Friday, 5 May 2017

Adventures in simple travel: Soul trekker Laura Waters

This is starting to become a habit: I can't resist interviewing people I meet who have had an adventure that strips life back to its essence. 

Mountain RnR: Laura resting
somewhere in the South Island
This latest instalment is about Laura Waters, who spent five months walking the length of New Zealand in 2014.

Before I knew better, I'd assumed she was a Kiwi, tackling the 3068km Te Araroa Trail to better understand her home country. Turns out she’s from this side of the ditch (as we Australasians call the Tasman Sea), which made her trek even more intriguing. 

What makes a young Australian woman do a long-distance walk in the first place, solo, and why New Zealand?

Just thinking about it makes me long for mountain trails and endless beaches and the simplicity of putting one boot in front of the other, taking each day's sunrise as it comes and each night's hut companions as they are. 

But beyond the romance of solo trekking, what was it really like? I asked Laura a few questions to find out: 

Happy tramper: Laura on the trail
How did this all start? Where did the idea come from? 
I’d had the urge for an adventure lurking in my mind for years. I wanted to stretch myself and see what I was capable of and when I stumbled across the Te Araroa in a hiking magazine I knew immediately it was what I’d been looking for. A stunning country with varied terrain, navigational challenges, river crossings, a trail 3000km long - it seemed to have the right balance of challenge without being so difficult I might inadvertently kill myself. 

Thankfully the idea arrived at a time when I most needed it. I’d been struggling with a very low emotional state for about a year before I set off on the hike. The over stimulation and stress of city life had become overwhelmingly difficult to deal with and I was desperately in need of a change of environment.

How did you prepare for such an epic trek? 
I’d probably done about a dozen multi-day hikes before attempting the trail, but none over 65km! I knew my mind was already strong, but I spent eight months working with a physio to strengthen my core and gluts, weaknesses that made me prone to sore knees. I walked two hours a day for three months before departure on my daily commute to work and carried a fully loaded pack for the last month of it (no doubt to the amusement of the other corporate workers in the high rise building in Melbourne where I worked).

Lone ranger: crossing the
Richmond Ranges
Why solo? 
I actually started the trek with a girlfriend who pulled out on the second day [due to injury]. I didn't know if I could do the walk solo but I decided I'd just keep going, take it one day at a time and see how far I could get. 

Were there any little luxuries you couldn’t leave home without? 
Music, a massage bar and a diary. I had wondered before I left whether I should leave the tunes at home and just listen to the sounds of nature, but music has a great capacity to uplift and transport your mind to another place, which comes in handy when you're having a challenging day. I took a small chunk of Lush massage bar too. Massaging your legs and feet not only feels great, but helps your body recover after the constant daily pounding. And the diary was a must-have to record the journey I was on, both external and internal.

Tree time: the Raetea Forest 
What were your days like?
It's not an easy trail. It’s very physical at times, bush-bashing through overgrown forest, rock-hopping boulders, climbing over logs and falling down holes hidden by waist-high tussock. On average I walked about eight hours a day, six days a week. Some days were much longer and sometimes I didn’t get a break for nearly two weeks. 

I also hiked faster than I would on day hikes back home, conscious of the need to finish within five months, before winter set in. It was really a whirlwind of walking, eating, setting up camp, cooking, washing clothes. I would aim for one rest day a week during which I could have a proper shower, launder my clothes, resupply on food and share my journey and photos with the outside world.

Tackling scree: Near the Waiau Pass
Were you ever afraid? 
Not of people. I had one slightly creepy guy invite me to stay at his place during the first 100km of beach, but other than that I didn't see many people at all, just a few hard-core hikers. 

But I regularly felt completely intimidated by the weather and the terrain: the precipitous drop-offs to the side, the ridiculously steep 'trails' where you could easily fall backwards and tumble to the bottom. My scariest moment was getting caught in a sudden snowstorm on the last day of summer in the South Island. I was only half an hour from a hut, but my core temperature plummeted like a stone. And I nearly got blown off a ridge in the Tararua Range in the North Island. The wind sounded like a jet engine. You realise your insignificance over there.

What did you love about life on the trail?
The simplicity of daily life: walk, eat, sleep. Washing my body in a river, collecting drinking water from dripping moss, eating simple food, listening to rivers rushing or owls hooting from my tent at night. No makeup, no mirrors, no media, no advertising, one outfit, one bag of belongings. I’ve never been happier.

What did you miss, if anything? 
Nothing. I realised you actually need very little to be blissfully happy. Nature filled me up.

The end is nigh: Tussock grass
What else did you learn about yourself and life?
Oh gosh, where to start? I learned I am capable of much more than I realised. That most fears are largely imagined and often it’s the thought of something that gets in the way of life more than the thing itself. 

I learned to listen to my intuition and trust my judgement. Without the constant noise of modern life, I gained clarity of thought. I discovered who I really am, free of any outside influences such as society and media and I had a blank slate on which to rebuild myself. I realised how much unnecessary noise and drama humans create and decided to opt out of that in future. I realised that if you just try, things generally work out – just head in the direction you want to go and you will find a way.

Views: Fresh snow and Lake Tekapo
Did the trek make you want to walk more, or hang up your hiking boots? 
I finished the hike feeling bulletproof and super fit. I could easily have kept walking. In fact I did, down to Stewart Island [at the bottom of the South Island]. I actually felt quite traumatised when it was all over; I didn’t want to go back to ‘normal’ life and everything that went with it. I’d discovered a new world – a better one, to my mind – and no longer felt I belonged in modern society.

How did it change your life?
It’s been three years now since I finished the hike. After six months back at my old job I quit the corporate world, sold a lot of my belongings and started wandering with my backpack and a laptop, working on a book about my hiking journey. 

I keep my expenses down by living simply, volunteering in exchange for accommodation and writing articles for magazines. I’ve roamed in the Solomon Islands, Thailand, New Zealand and around Australia, even spent six weeks sailing up the Queensland coast. I buy very little these days besides the essentials - food, wine and travel - and though I don’t have a lot of spare cash I have freedom and that makes me feel rich. I live inspired, doing things I love and going wherever opportunity leads me. Life is good.

Laura's book, tentatively titled Soul Trekking, is due out later this year. You can read more about her love of simplicity, nature and walking at her website Soul Trekkers.

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