Over this past semester break I set myself the challenge of exploring one of the most rugged and remote parts of New Zealand: Rakiura, or Stewart Island. To really add to the excitement, I planned to spend 20 days solo in the bush, in the middle of winter.
The outdoors have always been my happy place and a space where I can take time out and reflect on life. Growing up in the country, working through my Duke of Edinburgh's Hillary Award, completing a big tramp at least twice a year, volunteering and working for the Department of Conservation meant Aotearoa’s bush, beaches and alpine environments are my second home. They’re a place I’ve found myself longing for the more time I spend at university and in the city.
Being in my last semester of a BSc I’ve spent far too much time inside studying and forgetting what it’s like to breathe in brisk morning air and take in sunsets from a backcountry hut. So that’s what I dedicated my break to; taking time out for me and trying to let go of a breath I’ve been holding for a long time.
If you were to draw a straight line from the City Campus to the small township on Rakiura, I was 1250km away from home (it took me two planes, a shuttle, a ferry and some decent walking to get to the start of the track). But in all honesty, I could have been on the moon. My longest stretch without seeing another person was 10 days (yes, I did go a little crazy) and when I did see someone else we often just bumped into each other as we walked in opposite directions.
Of the 24 days of the semester break, I spent 21 of those walking, that also meant carrying enough food, gear and emergency equipment to deal with whatever nature threw at me during those three weeks. Walking here is a loose term encompassing battling through kilometres of thigh-deep mud, scrambling up wet banks covered in tree roots or stone, racing high tide along beaches, crossing plenty of rivers and streams, stumbling down a mountainside in the dark or battling through Umbrella Ferns taller than me. To anyone else this might not seem like fun. But to me, after two weeks back in civilisation I can only look back at all those struggles with fondness. Mainly because I remember the sunsets and sunrises I saw, the most incredible stars, the feeling of starting a fire in the hut, getting warm after a long day, climbing Mt Anglem/Hananui and getting 360° views into Fiordland, Bluff and out into the Southern Pacific.
I walked 300km across Department of Conservation Great Walk and Northwest Circuit tracks, beaches, sheer cliffs, rocky shores and scrub. Sometimes I walked on well-defined paths, but more often than not I was waiting for the next orange arrow marking the track while clinging to my map. Between my two and a half weeks solo in the bush and then day walks after I walked out, I had walked 1,068,274 steps, which combined to be the most rewarding and challenging experience of my life.
This trip was a detox. It was an escape from the city and the hustle and bustle of university life, where taking time out for yourself often seems impossible amongst assignments, work, exams and everything else we somehow jam into our days. But taking time out is so important.
For me, last semester was crazy. They always seem to be, but I started Semester One working full-time in a job where I started spending 10-12 hours a day in my office or meetings, struggling to get through a never-ending to-do list. While doing this I was studying full-time, completing research and progressively feeling worse and worse about being in that situation. Eventually I knew I was going to have to do something drastic and change that routine. So I resigned, but I still hadn’t really ‘stopped’ or taken any real time out until the semester break.
Increasingly in literature a link is being made between one’s physical and mental health. For me, I know that if I don’t get into the gym and train every day, I won’t feel good emotionally. That is my time for me. On this tramp I had time to let life sink in, to take stock of where I was and ask those big, scary questions about what I was doing with my life. Having so much time alone let my brain answer those questions in its own time. I didn’t have to worry about people looking at me strangely as I talked aloud to myself as I walked and took stock of the world around me, and the world waiting for me back in Auckland. My brain often does funny things and I’m navigating my own journey with mental health, and sometimes what we need in this crazy, crazy world is to just step back from it, to remember what is actually important to us, what sustains us and grows us and work towards those things.
I had no phone, no internet, lived off the things in my pack and was entirely self-sufficient, making up the track and plan as I went along and defining the physical path of the trip for myself. But also maybe redefining my mental path; feeling happy, comfortable, and content for the first time in a long time.
Who would have thought, huffing and puffing up a hill with a 33kg pack on my back in a thunderstorm, I learnt to breathe again. Standing on Hananui, I would have been one of the most southernmost people in New Zealand at that moment in time, and the only one on that mountain at Rakiura’s highest point in altitude. Nothing mattered except the clear skies and bird song around me. I forgot about my exams, rent, Auckland’s public transport network, politics and emails for a while, and I swear I felt myself let that breath out.