To some, she is known as the Forrest Gump of Wainuiomata. To others simply The Lady Who Walks the Hill.
All Tania Rivers knows is that this hill has been her salvation over the past year.
In the beginning, the 36-year-old mother of two planned to walk the route – 7km over the Lower Hutt hill and back – every day for a year, a tough enough goal for anyone to knock off. But by year’s end she had clocked up 528 missions up the incline.
“I was keen to bank a few walks during the summer in case there were days in winter I couldn’t do it, but I never stopped and suddenly I was passing the 500 mark.
“No matter how bad the conditions were, no matter how difficult the walk was, it was always easy compared to what I had been through,” she says.
It had been a rough year for Rivers, who had been dealing with a volatile domestic situation that saw her seek shelter with her young children at a Women’s Refuge for more than a month. A car accident and homelessness only added to her challenges, but the hill was always there: A constant and non-judgmental companion.
The walks started as a physical goal, she says. “Every year I set myself goals – physical, spiritual, mental, financial and parenting. Walking the hill has knocked off all these goals, though I didn’t realise that till I got towards the end of my journey.”
To date, Rivers has walked more than 3000km – that’s almost twice the length of New Zealand – walking over the Wainui hill 568 times.
She is a familiar figure to commuters and other walkers. Before she even starts her ascent there are waves and toots from motorists she sees daily.
“People would tell me I was mad. How could I go out there in the rain, the wind, the heat? A lot of people will wait for it to stop raining before they go outside but to me it is about feeling all those sensations.
“It’s the most amazing feeling to get soaking wet in a rainstorm, to get really hot in the sunshine. I’m feeling the elements of life and I’ve never taken notice of that before. I’d been too busy rushing around, like everyone else. Taking a step back, experiencing the elements, it’s taken me back to reality.”
Every day a new experience
Every walk is unique. Some days she would be in her own head, thinking, planning her future. Other days she would get to the top, where she would religiously take her daily picture of the view from the hill, and have a good cry.
“Most of the time I would walk up there and consider how beautiful the world is. It sounds cheesy but I don’t think we appreciate what is right in front of us. People drive along, blinkers on, tunnel vision. But there’s so much more to see.”
The council workers building the new footpath over the hill are her daily companions. They shake her hand when she goes past them. On the hot days they offer her a cool cup of water.
They were there when she had a close call with a landslide after a particularly bad storm.
“I was walking along when I suddenly heard this rumble and I looked behind me to find a huge amount of dirt and rubble falling down the hill, covering half the road. It missed me by about a centimetre.
“It didn’t put me off. I had a bit of a laugh about how close that was and carried on.”
One day she came across a young boy who was walking over the hill on the wrong side, determined to get to his mother’s workplace.
“His parents didn’t know where he was so I ended up walking him home. I told him the right side of the road to walk next time, though there shouldn’t be a next time, I warned him.
“He said he had driven past me many times and wondered who I was. I get that a lot.
“I met a woman in the supermarket who said her daughter had asked her ‘Mummy, why does that woman walk in the rain?’ and she told her, ‘… because that lady is not scared of the rain’.”
One of the most memorable interactions was with 10 ducklings which she discovered were following her down the hill after their mother had been run over.
“They were falling over trying to keep up with me so I found a box, put them in it and walked back to the Waiwhetu stream, where I released them. They quickly found another mother duck but I kept checking on them over the next few days. That was a day I almost didn’t go out on the hill but something nudged me out there.”
Occasionally, Rivers, a personal trainer, has company on her walk though mostly she does it alone. But there are others up that hill. She points out a woman ahead of us who gets dropped off at the top and walks down with her dog.
“She always greets me and as we part she says ‘bless you’.”☸
Ten years ago Rivers weighed 153 kilos.
After splitting with her husband she joined a gym determined to shift some weight, get her head in order, start over. But while the weight dropped off – all 75kg of it – the excess skin remained.
Her personal trainer suggested she work weights to fill that skin with muscle. Not one to do things by halves, Rivers got into powerlifting.
But the strain of the weights eventually took its toll, crushing her spine and leaving her debilitated and needing surgery.
She managed to postpone the operation so that she could sit the final exam for her diploma in exercise science, which she passed despite, or in spite of, the pain in her back.
Resilience runs deep in Rivers. It’s been there ever since she can remember, though where it comes from she doesn’t know.
Her next goal is to raise $50,000 for an operation to shed the excess skin she has following her enormous weight loss over the past decade.
And the hill she is so familiar with will be part of that when she begins her 24-hour walk-a-thon on February 15.
Her plan is to walk over the hill as many times as it takes over 24 hours, stopping only when someone else can do a stint while she has a short break.
The operation to remove the skin might sound like vanity, she says, but it’s so much more than that.
“I’ve done the hard work to shed the weight but now I am left carrying this floppy balloon and I want it gone. If I have to carry it around for the rest of my life, well, I’ll just accept that but I’d like to see what I look like underneath all of that. I want to see what it feels like to be rid of it. I have a new me and I want my body to reflect that.”
The 24-hour walk will mark the end of her daily ascents.
But the hill has given her much more than she bargained for. “There were days I didn’t think I had the energy but I had built this ritual into my life – it was like brushing my teeth, something you do every day.
“There has not been one day when I have regretted getting to the top.
“There were some days I felt like I was going to be blown off that hill, or washed down it.
“But I kept reminding myself that if this is the worst the hill can throw at me, it’s really nothing compared to other struggles I’ve faced.
“The hill has made me realise how strong I am. How awesome I am. The hill taught me who I am.”
It’s 8am and Rivers hits the bottom of the hill. That’s number 555 she’s just knocked off.
She passes the woman walking with her dog who embraces her, wishes her a Happy New Year. “Bless you”, she says.
3000 – kilometres walked in 13 months
568 – times she has walked the hill
7 km – each daily walk
75 – kilos she has shed along the way
24 – hour walk-a-thon to raise money for an operation to remove excess skin following weightloss