*Content note… there is body/weight talk in this post. I discuss my own body and changes I experienced after a period of intense physical stress, and some specific numbers are mentioned in terms of weight gain. I will flag the start and end of this section so you can skip that one part if you want.
Back she goes.
It’s been almost two years, since I left Aotearoa, and I’m itching for the return. My backpack still holds the smell of my own body and a country’s worth of exertion, impossible to eradicate even after scrubbing with soap and immersing in a tub of water and anti-fungal disinfectant and airing in the sun.
I land in Queenstown fresh off the back of yet another marathon rewatch of my favourite TV series of all time… The 2004 reboot of space opera sci-fi show ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (BSG). I love it for so much; for the spectacular jumble of a cast featuring hitherto young unknowns Grace Park and Tahmoh Penikett, Jamie Bamber, Tricia Helfer and Katee Sackhoff, as well as stalwart character actors Callum Keith Rennie, Harry Dean Stanton, Edward James Olmos, Kate Vernon and the forever incandescent Mary McDonnell. I love it for how it deals with the subject of othering, of how we are quick to dehumanise those we see as fundamentally different to ourselves, of the justifications we make to excuse the worst of ourselves. I love it for the balance it tries to reach in the depiction of the cause for justice versus the pursuit of vengeance. I love it for the intelligence it assumes of its viewers. I love it for the greyed out, waterless, gritty depiction of a life in Space.
But how I fucking love it most of all for the women.
Ain’t no lie – BSG would be a different show if it was made again today, in a very different social climate. It now seems like a glaring omission that there are apparently no queer people in the future/Space, according to basic character representation (although there are definite and horrific parallels in the treatment of Cylons, and the pejorative language used against trans folks but that’s a whole dissertation-level conversation on its own).
But as it was, women got to be so many things in BSG. Tricia Helfer, former runway model and undeniable bombshell, was dubbed ‘Marilyn MonRobot’ in fandom, but brings stunning complexity to the role of Caprica Six, in a way that perhaps Jeri Ryan paved the way for as Seven of Nine in the Star Trek franchise. Mary McDonnell gets to play the tough and complicated and yet forever competent President of the Twelve Colonies Laura Roslin – she occasionally plays dirty at politics, she makes some flawed decisions, but she still gets to carry herself with gravitas and authority as a leader in ways that usually only the dudes do.
And of course, there is Starbuck. Captain Starbuck was played by the insufferable Dirk Benedict in the dreadful and campy 1979 iteration of the show, but the reboot gender-flipped the role in a stroke of casting genius. Sady Doyle wrote about her thusly;
“She is the primary action hero of the show, she is tough and blunt and doesn’t shower all that often, she throws punches and drinks and smokes all the time, she doesn’t wear dresses or makeup or want babies or feel the need to be a gentle civilizing influence on the folks around her, she takes obvious and obnoxious pride in being stronger and braver than anyone else, and she continually hooks up with dudes because she thinks they’re pretty but is never, ever, ever soft and squishy about it… The second I saw new Starbuck, with her biceps gleaming like salvation, I knew that it was insane and awesome and fabulous that a female character with zero traces of conventional femininity was not only in a television show, but was one of its central characters.”
Katee Sackhoff brings both exquisite prettiness and hardy good looks to Starbuck, but there is a stripped back-ness to her, and she walks with a broad shouldered backwards-slouch swagger and the costume design doesn’t put her in fucking boob armour, and the directorial choices don’t subject her to the indignity of ass-cam. Starbuck is the best Viper (combat) pilot in the Colonial Fleet, but as a survivor of genocide and an abusive upbringing she is also traumatised, and her exceptionalism as a pilot also makes her profoundly isolated. Starbuck is a crack pilot because she just loves to fly, and all the rest is just the patchwork of who she is as a messy and relatable and weak and fallible and strong and perfectly imperfect human. She gets to be a central part of the BSG story without being idealised, without being obligated to be a moral compass for the men; not being cursed to having to be twice as good in every way to see even half of the action (hi Hermione Granger).
Starbuck models a way of being a woman, and particularly of being a *young* woman, that is largely removed from performance of gender… Equally, we get to see Laura Roslin be openly sexual as a woman in her middle-aged prime, and both examples are remarkable by their rarity. I don’t feel like I’ve seen anything to compare to the all-round excellence and complexity of BSG’s cast of women ever since. Even Captain Marvel is idealised in her appearance and character in ways that were not asked of Starbuck (and look, I loved Captain Marvel too, no shade). When I first watched BSG I felt like it was breaking new ground, but it feels now like that ground has been left to turn fallow.
But I don’t really have to look at the small or big screen these days to find examples of women being competent and tough and excellent at what they do… Because I see those women around me when I go hiking. I see women in tattered, sun-faded shirts, with wild hair and mud-streaked calves, with flushed cheeks and big backpacks, and laughs that run a scale from deep chuckles at bawdy jokes to high squeals at first contact with icy water, and eyes that glitter from both tears of pain and frustration and the wild excitement of just being this alive. I see Starbuck in all their faces, and I see a little bit of myself reflected back.
It happens that my Mum is staying with extended family in Arrowtown when I fly in, and we spend the first long evening (sunset comes late and comes slowly in NZ at this time of year) sitting on the grass with our feet in the stream in a tiny park. We shop for the standard hiking food fare of noodles and instant porridge and salmon sachets and peanut butter, and of course coffee. Ain’t no hiking before coffee.
After 48 hours in town we collect Vivian from the airport. We have not seen each other in nearly two years, she arrives bearing gifts of Danish beer and heavy rye bread. After lunch at a vineyard, Mum drives us down to the shore of Lake Hayes and we both strip to our underwear and walk into the water, and I swim out as deep as I dare.
There aren’t mountains in Sydney, like there are in New Zealand, and the ocean there has become the part of nature that I go to in order to feel immersed in something huge and wild. When I get into the sea these days, I take a certain obnoxious and dare I say Starbuck-esque pride in swimming out further and staying in longer than anyone else. This is a new thing for me. I avoided swimming for years, believing I wasn’t ‘good’ at it and also caught up on various body nonsenses that made me not want to be so visibly naked in front of others.
Body talk for a bit until the paragraph break!!!
I avoid discussing it, because I don’t think it’s a useful conversation coming from me, but my body has undeniably changed since I came home from Te Araroa. Something to do with the natural biorhythmic pushback after being under such physical stress for an extended time and then suddenly not, combined with passing into my forties. But anyway, I gained ten kilos in about eight months (and honestly, half of that I needed to put on but the rest was purely for fun and pastries) and I’m now the heaviest I have ever been. I had to replace most of my pants, my thighs have softened and spread, my jawline has blurred, and I have a cute l’il squishy tummy. My new comfier body is just so much easier to negotiate life and space in – my butt doesn’t hurt after a few minutes of sitting on a hard chair or a rock, I don’t get chilled nearly as easily when I get into cold water, and I barely ever get sick these days. It’s a little bit of a mindfuck, receiving those tacit sneaky messages my whole life that weight gain was something to be reviled and as a woman I should be ever-vigilant against it. And then it happened, and I feel nothing at all. Which, I should add, is easy for me because I’m still thin by every social standard.
Those who skipped a bit you can start reading again here
But I swim in Lake Hayes, in the deep south of New Zealand, and I stay in for a long while. When Vivian and I get back to our hostel for the night, we drink beer and eat pasta because carb loading is important. I find a pair of leggings and a long-sleeved t-shirt in a bin of discards near the laundry, which are set to become my town clothes for this trip.
Vivian and I have decided to hike up to Brewster Hut as our first outing. The track is off the Haast Pass road, and Mum drives us up past Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and through the tiny township of Makarora to drop us at the trailhead.
It’s only 3km into Brewster Hut. But it’s 1000m of elevation gain, which makes it crazy steep and we are both… not very fit. Due to roadworks on the way in, we are also late starting.
The climb is a staircase of tree roots and steamy humidity. It’s a push, and my Forever Line is that I hate hills and therefore just want to get them done and smash that shit out. But also – I love the endorphin thrill of heavy breathing and sweat and ache in the thighs.
We ascend above the level of sandfly pressure and stop briefly to slice bread and cheese and salami, and then we decide to push onto above the treeline, in a misguided belief that beyond that point the hike will just be easy.
It just fucking isn’t. But we bust above nonetheless, and I remind Vivian that prior to this trip, only one photo of us together exists. And that is a rough selfie of us on a hitch together in a tow-truck on our way between Twizel and the Ahuriri. So we take some new selfies of ourselves with sweat-damp hair and clean faces and pink cheeks and those glittering eyes. For long enough for a photo, we look a bit Starbuck.
I climb through through tussock and trenches and yank myself up by hands and knee-jambs, and a huge alpine canyon plummets away to my left with the silver gashes of waterfalls hurling mist.
And I yell… OH MY GOD GET UP HERE.
And I can’t stand still. I just feel myself opening wider and wider and grin and puff and climb. Mountain daises shine white in the dun-coloured grass.
It is a trick of huts in NZ that often you will catch a glimpse of a roofline or an out building some half an hour before you arrive, before they disappear behind the terrain until you stumble right on top of them. So it is with Brewster, and particularly today as cloud scuds across and in and out of this eyrie. I see the toilet briefly, and then nothing nothing nothing for long minutes and then a quick step up and then we are virtually on the doorstep of a red tin alpine hut on a sheltered plateau.
Inside there are the spread out belongings of one absent early arrival who has obviously headed out for photographic opportunities from further up Mt Armstrong and Brewster Glacier above the hut. Vivian and I set up our sleeping places in the bunk room and write in the hut book, and I head outside and stalk the kea who are frolicking and playing in updrafts, and who watch me with as much delight as I watch them.
We sit in the mist and feel this slow relief of being in a hut again after a long, long absence. And it feels like forever, and yet like we haven’t been gone at all.
I have a few friendships like this in my life. We go for these periods of absence and regular contact doesn’t always happen – but when it’s needed then we are there and it’s like nobody has ever left. So it is with a few folks who know I’m talking about them. And so it is with being out here and just being back and knowing I’m home, but home again in a different place.
Huts have a way of turning and tossing in the night. I fall into a deep sleep at some point but Vivian gets up and steps into the mud-room to encounter a couple arriving in the dark of night. When she says hi and asks if they are ok, they are startled and seem disorientated. She relates this story in the morning after I get up and we have our coffee together in the first grey light; I have night-hiked before and I like it but I cannot imagine crawling my way up here in the black. Apparently this couple hitch-hiked in and it took a long time, and they started walking in the dusk.
I take a scramble up the slopes of Mt Armstrong behind the hut to see the views. There is a spectacular cloud inversion sitting low and I try to take photos but this early light is tricky.
Knowing Mum is coming to pick us up at a set time we leave about 9am, and start the descent. One thousand metres over three kilometres and down is always harder than up. Below the bushline we start groaning like old ladies as our knees and quads feel the stress. Someone has forgotten their sleeping bag at the hut so I am carrying it out as well and my pack is unpleasantly top heavy. At some point I put it down and watch it tip over and gain momentum to bounce and fly off a steep bank and thank goodness I don’t actually lose the whole kit.
Finally slithering down back to the river, I discover I have lost one of my camp shoes. We sit in the stone bed with Mum and have coffee and a bit of lunch before I make the decision to head back over the water and back up that bastard hill to see if I can find it.
After about 15 mins I see my bright red shoe sitting on the track, collect it and stagger back down. I am in time to find Vivian and Mum chatting to two DoC rangers, who are taking the lost sleeping bag back to the Wanaka office in case someone calls it in, and who are cranky about the story of people hiking in after dark.
It’s not just them at risk, they say. If they don’t make it, it’s everyone else who has to go looking f⁹or them who get their lives risked, too. Accidents happen, but some decisions are just dumb.
A week later, British woman Stephanie Simpson will go up to Brewster Hut, explore the slopes and the glacier above and then return on a line that gets her too low on the wrong side of Pykes Creek. We can’t really know what happened or how, but she will slip on the water crossing and not be able to self-rescue and will fall to her death. It will take nearly a week to find her body. She was strong and competent, and yet luck was not on her side in that moment.
Lest any of us take it for granted. The things we do to make us feel alive take us closest to the edge. Starbuck and Stephanie.