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Published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook Thursday, April 12

Posted Nov 21 2008 4:50pm

Seasonal worker completes fundraising New Zealand trek
by Lynn Martel

Not long after Paul Zizka got dropped off by jet boat on Jan. 24, at the southwestern-most tip of New Zealand’s South Island he was asking himself,
“Why did I come here?”

With no trail, Zizka plunged into the thick bush of Fjordland, a landscape of steep rock faces, deep valleys and forest floor smothered in a tangle of rotting branches and tree trunks.

“Once I got dropped off, there was nowhere to go, I just had to start walking, and remind myself I’d come here for a good reason,” Zizka said.

That reason was not just to become the first person to hike between the two farthest points of New Zealand’s South Island - 1488 kilometres from Gates Harbour, the island’s most southwest point, to Cape Jackson at its northeast tip.

Christening his project arokä, the Maori word for awareness, Zizka, 27, hoped by doing something that hadn’t been done before, he’d capture and then shift people’s attention to his purpose – raising awareness and funds toward the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.

Last summer at Bow Lake, Zizka teamed up with co-workers and university students to found the Mountain Movement, a campaign aimed at raising awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS related issues in Africa. By summer’s end, the campaign had raised nearly $14,000 through a variety of initiatives, including AIDS Climbing Weeks and Servers Against AIDS events. The money was then turned over to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which provides assistance to Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Remembering his purpose helped Zizka persevere through the toughest hours of his 44-day solo trek, which he completed on March 6.

“The first three days were harder than I thought they would be,” Zizka admitted. “Fjordland was really good exercise for sure! I got really really soaked the first couple of days. I’ve never been in bush that thick before, bushwhacking less than one kilometre an hour. I wasn’t used to rivers swelling so much after it rains, and waiting for the rivers to go down so I could cross. I was definitely asking myself, why did I come here?”

Without seeing another soul, after three days Zizka finally reached a faint track, and the following day he encountered his first fellow trekkers, after which he saw people regularly.
“It was a lot more challenging than I expected,” Zizka said. “It rained a lot, the bush was thick and the sandflies were awful. Navigating was difficult. You have that green wall around you all the time. There’s not a lot that’s on your side. You feel like the first person who’s been in that area. It’s pretty harsh terrain to travel in.”

To navigate, Zizka used a GPS, for safety he carried a personal locator beacon, and through the Fjordland section he added a New Zealand Mountain Radio. Part of a national program, trekkers and climbers rent the units, which they set up to receive daily weather forecasts at 8 p.m. for all regions, and check in with their own positions.

“You have to set up 80 metres of wire as straight as possible for it to work, so I had to get started early,” Zizka said. “When you set it up successfully and you start receiving, it’s very satisfying.”

Traveling from south to north, in reverse to what most other trekkers he met were doing, Zizka camped and spent nights in 25 to 30 huts, usually alone.

“Their hut network is really nice, really convenient,” he said.

On nights when he did have company, he handed out cards and shared information about the purpose of his trek. General reaction was very similar to that of most Canadians he said – people had heard about the issue, but weren’t aware of its magnitude.

“There’s a kind of numbness, people hear so much about it then it slips off the radar,” Zizka said. “A lot of people were surprised when I started talking about the numbers, they weren’t aware that the level was so catastrophic, in terms of the numbers of lives that have been lost in Africa.”
Once north of Fjordland, Zizka was fortunate to experience a nearly unbroken spell of highly unusual pleasant weather.

“Fjordland, I’ll never forget that for sure,” Zizka said. “But after that, I got really good weather. The locals were saying it was really unusual, the driest year in about 90 years. I crossed over Haast Pass and never saw a drop, and I got to see Mount Aspiring National Park at its best. It was a real treat, and really different to walk up the west coast, and be standing on a beach looking up a 3000 metre peaks, the ocean on my left and peaks on my right.”

The last section, Marlborough Sounds, was a joy, he said.

“Marlborough Sounds – I’d never seen that maze of inlets and peninsulas,” Zizka said. “The track just sticks to the crest of the peninsula, you can see such a long way.”

Looking northwest from there toward Africa, Zizka was pleased with his accomplishment, which included raising almost $1600 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

“I’m happy, the main purpose is to raise awareness,” Zizka said. “If we’re going to solve those big problems, it’s going to take more than donations.
We need to have a big shift in how people think.

“It was a great experience for myself personally. But I also feel it was a team effort. Meghan (Ward) has done so much – the organization, logistics, looking after the website, getting in touch with sponsors. People have been so helpful, including all the Kiwis. I never felt like I was alone, with so many people involved, working together and pushing in the same direction to make something happen. Hopefully it had some effect on people.”

Now with this project concluded, Zizka said he and Ward are organizing summer employment somewhere Banff National Park, and planning to carry on with the Mountain Movement.

“It’s going to be our second summer, we’ll have less events, now we know which ones have more potential, we’ll focus on those,” Zizka said.

And soon after arriving in Alberta, Zizka and Ward look forward to hearing their hero in person, as Stephen Lewis speaks at Calgary’s Knox United Church on May 24.

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