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Slices from Life

Near-Life Experiences: Hiking in New Zealand

Sometimes all it takes is a short break to get away from the stresses of your life to realise you have been too busy to be truly living the life you really desire. Sometimes all you need are some near-life experiences to bring you back to Earth. Keith Lyons escapes city life to find his happy place. 

Abel Tasman National Park. Courtesy: Creative Commons

It was almost midday when I finally started to relax and instinctively know that everything was going to be alright. But before then, things had been a little bit rushed. With just 15 minutes before the flight boarding call, the taxi was still spinning a few blocks away on the Uber app tracker. I counted down the minutes, worried not so much about the high fare but about missing the flight. 

Still half asleep, I kept a lookout from my window seat at the snow on the ridges of the Alps, finding amid the peaks and valleys an emerald alpine lake, impossible to reach. Half-an-hour later after the plane touched down, I walked from the airport to the neighbourhood where I grew up, locating the supermarket, and assembling my late breakfast with provisions I’d bought for the journey: half a dozen multi-grain bread rolls, a bag of salad greens, and a small block of extra tasty mature cheese. Suitably fortified, I found camping gas sold in the hunting and fishing shop, though when I walked out of Gun City having purchased one canister, I got a nasty look from the mother with her young child, as if I had just bought a semi-automatic rifle to run riot in a primary school. Seeking the best cafe in town to enjoy a cup of coffee, I found it further along the street, a man in a wheelchair mobility scooter leaving with a broad grin as if he had been given a new lease on life a good enough sign for me. The owner gave me a friendly welcome and a cafe latte in a real cup. With blood sugar and caffeine levels now elevated, it was time to hit the road, to hitchhike to the trailhead, but some primitive drive kicked in when I went past the pizza parlour, so I gave in and commenced carbo-loading on a 12-inch pizza, justifying to myself that I’d be walking it off. 

And I did walk. First, out of town to the crossroads where I only had to wait a few minutes until a science teacher on her way to pick up her children stopped. She told me about their financial struggles and how a generous government allowance kept their family afloat. She dropped me in the next town, and I ducked into the last supermarket just to cram one more packet of crackers into my day pack. 

It was now early afternoon, and the logical part of my brain was asking why I hadn’t started on the hike, which would take four hours. The other part of my brain reassured me that it didn’t really matter what’s ahead, what was here and now was more important. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun felt hot on my skin. I walked to the edge of town, but with not so much traffic I was tempted to have a handmade ice cream with local frozen berries. By the time I cleaned my sticky hands with sanitiser, I looked up to see another car had stopped for me. A man with no legs. I moved the wheels of his chair further over in the back seat; later I worried he might not be able to reach them when he arrived at his destination. I was almost at mine. 

One final ride, with a former real estate agent who imparted some wisdom: Live your life to the full while you can, don’t wait till you are old, for then it might be too late, and health problems might blight your life. 

Inside, I felt that I needed this. To be on the road. To be travelling again after Covid lockdowns and fears about venturing out. I needed this to look beyond my day job, my family concerns, and my dilemmas with what to do to secure a long-term future. It seems ages ago, but when I woke up in the morning, the first email I had seen through bleary eyes was a quote from George Addair: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.”

I felt buoyed by the interactions, the sharing of truths, and the lifelong lessons. I almost wanted to continue this hitchhiking, this random experiment, at the mercy of the road and its drivers. But I had a reservation for a bunk bed in a park hut, and the holiday I’d planned at the start of the year was now taking shape. 

The trail, the Abel Tasman National Park ‘Great Walk’ (in New Zealand’s South Island) was familiar enough that I felt like I was coming home. I recalled walking part of this track as a child and in recent years I’d hiked sections, including the first four hours. Despite its familiarity, I saw new things, noticed details, and lingered to take it all in. I was in no hurry. So much depended on your mood, your pace, and your company. I took detours down to sandy beaches. I got breathless climbing and climbing and climbing to viewpoints. I stopped to drink the water still cold in my bottle. I sat at strategically placed seats to marvel at the panorama of sea, sand, forest and the horizon. From dazzling sunlight, the route drops into the gloom of forest cover, where I could smell the earthy sweetness of honey-dew on the breeze. The landscape was scenic, but there was more it was doing for my soul. Moving through it was to be immersed in it, to be nourished by the sight, the colours of life, the contrasts, and the abundance of nature. In my head, my soundtrack had songs on repeat, repeat, repeat. Then it skipped to another, to repeat a few times. I needed to upgrade my internal Spotify. I noticed my breathing, and how it deepened. I still had some tension, but slowly it was seeping away, dissipating. Yes, I would like some more of this. Yes, please. 

Every few minutes walkers heading out from day trips or longer multi-day hikes passed by, with ‘hellos’. The Europeans and North Americans invariably walked on the ‘wrong’ side of the trail. Some were seeking suitable places for Instagram pictures. Others clutched the cardboard containers that once held their packed lunch from the ferry operator, looking for a trash bin, despite the notices that everyone must take out whatever they bring in. 

At the hut, most had larger packs than mine, apart from an American who seemed to be staying overnight without any food. We watched him sitting outside using the free wifi, as if he was Googling ‘nearest store’ or finding out if any delivery services worked there. They don’t. The wood fire was lit in the main dining area, and exhausted souls sat around eating camp food and sipping hot drinks. And laughing. It was only just 9.30pm but already half the 30 or so guests had retired to their bunk rooms. There was talk about the need to rise early to take advantage of the low tide crossing, saving an hour or so of extra slog. 

I was woken by the rustling of plastic bags, the clomping of hiking boots on the deck outside, and the hiss of gas cookers preparing porridge and tea. I rolled over and tried to sleep, as I was still tired, a tiredness residual from late nights, long hours working, and the demands of modern life. 

When I finally got out of my sleeping bag and squinted my eyes out at the day, the last of the overnighters were getting ready to leave. I found myself alone. And here I found it. Peace. Stillness. Calm. It is in that place. And it was inside me. 

Framed by the gable roof of the dining hall, through the trees, it was misty across the sheltered bay. The water was still and flat, but I could hear the distant breaking on the shore like a lullaby. I slowly sipped a cup of Lady Grey tea to add clarity. I heard just the twitter of birdsong and saw two tiny birds flit here and there. From a treetop, came the chimes and whirls and clicks of a native bird. Light rain was soft on the tin roof. I was content just to sit and gaze out at the scene, reduced to flat grey tones. I was happy enough just to be breathing the air, which was moist and life-giving. My warm scarf wrapped around my neck gave the embodiment of love, while the woollen hat on my heat topped it off. I was complete.

I felt the need to move, but not to go out in the rain which was getting heavier. Instead, I remembered some Qi Gong exercises, my arms flailing out, torso twisting, rotating. I pulled up energy from the earth below. And with that movement, and in that space, there was nothing I wanted. Just being fully present was enough. It was all I could be at that moment. 

And you. How about you? When will you stop over-thinking, obsessing, and worrying? Just breathe and believe that everything will work out.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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