On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

Sustainable buildling and light habitats. to transform the act of building and rethink our relationship with living things.
Transition tales. towards an ethical, sustainable and united future.
Travel dispatches. discovering the world between solo journeys and life experiences.
Creative approach. photographic work and videos.

10 February 2017

Last days in Fiordland

Three-day misadventure in the valleys of Monowai and Green Lake and preparation for the rest of the trip.
Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand © Claire Blumenfeld
DISPATCH

For my last days in Fiordland, I leave Lakeview Holiday Park where I lived for four months to return to Jill and Alan’s house. The parents of Julie, the lady of the dairy farm where I worked last fall, kindly offered to accommodate me for a few days while I prepare my departure. One last barbecue with the park team members and I am leaving towards Jill’s house. A certain disappointment hangs in the air. My last month of work was not the most successful. I do not know if it is due to the fact that the weather was very bad the majority of the time, to a slightly worse atmosphere within the work team or to a big workload but I had a little trouble appreciating this last month at Te Anau.

So to try to erase the disappointment, I offer myself a crossing of the Doubtful Sound by kayak and I leave for a three-day hike in the valleys of Monowai and Green Lake. Located 60km south of Te Anau, the corner is filled with little lakes. Since there is no bus to go there, I decide to join the start of the hike by bike. Which means cycling about sixty kilometers before I even start walking. But cycling, with a ten kilo backpack on my back for 60km on the undulating (very undulating) roads of New Zealand, is a very bad idea! I thought I would reach the start of the hike in four hours, well it took me seven hours! The pain of the bag on my shoulders and on my buttocks, the headwind and big climbs made the trip longer than expected. So I arrived at the start of the hiking trail in the late afternoon. Having not taken a tent with me (two shelters being present on the trail), I find myself forced to continue directly with the five hours of walking to reach the first refuge. My legs are exhausted and my instinct whispers to me that it is a bad idea but the prospect of spending the night outdoors without shelter hardly attracts me.

I therefore embark on the hiking trail. The trace is small, difficult and steep. The ground is filled with water, ultra muddy and small rivers flow everywhere. The result of a month of heavy rain. The climb to reach the pass is difficult and I lose the trail. The falling night makes me panic and here I am in the dark, lost in the mountains. I spend hours with the headlamp trying to progress through the jungle of Fiordland in order to reach the refuge. Orienting myself blindly, I reach the pass and descend on the other side until suddenly emerging at the edge of Lake Monowai. According to the map, the refuge is located by the lake a few kilometers further. It is midnight past, I am exhausted but the adrenaline pushes me to continue. The forest is impassable and I put my feet in the water. Following the edge seems to be the only option. At least I do not risk getting lost again. In the light of my headlamp, I find it difficult to progress among the pebbles of water up to my knees. Until the ground suddenly gives way and I almost find myself swimming. Panic drives my mind crazy and I fall back on the shore, clinging to the grasses and trunks to get me out of the water. A wall of cliffs surrounds the lake and the slope is steep. It is mpossible to walk and I start to crawl between the vegetation, trying somehow to get out of the mess in which I got myself stuck. I do not know where I put my feet and hands and in the dark night, it is dangerous. The sounds of birds make me jump, but the instinct for survival seems to annihilate the dull fear of the dark. No matter what surrounds me, spiders, animals, or others, I have to get out of it. My mind is delirious and I have the impression of seeing light in the distance. Suddenly, I lose my balance and fall about ten meters, hearting my legs. Trunks stop my fall a few centimeters from the water. I spend a long moment, dazed, wondering what I am doing. It is two hours in the morning and I can see the moon intermittently. Continue going through the forest is impossible and stopping here is possibly equivalent to dying of cold. So I put my feet back in the water, ready to swim if necessary and continue my progress.

After a time that looks like forever, the edges of the lake flatten out and a small clearing appears. A form takes shape in the center, it is the refuge. It is three o’clock in the morning and I am saved. I extricate myself from the water, my legs unable to feel anything after spending hours in cold water and injured by the fall. I drag myself to the refuge and open the door with the feeling of having reached paradise. No one inside. I barely undress and lie down bundled up in my sleeping bag. I am out of hell, everything is fine. The pain wakes me up from sleep around noon. It is very cold and raining outside. I am almost unable to move, my legs are covered in bruises. At least nothing broken. I make a fire with difficulty to try in vain to dry my wet clothes and shoes. But it doesn’t work and I spend the afternoon dozing hesitantly on what to do next. Either turn around and go back, or continue. I have food for two days, I cannot afford to spend another night here unless I backtrack. I think of my bike attached to the pole signaling the start of the walk and a horrible thought crosses my brain. I will have to cycle sixty kilometers to get back to Te Anau. Given my current state, this seems impossible to me.

A lull in the afternoon pushes me to continue. The next refuge is only a three hour walk away. I equip myself with difficulty and start hobbling through the clearing. The path zigzags between small lakes and clearings covered with large soaked grasses. I am almost as wet as this morning. It is raining again and I sink into the mud and into water holes hidden by the grass. I walk in automatic mode. Nothing exists anymore, only advancing matters. I finally leave the swamps and reach a tiny shelter at the edge of a forest path at dusk. Just two beds and spiders. At least I am dry. Exhaustion falls on me suddenly and I sink into a sleep mixed with tears. But what pushed me to embark on such an adventure!

The next day the weather calmed down a bit and I set off for the twenty kilometers that separate me from the starting point. The path runs along a large deforested area that seems as sad as my mind. I advance at a snail’s speed, my legs screaming in torment. But my brain, which has been running for two days on instinct and adrenaline, brings me safely to the little old campsite and cottage which marks the end of the loop. It is the end of the day and I am unable to return to Te Anau by bicycle. I go to the reception and explain my story to the grumpy manager who tells me that the only accommodation available is an old cottage at $ 40 a night. Heaven. Taking a shower amid the filthy things spread out in the cottage, I see the extent of the damage. My legs are a mixture of red, purple and yellow colors. It is not beautiful to see. The next day, feeling a little better, I get my bike back and tackle the kilometers. Thirty minutes later, I stop, beset by pain. Impossible. I can’t cycle. So I hitchhike by the side of the road and wait for hours for someone to deign to stop for a young woman and her bike. A local farmer, a little scary at first glance and whose car is a real dump, ends up taking me on. We are chatting along the way back and I have the feeling that my survival instinct slowly backs down in the depths of my brain. I don’t need it anymore. The farmer drops me off at Te Anau and I thank him a thousand times.

Following this mishap, I spend a few days resting physically and morally in the house of Jill and Alan. I spend a lot of time meditating on the lessons I have just learned, on my own limits and on what human beings are capable of doing in dangerous situations. And I am preparing the rest of my trip. I have decided to spend the next few months cycling up the west coast of the South Island. What better way to discover a country than cycling? It is practical, inexpensive, good for health and allows you to go almost everywhere while being in contact with nature. One chapter ends, another begins. It is time to turn the page. So I leave my second-hand bike to buy a more robust bike. As well as all the necessary equipment (luggage rack, bags, etc.) which is not an easy task and much more complicated than I thought. It must be said that I did not realize that cycle touring requires a little preparation. And that Fiordland is not the best place to buy good quality equipment at a price that is not too expensive. I had to inquire at full speed and make compromises but that’s it. Here I am finally ready. The bike is loaded. Bags at the back, plus tent and backpack for a total of around 20-25kg! It is probably too much. But I will see on the road. First stage: three days of roads and cycle paths through the mountains. Campsite surrounded by nature and following Lake Wakatipu to reach Glenorchy, north of Te Anau. Let’s be lucid, it may be difficult but I am happy to embark on the adventure. It is time to see the country. Goodbye Te Anau!

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