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Walking away from cancer

For many Kiwis, spending time in nature is the perfect grounding antidote to a world full of distractions, fast-paced working lives, and excessive stimuli from LED screens.

For Jenna Matchett and her young family, “spending time in nature” means navigating dense and inhospitable bush land, crossing freezing rapids, traversing snow-glazed mountain trails, and kayaking “spiritual” water bodies while native birds of prey circle overhead.

Last summer, the Martinborough whanau – Jenna, husband Mark, and daughters Poppy [10] and Molly [8] – spent 90 days on the Te Araroa Trail: Spanning the length of the country and often described as “all of New Zealand’s great walks on steroids”.

Stretching 3010km from Cape Reinga to Bluff, the trail encompasses some of the country’s most beautiful, yet treacherous and desolate landmarks – from Ninety-Mile Beach, to Tongariro National Park [including three active volcanoes], to the Whanganui and Rakaia Rivers, to the Southern Alps.

For the Matchetts, it was a trip of highs and lows: Glorious views and close encounters with endangered wildlife following days of hiking on taped up shoes, trekking through hail and sandstrorms, and searching for water sources in searing heat. Isolated from civilisation, and in the midst of highly-changeable weather and terrain, one reckless step can, in some cases, be “the difference between life and death”.

The family, who spent 18 months training for the experience, embarked on the trail to celebrate husband and father Mark’s recovery from bowel cancer – having gone into remission last year after multiple rounds of chemotherapy and two major surgeries.

For many Kiwis, spending time in nature is the perfect grounding antidote to a world full of distractions, fast-paced working lives, and excessive stimuli from LED screens.

For Jenna Matchett and her young family, “spending time in nature” means navigating dense and inhospitable bush land, crossing freezing rapids, traversing snow-glazed mountain trails, and kayaking “spiritual” water bodies while native birds of prey circle overhead.

Last summer, the Martinborough whanau – Jenna, husband Mark, and daughters Poppy [10] and Molly [8] – spent 90 days on the Te Araroa Trail: Spanning the length of the country and often described as “all of New Zealand’s great walks on steroids”.

Stretching 3010km from Cape Reinga to Bluff, the trail encompasses some of the country’s most beautiful, yet treacherous and desolate landmarks – from Ninety-Mile Beach, to Tongariro National Park [including three active volcanoes], to the Whanganui and Rakaia Rivers, to the Southern Alps.

For the Matchetts, it was a trip of highs and lows: Glorious views and close encounters with endangered wildlife following days of hiking on taped up shoes, trekking through hail and sandstrorms, and searching for water sources in searing heat. Isolated from civilisation, and in the midst of highly-changeable weather and terrain, one reckless step can, in some cases, be “the difference between life and death”.

The family, who spent 18 months training for the experience, embarked on the trail to celebrate husband and father Mark’s recovery from bowel cancer – having gone into remission last year after multiple rounds of chemotherapy and two major surgeries.

Jenna, manager at the Masterton Foodbank, correctly predicted the trail would be the ultimate test of their physical endurance and bond as a family – and was also transformative for their mental and emotional health.

“The experience forces you to be completely in the moment. It changes you on a molecular level,” Jenna said.

“In the regular world, you don’t have endless time for deep reflection. But when you’re out there in the middle of nowhere, with no external distractions, and you can strip away all the fat, you’re able to focus on the here and now.

“You go back to basics – you actually tune in to how you’re feeling. You’re aware of everything around you. Poppy and Molly especially present – they wanted to stop to touch and smell everything, and noticed the little things we didn’t. They forced us to slow down and pay attention.

“We realised just how much we had missed when Mark was sick.”

Crossing the river on the East Ahuriri Track, South Canterbury.
PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

To prepare for their journey into the wilderness, the Matchetts did various practice hikes throughout the North Island, and worked with the New Zealand Outdoor Training Group to learn survival skills and general bushcraft.

Some of the biggest challenges, Jenna said, included rationing food, water and supplies in between urban stop-overs – especially in changeable weather conditions.

“We went through everything – from snow, to hail, to sandstorms. We’d be going through about 12 bottles of sunscreen one minute, then it would p*** down with rain the next.

“There are times where you have very little control. New Zealand is wild and untouched – it’s no walk in the Botanical Gardens. One bad decision can have huge consequences.

“For example, we ballsed up and ran out of water, and were miles from the nearest town – while walking in insane heat. When that happens, you have to be on the lookout for a water source. You have to know where you’re going, and follow the markers on your map.

“We were lucky to find a spring – but your map can say there’s a spring in 5km, and it’s dried by the time you get there.

“You fall back on your knowledge and skills. You can’t worry about the situation in front of you – you just adapt, and make better choices.”

For Mark and Jenna, adaptability was essential for their daughters’ safety and well-being.

“There were some dicey sections where we had to stop and regroup. There were some areas of the Rakaia River that were too dangerous for the girls to cross – so we’d have to walk around and find a slower-flowing section that was comfortable for them.

“We talked about everything as a family – the girls were involved in all our decision-making. Their opinion matters. If there were things they didn’t want to do, we wouldn’t do them.”

Though the journey was “not all roses” for the Matchetts, the trail had plenty of rewards for their efforts – especially the mountain-top scenery, such as the view of the Nelson Lakes from Lewis Pass.

Canoeing the Whanganui River – which Jenna described as a spiritual experience. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

“The view is so vast, and you feel so small. It makes you take stock and think about the bigger picture.

“The Whanganui River is one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever seen. You can’t help but feel connected. We spent three days canoeing down the river, and the girls had their hands in the water the whole time, just soaking it all up.

“The Southern Alps were amazing – there’s nothing like a mountain range to make you realise your insignificance. I’m not a religious person, but when you see the clouds part over the top of the mountain peaks, you feel like you’re in touch with something much bigger.”

For the girls, the wildlife was one of the biggest highlights.

“We saw a white hawk on the Whanganui River, which is pretty rare. We saw wrens, takahe, rare robbins, an albatross – which sounded like a B52 bomber above us.

“All the birds we came across in the bush were very inquisitive. We found a kea that was happy to take sticks off the girls. Although, it was a bit scary to see a Kiwi fight off a possum.

“The girls have become extremely passionate about protecting our wildlife. They know our natural environment is in danger, and they feel grateful to have seen it for themselves.”

Trekking on the Waiau Pass, Nelson region. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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