A CONVERSATION WITH BRANDO YELAVICH
A journey of more than 8,000 kilometres. On foot. In just 600 days. Staggering stats – right? But add to that the number 19, and you get the age of the boy who decided to walk around the coastline of New Zealand!
Just a couple of years back, Brando Yelavich (aka ‘Wildboy’) was hanging with the wrong crowd and fast going off the rails. But, in moment of inspiration, he declared to those who would listen that he was heading off on a mission: to be the first person in the world to circumnavigate the country.
It was an outrageous idea – with plenty of naysayers – but he did it, regardless. Sleeping under the stars, living off the land and surviving several near-death experiences, Wildboy succeeded in his mission … and, in the process, transformed his life.
With his epic story now published, he’s off on a new mission to inspire others. So we grabbed the chance to catch up and ask him a few questions …
GRAPEVINE: What was life like before Wildboy?
BRANDO: Oh, even then I was definitely a wild boy – just a completely different kind! I didn’t have any direction in my life. I mean, my parents were pushing me in the right direction – but I didn’t want to do what they were telling me to do. I was pretty much a ‘stoner’. It’s what I did, it’s who I was. I got high every single day with my mates. I woke up, I got high. At lunchtime, I got high. When I went to bed, I got high. In fact, I couldn’t sleep without getting high! It was pretty bad.
And then I started losing jobs. And the only reason I was working was to pay for my weed. So it was kinda like this vicious cycle.
GV: I get the impression that your relationship with your parents back then was pretty fiery at times?
BRANDO: Yeah, definitely! I was like a horror-child! There were times when I’d just completely lose the plot. I never hit them or got physically violent, but I said terrible things that I’m not at all proud of. I just had no control – and I didn’t know why.
My friends never saw that side of me. And people I’d stay with would often say things to my parents, like, “Oh, your son is such an angel! He’s so helpful …” And Mum and Dad would be like, “What?!”
GV: You’re quite open about your struggle with dyslexia and ADHD. How did these conditions affect you?
BRANDO: Well, I don’t have really bad dyslexia – I can write (you can even read my writing!) and I can read quite well. But, ADHD on top of dyslexia made it very hard for me to learn. When I was young, being labelled ADHD was horrible – you were put at the back of the class, and no one was allowed to talk to you! I felt like I was pushed to the side and forgotten about – too energetic, too distracted and too much like hard work!
Funnily enough, I was recently reading my school reports, and they all said the same thing: ‘Great potential, but gets distracted easily …’
GV: So where did the inspiration for this crazy adventure come from?
BRANDO: I was living in Cromwell, and a friend gave me a movie to watch, called ‘Into the Wild’ – which is where the idea first came from. We had big plans to do it together, but things didn’t work out, so the idea was shelved.
It wasn’t until I was at a Military Prep School (because I wanted to join the army) that the idea surfaced again. I can’t remember what clicked in my brain, but I decided this time to run around New Zealand! I was fit enough. (I’d surpassed the army’s expectations for fitness – just not their academic expectations!) So I started telling myself I was going to do it.
I got fed-up being told I wasn’t good enough for the army, so I got a part time job as a sign-boy – holding up a sign on the side of the road. And I remember the defining moment very clearly – I was standing there on the side of the road, it was raining, the sign was slapping me in the face, and I thought, “What the hell am I doing?” It was near the end of the day, so I walked back over to the boss and said “I have to go home … I can’t do this anymore.”
I went home – and started training straight away!
GV: So you were going to run around New Zealand?
BRANDO: Well, it quickly become apparent that running around the coast would require a huge support crew – and it slowly dawned on me that I had to actually walk. I had to carry everything with me. I had to do it myself, and no one was going to help me.
At this stage Mum and Dad didn’t want any part of it. They said if I wanted to do this, I was on my own – and, for me, that was alright. This was my chance, my opportunity, to show the world, show my family, and show myself, that I could achieve something significant.
GV: Did anyone take you seriously?
BRANDO: Well, I spent the next month calling around asking for sponsorship. But people viewed me as a ‘gunna’ – gunna do this, gunna do that, and not a ‘do-er’. No one believed it was possible to walk around the coastline of New Zealand.
When I told my friends what I was going to do, they were like “Whatever!” And when I went to say goodbye, just a few days before I left, they still didn’t think I would do it – there were a few comments like, “I’ll see you soon!”
However, in my naïve, 19-year-old head it was simple: you just get up every day and you walk a bit! And that’s exactly what happened! I got up every single day and I walked a little bit.
Mum and Dad then took me up to the top of the country, and I left from there …
GV: The first step on your great adventure …
BRANDO: Yep – my journey into manhood!
GV: Okay … but, with people not taking you seriously, what kept you focussed on your goal?
BRANDO: Pride! I made a Facebook page and invited all my friends to it. Suddenly it was like, “Oh no, everyone knows what I’m going to do – I can’t pull out now!” And I did that on purpose, because I didn’t want to pull out! I knew I’d have big regrets if I didn’t go through with it.
I also saw it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Previously, I’d had no life-goals, no direction. And I knew if I continued down the same path, I wasn’t going to amount to anything!
GV: What were the emotions like on the day you departed?
BRANDO: I remember down on the point at Cape Reinga, turning to walk up this massive hill with my pack on, and thinking, “Man, I am so not-fit-enough for this!” And it dawned on me: “This is my last chance to pull out …” But my dad and uncles were calling, “Good luck! Goodbye!” So I couldn’t just pull out.
I remember taking that first step, turning around and waving, then continuing walking. I didn’t look back until I was at the end of the beach, and they were still standing there. It was a totally scary realisation: from this point on, I was on my own.
GV: What was in your backpack?
BRANDO: Everything! Fifty kilos of too much stuff! I had a crossbow and an air-rifle (because, in my head, rabbits etc, were going to be easy pickings!) I had solar panels, an inflatable raft from The Warehouse and a couple of days’ worth of food at that stage. I also had flippers, a life-jacket, satellite phone, tent and heaps of little things like a cell phone, chargers, compass …
And I started with no boots – just a pair of Vibram Fivefingers (sort of like a glove for your feet!)
It was way too much stuff – and way too heavy! But my pack contents got better as the trip went on.
GV: You must’ve met some interesting characters on your journey. Any that stand out?
BRANDO: Oh, everyone stands out – because they were all interesting. And they all had their own personalities. At the start I thought, “This is a solo journey. I’ll talk to people, but I won’t accept an invitation into their home, or food, or anything.” Slowly, however, it became apparent that each person I met taught me something. I decided that this was the ‘University of Life’ and I was going to learn from everything it taught me. They weren’t all good lessons … but I learnt even more from the bad lessons!
One person I learnt a lot from was this girl Tash. She had an amazing outlook on life, and taught me about relaxing and living in the ‘now’ – rather than worrying about tomorrow. Yesterday’s problems were not today’s. She opened my eyes to the power of thought – that when you put positive energy out there, it comes back. Which is a pretty awesome way to live and look at life. So, yes, she was a definite stand-out.
GV: What about the worst person you encountered?
BRANDO: I met this guy in Taharoa who didn’t like the fact that I was there at all. He was pretty threatening and went off his nut at me, screaming, “I am the king here!” I tried to explain what I was doing, but he didn’t want to hear a word. He told me to get in his car – and when I saw he had a shotgun on the seat I started to panic! Luckily, another guy came out and offered to give me a ride up the road. But yeah, he was pretty unpleasant.
I walked with a few really annoying people, as well. Some of them just got very tired and obviously weren’t fit enough. I didn’t slow down for anyone! My thing was, “This is my pace. You’ve come to walk with me, so you can keep up!” I wanted others to get something from this as well – to be pushed out of their comfort zones.
GV: You must’ve made some interesting discoveries along the more remote coastlines?
BRANDO: Yeah. There was often heaps of rubbish. And I also came across a few whales – big, washed-up, dead whales. I remember one I found between Oamaru and Timaru … I smelt it from 10kms down the beach! I didn’t know what it was – it kind of smelt like rotten eggs, but way worse. I was downwind from it and as I got closer the smell just got more and more unbearable.
I started to see this huge lump of ‘something’ appear on the stones. As I got near I realised what it was and quickly walked up the beach so I was no longer downwind. Once I was upwind, I went over and had a look. The whole thing was this gross, disgusting, gelatinous blob. There was a knife sticking out of it – someone had left it behind when they took the jawbone. It was an awesome Victorinox knife, so I clambered up to grab the knife. But, as I lent on the whale, my arm just went straight through into its inside!
This yellow, oozy, most disgusting stuff ever came out – and it was all over my clothes! I couldn’t get rid of the smell for weeks and weeks, it was so bad!
GV: Did you get the knife, though?
BRANDO: Yes, I got the knife!
GV: Good effort, mate! Most of the time, you lived off the land. How was the transition from city-kid to hunter-gatherer?
BRANDO: Thinking back, it wasn’t terribly hard – it was exciting! I had the right tools. I became really good with the air-rifle and crossbow, and could take goats with them. Prior to this, I’d never killed a goat myself – let alone skinned or butchered one! So going from eating what was in the supermarket to catching and killing my own food … that was pretty foreign!
My first meal was seagull. I tried to cook it on my gas-cooker, because that made sense: heat meat, then eat! But it didn’t quite work out like that. It was burnt on the outside and raw on the inside – it was so gross! But from there, I slowly became very good at hunting. Although there were a lot of hungry days!
GV: It’s not like you did a hunting-gathering course before you started, right?
BRANDO: No! And the gathering side of it was quite hard as well. I came across a few things I couldn’t identify, but, in desperation, I ate them anyway! Once, on the Kahurangi coast, I chopped up what I thought was onion weed – which you can eat. But there’s a similar one that smells the same, but you can’t, and I was violently sick.
Another time, I ate these little translucent red berries. They were sweet, but I spat out the seeds (which can often be toxic). I ate heaps, and started getting dehydrated. I thought it was because it was a hot day and I had no water … but, when I walked down to a lush-looking green patch to find some water, there was none. And then I turned around and saw a zebra! That’s when I knew something was really wrong with what I’d been eating!
I started freaking out. My tummy was feeling sore, and I got a weird feeling that my muscles weren’t working. I tried climbing up a bank to get to the track, and couldn’t do it. I stumbled around and could hear water everywhere – except there was none. It was all in my head!
I finally found a creek and filled my bottle up. The water had mosquito larvae and gross white things floating in it, but I didn’t care – I just sculled it back! Then I noticed a dead, rotting cow, lying upstream, with the water running straight through its guts! That was it – I started vomiting!
Luckily, most of the berries must have come out, because I made it up the hill after that. By the time I got to the beach, I was feeling fine.
GV: Did your diet ever get that bad again?
BRANDO: Only once – and that was at a person’s house! Most of the time, people would cook amazing meals, but on this occasion I was invited into a tiny shack with a lady and her husband. She cooked a whole roast dinner – including peas and corn – in a microwave. It was rubbery and gross. He was sitting there with a blank look on his face, eating it like that’s all he’s eaten his whole life. I remember feeling so sorry for him … but that was probably the worst meal I had.
I ate sea-snails at one place – they weren’t too bad. And I once ate some beef that had maggots on it – but I didn’t care. It actually tasted really good – like a really aged steak!
GV: And the best?
BRANDO: Seagull. Apart from that first awful attempt, I think seagull was the most delicious thing I’ve ever had! I’d catch them with a bit of fishing line, skin them rather than pluck them, then cut off all the breast meat, and bone-out the rest, and cook it up in a pan with scroggin’. I had pinenuts and cranberries with rice … it was so yum! Like a seagull rice risotto!
Another favourite was wild sheep. After eating goat for so long (which has no fat on it), a big bit of mutton tasted so good!
GV: Sounds like you had a couple of close-calls. You also had a few near-death experiences. What was your worst?
BRANDO: Crossing the Takaka River in Golden Bay. It’s not a big river but I just completely misjudged it. The river was way deeper than I expected, and, being winter, it was icy cold. By the time I got out to the middle, the water was around chest deep, and, my feet began to sink in the mud. The river was flowing out underneath the surface, but the saltwater tide was coming in fast on top. With all that current, I was trying to swim – but I couldn’t. Plus, I was weighed down by my winter clothes and heavy boots! I was just thrashing around trying to stay above water. I’d push off the soft mud on the bottom, but I’d barely reach the surface to get some air before I’d sink back down to the bottom.
I started panicking, but realised I had to remain calm if I was going to survive. Luckily, I managed to get my boots and jacket off – which helped – but I’d swallowed so much water and it was so freezing cold!
I went down for one final push off the bottom – I was so worn out and drained – and my feet landed on a submerged log! I managed to stand on it and start breathing air again before making my way at last to the other side, where I dragged myself up the bank.
I remember shivering uncontrollably. Then I noticed a figure of a man running towards me. He’d been watching me from up at his house, and came down with a big woolly jumper and a hot cup of water. His name was Paul – and I went and stayed with him, which was so cool.
GV: Did you ever seriously consider giving up?
BRANDO: Many times! And each time that I’d decide to give up, I’d call my mum or dad and say, “I’m coming home!” But I had no money … or at least not enough for a bus-fare! And Mum would say, “Well, you can come home whenever you want, but you have to walk.” She’d say that every time!
Secretly, I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to give up. But for a bit of drama and added effect …
So yes, there were definitely one or two moments when I felt like, “What am I doing?” Especially when I was cold and wet!
GV: Have you got one moment more than others that’s your most memorable?
BRANDO: When I reached the bottom of New Zealand. When I reached Slope Point (which is the lowest point in the South Island). It was the windiest of all the days – my pack was even blown away! But I had this overwhelming feeling that I’d made it halfway!
I was so amped … until I realised I now had to walk up the other side! But it was still an awesome moment.
I’ve had a few really cool moments with animals, as well. Like wild horses that were right outside my tent in the far north … a tiny seal pup that came up and wanted a scratch … a massive sea-lion that started growling at me, and then came right up, sniffed my camera and then dumped its head right down in front of me. It was like “I’m wild and big, and you’re no threat to me!”
GV: The day you finished, and maybe the days leading up to the finish, you must’ve had some crazy emotions?
BRANDO: Definitely. I had two tearing thoughts in particular. One was an excited, “OMG, I’m almost done! This is nearly over!” And the other one was a depressing, “OMG, this is nearly over …”
The whole time I was out there walking, I expected those last few days to be really special – and they were special! I went swimming in the massive surf at Spirits Bay with dolphins all around me. I camped with a good friend Keith, and we just talked about my adventure. But I had this thought at the back of my head: “Why don’t I just turn around and walk back?” I really wanted to keep going, because I didn’t want it to be over. I knew that when I walked around the last corner of my journey, that was it. It was going to be the first step into my new life, and I could never go back …
I don’t think I really prepared myself properly for what was going to happen. And that last day was a depressing day in lots of ways.
GV: That must’ve been tough, a really strange mixture of emotions …
BRANDO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was amazing to see how many people had come to congratulate me on my finishing. But afterwards, when I got in the van for the long drive back to Auckland, I was like. “Oh man … welcome back to normality. No more fun; no more adventure; time to sort out your life and get a job.” But, I didn’t want that at all! I loved my life!
I’d gone from this depressed 19-year-old to the happiest 20-year-old in the world!
So I had these tearing emotions running through my whole body – thoughts like: “What’s next?” “Where to from here?” But also this amazing other thought: “I know what’s around every single corner! I know what’s on every single beach!”
GV: So how was the transition back into civilisation? And, for that matter, back to your parents?
BRANDO: When I first got home we went through quite a tough time. I suppose that’s because I’d just enjoyed this insane journey where there were new and exciting adventures every day! But then having to come back into normal society … that transition was tough. And, to be honest, eight months later I’m still struggling with it! But the relationship now between me and my family is amazing. It’s never been better, and we get along really well. I appreciate them for being my parents – and, actually, they’re pretty cool!
GV: You’ve got a pretty inspirational story, and I know you’ve been speaking at schools and other groups since you’ve been back … What’s the message you’re wanting to leave people with?
BRANDO: I simply want to encourage people to get out into this world and explore it – and, at the same time, to look after it and treat it with respect.
I want to emphasise the fact that we need to live our dreams – because we only live once!
I try to inspire kids with the message: “Never let go of that dream you have!”
GV: And your word for adults?
BRANDO: “You’re never too old to live your dream …”
BRANDO’S BOOK ‘WILDBOY’ IS AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS NATIONWIDE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT HIS WEBSITE WWW.WILDBOY.CO.NZ