I’m normally known as Macpac mad, but I indulged on the weekend and finally got around to buying an Aarn flowmo bodypack; something I’ve been eyeing off for a while. I saw these packs first in use during my trip to New Zealand, earlier this year and was interested at the concept of counterbalancing weight with front pockets. A few weeks later I saw it in action again, this time in the Snowy Mountains and got to try it on briefly and was astounded at how easily it sat on my back and how upright it made me stand. And the weight didn’t register as much as it would normally do. Since my back has its issues and I’ve found the going a bit tougher with my normal (but much loved and simply indestructible) Macpac Torre, I promised myself I’d invest in one of these packs to ease the strain on my back and keep walking for longer.

Backpacking Light in Melbourne sells the Aarn packs and the guys there use the packs themselves, so they know how to adjust them and what suits your style of walking. They also offer a fitting service using Skype if you’re having difficulty adjusting your pack once you’re home with it and filling it with your own stuff.

I settled on the Featherlite Freedom, a lightweight pack that will just fit sufficient gear for multiple days walking. The pack has an inbuilt liner bag to keep your gear dry and the front pockets have their individual liner bags as well. The idea is that you store the light to medium weight gear in the back and fill your front pockets with the heavy stuff, such as water and food, as well as any items you need to have quick access to when you’re on the track. When I tried it on in the shop, we filled it up with about 15kgs of weight and I swear it simply did not feel like that. I can’t wait to try it out on an overnight walk, but it’s doubtful I’ll get around to that in the next few weeks.

And in case you’re wondering: I’m not sponsored by Aarn, nor by Backpacking Light. Simply, when I find out about interesting equipment and experience great service, I like to pass the word on to others. That’s all there is to this post.

On reaching my limits

Inner Game has been a bit slack with her walking of late, so I’ll make up for that with part three of the NZ trip earlier this year, which should have been the crowning glory of the entire trip.

I had booked the Ball Pass Crossing with Alpine Recreation eight months out. I knew it was going to be tough and set up my training schedule so I’d be in peak condition for the trek. The only thing I was really concerned with was how my knees would hold up on the descent from the Ball Pass. Turns out I didn’t really need to worry about that.

On the first day of the three day trip our group of eight and our two guides bumped along a crazy, stony track (really a rather flattering description for what it was) until we could go no further. We got our gear out of the Troopy and started walking along the edges of the Tasman Glacier towards Ball Shelter. When we started ascending the ridge my legs soon felt like two large pieces of lead. It was hot and with not even a whisper of a breeze it felt like we were in an oven. I started to feel unwell, slightly nauseous, thirsty beyond belief, despite having had plenty to drink, and had to stop to catch my breath. Two more stops like this and things did not improve and I was only one third of the way up on the ridge. I was shaking, wanted to throw up, but was worried that it would dehydrate me. The guides pretty quickly realised I was suffering from heat exhaustion and decided to turn me around and take me back down the mountain.

As someone who soldiers on regardless of the circumstances, I always expected when faced with a situation like this I’d fight on and not accept defeat. Certainly my friend expected arguments and a little tantrum and was surprised when I simply nodded when told they were turning me around. But it was crystal clear to me that there was no way I was going to make it to the Caroline Hut, not that day, not in my condition. My body was pulling the pin on this one and my brain was in complete agreement. I knew that even turning back the way we had come was going to draw on all my reserves, something confirmed when on the way down I didn’t recognise half the terrain we had climbed up only 20 minutes earlier!

Ultimately it took almost two weeks to feel that my body had really recovered from its dehydration and exhaustion and I am truly grateful to the guides who recognised the problem early and acted swiftly to prevent me from suffering worse. So often nowadays we are encouraged to push our own boundaries; people embark on increasingly wild and crazy adventures and we hear about their triumphs at length. Little is written, however, on when we are not so successful in pushing those boundaries; perhaps with the exception of dramatic failures resulting in serious injury or death; after all those sell just as well as success stories.

Based on my experience, I think there is much to discover when you push your boundaries and come up against a wall. I think the most important learning for me was that I didn’t feel like I had failed, or that I had been ill-prepared for what was awaiting me. What happened was simply me pushing my body and the body saying ‘sorry pet, but I’m not doing that for you this time’. It wasn’t saying it would never do it, just that it wouldn’t do it this time. No biggie, the Ball Pass will still be there in the future and life goes on.

Right now Inner Game is about to get on plane to Europe for some exploration in Italy and a family visit. Provided my internet set up works, I will be posting pictures and stories from the road, so stay tuned, but don’t expect anything as dramatic and challenging as the Ball Pass!

New Zealand – Part 2 – Rees-Dart Track

The bus from Glenorchy to the start of the Rees-Dart walk was crammed full. In fact, one of the walkers who started out the same day we did had to run most of the way to the start of the walk! Luckily his pack did make it into the bus given it contained one inflatable canoe, two paddles, a pump, a bottle of champagne for New Year’s Eve, and lots of food, not to mention his own equipment. Ange and Craig had big plans for the walk, including floating down the Dart River back to Glenorchy, but I’m getting ahead of my story…

A total of 12 walkers piled out of the bus at Muddy Creek: a bushwalking club from Christchurch, paddlers Ange and Craig, Jo and Eileen from Seattle, a solitary walker, and Heike and I. We all set out at a brisk pace along the four-wheel drive track, but by the time we left that behind and hit the muddy bits, our pace slowed down. The view of the valley we walked into was beautiful, but it was a long day and after endless grassland, a steep ascent through forest, countless up and down crossing of streams, the pack started to weigh like a menhir and the usual mantra started in my head: “Where is the ******* hut?” A bit further on clearly. Muttering under my breath at every new stream I had to cross, suddenly, like a mirage, there was a swing bridge to cross to the other side of the valley and behind it, just slightly uphill, was the hut. And there were still free bunks! Once we had cooked up some food, we also found our conversation again and we chatted with the rest of the walkers who trickled in one after the other.

The second day was much shorter, but rougher. The skies were overcast, but it was dry and we walked gradually uphill. At one point looking back down the Rees Valley we saw this amazing rainbow straddling the valley. Further on, after donning gloves and beanies against the increasingly cold wind, we realised where the track went up to the saddle… surely NOT?! That wasn’t just steep; it looked perpendicular! We worked our way slowly upwards, groaning under our packs, and at times on all fours, but on the saddle the view opened up to Snowy Creek, thundering through the valley below. Further down we reached the bridge that links to the other side of the valley. Every winter the bridge has to be removed to avoid it being risked in avalanches, as the Snowy Creek Valley fills up with snow. The evidence of that was still there, a disintegrating snow bridge on the side of the constructed one. From here it was a steep descent to Dart Hut, and I mean steep. My legs are long, but even I had difficulty to step down without doing the occasional bum slide. Eventually we reached the delightfully positioned Dart Hut, possibly my favourite hut on all of the walks. With walkers converging here coming up both the Rees and Dart Valleys, as well as those who coming from Aspiring Hut via the Cascade Saddle, we were lucky to find ourselves bunks. Not long after we arrived a drizzly rain started, but we were snug, sipping tea in the communal area, waiting for the rest of the “crew” to arrive.

It was still raining the next morning, but as the side trip to the Whitbourne Valley wasn’t possible due to the bridge having been washed away, and the only other option of Cascade Saddle challenging due to the rain, we decided to take it easy and just enjoy a rest day; this was a holiday after all. The rain cleared around midday, the sun came out and we sunbathed on some rocks near the river and spent time talking to other walkers. Later that day we met up with the Christchurch walking club again who had made it to Dart Hut.

The next day we started early for Daleys Flat Hut. The hut is infamous amongst walkers on the track for the squadrons of sand flies who terrorise (un)suspecting walkers there. But first we had the most enjoyable day walking through grassy fields, the Dart River on the right, while gradually descending down the Dart Valley. Early cloud slowly evaporated to reveal glaciers clinging precariously to mountain faces like wobbly meringues. During our lunch break we were stalked by a robin who relentlessly pursued crumbs. Not even a camera lens poking at his beak put him off. We saw many of these birds along the track, who often looked annoyed at us occupying their favourite log for a quick break and would fearlessly try to chase us away. When we arrived at the hut the sand fly squadrons gave us a ceremonial welcome, but after sorting out bunks and dumping our packs, Heike and I found a sand fly free place for a quick dip in a side stream a short distance away from the hut. Cold water never felt so good!

Ange and Craig finally arrived with many wet items; their first effort of floating down the Dart had a few obstacles, including a capsizing canoe and belongings drifting down the river, but they were determined to give it another try on the final day of the walk. And indeed on New Year’s Day they floated all the way down the Dart River, cool and collected, and the envy of all of us who had to carry our packs out.

New Year’s Eve was celebrated by everyone in the hut agreeing to move midnight forward to 9pm so we could all have a decent sleep. And so after dinner we welcomed in 2012 by sharing champagne, vodka, glo sticks and whatever else people had, singing Auld Lang Syne (mainly humming along to it – does anyone ever know the words?) and wishing each other a happy new year. The next morning everyone was up early to make sure we all made it in time to the end of the walk for our bus transport. The walk downstream was easy and pleasant, despite the roar of jet boats disrupting our bucolic experience. It was a reminder that we were getting close to civilisation again and although we all looked forward to a good shower, there was regret that the walk was over already. The transition can sometimes be abrupt, particularly after five days ‘out’ and connections made with fellow walkers can sometimes evaporate quickly when the bus delivers you back to civilisation, but in this case we managed to catch up with Jo and Eileen for a well-earned drink in Queenstown, before departing the next day towards part 3 of our NZ adventure.