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June 2016 Issue
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Walking with a purpose

Kelly Purdie, on the Motutapu Track, is walking 4500km to raise awareness of her sister’s rare illness. Photo: Supplied

Kelly Purdie is walking 4500km around the South Island, educating people about Juvenile Parkinson’s Disease along the way. Wilderness catches up with her at kilometre 1385

For Kelly Purdie, walking 4500km is not about the bragging rights, although she’ll certainly be entitled to such; rather, it’s about spreading information about Juvenile Parkinson’s Disease, which her sister has been living with for 20 years.

Purdie, 37, is originally from England, but has lived in New Zealand for nine years. When she spoke to Wilderness in early May, she was about one-third of the way into her walking tour of the South Island. She started in January, armed with the basics: a tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove and GPS. Her walk began in Dunedin, as she was eager to get the southernmost parts of her journey done before winter sets in. While she says her walk is largely motivated by her desire to see the beauty of the South Island, what’s really driving her is the desire to talk to people about her sister’s disease.

Juvenile Parkinson’s, which affects children and people under the age of 20, is a neurological disorder that manifests itself as rigidity or stiffness, tremors and difficulty initiating movements. It’s so rare that many neurologists have very little experience treating those with the disease.

Purdie’s sister Tracey lived with the disease for 10 years before she was diagnosed. Her symptoms started when she was 15 with a dragging foot, and then worsened as she became increasingly sluggish, easily tired and clumsy. She was diagnosed at 25, and now, 10 years on, is waiting for a deep brain stimulation operation which could significantly improve her tremor and allow her to reduce her medications. For Kelly, her sister’s upcoming surgery is both exciting and scary.

“When she told me she was having the operation, it really hit me that she could die from that,” Purdie says; she plans to move back to England after her walk to support her sister during the surgery. Purdie’s walk not only allows her to experience New Zealand in an intimate way, it also allows her to inform people of Juvenile Parkinsonism.

“I hope I can educate people, and make people aware of it – my sister was misdiagnosed for 10 years because it’s just so rare. Nobody’s ever heard of it,” Purdie says, adding that of the hundreds of people she’s met since she started her walk, only one person was familiar with the disease.

Purdie’s trek will take her all over the South Island, on tracks, roads, beaches, and through towns and cities. To prepare, she joined the Christchurch Tramping Club last year. “I put some dots on the map, my friends gave me their input, and I just joined them up.”

She’s camping, staying in huts along the tracks, checking into backpackers and motels in the cities, and relying on the kindness of strangers for last-minute tent sites when she’s in a pinch. Aside from the incredible scenery, she says it’s the people she’s met that have kept her going.

“The best thing has been the people: the strangers who have taken me in for a night, and put me into contact with friends further down the route,” Purdie says. “Over half the places [where I’ve stayed] have been through strangers who have kindly put me up for the night.”

She’s dealt with some less-than-ideal weather and difficult terrain, but said her inner drive hasn’t waivered. She’ll spend the winter months on the West Coast and is looking forward to doing the Heaphy Track soon. With roughly 3000km left to go, she expects to be walking until at least September.

Purdie carries with her a laminated collage of photos of her loved ones, which she says keeps her going. ”If I’m feeling low, I look at those pictures and look forward to going back home.”

Purdie is blogging her progress at and is raising money through Givealittle for New Zealand MS and Parkinson’s Society.