SK Valleys 07/01/18
Marianne Elliott with Mark Greig and Lani Evans
(photos by Lani)
All smiles at Putara Road End – 4:28am
I’ve read other SK reports, and they are filled with useful information about navigation, logistics and timing. I have very little, if anything, to add to the advice of those much more experienced than I. So this report is about the things I noticed, which are probably quite different to what a more practical person might note as they planned for and then undertook a mission like this.
I learned a long time ago in my professional and personal life to always team up with people who are practical and then trust and follow their lead on the logistics. So if you want to know more about how we navigated the SK valleys, how we managed to find the exit from the river so quickly, and never once stray more than a few metres from the path, you’ll want to ask Lani and Mark.
I’m not much use to you if you want to work out exactly what kind of gear you should take with you (although I do recommend making Jan’s version of Lou’s mountain loaf, and adding tumeric to help manage inflammation, recipe below), but I do have some reflections on why you would do something like this, and on the beauty and meaning to be found in every step.
Because there is SO much beauty. That’s what the SK reports I had read in preparation for this mission hadn’t told me: just how very, very beautiful it would be.
The beauty of the SK valleys
From the start, as the encouraging ‘more-walk’ calls of the ruru slowly gave way to the morning chorus as we approached Roaring Stag, through the cold, clear sunrise over the cool blues of the river boulders, into the golden light of early evening on the fields of tall grass as we left Totara Flats and through every moment of the day and into the evening, this journey was so much more beautiful than I had expected. It was filled with moments of beauty. And that was my first lesson – enjoy every moment.
Golden light leaving Totara Flats Hut, about 6:15pm
- Enjoy the journey
As with many cliches, there’s a deep truth in the reminder that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. But that can be easy to forget when you have such a clear destination. Kaitoke – it might as well have been written on every sign and marker we came across, so determined was I that I was getting there. But there were 16 other marker points on our journey plan, and thousands, maybe tens of thousands of steps, between each of them. So why not enjoy them all?
At one point between Mitre Flat Hut and Atiwhakatu Hut I said to Mark, ‘Now I know what Kevin meant about this section going on forever’. Then I thought ‘Why am I in a hurry to get to Atiwhakatu? Look how beautiful this track is, look at the moss-covered rocks, and the waterfalls, enjoy them now, and don’t wish them away. There will be more beauty to come after Atiwhakatu, but this is the beauty available to you now, enjoy it.’
Lani and I looking happy, Mark practicing his Zoolander face at Totara Flats Hut
This is how my years of meditation practice have prepared me for long missions. While many others were in the mountains learning to read a ridgeline or track a river, I was sitting on a cushion in a zendo, learning to walk one step at a time. And that’s a much more useful skill than you might imagine.
When my mind gets ahead of me, thinking about how far I still have to go or fixating on some challenge that still lies ahead, I come back to this step. This piece of ground beneath my feet. This lush green fern. This leaf. This breath. This patch of dappled sunlight on the forest floor. This beautiful moment. If you can string enough beautiful moments together you’ll find you’ve completed the SK Valleys. And you may, like me, have some inkling that the reason why you completed it was not the hat after all, but the thousands of beautiful moments along the way.
One of many beautiful views between Cow Creek Hut and Mitre Flats
There are, however, going to be moments in a mission like this when coming back to the beauty of the moment won’t be enough to keep you going. In those moments you need what Martini called ‘the eye of the tiger’, that determination to succeed that keeps you going when things are tough.
I call it ‘no doubt’
- Have no doubt
The best advice I’ve been given by people who have achieved amazing things comes down to one simple rule: when you show up at the start line do so with absolutely certainty that you will complete what you are starting. Whether that be an Olympic sprint final, a concert performance of Rachmaninov, or a mission through the valleys of the Tararua range – start with no doubt that you will do exactly what you have trained, prepared and come to do.
Of course, the truth isn’t that simple. Before we started, I had doubts. I wasn’t altogether confident I had the skill required for this mission. But I deliberately set my doubts aside the minute we stepped onto the track at 4.28am. Doubts have their place in the preparation for a mission like this, they help us plan for contingencies and train a bit harder. But once you start, they do you no good. So I loaded up No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’ in my mental playlist* and started with the confidence that I would finish.
There were a few moments when I needed that confidence. Early on in the river section I was trying to pull myself up onto the rock face out of a pool that was too deep for me to touch the bottom. My hands were so cold that my fingers wouldn’t grip properly and on my first attempt I fell badly knocking my knee, smacking my thigh on a rock and hitting my elbow hard. On the next attempt I got a grip with my freezing fingers, but the knee which had just taken a bang refused to do the work of pushing me up out of the water and I fell again. It was 7.30am, we’d only be going 3 hours and I anticipated that I had at least 20 hours ahead of me.
I felt whispers of doubt creeping into my mind. I knew I had to dig deeper, push harder and get out of that pool because I had a date with a carpark in Kaitoke to get to. So I consciously switched the track in my brain from doubt to determination, called up the power of Gwen Stefani and hauled myself out of that damned river.
Drenched but determined.
(Important note: The ‘no doubt’ mindset never takes priority over safety. We had perfect conditions, no injuries and no reason to stop. But we had asked Hugh to wait at Putara for us in case we found the river unsafe and chose to abort, carried gear for changes in conditions, and had built-in redundancy both in terms of navigation and emergency communication. Be determined, but first, be safe.)
- Be grateful
The research has been done, the results are in, and the good news is that feeling grateful is good medicine. Good for our mental and physical health, it turns out. If you are a bit low on thankfulness, I highly recommend taking on a big physical challenge in the beautiful New Zealand wild as a way to replenish your gratitude banks.
It doesn’t have to be the SK Valleys, it can be whatever mission takes your fancy and matches your skills and fitness. But if you do it in a place where you’ll get glimpses of wildness and do it with the help of people you love, and I guarantee your gratitude tank will be filled.
I spent most (but let’s be honest, not all!) of the 20 hour and 47 minutes of my SK Valley adventure feeling incredibly grateful. I was thankful for the people who had built and who maintained the huts, tracks and bridges that made this mission possible. Thankful for my health, and that my 45 year old body still (relatively) willingly carries me long distances with only minor complaints.
After many years living and working in countries affected by war and conflict, I was thankful that I live in a country where three civilians can walk through a forest without fear of landmines or paramilitary activity. I was grateful we were walking all day because we chose to, for the joy and challenge of it, not because our home had been destroyed by war.
I was thankful for my friend Lani, who chooses to go on these adventures with me even though she spends most of her day waiting for me, and could complete them much more quickly without me. And grateful to Lani’s fiancee Hugh who drove us to Putara, slept in his car and then stuck around for 4 more hours in case we found the river was too high.
Find yourself a friend who will go on every crazy mission with you, wait for you when you are slow (also known as ‘always’) and take selfies that make you look good 12 hours into an SK Valley mission. Lani is mine, so you’ll have to find your own.
I was thankful to all the people who had undertaken this mission before us who tracked their journey so we could so easily check we were on track, to Chris Martin for being such a great cheerleader of everyone who takes on this challenge and to Caroline O’Neill who left us an encouraging note and some plums along the way!
Enjoying fresh plums and some encouragement left anonymously for us by the lovely Caroline O’Neill (the mystery gave us something to talk about for the next little while)
And most of all I was – and am – grateful for Mark – who agreed to do this with me even though he was still recovering from his massive SK Main Ridge mission. Grateful for his faith in my ability to do this, and for his willingness to do whatever it took to help me fulfil this goal. He’s a keeper.
*Quick side warning about mental playlists – as you’ve probably already discovered they take on a life of their own. You may think you loaded up Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ but about halfway into your mission it will turn into Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. On reflection, for most of you this is more likely to happen in reverse. Lani somehow got stuck with three lines of Dido’s godawful ‘White Flag’ and was at risk of going down with that ship until I threw her the very questionable life-ring of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’. Ha! That’s what friends are for. (No there’s an earworm if ever I heard one).
Looking a bit deranged, but it’s just the effort of shining my headtorch on the sign so you know we’re in Kaitoke. The end.
Date Sunday 7 Jan, 2018
People: Mark Greig, Lani Evans, Marianne Elliott
Start time at Putara: 4:28am (we camped at the road end)
Finish time at Kaitoke: 1:15am
Total time: 20h 47m
Weather: Perfect! The rain stopped just in time to pack up camp Sunday morning and started again lightly as we reached Puffer Saddle. It was warm enough to recover from the icy river dips, but never too hot. Shorts and t-shirt weather all day long.
Celebratory drink at Kaitoke: Garage Project Hapi Daze
What I carried, just under 5kg including 1lt of water. Mark and Lani had epirbs. Mark had paper maps. We all had ViewRanger on our phones, with gpx for this trip.