3,424,000 Steps (2,568 km)

3,424,000 Steps (2,568 km)

Washdyke Stream to Albert Town

I found my balance in the darkness before dawn, perched on a ridge 950 metres above Lake Hawea. 

With dawn came a new day, an understanding of my challenge and an affirming resolution. With this balance, I am able to move on.

Fall has started to arrive and the days start later now, but I continue to wake up early most mornings. The weather forecast said there would be rain the morning of March 7th, starting at 7 am. So, having awoke at 4 am, in a dry tent, I figured I would try and keep it that way by making a quick coffee and breaking camp by 5 am. With some luck, I hoped to make it most of the way toward Lake Tekapo township before the weather turned.

I didn’t have too much luck. The rain came heavy about 90 minutes into the walk, just as I reached the lakeshore. I ducked under a bridge to wait it out for half an hour. Feeling like a troll, I reflected on how Corina and I successfully convinced our oldest daughter, Cobie, at age four, that I was a troll and that made her a part-troll also. She found this unsettling, but fun!

As the rain passed, I headed along the road, adjacent to the lake, and arrived to the township around 11 am. Sitting over BB+E (Beer, Bacon and Eggs) I called the hostel to find there were no beds available for the next two nights – just tent sites. While considering my next steps, into the restaurant walked some familiar faces: Rob and Joss (UK) and Patrick (California). I joined them for another beer and a brief catch-up before strolling over towards the hostel to arrange a campsite for the night, get settled, and pick up some new shoes and food supply I had mailed ahead. As I arrived at the hostel, I immediately came upon MaryLene. Neither of us really expected the other to be there. We started this journey together, and had not seen one another in over three months (since Auckland). Knowing we both had stuff to do, we promised to connect later in the day.

We didn’t get too much chance to connect. Time in towns is often busy with organizing, buying food, writing blogs, laundry, bathing, reviewing maps that the down times are few.

The next morning, March 8th, I packed up and headed out at about 8 am, saying so-longs to the other TA walkers. I had decided to not take a rest day and to instead continue on to Twizel, where I had reserved a hostel for two days later. The walk this day was flat along gravel roads and across mostly open grassland, in the high country towards Lake Pukaki. The views were amazing all along the walk, with the Southern Alps visible on the horizon throughout the day. After a 40 km walk, I settled upon a lovely campsite overlooking the lake with a clear view of Mount Cook behind. An easygoing, well-paced day and a beautiful spot to watch the sun set.

I awoke at 4 am once again on March 9th. And, once again, not taking a dry tent for granted, decided to pack everything up and get going while the going was dry. I was walking by 5 am, once again on a flat road, to the end of the lake, across a dam, then across a flat plateau of grass field leading to the townsite of Twizel. I stopped a lot this day. It was slow owing to blisters starting to develop in the new shoes I had started to wear beginning the previous day. I arrived midday, checked in to the hostel and started to the task of preparing blog post, uploading related photos etc.

That is when I heard about Jemima – the last of four basset hounds we have had as part of our family. At aged 13 years, a recent diagnosis meant her time had, sadly, come. Corina had made arrangements for her to be put down the following day. It is always hard to say goodbye to an animal who is part of the family. I think it was particularly hard for Corina to say goodbye to the last of our dogs, especially when she was alone at home to make the decision and the arrangements by herself.

The next day, March 10th was a rest day, and a quiet day. At 10:30 am NZ time, it was a time to reflect and say goodbye to Jemima, reach out to the family with phone calls, watch videos that Corina had prepared of Jemima’s last days, organize food supplies for the days ahead, and finally – owing to emotional and physical exhaustion – resting in front of the TV and doing nothing for the night. This was a very tough day.

I slept in very late on March 11th, I think owing to the emotional weight of the previous day. It was after 10:30 am before I was back on the trail. In my old shoes for now (I fortunately held onto them just in case there were issues) the days walk was across plateau, through an open valley towards yet another lake: Lake Ohau. This section of the trail is all about lakes and the space in between them. Just after 5:30 pm I came upon a small bay and spotted a tent set up in a grassy patch at the far shore and decided this would be a good place for me to call it a day.

I walked around the shore, and there was MaryLene’s smiling face, poking from her tent!

We had a quiet evening, catching up over dinner, talking about what lay ahead before and after the end of the journey. This was surreal to me, thinking back to our tentative discussions on the very first day of the walk. We had both experienced so much, gained so much of the perspective we were both seeking months earlier. In her responses and her demeanor I recognized a distinct change in MaryLene: a maturity and wisdom that was not there before. It felt good to bear witness to this change, something I might not have seen had we spent more time together on the trail since. I am happy for her and grateful that we had this brief quiet connection on the lakeside.

March 12th started out early, once again. I waited for first light at 7 am, said my so-longs to MaryLene, and continued the walk around Lake Ohau and up into the mountains once again. The walk continued on a wide bike path for a period, then became hugely challenging, hugely steep, and very poorly marked as it rose past a trio of gorgeous waterfalls feeding into Freehold Creek, then through a tussock-thick valley following the Ahuriri valley downstream. This was a real grind of a day. The pace was slow, the walk was long. There were several rain showers along the way, interspersed with breaks of sun and heat. After 12 hours, I arrived exhausted at a forest at the bottom of the valley, happy to set up my tent on flat, dry ground amongst straight lines of pine trees next to a small, clean stream. I was aware of dehydration, and made a note to drink more water the next day. After a quick dinner, I went soundly to sleep. No mice, no rats, no possums, no worries!

Owing to the pest-free surroundings, I slept in the morning of March 13th, not leaving the forest until 9 am. A short way along, the trail involved a fording of the Ahuriri River. This is a major river, and looked truly intimidating despite the confident directions provided in the trail notes. I stopped. Looked. Paced. Stopped. Looked some more. Finally, after 20 minutes I started to wade into the river. It was easy. Took 8 minutes to cross. From there, the trail was super-fast and super-scenic, following an aggressive farm track up to the 1,680 metres elevation of the Mount Martha Saddle. The easy route and good night’s sleep gave my mind some space to be deep in thought throughout this ascent, reviewing many aspects of my personal and professional life. Over and over. From different points of view. Again and again.

Descending the saddle was a breeze also, owing to an aggressive bulldozer track that switched back and forth down the scree mountainside and through the valley. Around 6 pm, I arrived at the thoroughly modern and rodent-free Top Timaru Hut.

Already settled in were Rob and Joss, who were enjoying tea and chocolate ahead of their dinner. We did some catching up, and Rob shared a little with me about what his future plans may be and also the work he had done in Tanzania with Raleigh International, a sustainability charity. I made a note to share this with my younger daughter, Gwen, who is currently studying sustainability at university. We watched Fawlty Towers (the one when the German’s visit – my favorite!) on Joss’ phone as we ate dinner, then we all crashed to bed ahead of dusk.

I can’t explain why exactly, but I felt incredibly strong the morning of March 14th. I awoke at 5 am, prepared coffee and packed in the dark, and whispered goodbye to Rob and Joss as I headed out on the trail at 7 am. My plan was pretty aggressive: to push through 24 km of river walking along the Timaru River and a steep ascent up towards a high ridge and the summit of Breast Hill, then on to the Pakituhi Hut. I felt strong all day. Once again, the steep climbs didn’t exhaust me, and I found myself calmly walking the ridge line towards the summit of Breast Hill before 2 pm. I geared down and enjoyed the leisurely farm track towards the summit under a clear blue sky and cool breeze.

Approaching the summit I was overwhelmed by the vista laid before me: the huge expanse of Lake Hawea, Mount Aspiring and other snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, and a terrace of jagged, rocky ridges spilling down steeply before my feet. It was fantastic. I took off my pack, loosened my shoes, sat on the ground and simply relaxed for over an hour in the late afternoon sun. In all directions, a vista. Only the slightest breeze meant it was quiet. Time was frozen.

My phone pinged with some news from the past week: my sister-in-law, Candace is expecting another son; and a co-worker, Sarah just had a healthy baby girl. I was happy for both of them and happy to receive such positive news for a change.

An hour later I was settling into the modern (rodent-free!) luxury of the Pakituhi Hut. Alone this night with my thoughts and few distractions, after dinner I laid in my bunk and stared out the window. Below me, a tussock-thick valley spilled in all directions. Beyond that, a rocky horizon fringed in the colours of a pink and blue sky: the curtain slowly being drawn across a perfect day.

With a calm heart, I fell asleep in that spot. Ahead of the sun.

Suddenly awake. Laying my bunk, I turned over to stare out the window and down the valley once again. It was 4:45 am on March 15th. The moon was setting, but its pale glow still illuminated the curves of the landscape. With calm anticipation, I rose, had a particularly strong cup of coffee, loaded my pack, swept and wiped down the hut. At 6 am, I shut the door behind me and headed out into the darkness.

I wore a jacket and gloves. It was cold. My headlamp gave me six feet of vision as I poked my way through the darkness, eyes fixed to the ground seeking the subtle cues in the tussock, grass and rock of what was – and wasn’t – the path. About an hour in, the terrain became too steep and too rocky to proceed. There was not enough light to safely continue.

That’s when I stopped. Balanced on a ridge. Safe to stay, but not to proceed. That was the moment when the pieces clicked for me: the essence of my challenge and the source of resolution:

  • My challenge is that I don’t like myself. This self-loathing has tipped the balance in all my relationships: leaving me suspicious, fearful and critical of others in the same way I am critical of myself.
  • My resolution is simply to give: acknowledgement, support, praise, advice, patience, love, truth, smiles, acceptance and space.

Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be kind?

Sitting in the darkness, I held these up against all my challenges. And it worked. My anxieties melted away. Calm replaced fear. Peace replaced resentment. Love replaced anger.

As dawn broke, the pink sky rose above the mountains and illuminated the path ahead. This is what I (quite literally) brought down from the mountain to the shores of Lake Hawea.

In turn, a clear blue sky and full sun warmed me as I strolled into the Lake Hawea townsite. Feeling confident and hopeful – in a way I have never felt before – without the burden of anxiety and fear, I stopped for a coffee and a snack before continuing alongside the Hawea River along a flat bike path into Albert Town, a hostel, a shower, breakfast and a few beers.

I have just now shed the silent passenger I have carried with me all along this journey. At times I have referred to him as “mid-life crisis” or “what comes next” or “gaining perspective”. During the hundreds of hours I have spent walking this trail, the navel-gazing has become a preoccupation: like an existential rubik’s cube I am compelled to pick up each day with only a vaguest hope of solving. Little by little, moments in the past week have brought me to a resolution. And with it, a long-sought sense of freedom to finally escape my head and gingerly unwrap the present that is still left in the few remaining days of this journey.

Over these past five months, in the balance of moments between darkness and light, dusk and dawn, life and death, I think I have now fully found the “peace” in this journey’s puzzle.

Men do change, and change comes like a little wind
that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.

– John Steinbeck