“Do your homework”. The forest ranger gave his advice with his best intentions. He clearly couldn’t resist it, and I couldn’t blame him to be fair. For me, it seemed a fantastic idea to walk alone through a huge nature reserve without any hiking experience. In the midst of winter, that is. His gaze spoke volumes after he listened to my plan. Oh, here’s another (foreign) young man who gets himself in trouble by overestimation or poor preparation. Here’s another jackass that’s going to underestimate the unpredictable conditions of New Zealand’s mountains. Yeah, I fitted perfectly into a notorious at-risk category. That’s why he urged me to get a PLB (a GPS emergency beacon). I bought one with the remainder of common sense I still had. After all, life is worth more than a few hundred bucks.
There was a lot of fallout in the days before my departure, accompanied by a southern cold front from Antarctica. It’s far from ideal conditions, but hey. Too bad. My patience ran out after I waited for days (in vain) for better weather conditions. This seems doable. No more overthinking or waiting for the non-existing perfect moment. Wandering through a bit of nature, how hard can it be? Well, let’s find out. The heat was on from the start. Half-frozen swamps, slippery rocks, wild flowing rivers and a thick blanket of snow above the tree line. All this natural beauty was mine, there was no one in this godforsaken area. Beautiful, it couldn’t be better. I got away with my inexperience for two days. But the harsh confrontation with a merciless truth came on the third day. I clearly wasn’t ready yet for these kinds of antics.
I had to cross a not too wide yet strong flowing river. Carefully I observed, taking my time to look for the best route. After a while, I thought I saw it. With Dutch courage I went for it (and without any prior experience in river-crossings). Of course, I did this without walking sticks since I saw them as unnecessary luxury items for old folks. Excruciatingly slow I struggled towards the other side. It was so close, yet so far. The cold chilled me to the bone. Pain makes it tempting to rush through the literally ice-cold water. But one uncontrolled movement would flush me and my stuff away, which would have huge consequences. The current came till my hips. I struggled with my balance; I nearly lost my grip several times. Finally, I reached the other side, in utter concentration and full of adrenaline. Relieved and somewhat intimidated, I walked on. The route went over a snowy mountain ridge by the end of the afternoon. Without the assistance of the snow-covered cairns, I got lost. And to top it off: an icy southern wind went through all my layers of clothing, it almost got dusky, everything looked a-like in the white landscape and I didn’t carry a tent with me. Madness and panic struck. I cursed and yelled my head off. Enormous amounts of stress triggered a spontaneous panic-shit – which really exists, apparently. My mind regained clarity after a refreshing in-the-wild poop-session. Count to ten and keep thinking, for god sake. I took another good look at the map and my surroundings. Round two was mine: I suddenly saw a new starting point in the distance. I rushed down the mountain, back below the tree line, back to a path with more clarity and clues.
Finally, I arrived at a solid-frozen mountain hut. At last, I was sheltered from that damn southern wind. Rarely was I so happy with a shelter that was barely warmer inside from the outside. Completely numbed I lay huddled in my sleeping bag, recalling the forest ranger’s words. He would return my homework in utter disapproval. It’s a comforting thought to carry a PLB, but it’s meant as a last resort in the case of life-threatening situations or force majeure cases. My amateurish shenanigans clearly didn’t fall within these categories. In fact, these were simply ill-considered stupidities without the required experience, skills and equipment. Furthermore, I hoped there will be someone by the end of this backcountry track to get a lift from. The mountain hut’s logbook provided little hope; I was the first visitor in over two months. Well, duh, who the hell does something like this? Risks and fire baptisms, I don’t turn my back to them. But this foolish enterprise clearly went too far, what the hell am I doing. I was acting like a ‘top banker’ of an over-sized and overly influential system-bank. Even if indifference, an enormous ego or overconfident recklessness were to get me, the taxpayer would still come to the rescue. I would be flown back to a safe haven, free of own charge. Good, then I can get back on track. Those built-in certainties and safety nets of society are quite handy. You can make good use of them, especially if you’re known with the loopholes and weak links of the system. Non-committal, getting picked up for a penny, demanding aid while others might need it more. Not experiencing the direct consequences of your own stupidities, that’s not how it should be. You’re not winning any popularity contests by such actions. No wonder the Kiwi’s try to put a stop to this by legislation, protocols and fines. Does it have any effect? Go ask them. But I’ve learned my lesson. From now on, I’ll think twice before I undertake another endeavor.
Like so many others, I became wise through pain and struggle while I could’ve done it differently.