What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word “backpacking?” My mind immediately wanders to the Gilmore Girls revival, in which Lorelai Gilmore abandons her attempt to do the Pacific Crest Trail after realizing that she can’t fit freeze-dried mac n’ cheese into her pack. Maybe you think of adventure, campfires, and fresh air. Or perhaps you cringe at the thought of spending even one night in a tent. In New Zealand, backpacking culture is everywhere. Tourists come from all over the globe to explore New Zealand’s national parks and live for a week in the bush. Much like the other international students at University of Otago, I arrived in New Zealand with the intention of hiking, camping, and adventuring all over the country as frequently as possible. Although I had a good amount of experience car camping, I had never been backpacking before, but knew that my first backpacking adventure should absolutely take place in New Zealand.
A few weeks ago, I made the decision to do the Abel Tasman National Park coastal track with several friends. Our plan was to conquer a total of 60 kilometers (37.5 miles) in four days, with three nights of camping. To be honest, I didn’t think much of our trip until the morning of our departure arrived- I was an experienced camper and hiker, and didn’t see how backpacking could be much different. After cramming bug spray, cooking gas, and a sleeping bag into my already bulging pack, I felt ready to conquer Abel Tasman.
During the first day of our trek, I felt tranquil and completely at ease. Although we arrived at Te Pukatea, our first campsite, a bit later than expected, our first meal and night in the tent went smoothly. However, the hours that ensued were much more challenging than I anticipated. After about 3 miles into the day, my head began to hurt from dehydration. Unlike much of New Zealand, the water at Abel Tasman has to be treated before consumption, so I was unable to fill my bottle at a stream nearby. My pack, which weighed about 25kg, dug into my shoulders and made it harder to march along the path. After hiking, driving, and being slightly uncomfortable during my first night on the ground, I felt exhausted. However, we had a total of eight hiking hours to catch up with friends who started the track a day earlier, and I had to find ways to entertain my mind- otherwise time would pass excruciatingly slowly.
At first, all I could think about was my own discomfort, but I gradually became appreciative of the fact that my body was physically capable of hiking so far while carrying such weight. I noticed the way that my feet softened to the contours of the track, the way that my lungs filled with air as I stopped and took a look at the view, the manner in which the muscles in my legs hardened as I clambered uphill. This consciousness reminded me of the self-consciousness that I struggle with in my daily life- specifically how others perceive my personality and intentions. I started to wonder how and why this personal discomfort came to be, and tried to focus on my own experience and thoughts rather than what others were seeing in me. This led me to take in my surroundings more deeply. I examined the changing landscape of the trail- from tropical forest to sandy coast- and inhaled the scent of fresh growth. As I approached the six-hour mark of our hike, I realized that I had entertained my mind with a constant cycle of self-examination that I had never accomplished before in my life.
Unfortunately, the last two hours proved to be much more of a challenge than the rest of the day. As my toes began to blister and my legs weakened, my psychological thought cycle was punctuated by thoughts of discomfort. Eventually, pain consumed me psychologically, and I had to concentrate solely on forcing myself to complete the hike.
Every day of Abel Tasman that followed led to hours of sleep lost, increased dehydration, and exhaustion. Although my psychological musings continued each morning, they were broken increasingly rapidly by thoughts of discomfort. On the last morning, I awoke with a fever, and had to resort to sheer psychological willpower to get myself to our final destination. After exiting the trail, driving home to Dunedin for 10 hours, and finally laying in my bed, I gained a profound sense of gratitude for civilization.
What did I learn from Abel Tasman? I have thought about this question thoroughly since my trip, and compiled the following list of lessons:
- Backpacking, like many other things in life is NOT a race, but a journey. Rather than going as fast as possible, it is so important to take things slowly and enjoy the experience.
- Isolation leads to self-discovery. Along the trail, I was able to identify things about my life that bother me that I am usually unable to pinpoint in daily life. After backpacking, I am committed to identifying those problems and erasing them.
- Things will go wrong! The best way to handle any adverse situation is staying calm, not jumping to extreme conclusions, and allowing a solution to slowly materialize.
- I want to be a vegetarian! This one is super random, but I have been thinking about going veggie for a while now for environmental reasons. After spending 4 days eating only dried fruit, nuts, beans, and rice and being perfectly satisfied, I’m doing it! Hello veggie life!
- Life is too short to surround yourself with negative people. Shed the ones who bring you down, and gather those who make you feel happiest.
- There’s nothing like a challenge to make you appreciate your life. After spending 4 days in the wilderness, I have never cherished running water, hot showers, my bed, or my laptop more.
On a final note, nothing fuels my passion for environmental conservation like a backpacking trip. Being totally immersed in the natural environment makes a person so much more aware of the intricate biological, chemical, and geological systems that drive life on our planet. I’d like to think that the current American administration would stop whining about how climate change is a hoax if they were all forced to backpack for a week. At a time in history when unprecedented sea level rise, global temperature increase, and environmental degradation are wreaking havoc around the globe, it is imperative for individuals to gain greater understanding of the natural world that serves as our home. As we attack the natural environment with increasing force, she will only come back with a more powerful vengeance.