Each year, two metres of rainfall drench the North Island’s volcanic plateau. Most of it immediately seeps through the coarse mixture of pumice and sand in the topsoil. The rest is scoured away by the wind.
The result: Rangipō Desert. A sodden, rust-coloured wasteland approximately 100 square kilometres in size. Here, the only vegetation is a tawny, waist-high tussock grass that carpets the towering hills and deep crevices.
No farmer ever had much use for the place. So the Army acquired thousands of acres and, in 1940, constructed Waiōuru Military Camp at the desert’s heart. Every year since, hundreds of new recruits have trudged through the tussock, tracking imaginary enemies.
Eventually, many learn to love the tussock. Even when it catches their boots or shifts underfoot, twisting ankles. Even when they find their pants covered with the impossible-to-remove burrs that clutch loose fabric like swarms of pale spiders. Even when they can’t find a goddamn clear patch of ground, so they spend the night lying on a tussock lump that they hacked apart with a pruning saw. Even when they’re running uphill, convinced they’ll keel over if they have to high-jump one more bit of scrub.
They love it because it’s their only protection against the gales which storm the plains. Because it provides some concealment from Waiōuru’s watchful training staff. Because it creates stepping stones across waist-deep streams and provides handholds for clambering out of sheer gullies.
How do I know? Because I’ve trained here too, as an Army Reservist. Like most, I only endured a few months here before moving on to a larger camp. But I was always fascinated by the 50-odd Regular Force officers, who spend a year in Waiōuru, and are tested in countless ways during that time. In Exercise Tebaga Gap, they dig elaborate trenches amidst blankets of snow. In Exercise Takrouna, they oversee a mock battle with dozens of troops firing live bullets. Of all these trials, however, none is more gruelling than Exercise Nemesis.
After their first few months of training, the cadets are hauled from bed without warning. Over the next five days, they must trek 106 kilometres and complete a dozen increasingly complex tasks—all with just a few hours’ total sleep and a handful of food. Trainers will scrutinise their performance and scrawl an “obsy”—observation—about every lapse, mistake or moment of frustration. If that list grows too long, or cadets give up partway through, they will be booted from the programme.
As they plod through this nightmare, the cadets will realise that, while their tasks are technically achievable, many are so difficult that failure is the most likely outcome. That’s because the goal isn’t to succeed, but to endure. The Army is searching for people who can continue when conditions are so absurd and intense that all meaning has eroded. You cannot win at Nemesis: you either survive it, or you quit.
Samantha Holmberg first learned about the Army in primary school when her older brother, Shannon, enlisted.
They grew up in Gisborne, and her friends’ brothers were truck drivers, bartenders and kiwifruit pickers. But her brother was a hero. In class, she’d boast about him. “He’s steaming through basic training! Now he’s been selected as a recon sniper—one of the toughest jobs in the country! And now he’s going to Afghanistan!”
Whenever Shannon visited home, he’d tell Samantha about tough days in the field, big nights in town, and how close he and his fellow soldiers had become. As she grew older, he started encouraging her to enlist. To be fair, he said that to everyone in their family. With her, he meant it.
But Samantha couldn’t march for kilometres at a time. She couldn’t even do the eight push-ups required to pass the entry test. So, after leaving school, she worked at Liquorland. There was the East Coast sun to enjoy and friends to hang out with. But there were also drunks to navigate and long shifts to endure. After two years, when Shannon told her again that she should join the Army, she agreed. On one condition: he had to train her.
She moved to Palmerston North to live with him. After work, while running laps of the neighbourhood, Samantha questioned him. “What civvy gear should I bring into the field? What issued kit can I leave behind? What warm gear is best when it starts to snow? How do I make a good meal out of a ration pack?” (“Well, first, call it a ratpack.”)
As she built her body and knowledge, her confidence grew. She decided she wasn’t just going to be a soldier. She was going to be an officer. That was when she learned about Nemesis—and when Shannon added a note of warning to his advice. On a hunting trip, as Samantha puffed up a hill with a deer on her back, he said, “This is stuff-all compared to what you’re gonna go through. The weather now is amazing, it’s pretty warm, the deer’s not that big.”
But Samantha was determined, and in January 2022, she stepped off the bus at Waiōuru to begin officer training.
Ali Abbari knew nothing about Nemesis until his first day in Waiōuru, when he heard other cadets worrying about how difficult it would be. Ali didn’t see the point. “It’s like, ‘Mate, that’s how many months away? Let’s focus on learning how to march in step first.’”
The first thing that strikes you about Ali is his confidence. The son of a Moroccan chef and a Cantabrian academic, he’s quick with a joke, usually at his own expense.
As a kid, Ali won an ANZAC-themed poster design competition. The prize was a trip to Linton Military Camp. Soldiers picked him up from the airport in an armoured vehicle and drove him around Palmerston North as he peered out of its turret. After that, he joined the Air Cadets, which paid for him to take flying lessons—something his family could never have afforded otherwise. He did solo flights. It was a dream.
After school, he worked in sales, pretty much just because he was good at it, but after four years, it was driving him crazy. His thoughts turned back to the military. In exchange for pilot training, the Air Force required a ten-year commitment. But the Army didn’t.
Ali cruised through his first few months of officer training. Marksmanship, marching, early morning PT sessions—he enjoyed it all. But the other cadets kept bringing up how painful Nemesis would be. “Verge-of-death stuff,” they said. His bravado started to crack.
“I haven’t had a single second of doubt about whether I want to be here,” he said. “But I have about whether I’m actually suited for this.”
He also began to realise the stakes.
An officer’s performance in Nemesis follows them. The 30-odd cadets they graduate with will be their cohort for the rest of their career. They will be promoted (or not) together; deployed (or not) together. Even if a cadet could somehow trick their trainers and scrape through Nemesis with minimum effort, their fellow cadets will know—and make sure everyone else in our country’s tiny Army knows too.
By the time an officer meets the platoon assigned to their command, those soldiers will more than likely have already heard how they performed during exercises like Nemesis.
Even with their torches shedding dull red light across the ridgeline, the silhouettes of Bravo syndicate are barely visible against the darkness of pre-dawn Waiōuru. Ali and the seven other cadets in his group have just marched 13 kilometres, and they are nervous and cold, huffing small trails of steam into the air. They’re five hours into Nemesis, and it’s been 22 hours since they last slept.
Ali has been given command for their first task: resupplying a “helpless village” with water. On the ridgeline is a portable dam—effectively a plastic swimming pool—which they’ve been ordered to fill. Two hundred and fifty metres away, down a slippery clay slope, is an actual dam: the Moawhango.
“I reckon we start filling up jerry cans,” says Ali.
He stares at the lake. As the shadows bend to lift their packs, a female voice breaks the silence. “Or we could carry the whole thing down?”
Ali stops, considers. Then he seizes the loose plastic and starts dragging. “Okay! Let’s go! Bravo. Bravo! Let’s go!”
There is no discernible flat ground at the base of the lake. They’ll have to fill the dam at an angle. Ali nods and the syndicate starts putting down their rifles, prompting a sharp mutter from their instructor. They pick the rifles back up. They squat along the waterline, dipping their cans like kids who want to build a sandcastle but are afraid of waves.
It takes 15 minutes for someone to realise the dam is leaking. A steady tide of water is flowing back into the lake, turning the surrounding clay to mush. Someone throws their hands into the plastic folds and closes an open valve. It takes another 15 minutes for anyone to realise there’s an open valve on the other side, too.
The sun creeps towards the horizon, painting the feathery clouds pastel pink. The water begins tipping over the lower edge of the dam with every new jerry poured. They are running out of time. One of the cadets—a Tongan who was handpicked to complete his officer training in New Zealand—plunges into the frigid lake with two jerries, pours them into the dam, and wades back in. It’s starting to look full.
“Sir, has the village’s water supply been replenished?” asks one cadet.
The trainer grunts. “I’ll tell you when.”
The dam bulges at the sides; every new jerry sends it wobbling like a waterbed.
The trainer summons Ali over. “You have completed the ta—” he begins, but one of the cadets interrupts with a shout. “Oh, shit! Get out of the way!”
The dam rolls slightly on the slope and its contents stream over the wall of cadets holding it up. They scatter. The trainer sighs. “You had completed the task.” The trainer checks his watch: they need to move on. Another cadet takes command and the syndicate prepares to make the trek to their next task. Ali won’t know whether he’s passed until the very end.
It takes until Samantha’s third task—the one she’s in charge of—for her to fully understand that they aren’t going to sleep. Not in the real sense of the word.
Her syndicate’s task is to carry a box of “radioactive waste” two kilometres without spilling or ever coming within two metres of it. Samantha tells the others to use their tent poles to feed rope through a hole at the top of the box. They snag it and create a web of ropes, suspending the box between them.
Then they begin moving. They have to go slow—too fast and they’ll lose control. It’s almost fun. One of them cracks a joke. Of course, someone slips and they drop the box.
The trainers send them back a few hundred metres. They drop it again. They retreat, laughing it off, frustration rising. Samantha’s body feels impossibly heavy.
She doesn’t remember falling over. The fatigue sends rushes of dizziness scooting through her body, like when you stand up too fast and all the blood rushes from your head. She must have misplaced her foot just as another wave shot through. She face-plants. Twice.
By now, she has noticed she is noticeably less fit than the other cadets. She’s slower, especially uphill. But she has also noticed she can keep going. Levering off the butt of her rifle, she clambers to her feet.
Ali’s syndicate is also carrying precious cargo. They, too, can barely stay on their feet. They are now carrying “an elderly lady in need of medical attention”—a stretcher loaded with 20-litre jerry cans—to Feature Pimple, a sharp hillock a dozen-odd kilometres from camp. If they keep all the jerries from touching the ground, they’ll be rewarded with extra food. It’s one of Nemesis’s most difficult tasks. The trainers call it Final Rites.
The cadets can only make it a hundred metres at a time. At the crest of a small rise, where two dirt tracks intersect, the stretcher breaks. That briefly gets everyone’s attention. “Like, broken broken?” asks one of the cadets.
The cadet in charge looks at their trainer. “Sarge, can we put holes in the stretcher to feed hoochie cord through?”
Ali’s eyes are bruised from lack of sleep. His head is canted at a permanent angle. But he slouches over to the stretcher. He and two others start tying knots as the rest of the syndicate collapse into the tussock. One person is practically in the foetal position. Another moans, quietly: “My brain’s broken.” A third sits just below a skeletal bush and sticks his chin out, eyes half-lidded, trying to keep them open. It has been two days since Nemesis began—50 hours since their last full night’s sleep.
The trainer mutters to a colleague. “I’m going to obsy the shit out of some people. We went pretty far for a while, and then they turned to shit.”
The cadet sitting under the bush begins to whip—Army-speak for a sign of exhaustion. His head sinks to his chest, whereupon it jolts back up, then sinks again.
It takes an hour to fix the stretcher. The Tongan cadet grabs both handles at the back, while two more cadets take a handle each at the front, and they set off down the dusty dirt path. The others struggle on behind.
After 200 metres, one cadet stumbles, and the others watch as a jerry can on the stretcher teeters, then falls to the ground.
“The lady’s dead,” says the trainer.
The cadets will lose some food as punishment. If they keep pushing, they can prove to the Army they deserve to stay. Yet, in that moment, it all feels like too much. Ali doesn’t care about the task, or Nemesis, or the Army; he just wants the suffering to stop.
The trainer is fuming, but he’s seen some version of this debacle often enough to know how to handle it. He allows the cadets a few moments to wallow in their pain, then kicks them into reality. “Hurry up! You haven’t finished.”
They need to reach a bump in the landscape called BP5. They resume lumbering down the road.
As Samantha pushes through the muck of Ngamatea Swamp, it’s impossible to tell which step will find solid ground and which will send her shooting into empty water. She is already soaked from the waist down. The tufts of tussock and flax around her are enormous—taller than she is and densely packed together.
Her pack is too big to fit through the tiny gaps in the vegetation. She can’t climb over it. Sometimes she is pushed through by other cadets, other times she finds herself on the other side with little memory of how she’s made it there.
They are running short on time, as always. Unless they get their jerries to the drop-off point soon, they will have failed another task. “Come on!” shouts the cadet in charge of the exercise, over and over again. Samantha mutters to herself. “I gotta do it. I gotta do it.”
Somehow, they make it to the fenceline: a few lines of wire stretched across the middle of the swamp. Samantha finds a small and blessedly solid tussock, raises her mud-covered knees towards her chest, and stares blankly into the growing dusk. They have hundreds of metres’ more swamp-treading before they are done.
Her gaze is broken by someone sloshing past and thrusting something into her hands. She looks down to see one end of a chocolate bar—a reward for getting to the fenceline on time. She lets it melt in her mouth, savouring every bit.
Ali is pretty sure Nemesis is almost over. He lost track of time a while ago, but a random truck driver in Waiōuru Camp called out to them as they walked past that morning: “Last day!”
They’re marching to meet a “village elder” on a hilltop 12 kilometres away. Ali’s pack doesn’t feel like much—his body is numb. The final three kilometres suck most of all. It feels like he’s walking up a 90-degree angle and he struggles to keep pace with the rest of the group. Pain is streaking along his chest, paralysing each breath. He looks over at the cadet carrying the heavy metal radio, relieved it’s not him; he knows he wouldn’t make it if it was.
Ali looks like death—his fellow cadets do, too. One of their syndicate fainted on an earlier exercise, and his face is pale through the drabs of camo paint clinging to his cheeks. Ali hopes the villager might reward them with food. Food, right now, is better than winning Powerball.
When Ali finally stumbles out of the field, his back is a watercolour of bruises. They have intensified into deep black welts around his shoulders, which the straps of his pack savaged over hours of marching.
Even a few weeks on from Nemesis, he will still feel compelled to replay every fraught moment. He will remember how he lost a tyre in the darkness when it slipped out of his hands on the side of a hill and disappeared into the shadowy tussock. He will still express outrage that a trainer took food from their already meagre ratpack when they failed to make a timing.
Then he will quieten, before saying: “But it’s good to do.”
Nemesis is a challenge that few have attempted and even fewer have passed. Thankfully, Ali is among them. His trainer gave him a huge list of things to improve on—he didn’t even realise he was being tested on some of them. But he managed to keep going. For the Army, that’s what matters.
Samantha passed, too. “I was appreciative of how much I could do. I got outrageously bad blisters. My whole feet were strapped up by the end of it. Yet somehow, even with that, I managed to keep going.”
How did her brother react when he heard she’d passed? Samantha laughs. Shannon had said, “Of course she did.”
The cadets have a week of leave now. They will spend it sleeping. After that, they have six months to learn how to plan an ambush, assault a house, clear a hill. Then, commissions in hand, they will spread across the country, keeping up with burly infantry or hauling artillery in Linton, managing intelligence operations in Wellington, running laps in Papakura. Many will eventually go on peacekeeping missions in the Middle East or humanitarian deployments in the Pacific.
As they endure the physical demands and mental challenges of these missions, many will look back on Nemesis as a reminder of what they’re capable of. Ali says it gave him a baseline for moments of doubt. “So when things suck, I know I’ve carried jerry cans through a swamp for twelve hours and passed out twice. Nothing can be as bad as that.”