Thursday, March 28, 2019

Walk 4 Life - North Island

I don't think most stories are meant to start in the middle, but unlike most stories, this is my story.

Actually, this is only part of my story, and I say middle because I am writing this about halfway into my biggest adventure yet, which is to walk the entire length of New Zealand, following something called the Te Araroa Trail.

At the moment I am sitting in Slatey Hut, near the start of the Richmond Ranges, at the top of the South Island, waiting for the weather to clear so I can continue. I finished walking the North Island a couple of weeks ago, and I think now would be a good time to share that part of this adventure with everyone. 

I began my self challenged walk of New Zealand on the 18th of November 2018, because I saw an 80 year old man on the front of a news paper doing it, and thought to myself 'that is what I have to do next'.

The story behind why he inspired me is a little bit longer, and interestingly that story will come full circle by the time you finish reading this. Let me explain.

That story began when I was inspired to cycle the entire coast of New Zealand (something I have done twice) after seeing a 60 year old woman on TV, run 60 km's to celebrate her birthday, and it was whilst watching her that I thought I should be able to ride a bicycle as far as she had run.

I could not stop thinking about it.

Eventually I decided to do something about it, and by following that initial thought, by cycling the coast of New Zealand that first time, I effectively set myself on my current path, which is to promote the beauty I see within New Zealand, using images I create, and help New Zealanders in a variety of circumstances, whilst doing that.

When I saw that 80 year old man doing the Te Araroa Trail, I got exactly the same feeling as when I saw that lady on TV, and I knew straight away that I just had to do it.

The plan (for lack of a better word) was to hike from one end of New Zealand to the other, following New Zealand's longest walking track, the Te Araroa Trail, and then do something on Stewart Island once I had finished, weather permitting, with no previous hiking experience.

I have learnt that by doing something good, something good will happen, and so I decided whilst hiking to raise awareness for mental health and depression, plus support my friends at CanTeen.

The Te Araroa Trail is a 3000 km collection of tramping tracks, and a variety of links to those tracks (including roads, beaches and rivers) that take hikers from the top of the North Island, to the bottom of the South Island. 

Interestingly, I have not done any hiking before I started this, and as challenging as the North Island was, it has been what I am calling 'practice' for the South Island, which is meant to be even more challenging. 

The actual North Island section of the Te Araroa Trail is 1688 km's, and that part took me 108 days to complete. To do that section according to my fitbit (which I am using to record my adventure) I covered 1868 km's, and walked 2,709,129 steps. In other words it was a bloody long way. 

First up I should mention that, for a variety of reasons, I do not like the walking part. I actually hate it. There are so many easier ways to get from A to B as far as I am concerned. Having to carry everything I might need on my back, from place to place, makes the walking part difficult. 

It is an even bigger challenge for me because I can not physically walk as far, or as fast as most other hikers each day, and that means I have to carry more food etc, which in turn makes me even slower, because my pack is heavier, thus making what I am doing even harder.

Originally, I set myself a timetable that I was trying to follow, a timetable that was with hindsight probably a little unrealistic. A timetable that quickly became obsolete when I permanently injured my left foot by hiking in boots that were not designed to do what I am doing, but because I didn't know what I was doing, I kept walking in those boots thinking I was the problem, and not the boots.

Add into that equation a couple of years ago I broke my left leg at the knee, and then refused to let that heal properly because I had other things I needed to do, there are a couple of major reasons I do not like the walking part. Walking mostly hurts, and sometimes it hurts a lot. I probably wouldn't hate the hiking part as much as I do if it didn't hurt so much doing it. 

The interesting part is had I been able to walk a bit better, I probably would have been able to complete the North Island on schedule, maybe even sooner, as I arrived in Wellington just four days after I originally planned to get there, limping pretty much the entire way.

My departure from Cape Reinga was in itself a challenge. I hadn't done any real preperation. None. I literally just showed up, and started walking. I knew I would have to figure it out, but more importantly I believed I could do it.

I have met people on this journey who have spent years preparing to do it, but I didn't even sort out the gear I would begin with, that was mostly done by a very nice lady named Judy, from Outside Sports in Queenstown.

Originally, I went in to ask if I could give her some money each week, so when the time came I could afford to buy what I would need, but when I told her my story, and why I was going to do it, she offered to get her suppliers to help me. 

At the time that was ideal. I had no idea what I would need, and there were so many other things I had to sort out before I could even begin to think about what I was about to do. Having someone help me sort out the gear I would need, to do something that I had never done before, that was almost too good to be true.

With hindsight, I should have been more proactive in researching and securing what I actually needed, because once I started hiking I quickly discovered that what other people think you need, is not always the most appropriate thing to use, especially on an adventure as epic as this one.

As previously mentioned I have cycled around the coast of New Zealand twice, and before I did my origional bike ride, I built the bike I used from spare parts (mostly because I could not afford to buy a proper bike) and what I built was created to do what I needed it to do. That bike made it around New Zealand, towing a trailer. Twice.

When a company gives you stuff, they will give you what they think you need. They will generally give you the best stuff that they can, they will give you what their brochue tells them is suitable, and more often than not they will give you what you require, but sometimes what you actually need, is not what you get. 

Sometimes it is only experience that can educate a person enough to know what is actually required in a given situation, and without that personal experience, you sometimes have to rely on others, and sometimes they get it wrong. Sometimes they get it very wrong.

A good example of this was my boots. The boots I was given were very heavy leather hiking boots. Expensive boots that hunters and trampers all over the world use happily in a variety of tarrain, and conditions, daily. I was told they would be the boots I would need, and that they would do the entire Te Araroa Trail. They were however not designed to walk on roads for any length of time with a backpack. They also probably aren't meant for beaches, and a few other places I took them, but because I thought my feet were the problem, and not the boots, I kept walking.

I kept walking until I could not physically walk any further, then once I had taken a day off to recover, so I could again stand and walk on my bruised, blistered, swollen and damaged feet, I continued until the same thing happened, two more times.

Some days were much worse than others, I definitely tested the theory that I would give up mentally before I destroyed myself physically.

I reached Auckland before I realised that the boots I was wearing, I should not have been in, partly because I saw what people who doing the same thing were wearing, but mostly because I couldn't physically walk in them any further. 

I still had to try to continue my adventure, there was never any question about that, but now at the same time I also had to repair the damage that had done to my feet. 

I could only do this by trialing different shoe options, which definitely helped, but as I did this I also discovered that my left foot would remain damaged, causing me pain for the entire trip, and probably beyond.

I was prepared mentally to complete this damaged. I even joked once or twice that walking might even kill me, it almost has, twice, but we will get to that shortly. I knew going into this that by doing what I had set out to do, and the way in which I had set out to do it, that it was possible that I might get hurt, and that I may even get seriously hurt, but I would do this regardless of any injury I received, if i physically could.

It will take something major to stop me completing what i have started, if I have to limp the entire length of New Zealand then so be it, and so far as a result my inexperience, I have limped most of it.

Cape Reinga was my first day hiking. It was my first day wearing boots whilst carrying a heavy backpack, and as a result I could not hike very far before I would need to sit down to recover, and then I could continue to hike a bit further.

For most people it is the mental challenge of doing something in isolation, from what they normally would be doing, that is the biggest challenge when doing something on a scale like this. I have cycled New Zealand twice. I have spent the majority of my life on my own, and so unfortunately I probably do isolation better than most.

For me this is like an adventure within my isolation, an opportunity to again do something good, to take a few photos, and share my beautiful home, with family and friends, from all over the world. For me the biggest challenge is definitely the walking. 

So walking down Ninety Mile Beach was challenging. It was meant to have taken three to four days, but because I am so slow it took me seven. The road section between there and the next track was even harder, because by that stage my feet were sore, very sore, but before I began I committed myself to walking the entire length of New Zealand, so I had to walk the roads. I just had to do all of it.

Some people hitchhike the track link (road) sections. I don't. I have done all of it.

Every single step was difficult. Every single kilometre was a challenge. Some tracks were more enjoyable than others, but that is mostly due to the scenery, and the people. I love the scenery, and I love the people.

The Northland section was as scenic, as it was challenging. The interesting part is people told me that it would get easier. The kinda funny part is that it didn't. The more I walked, the more my feet hurt.

There were highlights. My favourite parts of the North Island were when my friends, and/or family joined me in a variety of ways for parts of the trail. I had originally set up my walk so that I was as close to my birth mother's place as I could get on the 25th of December, thinking that it would be awesome to spend Christmas Day with her, and that part of my family. As I got closer and realised that I was not going to be there on time because of how slow I was, I started enjoying what I was doing less and less. 

Thankfully, I have some incredible friends who realised that I would be spending Christmas Day on my own again, they came to get me at the end of the day, took me home and fed me, gave me a gift another friend had sent, and then the next day instead of just dropping me back off where they had picked me up from, they walked that section of the trail with me. They reminded me that dispite the fact what I was doing was being done mostly by myself, I was never truly alone. 

I have said it before, and I will say it again. It is these people that inspire me. It is these people that allow me to do what I do, and I could not do anything that I have done without each and every one of them.

Auckland was special. After Christmas with friends, it was my sister and her partner that went out of their way to make sure that by the time I had left Auckland, I knew that not only were people following what I was doing on social media, but that they all genuinely cared about me.

I even got to see my birth mother, her husband, and a few other members of that side of my family as a result.

When I needed it the most there were people who supported me. When I was at my lowest it was these people that gave me the strength to continue. Ultimately this made me even more determined to not only continue, but complete what I had started. I was now doing this as much for them, as I was doing it for me.

After Auckland, and a renewed sense of energy and purpose, I headed towards Hamilton, and an overdue visit to a couple of my favourite people in the entire world, my birth father, and his wife.

For those of you who do not know the rest of my story, I met my birth mother when I was 21, and my birth father when I was 22. When I met my birth mother, it all happened so quick, that when I was asked to leave I felt that it was my fault it hadn't worked, like everything else up until then. It took a year before I decided to meet my birth father, and I deliberately went into that relationship not expecting anything from it.

The interesting part about that was I received more in not expecting anything, than I had received in any other relationship up until that point. It was like he accepted me instantly. I didn't have to do or be anything other than who I was, and as a result that gave me the confidence to move on from everything that had previously happened in my life. That allowed me to continue to want to be me.

I love spending time with all of my family, but I especially love spending time with my birth father. Hamilton was my home for quite awhile after my first bike ride, so being able to visit there so soon after all the good things that had happened in Auckland, was quite simply perfect. I actually wished I could have stayed longer I enjoyed it so much.

My birth mother and birth father are from a small town in the middle of the North Island called Taumarunui. I have passed through there numerous times as I visited other parts of New Zealand. I have been there with both of my birth parents, seperately, for funerals etc. (the most notable being my grand father on my birth mothers side) but I have spent very little time in the place that I was conceived.

After Hamilton and all the good things that had happened, I was really looking forward to getting to Taumarunui as a result, and seeing more of this place that meant so much in my life, more than I had ever seen before. 

I met so many awesome people in Taumarunui, in such a short time, and many of them knew people that I have mentioned thus far. It was truly awesome to get to spend some time there. Typically I wanted to spend even more time there than I actually could. 

Life has allowed me to be a part of so many people's lives, and I am grateful to each and every one who has been a part of mine.

The next section, the Whanganui River, was very special. It was a way for me to acknowledge the passing of a friend the previous year.

Keith 'Chief' Haare died whilst guiding a trip on a river in Queenstown, and I decided the moment I was going to walk the length of New Zealand that I would do the Whanganui River section, which is one of New Zealand's great walks, in memory of him.

There is a story I tell people about the time I worked at Queenstown Rafting and Chief and I had to delay the bus I was driving from getting to the river that day for an hour. The way I did that was to take everyone to a well known bakery in Arrowtown, and buy everyone in the bus a pie.

The customers were all in their wetsuits ready to go rafting so no one had their wallets with them. It was agreed that they would all repay me when we got back to the rafting base, but unbeknown to me whilst on the river Chief jokingly told them not to, and so they all thought it was funny not to repay me.

Every time I saw my friend since that day I would remind him that he owed me 19 pies, sometimes I would do it very publicly. It became quite the joke between us. 

He was loved by everyone who knew him, and I considered it an honour to do 177 km's of the Whanganui River with his name on the side of my kayak, in one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand.

I even managed to set my kayak on fire once in that river, something I think very few people can say that they have ever done.

The kayak I was given was an ocean and river kayak so I sat on top of it, rather than being inside it. There were four tubes that allowed water which got into the part where I was sitting to drain from the kayak, and after scraping everything in the river that I passed over, whilst navigating the 200+ rapids I encountered, one of the tubes came away from the bottom of my kayak, allowing water to fill the inside of the kayak and sink it almost instantly.

It was Watangi Day, a public holiday and so I had limited options. I could wait 36 hours for a jetboat to possibly come up the river, I could swim to the other side with all my gear and walk to the nearest house, or I could try and fix it. Obviously I was going to try and fix it.

I had with me a gas cooker and a few items that were plastic, so it just seemed logical to melt plastic into the bit where the hole was. To make sure it was sealed properly I got inside the kayak and melted plastic from the inside but ran out of what I was melting so I turned of the gas cooker and left it inside the kayak to go get some more plastic, and when I returned and put my lighter through the opening, I discovered rather quickly I had not turned the gas off properly and filled the kayak with gas, which I instantly turned to fire with the lighter. The funny part was dispite a huge flame, and a few synged eye brows, the kayak was completely watertight for the remainder of my time on the river.

It was nice to give my foot a rest from walking whilst on the river, but all too soon it was time to head towards what would be my greatest challenge in the North Island, the Tararua Ranges.

As previously mentioned this is my first, and probably only time hiking. Walking along a beach or over a muddy hilltop is one thing, but scaling a mountain range that has killed people is completely different thing all together. The Tararua Ranges have killed many people, and it was the final part of my hiker training before I arrived in Wellington, and completed the North Island.

I was mostly nervous because I didn't know what to expect. I had hiked over heaps of mountains to get to this point, and this was surely just another mountain I had to cross to get to where I wanted to go. 

It was, and it wasn't. The Tararua Ranges almost killed me. Twice.

I thought I had done everything right prior to beginning the climb to the summit. I had even asked a local guiding company if they thought the weather was suitable for me to cross when I planned crossing, and was told yes, but I still found myself on the side of a cliff hanging on by my fingernails in pouring rain and howling wind, yelling at myself not to let go.

I still had to set up my hammock in that same pouring rain and howling wind because I couldn't safely make it to the next hut.

I still had to spend two days in the pouring rain and afterwards I question why I would ever want to put myself in a similar situation ever again.

Life has a funny way of reminding me that where I am, is where I am perhaps meant to be.

My life has taken me into the lives of so many people, and it is through their eyes that I have grown into who I have become, but it is who I really am that I am now trying to show everyone, and even though there is a part of me that would not wish my life upon anyone else, it is the life that I have had that has brought me here, to somewhere positive I think I should share.

So, with that said, and my arrival in Wellington imminent, there was one more person that I needed to see before what had become a very personal journey of the North Island would be complete.

That person was my adopted brother, someone who I grew up with, and cared about more than most. One day I hope he understands why I left New Zealand, why I felt I had to leave and allow him to grow into who he became, without me interfering in his journey any more than I already had as we grew up together.

I love spending time with all of my family, which hasn't always been the case. I think as I have grown up I have learnt to accept my life being a little bit different than most, that my challenges have taken me longer to understand and accept, mostly because there are three sides to my family. My birth mothers side, my birth father's side, and my adopted parents side. I now understand that all are equal parts of who I am, and even though I only I get to see parts of my family occasionally, I have learnt to love them equally, that is just how it is, but for a variety of reasons, I rarely see my adopted brother, which annoys me.

Thankfully, he and his family joined us for lunch before I left Wellington, and that in itself became a well deserved moment, the completion of a chapter I guess you could say. A moment shared with people who over the years I have come to realise are people who do love me, like I perhaps always wanted them to. 

Sure, it's not always perfect. It's not always how I imaged it should be when I was a child, just wanting to just be loved like I thought everyone was meant to be, in a way everyone deserved to feel, but I have learnt nothing is ever perfect, that there is only perfect for each other, and my life, in that moment, was perfect for me.

It has taken me a long time to figure out that my adopted parents have been through everything that I have been through, and without them I would not have done, or become, who I am today. Dispite everything I have been through I can honestly say that I like the thought of what tomorrow may bring.

The North Island ticked most of the boxes as far as who I wanted to share this adventure with, and this could only have been more complete had I been able to somehow involve the friends who I grew up with, people whose stories I carry with me everyday, but I was still thankful the three parts of my family joined me, and that somehow allowed me to realise that what I am doing has become something more than just something good I am doing for others. I now feel what I am doing is also good for me. A spiritual journey of self discovery perhaps, though probably more the definition of who I am in my own life, rather than a search for a new me, maybe even just something that I needed to do so that I can continue uninterrupted to write my own story.

The trail itself has had its highlights scenery wise as well. I have loved being able to take photos and share images of some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen on this adventure, places that I felt within the context of my journey only I can see.

Not all of my images are pretty. I often tell people that what I try to capture is not what most people will be able to see.

I have a habit of being somewhere, looking at something, and within what I feel at that moment in time, I see in my head something I make the camera show by turning a few dials, and adjusting a few settings.

More often than not an image I see in my head combines a scene and a feeling, and I have a habit of making that combination more beautiful than it might be if someone else were to stand behind me and look at the same thing. I guess because for many years I always looked at things so negatively, and now I try and show people the light from within my own darkness.

Depression for me is like being trapped in a dark room, and sometimes in that room there is the smallest amount of light, light that comes from somewhere I don't yet fully understand, but somewhere that is a part of me.

Sometimes I don't like it. Sometimes I block out the light and try to enjoy the isolation I have created within my own dark space. Hidden from the outside world around me. But sometimes I like peeking out into that light and imagining what my life would be like if I wasn't surrounded by darkness.

I often as a result see things a bit differently when I capture images to share. The interesting part for me is, as I learn to show people more of what I want to share, the more people are enjoying my images. It's like the more of me I put into them, the more people connect with them, which is pretty cool.

The almost funny part now, as I think about all of this at this moment is, ever since I picked up a camera I have thought that I had to learn how to take images like everyone else does, that there was a formula I needed to discover that all good photographers had mastered. It is only now that I am realising that there is no formula for me to master, all I have to do is to learn how to show people what I want them to see.

I just have to show my light from the darkness and all I have to do is be me.

Some of my favourite images as a result came during or after moments on this adventure that I have mentioned above.

There are other important moments I have not shared here, moments like when an image I shared on this journey won first prize in a competition, or when I met an incredibly attractive woman in a uniform with silver and blue eyes. I have saved another man's life, met many amazing, talented people, and spent time with different friends, and family. All of these moments are very, very special.

But. There is one more moment that I must share. It is my most recent, and perhaps even my biggest, single moment of them all. A moment that completes the circle, and nicely joins everything we have talked about together so far.

I mentioned near the start of this blog how this chapter of my life began. I talked a bit about how I saw a 60 year old lady on TV run 60 km to celebrate her birthday, and how that had inspired me to do everything that I have done since.

That woman's name was Bernie Portenski. She died in 2017 after a brief battle with ovarian cancer. I never met her, I just saw her on TV, but I am told that she did want to inspire people.

I was also told she took up long distance running after a colorful approach to life, because no one thought she could do it. Apparently she was given the nickname 'water girl' by the men in her life who had taken up long distance running before her, when it became popular in the 1980's, and she did not like that nickname.

Judy, at Outside Sports in Queenstown, helped me partly because she knew her. Judy was the one who told me that Bernie had recently passed away, when I spoke with her about how I had been inspired to ride a bicycle around New Zealand all those years ago.

Apparently Bernie also ran 65 km's on her 65th birthday, and I am guessing inspired many others, as well as me.

The biggest, and I think best, single moment of this massive adventure I am on happened in Havelock, at the top of the South Island, just before I entered the Richmond Ranges.

I had started the South Island by doing the Queen Charlotte track, and once that was complete I was in the supermarket in Havelock telling a lady there about what I was doing, and why, when a woman behind me who was listening to our conversation mentioned that there was a woman who loved running that would be very interested in my story. She said that I should stop I and see her after I passed Pelorus Bridge. 

I typically brushed it off, saying she probably would not be interested in me because I didn't actually like the walking part. Most people I met thought was a novelty because I didn't actually enjoy hiking, but was walking the length of New Zealand anyway. Most serious runners etc. didn't really have a lot of time for me as a result.

I didn't really think about it anymore. I left Havelock the following day after I got my hammock repaired, and charged up all my eletronics. A friend passed me in his bus as I was leaving town, I saw him stop at a coffee shop so I turned back to go see him, and we chatted a bit before I actually left.

Once I had left though, a car pulled up along side me on the outskirts of town, and a woman asked if I was the fella walking the length of New Zealand who didn't like walking. She introduced herself and then told me that the woman who had inspired me was her aunty. 

She wanted to walk with me, and did so for about 10km, listening to my stories as we walked. She told me that she had herself been through depression, and then offered to meet me at the end of the part of track that I was on, and maybe have dinner or something, because she had to go get her car, and pick up her kids etc. 

It was a bit surreal, but incredibly good at the same time. I had just meet the niece of the woman who had inspired me. It was really awesome how we met at a point in my story where I had ticked so many boxes in the North Island, and the South Island had just begun.

She did meet me at the end of the day, with dinner, which I ate with her 3 beautiful kids, who I gave my last three CanTeen bananas to, before she invited me to stay the night at their place. I met her partner, and the following morning ate pancakes for breakfast, before I began the next section of my walk.

To have been able to share what I was doing in that moment, with someone so closely related, and I also guess inspired, by the same person who had inspired me, to do everything that I had done since, was definitely the best moment of my biggest adventure so far, and something I had to share with everyone here. 

It was quite simply the perfect way to begin the South Island.

I am unsure if in this life I will get to tell you the beginning of my story, or even if I will get to choose how I want it to end. I just thought you might like to hear the bit in the middle, the bit that has brought us to here and now.

My life is full of challenges, I've just chosen to try and do something positive despite the challenges.

The coolest part about what I am doing is that I have seen more of my New Zealand than I ever would have seen had I not done this, and best part is I now get to share all of it with you, whilst raising awareness for mental health and depression, supporting my friends at Canteen.

Next up... The South Island.

Kia Kaha Aotearoa.


Walk 4 Life - North Island

I don't think most stories are meant to start in the middle, but unlike most stories, this is my story. Actually, this is only part of ...