Te Araroa gets a bovine escort, and passes a memorial cairn

 

Waiau Valley

The wind had died to a zephyr, but yesterday's southerly had produced a clear day. The jagged skyline either side of the valley was as sharp as if cut from blue cardboard.

I boulder-hopped down the Waiau, more a cataract here than a river, stopped for a cup of tea at Caroline Bivouac, then went on.

Rockslide

The sun was a gong. The yellow grassland spread wide and the river began to braid. The few things that moved emphasized the bright stillness of it all - the shadow across my path of a bird high overhead, a tramper on the far side of the river headed at high speed up the valley, too distant to hail, his hiking sticks working away.



On the valley sides, I saw swathes of ghost forest, dead trees, killed by slowly shifting scree. The more active rock slides remained bare, spilling right through the forest and out onto the shimmering grasslands like a big grey paw out-thrust into the living room.

I smelled cattle. I saw a red shotgun shell. I was walking through St James Station, but I'd rung the station beforehand to seek permission, and it was fine by them so long as I kept clear of the farmhouse. I hiked on at speed. The grassland was studded with matagouri, a spiky savannah-like shrub, suggesting zebras and rhinos, and the moment Africa crossed my mind I saw them: big brown and white beasts - uh, Herefords.

At first they were few, and they simply watched me go by, occasionally wheeling heavily away, as cattle do, but further down I came up to a big herd. By then I was following a 4WD track, and the herd blocked the route, more secure en masse, curious, heads lolling, allowing me little more than elbow room across their green-spattered dust.

It was a big valley sloping south. It had the dynamic of a wide softly-waving highway, and the cattle were attuned to that. Twenty or so of the young bloods decided to act as escort, keeping pace 40 metres out like outriders in a motorcade, weaving through the matagouri, kicking up their heels and egging each other on for a good half hour beside me.

I waded the Ada River, spotted the marker posts of the St James Walkway at the base of the next hill, and set off down the walkway. The sun was declining by then, but I hurried on. I wanted to get to a particular place before the light vanished, something for Noel.

In 2000, Noel Sandford was in charge of Te Araroa's Waikato River trail construction. He'd joined the gang late, after another supervisor pulled out with pneumonia, and on the day he joined, we worked three hours then sat down for smoko. We talked rivers and tramping and I told the story of an American I'd met who'd tried to cross Shiels Creek in Westland when it was running, lost his footing, his pack, his jacket, a fair amount of flesh off his legs and was hospitalised four days at Greymouth Hospital.

Noel said:
"I believe if you die doing something you love, then that's the best way to die."

I looked at him. It wasn't quite the coda for a story where the tramper survived, but the gang recognised a solemn wisdom and everyone nodded agreement.

Then:
"My wife was a keen tramper. She got swept into the Henry River while crossing a side-stream. There was a flash flood. The whole bottom of the stream shifted. She was just this far from my outstretched hand."

A handsbreadth.

I crossed the Henry River on a suspension bridge. The track followed along upriver, and then I came to a stream and a small cairn with the inscription:
"Love springs eternal."

Memorial cairn

On January 4 1994, Noel and Diana tramped through to this point. It was snowing on Jervois Peak out to the east. The stream was in flood. Should they go upstream to cross? The two went up for a look, but decided the existing ford was best. They linked to each other's pack straps and began to feel their way across.

The water began suddenly to rise further, and the two abandoned the crossing. They edged back. The stream was pulsing, a flash flood phenomenon, and the stream-bed shifted beneath their boots. Noel saw a pressure wave, and pitched forward onto it, hoping for, and finding, the big rock beneath. He was then the anchorman, the two remained linked, Diana using her husband's supporting arm and shoulder to edge back to the bank. The water ran fast there, but shallow, just over boot height. That was his clear image. She was safe. He let go.

"I'm slipping," said Diana and fell backwards.

A handsbreadth away.

Run to the river. Noel Sandford had one last sight of his wife, apparently packfloating, caught briefly by an eddy in the Henry. She was smiling. One of the Sandford daughters, a doctor, took particular notice of this description and told her father later: The reason she was smiling - you shouldn't worry that anything more could have been done - Mum was already dead of coldwater shock.

A sign near the cairn said: This bridge was donated by N. Sandford in April 1994 with the permission of the station owners, and the help and encouragement of DOC Hanmer and RNZAF No 3 Squadron.

Diana's stream

A piece of dressed timber was lodged in rocks just down from the ford, and I went down and retrieved it, sliding it into a jumbled pile of timber on the far bank. Noel, a skilled carpenter, had come back and bridged the stream. He'd bought two hard-wood stringers weighing 1.5 tonnes, and the same Iroquois that had searched for his wife in the Henry River dropped them on-site.

He prefabricated the bridge superstructure, brought it up by 4WD to the far side of the river, floated it all across, then bolted and coach-screwed everything together.

Then came the death plunge, in 1995, of 13 polytechnic students and a DOC field centre manager on an observation deck at Cave Creek. The Department ordered engineering reports on all its structures. It set out new construction standards for the New Zealand back country.

Minimum deck-widths would be 800 mm, the bridge deck-width was 750 mm. Deck slats would be 40 mm thick, the bridge slats were 25 mm. No structural support timber would be notched. The hand-rail uprights were notched into the hardwood stringers. Safe, but incorrect. DOC demolished the bridge.

Just a bridge. Just a cairn, but eloquent with love and mourning. I knelt there briefly, shut my eyes and told someone I didn't know that from what I'd been told her three daughters were doing very well in their chosen careers.

St James

I went on to Anne Hut, arriving in darkness. I'd walked over 35 kilometres that day, and the hut was wonderfully warm and hospitable. A couple of sleepy trampers whom I'd woken told me to help myself to the water they'd had boiling on the log-burner. Lorraine and Trevor Proffit were from Christchurch, he an ex-dairy farmer, now working in a tannery, she a nurse with Southern Cross.

We walked out over the Anne Saddle next day, to the Lewis Pass highway. At Boyle Village I drew a mark beside the cattlestop and accepted the Proffit's offer of a lift to Hanmer Springs.

A motel room. A hot shower. Real food. A beer. White sheets. A soft bed. Such are the joys.