Choose your own Adventure

Hiking up Mt Fyffe near Kaikoura in New Zealand's South Island

“Ooh, you don’t want to hike there today.” It was an unequivocal statement.
Actually, yes I did.
“It’s too windy,” said the lady at the Visitor Centre with a note of finality in her voice.
“Oh well, I’ve been hit by wind before!” I smiled jovially, trying to defuse the ominous cloud of doom she’d infused into the air. After all, we were only talking about a three-hour low altitude walk, graded as ‘easy’.
She looked unimpressed though. “You could hire a bike and ride around the town. Or there’s a heated swimming pool.”
Seriously?
I looked at her. She looked back at me. Somewhere between our gazes a subtle standoff was going on though neither of us wanted to fully unleash our differing opinions. Eventually with a disapproving and tight-lipped smile she circled the trailhead on the map on the desk between us.

Crossing the Rangitata River on the Te Araroa Trail

Crossing the Rangitata River on the Te Araroa Trail

I felt like telling her about the last time I was in this town three years ago. Back then I’d been hiking the whole length of New Zealand, a 3000km epic through challenging terrain and often wild weather. Back then I’d left this town for an eight day stretch that saw me wade at least 70 river crossings, follow a trail-less route over rugged mountains, get caught in a snowstorm and holed up in a hut for three nights trapped by snow and howling winds – in summer.   I felt like telling the lady at the Visitor Centre all this and adding, “… so I think I can handle a little wind.”   But I didn’t.

Of course she wasn’t to know my level of experience in the outdoors or what I enjoy doing, but to my mind it would have been far more helpful to tell me that the trail was occasionally exposed, point out that it was a windy day, and then let me decide if I still wanted to go.

It’s not the first time someone in a visitor centre has tried to tell me what I would and would not like. A few years ago I turned up at a ski resort in summer with my top of the range, full suspension mountain bike strapped to the back of the car. I bounded into the info centre for a map and some advice from the barely post-pubescent kid behind the counter in a baseball cap and a T-shirt far too big for him. “Well there’s a trail that goes up the ridge and around the mountain,” he said, pausing slightly before adding, “…but you’d probably prefer the village trail.”  And how do you figure that, twerp?  I resisted the urge to poke him in the eyes and walked back out muttering under my breath.

People make assumptions. We’re all guilty of it at some time or another. It’s a habit we have picked up likely as a by-product of our method of learning-from-experience. Often there is merit in heeding the patterns we have observed over the many years of our existence but sometimes assumptions can get out of hand. Life doesn’t follow neatly set rules. The world is more complex and far greater than that. And we are far greater than that.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-9-18-01-amThe comments made by my pals in these visitor centres were simply annoying but real danger lurks when we actually start to believe what other people say can we can and can’t do. These opinions can come from all directions – friends, family, society, media. Sometimes these opinions, once aired, seep deep into our psyche, quietly dropping into our subconscious mind unchallenged, forever more to be thought of as facts. They might lead us to thinking things like ‘I can’t do xyz’, ‘I’m not suited for a particular activity/challenge/adventure’, ‘this is the way things are’, or ‘people like me don’t do xyz’.

Which leads me to part two of my gripe. We all like different things.   While some of us might prefer to escape a windy afternoon ‘safe’ within the confines of a humid swimming pool complex reeking with chlorine others will prefer to pull on a rain jacket and head out for that hike in the fresh air where the wind will slap you in the face and remind you you’re alive. So that advice we get from others may not be entirely relevant to us.

I may once have said, “Okay Visitor Centre Lady, you know best,” and scrapped my plans for that hike up the Rakaia Gorge. But then I would have missed out on the intense blue of the glacial water flowing over rounded river pebbles, and the brilliant yellow flowers of the Kowhai tree against a brooding grey sky. I would have missed out on the endorphins that running along that cliff top in the rain gave me. And I wouldn’t have traded that experience for an afternoon in an indoor pool for the world.

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It bugged me greatly that, were it not for the fact I categorically knew I could happily hike in windy conditions, I might have missed out on that gorge walk. As I walked I wondered how often we let other people’s thoughts and opinions affect what we do and believe? How many times do we just go with the flow, doing what is expected of us, without challenging whether it aligns with our own beliefs and what we ourselves want?

This concept doesn’t just apply to adventurous activities but to all facets of our lives. Have you ever voiced a dream only to have someone else laugh it off as ridiculous or impossible or perhaps suggest that you ought to be ‘realistic’? I suspect most, if not all of us, has at one point been told they “couldn’t” do something. But in accepting the opinions of others we can sometimes limit ourselves in the quest of finding what is true for us and realising our own goals.

It takes a conscious person to be aware of external influences and not be drawn into them, whether they be verbal comments made directly to us or simply ideas that have filtered into us osmosis-like from the societal soup in which we swim. The question is what will you do? The option that everyone else thinks you should do or the one you really want to do?

Doing what makes me happy!

Do what makes you happy!

You might want to consider other people’s opinions – for others may have knowledge and accumulated experiences that you do not – but in the end I’m all for listening to your gut, being strong in your own mind and choosing your own adventure.

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8 thoughts on “Choose your own Adventure

  1. Pingback: Do what makes you happy | Walking the Derwent River

  2. This is an interesting post for me as I have sat on both sides of this fence, as a backpacker turned permanent resident and now employed in a VC. What I can say from this experience is this:
    > It will always be incredibly frustrating when VC staff tells you you can’t do something (although really the word “can’t” is rarely appropriate, most of the time it should be “shouldn’t” or something to the tune of “I would not recommend doing this at this time for this reason”), especially when you know you can. Although rare in my personal experience as a customer, staff can sometimes be condescending or unpleasant. This sucks.
    > However… from the point of view of a staff member, I can now see why this happens. The amount of incredibly inexperienced, underprepared-but-overconfident visitors that come by every single day can be truly astounding. Because of this, staff will tend to err on the side of caution when giving out advice (some people will still come back and complain they have not been warned adequately), sometimes by a very wide margin.
    The other thing is that it’s impossible for a staff member to judge your level of experience just from looking at you. We don’t know. We can’t ask directly either as people misjudge their own level all the time – a young tramper freshly off the Routeburn Track will use this experience as evidence that they are awesomely bulletproof and intrepid, grizzled old bushmen on the other hand might understate their skills to such an extent you might think they could not walk home alone (until they mention that one time that was a bit iffy during a blizzard in the middle of a 10-day off-track winter traverse of some godforsaken mountain range).
    I find interesting in your article that you mention you “felt like telling her about the last time I was in this town three years ago.” Maybe you should have! Not in so much detail of course, but giving a quick overview of your tramping background to staff can help them address your questions in the right way for you. I think mentioning you’ve walked the TA can definitely help quickly give people the idea that you’re used to rough tracks and a range of conditions. If no information is given… well, odds are staff will err on the side of caution again.
    “Real danger lurks when we actually start to believe what other people say can we can and can’t do.” Although this appeals to me and I partially agree, I don’t believe it’s the whole truth. It’s not until I had a turn behind the counter that I realised just how woefully under-prepared, under-equipped and misinformed some people can be… and increasingly, internet culture is part of this as more and more people are drawn to tramping through cool-looking shots on Instagram, complete with inspirational quotes of this type. This is great… if it’s accompanied by other qualities such as curiosity, awareness and humility. Sometimes though it’s not and it’s not uncommon to see cases of “I want to go to THAT place *shoves smartphone out to show picture*” with no concept, interest in or understanding of what may actually be involved in reaching said place.

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    • Thanks for your message. Yes, totally agree. There are many many visitors who do not have an appreciation of how harsh/tough NZ can be, and I don’t blame VC crew for erring on the side of caution. My point, as I mentioned, was that advice can often be very subjective, and therefore hard to apply. When I did the Cascade Saddle route out of Wanaka, DOC couldn’t stress enough that it was ‘dangerous’ but weren’t really able to quantify this statement with anything that I could really apply against my experience. What would have been helpful is if they’d said something like “Are you comfortable with a degree of exposure? Are you able to walk for 8 hours in steep terrain?” And in the instance I described in this post, if she’d described the challenges rather than judging my experience on looks that would have been more useful for me. (As for the guy in the ski/bike resort back in Oz, well there was no excuse for that judgement).
      As someone who has been told “no, you can’t…” far too many times in her life, it’s a sore topic for me. The main point of the blog was to encourage people to follow their goals and dreams in life, not necessarily hiking specific (and certainly not to encourage people to make ambitious and irresponsible decisions while hiking).
      I agree the NZ backcountry is a tough place and far too many incidents occur with unprepared hikers. Thanks for the good work over there in the VC’s. I absolutely love the place and the people! 🙂

      p.S. The NZ hike I referred to in the post was a low altitude, short, easy walk with no risk of any real danger. The worst that could happen is getting cold and a bit wet! 😉

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      • Thank you for your reply. I agree with you – the best advice is specific advice and it’s a shame you didn’t get it. Some staff members are probably more helpful than others and of course you can always just catch someone on a bad day. I think sometimes this problem of giving too many warnings / underestimating your customers can be compounded by some VC locations – if they are based in a city or in a place that sees a huge amount of ‘general’ tourist traffic (i.e. coaches, tours, visitors who are looking for roadside photo ops and very short/easy walks), I wonder if staff can sometimes become a little too used to catering to a certain type of demographic that doesn’t want to ever be cold, wet or sweaty. My disappointing experiences as customer were on the West Coast, which would definitely fit that sort of profile. This wouldn’t apply to Wanaka though, which has a lot of tramper traffic.
        Anyway – I’m glad you enjoyed your trip and hopefully you had great weather for Cascade Saddle!

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      • Cascade was AMAZING thanks. One of the most scenic hikes I’ve done over there. Views of Mt Aspiring and the glacier were just incredible. Loved camping up there and having the place to myself 🙂

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