A Deleted Chapter from my Upcoming Book – Downriver Nomad: A Triathlete’s Adventures and Adversity Into the Rapids
Akaroa Harbour Swim
After coming home from an adventure swim in the Fiordland in February 2019, I was on a high. I felt renewed confidence that I could have epic adventure swims and self-made triathlons without the price tag that accompanies so many adventures. I’d only been in New Zealand for about nine months and was enjoying my first summer season of wild swimming and backcountry running and riding. I was now in search of a new marathon swimming adventure.
It didn’t take me long to find Akaroa Harbour on the map, and I wondered if anyone had ever swum the entire length of it. It was only a ninety-minute drive from my new home in Christchurch, and I began a bit of preliminary research about swimming there. I found out that there was an annual 5 km swim race held in the harbour, but as far as I could tell, the entire length of the harbour, a distance of approximately 14 km, had never been swam.
I learned that Akaroa Harbour has some of the highest tides in the southern hemisphere and is home to dolphins and the Pohatu Penguin – the world’s smallest breed of penguin. It seemed like an idyllic place for a marathon swim. The only problem was with the high tides; there was no chance of swimming out and back as going against the tide in either direction would be impossible. I thought of the possibility of trying to time the swim for a double crossing of the harbour, so that I’d reach the end when the tide changed direction. I quickly shelved that idea for safety reasons. I thought it could be a future possibility, but for my first attempt at Akaroa Harbour, I should have a clear idea of how long it would take going one way before planning to go out and back.
I investigated the cost of a support boat; however, while I thought I could afford it, it still seemed like a lot of money for a 14 km swim. I came up with another possibility of having kayak supporters pull a spare kayak so that I could pull myself up into the kayak after the swim and paddle back in.
I emailed the kayak safari company in Akaroa and asked if any of the kayak tour guides would be willing to support me. The next day, I heard back from one of the lead kayakers, Jacob Weigant got back to me. He said that he was willing and that it was his most unique request to date from his many years as a kayak tour guide.
I spoke to him on the phone several times, and we mapped out the simple safety plan. He and a friend would paddle with me, he’d pull the spare kayak, stay in VHF radio contact with the company headquarters, and we’d time it so that I’d start the swim just as the tide was going out.
A few weeks later, I was down in Akaroa, zipping up my wetsuit as my instant new friend Jacob double-checked the kayaks and supplies. A short time later, off we went from Duvachelle out towards Elephant rock, the spot where the harbour opens up to the ocean.
Akaroa is a beautiful small seaside town nestled towards the back of the Banks Peninsula. It is frequented by cruise ships, tourists, day-trippers and adventurers alike and is surrounded by high country hills with walking and mountain biking tracks. It’s often a fantastic surprise to tourists who may not have heard of it and have been travelling around the more widely know iconic sites in New Zealand. People who end their Kiwi journey in Christchurch often travel the Banks Peninsula in their last few days and are frequently surprised that it ranks among their favourite places they’ve visited in the country.
I’ve indeed found that the large variety of walking and cycling trails, the quiet roads for cycling and the beautiful small bays in every nook and cranny of this beautiful and rugged piece of land provides endless weekend adventure options on my doorstep.
Swimming out into the middle of the harbour and soaking up the incredible views on either side of the harbour, I passed tour and fishing boats with tourists gawking at the strange sight of a swimmer heading to the open ocean. The Akaroa Harbour swim certainly solidified my belief that this style of adventure swimming was as epic as it could get. And it only cost me a hotel room and shouting my kayakers a pizza.
While stopping for a refuel, Jacob commented that he hadn’t believed my estimate that the swim would take 3.5 – 4 hours until we started going.
“I thought you were a bit cocky on the time frame”, he told me. “I figured we’d either be out here for 5 – 6 hours or more or that you’d just get too tired, and I’d just have to get you back in the kayak after maybe getting halfway. But we’re actually moving faster than most of my kayak tourists groups.”
His friend Mike had been held up at work and wasn’t able to make the swim start, but after about ninety minutes, he paddled up to us, after having driven to the point where we planned to exit the water after paddling back. Mike was a veteran of the legendary Coast to Coast multisport race that included a lengthy kayak section of the Waimakariri river after leaving city life, contented himself with a combination of farming and sea kayak tour guiding.
Not infrequently, we paused the swim to soak up the scenery, the cormorants – or ‘Shags’ as they are known in New Zealand and to watch the dolphins swim past. We hadn’t spotted any Pohatu Penguins yet, but we were frequently laughing at the expressions of the tourists in the small taxi boats that went past us as they were going to and from the two international cruise ships currently in the harbour. It was probably safe to say that the boatload of primarily Chinese tourists had never seen an idiot in a wetsuit swimming with the dolphins before.
We’d started the swim at afternoon high tide around 3:30 pm, and as we approached Elephant Rock, the sun was showing its first sign of setting. The combination of the sheer beauty of the place with the sunset was surreal. We finished the swim 3 hours and 45 minutes after we started. With enough daylight left, Jacob suggested that I experiment on swimming against the tide. Pointing to a rock approximately 100 meters away, he said, “Let’s see how long it takes you to get there.”
Usually, in cruise mode, swimming 100 meters would take me about 90 seconds. Going against the tide, it took nearly 10 minutes to get there, and even that was a supreme effort.
I heaved myself up into the spare kayak to paddle back. No sooner had I settled in the kayak, the Pohatu penguins showed up and dove in and around our kayaks. Not much bigger than chickens, these fascinating little birds danced about our boats, plunging around and under, entirely at ease with our presence and seemed very happy knowing that they were providing the evening’s entertainment.
Paddling back into the sunset, chatting to my new friends and soaking up the scenery, I felt as satisfied and as contented as I ever had with any race or adventure I’d ever been on. I could think of no stretch of water that would be more beautiful. I was only ninety minutes from home, I hadn’t spent several month’s salary, I’d made new friends, and I felt the satisfying post-adventure fatigue and elation all at the same time.
Three Day Swim Trek: Marlborough Sounds & Pelorus River
Less than a month after swimming Akaroa Harbour, it was time to go on the next leg of a triathlon adventure and get back on the bike. Over Easter of 2019, my wife Tansy and I cycled the beautiful four-day ride called the West Coast Wilderness trail that extends from the town of Greymouth, goes into the hills, loops down to Hokitika and down to the tiny community of Ross Beach.
On the second night of the ride, in the remote hill country accommodation appropriately named Cowboy Paradise, the idea for the next swim trek was born. Leaving our campsite in the small town of Kumara on Saturday and packing up the tent that was pitched under Buddha prayer flags, we rode off into the most remote section of the journey.
As we were leaving our campsite, the lady who operated the guest houses and campsite in Kumara had lamented, “Oh, it’s a shame you are riding over Easter when the trail is so crowded!” Having seen a total of about four or five other riders all day, I decided I liked the West Coaster’s idea of what a ‘crowd’ means. The Kiwi west coast of South Island has several small towns and rural homes, and guesthouses. It’s a stunningly beautiful place, and it is one of only two places on earth with an alpine rain forest – the other being in South Africa. It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place on the planet on beautiful days. Still, the tough and rugged coastline, next to the Tasman Sea with a high Alpine range springing up immediately by the ocean, causes a massive amount of wild weather. Often referred to as the “Wet Coast’ by the locals, their assessment is not wrong. We caught a beautiful day for the ride from Greymouth to Kumara, but by the time we were eating lunch in the mountains en route to Cowboy Paradise, the “Wet Coast” lived up to its name and reputation.
By the time we pulled up to Cowboy Paradise, the rain was bucketing down so much that it seemed Goretex is not 100% waterproof after all. Looking around at our homes for the night, I thought that while I’ve never been much a Western movie fan, if I were ever to arrive on the set of one, this remote place up in the hills above Hokitika would probably be it. The main building was literally an old western saloon, complete with the flip doors that I’d imagine an 18th-century gunslinger might kick open and challenge an enemy to a duel at ten paces.
I went up to the desk and greeted the rough but friendly-looking man who must have been an old western outlaw in a past life. “Hi there, my wife and I have a reservation for a tent space here tonight.”
He looked surprised and asked, “You took your woman out riding on a day like today?!” gesturing at the pouring rain.
I’d never thought of Tansy as ‘my woman’ before but decided not to discuss a more ‘woke’ way of talking about women then and there. I didn’t think he was rude or derogatory. He was simply born a few centuries past his time.
After setting up our tent around the corner from a gun range, it was time for dinner at Cowboy Paradise. It was precisely a Cowboy’s dinner – buffets of very traditional potato, meat, cooked vegetables and basic salads. Numerous tables in the saloon were now bustling with cyclists and hikers, and the waitresses in their fishnet stockings were also straight out a John Wayne movie. Laughing at a sign that said, “We don’t have Wifi, pretend it is 1895 and talk to each other”, we sat down next to another couple and immediately started chatting.
Andy Baldwin and his wife Kristy were cycling the trail, which was a bit outside their normal activity range. Andy told us they lived in Picton, a beautiful small town in Marlborough Sounds, and he was an avid sailor and kayaker. He was also a scuba diver, and one of his past jobs was recovering bodies from the bottom of Lake Tekapo.
“You’re the first person with a job like that I’ve ever met!” I joked.
We continued talking, and when the subject of marathon swimming came up, he promptly invited us to Picton and offered to support a swim in Marlborough Sounds with his sailboat. Kiwi hospitality and friendliness was on full display. I’d only known the man for less than an hour and already had the basic idea of the next adventure in place.
It’s one of the many things I love about New Zealand and reminded me of my upbringing in Newfoundland. Hospitality, friendliness, and helping each other out were embedded in Newfoundland’s culture, and I found that when I left home to go to university, that wasn’t the norm for much of the world. While I met friendly people everywhere I went, hospitality was either rare or unheard of and asking for a favour was considered rude. I’d definitely found my home in New Zealand. Andy gave me his card, and shortly after arriving home from the cycle tour, I contacted him to set up a possible date for a big swim.
Not far from Picton is the picturesque Pelorus River. As part of a previous holiday in the area, Tansy and I did a day trip kayak tour of the Pelorus, which was one of the iconic filming sites for the movie “The Hobbit.”
Seeing the river through the lens of a swimmer as I was kayaking, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to swim the Pelorus. Before we went on the West Coast Wilderness trail cycle tour, I’d already made a tentative plan to swim it at some point. When we finished the kayak trip, I think Shane, the operator of Pelorus Eco Adventures, thought I was either kidding or crazy when I asked about it and assumed he’d never hear from me again.
Now armed with Andy’s offer of supporting a swim in the nearby Marlborough Sounds, I came up with the idea of doing a three day self-made “Swim Trek.”
Calling Andy, I asked, “Do you think we could do a swim of maybe 10 km in length on one day, drop the anchor, sleep on the boat and then wake up and do it again?”
“I have just the route in mind,” he replied. “We can swim from the town of Anakiwa to Lochmara bay which is almost exactly 10km. There’s a little resort there, and we can get off the boat and have dinner. Then we can sleep on the boat instead of staying in the hotel. Then we can swim the perimeter of the next three adjacent bays, which will be almost exactly 10 km again.”
“That sounds perfect, and the next day I’ll drive to Havelock and swim the Pelorus River. That’ll be an awesome three-day weekend swim trek.”
Since it was now approaching May and the colder weather was setting in, we decided to do it in mid-December when the weather was warming up again. I hung up and immediately called Pelorus Eco Adventures to find out if they’d commit to supporting a swim of the Pelorus River. As I was becoming my new abnormal normal, I asked for a Pelorus tour from the kayaking company, except I didn’t want to use a kayak. The woman on the line thought she misheard me and asked me to repeat my question. When I explained it again, I was met with a mystified tone. Before she had a chance to think it was a prank call and hang up, I explained the concept of marathon wild swimming. Her bewildered tone switched to curious enthusiasm, and I had my adventure planned.
Andy and I kept in touch periodically all winter as I was in the midst of planning my biggest swim of the summer down the Clutha River. As the time ticked closer towards December again, we finalised a date, the weekend just before Christmas. I had initially thought of the Three Day Swim Trek as a training expedition for the Clutha, but as it approached, I realised it would be an epic adventure all on its own, whether or not I swam the Clutha.
I drove to Picton after work, and Andy greeted me at his house with a meal of Thai food ready. It was only the second day I’d ever seen him, and although months separated the Easter cycling tour and this week before Christmas, we found ourselves chatting like old friends.
After dinner, we went downstairs to Andy’s garage, and I found myself looking at the ultimate man cave. After taking in the six or seven kayaks, stand up paddleboards, fishing rods and bikes, the wine cellar and scuba gear, I rested my eyes on a train set. Speaking with the zeal of a fourth-grader playing in the mud, Andy explained that he’d built this trainset by hand himself, a project that had taken months to complete. There were mountains, rivers, lakes, and an old western town with train tracks looping around with a long tunnel through a mountain. The intricate detail of each building, person, lake, blade of grass and railway was incredible, and he happily jabbered on about the slow process of making it, painting faces on little people, wiring the tracks and the difficulty in laying small train tracks through a tunnel. I immediately liked him even more. I’ve always found myself liking people who are not afraid to be total nerds about their projects. It’s precisely what Tansy is like when she writes her books, draws her pictures or invents a new recipe in the kitchen. I like to think it’s what I’m like when dreaming up off the wall adventures and getting out in the water and swinging my arms. I love people who have a passion and see their eyes light up when talking about it.
The next day we were off in his boat, launching it from the Marina in Picton, and we sailed over to Anikiwa in a perfect weather window for swimming. A few weeks prior, the entire South Island was blanketed with rain, storms and wild winds. But the weather calmed, the sun was out, and as I jumped off Andy’s boat into the sea in Marlborough Sounds, I took a moment of silent gratitude before starting the adventure.
The area’s subtropical climate gives life to a beautiful lush green forest coating the islands and headlands. The water was warm, small cabins only accessible by boat dotted the shoreline, and Andy happily sat in his boat as I spun my arms amongst the kingfish and dolphins. He was indeed in his element on his boat, and I was truly in mine in the water.
For the next three hours, I swam along, occasionally pausing for an energy bar or drink or to greet curious passing boaters, perplexed by the sight of a swimmer in the water. Perhaps they thought, and I had had a fight, and he’d thrown me overboard.
Even the wind cooperated, and I was nudged along nicely by a tailwind, heading straight towards the sun, which was just getting settled for summer warmth. I reflected once again how easy it was to set up a beautiful and epic adventure for barely any money. I’d been on a fantastic scenic cycle tour and inadvertently set up a swimming trek with a new friend. There was nowhere on earth better for swimming than Marlborough.
I’d settled into creating my own adventures, and that most, if not all, of what I had in mind wouldn’t be ‘recognised’ by a regulatory body. It would also be easy to think that now that I was in my mid-forties, it was utterly pointless to keep on acting like a 20-year-old and aim to find adventure and push the limits for no recognition, certainly no money or any kind of reward. I’d never been an elite athlete and never would be. If anyone else had thought of the idea of creating a swim trek that involved both Marlborough Sounds and the Pelorus River, there’d be no shortage of swimmers who’d be able to do it faster. I’d never be New Zealand’s (or Canada’s) fastest swimmer, but it might not be a bad idea to set out to be one of the weirdest.
A slightly – well, more than slightly – a very unusual reflective tool I’ve been caught up in again is one of my favourite cartoons of all time: Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin, a young kid who has a vivid imagination and believes his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, to be real. One of my favourite quotes from Calvin is, “Becoming an adult is the stupidest thing you can ever do.” I always liked that line, and while I imagined doing ‘adult’ things like raising my own kids, there’s no reason to fall into the trap of stressing out over ultimately pointless things. Stressing over interest rates, panicking about not having a presentable enough house to impress the neighbours or wishing the car was a Lexus instead of a Toyota – it all seemed frivolous and stupid to me.
I began to recall a Calvin and Hobbes poster in college that I hope to find somewhere again. Calvin and his tiger are sitting on a rock and declaring, “Explorers are we, intrepid and bold. Equipped with our wits, a map and a snack, we’re searching for fun, and we’re on the right track!” Twenty years later, it still seems relevant to me.
I would have liked to be a parent who was also an adventurer. I often imagined having had a kid sitting on the support boat throwing me bananas or even pulling a kid along in an inflatable raft as I swam. Since that’s not how life turned out for me, however, I had decided just to keep on being a kid myself. Generally speaking, I think people don’t stop adventuring because they grow old. I think they grow old because they stop adventuring. Some people quit their sports and adventures because they can’t be ‘the best’ anymore. Whether they were elite-level athletes who were past their prime or made it to the level of being the sporting hero in high school or college, so many former athletes end up falling into the suburban heart attack trap. Not everyone has to swim down rivers or climb a mountain, and not everyone wants to. I think, however, there are untold numbers of people in suburbia who have fulfilled ‘the dream’ of having the big house, the cool car and the magazine photo worthy living room, only to find out that they’d give it all up for a chance to pitch a tent by the lake or get on a bike and ride across the country.
It was certainly how I was prioritising life. After several years of nomadic life after having to give up trying to adopt children, I’d found my ideal home in New Zealand. I didn’t want to live out of a backpack anymore, but the idea of a big house that required me to mow the lawn on the weekend and save up for kitchen renovations still gave me the horrors. Tansy and I settled on the idea of building a small villa in an area of what is like a small town off to the side of Christchurch but still only a thirty-minute bike ride away from work. The plans the builder showed us were big enough to store the bikes and future kayaks in the garage, but no lawn and only enough floor space for the basics. There’d be no space to fill up the house with crap. I wanted to spend my time out in the water or climbing a mountain, not mowing lawns or redoing the living room as soon as the trends changed.
Swimming along next to the subtropical headlands with kingfish and dolphins playing around beneath and beside me, I’d never have to worry about keeping up with the Jones’s. Wetsuits aren’t designed to look cool, and swim hats can make even the most trendy hipster look like a complete dork. Out in the water, nobody cares.
As I rounded the bend into Lochmara Bay, the glorious tailwind I’d been enjoying suddenly changed, and I battled a headwind for the final few kilometres. As the bay became shallower approaching the small resort, I was suddenly swimming with colourful fish, waving at kayakers and windsurfers while Andy sailed the short distance up ahead to drop the anchor next to the small jetty.
Touching the boat for the finish line, Andy, my one-man cheering squad, gave a Homer Simpson like, “Whoo Hoo! 10K!” After a high five and heaving myself up the ladder of Andy’s boat, I took in the surroundings. Lochmara Lodge is a small but beautiful little resort, only accessible by boat and due to the shape of the bay, you can’t see Picton off in the distance. You could easily be in the middle of nowhere.
Leaving the boat on its mooring, we had a walk around the resort, trails climbing up into the hills behind it and marvelling over some of the incredible Maori artwork of carvings, statues and paintings that are on the trail. A swimming adventure really couldn’t get much better than this.
After dinner in the resort, I had my first sleep on a boat in a very long time. The wind died down, and we had a mirror-like ocean to sleep on, and I slept like a baby despite the small size of the berth. I rose early before Andy woke up and watched the sunrise over the ocean. A cuppa and a bowl of chia seed pudding later, I was jumping off the jetty again and heading out for another 10km swim around the perimeter of three different bays. Small cottages and jetties dotted the shoreline, and at one point, I even found a small jetty with a sign on it reading “Calm Haven.” It was too good of a place not to pause for a photo op, and I pointed at the sign as Andy snapped the picture. It perfectly summed up my thoughts on open water swimming. Despite being unpredictable, sometimes dangerous and scary for many people even to imagine, to me, open water swimming was indeed one of my calm havens
While I love chatting to people and can seem extroverted when in the company of others, it doesn’t take me very long to become ‘peopled out.’ I frequently need to pull away from everyone and recharge on my own. I always have and still love training and adventuring in small groups and getting to know my fellow adventurers, but I require a large amount of solo time where I can be a complete introvert. I’ve noticed that if I go through periods of not getting enough time on my own, I often get too caught up in my own head and have a harder time to not lose my patience with other people. If getting time on my own proves impossible for a while, I find myself sometimes daydreaming about moving to a Himalayan log cabin to become a reclusive yak herder. I’d fill my time running up and down mountains, swimming the rivers through the valleys and eat berries, goats cheese and curry.
I lose my ability to listen to other people when I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to myself for a while. If I haven’t heard my own heart’s voice for a while, I can’t even bring myself to care what other people have to say. And it’s not really that I don’t care. I just can’t be fully present with other people for long periods without being fully present with just myself for a while as well. What I love about open water swimming is that even when you enjoy the company (and safety) of a group, you still can’t talk much while you’re going. A lot of a marathon swimmer’s time is spent in their own head. As a part-time introvert, the challenge of keeping my mind calm as the hours roll on in the water is usually easy for me.
I find those introverted peaceful recharge moments out in the water, on a bike or in a pair of running or hiking shoes. Some people find their renewal in a church pew, catching up with friends or family, or by painting a picture. Some find it in music, some in food preparation. I can enjoy most things most of the time, but I can’t seem to enjoy people’s company without regular enjoyment of my own company.
I used to think that perhaps there was something wrong with me for being this way. I don’t know for sure, but maybe almost everyone needs their solo and maybe don’t know it or can’t seem to prioritise it.
There’s no generic or straight forward answer to mental health issues that seem to have become so common. While I’ve read a lot about it, I’m certainly no expert on the subject and I can’t speak for any strategy that seems to work beyond my own personal experience. I have certainly had periods of feeling overwhelmed, lost and consumed by dark thoughts. They’ve come about from dealing with an alcoholic father, grief and loss, childlessness and periods where I felt like I was doing the best I could but not being good enough. In my case, I’ve never thought of it as a mental health issue, I’ve only ever thought of it as issues and circumstances to work through. One of the reasons that I think I’ve been able to do so is because I have a variety of things that I like to do in life, from endurance sport, creative projects and also a strong independent sense of self and inner strength. Because of that, whenever I’ve felt lost, I’ve been able to find my way back.
I do think many people would be better off mentally if they were willing or able to get away from the busyness and noise of their daily lives and move around uncluttered in nature for a while. I’ve had many conversations about mental health over the years. With my history of throwing myself into triathlon heavily around the time of my parent’s troubles and subsequent divorce, it’s been suggested to me by numerous people that I was simply running away from problems.
There’s no doubt that athletes and adventurers can indeed throw themselves into their pursuits with an unhealthy level of zeal. Exercise addiction is a real phenomenon, in similar ways to eating disorders – and the two are often mixed together – where people become so obsessed with their chosen fitness routine. They have relationships and careers break down, develop injuries and chronic fatigue, and stress unhealthy amounts of exercise. And of course, many people use fitness and adventure in this harmful way to escape from other destructive behaviours such as addiction, disordered eating, gambling or escaping being the victim of or the perpetrator of violence.
I’ve never been able to adequately communicate with people telling me that I’m avoiding problems by jumping on my bike or diving in the water that I’m doing no such thing, at least not most of the time. There’s no doubt that maybe sometimes I am running (or swimming) away from something. Often though, I’m swimming towards something. Sometimes it’s both, happening at the same time. Usually, it’s neither. The stillness of my mind that occurs during a swim or a run or on the seat of a bike is what helps me centre my thoughts, whether I have a current problem to deal with or not. Despite hundreds of hard slogs up hills, days when I can barely move or heartbreak at inevitable failures, I’ve never taken off my running shoes or unzipped my wetsuit and felt worse than when I had put them on. Sometimes I think the answer to many people’s problems can be as simple as finding something you enjoy doing and doing it as often as possible. Nobody’s circumstances are the same, and most have less than ideal circumstances at one time or another. But there’s a lot to be said for prioritising what makes you happy, even for a short moment each day, and forgetting what we ‘should’ be worried about, like having a better home, a more expensive car or the mythical perfect life.
As Andy waited for me to touch the boat at the edge of the final bay, I reflected on all of this and was once again feeling grateful. Whatever had gone wrong in life, I still had the headspace and the drive to get out and enjoy my surroundings, doing something I loved. If I could grant one wish to anyone, it would be for them to discover what it was that lights them up, give them the drive or inspiration to make it a priority in their lives and not care if they suck at it or what anyone thinks about it.
Heaving myself up the ladder of Andy’s boat, satisfyingly tired but simultaneously exhilarated, we chilled out with a cuppa overlooking the magnificent sounds. We proceeded to think up more routes for future adventures. We thought up everything from swimming laps around the dozens of islands, a triathlon that would take a day to swim, a few days to ride the Queen Charlotte track and then run another track, to a swim / run and kayak adventure. We came up with so many ideas as we cruised back to Picton in the sailboat that I momentarily forgot that I was still in the middle of the current adventure, and I still had the Pelorus River to go in this three day Swim Trek.
After getting the boat secured in the Marina, I did the short drive along the winding road from Picton to Havelock. This quaint little town happens to be the ‘green-lipped mussel capital of the Southern Hemisphere.’ On the drive through the town centre, you’re greeted with signs about mussels everywhere and a giant mussel cartoon character on one of the central hotels.
After contacting Pelorus Eco Adventures to confirm tomorrow’s unusual plan, I ate at the local restaurant. I curled up in my hotel room for the night with a book, feeling extremely satisfied already with the adventure so far.
The weather didn’t fully cooperate the next day, I woke up to rain, but since it wasn’t windy or stormy, I figured I get wet anyway on the river swim. A little rain was no problem. Shane, the operator of Pelorus Eco Adventures, is as Kiwi as they come. As I shook his hand, he asked me if I was ok to go in the rain. “The rain doesn’t bother me,” I replied.
“Sweet as,” he replied in typical Kiwi lingo, “Let’s do it.”
We loaded the pack raft into the truck and drove the short distance to the start of the swim. The upper Pelorus is mostly unswimmable as it is too shallow in too many places and has too many rocks. So the swim began approximately 25 km upriver from the Havelock Bridge. One of the Pelorus Eco Adventure employees dropped us at the backcountry site and helped us get the gear down the winding trail to the river gorge. She and Shane kept in contact over the radio during the swim, and she’d be at the endpoint, ready to pick us up.
Just as I was entering the water, the rain stopped, and while it never got fully sunny, it was stunning to look downriver, surrounded by lush vegetation and a river side hiking track.
The Pelorus river has several rapids but, for the most part, is very slow-moving, opens up frequently into nearly still pools of water that are idyllic family swimming holes. Some of the few rapids were very shallow, and for a few points, I had to stand up and walk approximately 150 meters, but that was all part of the game in river swimming. The rules of not being allowed to stop swimming or stand on the bottom don’t apply. The rules of the river are their own, and they don’t care about what a sporting governing body says.
I didn’t fully realise it until later, but Shane was filming a lot of the swim while giving running commentary on the area’s history, from the gold rush to early settlers, mining and military training.
Shane had also told me that Peter Jackson, the great Kiwi film director of the iconic Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, chose one of the waterfalls on the Pelorus river bank to be one of the sites to film a fight scene in the Hobbit. Shane recollected to me later about how Peter Jackson had showed up in Havelock and paid most of the residents to take a few weeks holiday almost anywhere they wanted to go and covered local tourism business costs while he shut down the river area to do his filming. The scene where the dwarves are being chased by orcs and cross the river in barrels was filmed here at the Pelorus. I wondered if I’d been living in New Zealand at the time if Peter Jackson would have recruited me to swim the dwarves across on my back so they wouldn’t have needed the barrels. Probably not – or at least the same low odds as the countless American tourists have who come to New Zealand hoping to spot an actual elf or a hobbit.
One tricky section of the otherwise relatively tame river where a deep pool emptied around a right angle bend with swift rapids. The riverbank was high, so I couldn’t see what was around the bend. Shane asked me if I’d prefer to walk over the bank and skip the turn. I almost decided to do that, but treading water in the deep pool of slow-moving water, I asked him about the conditions beyond. He said if I could hug the inside corner on the right as I rounded the corner and not get swept into the banks, I’d have to be prepared to break hard left as there was a rock about 30 meters beyond the turn. It was my first river swim in a long while, and I was just getting my skills back, so doubt was there, plus I had to have complete trust in Shane. He was someone who did paddle the river most days, but I’d only known him for a short time. I decided to go for it, and it was the only nerve-wracking section of the swim, and it was over in less than thirty seconds. Shane was absolutely correct in his instructions, and as I sprinted for all I was worth around the corner to keep right, I sprinted even harder, suddenly going left. It worked out perfectly, and I got through it unscathed. I wouldn’t, however, recommend the turn to a nervous swimmer or someone who isn’t confident to sprint through rapids.
“Bloody oath, mate! Well done!” Shane exclaimed, “Thought for sure I’d be rescuing you for there. Can’t tell you how many muppet tourists I’ve pulled out of there when they fall off their kayaks.”
Perhaps if he’d told me that prior I might have made the decision to walk. Even on a relatively tame river like the Pelorus, the river is in control. There’s no controlling water flow, and as a swimmer, I just have to go with it.
Further downriver, a tributary called the Rai River connects with the Pelorus. As I approached the Rai, Shane told me about the swing bridge that crosses it a few hundred upstream.
“Whaddya think,” he asked, “see if we can tire you out by swimming upriver to the bridge?”
“Challenge accepted, sir!” We broke hard left around the hairpin turn, leaving the relatively slow-moving downstream current of the Pelorus. Suddenly against the moderately flowing upstream current of the Rai.
Swimming up-river is a great way to go nowhere fast. Most currents, there’d be no chance of fighting, but this river was just slowly moving enough that it wasn’t quite a treadmill swim. Swimming for all I was worth, I inched my way upstream. I’d typically swim 200 meters in less than three minutes, but swimming up to the bridge took more than ten minutes. Once I hit the rapids section just past the bridge, there was no fighting it anymore. Several attempts to go upstream past some rocks had failed. Shane, laughing and filming the whole thing from the riverbank, was offering commentary that I was probably burning about 3000 calories and might be able to run up a $200 tab at the restaurant for lunch. After a fourth or fifth attempt to get up the rapids, I let the water push me backwards and paddled over to the banks and had a snack. At the same time, Shane happily gave me more commentary on the history of the area, talking with the enthusiasm of a little kid.
We made our way back downriver, passing low flying birds diving into the water to scoop up a fish, and occasionally stopping for a drink or an energy gel, while Shane always seemed to pick up his last sentence from about forty-five minutes ago, gleefully telling me about a person from 150 years ago who might have built a shack on the side of the river.
Like Andy with his train set and his boat, Shane was in his element paddling down a river towards a town that is barely on the map that most people would have never heard of, myself included, until my first trip to Marlborough Sounds. Shane had been operating Pelorus Eco Adventures for many years after living in Auckland and finally throwing in the towel on city life. I admired his story of abandoning the security that he’d built up for himself to have a go live in a place and do things that made him happy.
I reflected on this as I made my way down the final stretches of the river, the rain now pouring down hard and the mist beginning to hang low again. Following your heart is no guarantee of any kind of success or a road to eternal happiness. But taking a risk and doing something you enjoy resonates with everything I’d ever done.
As I swam that final section of the river, I wondered, as I had many times over the years, what might my father have enjoyed doing had he ever looked out beyond his immediate surroundings or what the norms were. I think this is what he thought his life was supposed to amount to. Even before his drinking and drug use consumed him, he never seemed to think much beyond the next beer, the next western movie or ball game. While there’s nothing wrong with any of those things and definitely can be perfectly enjoyable, he never did anything that lit him up that I can remember. I recall him being a very talented musician when I was really young, and while he had no formal training on the piano, he could hear a tune on the radio or a record and sit down and play it. But he never developed that talent, and by the time I was around ten or so, I never saw him sit down at the piano again.
He liked being outside, and I know he enjoyed fishing, but again, by the time I was perhaps around ten years old, the fishing rods had disappeared from the shed. I don’t know the reason he stopped doing that.
I have a theory that he thought life was supposed to turn out better for him. He thought he was supposed to have more money or deserved it in some way. When he didn’t seem to get everything he thought he was supposedly deserving of, he gave up everything else for the bottle.
Not everyone needs an all-consuming passion, but I do think everyone needs something in their life that brings a spring to their step and a sparkle in their eyes. Something that is truly theirs and not dependent on what other people think. I’ve heard many people say they live for their spouse or partner or for their kids. And while living for love is understandable, spouses can potentially leave, kids eventually do leave home. And so many people are lost when loved ones move on. Grief and an adjustment period are natural and necessary, but coping with a loss, in my opinion, requires something that lights you up and is all for you.
For me, swimming, cycling, a running was always this outlet. Yes, it was therapy when it needed to be. But it was what I did when I was happy. It was what I did when I was sad, angry, frustrated or inspired. It didn’t matter what my mood was. What lit me up was always there and is the reason why I think I handled my parent’s divorce, family violence, loss of friends, breakdown of relationships and other painful situations as well as I did. I felt the pain as much as anyone, but I preferred to move through the pain, ironically inducing an enjoyable sort of pain while I sought to regain some semblance of balance in my mind and in my life again.
Reaching this place of what I call ‘determined acceptance’ is not a constant once I understood it. I figured out that I needed to strive for what I wanted while accepting the outcome even if I didn’t like it.
So while I’ve come to be more understanding and empathetic of addiction and how and why so many people fall into the trap my father did, it is still difficult for me to imagine giving up my wetsuit for the bottle.
A great sense of joy and contentment filled me up as I reached the end of the river. I’d just completed an epic and self-made three-day swim trek and became the first person to ever do a marathon swim in the Pelorus River. It was all an affordable trip, a three-hour drive from home and came about because I’d had another previous adventure and met some hospitable and friendly people. I didn’t quite run up the $200 tab in the local restaurant that Shane had predicted, but I did eat a hearty meal with him before getting in my car and driving home, completely satisfied with my adventure and enjoying my sense of freedom.