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Kerry Prendergast's grief: 'Getting my life back on track'

Why the former Wellington mayor had to take drastic steps.

Former Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast is not one for sitting still. She’s walked in the footsteps of pilgrims and Romans, hiked New Zealand’s great walks, trekked to Machu Picchu and climbed Mt Kilimanjaro.
In 2014, she knocked off Spain’s El Camino de Santiago and this year, Hadrian’s Wall as well as the English Coast to Coast. On a good week, back at home in Wellington, she’ll clock up around 50km.
But if that all sounds exhausting, it’s only the half of it.
Kerry is also chair of the Environmental Protection Authority, the NZ Film Commission and Tourism NZ, plus she’s on the boards of WorkSafe, Compass Health and Wellington Phoenix football Club, as well as being patron of the SPCA and Skylight Trust.
The walks are fitted in between work commitments, literally. Before both the Camino and the UK treks, Kerry had been chairing board meetings just hours prior to flying out of New Zealand, while non-negotiable, pre-booked diary appointments dictated return dates.
It’s more than apt that friends describe the 63-year-old, who underwent a partial right knee replacement last year, as driven.
“Yes, they think I’m crazy,” she says, sitting in a sun-filled room at the Oriental Bay apartment she shares with husband and walking companion Rex Nichols (74).
The couple have always kept fit – even as mayor from 2001-2010, Kerry would try to be in the gym at six each morning, while property developer Rex’s preferred method of getting around the capital city has always been on foot. But there’s a far deeper and more personal motivation behind the serious walks.
Kerry’s first son Paul died at birth in 1979. Tragedy struck again in 2011 when her other son Andrew was fatally injured in a horse-riding accident and a decision was made to turn off life-support. He was just 30.
A year later, still heartbroken, Kerry climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, hoping it might bring her, if not closer to Andrew, then some solace at least.
“I was looking, looking for him,” she says, the tears welling up. “And then when I came back, I thought maybe if I walked the Camino, I’d find him...
“I’m not Catholic, I’m not religious, but still there was this little hope I might walk into a chapel and something would happen that would mean there really was a way
to communicate.”
Walking the English Coast to Coast, which took her 13 days.
Something did happen, but not in the way she had expected. For the first time, she talked to Rex about Andrew, the accident, his death, her devastation.
“I hadn’t really talked before then. Rex made me talk – he forced me to think about it. I didn’t find him, but I think by the end, I was more at peace with myself about Andrew.”
She also left a little a little bit of herself on the Camino, for her son, under the famous Iron Cross at the highest point of the trail – in the form of a small stone. One half of a piece of pounamu Rex found on the Routeburn Track, carried home and cut into two, its twin remains in Oriental Bay, in memory of Andrew.
Leaving a piece of pounamu in Spain in tribute to her son.
Each trip – Rex reckons he’s loath to call them “holidays” – is organised down to the finest detail, with Kerry ensuring they keep as much as possible to a pre-planned daily distance regime.
She ticks off the kilometres and the duration – El Camino 800km, 31 days; the Coast to Coast, 309km in 13 days; Hadrian’s 135km, six days, an average of between 25-28km each day.
There have been, she says, the best of times and then some really awful ones. She broke her elbow after tripping on a piece of steel at the start of Hadrian’s Wall. She spent a week unable to do even easiest of tasks – “doing up my bra, putting my pack on” – before seeking medical advice when she and Rex arrived in Edinburgh.
Her specially prepared pack – weighing exactly 7kg and containing the only gear she had for walking in Spain – was waylaid, meaning she had only the clothes and shoes she’d worn on the plane for the first four days.
Her beloved son Andrew, who died in 2011.
Rex, meanwhile, missed the first four days because he was trying to find her pack.
“He spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find out what had happened to it. He eventually went to the airport in Pamploma and refused to leave until the airline transferred it from Toulouse, where we had flown into.”
Then there were the blistered feet, the torrential rain – several days at the end of both the Spanish and English walks – and the shared bunk rooms, albeit briefly.
“When we started the Camino, we thought we’d walk as pilgrims and stay in the places they stayed in, but it didn’t take us long to work out that wasn’t really for us,”
explains Kerry.
“I’m an appalling insomniac, so sleeping in rooms with other people we didn’t know was never going to work. We ended up staying in little pensions [simple rooms in local family’s homes].”
On the other hand, their 7am starts meant they had plenty of time to explore the towns or villages they spent the night in.
“We’d have everything laid out the night before, we’d get up early and walk for about two hours, and then stop for breakfast. We’d do another couple of hours, maybe stop for lunch and when we arrived, we’d maybe have a local beer (for rehydration!) do our washing and head out to have a look around.”
Then it was dinner, a wine or two – on Rex’s part – and bed. They came across day trippers at Roman ruins – “there were far fewer people doing the whole walk in England” – were treated to a spine-tingling rendition of the hymn Shall We Gather at the River in a tiny 12th-century chapel they came across one night, and befriended a lovely cross-dresser, whose outfit included heels, a sunhat and a Tigger toy attached to her front.
“We met her one morning going the wrong way. She had realised she couldn’t get coffee for about 17km so was going back to the nearest place in the other direction,” Kerry laughs.
She says the Camino has “probably been the most special walk”, so far.
“I think it’s because I achieved so much, not just physically but emotionally as well. Plus, every day you’re confronted with the fact people have been doing that walk for thousands of years. Walking across the UK, there’s the Roman history and the Coast to Coast was very much about walking on top of moors. Neither of us had experienced anything like that before.”
As for the next trip, Kerry’s got her eye on Japan – “there’s an amazing 540km walk from Tokyo to Kyoto”, but Rex might need some convincing. He’s decided he prefers searching out good wine and food, nosing around museums or reading to always being on the move.
“Kerry enjoys the walking, I enjoy having walked,” he tells. “It’s great to have done it, your body feels great, but I get up in the morning and I’m not so keen, whereas Kerry gets up all enthusiastic and she’s like that all day.”
“He’s right,” smiles the self-admitted single-minded former mayor. “It’s not just an amble for me – I don’t do slow walking. It’s about achieving something... and to do those big walks, that’s incredibly satisfying.”
Words: Julie Jacobson

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