Strait to Cape
July 27, 2017
Words & Photos: Alex Asher
5 weeks, 1227km, the adventure of a lifetime.
I was fading. I was swimming in the middle of the largest harbour in the world, a known breeding ground for Great White Sharks and famous for its dangerous tides and shipwrecks. The current was gathering speed and I was fading. I focused on my breathing, my stroke and the lone boat in the water that felt uncomfortably far away. One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. This would be the defining moment of my journey from Wellington to Cape Reinga. This day I became the first person to swim the mighty Kaipara harbour.
My journey started on the shores of the Cook Strait at Wahine Memorial Park. This was a special place for me since it was the end point of my journey down the entire East Coast of the North Island 6 years earlier. The plan was to run 6 days a week, covering a marathon a day for 4 ½ weeks.
While I had expected to hit some challenges, or suffer an injury on the way, I wasn’t quite prepared for it to happen so early. On my third day, I went from a strong stride to a stuttering hobble just out of Paraparaumu. I couldn't believe my luck. It looked like I had torn my meniscus in my left knee; I could barely walk without excruciating pain.
I started with a simple challenge: ‘If I can run 5km today, maybe I can run a little further next time...”
Despite the stunning beauty of the West Coast and the exciting adventure ahead, the headwinds, both literal and figurative, were bearing down on me. I sucked it up and marched on as best as I could to arrive in Wanganui. 241km in the first six days and only one day behind schedule.
I was so relieved to have made it to my planned rest day but the inactivity created its own problems. I had an impossibly difficult decision to make. Do I hole up in Wanganui and hope that a few days' rest' will help it settle? Do I head back to Wellington for a week to get proper treatment? What if that doesn't work? Will that kill my momentum? Should I push on and hope for the best? What if this pushes my knee over the edge and causes permanent damage?
I wrestled internally for hours on this. There was no easy answer and no one to make the decision for me. I was hoping for a miracle recovery on the Monday morning when I woke to confront the next 6 days of running. I got up and felt my knee. It was cold, stiff and aching.
But while I might not have enjoyed a miracle recovery, I at least had been able to get a miracle diagnosis while in Wanganui. Small town New Zealand being the amazing thing it is, meant that I had been able to find the local surgeon’s mobile number listed on the website and I was able to get a free 10 minute telephone consultation with Dr Van Dalen. He put me at ease...It was unlikely that I’d torn the meniscus but I’d probably sprained it.
Was his prescription marching another 219km over the next 6 days? I don't think so but that was my journey for the second week, and I encountered the most violent of West Coast weather and the warmest of West Coast hospitality. My Icebreaker gear kept me comfortable through the rain, wind, sun and salt as I hobbled along like a “green Gandalf”, as my Dad fondly recalled.
"I made an unbroken line up the entire West Coast – from Wellington to Cape Reinga – by either running or swimming."
I had a lot of pressure to recover during this time because King Country wasn't going to be easy. Taranaki’s coast was relatively flat and even. King Country was rugged, wild and pock-marked with daunting harbours. Three days into my third week I was able run my first kilometre. The next day I could run 5km. The next I ran 10km. And I build up momentum from there.
Swimming three of New Zealand’s largest harbours was scary. The West Coast was known for its Great White sharks. It’s weird — being scared of sharks isn't a logical fear. The number of shark attacks, 95% being due to mis-identification, could possibly be counted on one hand. Yet many of us are so scared of the remote possibility of being attacked that we won’t go in the water. As a child of the 80s, I wasn’t spared the trauma of watching ‘Jaws’ so I had a very desperate fear to overcome in the 6 months preceding these exposed crossings.
I don’t think I completely shook the discomfort of being alone in the water but what helped was learning more about these fascinating creatures. They have such an unfair reputation and millions are slaughtered to satisfy an irrational fear. I met with Riley Eliot, the ‘Sharkman’, and read his book which helped me understand how to minimise any risks and to admire sharks in a whole new way.
I made an unbroken line up the entire West Coast – from Wellington to Cape Reinga – by either running or swimming. I crossed some of our most polluted waterways, including the Wanganui and Manuatu. I also swam across six of New Zealand's most stunning harbours including the Aotea, Manukau and Kaipara. What kept me going, especially in the hard times, was my passion for the coastline and supporting the charity ‘Sustainable Coastlines’ which leads beach cleanups, riparian tree planting and environmental education across New Zealand.
My final challenge was running through the entire night, 100km, from Ahipara up the falsely labeled ‘90 mile beach’ to the lighthouse on the most northern tip of New Zealand, Cape Reigna. The sky welcomed my challenge with the most startling, fiery and spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed. Over the next hour as I ran up the endless beach, I watched the sky turn from red to black, navigating the dark sand by the bright stars and moon above.
Eleven hours later, when I saw my support crew, I thought I was seeing a mirage. The vehicle blazed under the baking sun. My knee was flaring up. I was limping badly and running so slowly it seemed like I would never arrive. I had used up the end of my water. I hadn’t eaten much for 7 hours and the headland looked like a wall rising from the water’s edge.
That’s when it clicked. I had run 1207km and only had 20km to go. 20km. That was nothing. My attitude switched from desperate to excited as I topped up my food and water levels. I threw my running poles. I was off. 2 hours to go. I could make this.
Once I got over the hump of the headland, I felt the lighthouse pulling me. I was impatient and desperate to finish. Each corner I hoped to see the end, and each corner I was disappointed to find the end so far away. I kept my head down and focused on my stride and breathing. I was going to make it. After all this work and a year of preparation…I was going to make it. And I did.
When my hand finally touched the cold, white concrete of the lighthouse, the same lighthouse I left from those 6 years before, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and accomplishment. I had circumnavigated the entire North Island by stroke and stride. I ran in Icebreaker both trips and feel a deep sense of gratitude for the support I've received from this iconic company.
I now look behind at an adventure of a life time and towards the next opportunity to stretch myself and uncover more of the natural beauty of this world we’re fortunate enough to explore. While my story might sound a little extreme, I didn't suddenly go from nothing to running 1227km. I created my own version of extraordinary, rather than be directed by someone else's perspective. I started with a simple challenge: “If I can run 5km today, maybe I can run a little further next time..."