By Sarah Wilcox
Despite a visual impairment that means she can only see light and dark, Mary Fisher is a keen tramper and advocate for getting out and enjoying New Zealand’s natural environment.
Sarah invited Mary to walk the Kepler Track with her group of 10 family members earlier this year. She recorded the trip on video and asked Mary a few questions about the experience.
How long did it take?
We took three days to do the 50 km version. You basically go up on the first day to Luxmore Hut, along the tops then down to Iris Burn Hut on the second and the third day is mostly flat through beautiful forest.
You’re quite fit aren’t you?
I guess I have a decent fitness base…I’m a Paralympic swimmer, so I had been doing seven swims and three gym sessions per week for that. My biggest swimming achievements have been going to London in 2012 and Rio in 2016, picking up 5 medals including 2 gold.
Tramping is a different kind of exercise though. I grew up doing lots of day walks with my family but multi-day trips came later.
Why go tramping if you can’t see the view?
Yes, a lot of people assume there’s no point if you can’t see a view at the top. But when I’m tramping, so many senses are involved! On Kepler smelling all the earthy aromas and listening to the various bird life was amazing – I even slept outside one night and heard kiwi calling. I also get a fulfilling picture from talking to the others in my group about their experience.
How did you find the big climbs and descents?
We took our time getting to know each other and practice guiding techniques. After this we were sensible with our speed and it was no problem – the people who guided me were attentive and great at descriptions.
On the first day we used a cane held horizontally between us so I could tell when the guide (and therefore track) went left and right. The guide was also constantly telling me when any protruding stones or roots were coming up and how high they were.
The terrain on day 2 was a little bit trickier – there was one time when I fell over and my knees got a bit grazed but nothing major. Downhill, the guide had to help with all the potential dangers, including getting on and off steps and boardwalks.
On the smoother sections we did go quite fast sometimes – that was a blast!
What was it like at the huts?
It felt really rewarding to get to the huts each day. At Luxmore we relaxed on the deck (but kept an eye on the kea) because you’re up above the sandflies! Having indoor flushing toilets was super fancy!
I was quite tired at the end of the second day but after some yummy food and a good sleep, I felt happy and confident for the last day. I’d brought my Braille playing cards and my mbira (small Zimbabwean instrument) along too, which was fun and relaxing.
My group really appreciated the expertise of the hut wardens (we had a tour of the plant life around the hut one evening) who gave me a real sense of what the park is like.
What was a highlight?
A highlight, literally, was making it to the top of Mt Luxmore, 1472 metres, which was incredible given we started the tramp by Lake Te Anau at 200 m. There were heaps of cheeky kea up there laughing at us!
How was the weather?
We caught a good few days but it was still very changeable, as you’d expect in Fiordland. On day two the cloud cleared as we came along the ridgeline and it was so hot and bright that we put on hats, sunglasses and extra sunblock. A few minutes later when we came into the bush, it started to spit then bucketed down! It made it tricky for me to hear the guide but was also fun – a good reminder that that you have to be prepared for all weather conditions.
How much can you see?
I was born with a vision impairment that means I had about 10% of ‘normal sight’ when I was a child. I lost the rest of my sight when I was a teenager and now I can see light and dark.
What would you say to someone with a disability who wants to go tramping?
Some form of getting into Aotearoa’s outdoors or tramping is available to you no matter your access needs. My experiences all say exploring nature is so good for holistic wellbeing!
I’d recommend looking into Kepler or one of the other Great Walks if you’re keen for doing something that’s quite physically challenging.
Make sure you do your research and prepare well, have a good team, the right gear, plenty of food, rest stops, and check the weather forecast. The track is amazing but still challenging, so competent guides and a good level of fitness make arriving at the huts each day more fun.
I’m definitely planning to do some more tracks in the future!
This week is Disability Pride Week (26 November – 3 December), an annual event which aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and to mobilise support for the dignity, rights and wellbeing of people with disabilities. Find out more on the Disability Pride Aotearoa website.