Leg14, the Tararua range, day 9

Sunday, 12 January

Waitewaewae Hut to Otaki Forks (9.5 km)

This is the path. Yes. (Sigh!)

This is the path. Yes. (Sigh!)

We made an early start to cover the 10 km to Otaki Forks. I guess it would have been a pleasant walk on a hot day, but since much of the path was steep downhill, in rocky, flowing streams, slow progress and sodden feet were inevitable. God’s own tramping ground has two settings: “wet” and “wetter”, and today he had set it for it yet another rinse.

We heard one bird call, which sounded like a scratchy voice crying “Get it in!” One hawk sailed silently past, and otherwise … no wildlife for the whole day. The wet weather and dull light meant few photos.

Our conversation was mainly limited to nourishment fantasies. The massive weight of supplies with which we had waddled out of Palmerston North nine days ago was now down to two mug sachets of Watties’ soup and 37 squares of toilet paper. This was bad planning. We should have had more in reserve in case of being trapped by the weather.

P1030265We found a logging relic, a steam engine sadly rusting at the edge of the long-disused tramway. Its old boiler gaped with a silent wail of abandonment. Now and again, we passed the remains of tram rails. “Look,” I said, “they’ve removed all the straight rail sections and left only the curved ones behind.” Hannah was outraged. “This is physical evidence of anti-gay propaganda!” she puffed.

We saw one place, about two and-a-half hours south of the hut, which would have been suitable for camping, and a few others quite close to the forks. That was it for the length of the path from where we entered the bush from Poads Road on Wednesday. The huts are critical for the SOBO Tararua leg. We had thought that it did not matter much if we stopped when we got tired between huts; we were accustomed to making do with our tent. That approach works fine elsewhere on the trail – just not on this mountain range! The ground is seldom level, and where it isn’t tilted, it is either too stony, too squelchy, too exposed, or too thickly vegetated for setting up a tent. So, if you’re going to do this walk, organise your route so that you reach a hut each afternoon.

P1030268Hannah kept lagging behind. She took so long to catch up I thought she’d been raptured. If God had taken her with her brassy atheism, and left me with my shabby but still-under-warranty version of Christianity, I would have been Very Seriously Annoyed.

Two enormous landslips had to be negotiated. James, who must have passed this way the previous day, came to mind. With his fear of heights, he would have crapped himself, “Or at the very least, have done his raving nana,” said Hannah.

Again - this is the path!

Again – this is the path!

The first slip involved a steep detour; the second was fresh, and the path went narrowly and shatteringly close along its top lip. There was a mere 15 cm between our feet and the void that dropped away for hundreds of metres. The photograph does not do justice to the size and danger of the slip. Chests to the ground, breathing wet bracken and moving very slowly, we edged past. My nose was dripping. With no hands free and no dry tissues anyway, I had no choice: I wiped my snot on my sleeve. I hadn’t done that for four and-a-half decades, but luckily my technique was still good.

When we reached the swing bridge over the Otaki River, we knew the carpark was close and quickened our pace. Andrew had kindly volunteered to wait for us there at midday and give us a lift to Levin, where we could catch the bus home. It was a good moment when we saw him in the distance, standing next to his sparkly new car and waving. He is rather proud of his car. He had talked about it at the hut, in some detail.

There was a wee problem, though. For hours, I had been aware of an indescribable odour. We hadn’t left it behind us and I realised the stench wasn’t just stalking us – it was attached. It was my shoes. Could I climb into someone’s car with those horrors? No, but I did have a plastic bag in which to wrap them.

Then we thought about our clothes. Everything we had was wet and muddy. How could we sit on nice new upholstery? A furious, whispered emergency discussion was held over the last 100 metres to the car. Then I had an inspiration. We did each have one item of almost dry, mud-free apparel. “Do you think we could quickly change into our nighties?” I hissed. “No!” was Hannah’s emphatic, bug-eyed response. I couldn’t help laughing. I had a vision of the car being stopped by the police and what explanation the hapless Andrew could give for having two lightly clad, bruised and considerably rumpled females lolling in his vehicle. But it did not come to this. Our gracious chauffeur consented to transport us just as we were. Kiwi gallantry comes in many forms.

On the back seat, down the steep road to Levin, Hannah betrayed me by reading ahead in our Ben Elton book. “You’re cheating!” I gasped. “We normally read aloud to each other at night,” I explained to Andrew. “But I make her put her fingers in her ears and say ‘La-la-la-la-la-la’ during the rude parts. When she’s reading and a rude part comes up, I still make her put her fingers in her ears but she can’t do the la-las.” “Do you read Mills and Boons, then?” he asked.

In the main street of Levin, Hannah expressed her intention to remove her wet shirt and put on her fleece top. “I can’t see a loo anywhere, so I’ll just do it here,” she offered, scrabbling through her pack. “But everyone will see you in your bra!” I protested. “Oh mêh!” she shrugged.

Alas, there was no bus to Auckland until the next morning, so we bought our tickets and resigned ourselves to a night at the holiday park. First stop was for Nutella and peanut butter. I like Levin. I haven’t seen another town where there is a doggie hitching rail and water bowl outside the supermarket.

The library was advertising a sale: discarded books for a dollar each. I wanted to stock up for the day-long bus trip home. “You don’t have to schlepp along with me,” I said to Hannah, who groaned when I mentioned it. “You can sit here on the bench outside the supermarket and wait for me.” She was having none of it. “That would make me feel really anxious,” she protested, “because someone would ask me what I was doing and tell me to move on.” She was sweating. I had to clarify a point: “Just half an hour ago, you were going to take your shirt off in the street, and it didn’t bother you. So how is sitting here worse?” “It just is, OK?” A mother must compassionately negotiate many incomprehensions in her task of raising a child with an anxiety disorder. “Oh you are just a tangled pink fluffy mess of complexity and contradiction, aren’t you?” I grumbled.

At the library, the book sale didn’t offer much choice, but there was a large swelling of Mills and Boons and other bodice-rippers. Hannah spent a very happy hour hooting over the covers and reading the sordid synopses aloud. I put my fingers in my ears and went la-la-la but she only stopped when I backhanded her with my chosen hardcover about a priest who had lost his faith.

In romance titles, “wild” is ubiquitous: Wild fury, Wild hearts, Wild concerto, Wildfire, and then there was Defy the eagle, Pirate’s promise, and my favourite: Ecstasy’s chains. “Those are brilliant,” I said, but don’t you think we could invent something better? What about Treacly toilet, or Tempestuous testicles?”

“I want this one,” finally announced my Goth and Death Metal child, trying to hand me Deceive not my heart. The cover colours rivalled a packet of liquorice allsorts, and the slightly embossed, entwined and gilded figures promised vulgar biological enlightenment. “Well, no problem, here’s a dollar, go buy it then,” I said, holding out a coin. “Shoot Mom! I can’t be seen buying that! You’re going to get it for me, aren’t you?” Greater love, and all that…

Sally found us at the holiday park and retrieved her locator beacon. She said there were winds of 100 kph up on the range now. We were very relieved not to be still out there. On the exposed ridges, the large surface area of a backpack would act like a sail.

Lying in a motel bed after having a hot shower and a takeaway roast, and knowing the next day would involve no walking felt like the deepest possible satisfaction. It was climax’s cradle, bosom’s balm, passion’s protruding promise… whatever. However, sleep was a while away because Hannah didn’t want to read the incisive and thought-provoking Ben Elton any more. No. It was Deceive not my heart for us tonight.

Suffice to say the heroine spent a lot of time being unconscious. Somehow, passion bludgeoned a substantial amount of her cortical functioning. But lo! The hero rode a horse called “Tempete” which, luckily, could think for all three of them.

Hannah droned through the turgid text, occasionally stopping to make ringside comments which left me weeping and weak: “Ooo – she’s about to eat the forbidden banana, isn’t she?” Comments like this are the reason why I don’t completely disown her.

Leg 14, The Tararua range, day 8

Saturday, 11 January
Nichols’ Hut to Waitewaewae Hut (8 km)

P1030257A special committee of noisy flies rushed to greet me outside the toilet at daybreak. They were distressingly well nourished. Mist was oozing down from the surrounding peaks, but there was no sign of incipient rain, so that boded well. We said goodbye to James who was going to make Otaki Forks by evening. We thought we’d only get as far as Waitewaewae Hut and we were right. It was a mere 8 km, but it took us well over six hours.

We battled our way through another day of long and steep ascents and descents which were very rough on the quadriceps. Hannah fell and twisted her ankle, but not too badly to force a halt, and there were occasional flashes of sun through the clouds, so on the whole we felt cheerful enough for conversation.

“Mom, what’s pleonasm?” she asked. Pleonasm. That word sounded as familiar as “onomatopoeia” or “socks”. I knew I knew it. In fact, I knew I had taught it and had a PowerPoint grammar lesson on my computer about it. Insufficient food and too much bush time had taken their sinister toll and I could not remember. “I think it is something to do with tautology,” I managed at last. “But I’m not sure. As soon as we get reception again, you can phone Dad and ask him.”

“I prefer tramping with Dad,” announced Hannah. Oh sharper than the serpent’s tooth…! “Why?” I asked. “Dad is disorganised P1030247and always forgets or loses things.” I reminded her of the time on the 90-mile Beach leg when he forgot the water at Scott’s Point  and later was obliged to eat his porridge with a fork at Waipapakauri Beach.  “Oh yes,” she said impatiently. “You’re very organised but you’re pedantic and so render any benefits moot.” I was delighted. I am a sucker for vocabulary. What other 15-year-old abuses her mother like that? The serpent’s tooth gash was now nicely plugged.

P1030255Dead leatherwood plants abounded. Without their leaves, they resemble elaborate silver candelabra. We also found a rather amazing plant. Its flowers were on metre-long orange spires. Let’s just say that any groom watching his bride glide towards him at the altar, with a few of those blossoms in her bouquet, would have good reason to feel nervous.

As our path dropped altitude, alpine vegetation became dim alpine forest with thick moss, then forest with much less moss on the trees and more light filtering though. We could hear the river.

“I’m really hungry,” Hannah moaned. I reminded her that we had almost no food left and it had to be carefully rationed. “I might resort to cannibalism,” she responded. I rolled my eyes and enquired which part of her own flesh and blood she would eat first. After minimal thought she said: “It would be your arse. Because Australia has already been tenderised.”

P1030273We were both cheered by the sight of the suspension bridge over the Otaki River. It was high, narrow and bouncy, with only one person allowed to cross at a time. The trail notes indicated that the hut was close to the bridge, but how close? Desperate to arrive, I kept switching on the GPS to assess our distance from the hut. This is the nearest an adult comes to the childish bleat: “Are we nearly there yet?” It is only minimally more dignified.

At the hut, we found Andrew, Jason and 13-year-old Harrison in residence. Jason and Harrison were on a father and son hunting trip and had a deer in the meat safe. Andrew had walked in on his own from Otaki to have man time.

The hut has a Reader’s Digest Pocket Dictionary. On the flyleaf is written “Please do not remove. For trampers’ nightly amusement.” What can I say? There are People Out There from whom I was separated at birth. I flipped through it, desperately seeking “pleonasm”. Sadly, I saw the entries flowed from “plenty” to “plinth”. Ah well. It was a pocket dictionary. And it was Reader’s Digest.

The hut population swelled with the arrival of a young American man, a middle-aged pharmacist and her husband, and then a young couple. So, on the Tararua range we saw only three women, one of whom was about my age. We saw a smattering of older blokes, but the vast majority were twenty- to mid-thirty somethings. Moreover, the vast majority of souls we encountered throughout the Te Araroa Trail have been foreigners. Come on, Kiwi folk! Walk your wilderness!

Just as we were falling asleep, the discussion of our fellow residents turned to the entries in the hut’s visitors’ book. Frequently in the “destination” column appears the acronym “TAT SOBO”. We knew it meant “Te Araroa Trail, south-bound”, but we didn’t enlighten them. Their efforts to decode it were too entertaining. They guessed the TAT part, but Andrew’s interpretation of SOBO was rather a triumph: “same old bloody outside”.