed to rest and to stay off my feet, would be scheduled for two weekly follow-up examinations, then would be fitted with a lightweight cast appropriate for travel, which I would have to wear another four weeks. A final assessment, removal of cast, and physiotherapy would happen back in Canada.
This was the best possible outcome.
I texted Bobby, who I knew was in town (he completed the walk two days earlier and was resting). Hoping that our hobo friendship bond would compel him to help me check out of the hospital and get settled. He answered right away, we talked, and agreed to coordinate once I was actually released. It was mid-afternoon before that happened (healthcare is a slow process here) but Sid and Steve helped the time pass with more fun conversation.
Bobby arrived, the paperwork was signed, taxi was called, and by 4:30 pm I was checked in for a week long stay in a room at the budget-friendly curiosity that is the Grand Hotel, and settled in a comfy chair at Waxy O’Sheas, beer in hand, watching the cricket world cup finals. Later in the evening, Bobby and I were joined by more familiar faces: David (TX), Serina (CAN) and Graeme and Colin (NZ) and Isobel (CAN) who walked the South Island portion and who I met for the first time.
The Grand Hotel is hard to describe, it is modest and oriented to extended stays, which suits my needs over the coming 10 days. It operates like a rooming house, basically. Its best feature, though, is the company of walkers who are staying here right now: Kenzie and Cam (CO), Graeme and Colin, David, Serina, Isobel and Bobby. Half a block away is a hostel where some other walkers are crashing.
It is comforting to know in these circumstances that people here have your back. Not just other hobos, either. By early this afternoon, March 30th, I had groceries delivered, prescriptions filled, mail packages retrieved, and was comfortably settled into my room for a full day of rest. Later in the day I will meet up with walkers who finished their journey today (David, Serina, Graeme and Colin) and celebrate their accomplishment. I am proud of them, just as I am grateful that they have been part of my own journey.
So. Where do these events leave me? And where do they lead?
I am left feeling fortunate and grateful for the past four days. One thing went wrong, but so many things went right:
Weather: I was hurt on a clear, warm day. The wait on the hill was comfortable and comforting. No rain, no wind storm, no worries.
Landscape: A cool stream was ten feet from where I fell. I was able to treat my injury immediately. The hill where I collapsed was in the open and visible to searchers.
Technology: The Spot device worked as it was designed. I was rescued in very short order, despite how long the wait felt at the time. Also, Netflix caught up to NZ just at the right time!
Healthcare: I paid a modest fee to the clinic in Te Anau, but otherwise it appears that the costs will be nil.
The Injury: No surgery! This could have gone so many other ways. All worse than it did.
My Journey: This journey has never been just about the walk. The enlightened moments I have sought from the outset have come to me in many ways and means before the walking was done. I know that hasn’t happened for others who have finished the entire walk. In most respects, the only piece left was the actual walking. I already got what I wanted most from this.
The Mileage: This injury happened at the end of the journey. There’s just a wee nub left to complete. Had I had this injury earlier, I would be challenged to imagine how I would find another 3-5 months to come back to complete it. As it is, I just need to find 8-9 days to wrap this puppy up.
People: More than anything, the people. The ones who waited calmly with me on the hillside; who jumped out of a helicopter; who took away my fear and then took me back to their home; who made me laugh on a hospital ward so I forgot where I was; who carried the weight of my pack because I no longer could; who looked at my cast and gave me the hug I really needed; who fetched my groceries and medicine; who answered my hobo call. All of those who not only made me feel cared for, who also made me feel cared about.
This leads to my new plan. I acknowledged in an earlier post that my plan would adapt going forward. That is true now more than ever. My new plan has four themes:
1) Rest: The doctor (and my injury) have dictated that I spend the next two weeks doing nothing. I will have my feet up, reading and watching Netflix (!) and trying to eat healthy in Invercargill until April 8, and hope to celebrate with the walkers who complete in that time. I will make my way to Wellington between medical check ins, before departing New Zealand. I hope to meet with Rory while in Wellington, and to visit the Te Papa museum. Also drinking some awesome local beers!
2) Recover: Thanks to a kind offer from my friend, Scott Lazenby and his wife, Deb Cummings, after leaving NZ I will be recovering and recharging in the sun for a week in their cottage at Bloo Lagoon in Bali.
3) Reconnect: From Bali, I will travel home via Munich, where I will reconnect with my Doppelgänger, Alex, who has invited me to stay at his home for a few days. I look forward to our discussion immensely. I hope to call in and see Jorg at that time also. And hoist some Bavarian beer… Returning to Canada by this route means I will end up circumnavigating the globe.
4) Return: I will return to NZ and finish the walking this year. Early in the morning on March 28th, before I left Fay and John’s house, I went online and booked a flight to return to NZ in December. I will start where I stopped March 27th and finish the trail before this Christmas. I have already taken my pencil to the schedule laid out in my Moleskin and updated the dates for these last days of walking. My resupply list is drafted. I will carry the same gear and wear the same clothes as I have up to this point.
In the months ‘til then, I will heal and regain the strength I will need.
This has proved a most fortunate break in my journey. For which I am stronger and grateful.
It is a break, not an end.
This is not the last blog post. But, it is the last for a while. There will be a couple of more posts, in December, to capture the last days of the walk.
Here’s a video of the rescue, shot by Joss: