Vogue Tramper

Thinking about updating your "look" for your next outdoor adventure?

Left: At the start of his big walk, Richard looks ready to rumble with possums and pigs in Michael's Survival Outdoor System. You are guaranteed to raise the eyebrows of trampers and tourists in your "onesie" nightwear. Hunters! Stay warm while waiting up for game birds (not that kind, fellas!)

Right: Strike a heroic pose anytime in this hand-picked ensemble. At the end of his journey, Richard models a selection of gear from op shops and garage sales. Spruce up your look with a head-torch to light up your trail!

Then again, carrying only a sense of humour and wearing just a big smile will take you further than you can believe possible!

How to Communicate on the Trail

The further I walk along Stewart Island's Northern Circuit trail, the more I ask, "Why on earth would anybody want to settle here?"

The seas teem with Great White Sharks, the waters are freezing, the beaches are infested with black flies and the bush is impenetrable. Oh, and the weather is foul.

I can't help wondering what it would have been like if I had somehow convinced my Irish wife Rosa that we would make our fortune here as 19th-century sealers, whalers or wood-choppers.

Already seasick and soaked, we'd have been rowed in through surf by a burly crew and dumped on a rocky shore with a few chests of supplies and an axe. Swatting at clouds of black flies, crying, "God help us!" and waving her white hankie to summon the rapidly departing crew, Rosa would no doubt have sunk into a complete meltdown as the boat's sails dropped over the horizon.

The early history of Stewart Island abounds with tales of hapless couples who arrived and got stuck. In Oban I read a salutary but all too typical story about a forgotten couple stranded on the island. One day by rare chance, a boat arrived. The captain told the husband, "It's now or never, mate." Unfortunately, the wife was away foraging and the husband wouldn't leave without her. It would be several more years before another opportunity arose to leave.

They were lucky. As the display in Oban tersely points out, "Many didn't survive."

A walk like this reminds me of how I am treading a risky boundary as a solitary tramper even though there is a well-marked trail, maps and modern shelters. Yes, I am experienced at managing the inherent risks out here but still, so much can go so wrong, so suddenly.

The early settlers had no communication with the outside world for weeks or months at a time. Even today, Oban has only limited wifi and cell phone coverage. Outside of town, you might as well be on the moon.

So, how can a modern tramper reach out if he needs to?

The answer surprised me.

I met Mark, a hunter, fisherman and long-time Stewart Island resident, at Mason's Bay hut. In between puffing on a fat "rollie" cigarette and dipping biscuits in his mug of tea, he showed me the radio that hung from his neck.

"This is what you need: VHF," he said, handing it to me. He reeled off a list of rescued hunters, fishermen, tourists and trampers. If you could think of something going wrong, it had gone wrong. The VHF radio proved to be a godsend every time.

"You can talk to the Coast Guard, Police, fishing boats, helicopters, hear the weather forecast. People are always listening out for each other. You can get help in minutes sometimes."

"What about EPIRBs or PLBs?" I asked, referring to Emergency Positioning Indicator Radio Beacons and Personal Locator Beacons. In recent years, both have become trendy with trampers.

Mark shook his head. "The problem with beacons is that it takes at least two hours for someone to get to you and that's too long. Plus, you need to have satellite coverage which isn't guaranteed. You can press the button but you won't know the signal's been received until you hear a helicopter. With a radio you remove the uncertainty and you can keep people informed."

We can all have trouble thinking outside the box. Sometimes, the simplest solution is the best one. I'm taking Mark's advice in future.

I can hire a VHF radio for coastal walks or a longer-range HF Mountain Radio for mountain treks for about $50.00 a week. These days, their weight is negligible while their value is potentially incalculable.

And I reckon carrying a radio would be about the only way I could persuade my wife to join me on a wilderness walk. You never know when a lady might need a hot bath!

Appearances Can Be Deceptive

To get to Stewart Island, two days’ travel to the south, I had to go through the fleshpots of Queenstown. I hold mixed feelings about this tourist mecca. It’s easy to judge the town based on the hordes of designer-label rich kids thronging the sidewalks, infesting the bars and clubs and boasting about their latest bungee jump.

But, who am I to judge? I’ve been there myself. Each time I come to Queenstown, I realise that youth looks for happiness in different ways to middle-aged people like me. These kids want the thrill, to ride on the edge, to chase and be pursued. It’s the opposite to what sparks my fire at this stage of life.

How much confusion and drama happens when middle-aged people mistakenly believe that the source of happiness lies in their youth?

One thing I do like about Queenstown is that it has one of the best independent outdoor sports shops on this planet. After booking myself into the over-priced and over-crowded campsite and buying an over-priced under-sized take-away cafe latte, I made tracks towards Small Planet Sports.

I’ve been visiting here since 2006 after equipping my tender-footed and plump teenage stepson before his first ever foray onto a back-country trail. The experience completely changed his world. He lost weight and kept it off, took up BMX biking and surfing and made some great new friends.

Walking up to the hopelessly disordered shop front on Shotover Street, I smiled with relief when I saw the familiar unpretentious entrance. By comparison with the slick plate-glass shop fronts of the major retailers, Small Planet Sports looks like that embarrassing down-at-heel relative you don’t want to invite to the wedding.

But don’t let appearances deceive you. Step inside and you enter Aladdin’s cave. Daryl the owner and his merry band of outdoor fanatics source equipment from all over the world. Some of it comes from tiny start-up brands and some from major suppliers you rarely see in more corporate suppliers. Whatever you’re looking for you can be certain of three things: it works, it’s been tested by Daryl and his assistants and it’s well priced.

Of course, I can never go inside without buying something. On this day, I was chatting with Eddy about my expensive tramping shoes and how the insoles retained water like a sponge. Eddy sprang into action with the enthusiasm of a beagle on a hunting trip. Rummaging through the packed shelves, he emerged with a box of waterproof insoles from a supplier I’d never heard of. Needless to say, when I eased my feet back into the shoes, they sighed with pleasure. A small discount just sweetened the deal.

That’s why I keep coming back time and time again. And it’s why I’ve got no hesitation in recommending Small Planet Sports to you. In a small town where appearances can deceive, there are rare gems scattered amongst the costume jewels.

My Pack is Fat

An hour after encountering the shark, I found the "micro-camp" at the end of Twilight Beach. Set on a large patch of mown grass at the head of a long flight of steps (oh, my poor legs!) shaded by pohutokawa trees, it is actually a beautifully maintained spot complete with a roofed cooking area, "long-drop" toilet and fresh-water tank.