That moment when Life hears your plan, and laughs. Photo: Stuart Fleming

sat with my back against a tree trunk, right leg resting on my pack, elevated to relieve the swelling of my shin. Water from my sodden shoe tickled as it ran along my leg — the rain had been relentless — but at least the ground was a mat of pine needles and the branches afforded some shelter as I considered my options.

I was knackered. I had just walked twenty-nine kilometres along the verge of Canterbury’s State Highway 72. It’s called the ‘Inland Scenic Route’ but there was nothing to see except car after car full of families making the most of the ANZAC holiday, pulling boats and caravans and trailers. The road-spray from countless tires was blinding, so I had spent the day head-down, trudging into a southerly wind. I wasn’t even on a road I had intended walking, which just added to the frustration of being saturated and in pain.

It had been a long journey to this point, starting months earlier on Moorhouse Avenue in Christchurch.

I had parked the car but couldn’t bring myself to get out. Tears wet my cheeks and I thumped the steering wheel in exasperation. Leaving the house — my girlfriend’s house — minutes earlier to go to work, our parting words had signalled the end of our three years together. The thought of spending a Friday dwelling on breakup details made me feel nauseous, so I phoned in sick and drove home. The ‘what now?’ conversation was amicable, and necessary; we agreed I would find a place of my own over the weekend and move out when I could.

At 4.35am the following morning, 4 September 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook the city.

Her house didn’t collapse or crack. The garden wasn’t drowned in liquefaction. We followed Civil Defence instructions and stayed home, watching our social media feeds fill with photographs of toppled chimneys and ruptured roadways. There were no fatalities but there was, in an instant, a housing shortage in the city. My job had been in home financing — with the subsequent lock-down on lending until the banks determined new loan criteria, I was left with no hope of income in the foreseeable future.

Single, homeless, jobless — this was a time to make a sensible decision, to settle down, to consolidate for the future. I had just turned forty and still owed money on my car, credit card, and overdraft. My ‘mastermind’ buddies, however, had a different definition of sensible to me. The seven of us had met up each month for two years, providing support and guidance for each other as we made work and life changes. They knew I dreamed of hiking Te Araroa, the national walkway stretching 3,000 kilometres from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

“Why not do your walk?” suggested Jennifer. We were all sitting in her lounge, discussing in turn our post-earthquake situation.

“Good idea!” agreed Ged. I was sleeping in his spare room until I found someplace else. “I can help you with the planning, if you like.”

Vicki was nodding. “No better time than now,” she said.

“But I don’t have the money,” I complained.

“I bet it’ll take less than you think,” Jeff said, “You’ll sort it out.”

My brain churned with the implications of the idea.

“There’s not enough time,” I countered. “The summer season is almost here and I’m not ready.”

Andy shook his head. “You are fit. There is time. Do it.”

Even though logic was telling me to get a job and play it safe, my heart was eager for the outdoors, drawn to the solitude and physical effort. I left Jennifer’s with sweaty palms and a nervous smile; I had honoured my intuition and agreed to breathe life into my dream.

I was going for a walk.

Planning expedition logistics takes time. The only way to get walking fit is to walk, which takes time. I squeezed it all into a manic seven weeks and started my solo trek on 21 November. I hopped off a tiny aeroplane in Kaitaia, where I was met by a friend of a friend who drove me to the Cape Reinga lighthouse. I watched the swell of the Pacific Ocean battle against the Tasman Sea currents, then, squinting as the sun dropped, I left the hilltop. I walked a short distance along Te Werahi Beach before finding a sheltered campsite. As I pitched my tent for the first time I was hit with an overpowering feeling of déjà vu — my soul had been there before. I was completely alone, yet I was certain I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I wrote my journal:

This is it — on my way. I’ve started. I’m giving it a go. Yay me!

Te Werahi Beach — the first night on New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail. Photo: Stuart Fleming.

I woke the second night with my tent dazzling as if it were midday. Peeking outside, an oversize moon hung on the Tasman’s horizon, lighting up the landscape. It lured me back to the damp sand of the beach, where I stepped into the shallow water. The only sounds were the beat of the waves and my contented breath.

It took three days to reach Ahipara, by which time I had a decent blister on the ball of my foot. A needle and thread was enough to lance the sore. I was more fatigued than I had expected to be, so, playing it safe, I took a rest day before heading into the rugged Herekino Forest. Five walking days later I was in Kerikeri with an aching shin: I was averaging thirty kilometres [18.6 miles] each day, and had far too much weight in my pack. Again, it was mutual friends who offered me a bed and shower, so I took a couple of days in Kerikeri to rest and reassess my load.

The stretch to Paihia was just one day’s walk away — twenty kilometres [12.4 miles]— but far enough for another blister to form, even beneath a blister-protection pad. The next morning, the abscess on my heel was too big to fit into my shoe. I hobbled to the doctor. He lanced it, cut away the dead skin, layered it in gauze, and prescribed antibiotics — the flesh was already infected. No wonder my journal entry that day was:

Feeling a bit low and sore and hesitant and uncertain…

A couple of days after the doctor cut my blister open. Photo: Stuart Fleming

The physical hammering my body had received in just two weeks was hindering the simplicity of the adventure. It was mentally invigorating to get up each morning knowing that the only thing I had to do that day was walk, but behind that lay a dichotomy. Part of me wanted to complete the trek swiftly — to get to Bluff and say “Done!” That part wanted to walk long and hard, and found sitting around waiting for my foot to repair itself stressful. That part scoffed at the physical discomfort, and was worrying about the financial situation, nervous that twigs and berries would be the menu before long.

The other part of me knew I needed time to heal. It wanted me to take it slow, to enjoy the journey and the solitude. This part was questioning my self-imposed ‘success criteria’ of walking the length of the trail in one go — no detours, no backtracks. The restrictions I had set for myself were stifling my creativity, and making me miserable. So, I tweaked the plan: to see whether I could create a continuous line of footprints from end to end, even if that meant jiggling the route a bit.

With the decision made, I took a bus from Paihia to Auckland, where I stayed with a friend for nearly two weeks. This gave the crater in my foot time to heal, I received physiotherapy on my shin, and eased back into the trek with three day-walk segments of the trail through greater Auckland. Having a definite plan again felt healthy. A week later I was in Hamilton, having pushed hard — even walking on Christmas Day — to reach the national Scout jamboree, where I had a volunteer leadership role. After the event, I got a ride back to Paihia. My body was now feeling stronger; I only needed one day off in the middle of fifteen walking days to fill in the missing 356km [221 miles] to Auckland. The continuous line of footprints was restored.

Once more, the generosity of friends made the trek possible: I was given a lift from Auckland to Hamilton, to pick up the trail where I left it at jamboree. A fortnight later, I had walked another 450km [279 miles] — Te Kuiti, Pureora Forest, the Tongariro Crossing, Ohakune, Pipiriki — to reach Whanganui (nine kilograms [19.8 pounds] lighter than my original bodyweight) where a couple I knew through Scouts had offered a bed.

The day I had selected to rest in the riverside town, to plan the next leg of the trail, was 22 February 2011. This was the day a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch at lunchtime, killing 185 people and injuring several thousand.

People in other parts of the country phoned me within minutes, making sure I had heard the news. I switched on the television: updates were just starting to air and the reporters were spooked. The Canterbury Television building — where, before I embarked on my trek, I was interviewed about my plans on the Good Living programme — had been reduced to a pile of rubble. City Mall had been enveloped in a cloud of dust: was Dad amongst the chaos? I knew that my brother had arranged to take my elderly father that morning into hospital for a check-up, and sometimes Dad liked to call into Ballantynes department store on the way home. Were they caught up in the mayhem of the central shopping precinct?

Phone lines were down. I couldn’t reach Dad, either brother, or my sister. I sent frantic texts. I phoned repeatedly. It felt like I was holding my breath.

Social media told me that my ex-girlfriend’s house had again stood strong; she was okay. Finally, at midnight, I sighed with relief on learning that all my immediate family were rattled, but safe.

The television was still on the next morning. New video footage, shot from a helicopter, showed the Christ Church Cathedral without its spire. The image knocked the wind out of me, forcing me to sit and stare. How could I justify continuing my adventure when my home had forever changed?

I received text messages: It’s just as well you are not here. Keep going, finish your dream. You give us hope that everything will be okay.

But what if there’s another big tremor and I missed the chance to hug my family one last time? What if I get to Bluff and feel I wasted energy which could have been spent rebuilding my community? I was torn.

Each day is a series of choices, and I chose to keep walking.

Nine walking days later I dipped my toe in the icy water of Wellington’s Island Bay, marking the end of my North Island expedition. It was anti-climactic. There was no-one around, no fanfare, no pats on the back. No wide-eyed wonder at the seemingly superhuman achievement of this mere mortal. It took effort to remind myself that I’d just walked the length of the island. Yay me.

Looking after my body meant I was taking more rest days than first anticipated. I averaged twenty-six kilometres [16 miles] each day I walked, but the rest days were leading me away from the warm weather. The leaves were changing colour by the time I had traced the top of the South Island and reached St Arnaud on 1 April.

Two days into Nelson Lakes National Park, I had walked through rolling tussock, dense native bush, and rocky mountainsides. I had scaled the Travers Saddle — 1,787 metres [5,862 feet] above sea level — to get to Blue Lake, or Rotomairewhenua, which is reported to have the clearest natural fresh water in the world. The quality is no doubt due, in part, to the torrential rain which kept me cooped up for a day in the nearby Department of Conservation hut. The mountains were silent the following morning; the rain had stopped, but now snowflakes were wafting. I decided to venture forth and assess conditions as I went, reasoning I could always turn back to the hut if the flurries got too bad.

I should have called it quits within an hour, before the head of Lake Constance. Conditions were windy, bitter, and it was snowing more heavily, making walking over the rocky terrain dicey. Through the occasional thinning of the cloud cover I could tell there was blue sky just above the murk, so I kept going, hoping it would clear. Settled snow was getting deeper. I’m good climbing up, I thought, plodding on. Four hours after leaving the warmth of the hut I reached the 1,870m [6,135ft] Waiau Pass, the path over the Spenser Mountains which separate the Tasman and Canterbury regions. A gale was almost blowing me off my feet, and I could only see one snow pole marker either ahead of me, or behind.

Why would I want to turn back? Photo: Stuart Fleming

My risk analysis must have been numbed by the cold because I continued, descending into the unknown of the almost-whiteout. The sharp downhill was winding and icy. I slid down some steep sections on my bum, using my limbs as brakes, afraid I would pick up speed and rocket over a drop. My fingers lost all feeling in wet gloves. I kept shuffling downwards and emerged from inside the cloud — at last I could see where I was heading. I slipped and slithered until, breathless with gratitude, I reached the valley floor and the soggy banks of the Waiau River.

The Department of Conservation recommends having snow-craft experience for this section, and at least carrying an ice axe. The Te Araroa website describes Waiau Pass as “a demanding fair-weather route.” It’s also a stressful crap-weather route.

Now I was racing autumn. In the next twelve days, I covered 264km [164 miles] — Boyle River, Lake Sumner, Harper Pass, Otira, Arthur’s Pass, Lake Coleridge — and only had one rest day, in an attempt to make up time.

The picnic area in Lake Coleridge village had numerous ‘No camping’ signs and the lodge, where I had hoped to find a bed and a hearty meal, was closed. And it had started raining. A local chap, Hugh, was walking his dog. I asked him where it would be alright to camp.

“There are trees across from the community hall,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that’s council land. Otherwise, my place is nearby and I have plenty of lawn.”

Relieved, I waited for a lull in the wind and rain then pitched my tent under the trees. My breath was visible in the morning. The hills on the south side of the Rakaia River — the hills I was due to be traipsing into later that day — were covered in snow.

More snow, right where the trail was leading me. Photo: Stuart Fleming

This time, I took all day to carefully deliberate. My risk analysis erred on the side of caution, and I changed my plan: instead of sticking doggedly to the trail and heading alone into snowy mountains, with an unfavourable weather system looming, I would walk the road which should be a quicker and safer way to get further south. I would set off again the following morning.

Just before dinner, a green Toyota Landcruiser pulled up beside me. A lady got out.

“Is that your tent?” she demanded.

“Hello. Yes.”

She crossed her arms. “Well, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Pardon?”

“You will have to leave town. There is no camping anywhere in the village.”

“That’s strange. I was told those trees were on council land, so it wouldn’t be a problem if I stayed there.”

“No — there is no camping allowed. I saw your tent there late last night but I thought you were moving on. Since you haven’t, you have to leave town.”

“That’s a real shame,” I stalled, calculating what chance I had of winning this standoff. “This is a beautiful place. I would have thought a camping area would be really popular and…”

“We don’t want to encourage that kind of behaviour. It causes litter and noise.” She wasn’t budging. “You cannot stay here.”

I sighed, and gave up.

“All right then. Give me half an hour and I’ll be gone.”

Satisfied that her job was done, she drove off. Two minutes later I knocked on Hugh’s door.

“Mind if I use a patch of your back yard, please?”

“Sure. What’s wrong with under the trees?”

I explained the encounter.

“That’s why I want nothing to do with the resident’s association,” Hugh lamented, shaking his head. “Sorry about that.”

Four long days of roadside walking later — Rakaia Gorge, Mount Hutt, Mount Somers — I had carved a 2,300-kilometre [1,429 mile] line of continuous footsteps. But I was sitting alone on pine needles, sheltered from the rain, with my throbbing leg elevated. I knew I was in trouble. Some friends remained encouraging, sending texts: You are almost there! You can do it! Keep going! They didn’t realise I was still seven hundred kilometres [435 miles] from Bluff — a very long way. My leg was presenting me with yet another choice, though the decision was actually very simple: after eighty-eight days of walking, my trek was over.

I arranged a ride back to Christchurch, where a doctor supported my conclusion: “With the tendons inflamed to that degree, you were likely to suffer permanent damage if you had continued walking.” She prescribed me “intense rest”, but my mind wouldn’t relax. The city was very different to the one I had left, and it held the ruins of my relationship and career — why wasn’t I blowing on the dice and starting somewhere new? Because the walk showed me that Christchurch is home and, despite being a bit broken, deserved another chance. I relaxed into recuperating and began, along with the city, to rebuild: I secured a new job and apartment; cleared debt; met Miss True Love, married her, and became a father. This fresh life was unveiled by my walk. I am grateful for every kilometre.

My son has just celebrated his first birthday. Instead of simply closing his eyes for his afternoon nap and going straight to sleep, he rose to stand at the cot railing forty-seven times. I gently laid him down on his mattress forty-eight times. I didn’t know if my repeated actions would lead to sleep, or give him the kinetic energy for a full innings plus extra time. The uncertainty of the outcome almost devoured any confidence this first-time dad had.

Being a father is scary. So is having Te Araroa scratching at my subconscious, willing me to trek once more. The thought of setting off to extend my continuous trail of footprints seems contrary to the lifestyle I now enjoy. How might it impact my family if I make a serious mistake in the South Island back-country? Seven years have passed — how is my body now likely to hold up to the physical rigour of seven hundred kilometres [435 miles]? To attempt, and not reach Bluff, is an outcome I’d rather not consider.

The flip side, however, is crystal clear: what better way for my son to learn that dreams sometimes take more than one attempt, than seeing his father have a crack at the final section? Hell, he and my wife could even be the support crew I didn’t have the first time and, in a camper van, join me in a big family adventure.

Best I step away from the keyboard and go for a walk through my treasured city; I need to get fit if I’m to be a good role model.

This piece was crafted in 2017 for my Massey University Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Creative Writing. You’d be right if you guessed I was not the youngest in my class.

Dad of one son. Helping tween and teen boys (and their parents) confidently navigate puberty, porn and sex. http://www.stuartfleming.com

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