Te Araroa reaches the tops.

 

We crossed and recrossed the Pelorus River on suspension bridges, sometimes seeing huge trout in the pools. We stopped the second night at Roebuck Hut, checking in by mountain radio to get the weather forecast, then went on next day past Browning to spend the third night at Hackett Hut.

There we met a Japanese tramper. He'd left Nelson two days before. Against the advice of DOC, he'd come in alone, but with a huge pack, a compass strung round his neck, a good map, and plenty of fresh food. The Japanese quizzed Kevin as to various routes he might take within the Richmond Range, and Kevin obliged, but then I asked him - he wanted a long tramp, okay, did he want to come right through the range with us?

He did. His name was Tomonari Tanaka. Kevin and I poured boiling water over our dehydrate, stirred it, gave it ten minutes to soak through, then ate it, thoughtfully watching Tomo dice his onion, courgette, mushroom, carrot, garlic, cook it all with rice, and portion out the tinned tuna to complete a healthy meal.

That night none of us slept well. Sandflies were legion at every hut, but you could combat them by covering up - longjohns, socks, gloves, whatever it took, short of a balaclava, for namu don't seem to bite your face and neck with the same enthusiasm they show for arms and legs. And around 8.30 pm, they go away.

But at Hackett Hut we encountered for the first time the relentless mosquito. Dozens of them. By morning, every head was pulled inside its sleeping bag liner or coat. Every head was uncomfortably rebreathing a fair portion of its own hot air, but at least that kept the mozzies out of your face.


Thunderclouds gather
Stormclouds gather over the Richmond Range

Starveall Hut
Starveall Hut

Next morning we climbed 1,000 metres through a gradually dwarfing beech forest. For the first time we broke out onto tussock, mountain daisies, snowberries, and mountain weather. As we reached Starveall Hut, stormclouds sailed in from the south, and after briefly spotting Wakefield far below on the plain, and the evanescent coastlines of Tasman Bay beyond, we hurried inside to light a fire. A cold southerly front was moving through, and thunder began to roll around the tops.

This small hut, wired to the ground against high winds, and by this storm, sundered from the rest of the world. Rain and cloud sweep across the summits, the bluffs, the valleys around the hut. Deep and distant views open and close around it. They trigger internal gratitudes, for the shelter, for companions whose lives, in this place, seem strangely potent. This is the power of the sundered hut.

In between squalls, Kevin glassed a faraway dot he guessed was Rintoul Hut, and he sought to confirm it with a compass bearing. We stooped over the maps and watched, heard his pneumonic.

"Good morning sunshine - Grid. Magnetic variation. Subtraction."

The bearing pointed directly across empty space at the faraway hut. Everything Kevin did had quality. The knots he used to bind two Leki sticks end to end and get the necessary aerial height for the mountain radio - professional knots. The porridge he'd set to soak in the pot overnight - it used less fuel when it came to the morning boilup. He was organised. The Blenheim storage depot fire of 1969 began his career. That fire is still a Blenheim legend. Oxy-acetylene bottles flew around the blazing sheds like missiles, and Kevin helped fight it as a volunteer. He became a professional fireman soon after.

The re-structuring of the Fire Service in the 1990s had, he believed, gutted the smaller depots of their specialised equipment. Staff cutbacks had weakened morale and the relationship of firefighters to their towns. He took early retirement, and went back with his wife Judith, who'd been breeding Persian cats and still kept a few as pets, to his birthplace, Blenheim. His hearing had been damaged by up-close work with pumps and tenders. He took up bowls and began to win Blenheim junior championship titles. He was on call for Search and Rescue. He neither smoked nor drank. During his time at Upper Hutt he'd regularly tramped the Tararua Range and if you asked him, why tramp, his answer was simple: "Because you're here. You're not there."

And Tomo? He'd saved $18,000 to come down and thoroughly explore New Zealand - "To meet other cultures of the world." Not just New Zealanders, but the mix of cultures coming through New Zealand, he explained, and for a moment I saw the South Island as he did, less an integral part of kiwi nation, and more as mountain backdrop - Tomo himself was based at a Motueka backpackers - where Israelis, Germans, Dutch, English, Americans, Irish, Koreans etc might rendezvous. The South Island was part of a larger archipelago for modern nomads, Lycra, or Gore-Tex skinned, or shiny with the polyester of Tomo's own faux-baseball Ultimets No 9 shirt.

And what did he do?

"When I finished at university I worked at the kind of hospital to make exercise - how do you say it? For the fat."

"Obese people."

"No." Tomo pulled from his pack a Canon electronic dictionary, keyed in a few Japanese characters, then pronounced:

"Diabites."

"Diabetics."

The storm had put us behind schedule. Next morning we started early. The weather was clear weather, but we leaned into a biting southerly. We climbed through to Starveall's 1500-metre summit, and descended towards Slaty Hut.

I'd spent much of yesterday's enforced stop trying again to insert waypoints on the GPS. I'd keyed in longitude and latitude points for Slaty Hut, and named the eponymous waypoint. Now, I kept the GPS turned on, and monitored its tiny screen. The black-line bearing that showed on-screen for Slaty Hut seemed at least plausible, and when the hut came finally into sight, that black-line bearing was pointing right at it. Great - in fog or mist that was potentially a valuable tool.




Nearing Slaty Hut


Tomo and Kevin
Kevin, Tomo and a distant Mt Rintoul

I picked my way down to the hut through clumps of Spaniard - the spiky Aciphylla horrida - distracted from paying further attention to the GPS, and it came as a distinct surprise when the little hand-held unit did something else that was very smart. It beeped and flashed a message on-screen: You are now approaching Slaty Hut.

Such is my reason to remember Slaty Hut. The second is that someone, incomprehensibly for we were now remote, had carried into the hut and left there untouched and perfect, a whole pumpkin. We paused long enough for a hot chocolate drink, then went on over Slaty summit, along a tussocky ridge, and broke for lunch. Then on past drop-away bluffs, before climbing steeply another 200 metres to the summit of Old Man.

We were tired and thirsty by then. There'd been no water since Slaty Hut, but the Outward Bound School, which exercises sometimes on these mountains, had wired into place just below the ridge a small open water barrel. Rainwater on tap, chilled by a southerly wind straight off the Alps and Antarctica before that. I filled my mouth and held the water there, cold and hard as a ball bearing, then let it liquefy and slide away down my throat. The drink is one of tramping's true pleasures, and as we went on, six hours into the day's route, and determined still to make Rintoul summit and the hut that lay beyond it, we began to tire, to labour upon scree, and to endure true tramping pain.