Moonlight Mondays

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Maybe not.

It started on a warm summer Monday just over a year ago. I was probably trying to work off some holiday ham, mourn the whisky from the night before or just get out of the house. Honestly, I can’t remember. The reason for the walk, the Insta post and the plan has been lost to time.

Today it’s a suburb of Tāhuna Queenstown, but back a century and some ago, Arthurs Point was a humming community of adventurers seeking their salvation in the form of gold from the Shotover River. You don’t need to stretch your mind far to imagine a near-lawless place where fortunes were scratched from the river and lost through the carve of a blade or to the bottom of a bottle, or never found in the first place. People who wintered in stone and timber shacks that did little to protect them from the bastard southerly winds and the volcanic summer heat.

Those times are gone now. We have double-glazed windows and a heat pump, and Arthurs Point is close enough to the Queenstown CBD that you can pop into town on your e-bike for a pinot. But there is also a thriving little town that isn’t just full of landlords and trust-funders, and there’s still a goldmine of trouble to be found in the hills.

The Moonlight Track picks up where the Arthurs Point pavement ends and punches deep into the hills, arcing a slash above the true right of the Shotover River. Narrow and exposed in places, it’s an undulating 9.5-kilometres out and back with a total elevation gain of about 400 metres, though if you’re motivated enough you can carry on, and up, and follow it over the Ben Lomond Saddle to tick off that 1798-metre peak before ending up in Queenstown via the Bob’s Peak track (or via gondola or paraglider if you so choose).

Twelve months ago, I woke up on a Monday and decided to go for a walk along the Moonlight. I wasn’t planning anything grand, other than to wander up the trail for a couple of hours until it felt right to turn tail and go home. I cycled the three kilometres from my front door to the trailhead and set out. The summer sun lashed my bare arms like a cat-o’-nine-tails while the barbs of thistle and prickle pecked at my shins. The ups and downs clawed at my lungs and my sparse water was gone well before I needed it to be. It was glorious.

As I floated the last few steps back home, between my cellular need for a cider and shade, my brain was already hatching a plan. One of those dangerous “what ifs”. Maybe it started because the alliteration of “Moonlight Monday” quenched my word nerd thirst. Or maybe I just needed a kick.

Before I had time to really think about it, I grabbed my phone, looked deeply into the black mirror and started an Instagram video. I babbled a bit then blurted out that I was starting a project called Moonlight Monday: I was going to walk the Moonlight Track every Monday, for a year. I flicked the phone onto the table with cavalier ambition and wondered if I’d bitten off something too hard to chew. Like a mariner burning his ships once the new land was found, the social (media) pressure of publicly stating a plan meant that I had to find the sand to do it.

Autumn. The honeymoon is over. There is a sort of purgatory to being a quarter finished a goal. It’s too early to feel like the destination is just over the rise, yet too late to throw in the towel and hope nobody will notice. There is a concept called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who know a little about something incorrectly assume they know everything. This is me. I am a paltry twelve Moonlight laps in and I think I know the track, and myself, inside out. The truth is I am just at the end of the beginning. 

Winter. Halfway there. The sun is deep under the horizon when I get on my bike. The short ride always feels like an honourable way to kick off my weekly mission. This day, though, the grass by my front door crackles with frost and my breath hovers near my face as my hands turn to wood. The windchill cuts through me like a scythe as I glide down the street. Every ounce of common sense says, “turn around, there is no fun to be had today.”

Things don’t get much better on the track. Slipping on the mix of frozen mud and translucent ice, I stop, hands on hips, breathing hard as the wind scours the land and those who walk upon it. It’s the dark night of the soul, the belly of the beast, the world asking me “why” when it knows full well there isn’t a good answer. Cold to the core, I am walking a track an arbitrary distance every Monday because the track also started with M. Plus, I’ve put it on social media and I don’t want to lose face by giving it up, getting a coffee and a muffin, and moving on.

Then the sun comes out. It shoots across the valley like a god unfurling a lightsaber and as I crest the next corner the contours of the land lead the light to me. I am instantly warmer – not my extremities, they take the rest of the walk to warm up – but I feel a warmth in my soul. For the first time in weeks, Moonlight Monday not only makes sense, but it has solidified its purpose. It’s important to keep doing not because it’s fun or beautiful or on Instagram, it is because it is hard. The cold days, the rain, the muck and the mud change from “why” to “the why”.

Spring. Longer days now, the sun is a welcome partner. I have grown to know every corner of this world. Puddles recede, mud turns to dust and the wind whips the past aloft. Spring growth from long dormant plants push towards the centre of the path. They have become an outdoor whanau. Like an uncle seeing a nephew a holiday apart, the scratch of foliage on my bare arms makes me exclaim, audibly, “my, how you’ve grown.” On windy nights I wonder if they are okay. Among the ruins of an old miner’s hut the grass grows thicker, constantly working to return the land to what it once was.

The push and pull of nature and history, the tick tock of time like a hammer on stone. I ask myself how long till it’s all gone and who will remember?

Summer. I can see the finish line now. I worry about getting injured and what that would mean. Will it diminish the graft if the final goal remains unfinished? I don’t have to decide; my bad knee holds up and the weeks tick down. I barely clock it when the day arrives and a year has passed. A friend asks how it went and the answer doesn’t come easy.

A year is a long time and as much ground as I covered walking the same two-and-a-half-hour hike fifty-two times, the distance travelled inside was further. Christmas and the New Year came and January 1st was a Monday. I sat in bed a little hazy. There was a moment of mental flexion.

Moonlight Monday had given me so much more than I expected. It was a handrail when the times were tough, a time to reflect and to process, an active meditation to sort through the rough stuff. It was also bloody stunning and good exercise to kick off the week. It was both way harder and much easier than I expected. The heat was tougher than the cold and it rained a lot less than I thought it would  ̶  three times in twelve months. The most people I saw on the track in one day was six and I never saw the same person twice. All up, I walked the equivalent distance from Queenstown to Kaikōura and spent 130 hours on the Moonlight.

Trace a finger around your absurdity, do something for the sake of doing and do it every damn week. Commit to something and see who comes out of it at the end. Doesn’t matter what it is; move, make, find stillness or seek the light that flickers inside. Give it fuel, let it grow and never let it go out.  

Words and photos: Scott Kennedy