Human history can be described as a race to explore, map, and document the last unsurveyed places on our planet.
Today, almost every corner of the world has been explored and most of the significant journeys have been completed. This is especially true in New Zealand, where exploration and adventure are considered a birthright, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to walk upon previously untrodden soil. Yet in 2013, a teenager growing up on the archipelagos North Island found an adventure that hadn’t been tackled before. At just 19 years old, Brando Yelavich set out on the longest journey ever undertaken in New Zealand’s modern history – the circumnavigation of the country’s entire coastline.
I first heard of Brando in a brief newspaper article and was intrigued that he was taking on a journey of this duration and difficulty at such a young age. I was working as an outdoor instructor at the time and was often amazed at how hard it is to motivate young New Zealanders to go on adventures. Students often grow up in cities with little or no exposure to outdoor pursuits such as tramping, kayaking, or climbing. Many would need a great deal of encouragement just to walk up a hill or try a new experience like caving or mountaineering. Impressed by Brando’s enthusiasm and lust for adventure, I decided to join him for a few days of the journey.
In all, I spent a week with Brando walking between Gillespies Beach and Blacks Beach in Westland, South Island. The terrain varied from boulder strewn shoreline and sandy beaches, to scrubby headlands that could take hours to traverse just one kilometre. The tramp took us through some of the most stunning and rugged country I’d ever seen.
Brando Yelavich grew up in Auckland, a sprawling metropolis of motorways, businesses, and suburbs. As a teenager Brando was relatively ordinary – he loved computer games, sports, Facebook, and girls. However, there was one key difference between Brando and his peers: Brando suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This condition means that he struggles to learn in the same way that most other children learn and subsequently had a difficult time at school. This was compounded with an additional diagnosis of dyslexia.
“As a kid with ADHD, I always felt like I was put at the back of the class. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me,” says Brando. “I went to school because I had to, but I didn’t learn much.”
At 16, Brando joined the Limited Service Volunteers (LSV) and became a cadet. He thrived in this role and perhaps for the first time found something he was good at. Brando set his sights on joining the New Zealand Army. Unfortunately, ADHD and dyslexia would prove to be an insurmountable barrier.
“I failed at the academic side. I just couldn’t do the writing or mathematics and in my head there was just no way around it,” says Brando. His life began to slide downhill. Frustrated, Brando turned to drugs, had trouble with the police, and his relationship with his parents stretched to breaking point.
Eventually, Brando was inspired to take on a challenge in the outdoors after watching the film Into the Wild, which is based on Christopher McCandless’ journey across North America and his attempt to survive in the remote Alaskan wilderness. Brando shared his plans with his family and friends. They were dismissive of the idea. He says: “I remember telling my friends that I was going. My mates were like, ‘Whatever, you’re not actually going to do that.’ Then later, ‘You’re serious? Wow, you’re actually going through with this.’”
Initially, his parents were also sceptical and didn’t offer their support, but Brando was determined.
When I commented to Brando on the fact that it must have taken a lot of organisation to get the trip off the ground, he shrugged his shoulders, saying: “About all I did in the planning stage was buy a large scale map of New Zealand and a book on edible plants.”
Yelavich openly admits he was naïve about the magnitude of the task.
“I believed the journey would take just six months and I’d be home in time for Christmas.”
Brando felt justified in his lack of planning, saying: “I wanted a blind adventure, where I wouldn’t know what was going to happen next. I feel like things often just work out.”
He decided not to carry food or money and simply forage along the way. He soon discovered this wasn’t possible on much of the coast; especially when you’re trying to walk 20-30 kilometres a day and hauling a 20-kilogram pack. Things did work out for him though, mostly due to the generous nature of the Kiwis he met along the way who offered him accommodation and meals on numerous occasions.
When I joined Brando, he had been walking for over 250 days, often alone, and was glad to have some company. As we walked along, massive breakers rolled in from the Tasman Sea and ended their unbroken journey in a violent collision with the coast. Dense bush grew right down to the high tide mark opposite the churning sea and beyond us the Southern Alps towered over the rocky, broken coast. Each day I watched him struggle internally. He missed his mates, his family, and, perhaps most of all, his girlfriend. He told me on more than one occasion: “Sometimes I wish I’d never started this, and I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known how long it was going to take”. At this stage in the trip, Brando’s parents were strongly supportive and encouraged him to continue.
I can’t help but wonder if he would have made it through this time without their rock-solid support.
In that week, I got to know Brando well. He is very much your average teenager. He struggled with getting out of his sleeping bag in the mornings, often ate poor quality food, and could be moody at times. At one point I overheard a conversation on the phone between Brando and his dad. Brando wanted out, he wanted to come home for a while. His dad told him, you started this and you need to finish it. I couldn’t help but agree with his dad. Brando had a lot on the line and I wondered what would happen to him if he didn’t finish the journey. Failure tends to breed failure, just as success tends to breed success.
One thing that intrigued me was how Brando managed his time alone and I quizzed him on this.
“When I began, my mind was really cluttered,” he told me. “I thought a lot about all the things I hadn’t done well. After a while I ran out of things to think about and almost found myself in a bit of a trance. It was the first time in my life that things became clear.”
Brando isn’t alone in this experience. Many people who complete long, solo journeys talk about gaining a ‘clarity of vision’ which allows them to see everything more clearly. “It lets you take a step back from your life and shows you how things look from the outside,” says Brando.
While walking with Brando, I was amazed by how interested people we met along the way were in his journey. They were always taken with what he was trying to achieve – especially the older generation. Perhaps they liked seeing someone as young as Brando pushing himself or perhaps it brought back memories of their own youthful adventures.
Yelavich’s long journey also crossed paths with other explorers who have a close connection with the New Zealand coastline. Before I joined him, Brando walked unknowingly past Paul Caffyn’s house. Paul was the first person to kayak around New Zealand. He completed the nonstop journey alone in under a year. Caffyn’s journey went largely unnoticed by New Zealanders and he now resides in a small cottage near Greymouth, just a stone’s throw from one of New Zealand’s wildest sections of coastline.
One character Brando did meet was Robert Long (A.K.A. Beansprout), who is renowned for his isolated, self-sustaining lifestyle. Robert lives by the Gorge River on a remote section of coastline in South Westland. The Gorge River is two days’ hike from the nearest road. Robert shares his small hut with his wife and, until recently, their two children. It’s a wild but simple existence.
“All the way down the West Coast people would ask if I was going to catch up with Robert Long or say ‘Make sure you say “Hi” to Beansprout from me.’ He’s become a real legend on the Coast,” says Brando.
I left the young man on a remote section of coastline and headed back to civilisation. Afterward, I followed his posts on Facebook and kept an eye on his tracker webpage, which received updates on his location regularly.
Recently, I caught up with Brando again and chatted about his experience finishing the trip.
“It was a pretty surreal feeling coming to the end of such a long journey. I had mixed emotions,” he says. “I felt like my life would be different from now on, I wanted to see my friends, but I also didn’t want it to end, it had been so great. Actually, just before finishing I briefly considered turning around and walking the other way!”
Brando Yelavich took the final steps to complete his journey 600 days after setting out. He had walked over 7,000 kilometres. To put this into perspective, Australia measures 4,000 kilometres from east to west at its widest point; Brando walked that nearly twice.
I often wonder what happens to people like Brando when they achieve such difficult and significant goals early on in life. Yet Brando has found a whole new set of goals, including writing a book on his adventure and pitching an idea to TV production companies, which would involve him taking successful people into the outdoors and challenging them to learn how to survive in New Zealand’s rugged, natural environment. The production industry is notoriously difficult to get into and I can’t help but worry for Brando’s success. However, he had his fair share of sceptics before he set out on his epic journey and still completed the full circuit of New Zealand’s coastline.
Perhaps Yelavich’s simple, nonchalant approach will prove successful again.
This profile was originally published in Wild issue 146. Subscribe today.