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Unlikely trampers

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December 2019 Issue

Growing up in a South African township, Sue Surjupersad could only dream about experiencing nature. But when she emigrated to New Zealand, she turned that dream into reality

It was five years ago, and we had returned to our Kiwi mate’s place in Mt Eden after watching a rugby game at Eden Park. In high spirits, fuelled by Glayva shots, we agreed to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Our mate, being an accomplished tramper, rather gingerly texted the next morning: ‘Are you still keen or was that the Glayva talking?’

So started our love affair with the bush as ‘unlikely trampers’.

Growing up in Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa, there was little nature in the township. Hiking, surfing, rock climbing, mountain biking and outdoor adventures were pastimes enjoyed by other people.

I recall sitting on a neighbour’s brick fence as a kid, watching the sunset over the whirring of ‘the machine’ – the name we gave to the industrial outer ring which framed the township – coming to a rest at the close of business and wondering what it would feel like to be on a wide-open lake, framed by mountains and trees, completely alone, sun on my wet skin.

Then I came back down to earth; I had more serious things to accomplish.

These dreams are lost on people from the wrong side of the tracks.

My husband Ajit and I emigrated to New Zealand 13 years ago. We felt at home from day one. In New Zealand, I found a great sense of freedom in our anonymity, no cultural limitations, no societal expectations. We could be and do anything we wanted.

For the first few years, we spent our newly earned dollars travelling around the world. Each year we took a couple of trips to new places and experienced the best they had to offer. After a while it began to have a similar lull to it, the cities all felt the same. I started to feel the symbolic presence of ‘the machine’ again.

That all changed thanks to a rugby victory at Eden Park. That was in the good old days when the Sharks would predictably beat the Blues. We discovered a whole new world in the country which had given us a home.

When I look back at the panic I felt before the TAC, it seems hilarious now. I had all the concerns and then some I imagine most newbie trampers would have. Not wanting to fail, we trained every day for two months. We walked every minor peak in Auckland. After work, I would rush to Cornwall Park and walk up and down One Tree Hill numerous times.

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The author with her husband Ajit, two unlikely trampers from South Africa. Photo: Photo: Sue Surjupersad

We spent days looking at gear, bought ourselves new boots, the best rain gear, new packs, walking poles, outrageously expensive merino clothing – the works.

Then came the big day. With my township days far behind me, I insisted on staying at The Chateau. Hell, if we were going to do this, we were going to do it in style.

We did the crossing without breaking a sweat, we had zero aches and pains and I wondered if perhaps I had overtrained.

Then we found ourselves on Lake Waikaremoana on our first multi-day hike. This was another ‘luxury-ish’ stay with the water taxi ferrying our gear on to each night’s accommodation. We were tramping every week now and had joined a winter series of trips planned by accomplished tramper and Epsom resident Graham Taylor, who many years ago had won ‘The best navigator on land in NZ award’. At least, that’s how he tells it. We became well acquainted with the Waitakere Ranges and met several wonderful trampers here.

Graham is a brother to Geoff Taylor, the provider of Glayva, fellow rugby supporter and the one who got us into tramping. Geoff rang to say he was doing a Taylor family Routeburn tramp, and so I got introduced to ultra-light gear, being on my first tramp carrying significantly more than a daypack.

We had a less than desirable start to the Routeburn. Rain pelted down on the first day and we were crammed with almost 50 people inside the hut, all of us in sopping wet gear and vying for a spot near the potbelly fire.

But the next day, I experienced a moment that took my breath away. Climbing from the hut, the sun was shining brightly and we were surrounded by majestic views when suddenly it began to snow. Beautiful soft white flakes falling all around us just like in the movies. For someone who grew up in tropical Durban, it was magical. I hardly felt the climb.

Soon we were planning our own tramps and inviting the Taylors along. We had become accomplished enough to book the accommodation, water taxis, research the swimming spots, pay for the bookings and collect the money afterwards. This is the thing about tramping trips which people don’t realise – you must become adept at planning and organising.

I was finding myself changing in so many positive ways. I could sleep in the same pair of undies and wear the same pair of socks for days. Rain or snow did not scare me. I would now ask all the right questions about a tramp; elevation, duration, terrain, car park location and more. I was starting to identify tree and plant species, birds, read maps (still not great), swim in lakes with eels. I was falling in love with nature. I was becoming the girl I wanted to be when I was sitting on the neighbour’s fence.

We did the Heaphy Track in 2017. I doubted my fitness due to its duration, so again embarked on a crazed training schedule. The last day on the Heaphy was the most beautiful – we walked through nīkau palms in a balmy tropical forest.

I started following tramping clubs, Sierra Club, John Muir and countless outdoor gear pages on social media. I discovered there was a growing focus on the lack of diversity in national parks. Ajit and I had also noticed that we did not see many other people of colour in the bush. The good news is it’s changing and all trampers can be a part of the change. The more people that fall in love with the native bush, the more people who will want to protect it.

New Zealand has so much to offer migrants and they in return have much to give to New Zealand. Last year, we started a tramping group called Migrant Mayhem Tramping & Walking (the name came about on its own and now it has stuck).

It is a group started amongst friends, dedicated to promoting fitness, friendship and diversity in the bush. Ajit is the founder, with Geoff and I as administrators. After several months of tramping together almost every weekend, we finished the season with again walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It was a terrific accomplishment for several new trampers and a fitting end to a successful tramping season.

Last Christmas, we decided to treat ourselves to a tramp with (guiding company) Ultimate Hikes for Ajit’s 40th birthday. We spent Christmas Eve traversing MacKinnon Pass and Boxing Day on a boat on Lake Te Anau, framed by mountains and trees with the sun on our skin.

Thank you New Zealand, from an unlikely tramper.