I hung from a cliff face, all alone, in a foreign country. No one knew where I was. I had no ropes, only the strength of my fingertips against the rocks. The sun was beaming down. I’d finished my water 3 hours ago, and the rucksack on my back was full of books.
I call this: facing the unknown.
It was January 2014, I was living in Exeter, UK, and it kept getting flooded. I’d just finished my PhD, and was renting a room in a terrace with no insulation, and no heating. There was also this massive hole in the window of my bedroom. Sometimes I’d lay on my bed and just watch leaves blowing around in circles on the floor. Each night I wore 3 layers of clothes under a duvet, and still I shivered and barely slept.
Now, I’m not an umbrella person. I’m a hood-up-and-get-on-with-it kind of person. So each day I was soaked through from the day before. My shoes started to smell. I started wearing baggy, old clothes. I looked a bit like a homeless person, but I didn’t even care.
It’s no surprise I got fired from my waitressing job.
I went to London for a few days, and on the train back to Exeter, I got an email saying the final part of my PhD (the viva) would be happening in 3 months’ time.
Three months to wait around in the cold? No way.
I stepped off the train in Exeter, walked straight into a travel agent and said, “what’s the cheapest flight to New Zealand, leaving as soon as you can?”
The flights cost exactly the amount I’d made waitressing. I left one week later.
And it was amazing.
I jumped out of a plane, I bungeed off a bridge. I did all the things I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I was a kid. I hired a car, and I drove fast. When I got pulled over by the cops for speeding, I talked myself out of the ticket.
I was having the time of my life.
In the southern part of the North Island, I rocked up at a youth hostel. I’d had a hectic few days, so I decided to have an easy one. I packed my bag full of books, and a small bottle of water, and asked the owner of the hostel for directions to the beach.
He gave me a leaflet, which had this tiny, cartoony map on it. I started walking and there wasn’t a soul in sight. I loved it. I looked at the leaflet again. It said I could walk along the coast in 4.5 hours and get the train back from the next town. Since the route was along the coast, I figured I couldn’t possibly get lost.
The “beach” was mostly shingle, with these huge pieces of driftwood. It was pretty difficult terrain to walk on. I was wearing a pair of Converse, that had so many holes in that most people would have thrown them out by now. The more I walked, the more this “beach” was getting sketchier and sketchier.
I took a wrong turn somewhere, and it became impassable. I had to turn back and get to the beach. But I realized… there was no beach.
The tide had been high this whole time.
The leaflet said if the tide was high, I’d have to step over a few rocks at Wairaka Point. No worries.
So I kept walking.
I was 3.5 hours in when I got to the point, and there was no path. There were just huge rocks sticking out of the water — giant, jagged, monstrous things — not small ones I could hop over.
On top of the only rock it might be possible to scale, there was this huge seal, sitting there, mocking me.
Now, I’m a terrible swimmer, but even I considered it for a microsecond, and then a massive wave crashed over the rocks and washed over the seal.
“Hell, no,” I said, “I will definitely die if I go into the sea.”
So I sat on the beach for a minute and looked at the cliff face behind me.
I had no drinking water left. I had no supplies. I was not prepared for this at all.
But I had a decision in front of me: go back the way I came, or face the unknown.
Now, at this point in my life, I’d overcome years of eating disorders. I’d moved past abusive relationships from both my mother and a lover. I’d recovered from 15 years of chronic depression. I worked hard to get over all of these issues while I did a PhD in Mathematics.
I’d got myself out of the rain and I knew I couldn’t go back.
I refuse to go back the way I came.
I stood up. I told myself I had to be confident. “If you hesitate, you die. If you fall, sprain an ankle, break a leg, you die.”
I started climbing the cliff, knowing I couldn’t afford to be scared.
I realized, after so many years of wanting to kill myself, that I wasn’t done yet. It was the first time there was a threat to my life since I’d overcome depression and I realized I wanted to live.
I kept climbing. Telling myself, “don’t be on the news. Don’t be that idiot tourist on the news!”
I reached the top and looked out at the view. It was awesome because I knew not many people had seen it. It was just me and the seal, watching two vast bodies of blue meet at the horizon.
But I didn’t stay for long. I was scared, had no idea of I’d have to climb back down the other side, and I needed to find water.
I kept moving forwards.
After another hour of nothing, eventually I found a fence.
I have never — before or since — been so happy to see a piece of metal wire.
I followed the fence for a good while, and then I saw cows. Cows meant humanity! Way down the bottom, a farmer mowing his lawn. When I got there, his gate had 4 different padlocks on it. I hid behind a bush and timed it perfectly: vaulted the gate while he wasn’t looking.
In town finally, I hopped on the train back to the hostel. Ate a glorious portion of fish and chips. I cannot even describe what colour my Converse had become. That night, I threw them in the bin, went to bed and listened as a storm raged outside, feeling immensely grateful that I wasn’t still out there.
And the day after the next? I did the Tongariro National Alpine Crossing, and it was fine, but you know what? There were too many people. There was too much certainty.
Because, look: at any given moment you can step forward into growth, or step back into safety.
Pioneers and explorers know this. That’s why they step forward and face their fears.
Now I’m not saying I’m the greatest or bravest explorer, but I do know that sometimes in life you have to face the unknown. And I’ve learnt that when you do that enough, an amazing thing happens.
You begin to trust yourself.
And when you trust yourself, that voice in your head that tells you you can’t — that fear — it becomes a little quieter.
That’s when you know, even in the toughest moments, that you will always find a way.
Because when you face the unknown, when you confront it head on, over and over again, you develop the strength and resilience to face anything.