Choose your own Adventure

Hiking up Mt Fyffe near Kaikoura in New Zealand's South Island

“Ooh, you don’t want to hike there today.” It was an unequivocal statement.
Actually, yes I did.
“It’s too windy,” said the lady at the Visitor Centre with a note of finality in her voice.
“Oh well, I’ve been hit by wind before!” I smiled jovially, trying to defuse the ominous cloud of doom she’d infused into the air. After all, we were only talking about a three-hour low altitude walk, graded as ‘easy’.
She looked unimpressed though. “You could hire a bike and ride around the town. Or there’s a heated swimming pool.”
I looked at her. She looked back at me. Somewhere between our gazes a subtle standoff was going on though neither of us wanted to fully unleash our differing opinions. Eventually with a disapproving and tight-lipped smile she circled the trailhead on the map on the desk between us.

Crossing the Rangitata River on the Te Araroa Trail

Crossing the Rangitata River on the Te Araroa Trail

I felt like telling her about the last time I was in this town three years ago. Back then I’d been hiking the whole length of New Zealand, a 3000km epic through challenging terrain and often wild weather. Back then I’d left this town for an eight day stretch that saw me wade at least 70 river crossings, follow a trail-less route over rugged mountains, get caught in a snowstorm and holed up in a hut for three nights trapped by snow and howling winds – in summer.   I felt like telling the lady at the Visitor Centre all this and adding, “… so I think I can handle a little wind.”   But I didn’t.

Of course she wasn’t to know my level of experience in the outdoors or what I enjoy doing, but to my mind it would have been far more helpful to tell me that the trail was occasionally exposed, point out that it was a windy day, and then let me decide if I still wanted to go.

It’s not the first time someone in a visitor centre has tried to tell me what I would and would not like. A few years ago I turned up at a ski resort in summer with my top of the range, full suspension mountain bike strapped to the back of the car. I bounded into the info centre for a map and some advice from the barely post-pubescent kid behind the counter in a baseball cap and a T-shirt far too big for him. “Well there’s a trail that goes up the ridge and around the mountain,” he said, pausing slightly before adding, “…but you’d probably prefer the village trail.”  And how do you figure that, twerp?  I resisted the urge to poke him in the eyes and walked back out muttering under my breath.

People make assumptions. We’re all guilty of it at some time or another. It’s a habit we have picked up likely as a by-product of our method of learning-from-experience. Often there is merit in heeding the patterns we have observed over the many years of our existence but sometimes assumptions can get out of hand. Life doesn’t follow neatly set rules. The world is more complex and far greater than that. And we are far greater than that.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-9-18-01-amThe comments made by my pals in these visitor centres were simply annoying but real danger lurks when we actually start to believe what other people say can we can and can’t do. These opinions can come from all directions – friends, family, society, media. Sometimes these opinions, once aired, seep deep into our psyche, quietly dropping into our subconscious mind unchallenged, forever more to be thought of as facts. They might lead us to thinking things like ‘I can’t do xyz’, ‘I’m not suited for a particular activity/challenge/adventure’, ‘this is the way things are’, or ‘people like me don’t do xyz’.

Which leads me to part two of my gripe. We all like different things.   While some of us might prefer to escape a windy afternoon ‘safe’ within the confines of a humid swimming pool complex reeking with chlorine others will prefer to pull on a rain jacket and head out for that hike in the fresh air where the wind will slap you in the face and remind you you’re alive. So that advice we get from others may not be entirely relevant to us.

I may once have said, “Okay Visitor Centre Lady, you know best,” and scrapped my plans for that hike up the Rakaia Gorge. But then I would have missed out on the intense blue of the glacial water flowing over rounded river pebbles, and the brilliant yellow flowers of the Kowhai tree against a brooding grey sky. I would have missed out on the endorphins that running along that cliff top in the rain gave me. And I wouldn’t have traded that experience for an afternoon in an indoor pool for the world.

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It bugged me greatly that, were it not for the fact I categorically knew I could happily hike in windy conditions, I might have missed out on that gorge walk. As I walked I wondered how often we let other people’s thoughts and opinions affect what we do and believe? How many times do we just go with the flow, doing what is expected of us, without challenging whether it aligns with our own beliefs and what we ourselves want?

This concept doesn’t just apply to adventurous activities but to all facets of our lives. Have you ever voiced a dream only to have someone else laugh it off as ridiculous or impossible or perhaps suggest that you ought to be ‘realistic’? I suspect most, if not all of us, has at one point been told they “couldn’t” do something. But in accepting the opinions of others we can sometimes limit ourselves in the quest of finding what is true for us and realising our own goals.

It takes a conscious person to be aware of external influences and not be drawn into them, whether they be verbal comments made directly to us or simply ideas that have filtered into us osmosis-like from the societal soup in which we swim. The question is what will you do? The option that everyone else thinks you should do or the one you really want to do?

Doing what makes me happy!

Do what makes you happy!

You might want to consider other people’s opinions – for others may have knowledge and accumulated experiences that you do not – but in the end I’m all for listening to your gut, being strong in your own mind and choosing your own adventure.

How Hiking Changed My Life

Lewis Pass, New Zealand's South island

Lewis Pass, New Zealand’s South island

My life is so good these days I have to pinch myself.  I have hiking to thank for it.

I live a simple yet rich life and a 3000km walk on New Zealand’s Te Araroa trail last year was the kicker that got me started. After it, fear was largely gone. I realised most fears are largely imagined anyway, a construct of my brain, not something to stop me from going forth. I realised how few possessions I actually needed, and how the freedom and simplicity of a walker’s life could bring previously unknown delirious happiness. The urge to know my heart’s desire and then to follow it demanded attention. The old narrow view of my life expanded to reveal the many possibilities available to me.

Leap and The Net Will Appear

Cascade Saddle, South Island, New Zealand

Cascade Saddle, South Island, New Zealand

I’ve had an amazing journey since that one big hike. I quit my corporate job to follow my dreams and I think I can quite safely say its all working out. In the last six months I’ve done more travel, more stunning hiking, and now – through a chance meeting at a hostel in Wanaka – I have the opportunity to sail from Australia to the Caribbean. And all of this has occurred with never more than four days to four weeks of forward planning.

Cover Girl

Cover Girl

I’ve also had time and energy to focus on my personal goals, getting my first few articles published in magazines and making progress on the job of writing the book about my Te Araroa journey.

None of these amazing experiences and opportunities would have occurred had I stayed seated at the swivel chair of a grey desk in a Melbourne skyscraper.

Leap and the net will appear is a pearl of wisdom I discovered years ago but I’d never really tested it to its full until now. Now that I’m living it I truly believe that if you head in the direction you want to go opportunities will arise that you never could have dreamed of or planned for. As Martin Luther King said, “You don’t need to see the whole staircase, just take the first step”.

Live Simple

As a nomad my living expenses have been greatly reduced. There is no car to maintain, no utility bills, no public transport costs, and a minimal wardrobe to update. My life is uncluttered. I no longer feel pressure or find myself rushing.

Live Authentically

But most importantly I have been able to follow my dreams. I think one of the most damaging ways to live is incongruent with the real you – pretending to be happy when you really wish you were doing something else… being somewhere else. If you ever find yourself feeling this way then I wholeheartedly urge you to take the leap and follow your passion.

Listening to my heart rather than my head has also made life a lot more straightforward. No longer do I need to make decisions based on the complicated weighing up of pros and cons. I simply ask myself does this feel good? Am I excited about it? And for some reason when I follow my heart things work out. Ideas sprout. Opportunities arise. The right people cross my path.

Best of all… its fun!

Gillespie Pass Circuit, South Island, New Zealand

Knowing What You Want

Immersion in nature strips away ‘noise’. I’m talking not just about actual noise, but distraction by advertising, consumerism, media, general city-living busyness, and the sort of brain static that goes along with it all that can prevent us from hearing our own inner voice. Nature provides perspective and clarity to find your own personal truths. Then all you need to do is seize them without letting the fear of ‘what if’ stop you from trying.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? 

The Next Leg: Sailing across the world?small

So I’ve not actually done a lot of sailing. In fact my experience has been limited to a week long family holiday cruising up the Coorong River in South Australia when I was 14 on a 21’ yacht. I have been known to get seasick, I’m scared of waves and I’m wondering how I will cope with a total living space of 42’ x 22’. But being a Box-Ticker with a strong FOMO tendency (fear of missing out), I will board Chat Eau Bleu in a few days time to sail from Mackay around to Darwin and, all being well, I will continue west across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans all the way to the Caribbean.

I will hoist the sheets and trim the sails (or something), and explore the many exciting islands and ports along the way. I will learn new skills and become familiar with all the many peculiarities of living on a boat (apparently no more than three squares of toilet paper per flush).

I’m excited to start the next chapter. Fingers crossed I’m up to it!

Until next time me hearties…



The Benefits of Solitude

View from the Treehouse

View from the Treehouse (my current home)

There is something about this place that induces laziness.

Where the first month was a challenging oscillation between paradise-found and cabin fever, I have more recently found myself surrendering to the slow pace and tiny world that is my island home.   No longer pacing the deck, itching for some movement and variation in my day, I am now more regularly okay with flopping in a hammock with a book.

Being on such a tiny island for an extended period has definitely had its challenges though. Like some mega meditation-marathon I have regularly been forced to sit quietly with my own thoughts, which as anyone who’s ever attempted meditation will know, is no easy task. In these moments I can feel my mind grasping desperately for stimulation and distraction, but finding none, the occasional pearl of wisdom or insight surfaces instead – the benefits of solitude.

The Penthouse, Oravae

The Penthouse (my home for the first month)

In the past I have often likened hiking to meditation – focused solely on my surroundings, my mind empty of other thought – however even then I have more to entertain my brain than on this tiny patch of coral. I’m getting better at it though, the mind having surrendered to a degree, and the laziness that had so frustrated me at the start has now taken a hold, I have slid into island time. Now even to sit upright seems to take great effort. Better to lie in a hammock or recline in bed with a laptop.

An Adventure off the Island

So it really shouldn’t have been any surprise to me that a 15km walk from Gizo town to Saeragi Beach on the main island of Ghizo a few days ago was such a shock to the system, but for some reason it was.  Despite having a significant walking pedigree and being on largely flat terrain, my hammock-softened feet ached pathetically and muscles that I thought had long since given up complaining about walking were back on my case. Barely seven months ago I was a highly tuned walking machine, hiking briskly with a full pack for up to 10 hours a day up and down the mountains of New Zealand. Even up until six weeks ago, my city routine at home included 12km of walking a day as part of the daily commute. My feet just don’t hurt walking now, or so I thought. Just one short month of lolling about on an island seems to have changed all that, and it was depressing to think I might have lost all that hard-won condition.

DSC05074The road to Saeragi, comprised largely of hard white crushed coral, reflected the hot sun and the four hour journey in the searing midday heat was made all the more challenging by a battle with dehydration, sending me slightly cross-eyed. It was tempting to try and utilize the tunnel of tall palm trees arcing over the road for some shade but at the same time, remaining cognisant of the fall line of coconuts. Death by coconut is not uncommon here. The walk was well worth the effort though, and as the road wound its way along the coast I passed many houses and small villages filled with friendly locals keen for a chat.

Island Life

Back on tiny Sepo Island, the days continue to merge seamlessly into one another. Every morning from my bed in the Treehouse I watch a golden sun rise up over the top of Kolumbangara Volcano in the distance, and every night I watch the silvery luminescent glow of tiny worms gliding in slashes and loops across the surface of the inky black water below like the vapour trail of a plane across the sky. The much-feared (for me only) spiders of the island continue to loiter annoyingly on the sidelines of my world, popping up every few days to spoil the serenity. I have a new philosophy though – do not seek and ye shall not find – so I’ve stopped searching the room with my headlight before going to bed, preferring to just focus on where I’m going and trying to avoid wondering what else is lurking in the shadows.

The Book

My mission here, apart from helping the good folk of Oravae Cottage with some business ideas, was to begin writing a book on my New Zealand end-to-end hike. So how is it coming along? Slowly. Despite having churned out 30,000 words so far I’ve come to realise they’re unfortunately not the right ones. It’s all part of the learning process though and as Teddy Roosevelt once said, better to “fail while daring greatly”, and I do not regret having left my ‘safe job’ to try. Having said that I’m not planning to fail, it’s just that success might take a little longer than I thought.

I have just two weeks left here before the next chapter of the journey of a Soul Trekker begins. My life has quite regularly taken radical changes of direction that I could not have foreseen perhaps two months earlier, however I don’t think I have been quite so without a plan as I am now. I have absolutely no idea what will happen after my time on the island is up, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

Stay tuned…DSC05070

The First Week of A New Life – following the dream…

Oravae Solomon Islands

Ten days into my new life on this dollop of sand and coral in the South Pacific and I already feel like I’ve been here a month. I eat, write, swim, eat, sleep in a hammock, write, swim, eat, gin & tonic, sleep. Every day is the same. It’s Groundhog Day, but in the best possible way.

My mind is still clinging on to the old life a little and I find myself referring to my old workplace as though I still belong there.   I guess that’s to be expected after 10 years with the company.  But now my life is following my intuition and heart, wherever that takes me.  At the moment it is Oravae Cottage in Gizo, Solomon Islands.  If you ever want to have your own island complete with chefs, but can’t afford Richard Branson’s Necker Island, this is the place to do it!  (AUD$120pppn will see you through…)  For three months I will write and ‘sing for my supper’, doing whatever I can to help the resort.

Living the Dream

Every day I commit to making progress on my book on hiking the Te Araroa Trail. Some days the words flow, others it’s like trying to get juice out of a hard unripe lime. I’m giving it a go though and it feels good to do that. I’ve let go of the old world, the ‘safe’ normal world that never made me happy.   I’m following my heart.

A work in progress - writing my Te Araroa Trail memoir

A work in progress – writing my Te Araroa Trail memoir

This truly is one small island though, and if I was used to walking 15km a day in the city, I’d now literally be lucky to walk a few hundred metres. My only exercise is swimming and it’s become a necessary part of the day.

Underwater Heaven

As a diver with hundreds of underwater hours on the clock I am absolutely thrilled with the amazing snorkeling right offshore. Inquisitive reef sharks, delicate lionfish, giant iridescent clams, clownfish hiding in pockets of anemones quivering in the gentle current, and hundreds of others too numerous to mention. I could float for hours above it all. And I did on Day Two, burning my poor pale city-girl back in a way that I wont forget in a hurry.

Great fish life is often easier to come by than great corals but in this regard we are again blessed.   The front side of the island, exposed to nutrient rich open waters, is filled with stunning blue staghorn corals, pink mushroom corals, lime green and purple corals and huge round plate corals the size of a double beanbag. Such a tasty feature has unfortunately not gone unnoticed by the Crown of Thorns Starfish and it blooms here feasting on the coral polyps, sucking the life out of their limestone skeleton before leaving them bleached white and dead.

“Pieter” says our island keeper Patson, standing on the balcony of our overwater bungalow one evening. He’s pointing down at a patch of bleached coral below us, clearly visible in the clear water. “See that? The crown of thorns starfish is doing that. If you see one can you kill it for me please?” The next morning a wooden spear appears on our verandah.

Removing the pesky crown of thorns starfish from the reef

Removing the pesky crown of thorns starfish from the reef

A brief snorkel that afternoon yielded a kill of six, carried to shore two at a time on the head of the spear but it was clear “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”. The next day we ventured out again, this time trailing a leaking wooden dugout canoe behind us on a rope. I was uncomfortable at first, taking the life of one of God’s creatures, but after seeing the devastation they have wrought it was clear these guys have to go. In areas the coral has been completely wiped out, leaving white and brown skeletons furry with algal growth where they were once bright and brimming with fish life. One after another we hunted them down, hiding under plate corals or wedged between rocks. Lifting them up on the spear we dumped them in the dugout at the surface. Total kill rate: 46.

Creepy Crawlies

So far I have managed to avoid any major arachnid encounters that I was so fearing. My first evening here was a jumpy affair, nervously reading more into the flutters of the shadows than I needed to. Once lying in bed though with the warm glow of a kerosene lamp bouncing off the pale thatched walls around us, and listening to the gentle lapping of water underneath our floor, it was impossible to feel anything other than bliss.

A few days later though whilst lazing in bed in the morning I gazed up to see a spider stuck to the thatched ceiling directly above me. Eyes wide in horror, I leapt up and ran outside cursing. Pieter gave it a prod, sending it scuttering into the folds of the thatch, which of course didn’t remove it but simply removed it from sight. That seems to be the best we can aim for here. The place is wide open. Geckos and bugs and other small critters come and go through screen-less windows and doors at their leisure.

A few hours after my arachnid encounter I sat with laptop in lap, legs propped up on the bed. Something dark fell from the ceiling and plopped onto my leg sending me into leaping conniptions.   Tentatively poking through the folds of bedding my spider wrangler discovered a small gecko. Thank God for that…

Until next time…


Happy days...

Happy days…


Time to escape

From the moment I returned from hiking the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand my time sitting in an office in the corporate city world was limited.  In the words of wild man Bodhi, resisting arrest at the end of the classic surf movie Point Break, “You know I can’t handle a cage man!”

The Turnaround

When I sat down to chat with my boss at five to five on a Monday afternoon, pausing to find the right words, he already knew what was coming.  “Time to go?”  He’d smiled ruefully across the desk at me and I’d nodded.  An alternative to normality had presented itself to me.  A job helping manage a two cottage resort on a remote island off Gizo in the Solomon Islands.  It’s called Oravae Cottage and it will be my new home.  The island only takes one booking at a time so I am banking on having a reasonable amount of spare time to begin writing my book in earnest and pondering the meaning of life.  Oh and a spot of snorkelling, scuba diving, and hiking up the neighbouring volcano across the lagoon too.

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A New Life

Although I won’t be adding to the bank account during my time there, my quality of living promises to be rich.  Life will be simple but I consider the benefits…

  • swimming in warm clear tropical waters every day
  • turtles, sharks, fish, clams and even dugongs, all just a few fin-kicks offshore
  • fresh clean air
  • time to write
  • free from crowds and noise
  • a far slower pace of life
  • healthy simple food, rich in fresh fish and vegetables

Yes, this definitely promises to offer a life more aligned with my new values and needs. Of course there is downside too.  Actually I can only think of one, but it’s a considerable one in my book.  Spiders.  Quite sizeable ones too apparently.  My skin shivers at the thought every time I imagine what I might encounter in the middle of the night while I head to the loo.

A Challenge of the Eight Legged Variety

The friend who offered me the opportunity to move there several months ago did a wonderful job singing the praises of the island paradise that could be my new home as he outlined living arrangements and what would be required of me.  Just as the deal was nearly done he gleefully added “Oh, and they have these huuuge spiders too!”  He spread the fingers of one hand out wide and placed them against the wall next to our table in demonstration.  Registering the look of horror on my face he immediately started back-pedalling, “oh they’re not that bad actually.  And last time I went there I didn’t even see one at all!”  But the seed had been planted and my heart sunk.  In all seriousness, this wasn’t a matter I could gloss over.  This is a creature known to reduce me to a whimpering ball curled up on a bed, sobbing in horror.  I have been known to drag complete strangers off the street, innocently enquiring how they felt about spiders before asking if perhaps they wouldn’t mind removing one from my hallway.  No, this was not something I could realistically deal with.

My friend’s face fell “Really?”  He was disappointed.  But then I thought again about the other wildlife there – the fish, the sharks, the turtles and birds.  Every day.  Just offshore. In 30c degree water.  Maybe I could find a way to deal with the insects?


Moving Forward

So the next chapter is locked away – three months on a beautiful tropical island, starting 29 October.  I will say goodbye to the city and to my high rise office building.  Say goodbye to writing office policies and procedures that no one ever reads, say goodbye to meetings, never ending corporate planning sessions and other tasks that induce glazed eyes and an empty heart.  I will breathe in the fresh air, follow my passion and let intuition be my guide for the chapter to follow.  I’m throwing it all to the wind and will see where I land.

Of course I am plotting future treks too.  Somewhere amongst it all next year I will do another long distance hike.  To tune myself to the environment again and make sure I’m “keeping it real”.  Out there I can hear my inner voice saying whatever it is I need to hear.

Hopefully I’ll hear it in the Solomons too!


Once started, better to finish…

Comyns Hut – back in the ”good ol’ days’ on the trail…
Coming home was never going to be easy but I guess I didn’t appreciate that hiking the Te Araroa Trail would have quite the impact on my life that it has.  I think I did a lot of my grieving about its ending before I left New Zealand, in the two week long no-man’s land of post-trail, yet pre-return-to-Melbourne.  Calling on the support of other ex TA hikers going through the same withdrawal and adjustment, I sought to find some kind of a path back to what the vast majority of the population refers to as ‘normal life’.
The thing is, now that I’m back I realise with absolute certainty that I don’t want this to be my normal life.    Once again I am surrounded by noise, busy-ness, pollution and meaningless consumerism – all an immensely far cry from the peaceful, simple and happy existence I enjoyed on the trail with my one bag of belongings.  I’m now back In the midst of a crowed grey city with its billboards urging me to buy ‘things’…  things I don’t need, to reinforce an identity I can no longer relate to.
And it’s this stark difference between what was once normal and my new awareness that is now causing an unignorable conflict in my life.  As a Buddhist saying goes on the topic of spiritual progress, “Better not to start.  Once started, better to finish.”
So here I am, back in Melbourne and trying to work out the way forward from here.  If only there were some trail notes to guide me through this final section of the TA trail – the one when you get home.  If there were, they would probably read something like “challenging at times, undulating ups and downs, with plenty of road sections”. 
In the meantime, I get by doing a lazy 12km walk as part of my daily commute to work – thankfully quite a scenic journey along the Yarra River.  And in getting my exercise out of the way on these walks, I have now traded my old lunchtime gym visits for an annual pass at the Melbourne Aquarium, conveniently located right behind my office.  So now I spend my lunch times connecting with nature in a different way, with my nose pressed up against a 26cm thick pane of glass, watching the rays, sharks and trevally glide gracefully by.


And beyond that?  I’m not entirely sure but I’m preparing hard for it anyway!  There is a glut of other long distance trails out there calling me and I need to be ready when the idea and the time arises.  Having suffered two shoulder dislocations on the Te Araroa Trail (unfortunately a common trick for me) I am now back on a strengthening program to avoid a repeat performance in the future.  My colleagues playfully mock my dedication to hoisting red rubber resistance physio bands wrapped around an office door handle, grimacing pathetically at the effort.  At night I’m bench pressing two bottles of Tanqueray Gin (the perfect starting weight for a shoulder weakling like me).
I’m not sure what the future will hold but I’ll be ready for it when it comes!  Fear of the unknown will have to move out of the way.
Looks like I’m in this soultrekking for the long haul.