Lost in the Wilderness

February 16, 2007 at 2:00 am (Uncategorized)

I feel uncomfortable writing this post, but I have also been uncomfortable withholding it. I want to acknowledge what has happened, and I want to tell you about some of the things I have been thinking in relation to it. I guess I am just very, very keenly aware that this is not my story, and therefore not mine to tell, but it has been in the news here in Australia, so I suppose to that extent it is already out there, in the public domain.

I have met Andrew McAuley, the kayaker lost since this time last week off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Andrew’s parents are great and beloved friends of Llew’s parents. Llew has known the family all his life. I last saw the elder McAuleys in December, and they are terrific people. Terrific parents. I met Andrew and his wife Vicki years ago, I think even before the birth of their son, Finlay. I believe it was just after his historic kayak crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Certainly Llew and I both remember talking to him about what he went through during that trip. The danger, the delirium, the damage, and the determination.

He was very close to making it this time, too, by anyone’s measure. I’ve heard various things, but all of them put him between 65-100 kms of the end, inside the Milford Sound. He had kayaked from Tasmania, and had been out there on the ocean for something like a month. The stretch of water Andrew crossed experiences, regularly, the very worst weather in the world. He was in a kayak, alone in the elements, battling some 1600 kms to reach the other side.

I felt sick when Llew took a call from his mother last Saturday night, telling us Andrew was missing. This was his second attempt at the crossing. A little while ago, during the first attempt, he’d experienced serious problems and had to turn back. When I heard that at the time, I thought “Good. Oh, thank goodness, please let that be the end of it now.” But of course, that’s not how an adventurer perceives failure. ‘Failure’ simply computes as ‘the next challenge.’

I was on the South Coast famil when the search for Andrew was called off by the authorities in New Zealand. They had searched an extra day beyond what was probably required, realistically, given the freezing conditions and massive search area, but, beyond recovering his kayak Saturday night, sadly there was no sign of Andrew. The room’s TV flashed devastating footage of Andrew and Vicki’s goodbye back at the start of his epic voyage. I lay on the bed of the serviced apartment I was booked into for the night, and I bawled my eyes out. For his parents, his wife, his son, his brother, his sister, their families, his many friends, and for my own husband’s family, all of whom I love, and all of whom love the McAuleys. And I bawled because he was gone, just like that. Gone.

There’s been a lot of ocean in my week. It’s been all around me. I live by the ocean, for a start, but on the South Coast trip I was on it, travelling out to Montague Island, and standing on the edge of vast expanses of it on Green Cape. Water, everywhere water. So much water. As I said to Sarah on Sunday, I am completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean, and by the sudden permanence of death.

What is left for the modern day adventurer, now all the world is mapped and logged and coordinated many times over? What is left for the man born with the aching need for exploration when everything has been found? If you think of Marco Polo and Magellan, and all the great figures of exploration, you start to appreciate that they just got the timing right. They got lucky. They were there first. But for the modern day adventurer like Andrew, born with that same wanderlust, the frames of reference have changed. To make their mark, to still their adventurer’s wild heart, they must not just travel miles, because all the miles have already been travailed. No, they must travel those miles against impossible odds and in extreme conditions. Otherwise, where’s the adventure? Otherwise, how to quiet the yawning need inside to do what no human being has ever done before?

I don’t have that particular ember burning inside me. I am a curious, active traveller, I absolutely love seeing the world, but I have no desire to knowingly put myself in extreme danger. So for the last week, I have been trying to understand Andrew’s need to do this trip. I have been trying to understand that knowing all the risks, knowing he could die, knowing he might never see his wife and child again, he went anyway. And I think I am slowly starting to see that if he had his time over, he’d probably go again. Because that’s the way he was made. My dreams are different, but I know how much they mean to me. I can only imagine what Andrew’s meant to him, because they propelled him toward a journey that most of us would regard as sheer madness. The footage I saw on TV that night ended with Andrew’s broad smile, a family trait, and you could see he was itching to get on the water, absolutely busting to get going. Someone must have asked him why he was doing it, and he grinned and said something like, “Oh, it’s a big adventure. To me, it’s just a great, big adventure.”

Rest in peace seems an out of step sentiment for such a restless soul, so I just stood at the water’s edge a couple of days ago, and I said goodbye instead. I didn’t really know Andrew, but he seemed like a great guy. He meant the world to a lot of people, some of whom mean the world to me, and I’m so, so sorry he’s gone.


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