By Leigh O’Connor.
Imagine walking 11,000 km across five countries… just for the fun of it! Former Perth builder Alex Johnson has not only strolled his way through the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but was so bitten by the walking bug he then went on to trek New Zealand and Australia from top to bottom.
Alex Johnson stands at a vantage point on the Te Araroa, overlooking Lake Hawea and the Southern alps.
Alex, 30, says it is all about freedom – from the concrete and technology that constantly surrounds us. Now back in Taranaki, working to finance his next venture on America’s Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), he recalls how it all began with a Martin Sheen movie, The Way.
"I saw this film where Martin Sheen’s character walked the Camino and something in me sparked I guess. I had always wanted to travel and this idea of just simply walking across a country intrigued me,” he explains. "I wanted freedom from nine to five, bills and all the stresses that come with modern society.
"To escape hustle and bustle and the search for material wealth. I wanted to step into the wilderness, reconnect with nature and get back to a more primal state where what matters is survival – not comfort.”
Get back to nature he did, relearning to appreciate the small things in life, like toilets, running water and rubbish bins - luxuries we take for granted every day.
Alex originally planned to walk 1600 km from Le Puy-en-Velay in Southern France to Finisterre on the West coast of Northern Spain. When he finished this journey, he hadn’t quite exhausted his budget and had fallen in love with walking, so continued south into Portugal and ‘strolled’ an extra 600 km before finishing up in Fatima, near Lisbon – a total of 2200 km over three countries.
Known as the Way of Saint James, the Camino is a network of pilgrim ways popular with hiking and cycling enthusiasts and trekked by thousands every year. Alex says the most enjoyable part of the trail was the community aspect, there were so many people from all over the world and the number of incredible people he met on a regular basis made for a very humbling experience.
"I had never experienced anything of this magnitude before, the support network was great from people who were facing the same day-to-day challenges and dealing with the same struggles. I met a great group of people early on, who throughout the journey became very close friends.”
Alex stayed in hostels available to walkers along the way – known as a Gite d’Etape in France and an Albegue in Spain – usually in dorm rooms, but when he continued south into Portugal he bought a tent to try to save on costs.
While in France, he met another walker who asked about the trail across New Zealand. At that time, Alex had no idea it existed but did his research and was introduced to Te Araroa (TA), a trail spanning 3000 km from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
"I loved my walk through Europe so much, I knew it wouldn’t be my last – so naturally I figured I ought to check out my own backyard before I looked elsewhere. I had been living in Western Australia for six years, so hadn’t travelled much of New Zealand, walking it end to end seemed to me to be the ultimate way to explore home.
"It was also going to be a wilder adventure than the Camino, with no frequent accommodation along the way I would be camping in the wild with civilisation, shops, food, supplies and showers much further apart. My pack would be heavier, the terrain and weather tougher,” Alex explains.
Standing at the northern most part of Aotearoa, ready to take his first steps on Te Araroa, Alex stumbled across a guy from Belgium roughly his own age, who by chance was also there to hike Te Araroa. They got chatting and the rest was history – Alex and Fred Van der Elst spent three and a half months battling the elements together and hiking until they could hike no more.
"We would pitch our tent, sleep then wake up the next morning and do it all over again! During this time, Fred told me about his plan to also walk the length of Australia... my first thought was ‘good luck with that!’ But after having a lot of spare time to think, I asked Fred if I could tag along and he was delighted with the prospect of having company. So, our plan was born.
"Two complete strangers who met on a whim and ended up walking 9000 km across two countries. It still baffles me to think about how everything came together, but I couldn’t be happier about what we achieved and would gladly say I gained a brother over those 15 months. Fred and I went through some of the most challenging days of our lives together out there and yet still never had even one argument… it was like the ultimate bromance right from the start.”
The never ending red roads of the Cape York Peninsula.
So much so, Fred has named his first child – a baby girl – Tanna Alex after his good mate!
The sheer size of Australia meant their next trek would require them to cover double what they had in New Zealand. The vastness of the areas they were travelling through was a huge part of the challenge… sometimes close to 300 km stretches at a time without any opportunity to resupply with food and other necessities.
"Not only did we have much more weight in our packs carrying seven to eight days food, we would be walking further. We maintained an average of 35 km a day to allow for the long hauls, which often meant walking from sunup to sundown.
"Because of the wet monsoon season and unbearable heat of Summer in the far North of the country, we had to begin from the Top End in Winter. Water was much scarcer in areas like Cape York Peninsula adding to our weight woes and the trail was not well-established like the Camino or TA,” he says.
Fred and Alex share a hand shake at South Point, Victoria, the southernmost point of the Australian mainland, after completing their journey together.
More commonly a horse trail than a walking trail, when you take all that into account and throw a bunch of deadly and dangerous animals in the mix – it’s just a recipe for a good time. He hasn’t kept a diary of the exact number of shoes and band aids sacrificed during his walks, but Alex burnt through four pairs of trail runners and two pairs of sandals in just Australia alone.
They were joined on some parts of their journey by Alex’s New Plymouth parents – property developer Nick and real estate guru Lynne.
"Over the past two and a half years, I have spent more than half my life on the trail. That means birthdays, Christmases and everything in between are often celebrated on my own (or with Fred) out in the wilderness. Having my folks join me periodically throughout these treks has been awesome.
"Sometimes it’s just nice to see a friendly face when you’ve been bush for a long time, to have my parents there to catch up on everything that’s been going on at home with friends and family, is massively uplifting for the spirits after battling through a heavy slog.”
Asked what was the funniest moment along the way, Alex was candid with his reply:
"Honestly, funny moments were happening all the time. You really learn to laugh about the situation you are in rather than cry… otherwise you would be doing a lot of crying! The ridiculousness of our situation would often cause Fred and I to bust out in hysteric laughter and the lack of personal hygiene was quite amusing”
Alex managed to get 28 warm showers in 192 days, sometimes not showering for up to two weeks at a time, while sweating until he dropped – day in and out for months on end.
"This was probably more amusing to us, than anyone who came too near us!”
As for food along the way, in Australia alone, Alex consumed 720 muesli bars, 560 tortillas, 382 instant oat sachets and 230 cans of tuna.
"I find inspiration everywhere I walk… every amazing sunrise, beautiful beach, lush forest, every incredible mountain range. It all keeps me inspired to keep walking and discover what is over the next hill.
"Over the past three years I have downsized my lifestyle, ridding myself of mostly all material possessions and financial responsibilities. There is no house, no mortgage, no car payments or loans and no girlfriend (this is negotiable!) to tie me down. This minimalism leaves me free to save my pennies and so far self-fund all my past three walks.”
Finally, we asked Alex where will it end?
"If before this had all begun, you told me I would go on to walk 11,000 km across five countries, I would have said you are insane. But here I am and that’s exactly what has happened. As for where it will end, at this stage I really have no idea. I can tell you for certain that unless something terrible happens on the PCT next year, it won’t be my last!"I have a few other ideas in the back of my mind. One step at a time…”