My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 4: Return From Mordor

Photo Credit: Phillip Capper

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, nurse I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.
This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, pharmacy and survived. Just. (Read Part 1, healing Part 2 and Part 3)

To Loop Or Not To Loop

After everything I’d been through with my first attempt at following a hiking trail—the rain, the mud, the disorientation, the bruises and grazes and cuts and falls and general despair—you may well ask why on earth I would want to open myself up for ridicule by Mother Nature one more time.

The reason I just had to explore the track in front of me was because it offered the one thing I would crave if I didn’t climb this one last (metaphoric) hill: closure. If I’d returned to Australia without having conquered this walking trail, then I’d forever feel like Nikau Forest had gotten the better of me.

I left the comfort of the sunshine, grit my teeth and plunged into the darkness.

All Your Walking Trails Are Belong To Us

As it turns out, the Nikau Forest Loop Track is, well, a bit of a joke.

Less of a hiking trail, it was more like a carefully architected artificial stroll through the countryside. The path itself was a smooth, safe concrete walkway with occasional strategically placed pebbles and handrails. This was walking at its most comfortable. It struck me as making a suitable rest stop for old people on a bus tour.

Less than three minutes later I emerged into sunlight. I was back at the entrance. That was it—I had walked the entire length of the walk in under three minutes. I scoffed at the signpost in front of me.

Ha! That’s not a track. I made my own track!

Feeling back on top of the world, I practically skipped back to the train station in Paraparaumu (being extra careful not to take any tumbles on the slippery footpath this time). I snuck onto the carriage just as it was about to depart, found a seat at the back, and warmed myself on the heating rail. Within seconds of the train lurching away from the platform, I’d fallen asleep.

The conductor woke me as we pulled into Wellington station. While my body felt groggy and fatigued, inside I was bursting with excitement—I was extremely proud of myself for cramming so much adventure into one day, and was eager to share the details of my journey with my colleagues. There was a small chance that I could still meet them in time for dinner. The only problem: what would I wear? I was wearing the only jeans and shoes that I’d brought with me, and they were completely caked in mud.

The MacGyver Guide To Speed Hygiene

While I filled the hot tub in my hotel room, I scrubbed myself clean in the shower. Once the tub was full, I eased into the lovely hot water—the side of my leg ached, and the graze was worse than I’d expected. The cuts on my arms and hands stung too, but the healing power of the hot water was immediate and welcome.

After 15 or 20 minutes of hovering between wake and sleep states, my entire body submerged with my nose poking out the top to breathe, I realised that I would really have to motor if I wanted to catch my colleagues for dinner (eating alone is never as much fun—plus any longer in the bath and I’d turn into a prune). I dug deep into my energy reserves to wrench myself from the hot tub, and donned a very fashionable hotel bathrobe.

I still wasn’t sure what I should wear, but I had a brainwave: while my hotel room lacked a washing machine, I had a ready reservoir of (mostly) clean hot water in the bath from which I’d just exited.

I dumped my jeans in the bath tub, and went at them with the hotel soap. And you know what? It worked. And to dry them? Armed with a hair dryer in one hand and an iron in the other, I managed to coerce the water from my previously mud-soaked jeans such that after another 20 minutes or so, they had become wearable. The ends were perhaps still a little damp, but they would pass.

The Perfect Finish To A Perfect Day

I bumped into the Australian FullCodePress team in the hotel lobby; we found a nearby eatery and stuffed ourselves with delicious Asian cuisine. Over dinner, I gave a full account to my friends of the events of the day: my desire to see the real New Zealand jungle, my difficulties with finding the trail, my various injuries sustained through my own stupidity, my following what I thought was a trail and getting completely lost, and finally conquering the elements and emerging victorious from the jungle.

Before visiting New Zealand, I’d heard someone liken the country to a Tonka toy. They’d joked that NZ was “My First Country”—the perfect country for beginner travellers. Unlike Australia, there were no deadly spiders, snakes or other critters of which one could fall foul; everything was shiny and safe.

As it turns out, New Zealand kind of owned me today. Sure, I’d come out of the ordeal alive, but as I inhaled my pork curry and relayed an exaggerated version of my brave dalliance with death, I knew that I’d been let off easy. Exploring on your own in the wilderness without preparation or planning is stupid, no matter which country you’re in. When you’re in a new country, with no telecommunications, no map, and no-one who knows where you are, the consequences can be very dire and very real.

My dilemma is this: if I’d done anything differently, I wouldn’t have this story to tell you. The excitement of my discoveries, the humour in my mistakes, the peril due to my lack of, well, common sense … without these elements, this story is nothing.

So while I don’t recommend you deliberately put your life in danger by embarking on an adventure without adequate planning, there’s a lot to be said for being adventurous and spontaneous in life.

Just remember to pack a second pair of jeans.

My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 2: Not In The Shire Anymore

Photo Credit: Phillip Capper

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, approved I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.

This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, and survived. Just. (Read Part 1)

In Search of a Summit

After wandering around the back streets of Paraparaumu looking for something — anything, really — that read “Hiking Trail,” I finally stumbled upon a gate with some signage that gave me hope. Granted, the font used was rather small, and the sign was so covered in mud that it was barely legible, but it was a start! The sign read:

Nikau Reserve entrance

That was enough for me! I’d finally found a path to follow that was lined with grass and dirt, rather than the concrete that I had persisted with to this point. With the adrenalin in my veins overriding the pain in my leg, I opened the gate and began my journey to, well, I had no idea — hopefully the top of a hill.

Calling the “path” ahead of me a path would be extremely generous. It was more like a paddock that a tractor had travelled over a few times to clear the grass out the way — a marshy paddock. I pressed on, and the rain came down harder, the ground got muddier, and the grass got higher. Eventually I abandoned all hope of having a trail to even look for, and started exploring the paddock.

Which was fine — I was having fun. This was an adventure, and a far cry from spending the day in front of a computer. Besides, I could see a hill up ahead that was thick with lush green ferns and towering trees. It looked like a real Middle Earth-style rainforest, and I wanted a piece of it.

Dressed For The Occasion

A babbling creek kept me company as I meandered my way through the mud. For the first 20 minutes I managed to maintain a healthy distance from my watery friend, but I eventually reached a point when I needed to cross. It was a short jump, and I felt confident that I could make it. What I didn’t take into account was the stability of the river’s bank …

I gave a short run-up to give myself a buffer on the other side (you know, so I could high-five myself after clearing the creek by this much) and took a flying leap. Legendary decathlete Daley Thompson (man I loved that game) would have been proud of the distance I covered, and I’m sure my landing was graceful.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. It turns out the entire paddock on the other side of the creek was basically just one big swamp, and my left leg was now submersed up to my knee in mud. And this was the only pair of jeans I brought with me.

Funnily enough, I was still having fun. I waddled my way to firmer ground, and pressed onwards until I hit a fence … and that was it. What had started out as a barely navigable path had deteriorated into a marshy paddock, and this was what the locals called a walking trail?

Well, I wasn’t settling for that.

From Field to Forest

I followed the fence line with my eyes and saw that it ran across the creek (which by now had expanded into a fully fledged river) and climbed up a hill covered in luscious, thick forest. The change in landscape on the other side of the river was dramatic — the hill was covered in enormous ferns standing shoulder to shoulder, dwarfed by a thick canopy of towering trees that were probably hundreds of years old. This was my hill.

I saddled the wire fence and precariously shuffled across, and this time my water-crossing attempt was more successful. I began working my way through the forest, casting aside vines and ducking under branches, David Attenborough-style. This was exactly what I was looking for! The real New Zealand.

My goal was to get to the top of the hill. It wasn’t enormous, but it was big enough for me to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then I would turn around and retrace my steps back to the train station. Hopefully without falling into the marsh again.

At One With Nature

At this stage I was unconcerned with the following facts, but in hindsight I probably should have been:

  • I had no way of contacting anyone should I run into trouble (I hadn’t enabled roaming on my phone, as it was expensive and I was only in the country for a few days).
  • I had no GPS (I had my iPhone, but it was useless as a mapping device without a network connection to load map data).
  • I had no compass.
  • Nobody knew where I was.
  • I was alone.

I did have a basic sense of where I was, based on the noise of the cars that I could hear in the distance (the highway that ran north-south along the coast) and the position of the sun in the sky. I figured as long as I could hear the car noise, I’d know that the coast was near.

It only took me 20 minutes to make it to the top of the hill, and it was a fun climb. In Australia, trekking through unmarked bush can bring you into contact with any manner of poisonous beasties — deadly spiders, the most poisonous snakes in the world, scorpions.

New Zealand, however, is refreshingly devoid of these inconveniences. With this inside knowledge, I could pretend to be a pioneer who was setting foot on a land of untouched beauty for the first time. Knowing that nothing was going to drop down from the trees and kill me had me telling myself that it was easier to press on than to turn back. Besides, the canopy was so thick that I had yet to find that stunning view that I’d promised myself.

This Way To Success

After about an hour of peeling back vines and spiky branches that were becoming increasingly impenetrable, I was relieved to notice a bright pink arrow attached to a tree. “Ah ha,” I thought. “The trail! Finally I have some guidance.” I thrashed my way through the forest until I spotted a second arrow, and then a third.

The thing is, the arrow didn’t seem to point anywhere particularly related to any trail that I could see. I figured that the trail they were marking mustn’t have been followed in a very long time, and that the arrows were in urgent need of remarking.

I climbed the second, larger hill, and stopped to catch my breath. There was still no view to appreciate (all those damn trees in the way!) and I was a little puzzled that the pink arrows were daring me to venture downwards into a steep ravine. I peered over the edge and found myself staring at a severe drop-off that I remember thinking would have possibly been a fun descent … if I were abseiling. However, climbing down without ropes and a harness would have been suicide.

It was at this point that I had two realisations.

  1. This isn’t fun any more.
  2. I can’t hear the cars.

At Odds With Nature

I’m not one to panic, but even an optimist like me can identify when things are looking dire. Here I was alone, in a foreign country, lost in the jungle, covered in mud, unable to orient myself, with a phone that didn’t work, a packet of chips and a few mouthfuls left in my bottle of water. It was nearly 3.00pm and nobody knew where I was.

It dawned on me how genuinely stupid my predicament was. Seriously, who goes hiking in the jungle by himself, literally carving out his own trail, and doesn’t expect to get lost? Grim questions flashed through my head: What if I can’t find a clearing before it gets dark, and I have to sleep on the ground or something stupid? How would anyone find me? It’s wet — would I have enough warm clothes to survive a night? What about food and water? I could really be in trouble. I thought of my wife and daughter back home in Australia, and began imagining newspaper headlines reporting my demise.

“Some trail!” I shouted out loud.

Nobody responded.

Fuck.

Next issue, Part 3: The Two Trails

My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 1: One Map To Rule Them All

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, buy I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.

This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, and survived. Just.

Going Off The Grid

I had a full day between my speaking engagement and the FullCodePress event kicking off, and I intended to make the most of it. It was my first time visiting New Zealand – rather than spend it in museums or tourist attractions, I was determined to get out of the city.

You see, before I actually set foot in the place, the words “New Zealand” conjured up two images for me (in the following order):

As you can imagine, my trip would have felt incomplete if I had returned home without seeing a good amount of either of these things. Some hasty web-based research revealed a sleepy coastal town by the name of Paraparaumu (Para-pa-raow-moo) on the Kapiti coast – an hour’s train ride from Wellington. Given my hotel was a short walk from the train station and a ticket cost only NZ $10, it all seemed too serendipitous. And if I caught the 5pm back to Wellington, I would even have enough time to meet up with the Aussie FullCodePress team for dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

Chugga-chugga-choo-choo

Train travel will always be the most romantic form of travel – except perhaps rickshaw, but the only time I’ve tried that was when I was in Austin Texas for the SXSW conference one year. I was, well, drunk off my ass, and my caring colleagues kindly paid for a rickshaw to take my sorry self back to our hotel before I fell asleep in the corner of the bar. Actually, I might have fallen asleep in the bar first, which is probably why they called the rickshaw. But I digress. Damn Yahoo! and their bar tab.

Anyway … after the rickshaw, train travel is definitely up there for me. I know there are hardcore train boffins out there who can rattle off the names of every steam engine built in the last 500 years. Trust me, I’m not one of them. But I do love the speed at which long distance trains chug along – always constant, but never too hurried that you can’t appreciate the scenery outside.

And plenty of scenery there was – the railway to Paraparaumu hugs coastal cliffs and tunnels through ominous mountains. The view out the window was nothing short of stunning, and I sat glued to my window as every twist and turn revealed more lush forest, grassy meadows, and – yes – plenty of sheep.

Halfway there, it started to rain. It should have been a sign, but I shrugged it off. I’m an optimist and figured it would probably stop soon. Plus, I had my raincoat. I was in New Zealand, and it was choice, bro.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Trails

The next warning sign to which I should have paid attention was the fact that the Paraparaumu information centre was closed. It had been open the day before (they were moving premises) and would be reopening the day after. But on the day I needed them their door was shut tight. There were a few brochures outside, but none of them said anything about hiking trails.

I thumbed through the maps at a local newsagency, but no luck. Determined, I asked the attendant at the train station, an elderly gentleman with a trusting face, if he knew of any hiking trails in the area. He apologised, and suggested I take a stroll along the water’s edge. “My wife and I take that walk every weekend.”

I was looking for something a little more challenging than an old timer’s regular route. Luckily, a softly spoken woman in her thirties at the station overheard our conversation, and piped up:

“There’s a hiking trail up in the Nikau Forest. It’s a bit of a walk.”

I volunteered quickly that I enjoyed walking, and pressed her for more details. She drew helpfully on my tourist map, showing roughly where the trail began. It wasn’t the clearest of maps, but it was enough for me. I had plenty of time, plenty of energy, and now I had a vague plan for where my conquering of Middle Earth would begin. I thanked both of my substitute guides, bought a packet of chips, chocolate, and some bottled water, and began my trek.

Oh. Did I mention that the rain was really starting to come down at this stage? I didn’t care. I was an explorer!

Always Cross At The Lights

The next warning bell that I chose to ignore came as I was approaching the edge of town. There weren’t any obvious pedestrian crossings, and I needed to cross the road. I waited for a break in traffic, looked both ways like a good Boy Scout, and legged it.

Around the corner, and moving with considerable momentum, appeared an old truck, rattling along the highway towards me. I picked up the pace, forgetting that the large amounts of rain had made the road kind of slippery. Oh, and the road was on quite an incline – a heady combination.

I was in no danger of being collected by the truck, but I’m sure the driver had a chuckle to himself as he thundered past. Had I been smack bang in the middle of a game of baseball, making a dash for home base, then the two-metre slide that I performed on my backside would have made me a hometown hero.

However I wasn’t playing baseball. I was just crossing the damn road. And my home base wasn’t constructed of soft, made-for-sliding dirt. It was hard bitumen. And it hurt. I still have a bruise and grazing down the side of my leg, four weeks later.

However, always the optimist, I was undeterred. You see, I really just wanted to get to the top of a whopping great hill and gaze out at the view beyond.

I grit my teeth, blocked out the pain that was beginning to creep up the side of my leg, and pressed onwards. Lush, green mountains loomed in the distance. I was determined to climb one of them.

Next issue, Part 2: Not In The Shire Anymore