Final Prep

Today (Sunday, 8 December), I opted out of visiting "Crazy Land" where Rosa's family lives. I had the perfect excuse, which was to finish my food shopping and pack for my departure tomorrow. Armed with a bank card, I wandered up to the local Countdown supermarket, where I spent a happy hour prowling the aisles, looking for bargains. Food on the trail is about balancing four factors: tastiness, energy, weight and of course, price.

If wary housewives wondered about this middle-aged eccentric muttering to himself as he scanned food labels with his near-perfect prescription hipster-style spectacles perched on his forehead, I didn't notice because I was too busy trying to perform feats of mental arithmetic.

"If this brand of energy bar gives me 8 servings of 100 grams, each of 872 kilojoules for $3.99, then how does that compare with this other brand, which offers 6 bars of 91 grams, each of 997 kilojoules and discounted down to $2.60?"

This is not easy stuff, especially for someone as numerically-dyslexic as me. Besides, it made my brain hurt.

I soon decided to base my decisions on price alone. I gaily tossed boxes of discounted oatmeal sachets, condensed milk, tea bags, instant coffee, two chorizo sausages, energy bars and ziplock plastic bags into my shopping cart. I gloated especially over twelve home-brand pot noodle cups in beef, chicken and oriental flavours (at 62 cents per 1397 kilojoules and so light they seemed to float off the shelves, they were the bargain of the century and would be sure to warm up many a cool night at the end of each day.

From Countdown and with money to spare, I carried my shopping bags across the car park to another supermarket, New World, where I hoped to find two boxes of Nairn's oat biscuits.

"Yes! There they are and on special too," I noted with happiness. Springing for the organic variety (an extra 57 cents per box, but Rosa would be pleased) I popped two boxes in the cart. On a roll now, I found the household goods aisle and with a small inward whoop of delight saw that a packet of three thermal socks could be had for $6.97. Bargain!

I even had change for a last bottle of wine.

So, I was a happy chap as I walked back down the hill to Milford, evenly balanced with a shopping bag in each hand.

Back at home, I went into overdrive, shredding open cardboard boxes, removing every spare piece of packaging and placing the discarded packaging in the kitchen sink. I had to empty it twice into the recycle bin outside the front door and as always, I bemoaned the sheer waste of modern life.

I divided the food into separate ziplock bags, one each for breakfast, lunch and snacks and dinner for the first week and another three bags for the second week. Rooting around on my tramping gear shelf, I found two drawstring stuff sacks and placed a week's worth of food in each.

They felt surprisingly hefty, I thought, as I placed them on the floor next to my backpack.

With them, I put my battered but trusty Trangia cook set together with a disposable lighter, a litre bottle of methylated spirits, a white plastic mug, green plastic bowl, a metal spoon and two empty water bottles.

The cooking system complete, I turned my attention to the other "systems" I use in tramping.

The trial "Survival Outdoor System" or "onesie", my Hennessy Hammock and a very thin mattress made up my sleeping system. After a little thought, I added a lightweight tarp made of a lightweight nylon that I had purchased years earlier.

I divide my clothing system into day/walking (wet) and night/sleeping (dry) clothing. Into the day bag goes running shorts, a merino t-shirt, synthetic thermal tights, a pair of my new thermal socks, an old quick-drying long-sleeved running shirt, peaked cap and trail shoes. Into the night bag, I placed another pair of thermal socks, merino tights, a synthetic thermal top, a merino "beanie" cap, and gloves. A third bag held a lightweight down jacket, a micro-fleece jacket and a wool jumper. Into the fourth bag went my new waterproof jacket and trousers.

Next, I readied my navigation system. I was trialling an iPhone 4 in an "Otter" waterproof case and powered by a solar-powered "Power Monkey Explorer". Relying on technology without testing it extensively beforehand would prove to be a serious mistake. Be warned.

Then, I prepared my health and hygiene system: a basic first aid kit (waterproof bandaids, ibobrufen tablets, a bandage in case of sprains, anti-fungal foot cream) plus a washing kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, razor and small micro-fibre travel towel.) I don't carry soap on the trail. It's not because I like to be a grub but because I do my best not to pollute.

Into another small sandwich bag I placed the items for what I rather dramatically call my "Survival System". It contains two knives (an ancient Swiss Army knife I've had forever and a small Opinel single blade pocket knife), a Silva compass on a lanyard, a disposable lighter, a magnesium fire-starter, a short length of candle, a head-torch, dark glasses, driver's license , two credit cards "just in case" and a little cash. This bag stays with me all the time. On the trail, I wear the compass, fire-starter and my glasses.

Finally, I turned to the "Mind System". These are the things I take to provide intellectual stimulation (if one has the energy for such a thing after hours thrashing up hill and down dale burdened like one of those over-worked donkeys spinster ladies are forever setting up charities for.) This is made up of a 64 page school exercise book, three pens, a small tripod, a tiny microphone and lead for podcasting and of course, the iPhone with its excellent still and video camera, voice recording and iBook apps.

These basic systems complete, I turned to the "completely unnecessary but nice to have" system: a small tin box with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the lid that Rosa gave me ages ago and handy for all those little odds and ends that crop up on the trail, a necklace of prayer beads a friend and Hare Krishna devotee pressed on me in hopes of my spiritual conversion (never in a month of Sundays, I fear) and a battered little book containing tramping wisdom another friend thought would be useful.

It doesn't seem like much but after I had stuffed and re-stuffed all these systems into my blue rucksack, it bulged like an over-stuffed anaconda digesting a family of goats.

By now, Rosa had returned and watched my preparations with that expression of pity, amusement and superiority that I knew so well. It says as plainly as words, "As much as I love you, we both know that this will end in tears." My mother does it, my sisters do it, my daughter and step-daughter do it, girlfriends in the past have done it. Women must take it in with their mother's milk, I swear.

"Try putting it on," she suggested helpfully from the armchair. She leaned back comfortably and got ready to gloat.

I gave an experimental tug. The bag just sat there. I tightened what passes for my abdominal six pack and adopted a nonchalant expression, bent my knees and exerted all my strength. I wish I could say that hunter-like I swung it gracefully onto my broad shoulders, while my biceps rippled like pythons bunching. In fact, I couldn't stifle a small wheeze of surprise and pain. My knees buckled and I staggered a little on the Persian carpet.

"How does that feel, darling?" Rosa asked, twisting the knife.

"Alright," I whimpered, adjusting the waist belt with some difficulty.

"Well! Looks like you're ready to go then!" she remarked brightly. "How about a glass of that wine?"

Gratefully but carefully, I eased the pack back down. A floorboard creaked. I straightened with some difficulty. Rosa smiled and it seemed as if generations of women smiled with her.

"Good idea, darling," I said.

It's Time to Fly

People have been asking, "When are you off, Richard?" "When I'm ready," I reply.

Now I'm ready. It's a new moon, New Zealand's unpredictable weather has settled down (for the moment) and there's a 'Village Gathering' party tonight in Grey Lynn when I can say, "See you on the trail, mon brave" to those I want to.

Monday morning is "I'm Off Day". At this stage, I'm hitch-hiking the six or so hours' drive north to Cape Reinga but whenever I mention it, Rosa gets that look in her eyes which tells me, "Over my dead body!"

Still, she humours me as we drive to the hall where the Village Gathering is being held.

These events happen four times a year. Two good friends and occasional walking companions of mine, Roger Monkton and Johnnie Coombs, organise them. I've only been to one before and I'm looking forward to it because for me, it's pure theatre. 100 or so radicals, alternatives, activists, artists, bohemians and unalloyed eccentrics get together to share food, listen to music and poetry, watch fireworks and generally let their hair down on and off the dance floor. There's a lot of hair and it's had a lot of time to grow. The average age of "gatherers" is about sixty so we're talking serious commitment to the cause.

The evening got off to a wonderful start when Rosa was invited to open the Gathering party by blessing the food. We stood in a big circle around tables laden with nut loaves, veggie "glop" of various hues and the odd forlorn wheel of cheese (no doubt brought by those too anxious or rushed to cook).

I kept a close eye on the cheese wheels (I had no intention of starting my travels with a thunderous series of vegetable-induced gases) as we held hands and connected.

Rosa gave a beautiful blessing: "On the eve of my husband's departure, I'd like us to wish him a safe journey as he walks from the top of NZ to the bottom over the next three months."

Silence. I don't know that many people here but hey, come on, a little "Bravo!" would be nice.

Rosa carried on briskly. "Now to bless the food. Mother Nature, who comes to our table as food, endlessly bountiful benefactor of all, we ask that this food is blessed and filled with peace and harmony."

Her lovely voice was as clear as a bell. Silence descended on the room for a sweet moment. Then the circle broke around the tables, like small waves around rocks. "Ladies first, please!" Johnny called. Abashed, hungry men-folk fell back.

Paper plate in hand at last, it was time to look for someone I didn't know.

I found a lonely figure standing shyly by a doorway: tall, thin, bowed, a mop of white curly hair floating like a downy nimbus around his face and shoulders. I introduced myself with my customary polish. He answered so quietly I had to strain to hear his name.

"What do you do?" I asked next.

He offered a shy smile. "I love birds," he said.

"Feathered ones?" I asked. You never can tell at a Village Gathering party.

"Yes, All feathered birds. I love them."

I collected my thoughts while I nibbled the rind off some supermarket Edam. Decision time: do I stay and talk or do I ever-so-politely brush off this avian-obsessed stranger and find someone else to get to know?

The gentleness of his voice helped me decide to stay. I'm glad I did.

He told me about badminton, which he plays once a week.

"What do you like about it?" I asked.

He closed his eyes for a long pause, then opened them again.

"It opens a doorway into parts of me that are dark and usually closed," he said. "And I bring along my birds in six or seven cages and put them along the court. They like to watch the shuttlecock. It teaches them new ways to fly."

"Wow!" I said. "The other players must love you!"

"They call me 'Bird Man,' he said with a sweet smile.

I could have listened to Bird Man all evening. He was a true poet. Is this what St Francis saw in birds?

"I keep my eyes down when I walk," he explained. "I'm looking for wounded birds. I try to heal them myself but when I can't, I take them to the sanctuary. If they die, it puts a hole in my heart which can only be filled by one that lives."

Yes, the time is right to leave the nest.

And there's a hole in my heart and in Rosa's heart. And we'll fill it with stories and experiences along the trail.

We're ready to walk (or maybe hop). Thank you, Bird Man.

I'm off tomorrow. See you on the trail, mon brave.

Welcome to Power Monkey

Power Monkey When I started walking and camping as a boy, the first men had just landed on the Moon.

Now, I'll be carrying a phone with more computing power than those astronauts could have dreamed of.

But, how do you keep that power-hungry little monster charged up?

Here's the solution I decided on.

Today, we dropped in to meet Guy (the owner of Top Gear on Rosedale Road) and to pick up the Power Monkey Explorer I'd found on Trade Me for $139.00.

This piece of gear will be important to me because it's how I'll keep my iPhone 4 charged during this trip.  And I'm packing that modern marvel because of its camera, built in library of books, maps and trail notes, compass, back-up flashlight and much more (including, of course, text, telephone and internet.)

First impressions of the solar charger are good. It feels solid enough to have a reassuring heft. You can charge it using mains electricity, via USB and a computer or by solar power.

So far, all three methods work. A full charge on the Power Monkey should replenish your iPhone's battery twice before you need to recharge "Curious George" (as I'll call it.)

Look out for a more in-depth review. Until then, here's a photo of the solar charger, battery and iPhone/iPod attachment with a little selfie of my hand to give it some scale.

Go Cheap, Go Safe, Go Now

Earlier this year, after completing a 450 kilometre trek over 30 days with my stepson Valentino, I (and especially Rosa) had been disappointed by the performance of our $200 trekking shoes, which had begun to fall apart within three weeks. By the time we returned to Auckland, the rubber cladding at the front of my shoes had come unglued and drooped outwards, like the tongues of a pair of thirsty dogs. At the shop we bought them from, our complaints fell on deaf ears.

So, today Rosa and I went into Macpac on Vulcan Lane in Auckland City. Valentino and I had unloaded a ton of cash there a year ago while gearing up. The manageress greeted us with warm whimpers of expectation.

Alas, she was to be disappointed. Rosa fixed her with the kind of steely look that told her, "Don't mess me around."

I sat back and watched the performance.

Rosa said, "My husband's walking the Te Araroa. He needs a pair of boots. Can you guarantee a pair that will last?"

To her great credit, the manageress said she couldn't. In fact, she counselled that it may take as many as four pairs to walk the trail.

I could see Rosa digest the information. "At $500 per pair, that would be $2000 just for boots!" she exclaimed. When she gets over-excited, she adopts an Irish accent.

"Lord help us, you'll be the ruin of me!" she cried, rounding on me.

"Well, I don't need them," I said helpfully.

The manageress, who had observed this exchange with bemusement, tactfully excused herself and made for the stock room where she had just remembered some urgent business.

So, that was the end of the new boots idea, may it rest in peace.

What I do want to tell anyone contemplating anything from a day's tramp to one of many months, is that you really don't need to spend a prince's ransom to get onto the trail cheaply, safely and above all, now.

Here's how you do it.

Frequent "op" (for "opportunity") shops (or "good will" stores in the USA).

We've been doing it for years, ever since we became penniless students while studying hypnotherapy and nutrition in the UK just as the GFC struck.

It's just amazing what you can find, given a little time, imagination and cultivating relationships with the staff. Tell them what you're after and if they find it (and they nearly always do), they'll put it to one side for you.

So, for my journey, here's what I'm taking from op shops:

  • Glasses (near perfect prescription, sturdy steel frames) $5.00
  • Walking shorts (perfect condition, lightweight, fast drying) $1.00
  • New Balance trail running shoes (near brand new, perfect fit) $7.00
  • Columbia rain jacket and trousers (brand new) $20.00
  • Black merino wool jumper $3.00

If I'd bought all this new, it would have cost about $900 instead of $36.

The rest of my gear is all well-used and around ten years old.

One of my favourite items of clothing is a long-sleeved running shirt made of some super-wicking material called "Coolmax". I found it in the "goody bag" after completing the Annapolis 10 Mile Road Race back in 1996. I wore it for two marathons afterwards, countless cool weather runs and many tramps. That shirt has history and I love it like a brother.

You really don't need to spend a fortune on expensive high-tech gear to have a safe and enjoyable time on the trail.

Go cheap, go safe and above all, go now.

Born to Be Wild

[gallery type="slideshow" ids="642,641,643"] Rosa and I drove into Devonport yesterday to meet Michael, owner of Hammock World.

A year ago, Michael sold me my trusty Hennessy Hammock, which has become an indispensable part of my tramping gear. I always rave about it to other trampers I meet on the trail and recommend Michael. So, I gave him a call to suggest that perhaps we could work together. He generously agreed to a meeting.

Besides being a former mountain guide, Michael is quite the Kiwi entrepreneur. It turns out that he has a container full of brand-new sleeping and survival systems, which he designed. He calls this new product the "Survival Outdoor System".

Like a lot of entrepreneurs (including me), he's discovering that having a product is one thing. Bringing it successfully into the market is quite another.

Showing me gear like this is like showing a little boy a train set six months before Christmas. I just had to have it! I suppose he saw that tell-tale gleam in my eyes. Before I knew it and to my utter delight and surprise, he tossed it to me and said, "It's yours!"

So, not only am I the proud owner of what my wife Rosa calls a "onesies" (you know, hooded pyjamas) but I now have a new job description as the official field tester for the Survival Outdoor System.

Thank you, Michael!

Stay tuned for my field review. Until then, here's me happily posing in my tramping "onesies"

Hey, I'm born to be wild, that's for sure.

"Bye, Mum"

Where would we be without our mums? I don't know about yours but mine is a down-to-earth woman of Finnish descent.

She doesn't talk much. If a conversation goes on for too long, she has a habit of sliding silently out of the room. One moment she's there, the next moment she's not. In our family, we call her "The Grey Ghost."

But when she speaks, you better listen. She can put more punch into a sentence than most. I and many others value her opinion.

I put in my weekly call yesterday on Skype and broke the news.

"Hi, mum. How are you?"

"Oh, fine!" she said, wheezing lightly as she inhaled on a cigarette. She'd given me a smack last year when I suggested she stop smoking.

I told her my plan to walk 3000 kilometres.

She was silent as she puffed again.

"Well," she said thoughtfully. "It could be worse."

I didn't ask how.

"Get Lost"

Running along the beach at Milford on Auckland's North Shore every morning, I see a few older men walking very small dogs. Some of those pooches sport pink collars and some of those collars are studded with diamantine beads. Milford is that type of suburb. Have you noticed how the more "bling" the dog wears, the more stooped, grumpy and hopeless the old chap on the other end of the leash looks? I can't help but imagine that each of those unfortunate (and presumably once powerful) men still has the words, "Get lost!", reverberating through his neural synapses.

You can almost hear the conversation.´

She: "What are you doing today, dear?"

He (grumpy): "Dunno."

She: (lips pursed): "Well, I've got the girls coming round for coffee. Why don't you take Jewel out for a walk on the beach? Do take your time, dear. You know what the doctor said about how good exercise is for your heart."

What's the wife really saying?  "Get lost, dear."

And that's basically what my wife Rosa is saying to me.

The irony is not lost on me. I want to get lost. I like getting lost. Great things can happen when you cast loose the usual moorings of your wretched little existence and try something so off-the-wall it makes you curl your toes in the shower and go, "Aaarrgh! What am I doing!"

However, just because I want to get lost, doesn't mean Rosa should want it as well.

Unfortunately, she does.

And I know why. We've spent far too long on our last audio project, "Step Into Nature's Therapy Room". We're very satisfied with the result but now we need some space.

I heard her talking to her sister on the telephone. "Oh, he'll be fine," she says. "And between you and me, I'm thrilled. I can get on with what I want to do."

Today, she came home from the Takapuna Sunday Markets with a huge bunch of white roses she had bought for herself.

"Because I wanted to," she said.

And, she's painted her toenails.

"Because they look nice," she told me.

I called the shade, 'Get Lost Pink'.

She laughed, "Don't be silly! Let's call it, 'Keep It Fresh!'"

I love this woman and always will. However, it's time for me to get lost and take a long refreshing walk.