Leg 14 – The Tararua Range, day 6

Thursday, 9 January
Waiopehu Hut to Te Matawai Hut (5.5 km)

Against the slope below the hut, shreds of mist streamed, writhing themselves rapidly into clouds. Behind, the path led deeper into the range. In the distance, the mountains looked like a Shar Pei: hundreds of valley folds with dull green fur, but not at all velvety.

We turned and started walking in alpine vegetation, where the trees, lichens and mosses were very similar to those on the Whakapapa through National Park hike. I P1030209kept stopping to admire and stroke the tiny little plants living on the rocks. Hannah sighed a bit. She’s lucky New Zealand doesn’t have chameleons. In South Africa, I used to clasp my hands over my breast and talk doltishly to them.

The path was very eroded and had very steep ups and downs, so we did a great deal of mud slipping and root tripping. Nevertheless, we preferred this section to those of the previous few days. We descended into forest. The trail was marked, but not all the landmarks on it were signposted, so it was difficult to determine where we were at any time. We passed over “Richard’s Knob” without knowing it. I can P1030213only hope and trust that Richard was equally oblivious.

The big idea was to get to Dracophyll Hut for the night, but we took five hours to cover the piddling 5.5 km to Te Matawai Hut, at which point Hannah said she did not think she could go on. So we stopped. As we sat on the deck, removing our gunk-caked shoes, we saw the hut had a sign on the door. It P1030219said “No junk mail”. I love moments like these. There are hikers who have a fab sense of humour and someone had brought that ridiculous sign all the way up here for our amusement. Mind you, if I were a junk mail postie, and I’d staggered through hell to Te Matewai to deliver a flyer on Mitre 10’s latest super duper must-have customer deal on nails and tile grout, I’d be deeply hurt. I’d go so far as to say I’d be profoundly wounded.

The hut is dedicated to 14 year-old Greg Fischer, who died while climbing in 1974. Thanks to those who loved him, we have this warm and comfortable refuge after a long and rough walk. It is easy to die out here. While I made tea, I received what was to be the last text from home until we returned to civilisation. Marius said a teenager had just drowned near Otaki in floodwaters from the Tararua Range. How do families survive losing children? Within seconds, everything changes and any future joy must now take a different shape.

I had two cups of tea. Ah, what a pleasure at 2.30 pm. And I was seated on a bench at a table with the thrill of a mattress to follow. Oh no… several trips outside to follow. What is it about two cups of tea that generates three point seven litres of wee? We shall never know. However, visiting the DOC composting convenience has its entertainment. I was delighted to find a toilet brush in the loo. I fervently support the purpose of such a civilised accessory, but here, in a facility without a flush…?

About an hour after we had settled in the hut, James the rowing coach arrived. He had set off from Poads Road that morning, and had taken a mere seven hours to cover the distance that took us 11 hours over two days. He is not a human being. He is a machine. (Hi James! If you are reading this, I guess you must be at least in Queenstown by now.) However, he does use a walking stick and we don’t. A stick-deprived tramp and not Utterly Wimpy Womany Wallyhood is the reason why we are so slow. Well, that is my story and I am sticking to it.


The Tararua Range – day 5

Wednesday, 8 January
The toilet trap to Waiopehu Hut (16 km)

We awoke, feeling only slightly less petulant than the night before. The morning was not devoid of entertainment for Hannah, however. As I dressed, she said, “Ooo, you’ve got a huge bruise on your bum. It looks like Australia.” The injury I had sustained by falling in the stream two days ago was now evident, but instead of compassion, glee filled the 36C bosom of my child. If she were a 34AA, I do believe she wouldn’t have nearly as much room for cruelty.

I wanted to view the damage, but alas it was situated just out of sight, despite my being extremely flexible. No amount of twisting and craning brought it into view. Even putting my head between my legs and squinting upwards failed to yield a visual of the disaster area. There is something uniquely mournful about not being able to admire your own anguish. I wonder what an avid attempt at bruise inspection is called…. Is there an official term for it? What about oedemaphilia?

Everything was still sodden and our clean washed clothes were starting to stink. With closed eyes and using the last shreds of my moral fibre, I pulled on my clammy socks and wet shoes and we headed through farmland towards Gladstone Road.

P1030170I love learning. As we crossed the last stile, we saw a sign nailed to the step. The sign indicated that dogs were restricted from entering. This in itself is nothing new; uncontrolled dogs among sheep are disastrous, but in this case the restriction was to prevent transmission of measles. I had no idea that sheep could get measles and that dogs could carry the disease. I pointed this out to Hannah, but she didn’t share my enthusiasm for facts. She was more interested in seeing if we could get phone reception after three days out of contact. We couldn’t. I started to worry that the family would be worried about us.

About 2 km along the road we found the Makahika Outdoor Pursuits Centre. On impulse, I said to Hannah, “Let’s ask if they’ll allow us to use their landline to phone Dad and tell him we’re OK.” Well, that was a happy urge, because Sally and John did much more than simply allow us to use their phone. They generously offered tea and cake and a hot shower and a tumble-dryer to fix our clothes. “This almost makes me believe in God!” gasped Hannah. “We-ell,” said Sally, “I have been described before as a bush angel.” So there we had proof of being in God’s own tramping country. One of his staff members was on duty. The staff member had a sign on her wall: “Teamwork means everyone doing what I say”. Hannah pointed it out to me and said “That’s you, Mom.” Ah. So that means I must be a bush angel too; an associative member of God’s staff at the very least.

On a long hike, small things make a big difference. Being able to pack everything, now dry and still warm from the machine, enabled a 180-degree attitude turn, and cake was a spiritual experience. Oh frabjous day! The hot shower was brilliant and I had the treat of being able to examine my bruise in the mirror. I was gratified to note that I did indeed have Australia on my arse, complete with a little Tasmania! The island had shifted somewhat northeast of its original location, but I’m sure Tasmanians will appreciate the warmer temperatures and closer association with New Zealand inevitable with its new position.

Marius said he had not been worried about us (pffft!) but he did extend sympathy concerning the 267 mm of rain which he heard the Tararua Range had just received. The weather was not going to improve much over the next few days, either. Sally said she was unhappy about our re-entering the range without a personal locator beacon. “The track is extremely gnarly,” she warned. She told us a bloke recently got lost in the Tararuas and emerged a week later, weak, disoriented and confused. “And he was a soldier,” she pointed out, “so he did have survival skills.” This true and cautionary tale was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the soldier involved was Irish. However, the Tararua Range does have a rather an intimidating death toll, so we accepted one of Sally’s PLBs, which we would return to her after exiting the mountains.P1030171

Buoyed by the kindness we had received, we walked from Poads Road to rejoin the trail through the range. The distance to Waiopehu Hut is only 9 km from the trail head, but is steep and slippery, so it took us six hours.

The forest here is different from the section we walked the previous day. There are much less tree ferns and the vegetation is set out more spaciously, with pennants of moss and lichen streaming from the branches. Evidence of the fierce winds is seen in the many giant tree falls. Wrenched from the ground and now upright in surrender, the roots stand right-angled to their original position, creating semi-circular walls clotted with clay. The P1030189older walls are colonised by moss and other plants.

The rain stopped, but we saw and heard no birds. Our wildlife experience comprised finding two worms: a weeny little green inchworm and the biggest earthworm I have ever seen. It was half dead and curled in a path puddle, but stretched out it would have been about a metre long.

It was with great relief that we reached the hut. A warm and dry night was assured, there P1030187was full cell phone reception and the view was eye-bugging-out beautiful. It was a brief concession from the weather, which was soon to close in again. Near the hut the vegetation was alpine, with tough scrubby plants and tussock grass. In the north the range waited, thickly vegetated and with unlimited crumpled valleys. In the south, the sun broke through in golden smears on the massive plain, which pressed outwards to the sea. Just below us, in the foreground of steep slopes, shreds of mist writhed, beckoning to the clouds that advanced on the mountain, trailing grey legs of rain.

P1030196The hut is lovely: spacious, comfortable and clean, but the best part of it is the swallows’ nest in the lean-to at the back. What a fabulous little mud cup the parents had made, glueing it to the eaves and out of harm’s way. We decided not to open the back door after dark, because the mother flew off the nest each time we came and went. The swallow family was committed to communication and had extremely sweet and squeaky conversations which we heard through the wall. They entertained us by discussing birdie issues at considerable length.

Inside the hut were two further pleasures. 1) Someone had provided decent reading material – The Merriam Webster Thesaurus. I like that person. That person gets a Gold Star on his or her forehead from me. 2) On the front page of the guest book an anonymous soul had written: “My tip for the week. Love and respect your mother. Thank you.” I thrust the book into Hannah’s face and tapped the page imperiously. “See. See! See?” I cried. “External, objective forensic evidence of what you ought to be doing.” She gave me a long, dispassionate stare and then rolled over, covering her face with her sleeping bag. I can tell I’m getting through to her. All it takes is relentless repetition and some lolloping around and shouting “I told you so!” and adolescent hearts and minds are inevitably won.