Back in the early 2000’s, while sitting behind a desk in an office of a well known telecommunications company, my imagination drifted to less soul destroying places I could be. The places that occurred to me were…. pretty much everywhere else. Not long after that I resigned and vowed never to work in an environment like that again. I’d work outdoors regardless of the pay rate or career prospects.
I had no idea that this decision would, 5 years later, lead to me regularly commuting by helicopter and working in the most remote mountain forests of New Zealand. I found myself navigating and route finding for days over mountains,through swamps, up scree slopes and through some of the most impenetrable vegetation imaginable. Often our helicopter couldn’t land due to the danger of smashing its blades against trees. The best we could do was jump out as it hovered or rested its skids against steep mountain sides. On the way to our target destinations were frequent river crossings, which could mean wading and sometimes swimming across channels using our packs as floats. We fully tested out our 4×4, skidding and sliding our way up and down muddy forest tracks and across farmland, pushing us through rivers, bonnet deep, to get as far as we could before throwing on our 30kg plus packs to carry on by foot.
It kind of felt like being in the A-team, or a Vietnam war film, but without the considerable downside of being shot at. And just like the A-team our reasons for doing it were morally righteous. We were there to do biodiversity surveys. Scientists, collecting the data necessary to calculate the quantities of carbon stored in New Zealands forests for Kyoto protocol purposes.
None of our first squad of 4 were anything like the characters in the A team, which was of course really disappointing. But then, it turned out our “soldiers of fortune” were even better. Dr Bond the biking, climbing, adventurer; Ms Kilduff, the arty punk botanist; Mr Dann, The quick witted, vinyl soul-man, entomologist; ………..and a random English guy to whom I’m not willing to give a tagline.
But it was tough. Exhausting 18 hour days and 90 hour weeks were not unheard of. Over 2 years this intensity continued for months at a time with very few breaks. We were pushing it. Hangryness became common, along with delirious euphoria, which usually showed itself through disproportionate levels of hilarity after rubbish dad jokes.
Once the incredible intensity and focus required to unpack a hovering helicopter had been overcome and achieved, the chopper would lift up blasting us with its downdraft, then zip off like a massive dragonfly, shrinking to a speck in the distance… until disappearing around a bend in the steep sided valley. This would be followed by a beautiful silence….. looking up and smiling at each other as we realised our remoteness, our ears would slowly refocus. Maybe first noticing the sound of the stream… then the birds….and then, 30 seconds later, the quiet hum of a million sand flies and mosquitoes descending! Understandably happy to see 4 massive, thin skinned, sacks of blood being delivered by the almighty dragonfly king. This would immediately be followed by a strange group sandfly dance and an urgent need to get moving.
The temperate rainforests of southwest New Zealand are the most inhospitable, remote area on the islands. Fiordlands forest covered mountains dive steeply down in to the sea, the water inlets make an incredibly complex landscape where many people have ventured in and not returned. The trees are draped in moss and lichen, the sweet smell of sundew and fungi fill the moist forest air. The damp, dark gulleys are full of weird shaped, brightly coloured mushrooms. Elk live in there, red deer and wild boar, possums, stoats, weasels and legend has it, a moose or two. Plants like the woody tentacled supplejack and the gnarly leatherwood form dense mazes where even deer get tangled and caught up. Where you find these plants, you don’t walk, you squeeze, clamber, slip, give up, clamber again, get snagged, get angry, swear loudly, then slump in resignation like a fly in a spiders web. If you find a good place to set up camp, it’s probably because it’s a river channel when it rains, which inevitably you discover in the middle of the night. It’s a country of unusual birds; Kea, incredibly intelligent, the world’s only alpine parrot and thieving git; Weka, inquisitively creeps around your campsite as if it is a master of stealth, it really isn’t, we can see you weka; Kiwi, the freaky, massive beaked, beady eyed, grumpy, night time screamer and national bird; And fantails, robins and tomtits who flutter around and follow you in hope that you knock up some insects.
Often the only place the helicopter pilot was willing to drop us, within a reasonable walking distance of a survey point, would be above the tree line. So nights were spent camping on ridgelines, then navigating to plots from this high vantage point. It was frequently likely that we were the only people ever to have stood where we were, having been dropped off miles from anywhere of mainstream interest on mountain ledges, surrounded by inhospitable, dense, near impenetrable vegetation.
If there’s any moral or point to this story, it could be something like this.
I had to realise what it was that really didn’t fulfil me, to be able to start moving towards the things that would. Or, alternatively, as is said in Buddhist circles, without the dirt there can be no lotus flower. Ultimately, struggling in that office job was an essential ingredient in a path towards working in some incredible wild places.
Written by Tom White.