Laura’s epic adventure took her to some spectacular places. But it wasn’t easy. (Supplied: Laura Waters)
In her mid-40s and fresh out of a toxic relationship, Laura Waters was riddled with stress and an anxiety she couldn’t shake.
She decided to take a walk. A five-month walk. From the top of New Zealand’s North Island to the bottom of its South Island.
“I really needed to hit control-alt-delete and wipe the slate clean,” she tells RN.
Back in Melbourne, Laura had tried everything from breathing exercises to medication to relax herself, but it was to no avail.
The hike proved more potent.
Within a month, the anxiety Laura had struggled with at home dissipated. (Supplied: Laura Waters)
“Within a month of the trail, I was right as rain,” says Laura, who hadn’t so much as camped alone before her adventure.
“To have that space around me and that separation from society, that’s where the magic happens. You can just strip everything away and start again.”
Despite parts of the trail being so dangerous Laura wondered if she’d survive it — others haven’t — she finished the walk.
And when she returned to Australia, she used the courage she’d gained to completely change her life.
Laura’s hike took her through the Tararua Ranges, on New Zealand’s North Island. (Getty: Stewart Watson)
‘A little lesson to take things seriously’
For much of the 3,000-kilometre Te Araroa trail, there was “literally nothing out there”.
“Just one straight endless horizon of sand. It was just me and the birds and the waves,” Laura says.
“After the noise and the overstimulation of the city, it was just bliss.”
The absence of chaos was matched by the absence of rules.
“There was nothing to tell me when I walked enough for the day — no camp site, no water taps. It was just put down my pack and put up my tent, whenever I felt like it,” she says.
“There was a great freedom in that.”
Only roughly once a week she’d bump into people in a small town she passed by, where she’d resupply.
The isolation didn’t worry her — but the terrain did.
“They’re very rough tracks. Sometimes there’s not actually track at all. It’s pretty rugged,” she says.
An experienced hiker a couple of weeks ahead of Laura died on the track, when he fell 180 metres from a cliff.
“People die in the back country in New Zealand all the time. It’s not like hiking in Australia,” Laura says.
The Rangitata River is around 3km across and a major hazard zone, as water levels can change quickly. (Supplied: Laura Waters)
Highly unpredictable weather compounds the risk.
“[It] can really beat you if you’re not prepared; if you don’t respect it,” Laura says.
Or even if you do.
During her trek Laura says she “got pounded” in the North Island’s Tararua forest, where she arrived at an exposed ridge as dangerous winds hit.
“The air was getting pushed down my throat faster than I could breathe it,” she recalls.
The sound was “like a jet engine screaming in your ears”.
“I literally got blown over a couple of times onto my butt,” she says.
“You’re just sort of clinging to the ground with your knees and clutching fistfuls of tussock grass, trying to hang on.”
Laura walked from the top of New Zealand’s North Island to the bottom of its South Island. (Supplied: Laura Waters)
Getting caught in a snow storm in the South Island was also hairy.
“I went from having a T-shirt on to being caught in blasting icy winds, within an hour,” Laura says.
“My temperature just dropped like a stone and there was no shelter, and my hands were completely numb to the point where I couldn’t tell if I was touching things or not.
“I was talking to myself out loud, trying to stay focused because I could feel my whole body just going into a territory that it had never been to before.
“My mind was getting a bit dull. I was singing ’10 green bottles’ to myself out loud and thinking, ‘If I can’t count the bottles backwards, I’ll know that I’m in huge trouble.'”
Luckily, about half an hour away was a hut she could retreat to.
“If it had been much further, I’m not sure how it would’ve all ended,” she says.
‘I don’t have to go back to that life’
On the trek Laura’s anxiety retreated, but it didn’t disappear.
As she neared the end of the walk, she could feel a familiar chest-tightening worry return.
“I knew I had to go back to all those things that make me anxious: the busyness and the noise of city life and corporate lives,” she says.
A city apartment full of stuff. A corporate job. Chaos. Drama.
“It was not a good fit for me,” Laura says.
“I never felt like I was really cut out for that kind of life. I just did it because everyone else does it and that’s what you do.
“But it never really felt like me.”
Then, “a bit of an epiphany” struck.
She realised, “Well, hang on, I don’t have to do that, actually.”
“I suddenly felt no-one’s got a gun to my head. I don’t have to go back to that life.”
Laura gave herself a year off to write a book, something she’d always wanted to do, and financed it by selling an apartment and anything else she could find, like spare bikes or extra clothes.
She housesat, and volunteered at a small resort in the Solomon Islands and a forest camp back in New Zealand, working a few hours a day in return for food and board.
“I worked out if you don’t spend a lot of money, you don’t need a lot of money,” she says.
“But I had freedom and that made me feel unbelievably rich.”
One year turned into five as Laura changed her whole career, ditching her corporate job and city life, and becoming a freelance travel writer and spending more time in nature.
“[I used] the same courage that I did on the trail,” she says.
“And it felt like me.”