The doctor who walked the length of New Zealand and wrote a book about it
Stefan Fairweather is a New-Zealand-based trainee GP. In the summer of 2017, he wrangled six months of unpaid leave from his doctor job to tackle New Zealand’s most gruelling walk: the 3,000km Te Araroa Trail.
This article was first published by Medrecruit in 2019, but we thought Stefan's story was so exceptional we wanted to share it again.
Though Stefan has long had an interest in medicine, his passion for hiking was ignited at a very young age, when he hiked Mt Pirongia with the boy scouts. He joined the Junior Naturalist Club (“Not naturist, that’s very different,” he adds), and explored the Kawhia and the Coromandel.
He studied Biology at university and spent his summers hitch-hiking across the South Island to reach trails that led to glaciers and mountains.
“After university, I looked at going to med school but realised I was looking down the barrel of a lot of years studying and a lot of debt, so I did a Masters in Genetics with a view to making some money overseas,” he says.
“But I ended up guiding cycle tours, exploring mountains in Iran, Nepal, India… I taught English in Japan… anywhere with mountains and trans-alpine hiking. I just love being in the presence of them.”
He eventually returned to New Zealand to study medicine whilst still cycling, hiking and pack-rafting around the country whenever he got the chance. The 3,000km Te Araroa Trail opened in 2011, linking trails across New Zealand’s North and South islands for the first time.
“The allure of long distance got me thinking about doing the trail. I love being outside and decided to do it for the physical challenge.”
The difficulty for many people attempting the trail goes beyond the physical demand – preparing for and completing the trail can take up to six months, so Stefan had to find the time (and the money) to go.
“Once on a training programme, it’s hard to take time off, so I found time between training and approached the RMO unit… eventually, all the stars aligned,” he says.
One of Stefan’s other passions is writing; he’s written lots of poetry, which he exchanges with a good friend and has had one poem published by the Otago Daily Times. He’d always wanted to try writing a book and while he was researching the Te Araroa Trail, he spotted a gap in the market:
“There’s not much written about the tail. Mark Watson released a beautiful photography book, there’s a TA guidebook and a few self-published books, but not much else, so I decided to add my experience to the mix.”
Stefan spent 102 days walking the trail, which snakes from the very top of New Zealand’s North Island, to the very bottom of the South Island along mountain ridges, sandy beaches and through native forests. He kept a notebook and made voice recordings on his phone to record the details of his trip.
“I’d printed out a lot of maps on separate pieces of paper and when I’d walked that section, I’d write a letter on the back of the map and send it back to my wife. These notes and letter-maps helped me write the book, but a lot of it was just memory.”
On his return, Stefan returned to work and got up at 5 am each morning to work on the book. With help from friends and a Pledge Me campaign, he self-published ‘North to South: Hiking New Zealand’s 3,000 kilometres Te Araroa Trail’, a funny and insightful account of the trail, the people Stefan met and New Zealand’s natural landscape.
Though the Te Araroa Trail was Stefan’s first ultra-long-distance hike, he’s sure it won’t be his last. He’s also determined to write another book and is currently working on a collection of whimsical reviews of $1 lolly mixes (a childhood institution in New Zealand). In the meantime, he’s returned to medicine and has chosen to undertake locum doctor job work with Medrecruit until his next six-month training placement starts. Locuming enables him to keep doing more of what he loves; from hiking, to pack-rafting to guiding cycle tours across Otago, Stefan’s always looking for his next opportunity to get outdoors.
“I was surprised how much locum work was actually out there and the flexibility it allows. There’s so much out there, lots of places where they just need you to step in while someone is taking a break, or if it’s a public holiday. If you’re willing to be flexible, and it helps that I don’t have a young family, locuming is great.”
“I might have to bite the bullet and settle down eventually, but for now, I’m looking forward to hiking in Chile for three weeks next year.”