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My name is Brando Yelavich, and at 19-years-old, I decided to walk 8000 kilometres around New Zealand. The 600 days that followed included unbearable loneliness, a near death experience, and some of the most important lessons I’ll ever learn.
The drastic decision came from the lifestyle I’d created for myself. I was living in a concrete box apartment, working a dead end job that I hated, and I was turning to drugs to bring me happiness. I was becoming an aggressive person — constantly lashing out at my parents and family — the people who were trying to help and encourage me.
On the night of my boozy 19th birthday party, I announced to everyone I was going to be the first person to walk around New Zealand. Three months later, I was in Cape Reinga taking the first step of my life-changing adventure.
I am blessed with the gift of ADHD, which leads me to make some impulsive and sometimes questionable decisions. As I walked down 90 Mile Beach with my 50kg pack on my 62kg frame, I seriously questioned what I was doing.
I’d really thrown myself in the deep end. I’d decided to live off the land only eating what I could hunt and gather. It was a pretty mammoth task for a city boy who had zero experience with hunting, fishing, or eating anything that represents a vegetable.
I’m also stubborn. Everyone said I couldn't do it, and no one believed in me — and I couldn’t blame them. But there was no way I was going to prove everyone right.
From Day 1 to Day 600, every day was a struggle. Certain aspects got easier as I gained experience, such as fishing with my hand line and hunting with my bow. My main source of food was possums and goats. The fitter I became, the harder I pushed myself — and the more ground I covered.
The day-to-day challenges depended on what part of the country I was in and what terrain I was on. If I was walking through the Coromandel Peninsula on the west coast, I was surrounded by fresh water streams and thriving coastline. If I was walking through Canterbury in the south, I’d have no access to clean water; just dirty stock ponds and the odd farmers hose if I was lucky.
The one thing that never got easier was being alone. But as my story began to reach the news, people would come and walk with me. I loved this — getting to hear other people’s story and share mine with them.
But when they left, I would be overcome with loneliness.
As my story spread, a lot more doors opened, literally. Many kind families offered to host me when I was passing through their towns and cities. I loved meeting them and hearing how I had inspired their children to get outdoors or their grandparents to go on a camping trip.
It really resonated with me, to make a difference. Even though it was small, it felt amazing to be able to offer some good to the world. And because my journey resonated with a lot of other people, I started a fundraising page for Ronald McDonald House. People from around the world donated an amazing $32,700.
My trip was a beautiful experience, but there were also huge struggles, mentally and physically. Learning how to cope while being hungry — or even starving — was huge.
When you do a full-day hike on no food, your energy levels are destroyed; and because of the tough conditions, I constantly grappled with those dark places your mind goes.
It was like learning how to live all over again. It was something I could never have considered. My life was so drastically different to the one I had left behind.
The major turning point in my trip was when I was paddling down a river called the Waiou River — it had been raining for days which had caused the water levels to rise.
My goal for that day was to paddle as far as I could toward Te WaiWai bay. As I made my way down the river, I heard a faint alarm in the distance. I didn't think much of it and carried on paddling. It wasn't long until I noticed the river was starting to swell. There was a strange rumbling sound, and the sound of alarms had stopped.
Suddenly, I was met by a wall of water as the river was thrown into flood. My boat flipped and tossed me into the turbulent, freezing water. I did everything I could to keep my head up. I became entangled in a willow tree, its branches pulling me down and its tendrils wrapping around me like a snake.
The more I struggled, the harder it became — I was trapped underwater in freezing temperatures. I fought to get free, clawing at the branches, ripping the tendrils away from my body, fighting for my life. It was useless.
So I let go. I stopped fighting, I stopped struggling, and I said goodbye.
After that I was engulfed in a warm sensation, and everything became pleasant. The rocks flying across the river bed became diamonds rolling to and fro, the water was warm and soft on my skin, and I drifted away into a dark eternity.
I was lucky enough to survive this experience. I woke up on the water floating toward a bank. The only sense I can make of it was when my body relaxed, I was taken with the current and pulled under the willow I was trapped against.
I will never forget what happened that day, and because of it I will never take another day, another moment for granted.
On the final day of my adventure, I was filled with fear of the unknown. It may sound odd as I had just spent 600 days in the wilderness on a solo adventure, but I was afraid of finishing. What was I going to do next? Where was I going to live? How was I going to function in society?
These questions and millions more rolled around in my head and made me anxious and stressed. Not exactly the romantic end to a life-changing journey.
But when I headed toward the lighthouse on my 600th day, I saw a crowd of people holding signs, cheering, calling to me. It made me realise I was going to be OK. My family, friends and partner were there. I could see pride from my dad’s beaming smile, and feel the love seep into me from mum’s embrace.
Finishing my journey wasn't the end of adventure for me. It was just the end of this adventure. The rest of my life was just beginning.
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