One pleasant evening in August 2004, I was bitten by a mosquito. Buzzzz… Slap!
It’s a tiny thing. Who thinks about it? Just part of the soundtrack to life here in sub-tropical Queensland.
Two weeks later I was sicker than I had ever been. My joints and muscles were on fire. I had raging fevers and delirium. I was so exhausted and weak I could barely walk as far as the bathroom. It went on and on.
After about six weeks, it finally settled down. But it never really went away. I went to doctor after doctor. I had test after test. It’s a wonder I didn’t look like a prune, they’d taken so much blood out of me for testing.
Finally I got an opinion from another doctor and she said those three magic words: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In some parts of the world, it’s known as ME – myalgic encephalitis.
I’ve known a number of people over the years who have been given that diagnosis and it’s been like a life sentence. They have felt as though their life ended that day. I felt similar emotions rising in me after I heard those words, and I just wanted to crawl under the blankets forever.
But then I got cross. I didn’t want my life defined by one mosquito bite. Was there another way?
I remembered how a friend being treated for CFS by a very senior specialist a few years earlier had been prescribed a steadily increasing program of exercise. No matter how bad it felt, she had to do it. And it did seem to help her.
I wondered if it could work for me.
But it was so hard to exercise–painful and utterly exhausting. I knew I needed a powerful motivator to get me to take this particular “medicine”.
There are two things you need to know to fully understand the crazy thing I did next.
Firstly, for many years I had wanted to hike the Milford Track in New Zealand. It was a “bucket list” item for me. I wanted to do it as a research trip for my debut novel Poison Bay — a concept that had been composting in my brain since the 90s.
The book is about a bunch of old friends with past secrets who go on a long trek through Fiordland National Park… and when they find themselves lost, things start to go very, very wrong.
I’m an old journalist, so I wanted some facts to base my book on, to trigger ideas and word pictures and emotions. I wanted to know what it really felt like to hike those mountains. I wanted to write notes and take photos and interview people.
I’d been talking about doing my “research hike” along the Milford Track for years, but every year there had been another reason not to do it. I was too busy, or none of my friends were available. Yada yada yada.
The Milford Track goes through Fiordland National Park along the remote south-western coast of New Zealand. It takes four days, and covers 54 km. The start and end of the track are accessible only by boat. No phone signal. No roads. Once you are on the track, the only way out is your own legs or a rescue helicopter.
It goes through mountains that other mountains want to be when they grow up. These are professional mountains. If they were buildings they would be 400 stories high.
It’s one of the wettest places on earth. They have up to 7 metres of rain a year – flash floods sometimes sweep hikers away, and I even spoke to someone who had been blown off the track and broken their jaw.
There are avalanche alerts at various places along the track – yes, even in summer. People get caught in blizzards and lose their way.
The trees drip streamers of moss, like giant green cobwebs. It’s an otherworldly landscape, spooky and dangerous and gorgeous.
Sound like a good place to set a mystery/thriller novel?? 😉
The second thing you need to know about me is that I’m not actually a very good hiker. 😉 I’m not an athlete. I have eccentric knees. I love wild places, and I love the idea of hiking – but if I’m going to be absolutely truthful, I’m mostly in it for the snacks and the photography!
Nine months after being bitten by that mosquito I booked to hike the Milford Track. Yes, I actually booked it, and then nearly fainted from shock and the fear of what might lie ahead.
Here was my Motivation to exercise.
I had a deadline. I had a commitment.
I had PAID!
I had to do it.
So I began my training schedule. I walked around the suburbs in hiking boots with my rucksack on my back, feeling foolish. Gradually, I added more weight to the rucksack.
I found some steep hills outside Brisbane, and developed a 3 kilometre training circuit. Every weekend I would go up there and hike, even starting at 5am when summer came early and the heat was debilitating.
I couldn’t do much at first. Each time I’d go home after training and curl into the foetal position for a few hours and try to recover, my whole body feeling like it was on fire.
I built up little by little. In each training session I would be able to do just a little more for the same amount of pain.
I felt as though the exercise was pushing that virus out of my muscle fibres, one excruciating millimetre at a time.
Finally November came. There I stood, beside the sign that marked the beginning of the Milford Track. [Gulp]
I was terrified. I didn’t know if I would be leaving this track on my own two legs or in a rescue helicopter! (I joked with my friends at work to look for me on the evening news. I hoped it was just a joke.)
There were retirees scampering down the track ahead of me each day. Mostly, I was last. But I just kept plodding – one step, after another step, after another step.
I have two exquisite memories of that hike.
First, I remember standing at the top of Mackinnon Pass, which is more than a kilometre straight upwards. If you’re from the Himalayas, that might not seem too bad, but for a girl from Brisbane, that’s mighty high.
It had been snowing in the morning, but the clouds lifted for us slow pokes down the back of the bus. (Sometimes there are advantages to being last!)
So many people hike that track and never get to see the view I saw. Those incredible mountains, steep and so very tall, marching away into the distance. They boggle my mind. No photo can capture their immensity.
When I close my eyes, I can still see that view now. I swear I could hear angels singing!
The second memory is of standing under the sign that marks the end of the track. After four days of beautiful hell, my knees were so swollen I thought they might explode. I was leaning heavily on my hiking poles, using them like crutches to help me stand.
But my heart was bursting with joy, because I HAD DONE IT.
I had done it.
I had done it.
Do you know that it’s only recently I have realised, I might still be saying: “I’d love to hike the Milford track” if it wasn’t for that mosquito. That horrible insect that brought such suffering into my life was also the catalyst for one of my greatest achievements.
Some days I look back to the Belinda of 2005, and I say to her, “Who are you? And more importantly, where are you?”
I still have mountains to climb. I have other mosquito bites to overcome. Some of the problems are awful, and some days I just want to give up.
You have mountains to climb too. They might not be literal ones with snow on top of them, but you have visions and dreams that light a fire inside your soul.
And you have mosquito bites, large and small, that are getting in the way of your dreams. Big bites like grief or serious illness, and the little constant nibbles of daily difficulties and lack of confidence.
Will you join me this year, this day, in the Mosquito Bite Challenge? Let’s search for ways to release that fierce, determined, possibly INSANE person inside each of us, who can do amazing things in spite of the hassles of life.
Let’s climb our mountains. Maybe we can even take our challenges and turn them around into something good!
When you and I get to the end of the trail, may we be able to say: My life was defined by my dreams and the challenges I fought and overcame, not by the mosquito bites.
Yes, I finally finished that novel! It was another huge challenge, and there’s an extraordinary feeling that comes of being able to hold it in my hand. And it has now won an IPPY Silver Medal, which is pretty exciting. 🙂 🙂 If you enjoy mystery/thrillers set in wild places and you’d like to know more, you can check out my page dedicated to Poison Bay.
p.s. I’m not a doctor, and I’m just telling you my story, not suggesting how you should treat an illness! Talk to your doctor if you’ve got CFS or ME, before you do anything crazy. 😉