I awoke late, sweating in the “onesie” and with a foul taste on my tongue. If a baby possum had nested in my mouth, I would not have noticed. Rolling out of my shelter, I quailed under the heat of the sun, stripped off the damp sleeping suit and staggered down to the stream. The shock of cold water revived me enough to peel back the bandage wrapped around the toe. The wound looked healthy when I cleaned and bandaged it. For good measure I sealed the foot inside a spare plastic ziplock bag to keep it clean. The thought of even a sand grain grating under the nail made me wince.
Over a mug of coffee, I took stock. On the face of it, the choices I faced looked easy: go home, stay still or go forward. While mulling over the pros and cons, a nagging insight came to the fore. I had been in too much of a hurry and Mother Nature had promptly smacked me down. I did not want to find out what other punishments she might have in store for me. The harsh truth was that I had not prepared for the walk. Who more than me, once a leader of men and women in peace and war, should have engraved in his mind the sacred mnemonic for “Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”- PPPPPP? My performance thus far had fallen woefully short of the higher standards I hoped for.
For a start, I carried far too much. In Auckland, I had weighed my pack on the bathroom scales and watched the dial top out at a knee-buckling 25.6 kilograms. Not too bad for a two week walk, I had thought then. Infantrymen carry that and more. However, that was then and this was now.
I emptied the pack and brought its shameful contents to light. What had I been thinking of when I packed two fleece jackets, a merino sweater, a down jacket, a set of thermal underwear and three thick socks for a summer walk down a beach in a region renowned for its mild year round climate? Beads of sweat pooled on my forehead just looking at them.
I turned to the cook set with its matching burner, stand, pots and frying pan. It had been designed for two or three people, not a solitary walker. At least I had no gripe with the choice of fuel. Methylated spirits might be heavier and boil water slower than camping gas but it was cheaper, readily available in any country store and kinder to the environment, but could there be a better way?
I stroked my bristled chin with morose fingers. The scant toiletries I carried passed muster although in the rush to leave I had forgotten a razor. However, how had a set of prayer beads, a book of tramping witticisms and a tin box decorated with Marilyn Monroe found their way into the toiletry bag?
I looked across at the hammock with its built-in bug net and asymmetric tarpaulin, drooping forlornly from the bush. I knew its strengths and failings well and had come to terms with them, but why had I brought along a spare tarpaulin wide enough to shelter four people and enough tent pegs for a Boy Scout Jamboree?
I sighed and turned to the bag holding the travel tripod, microphone, smartphone, solar charger, and Bluetooth keyboard. For whatever reason, the charger would not discharge so I had turned off the smartphone to conserve what little battery life remained. I now held a small, beautifully designed, and eye-wateringly expensive black brick with a redundant keyboard. True, I had taken a few photographs but I had not yet written a word, spoken a message, or filmed a video. So much for the dream of being a nature writer who would inspire the world with insights from ‘nature’s therapy room.’ I could not even access the maps and trail notes I had painstaking downloaded at home.
I could scarcely bring myself to inspect the food bags. I gazed in bemusement at the surplus. Surely, I could have remembered that appetite always diminishes at the start of a tramp? Yesterday, I had had to force myself to eat and today breakfast was out of the question. Is it because in daily life we habitually eat more than we need? When we move to the natural rhythm of the trail do we need to deplete the reserves of energy stored in fat and muscle before a more authentic appetite kicks in? Or, perhaps the body goes into shock at the abrupt change from a sedentary position to an upright one.
Anyway, if eating too little was not a pressing issue, absorbing enough water was. While I thought of it, I drank a bottle, refilled it from the stream and dropped in a purification tablet.
I stretched my aching legs and picked up the running shoes. Even my choice of footwear was misguided. If the adage, “A pound on the feet adds five pounds on the back”, was true, then these lightweight trail runners added little to my burden. However, light shoes require a light load. These shoes lacked the support my burden demanded.
I had thought that taking all this stuff would shield me from discomfort, thirst or starvation, lost and alone, miles from the nearest coffee shop. Paradoxically, carrying too much made me even more vulnerable to exhaustion, injury and poor decision-making. My battered body and tenderised feet proved the point. “Well done, Major,” I muttered.
If I needed to lighten my load, it dawned on me that I also needed to remember why I was here. Yesterday’s performance might have interested a sports psychologist but seriously, who was I trying to impress? Mother Nature had already demonstrated that she did not think me anything special. Who cared about my grandiose plans to set time, speed and distance records on the Te Araroa? I was competing with myself and I really needed to look at that. I had slipped back into the military mantra of, “My body is a machine and it will not stop!” The mindset had served me well once but now it was old news. I would have done better to have followed the training formula I once used to prepare for injury-free marathons, “Start slow, finish quick.”
While I reflected on these many sins and omissions, a full-blown existential crisis overtook me. I had walked away from responsibilities and sidestepped reality. It was an unattractive mix. Even now my spouse was packing up our little house and moving back into “Crazy Land,” her former family home. She did not want to do it, she did not like doing it, but she was doing it, for ME. Maybe I was not such a hot pistol after all. Could it be that my ego had lured me away from the essence of what I had proclaimed this wilderness journey would be all about?
But, I could not go home. Staying still would serve no purpose and might weaken my flickering resolve even more. I could at least put one foot in front of the other and so that is what I decided to do. I considered ditching half my food, clothing and gear. However, I did not want to pollute the land with my mistakes. Having got so much wrong, the least I could do was take out what I had brought in.