It's 5.30am on Atauro Island in Timor-Leste and I'm re-learning how to walk. Climbing up the steep, uneven slope leading to Mount Manucoco, the island's highest peak, in the half-light of dawn, I am considering each step; how I'm holding my body, where my foot is falling, how active my mind is.
It is strange, turning the lens onto something so essential, something we do automatically for many of our waking hours. According to my hiking buddy this morning, the petite, fit 56-year-old founder of active travel company Sharing Bali & Beyond, Karen Willis, it's something many of us don't do particularly well.
"Most of us living in cities don't move in a very agile way because we don't walk on uneven ground enough, and when you do that you have to use way more muscles to balance yourself," she says as we scramble up narrow, rock-strewn paths lined with towering eucalypts and bamboo groves. Along with a local guide, Willis is leading our pack of four hikers and appears to almost skip over the ground.
"I used to walk like a soldier, I was always busy and would just thump along, less than 50 kilos of me!" says Willis, who worked in the fashion industry before moving to Bali and starting to run her active retreats 10 years ago. "I started falling over all the time, my balance was terrible because I wasn't using my whole body and because my mind was so busy," she says as we continue walking. Willis took up yoga and started observing how the Balinese walked, with elegance, grace and lightness, which led her to completely rethink her definition of what it meant to be fit. "I forgot about peak fitness and just started to think about walking lightly and more mindfully, so I was being easier on my muscles and joints. I started enjoying life way more," she says.
It's an interesting concept to ponder as we continue our mountain ascent. I've never really devoted any conscious effort to walking, I've just done it. Like breathing, eating, sleeping, or any of the other things we do on autopilot every day. Now that I am thinking about it, though, I notice the weight of my body pressing down to the ground, and the heavy kerplunk my sneakered feet are making each time they hit the earth. I observe our Timorese hiking guide as he navigates the path ahead. He is in thongs, yet he springs across the rutted track with the grace of a gazelle. I consider myself relatively fit, but I feel like an elephant in comparison to him. When I engage my core and stand up straighter as Willis advises, I notice that the pressure on my feet does lessen. I feel instantly more sprightly and a bit more in control of my movements.
"It's that lightness that you really need if you want to be fit for life," says Willis, as if reading my thoughts. "My test is, if you can sit down and get up without using your hands and making old people noises, then you have agility and mobility. And that's real freedom," she says.
By this point we've reached the peak of our hike. And as I look out over the rugged island and to the sea beyond, sweaty and happy and filled with a renewed respect for one of the most fundamental elements of human life, I can only agree.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Sharing Bali and Beyond.
Air North flies from Darwin to Dili, an 80-minute flight, for about $488 return. See airnorth.com.au
Sharing Bali & Beyond's five-night Timor-Leste adventure, including three nights in an eco-lodge and two nights in Dili, is from $1750 per person, twin share, including boat transfers, snorkelling and guided hiking, three fitness sessions and more. Flights not included. See sharingbaliandbeyond.com