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!