Encounters in the Nelson Lakes National Park

 

I walked the 12 road kilometres to the lakeside town of St Arnaud, went into the DOC office, told them what I was doing, got the weather report, signed an intentions slip for a departure next day, predicted an exit on Lewis Pass six days out, and went out to shop.

The garage-cum-general store was stocked for trampers with a big range of dehydrated food, but I already had dozens of packets, and besides, I was sick of it. I'd lost what little subcutaneous fat I could spare on the Richmond Range. No matter the weight, for the five- or six-day tramp ahead, I'd take as much real food as I could so I bought fruit, carrots I could eat raw, full-cream milk powder, and an especial luxury, a 1 kg block of cheese, a salami sausage. Outside the shop, a bellbird gonged beside the Mobil sign.

Lake Rotoiti

Next day on the Lake Rotoiti trail the bellbirds, lots of them, gonged again beside still water, above the long square boxes of the mustelid traps where hens' eggs were visible through the mesh.

An Israeli tramper came by - a close haircut, wire-rimmed specs, and we exchanged destinations, noted the beauty of the birdsong, the reflections off the lake that gave a cinematic uplight to the beech forest before he moved ahead.

"Damn!"

The Israeli turns, but does not break stride for a kiwi tramper who stands stock-still, fists balled in a kind of anguish, remembering suddenly his final ritual check for any leftover gear at the St Arnaud cabin.

The tramper stands in the middle of the room, and his ritual goes like this. Like some goal ump in Aussie Rules football he snaps his arms out parallel, index fingers en pointe, quivering with the tension. Slowly he completes a 360degree revolution. The outstretched arms frame successive sections of the room and serve to concentrate his attention on that segment and no other. Within the segment, his eyes scrub and scrutinise every surface. Nothing is left behind here.

Standing now stock-still on the track the tramper remembers this radar-like apparatus, which is himself, turning slowly toward the squat bit of whiteware under the sink-bench.

"Damn!"

The quivering digits pass slowly across the blank fridge. The cheese and the salami stand practically on end within, shouting to be seen in the chilly darkness, but the fingers move on, the tramper completes his revolution. Nothing is forgotten here. He hoists his pack and is gone. Such élan. Such confidence. Pathetic, the whole thing.

Forest path

I was headed towards mountains higher than anything in the Richmond Range, but the approaches were easier and prettier. I tramped on past the head of the lake, and began to follow a path alongside the Travers River as sweetly bordered as any botanical park.

I chose a riverside knoll and swung the pack down, shook up some milk, broke out an orange, a banana, ate crackers without cheese and to my surprise, the same Israeli who'd passed me earlier came past again. We said hello, and I went to hoist my pack.

"Damn!"

The bottom half of one of the Lekis - two tapering tubes, adjustable for height, friction-fixed by a twist - was untwisted, gone, lying somewhere back there on the track. Well, forget that too.

I spent that night at John Tait hut. I'd brought a radio to see if I could pick up the National Radio mountain forecasts at 4pm, but there was no reception in the valley. I tried the short-wave. Chinese, then French, then a bass-enriched American voice, pulsed out of the ionosphere. The New York Stock Exchange had delisted Enron Corporation. An enquiry into the company's off-the-book partnerships was underway. Enron executives were suspected of reaping millions even as the share price fell from $90.75 to 16c. The voice switched to a letter released by the White House. Sent by an Afghani family to the US president, it told of the pain of losing a family member to US bombing - "we have lost a brother, but we believe America's war in Afghanistan is a just war." I pressed the tuning button until a BBC voice surged through the static. "Enron Corporation has been the number one career patron of President George W. Bush·".

Upper Travers Hut
Upper Travers Hutt

Next morning I went on to Upper Travers Hut. By then I'd come 20 kilometres alongside the Travers River, and beyond the hut, I stepped onto a small wooden bridge. At its source in this mountain basin the Travers produced no more water than you might pour from a large pot. I zig zagged on up to Travers Saddle.

Travers Saddle

 

The exhilarating clarity and cleanliness of the saddle. From this high and hallucinatory place, Mt Travers rose a further 500 metres, a black triangle of rock with patches of gleaming summer snow against a sky of pure cerulean blue.

At 1,787 metres, this was the highest point yet on the South Island walk. Whether by improved fitness or better trails, these steep pulls up to altitude seemed easier now, and to the north where mountain upon mountain stretched away in purple haze, I saw what I thought was Mt Rintoul.

The fact of my own foot-trail from some over-horizon Marlborough cove, across the distant Rintoul to this saddle felt good. Underfoot, the tussock, the red alpine flowers, the green cushion plant, with its myriad of tiny white-petalled flowers, slid on by. Cushion plant

The descent off the mountain was slow and rocky. I skidded away down an old avalanche swathe of hard-packed gravel and I'd just reached the bushline again when a tui flew out of a beech tree and thudded onto the dry trail behind. As I turned to watch, the bird hammered the dust with its beak. It fixed me with a round eye and slowly fanned out one wing, extending all the feathers. The black iridescence of the display was strangely hypnotic. What colours ! What size ! I'd never seen such a potent tui. We were eyeball to eyeball, but only one of us moved. The bird did a quarter-circle, holding out the wing like a bullfighter's cape, then jumped into the air and with fast papery wingbeats sped past me into the tree overhead. A large dead twig, thick as a finger, and perhaps five times as long, dropped out of the tree and landed at my feet.

I moved on down to the valley below and was surprised to see the stoutest bridge I'd ever come across in the New Zealand bush. Guard rails at the approach - why guard rails? It wasn't until I stood there, shaking the rails for their strength, that I realised what I was looking at.

Bridge over abyss

The crack was no more than 2 metres wide. Water suffused the mossy overhangs within it, then dripped away into the dark. I stepped onto the bridge itself. It had concrete footings. The underpinning beams were 14 cm wide, and near twice as high. The uprights either side of the bridge were strung through with hawsers anchored in the concrete. A short bridge over an abyss.

I looked at the little orange asset number on its side: 001734. This would be entered on computer, red-flagged as to when its engineering inspection was due. It was triple-safe, even to the point of redundancy, still I found myself cautious as I peered over the edge and took in the occasional liquid flash and eerie gurgle of the East Sabine River 35 metres below.

Some hours later I reached West Sabine Hut. Outside a German woman was pegging out dry clothing on a line. Inside a DOC warden was hunched over some paperwork. An English couple asked questions about the route out of the park next day, I broke out the maps, and the DOC warden was soon alongside, introducing himself as Stu Bennett, poring over the maps, full of advice to the English, but as quickly enchanted by the possibilities of his own exploration.

"I've earned a little free time. I've climbed Travers. I want to climb Franklin. I should have climbed Mt Franklin today. Uh " - and he did a quick fist-clenching jive - "I wanna go play in the tops!"

"Going off-trail releases the endomorphines man. That's why Disneyland has got no chance of recreating what we've got here. People witter on at me - Oh that track down from Travers Saddle was so bad. We fell over. We went off the path. We got lost. You must improve that track. I look at them and say: But you did it. You got here. You did something hard. You feel good. Right?"

Evening came on. We cooked noodles, rice. My plans to walk the South Island were known by then, and I was on a fuss. Stu Bennett volunteered me fresh vegetables from his warden's room, and mushrooms. I repaid a bit of the kindness with half of my dehydrated Backcountry Lamb Fettucine. We ate, and talked -

"We love walking", said Brandon Webb, out of London "Once you get above the top fields in England, once you get onto the high fells, by tradition, you can walk where you like, but there's big pressure from the public in say the Lake or Peak Districts. You're seldom alone, but here - "

"Wilderness during the day - people at night," said Ruth Webb, massaging her legs with liniment.

"In New Zealand, you walk a couple of days and see no-one," said Tobias Mensel from Heidelberg.

"You are at the end of the world," said Christiane Ziebart, also from Heidelberg.

"And you are lucky you have so much mountains that are still okay," said Tobias.

"Keep them okay," said Christiane. "We use no soap in the mountains. We wash our clothes only in the air."

"The birds are gone," said Stu Bennett suddenly. "This country has ripped out almost all its lowland forests. When settlers arrived here they saw the woodpigeon flying literally in their thousands on the coastal plains, flocks of 50 or more, flying between the lowlands and the uplands. These are the species that are decimated now. The cold forest birds like the huia lived in the mountains but needed to feed in the coastal swamps in winter. They're completely gone. The kaka - almost gone, and why? The lowland part of the ecological jigsaw was taken. Eighteen bird species disappeared with the loss of the lowland forest. Now it's the introduced predators, the rat, the possum, the ferret, and another 60 bird species crashing."

There was a silence in the hut. All jolliness had fled.

"Ecological rescue," I said "that's one thing. But a nation also signals its strength and soul by nature. The Black Forest in Germany, and the Rückenfigur. In England there's the oak, a Countryside Agency charged with preserving the charm of the countryside, and the Rambler."

"New Zealand has its natural symbols - the fern, the kauri, the kiwi. But also it's not a metropolitan nation. Lots of New Zealanders work out-doors. Lots of them play out-doors . The angler. The surfer. The kayaker. The hunter. The tramper. We're a smart island nation. We know nature in our work and at play. We won't let the birds die."

"New Zealand is a country close to nature - I agree," said Tobias. "But if you get to the supermarket you get still 6 plastic bags. This is not so smart. In Germany you have to buy the bag - one bag."

The English and Germans went to bed, and I went outside to brush my teeth. Stu came out on his way to the warden's room and we stood on the decking, under the stars.

"What you said in there," said Stu, "I'd like to think that's true. I find these other things depressing really. It's Tim Flannery The Future Eaters. Geoff Park Nga Uruora. The fact is - I can't put my finger on what it is round here, but I've never been happier."

We both looked at the dark slopes of beech, the silhouette of high rock, the Sabine River.

"So why is that?" I said.

"What was said in the hut tonight doesn't get there does it?"

"No. I'm interested in this. A vocabulary for nature in the early 21st century. I've read Emerson, but his style doesn't hold now. I've read Thoreaux, and he's good, but he sees celestial cities in the sunsets. Let's start with a word. Just one word."

"Sustainable?" said Stu

"No."

"Raw."

"Okay. I like raw."