Laura Waters set off to hike the length of New Zealand to shake things up, jump out of the box and see what she was capable of. After six months of walking, she returned with so much more – a new attitude, new energy, and new skills. Not to mention fulfilling her lifelong dream starting a career as an author and travel writer.
Laura Waters’ book BeWILDered chronicles a 3000km journey. Back in 2017, Laura shared a snippet of what she learnt hiking the length of New Zealand, but that article only just scratched the surface. Now that her whole story (the good, the bad and the ugly) has been put to paper, we thought we’d catch up and find out more about this stellar read. We also found out that Laura’s going to be joining us at the Port Fairy Adventure Film Festival in a few week’s time. We’d love to see ya there!
Mattie: Why did you choose the Te Araroa track for your big hike?
Laura: The TA chose me. I actually had no plans to do a long-distance hike, though for years I’d wanted to do a big adventure. I was bored with living a ‘normal’ life and felt there must be something more. One night I was reading in a hiking mag about this new long-distance trail that had just opened up in NZ and immediately I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s my adventure.’ It seemed to have the right balance of challenge without being so rad that it might kill me.
Had you done much long-distance hiking before?
I’d done maybe half a dozen multi-day hikes beforehand, but the longest was the Overland Track in Tassie – a grand total of 65km over six days. I blew that record well out of the water after just four days on the TA, clocking up 100km of beach walking from the northern trailhead at Cape Reinga. It was a bit of a trial by fire, but the body adapts remarkably quickly. (Actually, it took about three weeks for the constant aches and pains to abate!)
What was the hardest moment of the trip? How close did you get to abandoning, if at all?
Abandoning the trip was never on the cards – quitting things is just not something I ever even think about – but in those first few weeks, I did wonder if I was going to have a miserable five months ahead of me. The body eventually gets used to the daily workout, but the terrain and elements regularly throw challenges at you. Mahoe Forest in the North Island reduced me to tears. It was so overgrown, with gorse ripping at my arms, chunks of branches breaking off in my hair and off-camber ground trail barely wide enough for one boot at times. It was exhausting.
Then there was the time I got blown off my feet a few times on an exposed ridgeline in the Tararua Range – that was quite surreal. My most scary moment though was getting caught in a sudden snowstorm in the South Island. The wind was painfully icy, the snow obscured wayfinding and my temperature just plummetted like a stone – I couldn’t feel my hands (like at all!). I had about half an hour to go to reach a hut. It was the longest half hour of my life.
Which are the hidden gems along the route? Any special spots?
Gosh, so many beautiful spots. My favourite section was Nelson Lakes National park in the South Island which was filled with snow-capped mountains, beech forests, clear rushing rivers and alpine views. But there were other lesser-known areas that surprised me with their natural beauty, like Takitimu and the Mavora Lakes at the bottom of the South Island. The Hakarimata Walkway in the North Island had some absolutely stunning mossy forest with a really good vibe to it.
I think its quite personal though. Everyone can have a different experience in different locations depending on their mindset at the time. I loved all the space and simplicity offered while hiking Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island but some people loathe it. Gratitude for what you’re experiencing makes a big difference.
After walking for six months, do you have any packing advice? Anything you carried the whole way but didn’t need, or wish you had?
My hot tip is to get rid of stuff sacks. I had so much dead space in my pack from all these cylindrical bags inside it. I have since been able to swap packs for one with 15 litres less capacity, simply through better packing. I keep my clothes in a dry bag (just to keep them all in one place) but it’s not done up. The sleeping bag and down jacket I just stuff in the bottom of my pack. It’s much quicker to pack and unpack too.
I have also since ditched the travel towel. I find a loofah mitt ideal for scrubbing the body clean, and a sturdy absorbent Chux dishcloth is just as effective as a towel in drying me.
What was more challenging: the hike, or writing Bewildered?
Good question! Writing a book (an engaging one) is not easy. When I first ‘finished’ writing my book I was quite happy with it, but then I enlisted the services of a professional book editor whose feedback was that we had ‘a very good base to start from’. Needless to say, I was devo! It was like thinking you’ve reached the top of a mountain only to find there are another three mountain ranges behind it.
What were your greatest learnings from the trails?
Gosh, where do I start? The skills and shift in perspective I gained on that hike fundamentally changed the course of my life. Before I started hiking I was a bit of a mess: suffering from anxiety, low self-esteem, head all over the place, dissatisfied with life. On the trail, I was free of the stresses of modern life and my anxiety symptoms were gone within weeks. I got to practise decision-making and learned to trust my gut and judgment, and that gave me the confidence to face future challenges.
I’ve stopped letting fear dominate my life, preferring to make calculated assessments on risk before I waste time worrying about stuff. Away from media and advertising and the noise of modern living, I got to really connect with myself and nature and it gave me a solid energy against which to recalibrate. When I returned home I changed my whole life, quitting my corporate job and starting a new career as an author and travel writer (a lifelong dream).
How are you involved with the Port Fairy Adventure Film Festival?
I will be doing a presentation, showing some awesome images and talking about the journey and what I learned. Then we’ll have a Q&A so people can pick my brain about anything and everything. I’ll also be talking to ABC local radio down there. I’m looking forward to hanging out with lots of likeminded crew.
You can catch Laura (and the WAE crew) at the Port Fairy Adventure Film Festival from November 8th to 10th.
Take a walk, it could change your life