The Motatapu Track is a new track crossing the tussock tops of the Motatapu and Soho Stations to link Wanaka and Arrowtown, and forming part of the Te Araroa Trail (Getty Images)

What walking the South Island taught me about low-carbon life

There is a lifetime of adventures to be had in New Zealand without ever once setting foot on a plane, writes Melanie Vautier.

A little while ago I stepped out of my front door in Queenstown with the intention of walking back home. To Wellington.

I arrived in Queenstown in October to work there over summer, and during the flight, I decided it would be my last air travel for the foreseeable future. My quest for a low carbon lifestyle and my highly mobile habits no longer synced. I had to take a deep breath and accept the facts: it’s not possible to travel in aeroplanes and live within a viable carbon ‘allocation.’ It has been calculated – probably by hopeful high-flying academics – that unfortunately if we all continue our flying habits, the chances of avoiding ecological collapse are basically zero.

I decided to walk not just because I did not want to fly. There are obviously plenty more, significantly easier,  low-carbon ways to get around. But, fortuitously, we have a fantastic hiking trail that goes the entire length of the country, Te Araroa. I figured if I was going to go through with this hiatus on aviation, I needed to find a different kind of adventure. I needed to turn this self-imposed restriction into a positive. Walking seemed a perfect substitute: I would get to explore my own backyard. As the poet Hone Tuwhare said: “To know Papatūānuku, you have to go through slowly, on foot.”

I wanted to get outside my comfort zone and do something a little bit outrageous. I wanted to live simply out of a backpack. I wanted to visit friends along the way. And, of course, I wanted to prove by example that you do not have to overload the planet’s resources in order to have a bit of an adventure.

So, in early March, I heaved my house onto my back and set off. 

My first section was the Motatapu trail from Queenstown to Wanaka. The trail notes said there would be “two big hills.” There were, to be accurate, four thousand hills; and every time I got to the top of one, it decided to go up some more. That would almost be OK if it was not for the fact that, once I did eventually reach the top, I had to go all the way down the other side in order to go up the next one and do it all over again. 

I had way too much food, afraid of being hungry, and had to quickly devour half the snacks, afraid of carrying them all. I had read somewhere that my maximum weight should be about 12kg. I think I had that in peanut butter alone. I had also forgotten sunscreen, had three times as much cooking gas as I needed and was even still carrying mail I was meant to send back in Queenstown.

After five days of puffing to Wanaka, I arrived feeling astounded that people simply drive there in an hour.

Here is a fact to shine a new perspective on that easy one hour drive: the amount of energy in one tank of gas is equivalent to roughly four years of human labour. The energy density of oil is really incredible. Yet we take driving so much for granted and freak out at petrol prices rising a few cents.

That is what all this climate policy fandango comes down to. We live in a short period of time with amazing energy abundance, built up over millennia that we use absolutely willy-nilly. If we turn the fossil taps off (which we must), can we handle the consequences? We certainly need to make a few changes – the way so many of our towns are built, we have no choice but to drive everywhere. But we can make things so much better: more connected communities, more local economies, more self-sufficiency, more veggie gardens, better health, carpooling, cycle lanes, closer neighbours, farmers markets, and more appreciation of what a litre of gas actually means.

A typical afternoon at Lake Hawea (Getty Images)

Back on the trail, the initial shock to the leg muscles wore off (kind of) and things got increasingly more awesome. I stayed a night in an actual hobbit hole, enjoyed a spectacular sunset over Lake Hawea, swam in crystal clear waters in Lake Ohau. I tackled paths that would make a mountain goat nervous. At times the trail oscillated between springy fairy-tale forest, which felt like a magical journey to the Faraway Tree; and death-defying clambering around rocks on cliff-edges, just often enough to keep it interesting. I explored so much of the country I’d never taken the time to see before and was impressed by it every single day.

I saw first-hand the whole environmental spectrum. Sometimes the algae-clogged streams I crossed reminded me of my 16th birthday party when a friend drank too much vodka orange and spewed all over the garage. A few days later, the water was so clear I thought I was just stepping onto wet stones and found myself shin deep in the river.

In the places where you can drink straight from the rivers, it is wonderful. You feel like an actual part of the eco-system. You are literally joined to the landscape. You feel it moving down your oesophagus. It feels like, and it is, the most natural thing in the world. We’ve been doing it for millions of years.

When I stood on the top of Mt Rintoul and saw layer upon layer of hilly native bush, all the way to the horizon in every direction, I realised that was how things were for most of human history. We get so accustomed to our concrete jungles and tap water (the drinkability of which isn’t even a given in some parts of the country) that we forget how right things feel among the trees, birdlife and clean rivers. Five weeks of walking wasn’t just physically good for me – it felt like mental medicine too.

Things didn’t go quite as simple as planned. I skipped a week and a half around Arthurs Pass due to flooded rivers, and after jubilantly arriving in Picton, I then detoured back southwards (not walking this time) to visit old friends. So it ended up not being as straightforward as a walk home from door-to-door, but oh well. Sometimes it is foolhardy to keep pursuing plans that no longer make sense in the face of new opportunities.

Since finishing, I have found it amazing and wonderful that food of any form is always available. I have really enjoyed getting back some of my clothes and various stuff, but I am conscious that I still want to keep my things as minimal as possible. I want to have more time for fun, a good work-life balance and pursue low-carbon hobbies. Most of all, I always want to make time for friends and family.

I set out to have a low carbon adventure: to turn a pledge of no flying into a fun thing to do rather than a sacrifice. And it was amazing. It is an incredibly beautiful country we live in, even miles from the typical famous hotspots. I woke up when it got light and went to sleep when it got dark. I met a whole lot of really lovely, interesting people. And to arrive at the top of a hill and see native bush expanding across the horizon in every direction, rolling hills almost translucent in the morning light, the first view of the ocean after walking hundreds of kilometres – how incredible, how fortunate I felt to live in such a beautiful country. It was both physical and mental rejuvenation.

The author’s washing drying on a tramping hut (Melanie Vautier)

While the talk about climate mitigation tends to revolve around electric cars and renewable energy, there is a big lifestyle element that is largely neglected. Anytime it is mentioned, it is about ‘giving up’ or ‘sacrificing’. But, perhaps, the things we need to change about our lives can bring us more happiness.

Simplifying our lives, investing more time in quality relationships and community-building, a conscious decision to exit empty consumerism. There is even evidence that working a four day week is strongly correlated to a lower carbon footprint. This voluntary simplicity, de-stressing, and renegotiating what is actually important in our lives, happens to be pretty much exactly what we need to do for ecological regeneration. Mitigating climate change has every opportunity of being a recipe for greater happiness.

I do not want to make someone flying off on an OE feel guilty. I have travelled a lot in my past and I am well aware of the amazing experiences out there to be had. But there comes a point where you can stop ‘ticking off’ countries or jet-setting around at every opportunity. Instead, give a bit of ecological space to those who want to embark on a once in a lifetime adventure. And to those who are, go for it, have an amazing time, and appreciate the privilege that you have in these opportunities.

To anyone who, like me, has already been fortunate enough to travel, I invite you – should you wish to join me – to explore new kinds of adventures. Explore your own backyard, and see all those places you never get around to seeing. Go tramping, kayak the fiords, start a community garden. If you want to experience people from new cultures go to a backpackers bar or volunteer with refugees. Learn to cook Japanese food, take up rock n roll dancing, and add something to your own community rather than transiting through another. And if you fly somewhere, just make sure it is justified.


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