Keith Hood stood in a big shed amidst empty inoculation vials and the clunk of animals moving in a darkened stall as I came through.

A hiking route should be possible across his farm, he said, not on the farm race where he'd agreed I could walk, for there were frequent stock movements there, but further out on the property.

We left it at that, and went out to look at the hills. I was headed for the Mt Hutt toll gates on the Skifield Road and that meant going beyond the paddocks and sidling across the mountain.

"I haven't been out the back for a while, but the boys tell me it's a bit rough," said Hood. "It's quite scrubby up there. There's a bit of lawyer - "

"Yeh fine."

I went through a field of hinds. They were different from any animal I'd encountered before. Sensitive. They'd move as one, their speed giving them a flowing motion, then stop, look, all turned one way, ears up like fungus, then flee again, and in the contours of the paddock, disappear. Then there'd be a low rumble, and the line of the hill in front would be suddenly animate with a streaming line of ears, and then the whole herd would burst into the open higher up the paddock, wheel as one, and stop, and stare again.

Then I cut into the hills.

Always listen to a farmer. If he says the country is a bit rough, consider yourself warned. If lawyer even gets mentioned in that underslung farming way, then it won't be the lawyer you're used to, hanging occasionally across your path in the bush, occasionally raking you. No. This will be serious lawyer.

The slopes of Mt Hutt were covered with fern and tutu, a poisonous plant but not hard to move through. What was hard was the lawyer, rampant in amongst the fern, thick-stemmed with big thorns.

I'd taken a bearing on the toll gate but I couldn't hold the line. I simply went where it was easiest to go, up and down and around. The mountainside was creased with sharp little gullies where the bush was tall and stringy and there were drop-offs into streams slippery with moss. It was unpleasant travel but over long hours I made it through to a field below the toll-gate. A bluff stood between me and it. The stream at the foot of the bluff was thick with gorse and willow and blackberry, all of it netted with creeper and lawyer and I simply bounced off. I diverted to a fenceline, hopped over the gate and then I struck the bulls.

Throughout my South Island hike, I'd been trying to compose a walking song. Walking, with its separate but keyed rhythms of swinging arms, swinging legs, breathing and the soft percussion of footfalls seemed to me good for such composition. I had a mouthharp aboard, and I'd break it out around the huts sometimes, though to be honest I'd never got much past the old repertoire - E Papa, Po Karekare Ana, Move Cecil, Silent Night and Jugband Waltz.

Now I sidled alongside an electric fence in a paddock full of bulls. Everyone swung round to have a look at me. Someone began to bellow - MwwwwAAAAAH - began to stir everyone up, and in that moment, I broke into a slow but entirely spontaneous song -

Let's all take it easy -
     MwwwwAAAAH
Let's not be disturbed -
     MwwwwAAAAH
Let's all live together -
     MwwwweeeEEEEEaaah
Here among the turds -

I ad-libbed and I'm not going to call it art, but I sang and I hoped I was singing in a soothing register.

I moved along the fenceline, but I kept facing the bulls and as I sang, my hands were palms out and oscillating slowly back and forth like a metronome. The musical form was dated, but this was not the time for hyper-rhythm, urban insults, four-letter words and the jabbing finger, this was pure Black and White Minstrel submission. Something that a bull might understand.

It was a big field. The song went on and on, and so did the bellowing, but I hoped the beasts could see, as I could, that we were locked into just such a primitive call and response as might figure in the pastoral scene of some popular musical. That it would be a shame to sunder something we'd achieved together by any silly chargings or tossings.

I came to the fence out of the bull paddock. It was four-wire electric. The difficult electric fences like this one you just jump onto so your feet are off the ground when you grab the wire. So long as you're not earthed, you're okay. That's the theory, and it's what I did. Jumped onto it, hoisted up on it, swung a leg over the top of it, balanced myself with one hand on a post ready for the jump down from it, and right then I got a shock that would have felled a bull. I dropped stonily off the fence, and lay on my back on the far side. The world receded into pale colours, then came back again. But I was out and free and on my way to Mt Somers.

From Mt Somers, across Canterbury Plains
View of Canterbury Plains from Mt Somers

Canterbury Mountain Radio painted a vividly cold picture of the South Island. Lewis Pass to Mt Cook, said the radio. Winds at 1,000 metres. Westerlies developing at 2,000 metres to 45 kph, freezing level 3,000 metres. Mt Aspiring to south of Lake Wakatipu, westerlies at 45 kph, freezing level 2,000 metres. Fiordland and Stewart Island, south-westerlies 45 kph about the tops, freezing level at 2,500 metres.

Zone by zone in its 7.30 p.m. daily sked, the radio gave the expected weather in the mountains and then gave a four-day forecast. The operator then went through over 20 call signs, and climbers, hunters, or trampers who'd linked to the service for safety called back.

I was tuned in on Pinnacle Hut radio on Mt Somers - I wasn't really part of the true alpine adventure, but it was fun to listen to the faint kiwi voices parked in crevices and huts on God knows what rock face. I was sub-alpine, though high enough to listen with interest to my own local forecast. I had a view of the Canterbury Plains 1,000 metres below, and could look out the window at a couple of pleasingly huge and smooth rocks on the slopes behind the hut.

Standing stones on Mt Somers
Mt Somers Stones

Pleasing, because sometimes over past weeks it had seemed to me that the whole interior of the South Island was falling down. South Island rock was grey, South Island rock was brittle, South Island rock was greywacke. It did not weather into interesting shapes, it just broke up into bits. Big bits, small bits, but basically just bits.

The plants that grew over and amongst these shingle slopes would sometimes gain enough foothold and sufficient density to be described as ground cover, but their foothold was always unstable. Slips or water runoff left long raw weals on every steep slope. The hills in their camouflage colours often looked wounded, laid open and grey, as if some madman had slashed at them up and down the valleys with a knife.

The elephantine standing stones on Mt Somers were weathered into powerful contours whose smooth pockets were now pooled with evening shadow, and the same slanting light of evening threw into relief the striated brown rock that lay in the bluffs behind. Mt Somers was an old volcano and the upwelling rock in these huge bluffs above the hut had writhed and whorled hot and viscous before it cooled into whorls now entirely cold, cracked and jointed.

Waterfall, Mt Somers
Mt Somers waterfall

Next morning dawned clear and I went on over the saddle in brilliant weather. The air above the tussock was wonky with heat, copper butterflies flitted, waterfalls splashed from rocky rhyolite heights, and the grasshoppers did not sing so much as give off a fast flat and unmodulated ticking sound, like the automatic timer on a stove.

Mt Somers was a big volcanic carbuncle. The glaciated valleys on the far side of the saddle were aimed directly into the mountain's flank, but Somers had been staunch enough to turn the ice sheets aside.

I was going down now, along the lip of a canyon, past a neat little hut with one red door marked trampers, one red door marked shearers, past an old coal mine and down to a remnant of ancient silver beech forest that had escaped both Maori and settler burnings. The old trees were full of birdsong, and a bellbird dropped gradually down branch to branch until he was staring at the through hiker from only a metre away.

Lonely country formed by glaciersI walked from Mt Somers up the Erewhon Road, and into increasingly lonely country. I entered a wide valley, passed Lake Clearwater and its holiday settlement of empty cribs, and went on into deserted splendour. The valley floor was smooth, with kettle lakes and erratic rocks, and whole kilometres of the valley sides were graded at the same angle, so that I seemed to walk up a grand avenue, whose architect was not nature's usual chaotic and democratic squabblers but a more grim and totalitarian figure, the Emperor Ice.

I came to the valley's edge, and the land dropped away suddenly to the Rangitata River Valley below. A filmy afternoon light was slanting into it, broken into rays by high peaks in the west. The valley was wide, brightly lit, criss-crossed by the shelter belts of Mt Potts station and enclosed by snowy mountains.

Across the river from here was Mesopotamia, once owned by New Zealand's most famous 19th century author, Samuel Butler. The old 19th century dray route into Mesopotamia came through this pass, and I could see, standing in this same place, how Butler might have beheld the lost valley and the closeted civilisation of his novel Erewhon.

Marie Claire Dewsberry I'd rung ahead to Mt Potts. The station had a lodge for skiers in winter and hikers and adventurers in summer. Marie-Claire Dewsbery ran the lodge. She'd met her husband Mark 'Speed' Dewsbery four years before when he was managing Mt Heron station. Where was she from? he'd asked politely and the adventurous Yorkshirewoman had told him - I don't have a location, I have a bag. Now here she was. Her background was in tourism and travel and she was setting up accommodation at Mt Potts Lodge, though if you wanted a meal, you had to book.

I was booked, and sat down to a Marie-Claire Dewsbery meal that night of tomato soup with beer bread, chicken kebab with Mediterranean char-grilled vegetables on cous cous, and chocolate almond cake with cream.

And coffee, do not forget the espresso coffee.

At the next table a biking safari group was also enjoying the food. Photographer Warren Jowett was rueing a lost telephoto lens, but the group was mainly talking climbing and kayaking and I heard John Leath say to Warren -

"A lot of people try to fight the water, but the flow there is 8 cumecs. That's 80 tonnes of water going past every second. You can't fight 80 tonnes, and I tell people relax and do what the water wants."

Well thanks. Next day I planned to cross the second-largest of the South Island braided rivers, the Rangitata, on foot.