I summited Mount Stokes for the first time this summer. A few days after Christmas in the Marlborough sounds, my partner and I set out on a hot, dry afternoon for an adventure.
We arrived at the start point of the track in a cloud of dust, the heat of the afternoon oppressive. Gregory had been to the top before and promised some stunning views, and we were both looking forward to getting into the bush and stretching our legs.
I was excited about the climb, but also very aware that after my last concussion my fitness is still not at all where it once was. And I have never done well in hot climes. Couple that with a tendency to bite off more than I can chew and somehow push myself over the line anyway - and, well, heatstroke was a very real concern.
So while excited I was also prepared to do quite a bit of suffering.
The track took no prisoners. It was instant uphill, just add tramper from the get go. The track was narrow and steep, and after the first hour my boots were catching on every other tree root and getting caught on every third rock. I was sweating before we’d even started walking, and before long my muscles were burning and breathing ragged.
Gregory was suffering too. On a normal day he’d have shot up no trouble, leaving me running and tripping in his wake. But he’d had a touch of food poisoning and was slowed down to my level, the heat and the climb conspiring with his stomach to make him miserable for most of the walk.
Inside the tree line the instant cool of the bush was a welcome, if brief, reprieve. A lazy wind blew through the trees, making leaves dance and branches sway. It kept mozzies, sand flies and heat stroke at bay. And, for a time, made the walk seem a little easier.
We trudged up and up, following the little orange triangles that led the way. The sound of boots on stone and root and dry leaves crunching underfoot mingling with the birdsong and the wind in the trees. It was a loud kind of quiet. A nice distraction from the uphill slog.
Have you ever noticed that no matter how noisy nature gets, there’s still somehow a kind of peace and quiet in it? Rushing water - rivers, waterfalls - are an excellent example of this. If you’ve ever sat close to one of these before, close enough that the rush of the water drowns out the sound of feet and breath and words and thoughts then maybe you understand what I mean.
You can lose yourself in the cadence of all that tumbling water until your thoughts still, your breathing calms, you sort of vanish and there is nothing else but that one moment, that water rushing by.
So I lost myself in the rhythm of boot strike and bird song. I found a moment of stillness while I trudged, getting into what my father fondly refers to as “plodding pace”. It’s not fast but it is relentless. A pace you sort of zone out into, like a moving meditation, and one you can continue on for hours if needs be.
The struggle was real, and we were both suffering that day. But mule headed stubbornness is something we both have in spades, so we toughed it out and pushed through and an embarrassing three hours later stumbled out of the bush and onto the summit.
The wind gusted so high up - Mount Stokes is 1,203 metres above sea level, the highest point in the sounds by far. It tugged at hair and hats and cut right through clothes. We pushed into it and stepped up to the highest point to look around.
And just like that the walk and the struggle fell away as steeply as the mountain did on either side.
The view! We could see all the way past the windmills on the coast line of the North Island to Levin. Down to the South East the Spencer mountains stood out in stark relief, the Kaikoura and Arthur ranges sprawling away from us. Farewell spit in the distance, and Mount Egmont just peeking out at us from far away.
The whole of the Marlborough Sounds spread out below us, bays and buoys and mussel lines, boats the size of ants, bush and farmland and gullies and creeks.
We took the requisite photos from the top but mostly just enjoyed the view, took some time to soak it in, just be in the moment on the mountain top.
We eventually headed back into the bush line and down the trail a ways to make camp on what may well have been the only flat patch of dirt on the entire mountain. And “flat” in this instance is a relative term.
Back in the trees we were out of the worst of the wind but back with the mozzies and blow flies. Our “flat” camp site was just enough to pitch our little tent on, but even so we spent a night sliding downhill in increments as we slept. Sleeping bags are delightfully toasty but not so great on the traction side of things.
I woke to a tree root digging into my hip and mozzies in the tent. Neither of us much felt like leaping out of bed that morning.
Dawn was already in its early stages, we could see just a blush of colour between the trees in the east. Hurriedly we tromped back up to the summit, head torches showing the way, arms laden with sleeping bags and mats, the dawn chorus getting louder as we got closer and closer.
Gregory found a likely spot and we settled in with our backs to a rock face, wrestling with the wind for our sleeping bags and huddling close for warmth.
The bays below us were cloaked in night at this hour, clouds moving up the mountain behind us and toward dawn. The light began to break over the horizon, an eerie red orange glow amidst the black clouds billowing up and overhead. Like a scene from Lord of the Rings, Mordor come to life.
What followed was better than any cinematic experience you’ll find anywhere. 90 minutes of shifting light and cloud. The contrast of the big black storm clouds lit up by the rising sun, making them glow orange and red in the early dawn.
The Marlborough Sounds emerged from the darkness, slowly came alive with the light. The stillness of the sea below was a stark contrast to the wind whipping around us on the mountain top.
The colours shifted slowly. Intense reds became oranges, oranges became yellows and then pinks and, as the sun finally crested the horizon, pale shades of blue returned to the sky.
There was a beautiful synchronicity to it all, everything working together in harmony, following the unheard rhythm of nature. I found another moment of stillness. A quiet moment on a mountain top, wind whistling in my ears, mind finally quiet and resting, silenced by the immensity and the beauty of nature.
I’ve realised a secret about sunrises and these magic little moments in time. They don’t tend to happen when things are easy and you’re lazing around at home on the couch. They can’t happen then, because like the ground that was “flat” in comparison to the rest of the mountain, the magic can only be found after some effort is expended, an obstacle overcome.
It’s the climb that makes the sunrise magic.
Scrolling through endless photos of beautiful scenery, sunrises and sunsets on social media just doesn’t come with the same feeling. There is a sense of accomplishment to be found on rolling out of bed at 4am, braving the cold and the wind and the biting bugs, muscles sore from the previous days efforts and sleeping on the hard ground.
It’s these things that prepare you for the beauty at the top. They provide the contrast. Without these little trials and tribulations that sunrise becomes meaningless. You’re cheated of that moment of peace, where everything stops and it’s just you and the dawn because you didn’t have to work for it. You take half a moment to snap some photos, add some filters to them, and then rush back to warmth and reception and social media to post it.
It fades in your memory almost as fast as it’s gone from your feed.
An opportunity lost.
It’s these moments of stillness that come after great effort of any kind - be it doggedly putting one foot in front of the other in a steep hike or putting in tireless hours of practice to learn a new skill - that mean the most. These are the moments that give us more than we realise and far more than we can ever put into words.
They are the moments that recharge our batteries. Refresh and renew our tired minds. They feed the soul and in them can be found the inspiration that takes daily life from the mundane to the magical.
Adventures are especially good at providing these moments.
Every good adventure begins with a call to action that one must answer. Adventures bring adversity - tough moments, obstacles so hard that you want to give up. Go home. Crawl back into bed.
Sometimes these obstacles are steep climbs, hard sun, cold wind and biting bugs. Other times they are getting out of bed and getting dressed and facing the day when you want nothing more than to wallow in the safety of your blankets.
Life is full of them. But when you show up, stay present and act with intent, you start to see the challenge of it, the great game of it all, the fun in adversity. And when you keep taking that mountain, when you agree to the adventure and you overcome the obstacles despite the odds, then you get your reward. After all, that’s how all good adventures unravel.
These moments are your reward. They breathe life back into your soul and make things magic again.
So keep a weather eye on the horizon for those calls to action. It’s the inquisitive voice of a young child asking why and what and can we go play? It’s your inner child telling you to run and dance and puddle jump. It’s a sunny day calling you outside. It’s that itch to learn something new, try something different. It’s a last minute change in plans, an unexpected turn of events.
A call to adventure can come from the most unlikely of places, often when you’re busy or tired or not looking for adventure at all. And you can say no - you can always say no. Stay home and have a pyjama day, maybe binge watch some shows or lose a few hours scrolling your feeds. There is nothing wrong with any of these things.
But I’ve learned that those things kill the magic for me. Ignoring the call to adventure leaves my life dull and me more tired by the day. After a while I get so snowed under by the monotony of it all I don’t have the energy for any adventures at all. I forget about the magic, about the thrill that comes from the challenge, and the sense of calm and quiet and peace from those precious moments of stillness.
So, this year I endeavour to make more time for adventures. I am choosing to make more time for me, to do the things that make my heart soar and my soul full. This year I will answer the call to adventure, climb mountains and hike trails, jump in puddles, sing off key, and challenge myself in new ways.
This year I’m going adventuring.
Who’s coming with me?