I slumped down on the steep green hill above Bude and looked down at the beach and estuary below. It was swarming with holiday makers and multi coloured windbreakers. Behind me were 300 miles of hiking, camping and waste-free living along the South West Coast Path, all the way from Plymouth. The physical strain and breathtaking vistas were done. My aching feet had achieved a huge physical and mental feat. Finally, I could sleep in a bed and wash my clothes. And do you know what was running through my head? "I hate hills."
Despite completing a zero-waste thru-hike alone during a global pandemic; the hardest part of all was the elevation. After every mammoth incline on the trail, came a decline steep enough to be a drop slide in a 90's soft play area. From scrambling up dusty tracks, straining my legs up huge uneven steps, to slipping and sliding down, crushing my toenails into the tops of my boots. I had hill trauma for 2 weeks after walking around the coast of Cornwall. Going thirsty, hungry and challenging my limits, was fine. But those hills...
Now that I have (mostly) recovered, I can look back and marvel at the beauty I experienced during my 21 day hike.
Most importantly I proved that Cornwall can be enjoyed without creating any waste. Even during a pandemic whilst camping and adventuring.
It wasn't always easy, particularly when passing through busy towns. Often cafés would refuse to refill my water bottle because of Covid. One café wouldn't even serve me an ice cream in a cone because of Covid. There was nothing unwrapped in that shop, so I stumbled out and snacked on more dried mango and nuts. I carried the majority of my food with me, but as the weeks passed and the miles added up, Hiker Hunger set in and I could eat a whole dehydrated meal, various snacks and fruit, followed by a pasty. The craving for carbs was real, By the end of week 3, I had began to forgive myself for eating chips in cafes on plates. Or cakes and pastries in paper bags. Not quite zero-waste, but definitely plastic free and I recycled the paper. It was either this, or not make it up the hills.
The most enjoyable part of the path for me was before the Roseland Peninsula during week 1. Its an area I hadn't explored before, and it is challenging to reach, so it was very quiet. Butterflies, bees and birds were in abundance. Wild camping was easy because there is nothing around for miles. Parts of the path are so untouched that I couldn't see the floor through the long grass, nettles and wild flowers. Due to it being on the South coast, the sea was calm and the wind was gentle. The weather was fair and my mind was quiet.
The toughest part is hard to choose. Day 3 between Polperro and Fowey was chronic. I later discovered that this section is nicknamed 'The Rollercoaster', because it is so up and down. This day really broke me in and set the bar for the elevation. I thought if I could get through this day, I could get through anything, because I will get stronger and fitter as I walk - how naïve. This trip has taught me to consider planning and reading ahead. My younger habits of walking into the oblivion isn't such a good idea any more... There were tougher parts around St Agnes and Land's End, but nothing compared to the last few days walking into Bude. By the time I got there I had full blown exhaustion.
On a lighter note, I did learn quite a bit about birds. I managed to see Cornish Choughs and a Parecon Falcon. I learned the difference between a Swallow, Swift, Sand Martin & House Martin. I started to recognise the different Guls and I marveled at the butterflies and bees. Its great to know that when we are busy milling about, fretting about our man-made lives, those little workers are out there fulfilling their life purpose. It is magical. Or perhaps I have spent too much time alone on the trail?
I also lucked out with the weather. Anyone who has seen me since my return will know I am 20 shades darker. My hiker tan lines are very impressive and somewhat entertaining. I can't wear sandals because my sock tan is so bad. When it did rain, it really affected my mood. Squelching along is sopping wet boots and socks is not enjoyable. It became apparent after the first few hours of rain that I was was unprepared. My friend found me in the corner of a carpark without any shoes on and the damp reaching my bones. After a night sleeping in the car, I decided I needed to go home and invest in better waterproof gear. It was a tough call, but it was the right thing to do. About a week later in Newquay, I got caught on top of a cliff in the howling wind and torrential rain. My gear just about held up and I made it to a campsite where I could semi-dry my boots for the next day.
I am unsure if I am selling the experience. So I will try harder. One morning I woke around sunrise and packed up my tent, sharpish. By this time I was an expert at deflating my sleeping mat, stuffing my sleeping bag away and stacking my life in my pack so it all fit nicely. Heaviest gear at the bottom so I wasn't top heavy. By 6am I was on the path walking. No one was around, the sun was breaking through the wispy clouds and there were Sand Martins dancing all around me. They were sweeping up the cliff edges and eating the flying ants waking up for a busy day ahead. The sun sparkled on the calm ocean and the fishermen in the lone boat below were blaring music. Just a faint entertaining noise for me high up on the cliff above. The satisfaction of this experience filled me with joy. I was living my life to the fullest and putting myself in the way of beauty.
There were many moments like this. The total joy of finding a campsite with space at the end of a long day. The feeling of a shower after 4 days of smelling. The total joy of walking into a town and eating an ice cream. The surprise of bumping into someone I know and them wishing me well. The terrified feeling of sleeping alone in a tent in the wild for the first time. But falling in love with the sound of the trees and the ocean over a noisy campsite. Reaching Kynance Cove and not quite believing I have walked all the way here from my house, let alone Plymouth. Watching the ocean and the rain make a rainbow I could touch. Beach cleaning and seeing others do the same. A cup of warm coffee, despite the grounds at the bottom. Thru hiking helps me value things. The small, but important things.
The lessons I learned from the hike are plentiful:
Perhaps the most amazing lesson, is the importance of my support system. The team at the shop held down the fort. My Mum took on so many of my responsibilities. My friend coming to save me. Friends that cooked me lunch. Friends that made me coffee. Friends that hate walking that hiked with me. My support system is fantastic.
Second, is the importance of nature. It calms my mind and soul and reminds me what is really important in life. It humbles me and realigns my priorities. We have evolved from nature, so it is our responsibility to nurture ourselves, but also planet Earth. We are not detached from the natural world, we are a part of it. Every action we have - good or bad - impacts the Earth.
I might have 'given up' waste, but really I see it as I gained so much empowerment and fulfillment. Perhaps we are using the wrong language. We are not 'giving up waste', we are choosing to live through love.
The British hiking culture needs a shake up! Having hiked in Spain and various other places, I can confirm that it is lonely on the trails in the UK. There is such a strong trail community in other places, but here I did get lonely.
Living a minimal impact lifestyle is very rewarding. It is not as challenging as you might think. If you accept that change is inevitable and you do not try to shy away from it, you can easily change your habits. I could complain about missing Cadbury's chocolate bars or sliced bread, but instead I thrive in all the new I've learned. My journey to zero-waste has taught me how to cook all my food from scratch; from bread, to cakes and raw beans. My mind, body and health have all benefitted. I have even learned to dehydrate my own meals and become a zero waste camper.
Raising money for a cause you believe in, really is the best way to hold yourself accountable and feel fulfilled. I read a few years ago that the most rewarding thing to do in life is volunteer. And I agree. Surfers Against Sewage are a Cornish charity fighting to protect our coastlines and even though I own a zero-waste shop and live as zero-waste as I can, it is still important to raise awareness and support other organisations passionate about the same cause.
Thank you for reading, and thank you to each and every one of you that has donated. I smashed through my initial target of £600 and I hope I have inspired some of you to find your own zero waste adventure...