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Wahine of Te Araroa

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November 2018 Issue
Illustrator Sarah May Little talks to three women who have soloed the Te Araroa Trail to see what inspired them to walk alone in the hope it may inspire others

Last summer, I tramped the South Island leg of the Te Araroa Trail. Friends and family weren’t sure what to think about my plans to hike solo. My hiker friends swooned at the idea; others were alarmed. One friend anxiously recounted terrifying stories of women in the wilderness being predated on, while urging me to reconsider.

But I put stock in my abilities as an experienced outdoorswoman and decided ‘to hell with it!’

Once on the trail, I soon felt safer in the bush than I had ever done in the city. It bugged me that other women were missing out on the unique experience of solo hiking because they’re told it’s too dangerous. As it turned out, I met so many fantastic people I was seldom by myself. And those days and nights I did spend alone were incredible, liberating and peaceful.

I interviewed three women I met on the TA. Maybe their stories will inspire more women to hike solo.

Name: Shelley Butt
Age: 37
Nationality: New Zealand/Japanese

Why did you tramp Te Araroa?
I had wanted to walk a long trail ever since reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods when I was 15. I bought a guidebook to the TA three years before I actually made the decision to walk it. The book seemed to be calling out from my bookshelf and in the end, it was screaming at me – I had no choice but to do it.

Was this your first long distance tramp?
Yes. I had my sights set on the Appalachian Trail until I realised there was one here in New Zealand.

How did you find tramping solo?
The feeling of absolute freedom, not having to negotiate with anyone, licking wounds and not having to put on a brave face made it the freest I had ever felt. It was a little scary at times, but I knew that as long as I stayed on track, someone would find me. I also had a personal locator beacon (PLB) and left detailed intentions for each section with my mum. You meet people going the same direction and I ended up having quite a few walking partners without planning it.

What was the craziest thing that happened on the trail?
Getting caught topless by a full tourist bus driving down 90 Mile Beach, getting swept 30m down a swollen stream during a flash flood in the Nelson Lakes, rationing my last crackers in the Tararuas, the mind-blowing trail magic I received from strangers, the deep friendships I made in minutes (or just through hut entries!), and meeting a man I didn’t want to – and still haven’t – let go of.

What was your favourite section?
The Richmond Ranges, the Paekakariki Escarpment, the Queen Charlotte Track which I got to share with my mum and some friends from home, the Nelson Lakes, the Deception/Minga, the Northland coastal section, the Stag Saddle ridge walk – I can’t choose!

Did you learn anything from your experience?
I’ve learnt that I am my own best cheerleader. I’ve learnt to say ‘Yes!’ to offers of help where previously I would have shied away from being a bother to others. I’ve learnt to say ‘No!’ to things that don’t work rather than trying to please others. I’ve learnt I want to dedicate myself to cleaning up the oceans of plastics and other debris. Finding it strewn on our remote beaches broke my heart.

What advice would you give to other female solo trampers?
There is so much life to live and taking this time out for yourself is so worth it. I felt safer in the bush than I do in the city alone. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back in communication range. Take a PLB, and have fun. It will be one of the most memorable things you do in your life.

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Frances Ross. Illustration: Sarah May Little

Name: Frances Ross
Age: 35
Nationality: Canadian

Why did you tramp Te Araroa?
I’ve been teaching in a remote First Nation community in the Canadian Arctic for many years now. It’s a challenging but fulfilling job but the burnout rate is high, so I try to keep some balance between work and life. I do that in my day-to-day, but also by taking a year off every five years to do things that I can’t fit into my teaching year.

My dad passed away in his 50s when I was a teenager, and my mum has early-onset Alzheimer’s and now lives in a care home. So I’ve seen enough illness and death to know not to wait to do things that give me a fulfilling life. I’m not the sort of person who would wait until retirement to go on big adventures, but I also know that I might not have a retirement, so I better do big things while I’m healthy.

I’d always wanted to travel to New Zealand because it is further along in terms of indigenous rights. I wanted to learn more about another country that has been colonised and where the indigenous people continue to fight and work for respect, land title and control over their own affairs.

Was this your first long distance tramp?
I had previously hiked 4000km southbound on the Appalachian Trail. That took six months, and although I enjoyed it, my body was pretty beat up by the end. I decided for my next long-distance hike, I should find something that took two or three months.

How did you find tramping solo?
I loved it. It was easy, fun and safe. I had full control of my days. I walked the Appalachian Trail with someone and there is always a faster and a slower person, and it just seems less complicated to hike alone.

I was only lonely a few times, but I think that’s a good thing. I found ways to either distract myself – hiking harder, listening to music – or I’d make myself face that feeling.

I liked camping with others in the evenings and I only camped alone maybe six times during my time on the trail. But those were memorable nights where I puttered around getting my camp chores done and I could do yoga or meditate.

 

Frances Ross, says, quite simply: ‘just do it’

 

What was the craziest thing that happened on the trail?
A helicopter evacuation. It was the morning of New Year’s Eve and I’d started the section through the Two Thumb Range. When I arrived at Crooked Spur Hut, there was a man and woman inside. We chatted for a bit before I realised there was another man asleep in bed. They said he’d been sick for a day or two with a sore chest and was unable to walk. He was otherwise a healthy guy in his 20s, but it seemed unwise for him to attempt to walk out. I used my InReach to contact my friend in Wellington, who got hold of emergency services. A helicopter was soon en route to us.

What was your favourite section?
I loved the Nelson Lakes. Big, beautiful valleys and mountains with top-notch huts. It was lush and not as dry as some of the other ranges.

That was the section where there were the most Kiwis and it was great to talk with New Zealanders at the huts or campsites.

Did you learn anything from your experience?
I found peace and physical wellness. I re-found confidence, clarity and happiness. I rediscovered my love for waking at 5am and going to bed at 9pm. I learnt that I often internally blame my failures on others so when I hiked alone, I was forced to own my mistakes.

What advice would you give to other female solo trampers?
Do it! It’s safe and fun to do a long distance hike on your own. If family or friends say otherwise, I found that having something like an InReach device will allow you to touch base each night so they won’t worry.

I didn’t train for the Appalachian Trail, but I did for the TA. I didn’t get nearly as many blisters or injuries this time, so I had a lot more fun.
I also significantly decreased my pack weight, going from maybe 13.5kg before food and water on the Appalachian Trail to a 7kg base weight on the TA. A lighter pack made for much happier days.

Julia Alexandra Glass. Illustration: Sarah May Little

Name: Julia Alexandra Glass
Age: 19
Nationality: German

Why did you choose to tramp Te Araroa?
I started the TA after travelling through New Zealand for a year. Two friends I made during my travels had done the walk and inspired me to try it. Seeing them do something so adventurous and ‘crazy’ by themselves made me want to challenge myself, too.
I had already seen a lot of New Zealand, but I knew I wanted to experience the country differently – in my own way.

Was this your first long-distance tramp?
It was my very first long-distance tramp and my third overnight tramp. I’d walked Lake Waikaremoana and the Tongariro Northern Circuit before.

How did you find tramping solo?
Challenging and rewarding. When I told people that I’m tramping by myself, the first question was: ‘Aren’t you afraid? What if you fall or feel sick?’

It’s normal that it seems like a dan-gerous thing to do. But there is no reason to be afraid if you know what you’re capable of. And that is something you’ll learn as soon as you start. Walking alone, you’ll have some situations that might freak you out (like dropping your phone and having no trail maps, running out of water, falling into a river or walking in the dark because you got lost), but if you stay calm you find you can actually manage all these situations by yourself. That makes you feel very independent, strong and badass.

 

Glass said the TA might seem scary, but it’ll make you stronger

 

What was the craziest thing that happened on the trail?
Every day is crazy. If you start the trail after having a ‘normal’ life, everything you do seems crazy.

What was your favourite section?
The Motatapu Track that leads from Wanaka to Arrowtown. It takes three days and even though you’re walking down towards Arrowtown on the last day, you’re between the mountains and it feels like there is no way you’ll reach civilisation that day.

Did you learn anything from this experience?
When I started, I thought walking the TA was mostly a physical challenge, but it wasn’t. You need to have a good mindset to be able to push yourself every day. You need to want to walk. I learnt to be patient in stressful situations and to stay calm when things go wrong.
Doing the trail, I got to know myself more and learnt to enjoy the physical challenge that came with climbing up exposed mountains. Another thing I learnt was to like my body. It’s the reason I was able to walk 20km or more a day. Body and mind have to work together very well if there is no one else to help or distract you.

What advice would you give other female solo trampers?
Put yourself out there and try it. It might seem scary and you might not start with a perfect plan, but you’ll learn along the way and become more independent and a stronger person, physically and mentally.

Do a bit of preparation before and have a few back-ups like paper maps, water filter and a PLB. These are things I’d recommend for anyone planning a thru-hike – guys, women or couples.

If something does go wrong, stay calm, eat some chocolate and learn from your mistakes.