The idea to visit all the huts in New Zealand came to me once I had completed the Te Araroa thru-hike in 2012. After that adventure, I realised that I had only scratched the surface. The new plan was for a three-year hike, named 900 Days 900 Huts. Despite having to delay my trip when my father became ill (he eventually passed away in 2014), my enthusiasm for the idea never waned. On a tramping forum, my fellow walkers all told me that my challenge was impossible: of course, I had to prove them wrong!
Fast forward two years, and I am almost three months into my adventure. It’s was nice morning in the Tararuas: blue sky and bright sunshine, but still very cold. My plan for the day? To walk from last night’s hut, the South Ohau Hut, to North Ohau Hut (NOH), via a wade-through of the Ohau river. That meant getting your shoes wet; one of the very few things we trampers dislike is getting our shoes wet so early in the day! By 7am I was walking the knee-deep Ohau river, by 10am I had made it to NOH, a little but new hut with two bunks and fireplace. I almost decided to stay there a night but for some reason thought of going to Mangahao Flat Hut (MFH). Little did I know that this would be my trip-ending mistake.
To get to my new destination, I either had double back on my morning route to reach the trail, a 20km walk, or bushwack for a few kilometers and then climb down to Mangahao river. The second option, a mere 3 km straight line distance, looked quite doable on the map. It seemed a no-brainer: I chose the latter.
It all started fine: the initial walk up the ridge was easy, and all I had to do was descend to the river - but it soon became clear that I had underestimated the walk. Thick bush and steep drops blocked my passage down to the hut, and I kept meeting dead ends. The foliage surrounding me was too thick to let any light through, and it was feeling dark. After several thwarted attempts, I realised that it was 2pm and I was still 400 vertical metres away from the hut. I began to doubt myself: panic was slowly setting in.
While negotiating another descent, I lost my balance and tumbled down the slope. Somehow, I managed to stop against the trunk of a tree, but my right knee took all the momentum and tore its meniscal cartilage (of course, I did not know that at the time). Although I was in pain, I ignored it as I could walk alright and the hut was only a few hundred metres away. I searched around for my walking poles which got separated from me during the fall and slowly I made my way down to Mangahao river, tired but happy. Relieved, I could not wait for the hot bowl of noodles and cous-cous.
A couple of weeks after I had taken that fall, I noticed that I had lost some muscle weight at that. Every few hundred metres, walking on the terrains of the mighty Tararuas, I was getting a sudden pang in my right knee. It was obvious that I needed to tend to the damage I had done to my knee, but I continued on. I was frustrated by having an injury so early in my three year walk, and thought I needed to get to 100th hut before I deserved a break. However, by day 91 and hut 99, I had lost most of my knee strength and the recurring pain had become even more frequent. I reluctantly got off the trail.
After a few sessions of physiotherapy and being off the trail for 2 months, I began to regain knee strength, but the sudden pangs of pain continued. I returned home and see a doctor, who performed a CT scan. This revealed that I had torn the outer periphery of my meniscal cartilage. Although I didn’t need surgery, I was advised against any strenuous walking. I was frustrated and angry at myself for allowing that injury to happen to me, my dreams shattered.
When I finished the Te Araroa, I felt immense satisfaction, and wanted to feel that again. But when something beyond my control stopped me from finishing the new challenge, I had to learn the art of humility. As the time went on and it became clear that it would be a long time before I got back on the trail, I began to accept my situation. I am a human: sometimes, we make wrong decisions and things go against us. What is the important thing, I realised, is that we get up and start again.
Now, I have a new perspective on the challenge. I think that I was foolish to make it a race against the clock. Although I had said it before that getting to all the 900 huts in as many days was optional, I wasn’t able to keep the challenge from the back of my head. This, I think, was part of the reason behind the injury. I now realise that tramping is by definition a leisure activity, not a race. I want to make safe choices now, not ones motivated by speed.
I think life is an adventure. Granted, for many people, it may not be an adventure in the mountains, but we all face challenges that we have to overcome. Part of the package of life is our success and failures, and we have to accept them both to make the most of our time. At the end of an adventure, it’s not the destination but the journey which we remember the most. I am glad to have had a chance to experience this tramping journey so far.