Preparation for Te Araroa
Saturday, October 31, 2016, only two days left before I fly to New Zealand and start thru-hiking Te Araroa, my 1864-mile-long adventure.
Right now, I am sitting in the living room of what used to be an old bakery now transformed into a lovely vacation house in Brittany.
Outside, clouds are flying over the Breton countryside and automnal leaves are slowly beginning to form a thin multicolor layer on the ground. The wind dances harmoniously with the branches of a beech in front of me.
Two days! The simple thought of starting this challenge overwhelms me with a mixed feeling of fear and intense excitement
Finally! After two years of preparation, I am finally going to go on my human adventure and discover this country I have been dreaming of for so long.
When I look back at everything I had to do from the moment when I decided to create Experience Learn Inspire until today, I can’t help but flash a smile suffused with a certain nostalgia.
Discovering Te Araroa
I needed to find a first subproject to launch my self-fulfillment project! I had to find something that would allow me to bring together my passions, desires and to make one of my dream come true, to embody my core values and to show the world that it is possible for everyone to act in their own way, with their own means without needing a lot of resources.
Sitting on the chair of my office in Munich, I was taking advantage of a moment of stillness at work to find an idea for a first sub-project for Experience Learn Inspire. Actually, the best way to define this subproject was probably by starting to list its underlying components. Of course, these had to reflect my life project’s features.
First of all, I wanted this subproject to be cross-cultural so that I can keep on travelling, discovering new cultures and speaking my working languages. Then, I also wanted to highlight the human aspect by meeting strangers in order to share moments with them and keep on learning more about human relationships. Finally, one main facet of the challenge I was going to set for myself was the environmental one.
After long days of going over these ideas in my head, an old dream came back in my mind: New Zealand. Ever since I had seen the movie adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I had always dreamt to go visit those two islands overflowing with beautiful landscapes.
Climbing the snowy slopes of Caradhras, braving the volcano of Mount Doom, running in the Pelennord Fields alongside the brave Rohirrim and their devoted horses, taking a stroll in the Shire’s green valley to end up in front of Bilbo Baggin’s door for the tea, that sounded like a creazy dream that was worth living at some point of my life!
Going to New Zealand for a year with a working holiday visa, that was an idea that met the requirements of my subproject’s cross-cultural aspect and that was worth exploring in more details.
The only “problem” with New Zealand is that it is a small country! If I were to rent a van, it would probably only take me three of four weeks at most to drive through both islands from north to south. That meant that I would still have eleven months to kill before my visa expires. Besides, driving a van means running on gasoline, and gasoline pollutes! Furthemore, using a van to drive through the whole country was probably not the best way to meet Kiwis the way I wanted to.
At that point, an idea, that I first considered absurd, crossed my mind: if I was not happy with the idea of driving through New Zealand, I could always … walk through the whole country! It would be a wonderful way to travel at human speed without using gasoline and to easily discover landscapes and get to talk to locals to discover their culture. And needless to say that such an adventure would probably take a few months of my time!
Walking through New Zealand. From a logistic point of view, such a challenge seemed impossible at first. How was I going to get food or find water? Where was I going to sleep? On which trails was I going to walk in order to avoid roads used by cars as much as possible? I had absolutely no clue about those key elements, which first led me to disregard for a few weeks the eventuality of walking through the country.
However, a thought was keeping my mind occupied: If mike Horn had managed to circumnavigate the world around the equator totally alone and without motorized transport, I could probably just consider the idea of walking through two westernized islands, which had had the brilliant idea of leaving all stinging, crawling and poisonous creatures to their ozzie neighbors and to keep only sheeps, kiwis and possums! After all, it could not hurt just to check…
And then, one day quite unlike the others, I decided to google four words that were going to be decisive for the rest of my adventure: “Walking through New Zealand”. The first results shown by Google particularly drew my attention: the research engine suggested that I visit a website with the very Kiwi name of “Te Araroa”.
This is when I discovered that there not only were a hike stretching the entire length of New Zealand, but also, and that was the cherry on the cake, that this hike was designed to connect existing treks going through the country’s most beautiful landscapes while allowing hikers to regularly get fresh food and water supplies and to sleep in their tents or in huts.
At that very moment, one thing was clear in my mind: I had found my adventure in Middle Earth!
Getting my equipment together
Te Araroa! Those two words would allow me to hit two targets with one bullet: it would be a dream come true and a perfect answer to the never-ending question „Which accomplishment are you the proudest of in your life?“ asked during each and every job interview.
Now that I had decided to go on this adventure, I had to choose a date to start: I settled for November 2016. This would give me one and a half years to put some money aside and start researching to prepare such a hike. I also had to buy all my gear, given that I had none.
At that point started my initiatory journey in the amazing world of hiking gear, and more precisely, ultralight backpacking gear. Indeed, after researching on the Internet for a few days, I quickly realized that the lighter I would hike, the easier and more comfortable my adventure would be. However, using ultralight backpacking gear, which leaves less room to comfort than normal hiking gear, also meant that I had to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to use this gear without putting myself in danger.
Ultralight backpacking philosophy is pretty straight-forward and can be explained as „carrying the lightest and simplest gear safely possible for a given trip”. Some ultralight backpacking enthusiasts manage to walk thousands of miles with a pack weighing between 12 and 20 pounds…
In order to achieve such a weight, some gear choices are pretty obvious: it is much better to carry an item with multiple uses (a helmet liner can be used as scarf, woolly hat and towel; hiking poles can be used to pitch a tent) than many items with only one use.
Other choices can be a little bit more surprising however: cutting your toothbrush and throwing away the grip allows you to save some weight and space. Some go as far as to take out some of the toothbrush fibers to go a couple of ounces lighter…
Finally, some choices involve an extensive hiking experience and a deep knowledge of one’s personal limits. Some hikers use their specifically designed poncho as a tarp, a single walled shelter without a floor under which you can sleep and that will protect you from bad weather conditions. Useless to mention that you will save a lot of weight using a tarp but the induced lack of comfort is a good enough reason to think about it twice before settling for such an option.
As far as I was concerned, I decided to go for a weight of around 26 pounds without consumables (water, food and fuel). This choice did not place me in the hardcore ultralight hikers category but in the category of lightweight hikers, which was already a laudable goal for someone starting from nothing.
From that moment on, I spent months reading blogs in French and English about all ultralight backpacking items and about the gear used by experienced thru-hikers who had already tramped Te Araroa or other great walks in North America.
I learned as much as I could about how to layer clothes in order to effectively wick away perspiration without losing body warmth, about the differences between aluminum, stainless steel and titanium in terms of weight and heat transfer to choose the right cooking gear or about the correct way to carry my backpack on my waist.
For hours, I read about different types of mattresses and sleeping bags, boots, external batteries, personal locator beacons and rain jackets.
I also discovered that there were not only one north but three and that a compass bought in the northern hemisphere would not work correctly if used in the southern hemisphere.
Researching the most appropriate equipment for my hike quickly became a passion to which I would engage in as often as possible. Reading gear reviews on Outdoor Gear Lab had become one of my favorite hobby.
I also spent hours at Globetrotter, the benchmark outdoor equipment store in Munich and my personal heaven, to compare and try out the stuff I had read about online. After some times, I knew the store and gear as well as the staff itself!
It took me a little bit more than one and a half years to get everything sorted and buy all the pieces of equipment I needed. I even had to import some items from outside Europe. For example, I imported my backpack and tent from the US, where ultralight backpacking gear developed by small companies is much more common than in Europe. In total, I invested probably around €2,000 ($2,200) in my equipment.
Physical and mental preparation
While getting my equipment together, I also had to get my body and mind ready for the stress put into walking 1864 miles with a total weight of around 33 pounds on my back.
Even if it is very difficult to fully prepare the body for such an effort with a sedentary and urban lifestyle, I could still keep in shape by doing sport. So I went running and swimming on a regular basis. Moreover, doing krav maga for 9 months and dancing salsa, bachata and kizomba very regularly also helped me keeping a good level of physical fitness.
However, there is nothing better in order to get prepared for a hike than going hiking, and for this, Bavaria offered an idyllic setting. I took advantage of Munich’s proximity with Bavarian Prealps to go on one-day hikes and test my gear.
Once I received my tent from the US, I could plan a two-day trip with one night sleeping in the tent. This first excursion was full of valuable lessons that would turn out to be crucial for the rest of my adventure.
I had planned an easy hike leading me from the small town of Garmisch-Patenkirschen to Eibsee Lake, where I would camp for a night in the surrounding forest, in a clear area I had located using Google Map.
The hike went smoothly and I easily found the clearing where I wanted to settle for the night. As luck would have it, a hunting watchtower was located near the clearing.
Once my evening meal eaten, I decided to pitch my tent on a spot that had to be as flat as possible, but I only found a slightly bowl-like ground. This detail did not bother me at first, but it would turn out to be of paramount importance afterwards.
At 8 pm, I was comfortably lying down in my tent, ready to fall asleep. However, as I had accustomed my biological clock to go to sleep at around 11 pm and I was not particularly tired, I still had three hours to kill before falling into Morpheus’ arms and I had nothing to do.
Pulling out my smartphone, I then realized that I had absolutely no network, and that I could not use WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to communicate with my friends. I was then overwhelmed by a strange feeling, a feeling that swept me off my feet due to its unforseen nature: an enormous loneliness!
At that very moment, the only thing I wanted was to send a message to my friends to let them know about the way I felt. They did not have to answer, just knowing that I had sucessfully sent out a message that they would read at some point was good enough for me. But this was not possible and my sudden and immense need to feel connected with somenone could not be met.
In our hyperconnected society, we usually do not realized how little time we spend truly alone. There is always a way to send a message to a friend or family member or to phone them. There is always a neighboor, an acquaintance or a stranger’s face in the street to remind us that we are not alone. But I was in the midst of experiencing what it felt like to be completely disconnected, alone and lonely, with no one to talk to, and this feeling was terrifying.
This is when it started to rain. Well-protected in my sleeping bag under my tent, I theoritically had nothing to fear. However, as it was my first time sleeping under that tent, I was not sure wether it was going to deliver on its promise or not and keep the rain out. So I tried my best to keep my mind occupied in order not to think about loneliness and rain and eventually, I fell asleep.
At around 11:30 pm however, I was awoken by drops of water dripping through the outer fabric of my tent and falling on my face. This is when I understood the mistake I had made earlier. My tent has the special caracteristic of being pitched using my trekking poles. The later have to be positioned in a way that the space between the extremity of both poles holding up the outer fabric is a big as possible so that the fabric stays tight and does not touch the inner fabric. Nonetheless, I had pitched my tent on a slightly bowl-like ground and I had no guy line to keep the extremity of both poles as apart as possible. Because of the weight of the rain falling on the outer fabric, both poles had tipped toward one another and the outer fabric was touching the inner fabric, letting the rain slowly dripping through.
At that point, I had only one solution left to prevent my tent from turning into a small paddling pool before morning and its inhabitant from suffering from hypothermia, I had to pack all my stuff in the dark and try as best as I could to sleep in the watchtower until the sun rises. Demonstrating a sense of self-control I did not know I had, I managed to pack my gear with little difficulty and headed toward my makeshift shelter.
Useless to mention that this night was not the best night I ever had in my life and the seven hours spent trying to sleep in the cold gave me enough time to think through some important details: if I wanted to take on te Araroa with peace of mind, I absolutely had to buy guy lines for my tent to pitch it corretly. I also had to acquaint myself in more depth with all my gear. Besides, I also had to learn to deal with loneliness and I had to find little hobbies to avoir getting bored to often.
The few hikes under the rain that followed this first excursion showed that I had been right to persevere and that I had made the right choice. Adding guy lines was the perfect way to keep the poles straight up and the outer fabric tight, and the tent did not take on water anymore. I also learned to get used to the lack of space in my tent as a living space of 15.2 ft2 requires a minutely planned logistic.
In order to deal with loneliness, I decided to do breathing exercices and to meditate. The goal was to learn to stay calm, manage emotions and keep my head clear to discover what this feeling of profound loneliness could teach me about myself.
Finally, I decided to take my tin whistle with me and to scan the book to save it on my tablet. I also downloaded a few e-books to keep me busy from time to time.
„Stepping out of you comfort zone is always difficult, but nothing in life that is worth doing or having will ever be easy.“
Mike Horn, explorer and adventurer