In an era of books about ‘first’ and ‘fastest’ accomplishments, it’s refreshing to become absorbed in something as simple as an intimate, personal journey through the great outdoors. Laura Waters is no great explorer, nor does she ever pretend to be. Instead, we bear witness to a raw, honest account of someone overcoming personal struggles through the method of a robust long walk (similarities abound with Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, with a light sprinkling of Eat, Pray, Love).
Te Araroa (‘the long pathway’) is a 3,000km trail in New Zealand stretching from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff in the south — think of it as John O’Groats to Land’s End only with more volatile weather and considerably more extreme alpine landscapes. But Bewildered isn’t really about the track itself, even though that’s where 99 per cent of the action occurs. Instead, it’s a story about the experience of testing your body and soul through immense hardship — in this respect, any long track would probably have sufficed — and the impact it has on the individual involved.
On an emotional level, why do hikers put themselves through the discomfort required to complete such journeys? Why seek them out? Waters answers this question emphatically, through her flashbacks to recent misery and heartbreak, and the contrast between them and the happiness and freedom she discovers out on Te Araroa. Both in a physical and psychological sense, she is vulnerable, yet willingly so, and that sense of agency provides a growing sense of confidence and empowerment that she captures in remarkably vivid language. Despite the need to cram 3,000km into less than 300 pages, she carries us along for the ride, sharing both miserable nights in freezing mountain huts, and ecstatic moments of liberation. ‘Walk the path in safety,’ she records from a trailside plaque. ‘Look deeply and learn. From your surroundings.’ In this, she has undoubtedly succeeded.
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