Let us wind forward a year.
London is now a distant if still lustrous memory. None of my fears about stepping on Her Majesty’s toes, spilling soup on the Royal lap or letting my tongue slip took place.
But while a memorable lunch gave memories for a lifetime, the thought of trekking with my stepson Valentino posed other challenges. The truth is I wanted to walk alone. I trusted myself in wild spaces. But what about him? Without being too dramatic about it, a wrong decision out there can escalate rapidly as quickly as it can in the corridors of power.
As a former infantry Major, I knew all about taking responsibility for the lives and welfare of young men and women. This trek- at least as I saw it- would mean teaching Tino how to read a map, use a compass, prepare camp food, mend blisters and put up with complaints. I might return him injured to his outraged mother or worse, lose him.
He and I are competitive people. When you add a stepfather-stepson relationship to the mix, it could get volatile, quickly. I could just imagine one or both of us striding off in a huff after a raging argument about whose turn it was to wash the dishes or carry the tent. In my opinion Rose over-mothered him. I suspected a secret agenda to make him “man up” and to cure his fast-food addiction. Between a love of luxury sheets and late-night takeaway pizza, he had definitely packed on extra weight over the last year.
I had not had a holiday in three years and the last thing I wanted to do was turn my precious time into a combination of “The Biggest Loser” and “Survivor.” Then, I had another thought. Could this be a golden opportunity to let him test himself, far from his mother’s protective eyes?
So, we started with a four day shake-out tramp on the Hillary Trail just outside Auckland. This network of trails is named after Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest and Kiwi icon. Sir Ed used the area as a training ground for his expeditions to the Himalayas, so I figured if my stepson could survive a post-Christmas blast there, he could tackle more ambitious circuits on the South Island.
To my relief and admiration, he surmounted this first hurdle without complaint or whimper. When we waved goodbye to Rose and flew south to Queenstown, the so-called adventure capital of New Zealand, I felt reasonably confident that we would have a good time.
In the mountains ringing Queenstown, we tested ourselves with evermore ambitious walks. As our bodies adapted to the demands of the trails, we walked for eight, ten, and then twelve hours a day. The resupply intervals doubled from five days, to ten. We washed in freezing streams, dared each other to jump into an ice-filled lake, bunkered down in caves, and climbed above the snow line. We walked sections of track overnight, first with head torches to illuminate the way and then by starlight. We challenged each other to walk the three day Routeburn Track, in a day.
When he felt ready, I crossed my fingers and sent him off on a twenty-four hour solo walk, praying he would be at the prearranged rendezvous the morning after. When he strode into view, I sent a silent ‘thank you’ into the hills. I didn’t relish telling Rose I had had to call out a search and rescue party because of a rash decision to send her darling boy out on his own.
Nothing teaches self-reliance and personal responsibility like being on your own in nature, cut off from online resources, social media and solicitous parents. After Tino learned the basics of moving through rugged and isolated terrain safely and enjoyably, nature became the teacher.
All I had to do was fit into the experience, and enjoy it.