Maps and maggots, Weetbix and poison

 

The rain came on, and through the windows of the Hope Kiwi Lodge I studied cattle. A few cow and calf duos wandered in the wide meadows, but one black steer just stood there, neither grazing nor, aside from a slowly-working jaw, moving.

I read the track description from pages I'd torn from 101 Great Tramps in New Zealand. The Harpers Pass route was an old classic, used by Maori as a greenstone trail, by gold diggers and stockmen to cross the alps from east to west. The authors warned that three difficult river crossings waited at the southern end of the 5 to 7-day journey - the Taramakau, the Otehake and the Otira. The book advised crossing the Taramakau above where "the Otehake River thunders out . . " then to cross the Otehake itself.

If it rained, you could get badly stuck. I spread my three maps onto the floor of the Hope Kiwi Lodge so the whole 76 km route was on display. At 1:50,000 the route was 1.5 metres long, and here was the thin blue ink-line of the Otehake, three or four days tramp away. I went to the window and gazed out. Clouds drifted through the valley and the rain had really set in. This was exactly the weather that would swell the Otehake. Blue ink merely. Thundering blue ink.

Symbolic thought. The Neanderthals were great toolmakers and successfully survived for millions of years in their low-brow unsymbolic way before yielding in a series of massacres in Southern Spain to the swarming Cro Magnons. The single advantage of the Cro Magnon proto-humans, so the theory goes, was their capacity to manipulate symbols, to use pictures and language.

I gazed out the window at the steer, still standing in the rain, still in exactly the same place, still chewing. No mere beast could read the maps spread out on the floor behind, could envisage the thin blue tracery of a river 60 kilometres distant as a raging, no the word was thundering torrent, could even remotely understand my own sense of arrested panic in this wet but entirely peaceful landscape.

The poor bastards.

I lit candles and read a novel I'd picked up in Nelson, Don DeLillo's The Names. Outside it kept raining. I got up and shone my torch on the steer in the meadow. Luminous eyes. Still standing in exactly the same spot. I focussed the Maglite beam, but couldn't make out - black against black - whether the jaw was still moving.

Hope Kiwi Lodge

In the morning the rain had eased and I set off on a 4WD track through the Kiwi River Valley meadows, picking up from beside the track, a fashionable black leather pouch with a blue rubber ring drawing it closed at the top. Huh - someone dropped a - what the hell is it? - a purse?

I admit to thinking that. I admit to squeezing it to see if there was any small change inside, or, since it seemed a slightly counter-culture item, any dak, and it was the slight squashiness of it, the sudden realisation that the hairiness was no fashionable conceit, no accessoire brut, but the original beast itself, that sent me recoiling one way, and the thing looping the other, to land on the road with a soft thud.

The poor bastards.

Pack on plain

I spotted Lake Sumner from a high viewpoint, went on down and past, then up the Hurunui River Valley. The grasslands opened wide and I sweated upon an endless plain for hours before crossing the river on a suspension bridge.

Symbols and signs. The notice said Hurunui Hut -10 minutes, but maybe after a 20 km day I was just tired. I counted off the seconds. Each time I got to 60, I'd extend a finger. When both hands were splayed, I started again, and the forest track still wound away uphill. Some bloody DOC guy, fit and fresh, dropped into the hut by chopper, bounding downhill, ticking off the minutes, hammering the sign into the ground. It's never the distance itself, but the symbols of actual distance, never the time it takes, but the symbols of the time it should take. These are the things that measure your shortfall. At the end of a long tramping day, these are the things that make you groan.

Someone had left a window open at the hut, and blowflies zoomed around. Someone had left a bacon sandwich folded into a plastic bag with a happy note: 'Bob - Enjoy'. I'm no forensic entomologist, but from the 5 mm length of the maggots inside I estimated Bob was around two days late. I threw his lunch out the door, and got on with my own dinner.

The maps showed a hot pool right ahead, but I was forewarned by the exasperated entries in the hut book, written by trampers who'd failed to find it. Next day the first tramper I'd seen en route strode towards me, using a tall tube as a hiking stick, and I stopped him.

Geoff Gilbert, angler form Montana, USA

"Oh sure, I camped there last night," said Geoff Gilbert from Montana. "You won't miss it if you stay on the trail, but the gnats are real bad."

"Sandflies. It doesn't pay to stop for long beside the river," I was already slapping at my legs where the namu were burying their mouthparts. I nodded at the tube. "Fishing?"

"Right. Know anything about this river? So far I've had shit luck. Maybe it gets better as it goes along. Or" he said thoughtfully, "maybe I'm a bad fisherman."

I smelled the hot spring. The trail passed a wet rock face blackened and streaked by minerals, and the overhanging beech stained orange by sulphur. It was fairly hard to miss. I climbed up to the pool and stripped off for a soak. Just my head above water, and namu by the hundred homing in.

Past No 3 hut, and then across a walk-wire over Cameron Stream. The trail wound on through beech forest, long vales of colonnaded space and suspended green confetti, quiet except for the occasional glassy inflection of a bellbird, and then a forest hum. I tip toed cautiously past a busy commerce of wasps streaming in and out of a mossy hole in the ground. I went on up a diminishing valley, paused at the bivvy for a bite to eat, then boulder hopped up the river towards the saddle.

Bivouac

I hauled out by its tail a shiny brown eel-like creature in the river and it turned out to be a leaf, but I wasn't disappointed. Dracophyllum. I looked about, found it and grinned. Dracophyllum traversii is a strange Seuss-like tree with separate urchin heads of leaves. The trees are always surrounded by their own profuse moult of long slick leaf litter, and it's odd, but I've always felt actual affection for them, the way you might with an animal.

Dracophyllum

The vegetation changed dramatically. A wide variety of plants and trees crowded the track as I made my way up to Harpers Pass. Mountain holly, the Mt Cook Lily, not a lily at all in fact, but a giant buttercup, tree fuchsia, the turpentine shrub, mountain pine. Then at 960 metres altitude and with surprising ease I crossed the main divide. Far below, the Taramakau River glinted and wound into the western distance.

Taramakau

I came down on a steep slip-riddled track, crossed the Taramakau on a swing bridge, then pushed my way along a rough trail, through bush growth and beds of stinging Ongaonga in the gullies. Heavy cloud was massing in the hills behind as I reached Locke Stream Hut at 7 pm, kicked off my boots and went in.

Cornucopia ! The place looked like a supermarket.

Weetbix, the 66 biscuit 1 kg pack, two of them. Bell Tea, a 200-bag packet. Anchor skim milk, Moro bars, Crispie biscuits, muesli bars, canned fish fillets, clover honey, raspberry jam, butter, crunchy peanut butter, colby cheese, edam cheese, white toast bread, macaroni elbows, cans of soup, carrots, Budget loo paper.

More supplies yet were packed away in plastic barrels. LPG bottles were stashed about, a four-ring burner sat on the bench.

These guys had come in by chopper.

On the table was NZ Guns and Hunting. The magazine's cover slash said: "Brush busting - When Bullets Hit Twigs."

These guys were hunters.

There was a book on one bunk: Kahawai Cowboys - Kiwi Fishing Tales by Mark Goodson.

And fishers.

On another bunk was The Holy Bible, and The Reason Why? by R.A. Laidlaw, founder of the Farmers Trading Company. The cover quoted Billy Graham's praise of Laidlaw as "One of the Great Christian Laymen". It said: "More than 20 million copies of this booklet have now been published in more than 30 languages."

I made myself a hot chocolate. I read DeLillo. The door opened. Three men came in, dropped their packs and got straight into boiling water for tea - Martin Cleland from Whataroa, Kelly Glass from Harihari, Noel Glass from Hokitika.

"Been hunting?"

"No," said Martin Cleland. "We're tree-huggers."

"Oh?"

"Mensuration," said Martin. "We mensurate." He cocked an eye at me, daring me to do the joke and repeated, "Men-sss-uuu-rate - what are you reading?"

I showed him. "If you want context for the terrorist attack in America, read DeLillo." I flicked the pages . . "Huge crowds circling the holy rock at Mecca, obscure hatreds, spies, suspicion, Americans working in Greece and the Middle East, assassination, it's a novel but it kind of gets the atmosphere - what DeLillo calls the world hum, planetary fear."

"I've got a mate in the States who's been yapping at me on the phone," said Kelly. "It's a pain getting around the States at the moment. It's better to drive 800 km than to fly."

"Metal detectors going off," said Martin "I was going from Christchurch to Waitotara. I thought I was putting all my hi-jack offensive weapons on the table - the slashers the machetes, and then I'm looking at my car keys with the little knife attached. Where do you stop? And then I trigger the alarm anyway. Step this way Sir. I've got my hands up, I get patted down, and it's my boots with the steel toes in them."

"So Geoff," said Noel, looking me in the eye. "You think that Western civilisation might be coming to an end?"

They were bushmen. They'd know what the weather was going to do, and I asked them. Martin crossed to a radio on the wall, humming to himself - "The Taramakau - the Terrible Cow" He called up DOC's Arthurs Pass base, and it crackled back. It's clagged in around the base here and we've got a southwester. The cloud is increasing tonight and tomorrow - we could get rain.

Noel sensed my worry, turned to me and said: "It takes a lot of rain to bring the rivers up when it's this dry."

Tree hugger gang

The gang measured trees in specific plots, information that would be run through a computer programme to gauge the health of the forest overall. They were under contract to DOC.

The three told tales of growing up and working in the bush, the saw mills, dangerous work, but good money. They'd lost jobs as the conservation pressure groups closed the commercial forests. In its first term, the new Labour Government of 1999 had responded to the pressure and put a deadline on Timberlands the government SOE. All rimu logging would stop by April 2002. The three knew the ironies.

"The biggest logs that ever came out of the Okarito Forest," said Martin, "came out - guess when?"

"Before the Labour Government ?"

"No. Last year under Labour. It was just bloody amazing. It was the last big bash. Timberlands had a contract. If it didn't supply its quotas it was up for compensation claims from Westco Lagan, and they took trees out of the forest that would make you cry.

"They had to come up with huge volume from somewhere, more than they could take out under the West Coast Accord, which set sustainable volumes. So they changed the harvesting regime from volume to stems. Twenty stems per hectare, and they changed the DBH diameters. Out they came. We were calling them Helen trees in the end. We were watching these transports going past with bowls of trees that were a couple of metres through. Rimu, and I was thinking: Where are the protesters now? "

The conversation took a swing through 1080, the poison that gets broadcast in the New Zealand bush by the Animal Health Boards and DOC, to control possums. The fight was on there too, to stop it.

"It's like a .270 rifle," said Martin. "Powerful. A great weapon in the right hands at the right time and at the right target. But right now it's like someone's firing on semi-automatic up the main street of Auckland.

"I used to hate politics," he said, "but I got dragged into it - it's like a vortex. We're too few people too far from the political centre. There's 34,000 people in Westland."

"We're outvoted by all youse lot up there," said Kelly.

"We're beleaguered," said Martin. "They say tourism is the answer.They want to put a road from Haast to Fiordland - a wilderness road, no development - but any government has the ability to change legislation at a whim. First you get the carpark, then the ablution block, next thing someone has set up a bungy, then the tearooms."

Everyone fell silent, contemplating the sinister hum of tourists in the South Island.

"We're going to have to move to the Chathams," said Martin.

"We're West Coasters," said Kelly.

"If we kark out in the bush just gut us and leave us there," said Noel.

In the morning I waded the river and went on down the long Taramakau Valley. There'd been rain during the night, and the weather still threatened. Winds gusted from every direction, tugging the lucky hanky on my Leki now this way, now that.

There was no marked track, but as I headed sometimes over grassy terraces, sometimes into bush to avoid getting bluffed by the river, I was struck as I had been in the Waiau Valley, by the invisible companionship of a thousand previous trampers.

On an unmarked route, you solve the problems of travel your own way, but surprisingly often as you come on, a discernible track opens under your feet. Others have made the same decisions. There's a comfort about it, and I was always careful to walk where others had, on that faint pressed grass where others would also follow. A nascent trail.

I crossed the Taramakau beyond Kiwi Hut, and awaited the thunderer.

The Otehake had dug itself a trench. Its banks were jumbled rock and the danger of it was the channel, not broad and flat like the Taramakau, but U shaped, faster running. People have died here - once you're down in a river like this, its hard to regain footing. I adjusted the Lekis. I prowled up and down to spot the best cross-point. I waded in, and the water rushed to the top of my thighs, unceasing and hypnotic as I stared down at it, sliding each boot slowly to its next stable footing.

Mid-way across I stopped and raised my head to look. It's a tactic. The river stops rushing then, your view is suddenly wide, your balance confirmed. A plane of liquid light stretches back and disappears into the forest. The river ripples, has small standing pressure waves, the light bounces off it. It is beautiful, both motile and still. It is just a little awesome, but not fearsome. Not today at least.

I tramped on down, crossed the Otira, and came out on the Arthurs Pass Highway.