Friday, 10 January
Te Matawai Hut to Nichols’ Hut (12.5 km)
Dawn broke with something of a dull thud, but at least the air was cool. We knew it was going to be a tough day, so we set off early. Not as early as James, who bade us a cheery farewell at about 6.30. We thought we might see him again that evening at Nichols’ hut, if we got that far. It was a mere 12.5 km away, but we knew the track was going to be fierce.
We started among the trees and followed ridgelines most of the day. This meant the usual extremely steep ascents and descents with rather terrifying drop-offs on both sides. In many places, you could not say you were on a path, because there was nothing to see other than faint compressions of thin vegetation between areas of rock. Sometimes, we could see the small pock mark made by James’ stick. I’m sure there must be good reasons for ridgeline tracks – but my fervent hope is that somehow, someday, somewhere, someone in the DOC will feel the urge to introduce contour paths.
After about three hours of plodding, and when the mist lifted enough to reveal the view, we could look back the way we had come. If you inspect this photo carefully, you can see a weeny speck at about 2 o’clock – that is Te Matawai Hut. We must have been winding rather a lot, because each time we caught sight of the diminishing speck, it had swung around to smile at us goofily from a different place.
We both had little energy, but I got my jollies from the Alpine vegetation. When is endurance sexy? When it is embodied in beautiful, tiny, determined little plants, of course! Lichen doilies were spread on the rocks beside fabulous little mounds of moss and succulents. These plants hold themselves very modestly, small and neatly crowded together, pursed up against the weather’s inconstancy: ice and wind and baking midday heat. But how flamboyant they are, too – beckoning us with magenta or yellow.
One rock cover (I think it is a type of moss) is a very dark maroon and has an addictive texture. It feels like the soft, dense fur on a dog’s nose – the bit juuuust stiffening up around the bristly whisker hairs. And then there is a white, splotch of lichen that looks like spilt enamel paint, and feels soapy.
We stopped for lunch at Dracophyll Hut. In the trail notes, the hut is described as accommodating two people, but we were nevertheless surprised to see how tiny it was. It was about the size of a 1960s caravan. Two bunks are against the long, left wall, and opposite them is a narrow shelf.
Lunch was enlivened by the arrival of some Wellingtonians who had just walked from Nichols’ Hut. One of them, a competent-looking wiry youth with the generous hair and beard of a blonde Jesus, said he’d once fitted six people into Dracophyll. The weather had been inclement. The packs had to be left outside, but the hikers slept with two lying head to foot on the upper bunk, the same arrangement on the lower bunk, another person parallel on the floor under the shelf, and the sixth one lying at right angles, squeezed between the foot of the bunks and the door. One can only hope that no-one that night was so grievously anti-social as to fart.
The trail dipped several times into alpine forest, where the incredibly thick moss obscured the trunks and branches to the point that they resembled topiary. We lost the trail a few times per hour, and had to keep returning to the previous orange triangle, from which point we would scout around. Steepness meant that going down, we were bum-shuffling in places, and going up, we were clambering serious gradients of about 80 degrees.
At some point (oh ha ha ha), we were meant to “turn left” down into the treeline. Giving up on the teasing imprecision of our GPS, we tried to use common sense and whatever cues emerged from the environment. The turn from the ridge line, the trail notes told us, is marked by a cairn. Well, that is exceedingly helpful as a landmark, because there are many, many cairns along all the ridge lines. So how were we meant to know which one was ours? Especially as (for once) there appeared to be a path leading away in the opposite direction. We wasted an hour crossing a rather dangerous landslip and fruitlessly climbing an unstable mountainside. The grass tussocks, which we grasped near the roots, to help heave ourselves upwards, were a real win! Hannah dislodged a rock and it bounced downwards. It went down a very, very long and mournful way.
Sitting on the top of the wrong peak, and realising we were going to have to retrace our crawl, I resisted the impulse to fold my arms over my head and whimper and rock. We both revised our lists of curses. Then I had a sudden insight. We were getting lost on a day with reasonable weather. Things could be worse. If there had been a thick mist or a bullying wind, we could have been cast into the void. Actually, I’m amazed that more people don’t die in the Tararua Range. “A very cheesy toasted sandwich,” announced Hannah. “Steak and wedges with sour cream,” I responded. “Chocolate mousse.” “Trifle.” “Earl Grey tea.” There are times when a woman has nothing but nutritional pornography from which to draw her strength.
Returning to our previous cairn, and walking beyond it to the edge of the drop-off, Hannah said she thought she could see a faint path. I re-examined the cairn. There was no orange trail triangle on it, but there was a small, greyish cream rectangle. Folks – if you’re doing this walk, despise not the small, greyish cream rectangle.
The thickly mossed trees should have been pleasant, but what with the mud and the falling over and our irritated exhaustion, all we wanted was to go home.
In one particularly slippery bit, I heard Hannah announce that her lace was undone. “Well, tie it!” I said, “it’s a hazard!” “I can’t hear!” she replied. “Tie. It. Then!” I ordered. “I can’t hear!” she shouted. “How **** deaf are you?” I shrieked, “tie it!” She reached the flat spot where I was waiting for her and spoke quietly: “I said, I can’t…here. It was too steep up there to bend over without **** falling!” Oh. So much for my being a communication teacher. But, I refused to acknowledge wrongdoing. She had not used a comma! That vital verbal pause, indicating punctuation before the demonstrative pronoun, had been missing from her sentence and had substantially changed her meaning. My indignation was very swollen and shiny. I go so far as to say it might have won several prizes at an agricultural show.
There are times when we could very cheerfully slap each other, but it would be rather awkward for slapper and slappee afterwards to sleep pressed up against each other’s disciplined, flushed and tingly bits in a two-person tent, so it is good thing we have held off from domestic violence – so far. The problem with being in the bush is that no-one can flounce away and slam a door. Doorlessness is a true privation for an adolescent girl and her menopausal mother.
After what seemed like an awfully long time, we climbed from the forest to yet another Alpine ridgeline. It was 6.00 pm and the sun emerged at last. “There is no sign of any civilisation, as far as the eye can see, for 360 degrees,” said Hannah, turning around slowly. “We can’t go much further and I can’t see any sign of the hut, can you?” We just had to press on. Apart from outside the Dracophyll Hut, we had passed absolutely nowhere along the trail where we could successfully have pitched the tent.
After another hour of increasingly limp locomotion, we saw, off the path in the valley to our left, Nichols’ Hut. We had been walking for 11 hours. We descended with huge relief. It was lovely to see James’ friendly face. He was fresh and perky, having had a nice rest after making the trip four hours faster than we had.
We had to send him outside while I bathed with my facecloth and a cup of water. Hannah refused to wash. It was against her religion. I asked her to tell me what my bruise looked like now. She informed me that Australia had spread beautifully and had engulfed Tasmania.
The hut was small but comfortable. Outside, was a newly constructed meat safe. Clearly, hunters often use this accommodation. I don’t think I’d want to add the weight of a carcass to everything I had to carry out, but going by the poem on the wall, it is possible hunters do not often actually do so. Ten out of ten for the unknown author.
Behold the Hunter.
He riseth early in the morning and disturbeth the whole household.
Mighty are his preparations.
He goeth forth full of hope and when the day is spent, he returneth smelling of strong drink and the truth is not in him.