If someone offered me £1 million there is no way in hell I would walk through Raetea Forest again.
Those were the words I uttered as I stumbled into the makeshift campsite after spending 12 hours wading through knee-high mud through a forest that was more like a jungle.
Raetea Forest – it’s aim is to desoul you. It turns you wild.
Day nine of #WalkNZ; it had started so promisingly. Waking to glorious sunshine beside a rippling stream. I even powered up the hill for an hour to the start of the trail.
And then I was introduced to hell. A muddy hell hole. A harrowing experience that almost stripped me of my sanity.
I’d heard about the mud. Pah, a bit of mud won’t hurt anyone, I’d thought.
How wrong I was.
The first squishy mud puddles were a novelty. It was like a tricky challenge on figuring out the best way to not get mud on the boots. Can I jump this way, propel myself around this tree, stand in someone else’s footprint?
I enjoyed the experience, reminiscing about climbing my second volcano Nevis Peak, which had been a muddy climb. That was definitely worse than this, I said to myself.
But after an hour and a half of this, the game got boring. Every few steps there was more mud, the boots slowly became slick with the goop. It was easier to just give up and get mud on the boots.
A few hours in and the only option was to wade through it. Nevis Peak had been superceded.
There was brown mud, grey mud, mud with green slime, mushy mud, watery mud, mud that looked like whipped chocolate mouse, mud that went up to my ankles, mud that went up to my knees, mud that made me slip over, mud that sucked at my boots, mud that just kept coming and coming and coming.
Between the mud was a steep climb to an 800m summit. The pace was slow – I averaged about a kilometer an hour.
And all the way the forest clawed at me. It blocked the sunlight, vines tripped me up and snagged my pack, fallen trees covered the trail and sent me in the wrong direction. The foliage closed in, suffocating me. And all I could smell was mud – a mixture of dead things and poo.
By lunch time my panic levels were on the rise – the going was slow, I was barely halfway. I wanted to get out of this damned forest.
But the going only got tougher. The mud got deeper, thicker. It sucked at my boots trying to steal them from my feet while the forest came alive around me in a wild and tortuous way, mocking me, misguiding me, teasing me with patches of dry ground and making me think the mud had ended.
By five o’clock I felt like I was slowly going insane. I could hear it in my voice, my pitch increasing as I yelled at the mud to stop, as I wailed when a new puddle came into view, as I talked out loud to myself to get a grip, to just keep on moving, that I could do this.
At times I thought I heard the beat of music coming through the trees. Another person? I wasn’t alone. But stopping, disorientated, I realised it was just the pounding of my heart and blood in my ears.
Almost twelve hours after I entered the forest the trees suddenly disappeared. I emerged into a green field, the sun slowly setting, turning the sky a golden hue. But I was too relieved to have the mud finally behind me to really enjoy the view.
My feet heavy from the mud, I hobbled down hill away from the forest, anything to get as far away from it as possible.
It had tried so hard to keep me within its grasp. For all its green natural beauty, it was evil, looking to devour any hapless soul that stumbled onto its path.
It had become a matter of primeval survival – the human against nature. One moment of panic, one lapse in judgement, was all it would take for Raetea Forest to swallow you whole.
I emerged on the other side of that forest a broken person, both mentally and physically. It was like a part of my innocence had been taken from me which could never be returned.
Stumbling down the hill to the campsite I felt void but overwhelmed all at once. And then it hit me that I had just accomplished something incredible; the toughest thing I have ever done.
I had not succumbed. I may have fallen five times, lost my way twice but I had not shed a tear and I hadn’t panicked.
If I had known that Raetea Forest would be that horrendous and harrowing I would have thought I couldn’t do it and yet I surprised myself again in my capabilities.
Two days later I again smashed my perceptions I had about my abilities. Somehow I walked a 35km day. I could barely walk by the end of it (and I’ve had to take two rest days as a result) but I still did it.
The comfort zone has been well and truly pushed. I’ve had more than one moment when I could have given up.
But I ain’t letting no damn muddy forest get me.
A selection of other photos from days 7-12.