Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sensory OVERLOAD

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If I'm the girl that's supposed to be the blogger on this team, I'm totally sinking in my role.

I keep saying that my head is going to explode. No joke, on Monday I was pretty sure I'd taken in everything I was capable of experiencing in one day - I fully expected to have a stroke.

Alright, so I'm out of adjectives and if this makes me a bad writer, so be it. I can't freakin' describe this place accurately. It's not really fair to this place, or to my head, or to those of you trying to read this blog.

It's a Sunday morning here in Te Anau. This is our third visit to the tiny town that borders a small part of Lake Te Anau and is cradled by the mountains that seem to shoot like towers from the ground to the sky. The friendly aura of this place can be felt from miles away and pulls you in. Magnetic. I'm back in the lobby of the hotel, looking at the lake, reminiscing over the last two weeks, listening to Joel play the lobby piano... Is it inappropriate for me to say that I keep thinking that cancer must of killed me and I'm now in heaven? I wonder how I will ever be "normal" again. (Ha! I realize how hilarious that sounds.)

It's a little bit strange coming to a place that you've dreamed of; a place that so many people have told you you must visit. You try to imagine what it might be like, then you try to not to imagine what it might be like, because the surprise will be better. But really, no matter how many times you've seen The Lord of the Rings, it's impossible to conjure as many shades of green as the forests here hold.

We've done two of the nine tracks so far, the Kepler and Rakiura. This whole cancer thing is pretty humbling. I was never really competitive at anything (outside of my head, I mean), but I was one of the strongest women I knew. Slow, but sturdy. I could climb high and far without tiring. So I was a little disappointed on the first day of the Kepler track when I found myself throwing my 40lb pack to the ground and bending over to rest. I was in pain. On the second day, when we came to one of the most beautiful views of the track, I looked at my team and actually said, "I AM SUFFERING!"

I've realized that the people who said to me, "Don't worry, you'll bounce back..." never had cancer. There is no bouncing back. There is one way back, the same way I got there in the first place. Hard work. Miles and miles of re-training these muscles to do what they love so much. It's nice to be at a place where I can understand and accept that. (Now I just need to come up with a good response for the people who favor the "bounce back" theory... :))

Kepler was a four day track - 60 km. We have a DOC (Department of Conservation) guide with us on each walk. Normally trekkers don't have experts leading them through the forests. We are being treated special, but we carry our own gear and water - and for the most part, our own food. We cook our own meals at night (usually one or two people take turns cooking for the team) in the huts. In Fiordland (Kepler, Milford, and Routeburn tracks) they provide little stoves to cook. We (ok, our DOC guide) had to carry our own little stove for the Rakiura track.

The huts are awesome; like being back at camp. There's generally one common room where everyone cooks and eats and one or two bunk rooms where everyone sleeps. We play games, chat with the other trekkers, drink coffee or tea and just hang out when in the huts. It's such a fun atmosphere.

So the first two days of Kepler were physically difficult, but the most beautiful - taking us into alpine territory. The last two days were "cruisy" and flat, taking us through forests that were so green and moss covered that I was sure a tree or mushroom was going to start talking to me. Magical.

Rakiura is on Stewart Island, the southernmost point of New Zealand - very close to Antarctica. It is almost untouched. Halfmoon Bay, the only town in Stewart Island, has a population of 400. Its quaint feel and stunning features are only magnified by the authentic, gentle people who live there. It is a special place, Stewart Island.

Getting to Stewart Island was what almost did my head in. We flew on a tiny plane. Our pilot, a tall, beautiful man with the kind of face you are bound to trust, pointed at a map of the island and said "there's a beach here that we can land on if you guys want..." Um, yes please!!! The ride on that tiny plane encapsulates this trip for me so far. It's so much to take in, flying so low you can see fish in the ocean or birds flying from tree to tree. There are no words to describe it. It felt like it couldn't possibly be real.

Rakiura track was a three day, 32 km walk. It was easy compared to the Kepler Track, and I could feel my back becoming stronger with the pack on it, my legs re-gaining the muscles I used to know. The second day of Rakiura greeted us with one pretty nice, long hill. I swallowed my pride, pulled my poles out of my pack (I was the only one using poles at this point) and powered up the hill - like I used to do. Rich and I were together at this point, far ahead of the rest of the group. Rich lost almost 200lbs a couple of years ago, so we compare stories often... They're kind of the similar but also exactly opposite. At the beginning of day 2 I felt different, stronger. I looked at Rich with tears in my eyes and said to him, "for the first time in a long, long time, I feel like myself." I didn't realize how much I'd missed myself. Farther up the same hill and later in the day I heard Rich mutter the words straight out of my head, "this is what I live for." And it is.

This experience is exceptional. I don't understand how I deserve this. I'm soaking it in, it's so special. If I tried to write down every moment of hilarity or beauty or magic the words would sound trite. If I can, as I can, I will write more about the people I'm taking this journey with, or the people we encounter along the way. For now, more piccies. (If you're on FB/Instagram/Twitter or the Great Walker blog you are likely to see repeat piccies... and there are a lot of them. Sorry!)
Te Anau sunrise.
Rainbow overlooking Lake Te Anau from the Luxmore Hut

DOC Rangers Catie and Faye... the magic behind the magic. 

Start of day 2 on Kepler. That pack is HEAVY! 

Jetboat + Swingbridge = HAPPY STEPH!

Sexy and we know it. These leggings are currently my favorite piece of gear. 

This mushroom was supposed to talk to us. I'm sure of it. (But apparently, we're not supposed to eat it.) 

The team on the jetboat, just after finishing the Kepler Track. Again, ridiculous fun. 

Flying over Stewart Island. It was more amazing than it looks. 

So excited, I'm about to come right out of my skin!

My favorite airport in the world. Stewart Island runway... 

Karl was nice enough to let me borrow this hat on Rakiura... Yikes. 

A wood pigeon, taken from my bedroom window in Halfmoon Bay. 

SOOOO MUCH. 

Cutting mushrooms with my pocketknife and feeling REALLY outdoorsy.

Joel and I in our matching his/hers Kathmandu/Air NZ tracksuits. 

First time fishing!!! I caught four fish! Maybe I should be a fisherman in my next life??? 

Jellies. Me no likey. 

Accurately depicting what I'm feeling... 

We got to participate in a Kiwi re-location with DOC. Soooo wild. 

TVNZ filming.

Our holiday home in Stewart Island. UNBELIEVABLE. 

The required touristy photo from Bluff.

Don't ask. 


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Travel Day...

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A bit of an update...

Our team of seven (fab four plus the air nz host + photographer + DOC guide) completed the 60km Kepler Track yesterday afternoon. We all came through strong despite the fact that it was a little bit harder than we expected and the packs are HEAVY!!!

New Zealand is everything I thought it could be plus a million things I never could have imagined. I honestly didn't realise there could be so many shades of green,  rivers so clear, or skies so blue. It's blowing my mind.

We are currently en route to  Invercargill via van where we will catch a tiny plane to Stewart Island. Stewart Island is a rarely visited island about as close to Antarctica as possible without actually being in Antarctica. We start the Rakiura Track tomorrow- three days on the trails before we head back to Te Anau for a few days to prep for the Milford Track.

I'll post a more detailed update with piccies later tonight if I Internet and time permit.

New Zealand

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I am here... The Mecca.

I don't have a ton of time - life is a whirlwind - but I cannot let this day, or this view pass without writing a bit about it.

I love it.

I love the people I'm traveling with (my fellow Great Walkers), I love the people I'm coming across, I love the scenery, the animals, the smell, the feel... everything.

I'm in heaven.

I'm sitting in the lobby of our hotel in Te Anau, a couple hours south of Queenstown. Every wall in this lobby is a window and I'm staring at a lake which is surrounded by a giant, green hill. Unbelievable.

We start our 9 weeks of trekking with the Kepler Track tomorrow morning. I'm ready. I'm overwhelmed with readiness. I've spent hours going through gear and analyzing it and re-analzying it and trying to prepare myself for every possible scenario with as little as possible. I kind of love the challenge.

I don't have any great pictures yet. I'm having a hard time taking them, honestly - it's all too beautiful. Nothing will do it justice.

We went to the New Zealand Department of Conservation's animal center today and met Takahe. Takahe are native birds to New Zealand that they thought were extinct a few years ago - but magically popped up again... (I am sure the story is a lot more complicated than that - but that's the short version I got.) If you know me at all, you know that I hate birds - HATE. So I wasn't super excited about meeting a big giant one today... Obviously, once I met her, I loved her. Tawa is her name. She's being taken to a new bird sanctuary (my words, probably not the proper term) where they will try to mate her.
You can't see her beautiful colors here, but her wings are teal and periwinkle - so cool.  

More to come on the flip side of Kepler Track. Wish us luck!!!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When in Oz...

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I'd have left for Australia earlier to have more time here, but before I knew I'd won the Great Walker competition, I registered myself for the Surf City Half Marathon on the 3rd... so I ran the 1/2 that morning and hopped on the plane that evening. It was my worst half marathon by all technical standards, but by far my greatest running victory... 


Just after the race - Molly made me this awesome sign!

Lucky girl got to stretch her legs out in BUSINESS CLASS from LA to Auckland. No cramping here!!! Possibly a highlight of my LIFE!
So when Christie told me she was signed up to do a little triathlon the day before I'd be off to New Zealand, I couldn't help but entertain the idea. The last race I did (before the Surf City Half last weekend) was Ironman St George, 2011 - A lifetime ago now. I tried to talk myself out of it, but ended up coming to the realization that I almost always have a better time if I step out of my comfort zone just a little bit. So, I signed up. I jumped in the pool for the first time since June (raising your arms over your head post mastectomies/lymph node retrieval/radiation is tricky), swam two or three times and considered myself trained for this race. 

Pre-Race
It was a 1k swim, and 18 mile bike, and a 5 mile run. The swim was with a strong current, so felt ok with exception to the LARGE JELLY that I swam through, stinging my neck and shoulder. (Ok, honestly, I didn't see the bastard, but I FELT HIM!!! I'm sure he was the size of a large beach ball... Jerk!!!) Bike was great, three little loops on a tiny borrowed bike in tiny borrowed shoes and a borrowed helmet. Run was slow, which I knew it would be. I was slower than molasses and getting my arse handed to me by all the beautiful, incredibly fit Aussies - but still giggled my way through it, overjoyed by the fact that I CAN do it, and that my life is just so bizarre and amazing that I get to do a triathlon in Australia! So awesome. 

Today is Feb 11 - the day that I am obligated to be in Auckland. Joy and gratitude take on new meaning (once again) as I look back on my amazing Australian week and contemplate the adventures ahead. 
Me + teeny bike
             
              Me & Christie Post race. She did AWESOME!!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Australia

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I’d forgotten all about the stereotypes I’d learned about Australia by the time I got here. Kangaroos, Koalas, and Crocodile Dundee were the farthest things from my mind. I just wanted to see Christie and Lyndall and bathe in all the happiness I’m feeling.

Coming from sunny, warm SoCal, I didn’t expect the fact that it’s summer here to make much difference to me. I was totally wrong. The sun stays up till 8 pm, the warmth is different - more stable - and the rays beat stronger. No matter how much sunscreen I apply, I cannot seem to keep myself from becoming brown. I’ve spent the last three days in my bathing suit. My hair is so dirty and salty from the ocean that it actually lies down (mostly).

I’m not gonna be able to find words to explain how much I love it here. The weather has been impeccable, the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, the beaches are straight out of magazines, the water warm… add all of that to the fact that they use dollars (which almost match ours in value) and speak English, AND I’ve been with some of the best friends a girl could have since I’ve been here, you get the happiest version of me.

Logistically, I spent my first two and a half days here in Sydney. Lyndall did a fantastic job showcasing her city. Her family is AMAZINGLY kind (and funny!), and put us up for a night. Christie and I started our road trip from Sydney to Brisbane on Thursday. We slept in Port Macquarie last night and are in Byron Bay tonight. I don’t have words for how beautiful this country is – so here are some pictures: 


Sunrise walk at Sydney Harbor

Opera House - Bridge behind it

Manly Beach

Lyndall's fierce mama! (And super yummy dessert!!!)

Evidence of where I am...

Fingal Bay - One of many stunning beaches we've visited.

Battle wounds from last week's half-marathon. Stupid bib. (Nice tan lines... I know.) 

Me & Eli at Byron Bay. Such a CUTIE!!!

This is not normal. 

Bathing in all the happiness I'm feeling... 

Christie, Lyndall, Me & Bridge

I. LOVE. SYDNEY. 

Christie and I at the Opera House.

At Manly with my beezer. :)