“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” – Helen Keller
The Queen Charlotte Track
Back when I was exploring New Zealand in 2011, the most adventurous thing that I had ever done was hike the Queen Charlotte Track with an Irish man, whom I had just met a few weeks prior. We went out to a track that runs 71km from the end of a highway, out towards the ocean through rolling hills surrounded by a sound (or seawater). It was probably the highlight of my backpacking experience, over those 2 years I spent abroad because I was feeling adventurous, but I knew not what the fuck I was doing and that will become apparent in the story to come!
The journey to the beginning of the Queen Charlotte track started off with a hike along a highway that led up hill and around a bend while cars passed by beside us. We were both cheap, poor backpackers and we were hoping someone may have pity on us and offer us a ride, rather than paying for a taxi. We were tiring ourselves out on this pre-journey, journey, and it seemed like luck had our backs because we were fortunate enough to be picked up by an elderly couple returning to their homes near the beginning of the track. Bless their hearts!
After we arrived to the beginning of the track, we took our bags that were way too fucking heavy to be taking on a hike this long and started off on our approximately 50km journey into the unknown. We brought with us, less than optimal backpacking grub, including my Irish friend’s full bag of potatoes that he brought with him, because… He’s Irish… Enough said.
Now, back in the day, I was in pretty good shape and a young buck so I was not afraid to exhaust myself or to challenge myself physically. I had just graduated from Police Foundations a year before or so, and I had taken up the gym religiously ever since. My friend, Tommy, however, did not share the same passion for fitness, and he was about to get wrecked!
With reports of impending rain, we rushed to try to finish the track as quickly as possible before it would hit in a few days. There was no time to stop and smell the roses, so we pushed hard. Near the beginning of the track, I had my first set back due to damp trails where I lost my boot in the mud and it soaked my sock straight through.
Eventually, I changed my socks and cleaned my shoes. The temperatures were cool and at night we wandered up a hill to a small opening in the woods where we set up tent. It seemed like the perfect spot to hide from trail patrols and to live like the poor bastards that we were. The moonlight bathed us in the silhouettes of gently breathing trees. All night the sounds of animals, especially wild pigs could be heard rummaging around our camping spot. The night came quickly and morning came slowly. We realized at this point, that we had not prepared for the cold that the evening’s brought.
The next morning started slowly as we made our way from our tent to cook up potatoes over a small portable burner with a used tin can which we ate beans out of the night before. We kept this can for all of our future cooking on the track, including coffee and tea.
It was 11 in the morning before we set off on the track again. We weren’t organized or prepared for the day ahead. My Irish friend was already struggling to keep up and we were both becoming dehydrated after drinking most of our water and using some to boil potatoes. After one particularly challenging ascent and descent we both dropped into a grassy patch of land and I imagine that I dramatically lay my hand across my forehead and demanded something to eat in order to go on.
Tommy didn’t debate my demands and we ate some rice, cheese, and soy sauce, with a bit of coffee to follow. Also some whisky, because you know – that’s an important hiking commodity? Especially when you’re dehydrated.
At 6 pm that night we called it quits and dropped to the ground with shaking legs. We pitched our tent in the middle of the path, just hoping that no one would come by so late in the evening. I fell asleep easily after laying down, but awoke again at 11 pm at night. Tommy was still awake and of course, we cooked more potatoes. He was beginning to regret his food of choice.
Afterwards, we walked down a nearby dirt road to some sort of isolated resort with nearby campsites, just for something to do. We talked and walked, and when we came back we fell back to sleep in the bitter cold.
Almost every night, after midnight, the temperature would drop so low that my thin sleeping bag and fully outfitted attire would not keep me from rolling around shivering at night. I wore thermal underwear, jeans, a shirt and a sweater to bed, but it didn’t help. I hugged myself in the fetal position until morning arrived.
We woke up and crawled out of bed at the crack of dawn. We packed up and then cooked ourselves some rice for breakfast before we took off on another tiring trek. Our mouths were dry and we could feel the effects of dehydration taking a toll on us far more than any perceived hunger or fatigue. We began boiling water that we would find at certain spots along the trail, including rainwater that was collected in massive containers in key spots. It didn’t stop us from drinking scotch or eating my poorly selected salted peanuts for a snack.
The break that we took on top of a mountain that day was the most memorable moment of the entire trip. we sat atop a mountain on a picnic table, boiling water for coffee while everything around the summit was engulfed by thick, white, soft-looking clouds. It gave me the impression that we were sitting in the likeness of what Heaven could be. We hiked 15 km’s on this day with our heavy packs and then set up camp again, Tommy trailing behind out of pure exhaustion.
After talking with Tommy for a while about the possibility of continuing for another day I was convinced that if I were to continue, that I would be doing so on my own. So, instead, we celebrated with a large meal of potatoes, cheese, rice, peanuts, soy sauce, and one orange. Then we lit a fire with dry wood we found and sipped at our bottle of Scotch. Eventually, we walked back up a hill to an area of cell reception and called a water taxi for the next day.
The plan was to arrive at Punga Cove in a place called “The Endeavor Inlet” by 11:15 am. We figured it would be a 3 hour walk to get there and Tommy claimed to have a sprained ankle at this point, so we went to bed early and awoke by 6 in the morning.
Unfortunately for me, I had spent most of the night listening to music on a broken MP3 player with a single working headphone. I was thirsty, tired and irritable, but eventually fell asleep for a short while before waking up for the last stretch of our journey.
I was dead and drained after packing and preparing for the final hike. As we walked, by body became more heated and slowly I had to strip away layer after layer of clothing to match my internal body temperature. At one point, Tommy split an orange with me and he completely restored my enthusiasm for the trip. On a hillside, we watched the sunrise and by 9:30 am we had arrived at Punga Cove Resort. We draped our broken bodies in a heap over a picnic table at the water’s edge and awaited our water taxi, eating cheese by the mouthful.
When we finally made it back to Picton and into Atlantis backpacker’s, I was happy and satisfied with having suffered through that hardship and I enjoyed more the comforts which we had denied ourselves on our journey. Everything tasted, felt and sounded better than it had before.
Our journey may have been ill-prepared with a lack of experience and sensibilities, but we had still achieved nearly 50 km’s with 30kg bags each, and we were proud of that. It was also a breath taking and spiritual experience. I would love to do something like this again one day. Although I’m terrified of bears in Canada!
If I were to ever do this again, I would not bring potatoes or salted peanuts and probably not such a large bottle of scotch.