Monday, 6 January
Burttons Track to the Tokomaru No 3 Reservoir (17 km)
We were just getting up and making breakfast when two trampers passed our campsite. They moved quietly and were neatly dressed in matching pale green and beige. They had no mud on their legs. Their hair was brushed. I bet they never missed a trail sign, or backed into a gorse bush while trying to pee, or went cold turkey near a cliff face or got ordered around by a fantail one hundredth of their size. I bet they were German.
We packed in our very South African transitioning to Kiwi way, arguing about whether we should boil the water and whose bum looked bigger in this trail. Hannah did not use her comb for the third day running. I asked her how her pink elephants were doing and she indicated they had largely dispersed but the trunk of one of them was still making little exploring movements around the edges of her mind.
We walked the road through hills of recently planted pines. A few flags of sky flew through the clouded morning. The weatherman had promised a clear day, but the sun took on another of its annoying identities: Old Man in Raincoat offering occasional flashes of his marshmallow cluster in the hope of eliciting girlie screams of fulfilment. Hah!
The river seethed over its banks and its water was brown, so we didn’t refill our drinking packs until crossing a tributary. Our steripen stopped working last time we were in Kerikeri, so we’ve been drinking untreated water for most of North Island. Such insouciance is not recommended, but so far, we have not suffered any ill effects. As I poured the water into her bag, Hannah protested loudly that “something wriggly” had tipped in. “Oh for goodness’ sake!” I said, flailing around for some explanation, “If it’s a… a water shrimp it won’t poison you.” She wasn’t satisfied. “All shrimps live in water,” she replied, resentfully screwing the lid on her camelbak.
We found two severed heads on the road. The horns had been roughly chopped out. Was it really impossible for the hunters to throw the heads out of sight into the grass?
When we were in Whakapapa, the holiday camp manager told us we hadn’t seen nothing yet. In his opinion, the Tararua Range was “God’s own tramping country”. I reminded Hannah of this comment and asked her what she thought of this track so far. “No sign of God yet,” she replied. “Ja,” I agreed, “but we could be in his back yard at the moment. Let’s give it a chance.”
The road took us through a section of mature pines, well spaced, with an abundance of human-high ferns as undergrowth. The rain held off but it was misty. “God’s helpers are cleaning up the back yard,” I said to Hannah, as we were engulfed in another swirl of whiteness. “Right now, they’re spraying for unbelievers. You might not have long to live, so I may as well finish the jube-jubes, hey?” She gave me her eyes-as-lemon-quarters look. I should have waited until I had the packet in my hand. She was carrying the snacks this leg.
View of the day was a cormorant who caught his breakfast a mere eight metres away from us at a stream crossing. He bagged a 30-cm long fish, which he carried to a rock before swallowing. He jerked his head and shrugged his neck several times as the struggling lump slowly descended. Now there’s a creature with absolutely no gag reflex! Imagine a cormorant with a sensitive throat, and who needed all his food to be cut up for him. I think there’s a children’s story in there somewhere, but I fear the moral would not be conducive to good table manners among infants.
We found a huge and marvellous red toadstool with white spots on it, poking through the grass. I didn’t know Big Ears had emigrated to NZ. Unfortunately, the health and safety team, in their hermetically sealed anti-contamination suits, were officiously evacuating Noddy’s little chum. Unable to find gainful employment during the recession, he had opened a Meth lab in his basement.
A small herd of feral sheep showed every sign of enjoying health and strength in a clearing near the half-way mark at Burtton’s whare. Their fleeces were nothing short of majestic, and their almost full-grown lambs were fat, happy and had their tails intact.
A day on the trail is invalid without loss of direction. As we discovered, at this point, you’re meant to cross the river and continue walking parallel to the bank, but there are no triangles to provide direction and no indication in the trail notes either. We wasted considerable time searching.
Burtton’s Track is excessively watery and tree ferny. The tiny, tinkly waterfalls down moss-covered rocks are delightful, but the stream crossings seem just too damned many, and after a while, all the treeferny bits looked the same to us. I probably sound all precious and ungrateful, but there is something about permanently wet feet that makes me very cranky. Hannah lives in fear of getting water into her boots, so she stopped almost every time we crossed a stream to remove her footwear. This caused more delay, with our eventually taking nine hours to cover 17 km.
Lowest point of the day was my tumbling into a tributary which was barely two metres wide. A rock shifted under my foot, and with my pack pulling me off balance I fell spectacularly. The water was only ankle deep, but the scary thing was that I could not get up without Hannah’s help. I had managed successfully to wedge myself in sideways. Everything was soaked, sleeping bag, GPS, and the rest of me from the ankles upwards. It was our first day without rain, yet there I was, sodden as usual. But what was I complaining about? This was God’s own tramping ground, and I had just had an immersion baptism.
We were both finished when we found the reservoir, a couple of kilometres short of the Mangahao-Makahika Trail, which was our scheduled section for the next day. Beside the dam wall, there was a flat section of ground with short grass, so we pitched Samson thankfully. As I pulled on my nightie, I noticed a triangle of three, rather peculiar maroon spots on my forearm. Hannah inspected them with clear evidence of enjoyment. “Those are the first signs of water shrimp poisoning,” she said.