As the day wore on, the wind continued to pick up and the rain became more frequent. The higher I climbed, the colder I got. My lack of food meant I became cold quickly — way quicker than normal. I carried on up towards the top of the range. It was pretty flat up there but it was completely exposed. The rain had stopped but the wind was still getting worse.
It was hard to try to stay upright walking through the knee-high scrub. One gust was so strong that it blew me off my feet. To make it worse, I was up so high that I could see a storm coming. I knew that I’d have no real way of sheltering from it. All I could do was keep moving.
Twenty minutes later, I was walking along the ridge. The only positive thing about the wind was that it had dried my clothes. That’s when the rain/hail/snow started falling — and it wasn’t just falling, it was being forced out of the skies by the gnarly wind. It was coming at me sideways. And I was cold. Really cold.
I had never been in a situation like this before. I was soaked. All my gear was freezing and my hands . . . well, they didn’t even work.
At about two o’clock I found a little patch of low bush and sat down next to it. I huddled in a ball next to a bit of scrub in the rain. That’s when I realised something was really wrong.
I thought to myself, ‘This is kind of weird. Why am I not still walking and keeping warm?’ I realised there was something wrong from the fact I was sitting in a bush but I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I realised. It was like ‘Woah! I’m really, really cold!’ I was so cold that I’d even stopped shivering.
I was on the brink of being so cold that I wasn’t feeling cold anymore. In a detached way, I realised that I had hypothermia and that I needed to do something, right now. If I didn’t, I was going to die.
Life after New Zealand
My name is Brando Yelavich, and you may have heard of me. Or maybe not. Sometimes I go by the name of Wildboy. I’m that crazy kid who decided the best way to sort out his life was by walking around New Zealand. Alone. See what I mean by crazy?
I was brought up on Auckland’s North Shore. I really struggled with school, and being diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia didn’t help. Conventional schooling was a huge challenge for me, then my dream of one day joining the army was destroyed due to my learning difficulties. By the time I was in my late teens I was on a roller-coaster ride that was going nowhere good — fast. I felt lost and angry. My relationships with my family, friends and community were at breaking point. I couldn’t see any sort of future for myself, so I escaped into drinking and drugs.
It wasn’t quite this simple, but basically one day I woke up and decided that I was going to walk around the coast of New Zealand. Having ADHD means that once I set my mind on something, there’s no getting away from it. I was completely unprepared for something like this: I had no money, virtually no gear and I figured it would take me about six months. No one believed I could do it — and I’m not sure I really thought I could either. But none of that stopped me from setting off from Cape Reinga on 1 February 2013 with a 50-kilogram pack on my back and not much idea about what lay ahead. I was 19 years old and I had nothing better to do than walk — so walk I did.
Over the next 600 days — see, I underestimated the time a little bit — I met the most amazing people, got chased by a few dogs, ate a lot of delicious food (and some not that delicious food), paddled around the Marlborough Sounds, rafted down rivers, and walked about 8000 kilometres around the coast of this country to land me back where I had started at Cape Reinga on 23 August 2014.
This journey changed me. I overcame near-death incidents, incredible loneliness and enormous physical and logistical obstacles. My emotions ran wild, but I had forged a new future for myself. I came back with a completely altered view of the world and my place in it. My relationship with my family had mended and I had met my own Wildgirl, Ngaio, while I was walking around the Coromandel coast. I could finally see a future for myself where before I had none.
However, after finishing the round New Zealand trip, it took a lot for me to adjust back to real life. I was so used to just getting up and walking every day that I didn’t really know how to do anything else. I went back to Auckland and lived with my family while I tried to work out what I was going to do next.
After a few months of going to the Coromandel to see Ngaio whenever I could, I moved down there to be with her that summer. Things went really well for a while. I got my truck licence and worked for Ngaio’s dad doing deliveries for his plant nursery. I loved it because every day was different — a bit like being out walking.
I got super involved in the community. I was part of the local Volunteer Fire Service, I played in a soccer team — I really felt like I belonged there.
I had also made really good friends with a guy called Ben. One night, the local fire brigade was having its annual function in Hahei when we got called out to a car accident. It was my first proper emergency.
It was like something out of a movie. One minute everyone was having a great night and we were all happy. Then we got this call-out. We jumped in the truck and headed off down the road.
When we got there, there was a vehicle upside down in the river. I recognised the car right away. Ben had accidentally driven off a bridge, and was dead. That was really tough.
Not long after, things got even tougher. I was lifting hay bales when I perforated a disc in my back. I was going to have to have surgery to have some of the disc cut off so that it would stop pushing on the nerve and causing me pain. Unfortunately, it was about three months before I got the surgery.
Waiting around, I got really depressed. My back injury stopped me from doing things I wanted to do. I was really passionate about truck driving and I was a really good worker. But after I hurt my back, I couldn’t work very well — physically I could still drive but I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t even sit comfortably in the truck. I couldn’t sleep either. I was stuck lying in bed, not able to do anything, and I didn’t really have any friends down there apart from Ngaio. I was pretty much on my own and it messed my head up real bad.
Eventually, my hospital date came around. Everything went to plan until after the surgery. Unfortunately, when I’m on medication — painkillers like tramadol and things like that — I get really paranoid and start thinking that something bad will happen. Sure enough, I woke up one night in hospital and was convinced that the guy in the bed next to me wanted to kill me.
I snuck out of my bed and crept down the hallway. I was walking down the path outside, trying to escape, when one of the nurses found me and asked what was going on. ‘This guy in my room is trying to get me! He’s trying to kill me!’
She calmly took me back to the ward, where this other guy was fast asleep, and assured me that they’d protect me. She sat and talked to me for ages until I was calm enough to go to sleep.
Another time when Ngaio came to see me, I was heading towards the window with my laptop tucked under my gown because I was convinced the same guy was trying to steal it. I felt kind of bad because he was such a nice guy. Maybe they should have tied me to the bed or had a nurse watching me a bit more!
After the surgery, it was six weeks before I was allowed to start doing anything physical, then I had 10 weeks of physiotherapy and rehabilitation exercises to do — which I probably wasn’t as dedicated to as I should have been. It was about six months before I was able to do everything I wanted to again.
This was a real big down patch. I would just watch movies and sit around doing nothing. I struggle to even remember most of it, things were that bad. I kind of disconnected myself from everything. I wouldn’t even go outside.
Adjusting to life after the walk around New Zealand would have been hard anyway but those challenges made it so much harder. They were different challenges to what I was used to. Because I had survived the New Zealand walk I knew that I could conquer just about any physical challenge. But these mental challenges, they screwed me up for ages.
During my trip around New Zealand, I had this mindset that I had a mission and I had to walk every day. Then suddenly when I didn’t have to do anything, I didn’t have meaning to my life. There didn’t seem to be any point in even getting out of bed. Ngaio would get home from work and I’d still be lying there — I wouldn’t have got up or eaten all day. The first thing I’d say to her is, ‘What is there to eat?’ I’d be so hungry but I couldn’t be bothered actually going and getting food for myself.
It must have been really hard on her. So I think she was a little bit relieved when I told her I was going to Nelson.
The whole Nelson thing came about after I started doing a bit of ‘coasteering’, taking people out on adventures along the coast, over summer. I decided I wanted to do something like that career-wise, but I had no idea how to make it happen.
Then I met this awesome guy called Kyle. He’s a travel blogger (@barekiwi) who I met through social media. He was coming to the Coromandel, so I offered him a place to stay and for him to come on a coasteering mission with me. He jumped at the chance.
Kyle is a real cool guy. He’d done this two-year certificate in adventure tourism at NMIT (Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology) in Nelson. He was like, ‘You should totally do this course. I know the guy, I’ll hook you up.’ A couple of weeks later I was gone!
I wanted to do the coasteering thing but I didn’t have the knowledge of how to set it up as a business. I could see that this course would give me the skills I needed to build a business out of doing the things I love.
It was great to have a goal to focus on again. I was in Nelson for a reason, doing heaps of cool stuff but ultimately getting the skills I needed to get on with the next stage of my life.
Through the course, you learn the skills you need to be able to work in the outdoors. It’s like full-time rock climbing, river rafting, you name it. I’ve learnt heaps, met lots of people who like the same things as me, and I’ve gained lots of new skills. It’s quite different getting taught to do things instead of just working out how to do them. It’s much easier to master a skill when someone is telling you the right way do it!
After having spent ages working out how to get around gnarly bits of the coast myself, it took a while for me to learn to do things in a new way. To start with, I got a bit of feedback about being over-confident, but I just put that down to all the experience that I had in the wilderness. I was so used to working alone that I had to learn to be part of a team, which is really important because when you’re working in the outdoors you’ll often be responsible for other people’s safety.
I am on the second year now. There are only about 15 days in a classroom this year, but there were more in the first year — it was every Monday. It was a bit weird going back into a classroom situation after the tough time I’d had at school but, fortunately, I found it much easier this time. I think it was because I was learning stuff I really wanted to know about.
When I first went to Nelson, it was really to give me a solid skill set while I worked out what I wanted to do with my life. I figured I could study and learn new skills while I sussed out new adventures, but I got so engaged in the course that didn’t really happen. But then I had an idea for another adventure . . .