How This Journalist Renewed Her Sense of Self While Helicopter-Hiking


I’m still glowing from having just returned from helicopter-hiking.

To be dropped into a remote landscape and to hike to a hidden glacial waterfall is a heaven-on-earth experience. I’d already been heli-hiking for several days in New Zealand when I had the quintessential helicopter-hiking experience. Dion Mathewson, the pilot of the R40, the 4-passenger Robinson helicopter that he operates out of Cedar Lodge where we were staying, flew my guide and me into Boundary Creek.

He swooped us down into a wild valley in the middle of nowhere, exactly like I’d imagined. With the propeller still whirling, he yelled that he’d be back about 4:30, in six hours.

The low valley floor was crisscrossed with rocky streams, and steep mountain ranges rose on all sides. We slogged through a swampy, muddy marshland toward the trickle of a waterfall we could barely see. Since there are no predators in New Zealand, no bears and no snakes, no poison oak and no poison ivy, those weren’t the dangers we had to watch out for: Instead we had to be careful with each step--to lift your boot all the way up out of the muck, and then locate a safest spot to place it back down. This was mindful-hiking at its most extreme. Out in the middle of nowhere with no one around you don’t want to twist your ankle, or worse.

The sight of the first graceful waterfall was worth wading through swampy marshland for a hour. “Just wait,“ said Ket, my guide. “The best is yet to come.”

After inhaling that first waterfall, we headed back, and started fording the chunky creekbed. Sometimes we were wading in freezing mountain water up to our knees.

For almost four hours we crossed the creekbed sixty plus times, and still we hadn’t heard or seen this next huge waterfall. I teased Ket that it didn’t exist. Ket Hazledine, 57, and a world-class mountain climber—she intended to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland in the summer— smiled, and kept charging, sure-footed, ahead.

Finally, we came around a corner and hidden by a mountain ridge--was the waterfall! Ket called it “Spectacular,” and it was. To reach such a stunning sight, untouched in nature, unnamed on a map, is a once-in-a-lifetime hiking experience. And it was available only because we got helicoptered into a totally inaccessible valley. At the top of the 70’ vertical drop there was no viewing ledge with a protective guard rail with the obligatory caution sign for tourists, because there were no tourists. And at the edge of the glacial pond there was also no green and yellow government sign like at other tracks in New Zealand because the “Spectacular” waterfall is off the charts.

We positioned ourselves on rocks, wearing raincoats for protection against the spray, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Ket produced a picnic lunch: a salad picked fresh from her garden, and, because I’d commented that I hadn’t been getting much shellfish in New Zealand, her husband, a fish exporter, contributed crayfish. Biting into the delicious sweet crayfish, in the spray of that waterfall—and I know this will sound corny-- but I felt, I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Because we’d arrived by helicopter, we didn’t have to trudge all the way back. We could lay down and relax until the helicopter came for us.

It was my best day in nature—ever, and it caused me to question why when I take out my passport I’m most likely to travel to places in nature. Whether it’s trekking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, struggling across the Nature Walk marshland in Bhutan, or hiking in the mid-Atlas Mountains in Morocco, why am I also always lacing up my hiking boots, strapping on my fanny pack, and grabbing a water bottle?

I suspect it’s because I grew up on Lake Washington in Seattle. It was around that gorgeous evergreen lake where stately evergreens grow down to its shoreline that I first started walking in nature, though I wouldn’t have put it that way when I was five years old.

Back when kids could wander out safely by themselves, I’d leave early, carefully cross Lake Washington Boulevard, meander over to the swing sets--take a pump or two--and then I’d leave the public playground and enter my very favorite private place--the walking path in the forest that led up to the middle of the peninsula. That path, always unpopulated by other people, was my hidden, secret place. I still remember the green, musty smell and the spongy softness of the footpath.

My parents and I certainly never thought little Jo Ann is getting smarter by spending her days out in nature, but recent scientific studies prove that getting outside not only does people good but makes them smarter. In an experiment at the University of Michigan, participants took memory and attention tests after strolling in a botanical garden and along city streets. The nature walk improved their results as much as 20 percent, while the sidewalk version had no effect. The research found that even looking at nature imagery had a positive effect on concentration. But we know that’s not nearly as much fun. And many of us are familiar with that well-publicized study where patients recovering from surgery were facing a brick wall versus recovering in rooms overlooking trees. The patients confronted with an expanse of brick requested narcotics at a higher rate, complained more, and spent longer in recovery than those with the leafy vista.

My next travel adventure? Hiking the glaciers in Iceland with a favorite grandson.


A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.

Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.