People soup

“Yikes, look at that car park!  We had better carry that tent!”  Carrie counted a dozen cars as we rolled into the muddy paddock that was the start of the Toaroa valley track.    And the group just organizing themselves to set off was about 10 college kids debating whether they needed two or three liters of marguarita mix, on top of the Raro and vodka that was already packed.

Of course, it WAS a holiday weekend (God save the Queen! And keep those birthdays rolling), and the east coast forecast was miserable drizzle and cold rain for three days straight.  West Coast, uncharacteristically, was meant to be blue skies.  We were also headed to a well known hut within 4 hours of the road that was famed for its hot pools.  Blue skies + long weekend + accessible hut + good hot pools = popular.

On the way there Carrie and I indulged in some much-needed womanly communion, covering the gamut of husband-dreaded topics (relationships, pregnancy, woman in careers, mama guilt….).

Just before the hut is the longest wiggliest swing bridge I’ve ever crossed. Not that I’m complaining! It sure beats wading the river, and we saw a pair of whio (rare NZ blue ducks) from the vantage point of the bridge.

Much refreshed in mind (though ready for a rest in body), we arrived at the hut just in time for afternoon tea.

The hut residents looked us over and quickly.  ‘The hut is FULL!” they declared cheerfully.  “Absolutely chocker!”

There’s an old historic hut that sits right next to the modern hut at Cedar Flats, a two-bunker… it had five people already in residence!

We set up our tent in the field, then sipped our tea before strolling up to the hot pools, which were on a side stream above the hut.  “People soup!” Carrie chuckled, as we tried to guess how many of our fellow trampers were already thronging the pools.  As it turned out, we got a turn in the pools while they were quiet.  When we got back, the whole field was covered in tents.

The hot pools really were FANTASTIC.  I have been roundly disappointed with natural hot springs many times before.  In my imagination they should be like my childhood pop-up book with Japanese macaques calmly poking their heads up and down though the clear steamy water, snow encrusted mountains surrounding the serene pools.  In reality all the natural hot pools I’ve visited have been ankle-deep in slime (bacteria like the warm sulfury water) and swarming with ravenous blood-sucking sandflies.

But this spring was more silty than slimy, the water mysteriously satiny with swirling black particles.  The sulfur water turned by bracelet from silver to bronze in a matter of minutes–ah, the power of chemistry!  It really was good and hot too–steam rose all around us, only slightly obscuring the view of the snowy peaks.  It must have been too cold for the majority of the sandflies, and the college kids didn’t pile in until we were finished.  The hot water was seeping from a spring on the opposite side of the freezing creek, but with the good hot soak we could bank enough body heat to bolster us during the splash back, rinsing, and reclothing process.

Clear starry skies delivered a hard frost in the morning.  The water from our breath had frozen inside our tent, and was snowing down on us by morning.  I wore every scrap of clothes that I had, and was warm enough.  We crowded into the hut with the rest of the gang for breakfast, then set off for a day-hike quest to find snow.  I had carried my snow shoes and was determined to use them.

The trail was a no-nonsense shortest route to the a mountain saddle.  Read that as STEEP.  When you go straight up it’s amazing how fast you gain altitude.

Low down we crossed this stream that joined another and went through a gorge. Can you see the blue of the water? The color of the water is amazing.

The big trees ended just at the first patches of snow, and Adventure Biv greeted us, cheerfully orange.  What a spot!  We almost wished we had carried our stuff up the hill last night to be able to perch there.  Almost….except the climb was really steep and the water at the bivvy was all frozen.  The exit sign on the inside of the door cracked me up….as if you could exit that structure any other way!  Government regulations I suppose….

We ate our lunch in the sun, feeling like sultans, then moved up into the snow just as cloud cover obscured the sun.  I had really wanted to get to Zit saddle, but the going was slow with the soft snow hiding the path and pockets of air beneath the tussocks.  It was still fantastic though; the snow brings back good winter hiking memories from the Adirondacks.  In the end we just went a little ways beyond the bivvy, looked at our watches, and decided to play it safe with day light and go back to the hut and the hot pools.

Couldn’t resist trying out this tree perch.  A rata tree, I think, that was hosting lots of other species of greenery in its branches.

The next morning on our way out we decided to try the flood route.  Most people walk the river bed, as we had done on the way in, but there was a marked (if not as well maintained) trail higher up the bank in case the river is too high to walk.  The boulders had been slick and icy on our way in and we decided to try our luck with the flood route on the way back.  It was quite vertical!  But the tree ferns were amazing, and I kept trying my hand at IDing the big podocarp species NZ is known for–rimu, totara, miro, as well as others like kamahi and rata.  If you didn’t know better, this place would look tropical.  Certainly exotic, if not warm.

As we drove back over the Alps towards the east coast the clouds got thicker and the roads got wetter.  It was still raining, same as when we had left Saturday morning.  I’d like to say that we were thinking compassionately of our husbands who had been minding the kids on their own over the long wet weekend, but….

 

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Mission: Wharfedale by bike

This doesn’t look like Wharfedale hut, does it? There are some NZ huts in lovely settings, but this, alas, is not Wharfedale. It’s the beach at New Brighton where we started the day, with Jeremiah and his friend Ben cutting up deer meat after the previous week’s successful hunt, and me bringing the kids down to the beach for a play.

Actually, nothing really went wrong. The track was just a little bumpier than the kids are used to, it was a warm day (read that as fatiguingly hot to Mr. Red-faced Milo), and as the afternoon wore on the lollies had to come at progressively close intervals.

Naomi was at the point of stopping and sitting on the ground when we hooked her up to Daddy’s bike, after which her demeanor changed completely. “Let’s go, Dad!” she shouted, cracking the proverbial whip as she bounced cheerfully along.

The four-wheel drive track crossed the river at various places, but as it was a warm day, wet feet weren’t a bother. Naomi waited at the river’s edge like a princess, reaching up her arms for her lift over after the bikes had been transported.  She was wearing her “biking skirt,” which means it was short and poofy enough not to get dirty on the tire.

Milo did really well, even through the last bit of uphill single track that required lots of bike pushing, but I could hear the desperation mounting as we rounded every corner: “Are we there yet??” “Almost,” I kept saying, as I inserted gummy candies into his mouth and pushed his bike from behind. Finally we heard voices through the trees and knew we were well and truly almost there.

Upon reaching the hut they both completely revived, swinging on the ladder and noisily claiming bunks. The glorious people with whom we shared the hut just smiled and tolerated the mayhem, even chatting back at times.

For some reason Milo was convinced that salamanders lived in the stream at the hut, and even fancied he saw some as he reached down for skipping rocks. We spent a pleasant few minutes aiming stones at a rock while Daddy cooked dinner.

“When can we get up?” they inquired at sun-up, in a resonating whisper. “Shh! Everyone else is sleeping!” we admonished them. Rustle, rustle. Giggle, squeal. Those wonderful people on the bottom bunk didn’t even voice a complaint.

The bike out was slightly down hill, and therefore easier. We managed to pause from swatting sand flies for long enough to get a group photo before we set off.

The water looks nice, doesn’t it? It was “fresh,” as they say here. Translation: COLD. Jeremiah gamely jumped off the rock three times before I got a suitable photo.

A tramp with our Weatherproof Brits

“I know a really great hut, up on the Banks Peninsula, an easy walk in for kids–want to book it for a weekend with the families?” It was probably three months ago that Ian suggested the plan. This particular DOC hut is so enormously popular that it has a booking system, so you must lock in a weekend trip well in advance, and you can’t reschedule in the event of rain. Good thing we were going with the Weatherproof Brits. Come rain, hail, cloud or shine, they will cheerfully follow through with the plan.

First off, one must wear one’s best pink attire for hiking. Fashion makes for happiness.

It doesn’t matter that the pink gets covered up in red wet weather gear–it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
These totara trees aren’t flexibly blowing in the wind. They are permanently deformed, buffeted by near constant wind until only the shoots that emerge on the leeward side survive.

It was only an hour’s walk to the hut, but the blustery sky was starting to glower and spit, and it was good to duck inside–still warm from the previous residents.

The kids carried in fire wood and we stoked the pot belly stove all afternoon, watching clouds envelope the hut until it felt truly remote.

It turns out that logs make good fort building materials, and the kids contentedly set up shop. Adults drank coffee, I knitted on a hat.

I baked rolls for dinner. I like the Pittsburgh stove, a little reminder of home, and warm winter houses. I like New Zealand, really I do, but the home heating is furnaceless, mired in the dark ages of single pane windows,and uninsulated floors.. It was a treat to make a room warm enough to comfortably wear short sleeves.  The windows in the hut are better than those in our house.

Jeremiah baked ziti for dinner. Our English friends had to google ziti during our email planning to figure out what it was. “Lazy man’s lasagna,” we described it. It was yummy, again done on the Pittsburgh stove.

The composting toilet was very civilized, and didn’t smell, despite heavy usage. The only improvement I’d suggest would be to turn the window to the view side.

Bed time for Bonzo. We put the younger kids to bed in the top bunks and took out a deck of Quiddler and a bottle of beer for the evening.

Emma said we were the noisiest family she has ever shared a room with. Jeremiah snores (clearly), and apparently Naomi and Milo talk in their sleep. I slept through nearly all of it.

The stars came out during the night and the next day “dawned clear and fresh as could be, blue sky and never a cloud, with the sun dancing on the water.” Now we could fully appreciate the view from the hut windows.

A short walk into the hut means we can really go luxurious with the breakfast. Sausages and eggs with cinnamon rolls (again, complements of the wood stove).

Here’s the whole gang, ready to roll out in the morning.

A family weekend, enhanced all-round by the company of friends.

Alpine again: Hawdon to Edwards

“We could walk in to Hawdon hut Friday night,” Jeremiah suggested early in the week.  I recoiled.  It’s autumn now, and nights are Cold.  And Dark.  River crossings would be in the cold dark….  Late entry to a cold, dark hut….  Ug.

“Um, that doesn’t sound like very much fun to me,” I grimaced.

“Ok then,” Jeremiah acquiesced, raising his eyebrows.  “But if you want to do that hike, it might be worth the three hour walk in the dark.”

And I really did want to do that hike.  I’ve been eyeing it for a couple years now, ever since I walked in to the hut by myself one warm summer evening and peaked up over the edge of the trees to the alpine meadow beyond.  It had been sunny and calm, idyllic conditions that rarely happen in the mountains, and the little tarn with the path wending through the tussocks had been so inviting….  The book said the route continued over a couple mountain passes and then down into a valley beyond.  It would entail two nights out and lots of climbing, and a hitch hike at the end.  It would be a good one to do with a capable mountain man like Jeremiah.

“Well, maybe if the weather for the next two days is perfect, then it would be worth the wretched Friday night walk in,” I consented.

We planned two other less ambitious routes, and I waited until Wednesday to look at the weekend forecast.  I was shocked to see a big fat high pressure system sitting over the whole of the Southern Alps.  Sunny and calm for three days straight.  Probably worth that three hour walk in the dark!

Jeremiah’s frozen breath shown in a ragged cloud in my head lamp. Cold dew drops sparkled on the grass, and the riverbed rocks clattered under our feet. We were looking for the four-wheel-drive track up the river bed, but more often than not we lost it. Not that it mattered….the hut was three hours up the river. We turned off our lights and the moon lit the world in silver and black. We tromped through the water, then turned and splashed through the winding river again. We heard a noise and stopped to listen. It was the chirpy chortle of a kiwi bird. “I’ve never heard one in the wild before!” I exclaimed.

“I smell smoke! The hut must be close!” Walking in the dark had been a lot more pleasant than I expected, but I was still ready to shuck the wet boots, and smoke held the promise of a warm hut. We clomped up the steps and a startled face peered out the window. Poor guy. It’s disconcerting to have newcomers show up during the night when you have been sound asleep. We apologized and moved our stuff quickly to the adjoining bunk room. It was cold, and I snuggled into my sleeping bag fully dressed, a wooly cap on my head.

The next morning we slept in until 7:30, cooked our oatmeal, and slid our feet into our wet boots. Just as the sun reached the hut, we set off.

Selfie! Jeremiah and Molly were here, Hawdon Hut, May 5th, 2017.

We climbed in the dappled sun through the beech trees until we reached the alpine zone. The hut would be somewhere on the right of the valley there.

It was frosty in the shadow of the mountain when we turned on to the alpine meadow this time, and the icy rocks were slippery.  We passed a couple picturesque tarns, but they were NOT enticing for a swim. This one had its first delicate coat of ice crusting the top.

We waited until rounding the next bend before we stopped to admire this view and have our morning tea (or morning hot tang, as Jeremiah chose), airing our damp socks in the sun.

It’s a good thing that the man has a sense of humor. He almost “stepped in a puddle up to his middle and never was seen again!” Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the patch of mud that looked solid turned out deeper than expected, and I couldn’t stop giggling. I never have
been a very sympathetic soul.

Soon after that the trail took a turn up another shady valley with a steep rocky stream, crisp with frost. We did eventually pop out into another alpine platueau, Walker’s Pass, where Jeremiah spotted the second chamois of the day.

What better thing to do in a pristine alpine meadow than a head stand? Well, a cart wheel would be better, but I’m rubbish at those. Those tough little mountain plants may look soft and inviting, but they’re actually quite prickly on the scalp.

At the end of the meadow the trail drops off abruptly to this massive scree field below. This is on the Divide, the watershed between the east coast and the west coast, and also the location of the biggest fault line in New Zealand. The scree slope we slid down is in front of the appropriately named Falling Mountain. The landscape is bizarre, like a gigantic pile of rubble in a war zone or maybe Mars. Not a lot of stability in the environment here.  It is ridiculously fun to slide/walk DOWN a scree slope, but punishing to traverse.  Thankfully, our route went down.

We paused for lunch out of the rock fall zone (we hoped), realizing that it would be an unfortunate place to be should another earthquake happen. The low autumn sun tucked behind the surrounding mountain peaks, and we spent the next two hours in the shade, poking around for the trail under overgrown tussocks and crossing the river repeatedly.

A cloud pushed ominously down the valley behind us as we walked.

Finally we saw trees ahead, and the hut just beyond some wonderfully constructed over-marsh walkways. There was smoke coming from the chimney–the promise of warmth.

That cloud never did extend all the way down the valley to the Edwards Hut where we spent the night, and the next morning was again blue sky. The hut was inhabited by two Frenchmen and an Irishman, all working in Christchurch. I like the company in the huts; it often has an international flavor, and the accents are as colorful as the opinions.

My phone battery died in the cold of the night, so I have no photos of the walk out down the Edwards valley.  It’s a shame, because the beech forest was green and inviting, and at the bottom we rounded a bend into an eerily frosted section of the river that never sees the sun at this time of the year.  A mist hung over the frozen rocks and I half expected to come across a kea picking at a dead deer or something even less savory and more haunting.  I was glad when we finally turned the last corner back into the sun and I could shake off the spooks.

The guys we had spent the night with at the hut had a car at the Edwards Valley end, and they generously offered to give us a lift back down to the Hawden.  No need to even hitch a ride.

We picked up the kids at Emma and Ian’s house, and it turns out that they had enjoyed their weekend in town as much as we had enjoyed ours in the mountains. Check out this cake decorating! Milo had picked up a book from the library all about elaborate Christmas cake designs with reign deer made from frosting and other such horrors. I advised him that I’m not good at cake decorating, least of all Christmas cake decorating, and he would have to consult with Emma for that skill. Thanks heaps, Emma!

 

Green mountain therapy

Ah, the New Zealand Alpine. I’ve missed it. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been tramping, but my back is feeling much better and I planned a weekend hike with some girlfriends. We headed up to Lewis Pass Saturday morning and lucked out with the weather.

We were looking for a not-too-difficult tramp that included least a little high country, so we settled on a morning walk with just day packs up to the Lewis Tops, lunching in the alpine tussocks, then back down to the start of the St James walkway where we’d pick up our overnight packs and head to a hut for the night. My hiking companions this weekend were Steph (Australian) and Irmana (Spanish).

When you look closely at the alpine ground covers, you have to be impressed with their variety and toughness. I had on a coat and gloves, and it wasn’t even winter. These little guys get alternatively scorched by the sun, frazzled by the gales, and petrified under snow….and yet they look cheerful. Some are even making berries.

The Lewis Tops walk continues for a few miles over this ridge line. There is a hut up here somewhere, a tiny “bivouac” two-bunker.
About 12 hours after starting you eventually reach a bigger hut in a valley (so the map says). I’m going to come back some day and do it. Some gloriously still day. Maybe the wind stops up here on occasion? It was remarkably chilly up where the clouds were skimming low and we were glad we had decided NOT to tent up here. But I’ll be back.

Lewis Tops

It was hard to turn around, but turn around we did. “The path goes ever, ever on…over grass and over stone….and I must follow, if I can….” JRR Tolkien.

The good part about going down is heading back into the trees. Lots of people don’t like hiking through forest because they find it boring compared to the outlook of the tops. But I don’t get tired of the GREEN.  Especially the dappled green of a sunny day.  I just love it.

The St James walkway has very luxurious swing bridges. We crossed two of them. You don’t take bridges for granted on NZ tramps, as may of the trails involve wet-foot crossings!  I had promised the girls a flat hike in, but I obviously mis-remembered from last time.  “Undulating” would describe the route better.  I have to say it felt flatter on the way out, on rested legs.  

Across one bridge sits a little clay man on a stone (yes, he has man parts), laughing at you as you bounce across the bridge. Whatever he is made of weathers pretty well; I remember him there from a couple years ago!

Cannibal Gorge Hut. So named because lots of human bones have been found in this valley, a trading and raiding route for Maori tribes coveting greenstone from the west coast. There’s speculation that the people were eaten after losing a battle. I wonder what Man tastes like. Ug. This hut has never been one of my favorites, maybe because of the name, or maybe because last time we were here it was completely infested with mice.

No matter about the Ghosts of Cannibals lurking nearby. We lit a fire and passed a cheerful evening. Did you know that Old Man’s Beard lichen makes an excellent fire starter?

The frost was heavy on the grass in the morning, the first I’ve seen this year (being a city-dwelling low lander these days).

Frost is beautiful, when you’re personally warm at least.  Which I was.  Hurray for good gear (thanks to Jeremiah for that).

A three hour walk in the morning brought us back out to our car. This part of the forest has green above and green below, a mature southern hemisphere beech forest. They’re good for pondering, these forests. Is there something inherently contemplative and restful about the color green? It seems that way to me.

So, I’m back in the hiking business.  It’s great.  Really great.  I feel like I have my identity back.

Cycling the St James

Every summer I do a tramp with my friend Laura in Nelson–I fly up after work on a Friday, she picks me up at the airport, and we hike a mountain somewhere in the Kahurangi National Park.  We’ve been to some spectacular places (Mt Owen’s peculiar limestone formations are probably my favorite so far).  But this year, with these darn back troubles, I haven’t been hiking….  But I HAVE been biking!  So this year we decided to met in Hanmer Springs and bike the St. James Cycleway.

DOC's map shows the cycleway, 64 kilometers of mountain biking through the sweeping Waiau river valley.  We concluded that the difficulty of the ride was exaggerated somewhat in the description--DOC must feel responsible keep inexperienced bikers from getting in over their heads.

DOC’s map shows the cycleway, 64 kilometers of mountain biking through the sweeping Waiau river valley. We concluded that the difficulty of the ride was exaggerated somewhat in the description–DOC must feel responsible keep inexperienced bikers from getting in over their heads.  Though there are huts along the way, we don’t have our bikes set up with saddle bags so we decided to do the ride in one day, and stay at a backpacker (a.k.a. hostel) in Hanmer the nights before and after.  

The track starts with a climb up a four-wheel-drive road to Maling pass.  The forecast had been for showers, clearing during the morning, so we rugged up and brought our hats and puffies and changes of clothes in our backpacks....but the day turned out fine.  "Blue skies and never a cloud, the sun dancing on the water."

The track starts with a climb up a four-wheel-drive road to Maling pass. The forecast had been for showers, clearing during the morning, so we rugged up and brought our hats and puffies and changes of clothes in our backpacks….but the day turned out fine. “Blue skies and never a cloud, the sun dancing on the water.”

Morning tea spot!  I had thought we'd be huddling in a hut sheltering from drizzle for our stops, so the sun was certainly a pleasant surprise.

Morning tea spot! I had thought we’d be huddling in a hut sheltering from drizzle for our stops, so the sun was certainly a pleasant surprise.  The bumblebees were a surprise too–they were nearly aggressive, certain that my blue helmet and Laura’s purple shirt must hold giant stockpiles of sweet nectar, like two massive borage flowers.  We moved from ignoring them to “wafting” them gently with our hands to skipping away amid frantically waving arms, and eventually took to our bikes again.  

Grassy river flat biking is fast!

Grassy river flat biking is fast!

There's a 100k cycle race that uses this track each year, but those bikers have to cross the Waiau river and go up the side valleys a couple times.  Laura was tempted to try it....I not so much.

There’s a 100k cycle race that uses this track each year, but those bikers have to cross the Waiau river and go up the side valleys a couple times. Laura was tempted to try it….I not so much.

I like crossing rivers on bridges, and thankfully the two times the trail crossed the sizeable Waiau, there were beautiful swing bridges, complete with steep descents and accents on either side.

I like crossing rivers on bridges, and thankfully the two times the trail crossed the sizeable Waiau, there were beautiful swing bridges, complete with steep descents and accents on either side.

Standard bridge crossing warning....looking at the drop below I was inclined to be obedient and not put the bridge under undue strain.

Standard bridge crossing warning….Two people AND two bikes??? Looking at the drop below I was inclined to be obedient and not put the bridge under undue strain.

The river valley was spread out below us.  It's good to be in the back country.  Makes us feel rugged.

The river valley was spread out below us. It’s good to be in the back country. Makes us feel rugged, and a bit like kings.

Laura is hands-down faster than me when it comes to down hill or flat riding, and is really good a handling her bike over loose rocks and around curves....but even she ditched it into a bush one time.  Thankfully manuka is a softer landing than spiny matagouri, and she came out with only a small bruise.  I took a spill on the way down the first pass and was duly cautious for the rest of the ride, so all in all we didn't get knocked around too badly.  That's a win for the mommies, whose bodies don't heal as fast as the kiddos anymore.

Laura is hands-down faster than me when it comes to down hill or flat riding, and is really good a handling her bike over loose rocks and around curves….but even she ditched it into a bush one time. Thankfully manuka is a softer landing than spiny matagouri, and she came out with only a small bruise. I took a spill on the way down the first pass and was duly cautious for the rest of the ride, so all in all we didn’t get knocked around too badly. That’s a win for the mommies, whose bodies don’t heal as fast as the kiddos anymore.

"Phew, finally the end of that hill!"  The hardest part about most of the hills was the loose surface, making getting any traction really tough.  In other words, we walked our bikes up these bits.

“Phew, finally the end of that hill!” The hardest part about most of the hills was the loose surface, making getting any traction really tough. In other words, we walked our bikes up these bits.  The last 7k of the track was a smooth downhill, and it was like a glorious sled ride…until we discovered that we hadn’t parked our car at the end of the track.  We shared a granola bar and got ready for a long slog up the road into the headwind….but thankfully we had only left it a couple kilometers along.  We were in Hanmer in time to enjoy a platter of deep fried nibbles and beer.  

These weekends are a chance to have an adventure, but there's much more to them than that.  I don't have a picture of the conversations we have.  We talk about child-rearing and jobs; husbands and siblings; God and science; frustrations and aspirations.  And what we learned from our last podcast episode.  In short, everything important.  

These weekends are fantastic adventure, but there’s much more to them than sport.  I don’t have a picture of the conversations we share.  We giggle and lament, philosophize and opine.  We talk about child-rearing and jobs; husbands and siblings; God and science; frustrations and aspirations.  And what we learned from our last podcast episode.  In short, everything important in life.  What can be more satisfying than that?

 

Eerie Jollie’s

“Mmoooo.”  The Herefords stared at me with their white faces, standing in the trail.   “Mmooo,” I answered back.  I have yet to meet a mean cow in New Zealand, but still I detoured around their feeding grounds.  No need to test their mood.   The trail disappeared into the tall broom and I followed the hoof prints.  The cattle had clearly been using the DOC track.  Or maybe I was on their track?  The trail petered out; I pushed through another 100 meters of brush before deciding to turn back.  Damn.

“Mmoooo.” The Herefords stared at me with their white faces, standing in the trail.
“Mmooo,” I answered back. I have yet to meet a mean cow in New Zealand, but still I detoured around their feeding grounds. No need to test their mood.
The trail disappeared into the tall broom and I followed the hoof prints. The cattle had clearly been using the DOC track. Or maybe I was on their track? The trail petered out; I pushed through another 100 meters of brush before deciding to turn back. Damn.

“June 18-19th:  Molly hiking.”  I had marked it on the calendar so I’d get a turn too.  It was to be a loner weekend, just by myself….I need those from time to time. But then as the time had approached I hadn’t known where to go.

I had borrowed “South Island Weekend Tramps” from the library, but it sat unread under the couch.  The trouble is, I hate route planning.  It’s as bad as shopping.  I just want to turn up and walk.

“Have you decided where you’re going yet?”  Jeremiah had nagged gently.  He’s a little edgy about me hiking alone, and I knew he half expected me not to get my act together and to stay home instead.  This knowledge in particular prodded me to pull out the map.

“You might like this one,” Jeremiah had suggested.  The map showed a trail following a stream up to a hut, then looping over a low pass and back to the start via the Hurunui River flats.  “Alright, that sounds do-able,” I had agreed.  The forecast wasn’t so flash, but if I go up the side with the river Saturday, I can take the drier route out in the rain on Sunday.

Now I stood at the stream bank.  This was clearly the ford, but my map showed the trail neatly on my side of the stream, and I had been savouring the idea of dry boots.  And if this was the way up Jollie Brook, then where was that turn off to Gabriel Hut?

Now I stood at the stream bank. This was clearly the ford, but my map showed the trail neatly on my side of the stream, and I had been savouring the idea of dry boots. And if this was the way up Jollie Brook, then where was that turn off to Gabriel Hut?

“Now Molly,” I said to myself, “This is simple.  Just an easy walk up a stream bed.  You can’t possibly be lost.  Walk up stream for four or five hours and it will be impossible not to get there.”  Except for that turn to Gabriel Hut that never appeared….except if the map is old and the hut has burnt down….except if the river crossings get too deep….except if there’s someone unsavoury ahead of me on the trail.  There was one other car in the car park….it didn’t look like a murderer’s car….Darn it! I shouldn’t have listened to that podcast about the Adirondack killer last week.

I’m relieved to find another orange triangle a little way past the ford.  But again the trail disappeared, and I scanned along the opposite stream bank for another one.  Maybe that path there is it?  Or maybe it’s another cattle trail?  I hesitated before plunging into the cold water.  The sun is winter-low, shining in my eyes and glaring off the water so I can’t judge the depth.  This time it came up above my knees and I emerged truly squelching.  I wished Jeremiah was hiking with me.

The golden-dead grasses wave in the brisk breeze being funnelled down the river valley.  I startle a black cow in the bushes and chuckle nervously.  I scan the ground for other boot prints and find the ridges of shoe tread in the mud….they don’t look like murderer’s foot prints.  What do murderer’s foot prints look like?  I decide that if the people ahead of me are unsavoury that I’ll push on to the next hut, even if it’s by torch light.

I lost count of the number of river crossings—a ‘brook’ is a misnomer.  Big river trout dart away from my splashes, and I make a mental note to give Jeremiah a fishing tip.  My toes go numb, then my feet.  This must be what it feels like to walk on hooves.

I lost count of the number of river crossings—a ‘brook’ is a misnomer. Big river trout dart away from my splashes, and I make a mental note to give Jeremiah a fishing tip. My toes go numb, then my feet. This must be what it feels like to walk on hooves.

The valley is in shadow when I tromp through the last crossing and catch sight of an outhouse in the clearing.  A man is bent over beyond chopping wood.  Do murderers wear plaid shirts?  He carried his arm load of wood into the hut without seeing me.

The valley is in shadow when I tromp through the last crossing and catch sight of an outhouse in the clearing. A man is bent over beyond chopping wood. Do murderers wear plaid shirts? He carried his arm load of wood into the hut without seeing me.

I turned the small metal knob and peered around the door.  A young blond woman sits at the table.

“Oh, I’ve seen you before, I met you at a hut!” Relief makes me talkative, and I cudgel my brain trying to remember just where I had seen her.  The other two guys are hunters, but they’re young and clean cut.  They don’t look scary at all.

“We’re going to walk up the ridge before dark,” one says.  “Want to come?”   “Sure!” My feet are completely numb, but climbing the ridge sounds better than squatting in the hut alone.  I squeeze out my boots and ring out the wet socks.  While I fill my water bottle from the creek, one of the hunters hangs my soggy socks on a string above the door.  What a gentleman.

“We’re going to walk up the ridge before dark,” one says. “Want to come?”
“Sure!” My feet are completely numb, but climbing the ridge sounds better than squatting in the hut alone. I squeeze out my boots and ring out the wet socks. While I fill my water bottle from the creek, one of the hunters hangs my soggy socks on a string above the door. What a gentleman.

As it turns out, that one was a medical student.  The girl was an architect, and the boy was an apprentice builder.  They must have been at least a decade younger than I, but I enjoyed their company as they warmed up their canned soup over the wood stove.  Apparently, student flats in Dunedin don’t have any heat, and opening the refrigerator in winter lets out a waft of comparatively warm air.  A morning pee thaws ice in the toilet bowl.  The DOC hut sounds like a luxury apartment now, because we can’t even see our breath.  It’s crazy, but they didn’t seem to mind these conditions.  Southlanders are a tough breed.

The majority of the rain passed over night and by morning the mist was gentle.  Water droplets on the coprosma berries reflected a warped upside-down world, but it didn’t feel sinister like the day before.  A dog’s bark greeted me at Gabriel’s Hut.  Good thing I hadn’t spent the night there with the pig hunters.  They’re a breed unto themselves—let’s leave it at that.

The majority of the rain passed over night and by morning the mist was gentle. Water droplets on the coprosma berries reflected a warped upside-down world, but it didn’t feel sinister like the day before. A dog’s bark greeted me at Gabriel’s Hut. Good thing I hadn’t spent the night there with the pig hunters. They’re a breed unto themselves—let’s leave it at that.

The wide Hurunui river flats opened up with dewy grasses and expansive views, and after a few hours of trudging under the grey skies, I was happy enough to reach the car, ditch the boots, and head home.

The wide Hurunui river flats opened up with dewy grasses and expansive views, and after a few hours of trudging under the grey skies, I was happy enough to reach the car, ditch the boots, and head home.

Jeremiah even had the floor vacuumed and a pulled pork dinner made when I arrived.