I’ve always been a little trepidatious when it came to kayaking.
Ever since high school when kayaking in the school swimming pool was a component of PE. Physical education, for a geeky teenager who could barely throw a ball to save herself, wasn’t great at the best of times, but the kayaking class was something else.
There I was sat in a kayak, locked in by the spray deck that covered me from the waist down, learning how to capsize and roll the kayak back up.
It didn’t go very well.
Now I had no fear of water; I was a competent swimmer. But being stuck upside down under water, with the chlorinated pool water and goodness knows what else going up my nose, was needless to say a horrendous experience, made worse by the fact that I could neither roll the kayak back upright nor undo the spray deck and escape the damned kayak.
I swear my brief life flitted in front of my eyes as I felt the waves of panic set in. Thank goodness the teacher was there to save my life.
I may have only been submerged for mere seconds but that still rated as one of the worst experiences of my life and one I had no intention of repeating.
That was until I started researching walking the 3,000km Te Araroa trail.
It was the first year I started formulating the idea that walking the length of New Zealand would be a swell thing to do. Only it turned out it wasn’t all walking – there were deep tidal estuaries that needed crossing and one river, the Wanganui, that needed at least one day paddling down. There were alternatives but these appeared expensive or totally out of the way.
I literally froze, staring rigid at my computer screen, visions of high school kayaking and near-drowning experiences dancing across the back of my mind. My heart started to beat faster; my hands felt clammy. The one word that went through my mind was F***.
That was one of the first reasons why I had to shelve the Te Araroa walk. There was no way I could face kayaking again. I was useless at it then; I’d be useless at it now. Just the thought of capsizing again brought me out in a cold sweat.
I was crazy to even contemplate it. I was just not good enough to walk Te Araroa, I told myself.
And so, I binned the idea – that was that, I thought.
And yet the thought of walking the length of my home country niggled away at me. Maybe, I told myself, I had to look again at all this kayaking malarkey.
It required a superhuman effort, and followed a two-year journey along an emotional rollercoaster, but in preparation for #WalkNZ I donned a second-hand wetsuit and a slightly mouldy and odd smelling flotation device, and set foot in a kayak for the first time in just over 20 years.
I’d signed up for a course with Aqua Sports; two days of learning how to paddle, steer, turn – and capsize – which at the end would give me a 1-star qualification.
I was nervous, the capsize particularly weighing on my mind. As we waited for the instructors my knees jiggled, restless, and I toyed with a strand of hair that had come loose from my braid. I used the ladies’ room twice.
Then we were whisked off to pick out our wetsuits, and not long after we stood on a makeshift jetty looking as glamourous as is possible in skin-tight yet ill-fitting black rubber.
We were directed to our individual kayaks. I eyed my red one with aversion. It was now or never.
I gingerly got in and pelvic-thrusted it into the water, successfully staying upright; a small victory.
One of the other blokes was not so lucky as he went over sideways into the green lake with a splash and came up spluttering. He proclaimed it wasn’t much fun. I grimaced and touched the water with my fingertips, watching the light dance on the ripples. At least the water felt warm.
I soon forgot my nervousness as I concentrated on staying upright while battling strong winds and practicing a variety of paddle moves. My shoulders burned from the exertion, damp strands of loose hair whipped me in the face, and water trickled down my hands and arms.
The bloke who capsized earlier capsized again. He was becoming a pro.
Despite all that, and the obvious nearing to my own controlled capsize, I had to admit I was enjoying myself. Kayaking wasn’t so bad after all.
The afternoon whizzed by in a flurry of red kayaks sloshing through the choppy water, yellow paddles cutting the air and slicing into the lake’s depths, arcs of water droplets glinting in the sunlight.
And then it was time for the dreaded capsize. No rolling back upright, no spray decks. Just a simple lean to one side and into the water. As easy as that.
I was dubious. I paddled around procrastinating, watching the others as they one-by-one, almost like dominos, rolled upside down into the green water.
The instructor said it was my turn. I killed time trying to find the perfect spot, turning in circles hoping a whirl pool would suck me into its vortex so I could avoid the capsize. I giggled nervously, random thoughts playing through my mind; a battle of wits – self doubt versus determination.
Miraculously determination won.
I scrunched my eyes closed, sucked in a great mouthful of air, puffed out my cheeks and pushed to my left waiting for the chill of water hitting flesh.
Nothing. I bobbed to the right, still totally upright. I opened one eye to double check and slowly released the air from behind my pursed lips. Hmmm, not quite how I planned it.
The instructor explained I used to much force, I just needed to lean to the left. He urged me to try again.
Again, I scrunched my eyes closed, sucked in a mouthful of air, puffed out my cheeks and lazily leaned, like a drunk person might against a wall, towards the water.
Wet and cooling tentacles pulled me under. Liquid fingers raced into my wetsuit, gouging me and enveloping me at the same time.
The lake water, searching out for any available cavity to fill, rushed up my nose and down my throat with such ferocity that it burned as it went.
Upside down and flailing wildly in the water, I made it to the surface, coughing like a smoker possessed.
I’d done it, I’d capsized.
I’d faced my fear and I hadn’t drowned. There was no reason now why I couldn’t continue with the plan to walk the length of New Zealand. My thoughts about kayaking didn’t have to hold me back from going for it and achieving it.
That said, the capsize itself was still horrendous though. I continued to choke on the lake water while my throat screamed it was on fire.
As I paddled to shore, pulling the upside-down kayak, I told myself, I hope to God I never have to repeat that ever again.
I’m solo walking the 3,000km Te Araroa trail down the length of New Zealand to raise awareness of self-doubt and low self-esteem, which are linked to mental health problems. I want to show that these negative thoughts don’t have to hold us back from achieving our goals and dreams.
In aid of this cause, I’m also fundraising for Mind, the mental health charity in the UK, so that money can go to services and support systems to help people with mental health problems, some of whom may also have been affected by the debilitating effects of self-doubt and low self-esteem. To lend your support and donate, please visit my fundraising page here.
If you’re in New Zealand and want to support my effort and mental health, I’m also fundraising for the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. To support my cause, please visit my fundraising page here.