The pants of perspective, by Anna McNuff.
This book recounts the adventures of a British lass who ran the TA in 2015 from Bluff to Cape Reinga, taking considerably longer than Kiwi nurse Brooke Thomas, who completed the trail this year in 57 days and 10 hours. To be fair, Brooke was ‘supported’ (family and friends helped out with food and logistics) and on a mission to set a record and raise money for Heart Kids NZ; Anna was also fundraising but didn’t have dedicated support, although she came across many people who went out of their way to help her out, drive her around, feed her and put her up for the night.
I enjoyed reading about how she managed sections we’ve already done and her encounters with our doppelganger tramping couple Anthony and Fiona from Palmerston North, who were doing the South Island at the same time and took her under their collective wing. But her naivete had me hand-smacking-head at frequent intervals (like not taking a GPS and then getting lost in Longwood Forest; forgetting to fill up water bottles; running out of food); her need to hug everyone she met made me cringe; and I got the feeling that if I’d met her in person, I would probably have found her all a bit too much.
I was impressed by her (sometimes excruciating) honesty about the struggles and difficulties she faced on the trail. She was obviously able to cope with a great deal of physical discomfort, running marathon days with a pack weight of up to 20kg (what did she have in there??) and persisting despite some significant injuries. But her biggest challenge was a mental one – pushing through her anxiety and trying to hold on to her confidence and self-belief. I can certainly relate to that. I’m finding the mental challenge of this long distance walking to be far greater than I expected and even greater than the physical challenge.
So I was a little sad and disappointed that after all she’d been through, at the very end she was unable to overcome her anxieties about being alone and surviving in the wilderness. She elected to skip the Northland Forests, which she thought would be too hard, and ran on the roads instead. She listened too much to other people’s negative projections about this section, which fed her fear and meant she missed out on what should have been a highlight of the North Island – the magnificent and threatened kauri forest.
This got me thinking about what makes the trail ‘hard’ and how what each person thinks is hard is so subjective, depending on individual factors like past experience, fitness level, state of your knees (creaky knees don’t like downhills), what kind of terrain you prefer to walk in; and environmental factors such as the weather, the state of the trail, who you’re with (which could make things worse or better). Hard is not necessarily measured by the kilometres walked or the elevation ascended and descended. I think it’s better measured by your own state of mind, your expectations and openness to absorb whatever the trail brings. Hardness is a perception not a reality, in the sense that what one person thinks is hard, another will find straight forward and even for the same person, the same walk can feel hard one day but not the next. I’ve learnt to take what other people say about the trail ahead with a huge lashing of salt. No one else can predict for me how I’ll experience the trail on any particular day or section. You discover and tackle it for yourself. If Anna had learnt this before she finished Te Araroa, she might have found the courage to blast through the forests and discover they weren’t the stuff of nightmare after all, but the stuff of dreams and satisfied memories.
I salute Anna for feeling the pain and doing it anyway; and for facing the fear and doing it most of the time. She reminds me that we can have high aspirations for ourselves but it’s normal not to achieve them all the time. What we learn and how we grow on the journey is really the most important thing.