Alone at the bottom of the world: a sneak peek at ‘Finding Solo’

The following is a segment from Finding Solo: One woman’s epic battle with the NZ coast, a book I just completed ghostwriting with kayaker Lynn Paterson. The final edits were made today and it went out to a publisher, at last. Now for the nervous wait. In the meantime, and with Lynn’s permission, here’s a brief taste of what the book holds.

‘Enlightenment isn’t found with a full stomach or on a soft pillow’ — Conrad Anker, American mountaineer

Thought for the day, Redz NZ Journey, Day 165

Bluff to Jackson Bay, 53 days, 13 paddling days

On Thursday, February 25, Day 122 of my journey, I sat on the beach at Oban, Stewart Island, looked out over the ocean and had a rare moment of reflection—of looking back, then looking forward. Looking back, I reflected on the ups and downs of the past 122 days and realised none so far had been as harsh as the insane depression grenade that exploded in my lap when my son came back into my life. To be a carer of someone with depression is the toughest—tougher than anything I’d experienced on the water so far. I remembered the strength I’d needed to get through the hard days of helping someone dear to me deal with his mental illness, and even allowed myself to smile—because that was the reason I’d started living for me and my dream.

Looking forward, I thought about the next two months and the challenges in front of me. I took a moment to take a deep breath. I knew the challenges were about to mount. The weather would soon change and I’d be heading towards winter as I made my way up the west coast of the South Island. Before that, I had to navigate round to Puysegur Point, the souwestern corner of NZ, and then take on the challenge of mighty Fjordland with its many sounds. It was all unknown to me—the landscape, the weather, the people. I knew it was going to be tough. And what’s more, I would be alone. There was no access for Cussie along that stretch of coast, and for the most part no iPhone coverage either. I would be completely solo, with only my InReach unit to keep me in contact with the support crew.

But I had completed Stewart Island. That was no small thing. I knew that whatever lay ahead I would face it the way I had everything that came before. The previous day, I had paddled to Black Rock and back, just to complete the full circumnavigation of the island. In a couple of days I would catch the ferry back to the mainland and enjoy the beginning of oyster season. And then I would set the nose of T2 to the west and face whatever was around the corner.

And that’s how it turned out. Nat and I camped in Invercargill waiting for a weather window to head west, all the while trying to persuade someone to release oysters to us before the season opened. No way that was happening! Eventually, and just before I was about to paddle away, Nat was able to get me some.

My Dad loved oysters. In the old days they used to come in 20 dozen tins. They would get flown up to all areas of NZ from Bluff and Dad always used to get a couple of tins. He’d open up the can, put the oysters into jars, then share them out. We used to think they were gross as kids. Every fortnight we went to town and got fish and chips and Dad got a dozen battered oysters. We stole the batter and let him have the oyster because we didn’t like the taste, but eventually we got used to it because it was still on the batter.

I sat in Monkey Islet eating oysters wrapped in bacon, the first of the new season. Nat looked over.

‘You all right?’ she said. ‘You are very quiet,.’

‘I am just tired,’ I said. ‘Really.’

I was actually trying to keep the new belly of nerves under control and remove the doubters’ comments from my brain—and focus on the ‘what next’ of the trip. The unknown stuff gave me new nerves. Solo in Fjordland was a brand new challenge.

Leaving Bluff, the first major goal was Puysegur, then on to Fjordland. First stop, Monkey Island, Day 128 (March 2, the day after oyster season began)—a 75km paddle. Next day, Port Craig, a 32km paddle. And radio silence, the whole way—which was the biggest concern when we pushed off from Monkey Island Beach (Orapuki) with a kayak filled withall my gear and food for three weeks. Nat took it upon herself to take down our large bag of potatoes and a couple of kumara, and in any gap she could find inside T2 she would wedge a potato. I still love her for that—a fire-baked potato on a lonely beach became one of my fab moments of joy. At the time my thoughts were whether T2 would sink on being launched. But she floated—and wow, we were off.

This was the section most people had asked me about: Where will you stay? What will you do solo? How will you cope? The fact was, I found it easier to channel my thoughts, my nerves and my energy when I was solo. It was when I started to share with others that I got thrown off my focus. I had some fears and anxious moments about the unknown, such as what the weather was going to throw at me. But you have to trust that it’s going to be okay—and when it wasn’t okay, that was when you hunkered down on a beach in your tent and waited, trying to enjoy the challenge. I was becoming more comfortable with being in that solo space. People were afraid for me going it alone, but I wasn’t scared. In fact, every day now I smiled more and more on the inside and out. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody, I was just being me. That was empowering.

The next day was a 53km paddle to Green Islet. That’s where things came a little undone.

Setting off from Port Craig, my intended landing was Puysegur Point. I saw fishermen on the water and asked them to radio Meri Leask at the Bluff Fisherman’s radio to tell her I was fine. It was wild and amazing, and calm. I told him where I was headed. As I got past Green Islets—a series of rocks in the ocean with coves and beaches on the mainland—I heard another boat coming up behind me, but not until he was really close. By now the waves had white caps and I knew I had another 20km to go to Puysegur—in these worsening conditions that meant three-plus hours of slog. They told me the winds had come early and it was blowing 25 knots up ahead already. Gates Harbour was another 10km ahead, which was probably a two-hour paddle in that weather. That’s where the fishermen were going to pull in. I decided both places were too far and I turned into Green Islets, landing in a big, curved horseshoe bay with 70m cliffs all around me.

The bay was beautiful, apart from the sandflies. I had a new scheme for dealing with them. I stayed in the water and smothered myself with repellant. When I landed, I quickly put the scarf up over my head and covered my face, then stripped off my kayaking clothes and lay them on the beach. The sandflies seemed to like the smelly kayak gear, so it gave me a couple of minutes’ peace. I gathered firewood and lit a fire and the smoke helped to keep the sandflies away.

It took me a while to decide what to cook for dinner that night. Eventually I made a large pot of food, with enough for the next day—venison mince, potato, beetroot and onion, all together to make a stew. Sitting on the beach and putting my thoughts to paper, my mind returned again to my son, and to people who were caring for loved ones through depression. Big hugs to them. I was in the biggest solo journey of my life and it kept reminding me of how isolating caring for people with mental health issues can be. Here I was, alone at the bottom of the South Island, cut off from normal communications, sealed off from the worldby 70m rock walls. Solo. I shed one or two tears for my son in Green Islets. I think they were about accepting that I had cut the umbilical cord, accepting that I had no control, accepting the fact of what I had done and that I was at peace with it. I also thought about Jason. I was beginning to realise that there are only a few very real people that you can, and need to, rely on.

I lay in the tent on that first night and wished everyone else could share the moment. My words didn’t tell the real story. I wished they could smell the burning fire, taste the food cooked over it, be lying in a tent listening to the fishing boats passing and the waves lapping, feel the wind on the tent and be curled up in a sleeping bag and feel how blissful it was. The wind had arrived, yes, but I was protected by the cliffs and the trees.

I spent a week on that beach, camping in my tent, sheltering from the storms, collecting food left behind on the rocks by the ocean, and pondering life. It was like Castaway. I adored that book when I read it in the 80s and being stuck on my island was a dream. I was like Lucy Irvine, but solo, with no man to fend off. But I quickly became the caged tiger. It’s an interesting phenomenon, being on the beach so close to the ocean—Mother Nature tortures you. The wave crashes on the sand and rolls back. Boof!! Take that! You’re not getting out on this. You start to imagine the waves aren’t as big as what Jason is saying via the InReach unit. You talk to yourself, tell yourself it’s possible to go. Then there’s a calm patch, and it’s like she’s calling you out. She takes on a personality and she teases you. It’s a battle between you and her, but it’s a battle you can’t ever win. You know in your sane state you shouldn’t go out, then the devil’s voice comes back and tells you you’ve lost your mojo again. You’re never going to get around Puysegur. Even the well sailed yachtsmen fear and dread this point—why did a little kayaker think she could pass by unscathed? The only thing that kept me sane was that the crayfishermen had disappeared. They don’t go out when the weather is bad—because they know they’ll die.