We booked to do the Kepler Track, a 62 km long ‘Great Walk’ in the mountains and lakes of Fiordland, southern New Zealand, after talking about it for several years.  We had been enchanted with the idea of doing the Kepler but never quite got in touch with the reality.  In the meantime we climbed Mt Taranaki, in the North Island, a few years ago.  We did the Hollyford Track a couple of years ago, but the ‘glamping’ version, where your packs are carried to lodge nestled in the beautiful forest of the Hollyford Valley, and a bed with white sheets and a hot water bottle awaits your tired body at the end of the first of two days.

In casual conversation with friends, whom we knew had done a few of the other tracks, we decided the time was right for action.  On a Friday night, as they headed for the airport and a flight to Malaysia (and a trek through the tropical jungle there) they called and said “Yes, let’s book the flights and the huts.  Let’s do this.”  An hour or so later, probably as they boarded their overseas flight, 3 Department of Conservation huts were booked, as were flights to Queenstown.  It all seemed so simple.  Timed to fit in before school started and Kathy had to go back to work.

Motivated by the thought of 3 nights a 4 days of walking in the bush and above the snow line, we started training the next day.  By Tuesday afternoon the following week, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  A few weeks later, with a follow-up appointment with the surgeon scheduled, we also scheduled dinner with Chris and Kathy, as I would know by then what was likely to happen post-surgery, and we could figure out what to do.

As it turned out, I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen due to incomplete test results, but we met for dinner anyway.  In a quiet voice, almost as an aside, Chris said “I’m waiting for biopsy results too.”  He had had a niggling prostrate issue that warranted a ‘watch and wait’ approach.

By the time of Kathy’s 60th birthday, I was waiting to start chemotherapy.  I had met the new man in my life, Reuben, the oncologist.  When we told him about the Kepler booking, he quickly worked out that provided I tolerated the chemo in a half-decent manner, the timing was perfect to do the tramp just prior to the last of 4 doses.  I didn’t really believe him, thinking he didn’t realise it was the Kepler – out of range, out of sight, wilderness with no Plan B.  But I was prepared to adopt a wait-and-see approach.  In the early part of the birthday party, I asked Chris how his result had gone.  “I’m booked to have surgery,” he says, matter of factly, “the worst bit is convincing my family I am not going to die.”  We laughed about how sex really wasn’t that much of a big deal later on in a relationship.  He said he had been advised that sex will still be possible, but that it requires more effort (!) so he intended to get Kathy a French maid’s outfit.  When I asked about the timing, he said he had booked it for after the Kepler.  I was a bit aghast – there was not way I would have delayed my surgery, by then well and truly over, for anything.  He said it only made a few weeks difference in his case, and I suppose his oncologist/surgeon was happy with that.

Chemotherapy Cycle 1 came and went, and to my surprise, it was OK.  The first week was a bit rough, but after that, life just went on, sometime a bit slower than normal but still very much normal.  I reported in to Reuben, and thought, for the first time, “I can do this.”

So training commenced in earnest.  Back packs filled with water bottles, long walks up and down hills.  A group walk over the holiday period in full tramping mode.  4.5 hours, 14.5 kms.  Heartened, we started to look forward to the big event.   Cycle 3 was the next day, so I expect the same conditions to prevail on Monday next week, which will be day 3 of the tramp, and day 20 of the 21 day cycle.  Reuben kindly rescheduled Dose 4 out one day to give me time to get back to Auckland.  Turns out he is a bit of a hiker himself.

The nurse that was administering Dose 3 was very interested in our mad plans.  “We don’t get many people in here doing things like that,” she said.  Naturally we would not be doing it either had it not already been booked.

Last week I got a head cold.  Normally I would not take too much notice, but when your immune system has been nuked to the brink of collapse, little things become epic.  In desperation I went to my GP, who dispenses herbal and homeopathic medicine as well as the latest modern medical science can offer.  He jabbed me with stuff for sinus issues, and started on what will become a longer engagement with iscador, a form of mistletoe.  Even John Hopkins University acknowledges it “minimises the side effects of chemotherapy”.  In Europe they pump it into you intravenously prior to plugging in the chemo drugs.

I also got sore little toes.  “Ye Gods”, I thought, “it is not chemo that will stop me doing this tramp, but a head cold and sore little toes.”  I sought advice from a sports podiatrist, and, bless him, he said “Buy some bigger boots,” along with a whole list of other things to try to alleviate pressure on my toenail beds.  Turns out he sees a few people on chemo having nail problems.  If you keep seeking eventually you find the right answers.

The lovely Dr at Dove House said to me, last week, “The most toxic thing is your own thoughts.”  I pondered on this, mid-head cold, and wonder how much damage we do to our hopes and dreams just by thinking it will all go pear-shaped.  I clung to the image of Chris and me, cancer patients, embracing at the top of Mt Luxmor.  Take that cancer, you might mess with my body but you will not mess with my life.

On Monday we four had another meeting, complete with delicious Nepalese food at the local restaurant.  Before we walked up the road we knocked off the daily crossword between us – group effort – which seems like a good omen.  The restaurant has images of the Himalayas – we joked about how that might be next.  They were supposed to go there last year, but the trip was cancelled because it was deemed too ‘American’ to be undertaken safely.  Kathy had lists from their previous tramps.  We are the novices here – they have lists and experience – form.  We talked about what we could share – the cooking pot, toothpaste, first aid kit.  They stunned us with their menu – fresh wraps for lunch, while we will be munching on commercially made baked fruit and oat bars.

Kathy advised us that the previous week the resthome where her elderly Father lives had told them to gather, that his death was imminent.  She reported that he had recovered somewhat, but that if he died she would pull out and perhaps Chris would still do the tramp.  Today Chris advised that his father-in-law died yesterday.  They have figured out they can go to the funeral on Friday, catch a later flight, and meet us in Te Anau on Saturday morning in time for the water taxi across the late as planned.  We have now booked bus tickets instead of sharing the rental car, but we will all return together.

Who would have thought a mere 3 1/2 months ago when we first booked and picked what was a fairly random date that two of us would subsequently be diagnosed with cancer, and  we would manage to fit the tramp around a mastectomy, a prostectomy, chemotherapy and the death of a loved one.  Despite all this, we are determined.

I have my new boots – literally a third of the price of my other ones, but also 10mm wider across the toes, and the toe problem is solved.  Still clearing my lungs, but all good to go.  The weather forecasters are talking about a weather bomb, with heavy rain and strong wind warnings all over the place for tomorrow.  The day after that, Friday, we fly south, and the day after that, Saturday, after everything the Universe could throw at us, four of us will be departing from Te Anau by water taxi and starting the Kepler Track at Brod Bay.

Staunch.  Watch this space for the outcome, later next week.

Half way up the hill, Tawharanui - the beginning of our test hike.  In the distance Tamahunga, our other test site conquered earlier in the week.

Half way up the hill, Tawharanui – the beginning of our test hike. In the distance Tamahunga, our other test site conquered earlier in the week.




About Ngaire Wallen

Landscape designer, thinker, partner, mother, reader, wanna-be writer keen to inflict my thoughts on the world.
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