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returning to civilization after a long tramp in the bush

Today I have spoken more words than I have uttered in the last month.  My throat is dry, my tongue and mouth are tired, but I am out of my head – I have rejoined humanity and am relearning the finer points of human communication.  I’m on the North Island: this bustling metropolis of an island!  Traffic!  Towns, everywhere people and activity.  My last two months on the South Island feel as though they happened in a dream.  I floated on a southern mountain high while the rest of the world ceased to exist.  Quiet, secluded, as if the entire island was there for my own benefit and exploration.  The pace, slow and easy.  If my life was but a dream, then the ferry docking in Wellington on Sunday was the concierge phoning in with my wake up call.  I was unprepared for the contrast.  I’ve often told people that it isn’t fair to compare the North and South Islands, as they are like two different countries.  It seems I had forgotten the truth of my own words.  It is appropriate, however, that I begin this transition.  It  is time that I wake from the dream.  Kelli is on her way.  And not far behind her looms the shock of reentry…I’m going back to America.  Get ready.  It’s time to stop sleeping in the car and going weeks without showering.  I need to ditch the antisocial habits and learn to love my fellow man.  Reach out – enough of this turning inward.  Today was excellent practice.  I climbed Mt. Taranaki with an ebullient, passionate German man who talked tirelessly about life, fate, dreams.  Up the steep side of  the volcano, through loose scree and thickening clouds, he asked me questions about my philosophies and goals: drawing me out, loosening my tongue.  Tonight, an older English woman arrived to share my space at the backpacker’s.  Easy, pleasant conversation about life and travel, family, growth and learning experiences wound around us as we sipped tea in the dwindling light out on the porch, and then prepared and ate a simple dinner together.  Now, as I sit in the window seat typing away happily on the German man’s borrowed laptop, savoring the milky chai tea that the English woman has just prepared for me, I think, remember this, and repeat after me: it is good to be with people.

And now there is a soft gray cat in my lap.  Oh, the simple pleasures.

If I visualize this period of transition as a piece of music, then at this moment what I am hearing is the quiet reflective melody that follows a particularly powerful crescendo: The Hollyford Mission!  It was a ten day trip, through the remote wilds of Fiordland in the southwestern corner of the South Island.  Three days tramping along the beaten path of the Hollyford River valley with a few other hardy souls, three days living in a hut on the beach waiting for bad weather to clear, and four days of complete solitude on the hardest trail I’ve ever walked.  On day one, I hiked 30 km (18 miles – Huge.) and felt six of my ten toes and the bottom of my right heel develop large, swollen blisters.  On day three, I found myself caught out in a torrential downpour, complete with jagged bolts of lightning and crashing thunder, on the wrong side of a flooded river, and had to spend the night huddled between flax plants in a wet tent in a wet sleeping bag.  On day four, I waited for the eye of the storm, packed all of my (sopping wet) gear, crossed the river, and all but sprinted the last three kilometers to the Big Bay Hut.  Big Bay (as the name would suggest), is a large, rectangle-shaped bay on the northern coast of Fiordland.  It’s accessible only by helicopter, small fixed-wing planes, or a four day walk from the nearest road.  Remote.  Beautiful.  Even in the throes of the storm, the wild seas and gray, rocky beach were magic.  What a place to be stuck.

I waited out the weather for two and a half days, and could have easily let myself forget the outside world and simply stay.  There were three surfers stranded with me for the first day, waiting for a break in the clouds so that their airplane could land on the beach and take them home.  Before they left they introduced me to our neighbor, a hunter named Aussie Bob, who was spending a few weeks in his private hut a kilometer further down the beach.  When the surfers finally soared away, it was just Bob and me and the beach and the wind and rain.  Bob was perhaps fifty years old, a sheep-shearer, and for 17 years had been hunting the coast and hills of northern Fiordland.  I wished, repeatedly, that I had a tape recorder to capture the stories he shared.  A genuine, multi-faceted individual, a true man of the land who could gauge deer’s bloodlines from the shape of the antlers of the stags he’d killed.  He described himself as a redneck, but he was the most open-minded and accepting redneck I’ve ever met.  “Different strokes for different folks,” he’d say as he shook his head over the lifestyles of the various people he’s met in his long and varied life.  He wasn’t sure what to make of me at first: a young woman on her own in the absolute last frontier of the NZ bush, confident of my abilities yet responsible and aware of the risks of the back country and the measures needed to counter them.  I walked down the beach to his hut the first night to listen to the weather forecast on his mountain radio, and stayed to chat over a can of beer.  As he listened to my stories of Antarctica and past tramping experience, I could see his respect for my independence grow at the same time as he sought to protect me.  Bob sent me home with flour and yeast to bake bread in my hut’s camp oven, and the next afternoon showed up with fresh venison back steaks (the nicest part of the animal) wrapped in a plastic bag.  These I cooked in a curry, using the ingredients that the surfers had left behind.  Venison curry and fresh bread baked on a wood stove in a little hut on the beach in Fiordland in NZ.  I’m not sure that cuisine gets any better than that.

For two days, life took on a simplicity and a peace that I would find difficult to recapture.  In the mornings, I stoked the fire, got it roaring, with a kettle on top of the stove for tea, then ventured out to the beach to check the weather and gather more driftwood to feed the fire.  The water would be hot when I got back, and Bob would pop in and join me for a cuppa while spinning yarns about his work and his misadventures as a young, redneck Aussie visiting New Zealand for the first time.  After tea I’d have a wash at the faucet behind the hut, sweep out the sand, mix up a batch of bread dough to rise, then sit and read and watch the birds, fantails, wax-eyes and tomtits, swoop and dive outside the window.  Eventually the rain stopped and I could go for walks on the beach, taking pictures and collecting shells.  In the evenings I’d walk over to Bob’s hut to catch the weather and listen to his stories.  I’d inevitably show up barefoot (it was warm enough, and it was easier than putting on wet hiking boots), which would make Bob shake his head.  “You’re a tough bitch, aren’t you?” he said, in a tone of deep respect and admiration.  The night before I left, three of Bob’s hunting mates arrived by fixed-wing plane, and he invited me to come over for a roast (wild boar, pumpkin, kumara).  There I sat, smack in the middle of a kiwi hunting “man’s weekend”…how did I get here?  I marveled.

The rest of the trip was along the Pyke River valley: tough going.  This was a track that sought to break me.  It had already sent blisters, lightning, wind, rain, floods.  The second half tried to turn me back with fallen trees, mud, lakes, suffocating bush, thorns, vines, roots, slips, trips, falls, cuts, and bruises.  It thrashed me good, and then dared me to keep going – and I did.  Yet my memories are tinged with a glowing sort of magic.  I saw no one.  Red deer grazed along the sides of the rivers, and stags roared terrifyingly in the bush.  A NZ falcon swooped down from its lofty perch to examine me close up.  At one side creek, I balked at the murky orange water of questionable depth and the half-submerged tree stumps that poked out ominously.  Instead of walking through it, I took a gamble on a fallen tree that conveniently bridged the 8-foot creek.  It was narrow and smooth.  Too narrow and smooth.  So much for my dry sleeping bag and my mobile phone!  The next day I walked around Lake Wilmot, a small lake made nearly impassable by windfalls – it took me four hours to cover one kilometer.  Next was the Black Swamp, where I had to leap between tiny tussock mounds to avoid the sucking, stinking mud that at one point swallowed both of my legs up to my groin.  On the last day, I walked five kilometers through Lake Alabaster (yes, I had to walk IN the lake), climbing over slippery rocks and fallen trees, staring tiredly through my raincoat hood (it was raining again) at the waterfalls pouring down the cliffs on the other side of the lake.  Like the creature from the Black Lagoon, I rose from the lake at the end of the day, trudged wetly across the beach to the hut, and stood solidly on the porch.  I turned and surveyed the length of the lake I’d just conquered, and cheered.  The Hollyford – Pyke/Big Bay Mission: DONE!!  Satisfaction supreme.

24 April, 2007

(A real time update: Kelli and I are in Taupo, in the middle of the North Island, and all is well.  More to come as the (mis)adventures continue!)

1 comment to returning to civilization after a long tramp in the bush

  • Hi Susan, have you hiked “the Munroes” ?!(Scotland: the Munroes http://www.walkingandhiking.co.uk/climbing-bagging-munroes.html
    You should! My husband has, I have not..just know them.
    I am a solo sailor, just back from NZ, with thoughts of returning to the Hollyford track…after reading your recount of the trials and tribulations of parts of it…I will think twice about how I might do it!
    Loved meeting Lynn at Gunn’s Camp and the history behind the place, it was serendipitous that I ended up there, and was so pleased to have made the stop.
    Enjoyed your writing, and most of all, your spirit. Loved the part about the “red neck” – sounds like my kind of human being.
    Keep up the writing and exploring! I am a few years down the track…but still at “exploring”, won’t stop ’till I die!
    Stay free and keep it up.
    May the gods go with you.. with winds at your back!

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