3,889,333 Steps (2,917 km)

Coal Creek to Colac Bay

This is not the triumphant return that I imagined. Grounded aircraft, broken headphones, Christmas cake and a rowdy group of firemen are reminders of where this journey has really taken me.

It’s been eight months since my last confession.

Eight months to this place.

Eight months to this moment.

To start where I finished.

To finish what I started.

I booked and confirmed the flight with Gaven, the owner of Te Anau helicopters, in April, before I  returned home to Canada. I determined months ago, sitting with a beer in hand and my leg in a cast in Invercargill, that I would not retrace my steps. Thanks to the Spot beacon I used when I was rescued, I had the exact GPS coordinates for us to follow. I would take a helicopter to pick up where I left off.

Gaven picked me up at the YHA at 8:00 am sharp the morning of December 15th and we headed straight down state highway 95 to the Te Anau Manpouri airport. Twenty minutes later I was standing in the hangar as the Squirrel AS350 helicopter was wheeled out. In 10 minutes we’d be airborne.

Trouble was, standing in the hangar, I was already a day behind.

We were scheduled and confirmed to fly out the afternoon before. I had taken a call just after noon on December 14th from Jennie (Gaven’s wife) to confirm a 2 pm departure that day. I was standing on the deck at Fay and John’s about to dig into a lovely send-off lunch, once again taking in the amazing view from their home overlooking Te Anau.

After lunch Fay drove me to the airport, but first, cut off for me a huge piece of homemade Christmas cake, wrapping it up as a calorie-dense snack for my journey.

The drive to the airport was a quiet one. I was excited but also a little overwhelmed by the reality of the moment. After many months of preparation, travel, physiotherapy and healing, I was minutes away from my return. This was happening!

Pulling into the parking area in front of the hangar, we jumped out of the car as Fraser came forward to introduce himself.

“Did you get my message?”, he asked.

No. I had not got his message. To conserve battery for the next few days I had put my cell on airplane mode once I had got off the call with Jennie.

“We’re scratched. The winds are too much. We just heard from some fellas who were back in the Takitimus this morning. They say its too much to land safely.”

Knowing the winds were a factor, we had already agreed on taking a slightly larger helicopter than originally planned. But these winds were even more than that “bird” could handle safely. Turning on my cell phone as we were talking, the series of Fraser’s text messages and voicemails lit up the screen.

Curiously, I wasn’t disappointed in that moment. I was reassured, knowing that whenever I did get to fly with these guys, it would be in complete safety.

“All good. The weather is what it is. What about tomorrow?” I asked.

We agreed to aim for a 9 am departure the next morning. I would get a call around 7 am to confirm.

We hopped back in the car. But before heading back to Te Anau, sensing that I was primed-and-ready for a walk, Fay suggested we explore some of the lower sections of the nearby Kepler track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, on which she had once worked as a hut warden. It was a lovely two-hour consolation, getting into the forest for a few hours with Fay as a guide, sharing her love of the mountains. Then it was back to the YHA in Te Anau to consider changes to my walking schedule that might make up the lost half day (or more) on the trail.

I caught up on some sleep, and was up and ready early the next day when Gaven called ahead to confirm the wind was cooperating. We were a “go” later that morning.

Fraser is the other pilot that works for, and with, Gaven. As we shared a cigarette break that morning – at a safe distance from the fuel tanks and aircraft – he talked about his two years abroad living in Wetaskiwin (Canada) flying helicopters to chase down and radio-tag elk and caribou herds for Parks Canada. Later, he walked me around the Squirrel AS350, pointing out some features. I nodded knowingly without any real understanding of what he was talking about.

This was their biggest helicopter, I got that much, which I was getting for the same price as the mid-sized one we were planning on yesterday. Upgrade. Nice.

He tucked my walking sticks under the seat, pointed at the back seat and told me to hop in.

Seatbelt for me. Check. Seatbelt for my pack. Check. Headset. Check.

Switches were flicked. Lights went on. Rotors turned. Just like that. We were off.

The return flight to the Takitimus was much shorter than I remember my rescue flight being. That is perhaps an aspect of the shock I was in at that time. As we started to climb over and past the first few ridges, I was overwhelmed again with the beauty afforded from the perspective of a helicopter. Sensing we were approaching Coal Creek, I pulled out my phone and watched as the crosshairs met the coordinates of my rescue. Looking out the window I could see the creak, the tussock-covered hills, the orange markers all laid out below me.

Fraser landed downstream on the same side as I was rescued. On flat marshy ground in the tussock about 75 metres below the point I was airlifted. He jumped out the opposite side while his co-pilot held the controls and opened my door. I grabbed my pack and poles, crouched and stepped a few feet clear from the aircraft. One hand holding my hat to my head, the other offering a thumbs up to Fraser as he got back into the chopper and returned the sign.

Ten second later there was silence, except for the sound of the creek and my own breathing.

I was beginning to stiffen in my crouched position. I stood up, but the ground around me was horribly uneven tussock clusters surrounded by pools of water. Cautiously, I threw my pack on, adjusted the straps, grabbed my poles and started walking. I have never in my life walked so slowly and cautiously as those first few steps.

Slowly. Gradually. I gained some pace, but walked tentatively right up until I reached the approximate spot where I was rescued. Halfway up the hill on the far bank of the creek.

There I stopped. Planted my poles. Removed my pack.

I stared back to the spot on the far bank of the creek. I grabbed the waistband of my shorts, exhaled a long breath, and urinated in a proud stream into the wind, claiming this territory as my own.

Then I had a quick cigarette and checked my map and the time.

It was not yet 10 am, so I figured I could make up the lost mileage from the day before and sleep at Telford Camp that evening. It would be a 28 km day across some tough terrain, but it was doable. Throwing on my pack, I cued up some music and put my earphones in to set a pace for the day.

Nothing.

I unplugged the earphones and plugged them back in.

Nothing again.

I fiddled with the wire a little.

Again. Nothing.

I had taken to not listening to music at times in this journey but fell out of the habit when coming off of long road walks and alpine sections. Five days of walking ahead of me now without music or a podcast to listen to is something I could not fathom. Not willing to waste more time fiddling with a lost cause, I stuffed the earphones into my pocket and marched on.

After 20 minutes I stopped thinking about it. I fell into rhythm with the sounds of the trail. The wind in the trees, the variety of bird calls, the whispers of creeks and streams as I approached and passed, the crunch of gravel under my feet, the tap of my walking sticks, the squish of mud. I appreciate now that half of the joy of a forest is its sounds and smells. What you gain in the alpine for views you lose to the wind in smells and sounds. The days ahead would be richer thanks to the broken earphones. Perhaps when I got to the long beach and road walks ahead I would replace them, but they would not be missed in these next few days in the forest.

Still walking cautiously, it was noon before I arrived at the Aparima Hut. A light rain had started just as I approached. It was a nice hut, well cared for.

Outside were a pair of walking poles leaning against the wall. Inside was Rod.

“Do you have GPS?” he asked, sort of frantically in a New Zealand accent.

“Yeah. I use my phone.” I replied.

“I am a little lost. I left this hut this morning and missed a turn. Just spent three hours walking in a circle.” Rod explained.

We agreed to head out together and find the correct track after a quick snack and drying out. I would place Rod in his mid-60’s. He is a Kiwi, and like me, he was walking the Te Araroa southbound. Like me, he started the walk the previous year, but got injured. Like me, he took the time to heal and returned to the trail to finish what he started. He had stopped and restarted at Wanaka, about three weeks walk behind.

To meet another walker in my circumstances was extraordinary in my mind. To meet them on my first day back on the trail was even more exceptional. An amazing and unpredictable meeting for us both.

After we finished our snacks we set out again into the rain. Rod led the way and this time he found the path on his own. I walked slowly for a time behind him as he disappeared into the forest ahead of me. After an hour or so, the rain stopped, and I came upon a tent fly, rolled up neatly, lying on the middle of the trail. I tucked it into my pack in case I came upon the owner, otherwise I would leave it at the next hut, the Lower Wairiki Hut, which was not far away.

Shortly later, I came upon Rod taking a break ahead of a long ascent. I asked if he had lost a fly? He didn’t think so. I pulled out the one I found. He rifled through his pack. Yes. It was his. We figured there were no walkers for days going south on this trail. He  might have lost another day walking back from Wairiki Hut to find this lost fly had I not been trailing him that afternoon. Good save!

I passed Rod on the following ascent and said my goodbye (sadly not a so-long), wishing him a safe walk. He was not aiming as far as Telford Camp that night, so I would likely not see him again. I trust that he finished the walk safely.

Shortly later, I stopped for a snack and signed the intentions book at the Lower Wairiki Hut, leaving a note for Rod. Around 3:30 pm, I began the long ascent to the Telford Tops, emerging from a tiny break in the trees to a windy ridge overlooking an expansive valley below and glimpses of the ocean. I stood and stared. Walked the ridge for 10 minutes. I stopped and stared, again and again, as the path undulated along the ridgeline for two kms, then slowly descended towards a pastoral valley to the Telford Camp, arriving around 8 pm.

The Telford Camp sits on a flat spot of land in an open pasture beside a creek. Exhausted, I set up my tent facing the valley above and settled in just before some light rain began. Sitting cross-legged in my tent, I gazed up the valley as I prepared some spicy ramen and peanut butter for dinner, reflecting on a magical first day on the trail. Grateful for the opportunity to be back in this special place and optimistic about the days ahead.

Although I woke up at 5:30 am to the welcome and familiar sounds of “the birds”, I allowed myself a late start on December 16th – owing to the long day of walking I had put in the day before. Besides, it had rained over night so the tent could use some time to dry. I had lots of daylight ahead to cover the 31 km walk to the Twinlaw forest, where I aimed to camp that night. I lingered in my tent for a few hours, reading and staring out at the scenic valley in front of me. Soaking it up. Basking in that moment and everything that was involved to get there. I packed up and started to walk around 8:30 am, feeling chipper, confident and excited.

The rain began about an hour later. It didn’t stop. The day’s walk was uneventful, easygoing and calm as I walked under cloudy dark skies beside small streams, through sheep pastures and along quiet farm roads. I chose not to stop very much, owing to the rain and cool weather. Walking keeps you warm. Stopping makes you cold.

By mid-afternoon I began a final steep ascent through sheep pasture to the start of a series of forestry roads in the Twinlaw forest – a densely treed commercial forest. Following the roads for about an hour, I eyed a nice tent site on the side of the road, about one km before the entry point to the Woodlaw forest.

I preferred not to camp in the Woodlaw owing to the wetter native forest floor, so I elected to stop walking – despite the cold and wet – and set up camp. Without the benefit of any break in the rain, I put up the tent, collected some questionable water, and hunkered down. No longer walking, I was starting to feel the chill and beginning to shake.

Before 5 pm, I was stripped out of my clothes, huddled in my sleeping bag and nursing a cup of hot soup and scarfing down Fay’s calorie-rich Christmas cake (which was amazing).

I was desperate to get warm and tried my best to stay dry, but my tent was full of wet gear and the rain simply did not let up. I listened to some podcasts (sans headphones) for bit, but that got stale. Bored silly listening for a sign the rain might chose to let up, I fell asleep well before 7 pm, immediately after an early dinner.

I just wanted the day to end.

Sadly, everything was wet and damp the morning of December 17th. My tent. My clothes. My sleeping pad. My sleeping bag. My pack. Everything that wasn’t in a dry bag was soaked through.

And the rain kept coming. Lightly, then in heavier waves. Then lightly. Then heavy again.

I stared at the roof of my tent, patiently. Waiting. Waiting for a break in the rain. Just a small one so I could pack up my gear and go without getting any wetter.

I gave up at 8:30 am and packed up in the rain and started to walk, aiming to cover 25 km sometime before sundown. The morning was a leisurely walk through some pretty native forest on a nice trail, spilling into farmland. The rain stopped an hour later, just as I exited Woodlaw Forest and reached the first farm road. I rested there and took the opportunity to shed some wet layers and put on some fresh socks before the long road walks ahead of me for the day. This stretch of trail crosses a wide valley to connect the Woodlaw Forest to the Longwood Forest, and is pretty much all road of some kind or other: paved highways, farm roads and forest roads.

The next 15 km were uneventful and mostly easy going, walking in on-and-off-again rain, past and through sheep and cow pastures before stopping mid-afternoon for an extended break at the start of Merrivale Road. Here, I unpacked my tent and sleeping bag and strung them on a fence to dry. All under the watchful and curious eyes of a 100 or so deer in the pasture on the other side of the fence. It was fascinating to sit and watch the large number of them behave as a single pack – stopping, staring and moving again as one.

With some dry gear in hand and the sun on my back, my morale improved as I enjoyed the last couple of hours of walking away from the farms on the valley floor and uphill on a forest road to the beginnings of the notoriously challenging Longwood Forest. As the road became steeper as it climbed the mountain, I became a little concerned about where I might find a suitable campsite. I had no specific plan for that night. No campsites were noted in the trail notes for this area, and there was nothing remotely suitable presenting itself between the gravel road and the dense steep-sloped forest on either side. I collected water and continued on as the road became steeper yet and dark clouds began to fill the sky once more.

Turning yet another corner, just before the road’s end, the forest receded on a flat ridge where a number of flat and grassy 4wd tracks poked their way into the forest from the edge of the road. The spot was exposed, but sheltered from the wind. With eyes to the sky, I quickly set up camp and hung my damp clothes to dry a little in the breeze.

After dinner, the clouds receded and a low sun poked through the trees, warming the inside of my tent, lighting it with a warm orange glow. Comfortable, dry and calm, I leaned back and read my book, feeling recharged and optimistic about the day ahead. I fell asleep shortly to the sound of birdsongs and curious bees circling my tent.

An early sunrise greeted me bright and early on December 18th, a reminder that the summer solstice was just a few days away. By 5:30 am, I opened my tent fly, made myself a coffee, and lingered in the morning sun as the birds chirped. Such a welcome contrast to the morning before! I was in no hurry this day and was happy to kick back and let the sun burn the dew off my tent before I started moving.

A couple of hours later I had everything packed and marched off to the start of the infamous Longwood Forest Track. The track was a mixed bag, for sure, but not the grind that I imagined from the warnings of other hikers. There was certainly ankle-deep mud in sections, and a number of slippery descents. It had all the miserable ingredients of the Herekino and Raetea forests, but not to the same degree. It was slow going, but completely manageable, and these dark, muddy ascents and descents were broken up by three amazing ridge-top walks in the sunshine with jaw-dropping 360 degree views under a clear blue sky: westward to Fiordland, northward to the Southern Alps, southward to the coastline and eastward to the trail end at Bluff.

I lingered, rested and soaked up the sun and views as I crossed the first two ridge tops, but struggled to navigate on the last and longest ridge as clouds and strong winds blew in, blocking the sun, blasting sleet against my exposed skin and obscuring the trail markers. Beyond that blustery crossing was the shelter of the forest and one last, long and muddy descent towards Martin’s Hut and, the next day, a final walk down to the coast itself.

I took it slow and easy over 20 km, still tuned to the sounds of the forest (still sans headphones) and pulled in to Martin’s Hut around 4 pm. It was empty, as I expected owing to the time of year. After collecting some water and changing clothes, I hung my gear to dry from the rafters and seriously considered whether it might be better to sleep in my tent. Martin’s Hut is old and full of character, but there are holes in the walls and floor, and the open fireplace would keep it cold all night. However, there were zero signs of mice or rats, and this was the last hut on the trail, so I decided to settle in for the night.

As I prepared dinner, I read the hut’s intentions book and the parting comments from all the fellow walkers that had passed through in March and April of this year. It was a special moment afforded just to me, because of the break in my journey, to see everyone’s name listed before me in one place – even the stragglers! I took pictures of every page for posterity and signed my own name before putting the book away. It was 7:30 pm and time to get ready for bed.

Just then, a woman appeared at the door. Nicky, a Swiss shepherd who was at the beginning of her TA walk, heading from South to North. She was tired. I was tired. It was cold and a fire sounded like too much work. We had enough energy to say some brief pleasantries and adjust a few things things to hang her wet gear on in the rafters before we both retreated to our books and warm sleeping bags for the night.

Thanks to the early night before, and the chill of the early morning, I was awake at 5:45 am on December 19th. The hut was colder than the air outside, so I left the door open a little as I prepared some coffee and waited for some sun to break the darkness.

Fortunately, Nicky was also up and as the sun broke we caught up, in ways we had not the night before, as we prepared our packs for the day ahead. We had very different walks ahead of us. Nicky was heading into the forests carrying seven days of food – her first long stretch of the journey. I was doing the opposite today – walking 25 km away from the last hut and out of the last forest in this journey. The days ahead for me would be beaches and towns and a warm bed each night. I shared some resupply tips for later on the South Island – it seemed to be causing her some concern. After an hour, we said our goodbyes (“so long” wasn’t appropriate) and I slipped into my cold, damp shoes and started my march towards the coast.

The first 45 minutes were slick, steep, muddy and cold. It was very slow going until I met up with the Port’s water race, a 20 km well-graded water channel that snakes its way out of the forest towards the southern coast. The trail ran along the channel banks, making for a fast and carefree descent under the first canopy towards sea level. It had its own frustrations, however. The track was an endless zigzag with a number of challenging tree falls to navigate.

My right foot was increasingly tender. I was limping more and more as the morning went on. The pain centred on the face of my ankle. Not at the point of the break, but forward from there, radiating over the top of my foot and up my leg. Unsure what the cause was, I took regular breaks on the hour to ease some of the swelling and doubled down on ibuprofen to ease the symptoms. The pain presented itself most when I was on an uneven grade, with a downslope to my right. I was increasingly anxious, fearing this was some complication from the ankle surgery, which was surprising as I had done more strenuous and lengthy walks back home without any issue.

By early afternoon, the trail bumped up against the fringe of the forest, overlooking green pastures and a clear view of the surf of a Colac Bay and a clear blue sky. At this point, however, the trail dogged right and snuck back into the forest fringe – away from the sun and surf – for a further frustrating seven km in the shade of the forest.

Finally, around 3:30 pm I stepped into the sun and began a stunningly road walk down towards the sea and the village of Colac Bay. Walking on flat pavement now, I loosened my shoes a little to let them dry out a bit more and continued walking. This also eased the pain in my ankle substantially as the blood flow returned to my foot. It appeared that my earlier ankle pain was a pinched nerve – the product of having my shoe laces too tight throughout the day. I had tightened up the laces quite firmly at the start of the day to reduce some heal rubbing, but pinched a nerve in the process.

Within the hour I was seated, bare feet airing in the sun, on the warm deck of the Colac Bay Tavern. A cold beer in hand, basking in the special glow that comes with the exhaustion and accomplishment of completing five days of forest walking.

This was also a time for me to reflect on the changes in my life – and the changes in how I am finishing this journey – compared to where I started 14 months ago and how I last left it in March when I put the walk on hold. So much change, much of it the product of a newfound courage to invite and accept the unknown and uncertain as part of the gamble.

Pretty much all of it unanticipated, unplanned and unforeseen a few months ago:

  • My ankle: In the end, I chose to have surgery in order to maintain an active lifestyle. I now have a plate and screws keeping my tibia together, along with a four-inch scar. It gets tender when the weather changes, but otherwise it runs great.
  • My travel plans: Because of the ankle surgery, I didn’t get to Bali. Nor did I visit Germany as planned. None of that happened. Instead, I focused on post-surgery healing and recovery and getting strong again. That involved physiotherapy, swimming, gym work, and a lot of hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Also, two visits to Halifax to see my daughters, a very quick trip to Bavaria in the summer to meet up with Alex and Jorg as well as two weeks joining Rory in the Northern Cascades as he finished walking the Pacific Crest Trail.
  • My marriage: Corina and I knew before I started this journey that our relationship wasn’t healthy for either us, but we saw no clear path to the exit door. Over the course of my journey we gained the perspectives and courage to move move forward with separate lives.
  • My work: My relationship with work was also unhealthy. Similarly, I found the perspective and courage to make a change and I was fortunate enough to come to an arrangement with my partners to exit the company in short order. After 25 years in an industry I found unfulfilling that paid the bills but left me spent, I am now taking time to carefully consider my next career. I want to focus first on how to make a life for myself and tackle later how to make a living.
  • My gear: I changed some of my gear. My pack is a warranty replacement in a different colour. Same model, but a different pack owing to the accumulated damage of the TA,  several walks in the Canadian Rockies and two weeks on the Pacific Crest Trail. Also, I am carrying a different phone (my daughter Gwen asked to trade) and I added one new t-shirt and two pairs of socks. Otherwise I am carrying all the same gear as when I left.
  • My partner: I have known Linda for some time, and owing to our respective circumstances we spent a lot of time together this past summer. Ours is a new relationship, but it is mature and respectful and brings me tremendous joy and comfort. I am delighted that she is with me on this visit to New Zealand. She is here as a supporter and witness, not as a participant.

As I was finishing my first beer, Linda caught up with me on the deck to fill me in on our accommodations for the night. Having driven up from Invercargill earlier that day, she had agreed to secure a room or campsite at the Colac Bay Tavern for that night in case I ended up arriving much later in the day. Based on what I had heard from other walkers, I figured finding a bed or tent site in Colac Bay would be pretty straightforward given the shoulder season and range of accommodations on offer within the tavern and the adjacent holiday park.

That wasn’t happening this evening. Turns out a large group of “firemen” booked out the place for the weekend, taking every campsite and every room at the tavern. They were a rowdy bunch and were already congregating in the bar. The only available option was “the cottage” at the edge of town, which happened to be free – for that night only.

We finished our drinks and Linda drove us to the edge of town, into a driveway, up the crest of a hill and there it was. Perched on the crest overlooking the sea. The cottage was spectacular! Small and quiet. A modest building perched on Oraka Point with stunning views of the ocean horizon through large windows, the surf rolling into Colac Bay to the east, green pastures of the point to the west, and nothing else. After a quick dinner and a hot shower, I fell asleep before 8:00 pm, dosing off as I stared at the sea in the comfort of clean sheets and a soft bed.

Like the walk over the past few days and the happenings in my life over the eight months prior, this little cottage was not necessarily as expected, considered, or planned for.

Somehow, the aspect of accepting uncertainty – not seeking assurance – makes the reality of something richer. The helicopter is an upgrade, the forest sounds are richer, the Christmas cake is tastier, the tent site is prettier, the views are more stunning, the pillow is that much softer.

Often when you embrace uncertainty, it gives this gentle hug back.

It’s precious. This small space between what is planned for and what becomes.

It is chance. It is fate. It is nature. It is love. It is laughter.

It is life.

There are photos is the gallery and instagram feed accompanying this post.