Groaning and muttering under my breath, I dragged my feet in desperation for it to be over. The moor was bleak and grey, the wind was howling, and I was being led across a bog with a bar of chocolate being dangled provocatively in front of my nose. This was my first introduction to Dartmoor, and I was not enjoying it. Lisa was smiling as she strode ahead of me, completely in her element in an area she had been hiking and exploring for years. I had been on the verge of giving up on several occasions, but a large bar of chocolate had emerged from Lisa’s bag, acting as the proverbial carrot to lure me, the donkey, a little further. If you think this sounds over-dramatic, you are right. I had spent the last three years at University, mainly in pubs and student unions. The height of my athletic prowess had been dragging myself out of bed on a Sunday morning in an attempt to play 5-aside football. Despite being thin, I was clearly very unfit. Walking the six or seven miles back to the comfort of a warm house in Ivybridge was a struggle, and should have triggered something off in my head that this wasn’t right. But it didn’t.
I wasn’t confronted with this problem again until eighteen months later, on a stunning June morning as we began the ascent of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. Lisa was training for the three peaks challenge, something I had meekly ruled myself out of from an early stage. But a trip to the Lake District had proved irresistible even to a city dweller like myself. There I was, in a cotton shirt, jeans and heavy, ill-fitting leather hiking boots. A recipe for a disastrous day hiking. And so it nearly proved. Old knee injuries re-emerged, I was cold, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted and sulking. I was incredibly disappointed in my lack of resilience. Little did I know a seed had been sewn for a hobby that would eventually become a near obsession. I just hadn’t realised it yet.
A month later I sat anxiously by the phone, waiting for the report from Lisa if she had completed the challenge safely and within the allotted time. I was jealous. I wanted the fresh air in my face and the thrill of surveying the land around me from a high and precarious peak. A competitive and adventurous spirit had been roused after spending a years in hibernation.
The heat and humidity of the Thai rainforest was the next big test of my burgeoning ambition to become a competent hiker and adventurer. We had joined a small group who, with the help of a local guide would be spending three days in the wooded hills near Chang Mai. However, a wrong choice at a food market the previous evening had resulted in Lisa and I awakening the next day with a severe bout of food poisoning. My initial reaction had been to give up, but a fear of missing out resulted in giving it a go. As it turned out it was brilliant. The first day was absolutely awful. My companions sprang up hills, while I toiled behind, earning worried glances from our local guide. While others leapt nimbly over rivers, I blundered through them. But I eventually reached the hilltop village, and the satisfaction I felt that evening coupled with a beautiful starry night, free from any light pollution had convinced me to spend as much time exploring the wild as I could.
When our travels brought us to New Zealand, we quickly realised that in order to understand the essence and beauty of the country, we had to experience its wild places on foot. Abel Tasman national park was the location of my first attempt at a long distance, multi-day hike with a heavy backpack to contend with. Three days and 60 kilometres later we sat resting on a beach, drenched in sweat but proud of our achievement exploring the coast and forests of a beautiful national park. The feeling of elation was heightened by the belief prior to the hike that I wouldn’t be able to complete it. My fitness levels were improving, as was my mental fortitude. We soon learnt this was very much an entry-level route, and tame in comparison to our adventures over the next two years in the mountains of New Zealand. Hiking has since provided a wealth of treasured memories. After arriving back in Britain, we have attempted to once again explore as much of the country on foot as possible. It is not just a hobby, but a broadening of our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
I remember a comment I had made once about Dartmoor that had greatly upset Lisa, and it took me a while to understand as to why. We had been discussing our future travels, and I had mentioned that hiking may really start to appeal to me once we were somewhere awe-inspiring, not drab and lifeless like Dartmoor. The ignorance of the comment is clear to me know. A wild place can get under your skin, and mean so much more to you than the mere sum of its parts. Trees and hills can conjure emotions impossible to explain. Paths across a moor can connect our past memories with our future ambitions. We engage in something primal and natural when reaching the top of a mountain. This feeling has almost been lost in the distractions of modern life. Walking on Dartmoor had previously been an inconvenience I had to endure before getting home. Now it is a wild and mysterious place I cannot wait to get back to.
Reactions to tales from our hikes in the mountains and future trails we wanted to explore used to infuriate me. “Why would you want to do that?” was a popular comment, as was the condescending “You two enjoy going on walks don’t you?” Now I find it funny, and take a great deal of satisfaction in the knowledge that I am gaining an insight into our natural world that others either do not care about or are too stuck in their ways to bother with. I am now of the firm belief that experiencing the beauty of a place and understanding its spirit is best discovered while on foot, with a heavy rucksack strapped to your back and muddy boots on your feet.