“Above all do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no one thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it” -Soren Kierkegaard
It was supposed to be the travel of a lifetime; a three month break in New Zealand with my boyfriend, to celebrate the completion of my PhD. I had painfully dragged myself across the submission line, survived my oral examination, and awkwardly tipple tailed out the other side as a Dr, nearly six years in the making. Vulnerable, newly severed from the grounding tethers of academic routine, I was a shipwreck waiting to happen. I did not yet know it, but my relationship would not prove to be the safe harbour I had assumed it to be.
One month into the trip, the cracks in my relationship had bulged into fault lines with seismic activity to match. We were staying at his sister’s house on an isolated island community for the Christmas period. Think, New Zealand’s answer to the Shining. New Year’s Day saw a humiliating, messy, chaotic and very public break up. Surrounded by immense natural beauty, literally dolphins pirouetting in the sun soaked sandy bay, I was living my own personal hell. I would soon be catching a ferry off the island. Alone. Heartbroken. And, that is where adventure began.
I briefly considered flying home. Nope, that would not do. I had always wanted to try multi-day hiking, and the perfect opportunity had arisen. I borrowed some walking boots, and registered onto a ‘Great Walk’ to start in three days. New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ are a series of nine well developed multi day routes, complete with signposts and a mandatory hut reservation system. Read, very hard to get lost and easy to do on your own. I had heard that you had to plan these walks months, if not years, in advance to get the huts and transport booked. I got lucky, and despite the inevitable tears and trauma of severance, I somehow found myself on a minibus to the start of my very first self-supported long distance walk; the Heaphy Track.
Not quite as dramatic as the female protagonist in the movie ‘Wild’ in the opening scene, where she can barely lift her rucksack, but that first day was a struggle. My enormous bag weighed me down, but not as much as my fears. I doubted I could carry my possessions, I was afraid my borrowed boots would give me blisters, I was scared I would not make the distances, I was terrified of getting lost (even though it seemed impossible), I was nervous of bad weather coming in, I was worried about everything. I was alone, there was no phone reception, and I was grieving. On the first day, I focussed solely on putting one foot in front of the other, remaining calm and negotiating with my inner demons. I made it to the hut. My shoulders were red raw. I made dinner. I cheered myself. I cried myself to sleep.
The second day proved a challenge due to torrential rain and poor visibility. I had to negotiate ferocious river crossings, flooded paths, muddy diversions and rain that penetrated even the best dry bags. It was a short day and I arrived at a tiny hut soaking wet, by lunch time, to meet two hikers, a mum and a daughter, drying their clothes next to a freshly made fire. They helped me dry my clothes, made me tea and gave me chocolate. We were joined that afternoon by two other hikers, a couple who hilariously had no rucksacks and were carrying their supplies of chocolate bars and supermarket bought sleeping gear in plastic bags. We bonded on that rainy afternoon and I quietly informed the gang of my recent break up. The next day, we set off on the walk, as a team.
I found myself gazing with wonder at the scenery, excitement rising in my chest, my heart pounding as I bounded along. Together we crossed rope bridges, washed in beautiful streams, shared picnic food and posed for dramatic photographs as the path led us through jungles, across beaches and over moors. When we arrived at the next hut, I declined the invitation to play card games, and instead took myself to the river mouth, where I sat amongst the bleached driftwood. As I watched the gigantic waves crashing into the sunset over the sea, I felt peaceful and grateful to be there. I was glad I did not get that flight home.
The final day of the four-day walk arrived too soon, and I crossed the finish line with my newfound gang, and hugged goodbye, never to see any of them again. Emboldened by my newfound physical and emotional strength, I spent the next six weeks hiking multi day paths. I developed enormous back muscles, a tan, sprained my ankle, chartered a helicopter to get over a landslip, celebrated my 30th birthday on a glacier, met more amazing people, never got a single blister, and healed my broken heart. I bought a one-man tent, and it felt right. I had fallen madly, and hopelessly in love with long distance walking.
Written by Ruth Naughton-Doe: Read her previous article, Embracing Personal Limits. Ruth has been cycle touring in France, Switzerland and Italy since May 2019 with her partner Liam. Since her first adventure cycle experience in Iceland in 2009, it has always been her dream to cycle across the world, but instead she got stuck cycling up mountain passes! Follow her adventures at www.ruthandliamgoplaces.com or on instagram @ruthandliamgoplaces.