Te Araroa enters its own nightmare on the Tokomaru River

Maber

I was asleep on the floor of a J3 Bedford bus, and I dreamed.

I was high up on a corrugated iron rooftop painted bright red. I was climbing along the ridgetop, holding onto the flashing. As I moved, the roof away to my right began to soften and sag.

I felt a surge of confidence in my own strength. I was fit and could deal with it. I swarmed away left, but the roof's peculiar decay was moving faster than I was. The ridgeline began to sag beneath my hand and I began to swing downward on the vinous thing, not knowing if it would hold or break.

I have always treated dreams with utter respect. They are only dreams of course, whose bizarre scenes and situations do not, could not, occur in the waking world.

Except that they do.

I woke up, with the fear slowly draining away. One of last night's visitors to the bus had offered me a little plastic snap bag of Feilding homegrown tobacco. Very mild. They paid only $35 for a half-kilo of the weed. I restrict my smoking, but not always. I rolled myself a thin cigarette lit it, and lay on my back, watching the smoke drift up to the ceiling. The bus rocked as Corrin Maber got up out the back, dressed, and came through the curtain.

"Breakfast?" he said.

"Sure."

The gas rings popped as he lit them.

"Bacon?"

"Oh yes."

"Two eggs?"

"Uh huh."

"Let's see what else we've got here." He had his head in the cupboard

"Baked beans, spaghetti, corn, ra ra ra, what do you want?."

The breakfast, finally, was huge, with fried onions and sautéed garlic on the side, and toast butter and jam to follow. What Maber did, fixing buses or breakfasts, he did very well.

The previous night I'd walked up from Palmerston North, following the Tiritea Stream then around a 4WD track to connect with Kahuterawa Road. A big rainstorm had hit as I passed Kahuterawa Park and I'd seen the J3 parked there.

I'd once taken my family for seven months around the South Island in an almost identical model. This one had been instant nostalgia, so I'd knocked on the door and the guy with the Megadeath T-shirt and the tats up his neck had invited me in.

Maber kept a baseball bat by his bed. He was man alone out here, but he saw himself as the park guardian. He cleared the gorse down by the river, scrubbed out the toilets, and when the locals came out to slide their cars, he'd stand by his bus and stare them out of there.

Maber had got his Harley Davidson by age 21. He'd traded across to a housetruck because that was what the girlfriend wanted. Then a bus. He made engines sing. He knew cars. He'd had plenty and named them by make, by engine size and by fond lists of their accessories - the mags, the scoops, the spoilers. He was on the dole, but he set goals and carried them through. As we'd compared Bedford housebus layouts, he'd paced about, patting a place here where the wood panelling and pokerwork would go, framing a portal there which would be stained glass.

I finished the enormous breakfast. It was time to go, and I suggested a photo. Maber wanted his 16-months-old daughter Zowi in the shot too, then he walked a couple of kilometres up the road with me and I got Zowi's story. He'd split with the mother - his own fault, and he regretted that - but his daughter would know she had a father. He'd bought her a Torana. It was stored in a secret site. He'd paint it flake blue, put skirts on it, power it up by swapping the Holden 253 engine for a 400 small block Chevvy. He had plans to cruise to Auckland with her in the car. When she was 16, he'd gift it to her. By then it would be a classic in mint condition. Zowi was a future highway queen.

I went on up a mountain-biking track that led through to another 4WD access - Scotts Road.

When I'd designed the trail, the route from Palmerston through to Scotts Road had been easy enough, but then it got problematic.

First, I'd suggested, Te Araroa should follow a forestry road that branched off Scotts Road, and headed south about five kilometres.

When the forest road ended, I'd suggested a bushbash of about three kilometres over the mountain flanks. That took you down to the Tokomaru River, but once you hit the river, I'd indicated a riverside trail right through to Shannon.

I'd worked off two maps. DOC's Tararua Parkland map did not show any Tokomaru River trail. A 1984 Lands and Survey map did show it, and even named it - Burton's Track.

DOC is cautious and displays only routes that are in relatively good shape. I suspected Burton's Track was probably going to be rough, but that it would be there. So I drew it into the trail design. .

Now here came Te Araroa down Scotts Road. Step by step with a big breakfast under its belt, a spring in its stride, and hope in its heart for so far Te Araroa's dream plan had interlocked with reality as neatly as a closing zip...

No entry sign

I found the forest road turnoff, exactly where I'd expected, and I went on past the No Entry sign, and into the pines, pleasant enough, as usual.

Beyond the pine forest stood the 600-metre Mt Kaihinui, and big ridges covered in bush, a little daunting, as always.

The track ended. I stared across the fence at a wall of bush, and on impulse, I did something I hadn't done before on the tramp, scribbled a note, rolled it into a tube and pushed it through a protruding staple on a fencepost: July 10. Entered here, headed Tokomaru River.

I broke out the compass, jumped the fence and pushed my way into the bush..

One kilometre in the supplejack was starting to spread its nets, and I was forced off the ridge. I found a stream, and followed it down for an hour. I came to a sharp little escarpment where the stream plunged away in a pretty and impassable waterfall.

The banks either side of me were covered with kiekie.

Kiekie is a tousle-headed native that always sticks close to watercourses. It never grows straight up. The tough, pliable stems are held up from the ground a distance by aerial roots, but they then bend and snake any which way before each white stem rises finally to a burst of long leaves. Climbing uphill against kiekie is like attacking the bank and ditch defence of a pa where the defenders are all pushing harsh green mops in your face. You push past the mopheads, and then the tangle of stems traps and trips you.

I fought through the kiekie for maybe 40 minutes. The bush was starting to darken by the time I was through, and I broke out the Leki sticks for balance, heading fast down slopes of open bush to get back to the stream again.

I could hear the stream. I swung round a tree that stood at the edge of an apparently gentle slope down, the sort of downhill manouevre I'd done a thousand times before, swinging down, turning, and going on to the next handhold.

Not this time. I swung round and down, and suddenly I was hanging by one arm. My boots weren't touching the ground. And no way, when I looked over my shoulder, could I just let go and drop. The slope below had a few fragile punga dotted here and there, a light covering of the little pink-stemmed succulent they call pigweed, but otherwise no handholds at all. It was just wet earth with a light covering of greasy shale sloping sharply down to a vertical drop-off into the stream. That edge was in deep shadow, but it looked like a nasty fall onto rocks.

If I dropped, I'd slide, maybe right over the edge. Okay. A branch extended over the slope, a little below me, and to the right. I swung my legs onto that. I tried to transfer my weight to sit upright there - I couldn't. A supplejack vine had snared the pack.

I grabbed the vine and tried to break it. My own strength in a difficult situation astonished me. I already knew supplejack was unbreakable, but even so, using just one hand, I half-snapped it, and worked at the remainder, reducing it to white fibre. One Leki stick slipped off my wrist as I worked, and slid away below. I hardly noticed, but finally I gave up anyway. I couldn't do it.

I was held at a 45 degree angle across the trunk, above the drop, and there was only one way out. I had to shed the pack.

I slipped the chest harness, then the hip harness, and eased the pack off. I kept hold of it, twisted it free of the vine, but there was then no way of getting it back on. I lowered it slowly to the slope below.

I jumped down to secure it. I was now on top of the slippery slope with no way back up the bank.

I stood there. The night was closing in.

Cutaway to the glow-worm, Steve?

Nope, not yet, let's just crank it up one more notch first. This is where he tries to find the rope.

I was crouched there, holding onto the branch with one hand, the pack with the other. If I let go, the whole shebang threatened to slide away into the gorge below.

Strangely maybe, I was enjoying myself. I was the hero of my own Steven Spielberg movie. Each difficulty overcome simply led on to the next crisis, but it gave Harrison Ford Chapple his chance to shine.

I knew I could get sufficient traction with two feet and two hands to swarm sideways across the slope. The difficulty was trying to drag the pack across as well.

Ah! Of course! The rope!

I'd tie the pack to the tree, cross the slope, come back round to the tree, haul the pack up on its rope and start again.

I'd carried that rope for months, unused, still shop-sale perfect, a tightly bound yellow hank wedged upright between the fuel bottles in the back pocket of the pack. I steadied the pack with my legs, reached cautiously around, and unzipped the back pocket. The angles were awkward, but I rummaged around inside the pocket. The smooth fuel cylinders. The water filter. The Whisperlite stove, all neatly packed away.

The rope wasn't there!

Right. Now he's in deep shit. We'll cut away to the glow-worm right here Steve?

No, hang on Bo, let's just see if we can squeeze a bit more action.

I felt for my torch. It was in the zippered top compartment, exactly where it should be. I shone the beam around. A thin, dead punga stump stood below me and I tested its strength with a kick. It snapped, and rolled away downhill. A second punga lay three metres across to the left. It looked stronger.

I had the second Leki still. I stabbed the pole into the earth with such force the rubber mudbasket turned inside out. Leaning sideways on the Leki, I kicked out footholds in the slope, inching the pack along whenever my footing felt secure.

Finally I was close enough. I wedged stones under the pack to keep it stable and lunged.

I got a good grip on the punga. I still had a good grip on the pack. I pulled it slowly across. It started to come, then slid away down.

For a long moment I held there, punga in one hand, pack in the other, outstretched between the two. I tried to haul the pack up. Once. Twice. Each time the pack would be almost there, then my feet would lose grip, and it would slide away again. And each time I tried, the slope got more slippery. It was turning into a mudslide.

I tried a third time, a fourth, I couldn't do it. Finally, I just hung there, panting.

I looked up. The little blue light of a single glow-worm burned in the darkened recess of the bank above me.

I stared at the glow worm. The worm will never know, but I gathered strength from his piquant light for several minutes, and then I exploded into one last God Almighty ball of contracting muscle.

It was Samson pulling down the temple. It was Arnold Swartznegger clinching the biggest Bullworker you've ever seen. It was Te Araroa hauling its pack uphill, higher, higher, until with a flurry of straining arms, wedging feet, kicks, shoves, heaves, it lodged the thing in behind the punga.

Pant. Pant. Pant. Now what's the next thing? It went on for another quarter-hour, but we'll leave those bits on the cutting room floor. I did a controlled slide down the last bit of slope at last to a tree on the edge of the drop-off. From there I picked my way down to the stream, and sat down on a rock. My left arm hurt. A small muscle in my thigh was twitching uncontrollably.

Time for dinner.

I took the pot down to the stream, carried it back to the camp, shone the torch in to check the level, and laughed aloud. The Japanese call it shibui - the absolute charm of something small, pure, and beautiful. Sitting there on the gleaming bottom of an aluminium pot of absolutely clear water, slowly spinning: a small, brown tip of a fern-leaf - New Zealand.

I bedded down. A light rain pattered on the tent.

I lay there, flossing my teeth.

At first light, I broke camp, swapped yesterday's mud-smeared clothes for a new outfit, retrieved the dropped Leki, and got on with the tramp. I reached the Tokomaru River inside ten minutes.

Tokomaru River

There was no river track.

No track! I sat down and looked at the map.

The distance upriver to Shannon was around 12 kilometres. Twelve kilometres of bush traverse, sideways to the ridges, was a big ask in this country.

I didn't have to go that way. The distance downriver to Tokomaru Road was only about 8 kilometres.

I abandoned my planned route south to Shannon, and turned downriver toward Tokomaru.

I felt fine. I swung through trees. I drank ponded water from old pig wallows straight off the ground. I tramped two hours, and then the Tokomaru took a definite 90 degree turn to the west, and I knew, from studying the map, precisely where I was.

The river spread here, and was easy to ford.

Should I cross? The map showed the far side of the river valley would soon have farmland in behind the bushed tops.

But the bush on the far side looked thicker yet, and the river's edge on my side now had a wide margin of mossy flood-level rock and cutty grass. Rock-hopping that was easier than bush, and I pressed on.

The river entered a gorge, and I was forced back into steep bush..

I couldn't hold a line close to the river. It was just shale there, thickly colonised by the thin, tough trunks of kawakawa, woven through with supplejack, and with a dangerous dropoff. I stayed further in, traversing bigger bush, but the kiekie and supplejack were everywhere, and it began, sporadically, to rain.

It was hard, but the last two hours were the hardest. The river spurs grew steeper yet, and I had to pick my way across a profusion of old and new slip faces.

I sidled across a new slip, looking almost straight down at the brown torrent below.

I pushed across an older, wider, slip face. The big bush had not regrown. What grew instead was all the grassy colonising plants: the densely laced cushions, the myriad small round leaves of pohuehue, the toitoi, the mangemange, the sharp grasses, the thousand dense, tough things that rise out of New Zealand soil when the bush canopy disappears.

I floundered forward, my feet punching into yielding vegetation, getting purchase finally, rising up, toppling forward, picking myself up from the great mattress of it all, trying to find the earth beneath my feet again.

Then the slip-riven spur just fell away. I peered through the grasses directly at the trunk of a tall tree, but I was looking at the top of the trunk. You couldn't see the drop, but you could feel its presence. I turned inland again, fighting the colonisers.

I came to a grassy cliff. A decayed cliff. The grasses came away in my hand, roots and all. The protruding rocks refused my weight. They dislodged, and bounded away downhill.

But there are always ledges, bits that are less steep, rock that does hold, the odd tough woody shrub to hang onto. I descended slowly into a tight little scree valley, forded a stream that rushed down through shale to the river, and climbed back into bush on the far side. It was 4 pm. I'd have to stop soon, but it was important I covered distance. I climbed the next ridge, untwisting the pack from the supplejack nets, wrenching it through the kiekie. I was down on all fours finally, crawling through a kiekie thicket, seeing light at the end of the tunnel, and I emerged into the light and a vertical face.

I went back, found a half-level slope on the ridge, and pitched camp.

I rearranged my sodden pack, carefully isolating the wet stuff from the dry stuff. I crawled into my sleeping bag. It was only 5.30, but the light had gone. I had fourteen hours of darkness to sleep and plan.

I lay there in the night.

I had a problem, but I wasn't sure how serious it was. Maybe six kilometres to go, it seemed such a trivial distance. I still had food for three days and plenty of fuel. I felt good aside from my left arm. In that first drop, I'd pulled the flexor carpi muscle, the big one just under the elbow. It was starting to stiffen right up, but was still useable. My hands were covered in cuts, and during the day I'd watched the spreading film of bright blood over my wet hands with a sort of fascination, but I'd rubbed antiseptic ointment all over them, like hand cream, and they felt okay. I'd taken a blow across the bridge of the nose, but that was a superficial wound.

The critical thing was going to be the weather, and the right decisions..

I lay there, making plans.

I flossed my teeth...

I awoke in the night to teeming rain. Within minutes the canopy overhead was siphoning the deluge into massive drops that fell on the tent and exploded like tiny mortars.

Lying there in the dark. The trees soughing, the rain detonating on the tent, it was low-level pandemonium. The word is derived from Pan, the woodland god. So, is the word panic.

I had the torch looped on my wrist and I shone it upward. The inside of the fly was shining with a thin film of water. I groped quickly along the length of my sleeping bag. The bottom was wet. The tent wasn't leaking, but the spaces were so tight, and the ground on such a slope that my legs had spilled outside the ground sheet while I was asleep.

I propped the sodden pack against my sleeping bag to stop myself rolling and went back to sleep.

I broke camp early, and set off through sopping bush.

I'd decided during the night to bypass all the precipitous little river spurs. I'd go straight uphill, just climb to a big ridge, then follow the ridgeline west.

I battled uphill, my feet sliding on greasy slopes, the supplejack entangling my feet, my pack, my arms. Even, when I'd finally tumbled through a difficult supplejack net, it would reach back, pluck my cap from my head and drop it a couple of metres behind me. Take your cap off when you're addressing your superiors, sonny.

After 45 minutes, I knew I wasn't going to make it up. The thickets just went on and on.

I turned around. It took me half an hour to come back downhill and to stand again on the flattened humus of last night's campsite.

The mudslide drama had been full of quick decision making, quick solutions, it'd been fun. This was a more slow-moving obtuse difficulty. It was also, I knew, far more dangerous. The weather was teetering. I had wet weather gear, but I was getting very damp underneath it, and if the winds really got up as they do in deep valleys, the wind-chill could be deadly. What should I do now?

I went back to the scree valley I'd passed through yesterday. It was full of grass clumps but almost clear of big bush.

It was a thinking spot. Here, clear of the bush canopy I could spot the lie of the land..

Here - it struck me for the first time as a possibility - any chopper moseying up the valley might see me.

I put up the tent, and emptied everything out of the pack. I sheathed the bright yellow pack-liner onto an overhanging tree, a ground to air marker.

I hung my wet gear out to dry, though the winter sun didn't reach this side of the valley, and some of my gear - the Chinese jacket for one, with its down gathered in sodden lumps - was beyond redemption.

I climbed the scree until I could see more of the river valley. Fold on fold, the big bush-covered ridges stretched into the distance. I could see the river winding through below in its narrow crevice.

The hills on the far side were huge. Great flanks, big, impassable. I climbed higher - what is that!

Just poking over the highest ridge on the far side: treetops that weren't bush. .

Pines!

I climbed higher. One ridge along from the pines, a small green moon rose above the bushline.

Farmland!

I had a way out, but it meant crossing the river.

I went down to the river.

It looked menacing. I was in a gorge, and the river swirled through. It was brown, and I could see no bottom. The river was maybe 15 metres wide, but over on the other side, stood a big boulder, without handhold, and the river pushed wickedly against it. I knew if I went in here, I'd be swept.

Swept where? The bush hid any sight of what was round the corner. I didn't like it.

I went back to the camp to cook a meal. For the first time on the journey, the Whisperlite wouldn't fire. I didn't like that, it seemed a bad sign. I picked the thing up and shook it. The white-spirit fuel had left a thin layer of carbon clinging to the metal cup under the gas jet, and a thin sheet of the black render peeled off and hung by a corner, flapping.

I cleaned the jet, got the stove going again, ate, and zipped up the tent as the light faded.

I lay awake a long time.

The only way out was up the ridges on the far side of the river, therefore:.

  1. I had to cross the river
  2. I couldn't do it in the gorge.
  3. I should go back to the cross-point I'd seen on my second day, then work my way back and up to the ridgeline that led to the pines.
  4. That would take, at best, another two days
  5. I could do it twice as fast if I abandoned my pack.
  6. I could even go across the gorge if I abandoned my pack.
  7. Don't abandon the pack. That is manifest panic. It will sabotage completion of Te Araroa. And without it, if you get stranded by injury, you'll die.

I was happy with the plan. I had the food and gear to do it. I lay awake, and the rain began again. I talked quietly with my wife. I know you're worried babe, but I'm okay. Don't send in the cavalry. They'll search the wrong place anyway because I abandoned my plan to go to Shannon. I'm okay. I'm okay.

I lay there flossing my teeth. I slept.

I awoke at 10 pm. An up-valley wind was beating at the pack-liner. Whap, whap, whap - a nasty, insistent flapping. The rain began again, and the night thoughts came on.

That thin sheet of render peeling away from the warming cup on the Whisperlite - it had hung there, purely black, flapping like a cloak. Dr D, still small, had entered the camp.

Whap, whap, whap.

That Dominion front-page photo from 20 years ago. Six boot-splashing men carry a stretcher down a rushing Tararua river. The bush overhangs them, the mist is down, the men balance themselves with outflung arms but are tilted inward anyway, by the weight. Their faces are fixed, for they are carrying a body out, and no-one likes dead bodies. They have no aura, no warmth. The hostile universe has closed up right around them, it has gone deeper yet. The universe is inside their skin.

I kept checking my own body warmth. I wondered what it is exactly that keeps us warm, and alive. I thought of myself dead. A corpse with perfect teeth.

 

I fell asleep again and dreamed. I saw black water rub against vertical stone. I saw every swirl, every bubble and frothy eddy. I saw an AA sign standing up from ponded water. The background was dark, as if the scene was taken by a flash camera. The sign was pointing out across black water.

I woke again at 3 am. I unzipped the tent, and could see a few stars, but a huge cloud was rising in the west. I lay there, and for the first time on my journey I felt fear.

It was a solid thing, like a short piece of timber lodged under the rib cage.

I talked then, to my three kids. One by one I held them in mind and told them I loved them. I talked to my wife, and told her I loved her. I wanted to get back, I couldn't, and I suddenly wanted all this to stop. The message changed. Babe, you can send in the cavalry. That would be good. That would be just wonderful. The amplified thud coming up the valley. The big beating bird hovering above me at first light. The winch rope. The lowered helmeted figure with its extended hand.

The disgrace - some senior sergeant given his opportunity then to bang on about the lack of a detailed route plan, the lack of firm lockoff deadlines for my arrival in Shannon. It would all be true. I'd told a few people in Palmerston North I'd get to Shannon in two days. But departing Palmerston, I'd done no more than leave a message on my wife's answerphone that I was headed for Shannon. No estimate of time. No firm message that I'd ring as soon as I hit town. Disgrace - but who cares? I'd be alive.

I thought of taking a picture of myself on the digital, but rejected the idea. It seemed, in the possible circumstances of its showing, too sad.

Camp of last resort

In the morning I did photograph the camp set-up, a pre-dawn shot, for I was keen to get moving. I was headed back to that ford on the river. I packed up, jumped the stream and edged my way up the same grass cliff I'd come down two days before.

Back to the top. Back into the mass of vegetation, half-pushing, half-tumbling through with that goddam great pack twisting, pulling me off-balance, getting snagged - No! I didn't want to go on like that. Another two days of it. Didn't want to, and quite possibly couldn't.

I went back and stood on the clifftop.

A plane flew low not too far away, and I grabbed at the survival blanket looped over my chest restraint, ready to shake out the foil into a bright signal. It didn't even come close.

I stood there. I knew my options had shrunk right down now, but I found the situation amusing. No way in the world, given the choice to wind back time to Scotts Road, would I have chosen to go into the forest again. I'd have taken the easy option, gone on by road to Tokomaru and Shannon.

Yet here I was, and the weird thing was - I liked it.

I knew I'd been calling this in for months, pushing Te Araroa out to the margins, and now it had happened. It had all been my own call, and it was up to me to find the way through.

The sun had come out on the hills across the river..

I could see for miles. The pines way up to the left. The little planetary hump of green grass. It really wasn't that hard, except for taking my pack across the gorge..

Abandon your pack.

Cross the river in the gorge.

Make a run for it, now, while the weather holds.

I went back down the cliff.

I was moving fast now. I didn't want to think. Didn't want anything to interfere with the impulse.

I got back to the campsite, pulled everything out of the pack and made two piles. I'd take one with me, sealed in a plastic bag, the other I'd seal inside the pack and leave behind.

Into the plastic bag went one change of clothes, one pasta snack, one survival blanket. I paused briefly on the electronic gear. The Nokia? The Mavica? I decided to take the digital, but that was all.

I bound the top of the bag, and made a rope harness. I took off my boots, and put on a pair of rubber sandals with Velcro straps - easier to kick off in the river. I blew up the Thermarest.