Whangārei firefighter Maaka McKinney is a man who doesn't do things by halves.

Last year, he cycled from Bluff to Wellington, then ran to Auckland for the Fire Fighter Sky City challenge to raise awareness of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in first responders.

This year, McKinney is embarking on another ambitious journey. He is walking from Whangārei to Auckland in full firefighting kit, solo, before joining 950 other firefighters and climbing the stairs of the Sky Tower next Saturday.

"The aim of this year is just to re-hash on everything I did last year and emphasise the importance for the first responder community to be proactive in seeking professional help for any work related mental illness."

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McKinney is also raising money for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand, through doing the stair challenge.

The Northern Advocate caught up with McKinney yesterday near Portland. He had fallen in a ditch about 2am the night before and said his knee and ankle were swollen.

"I have been trying to adjust my eyes to the dark so I won't have to use my torch and I fell in a fairly decent hole."

But after hearing about McKinney's past, it's fair to say he has overcome far worse than a sprained ankle in his life.

Maaka McKinney will walk 187km from Tutukaka to the Sky Tower before hitting the stairs for the Sky Tower challenge next Saturday.
Maaka McKinney will walk 187km from Tutukaka to the Sky Tower before hitting the stairs for the Sky Tower challenge next Saturday.

McKinney served in Bosnia, while in the Defence Force, and then Iraq as a security contractor. His job was to transport US diplomats, US military, police trainers and Corrections trainers around Baghdad.

The role saw him and his colleagues under constant threat of machine gun attack and booby traps with explosives that could "rip a vehicle to shreds".

McKinney said his traumatic experiences serving overseas in the military was the catalyst for PTSD.

"But it was an event whilst I was working as a firefighter in New Zealand that triggered the full onset of my PTSD and I didn't do anything about it, I just fell on my ass pretty much."

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His life started spiralling, he lost a relationship he was in at the time and turned to alcohol to try to mask the trauma of what he had experienced. But after about a year, he decided enough was enough and he was able to reach out for professional help.

"No one deserves to go down that pathway and it is a pathway you can step off, you can get off it with peer support, by having that courage to ask for help and by seeking that professional help."

He has done a lot of peer support since his journey last year and he wants to ensure every first responder knows they are not alone.

"When I was a volunteer paramedic in Auckland, I used to see a lot of young paramedics in their early 20s, dealing with two fatalities a day, motor accidents, cardiac arrests, suicides, and I could see the signs that they were going through PTSD and depression, but they weren't being proactive enough to go and help themselves."

So in the next week, if you see a man kitted out in firefighting gear with a pack on his back, somewhere between Whangārei and Auckland - buy him a pie.

"I'm travelling light food wise, have got a lot of creamed rice and tuna but I'll be going through towns so it won't be so bad."

He will be sleeping on the side of the road in a tent, hopefully on nearby farmland - pending permission from farmers.

"It might seem extreme to some people, but after being in the army, this isn't really a big deal."