The last day of my life in the bush of ghosts

It is 8:30pm on the 23rd of March 2020, and we have been informed that New Zealand is going into lockdown, and that we will be evacuated off the track the following morning. We are collectively panicked as we try to navigate this piece of information. Here, in Fiordland National Park, me and a team of coworkers are based for six months of the year, welcoming walkers on a hiking track at the bottom of the South Island. We are completely isolated from the rest of the world here in Milford,a hike, hour long boat ride, then drive of 30 minutes to the nearest small township. We have the night to organize our belongings and shut the lodge down as best we can, before us and the rest of our co-workers are evacuated. I am paralyzed with fear. Here, with limited communications to the outside world (predominantly by radio and satellite phone). we have been bombarded with rapidly changing information on the COVID-19 outbreak, but it doesn’t seem real yet, as we haven’t left the forest in weeks. What the fuck is the outside world going to look like, what is going to happen when I step off the boat out of here, what the fuck is even going on?

I rapidly begin packing my bags of the belongings I have acquired over the past few years into my backpack. A sculpture of Ganesh from a market in Haridwar, a gift of fabric from a 80 year old kimono from a friend in Japan, a teddy gifted to me by my mother, a collection of rocks collected along the Ganga river, they all are piled frantically into the quickly evaporating space in my backpack. “I have too much stuff! And why does all of it need washing right now??” I curse at myself as I wonder how to organize myself to leave in the morning. It had all just happened so fast, and it all didn’t seem real yet.
Finally, at 12:30am, we have packed up the lodge and ourselves as best we can in the limited window of opportunity. “See you in five hours”, Martin, my boss says to me, as he switches off the power generator, and we both slink silently back to our rooms under the clearest sea of stars I have ever been under. It is a moonless night, and high above Fiordland the milky way sweeps across, amongst a sprinkling of thousands upon thousands of stars. Somewhere down the valley, I hear a stag roar out in the night, searching for a fight in the darkness, as they do at this time of year to prepare for mating season.

Having slept for approximately eight minutes, I jump out of bed at 5:30 when my alarm goes off, deranged from my lack of sleep and fear of what is to come. We eat our breakfast quickly, and begin the walk down to the wharf for the ferry to get us out of here. Silently, I look up at the forest of beech trees surrounding me, glistening in the early morning sun, reflecting soft rays of light off the dew collected on the swathes of moss. “I will miss you, I love you, and I can’t wait to see you again”, I whisper to the forest. I board the boat, and wait on the top deck as the sun continues to rise over Dore Pass, covering the valley in a warm golden light. The sun reflects back off the glaciers dusting the peaks of the mountains, and the warmth of a new day begins to fill the land. As the motor jerks to life, I begin my daily mantra, eyes closed, head tilted towards Mount Sentinel.
I look up, begin to cry, and whisper “thank you” towards the skies.

24 hours prior, I am at the base of Mount Anau at Machinery Beach, a 7km hike up the Milford Track from where I am based. I am sitting on the beach on an algae covered rock, surrounded by an army of sandflies biting at my every inch of exposed flesh, trying to meditate.
Face covered in an orange scarf I collected two years ago in a market in Rajasthan, still covered in a deep layer of unwashable desert sand from the transaction, I begin to repeat my daily mantra. I drop to my knees, stretch into extended child’s pose, and whisper towards the mountain.

“dear God,
thank you,
thank you for my blessings,
and all that you have given me in this life.
I ask that you guide my thoughts, my feelings, and my perceptions,
I offer all identity to you,
and ask that you fill my life with your love.
thank you.”

My eyes open, and I look up at the face of the mountain sacred to me, dripping with waterfalls after the previous days rain.
“I’m scared, Anau. I love you, I love you so much, and I’m not ready to leave you” I cry at the mountain.
“I’m just worried that I am going to have to leave you, and I’m so scared because you keep me safe, and I don’t want to leave you, I can’t just leave you”. My eyes filled with tears, I stare up at the silent mountain, the peak’s glacier twinkling purple in the reflection of the looming sunset.” I don’t know how to live without your sanctuary, I need you to keep me safe through this”.

Here in the refuge of the mountains of Fiordland, I feel safe against the rapidly evolving crisis. This place has been of deep spiritual importance to me over the past few years, and I am terrified to leave its haven for the worries of the outside world.
Even now as I write this, I can still feel her if I close my eyes. The kereru and tui chirping, the buzz of sandflies. the endless stream of water lapping rocks down the river, the waterfalls pounding on the rocks ahead of me, the scent of moss and earth and life in the forest, the cool mountain air on my body as it sweeps through the valley.
Its all there, and I am there with it. I still feel you, Fiordland, and I still feel your safety, and I still here your breathing.

3 thoughts on “The last day of my life in the bush of ghosts

  1. Der Wes,
    This is such a touching and exciting text, but also a very sad one. Thank you for taking us on your journey. I can imaging how this stressful departure absolutely didn’t fit into the regular life in the forest. The images are so amazing! Especially the view through the green onto the beach and the mountain… In German there’s a beautiful word “Fernweh” which means a feeling of longing for far-away places and travels, the opposite of “homesickness”. This is exactly how I felt right now.

    1. Hey Anastasia,
      Yes- Milford is a pretty special place.
      I would work at my job for free because I get to live somewhere so pretty.
      I’m definitely missing it now, but the lockdown is going pretty well. There are two great nature walks close to where I’m living so each day on our state mandated walk I get to enjoy some nature.
      If you ever come to NZ please check out Fiordland, the national park this is in.
      Milford sound has been called “the eigth natural wonder of the world”, and Milford track, where I work, is known as “the finest walk in the world”. And it really is so much more beautiful in person!

    2. Also, it is beautiful this word also exists in german.
      For english this term is “wanderlust”, and that’s how I feel about summiting Elbrus in Russia haha

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