You think you’re just going for a hike, but really you’re learning to be self-reliant, resilient and a decision-maker.
Before setting foot on the Te Araroa Trail, I had no idea that the simple act of walking in nature could be so fundamentally life-changing.
The benefits of ‘forest bathing’ and ecotherapy are becoming increasingly well known, suggesting lowered stress levels and improved memory, focus and creativity. Studies have shown that even just looking at photos of nature can improve wellbeing. Exercise also releases endorphins – peptides in the brain that reduce the perception of pain. Extend all these concepts to a very long tramp and the benefits are amplified off the chart.
But, as I discovered, a long walk in the wild could deliver even more.
To be clear, I was starting from a low base. A year earlier I’d ended a toxic relationship that left me with crippling anxiety and depression, further compounded by the stresses of modern life, an unfulfilling job and a feeling that ‘there must be more to life’. I was barely functioning and self-esteem was at rock bottom. Something had to give.
Then, one sunny November day in 2013 I began walking from Cape Reinga towards Bluff, 3000km south. The girlfriend hiking with me pulled out on day two with an injury, kicking off what was to be the first of many challenges. Over the five months that followed I crossed countless unbridged rivers, gale force winds blew me off my feet in the Tararua Range, I dislocated my shoulder twice, climbed seemingly endless mountain passes, and was snowed in a hut for three days (in summer). Trail markers were at times dubious and, though I found people to buddy up with for many sections of the trail, I never enjoyed the security of a steady wingman.
It was tough. But it was also glorious. It took less than a month for the anxiety to subside. My world was pared back to the simple things: finding food, shelter, water and my way. There was no world news to sully my increasingly blissful vibes, no advertising to remind me of the things that I lacked or of personal ‘flaws’ that needed ‘fixing’. There was no familiar job, relationships or possessions to remind me of who I was; my identity fell away. I often walked alone and, without conversation, I observed my inner monologue slow down too. In the simplicity and space of walking in the wilds, I became a blank slate, and my gut – that inner voice – was finally able to be heard. I got clarity on my life and how it should be, along with fresh realisations about the world around me. Change was inevitable.
Needless to say, my Te Araroa ‘ecotherapy’ experience cured me of anxiety and depression. But in facing and overcoming challenges, I also found the courage and confidence that allowed me to transform my life when I returned home, leading to a change of career, a resolve not to sweat the small stuff, and the self-worth to settle for nothing but healthy relationships. I challenged the status quo that had seen my 43-year old life become stale, and things started improving exponentially. It made me wonder what else I could achieve if I only just tried.
The thing about tramping is that those that do it are immersed in an environment far bigger, more powerful and perennial than ourselves. The natural world puts things into perspective. There is no wasted energy out there, no drama, politics or over-thinking. Nature does what is necessary for survival and, like the recalibration offered by a tuning fork, to be able to align yourself with that kind of simplicity offers a place where life becomes more simple. And, when you don’t waste energy, you free up more of it to use on more positive things such as creativity and problem-solving.
When societal safety nets are gone and we stand alone amid the terrain and changeable elements, things get real. It’s up to the walker to rise to the challenge. Such trials foster self-reliance, resilience and decision making. We face fears and overcome them, and by stretching ourselves, we grow.
All this aside, tramping is fun and even the hard days are good days (or at least memorable ones!).
Time to get out there.