a billy boils over

"And what would you folks like?"

"I'll have a Speights."

"A Brandy and dry please."

"And where are you two from?"

"Auckland."

"Auckland! We don't serve Aucklanders."

"What! "

"Well, why should we be paying for your roads?"

"You're not paying for our roads."

"Geoff doesn't know about that," said Miriam to the barman. "He's out of touch. He doesn't watch TV."

"What's going on?"

"There's a new tax," said Miriam quietly "4.5c a litre on petrol sales is going to Auckland roads."

"Right. Doesn't matter. Look mate. We're paying for your roads. I've been walking up and down and around this country, and guess what? There are roads out to the South Island sheep stations to a single station sometimes that are . . . that are - "

"Very very long," said Miriam.

"Public roads! We pay for those, and anyway - is this New Zealand or the bloody Balkans ? "

"Okay," said the barman, unfazed. "The road between Queenstown and Christchurch has a one way bridge stuck right in the middle of it. All our operators pay tax, and we've still got a one-way bridge on the main tourist road !"

Ohau Lodge's Danny Kortwright was the stroppiest barman I'd ever struck, but he relented finally, served the drinks and we talked on. His father had been a head shepherd and Danny had moved around some of the South Island's biggest stations. Even as a kid he'd done tough jobs - sheep raking where the chopper drops you in snow up to your armpits, and you tramp a rescue path for trapped sheep. He'd seen hard things - sheep dead of starvation in snow caves, sheep that had eaten the wool off each others backs. He'd come through testing situations - taking the top beat on a mustering sweep along a big hill. Getting to the ridge only to see dense fog rolling upwards from the far side. Shouting a warning to the median and low shepherds, but caught himself as fog poured over the ridge and down. Sitting it out beneath a rock overhang with his dogs. All day, and all through the night.

That night the wind pelted the lodge with stones, and in the morning Lodge owner Mike Neilson ordered up a Metfax Printout of the Mt Cook Alpine Forecast. We both pored over that. It reported jauntily that during the day winds at 3,000 metres would reach 90 kph. But even at the sort of level I was planning to do that day - an unmarked route over the Ohau Range - I was going to be up around 1400 metres and winds there would rise to a predicted 60 kph. The forecast also predicted snow on the saddles and a snow line descending to 1600 metres.

Mike Neilson traced with his finger wind direction across the alps.

"These winds will break up. The mountains slice them down the middle. If it comes from a southerly quarter rather than a westerly quarter that's different, but I think you're fine to go."

A group from Hiking New Zealand, a company that does guided walks for international and New Zealand hikers, was coming down the DoC Freehold Creek walkway Freehold Creek as I came up.

Mike and Geoff

Ben Ohau's 1500 metre bulk loomed behind us, and your could see the waves of Lake Ohau breaking even from this height. The weather was cutting up, and it'd begun to hail in the tops, the guide told me. The group wasn't staying out as planned.

Then I left the Freehold Creek track and improvised a route across tussock and Spaniard at the base of blunt rocky peaks. Below me the saddle was a maze of cushiony plants and shining water, a beautiful bog, but I'd been told to keep away from it.

Lake Ohau
Hail bounced off my hood, and it got cold. I crouched in the lee of a big rock to eat a lunch of salmon and crackers, and when I was ready to go again, pulled on a pair of gloves. New gloves. I felt good about that. 80 million possums, said the label on this new product, eat 20,000 tonnes of bush every night. I had my Possumdown gloves. I was doing my bit.

WaterfallI came rockhopping fast down steep tussocky slopes. Occasional outriders lashed me then disappeared, but the body of the hail-storm stayed just behind me, rolling along as a big whitish blur. I kept looking over my shoulder - still there. The moon does that when you're a kid, follows along, but the moon doesn't grow in height so as to block out the sun.

Hurry. Watch your ankles. At Ohau email news came in that our trust secretary, Alison Henry, had broken an ankle out on a track. Jumping one to another down 1,000 rocks you sometimes fall. The later in the day you jump the more likely you are to fall. I fell - once, twice. It's a warning that you're getting tired, and I adopted the kind of mantra that sometimes overtakes you when the tramping - Concentrate Geoffrey - I reached the river, had sometimes to crawl across steeply sloping river banks of tight-packed and dusty soil half loess, half shingle, slippery, easy to slide upon. into the dropoff into the river. Ankle-breaking leg-breaking, potential. Concentrate Geoffrey. Over and over. Then the tramp got easier, and flatter and soon there was nothing to worry about but matagouri thickets, but the mantra, once begun, segued effortlessly into something more profound - One two three FOUR five One two three FOUR five. It was true. Often at the end of a long day, I found simple comfort in simply counting in odd numbers, so the emphasis fell first on the right foot, then on the left foot.

Where was the hut?

I'd seen it on the maps, and put it into the trail plan. At Doc HQ in Twizel, I'd sat down with Mac McNamara and Ian Guthrie - the land had been retired to DoC and they'd inherited an 1880s musterers hut there. It was in original condition.

"It's dilapidated," said Mac

"Right," I said "But I'll be able to sleep there."

"If you don't mind company," said Ian Guthrie grinning. "Might be better to sleep in your tent."

Cold white weather rolled down the valley and the hurrying tramper was a speck in front of it, and at every bend of the river he searched for the hut. Hut! Okay, so there'd be rats. But you hang your pack from a hook, and rats don't worry you too much.

Musterer's hut

The hut wasn't there, and suddenly it was - concealed against the bank of a long river terrace until I practically stumbled over its roof.

Overgrown old brown beer bottles scattered about. I unhooked the door, it was jammed, and I put my shoulder down and piled in. One small louvre admitted a shaft of pale light. The hut framework and rafters were unmilled beech - thin trunks or branches, bark still intact, trimmed and whittled to fit. A rat skeleton was embedded in the dirt floor. Rum bottles lay all around, their labels foxed and lacy with acidic decay. Summer heat had softened a candle that had flopped away from its base holder like toothpaste out of a tube, and hardened there. The bunk bases were large gauge chicken wire, with sacking mattresses, the kapok exploded out of them. The fireplace was just a mound of solid sloping ash held in place by sagging corrugated iron sheets with a broom propped there made of sticks. But there was a table too, with a skillet and above it the only sign of order - three billies hung on nails on the wall, a big one, a medium one and a small one.

It wasn't the Hilton, but I was very pleased I'd made it in. I broke out the stove and fired it up, put on the pot. I'd make myself a coffee. Shake up the milk. Break out the biscuits. Then put on the evening meal. A slow but steady pampering would take place.

The biggest billy, hanging on the wall suddenly boiled over. A thick grey fluid poured out, flowed upwards onto a rafter, then sped along the central beam

Maybe the cramped confines of the hut magnified it all but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. The billy was only about a metre from my nose, I leaped back, and the animal had made it up into the rafters before I'd comprehended that it was a possum.

It hung there, its face turned away. The theory seemed to be - if it couldn't see me, I couldn't see it. The water began to boil and I poured it over the coffee bag. One of the great pleasures of the tramp is exactly this. A hard day behind you, dirty weather outside, and cupped in your hands a hot drink. The hump of fur hanging over my head spoiled the magic. I took out a Leki, gave him a prod and a suggestion -

"Look mate - why don't you shoot through?"

The possum decided he was in a bad place. He climbed down from the rafter and holed up in the far corner of the top bunk. Fine - that was a good compromise - at least he wasn't going to drop on me.

I began to drink my coffee.

HA-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-ah-ah-ahahahahahah TAT--tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tatatatatat.

The possum hissed and spat. I whirled on him. I stood up and pointed right at him.

"Look mate - don't push it."

HA-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-ah-ah-ahahahahahah TAT--tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tatatatatat.

"I'm bigger than you. I'm stronger than you."

HA-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-ah-ah-ahahahahahah TAT--tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tatatatatat.

"I'm more intelligent than you are, and in short I wouldn't do the big challenge if I were you."

The possum began to walk across the chicken wire towards me. Bad move. His paws slipped through the gaps and he was suddenly cast with all four legs sticking straight down. He looking up at me - a bit like a man suddenly clapped into the stocks at the mercy of the leering crowd. Right in front of his snout, were the possum gloves. I hoped he'd got the point, and I left him to his own devices.

I drank my coffee, and tried to re-enter the usual sequence - drinking, eating, sleeping.

It was coming on dark by now. I cooked up some pasta and tuna and ate. Now to sleep. The possum and I were not going to sleep in the same room. Either he went, or I did. He'd extracted himself out of the chicken wire, and climbed to the rafters again. I'd prodded him a few times, but he was unresponsive, and to be honest, I felt like a bully. He wasn't going to be shifted. and his claws were so deep into the beechwood you could hardly prize the beast loose without wounding him

Besides, I'd grown just a little affectionate towards him. A couple of things had happened. When he was baled in the corner, up on his hind legs and facing out he didn't look that different from the teddy bear that sat looking at your childhood bed.

And I suspected he was very old. One eye was milky. He was half blind, and - since he hadn't heard me come into the hut and crash the pots - deaf as well.

Out of respect for the aged, and for my own comfort, I went outside and put up the tent. I bedded down there, and a couple of times during the night I was awoken.

Haaaah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ha -TA-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-

I could hear them moving about. More than one. I imagined a ring of them around the tent, paws linked, doing a triumphant kapa haka.

I expected the hut to be empty by morning, and it was. I peered into the various corners of it - no possum - and I got on with preparing a muesli breakfast and shaking up the milk.

Huh ! Right then I saw two ears sticking out of the big billy. Two pink ears, and I felt a surge almost of affection. This was his turangawaewae, the place where he stood. He was too old. Too set in his ways. He would give it up for nobody, would not be moved even by the threat of death. Well, good on him.

 

Possum in the billy

I felt a bond, and gave the bottom of the billy a few playful taps -

Haaaah Ah Ah Ah Ah Ha -TA-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-

It rose up in immediate tooth and claw defence. This time he wasn't moving. He chose to defend himself from inside his tin castle, and right through breakfast the pink nose and the milky eye and the nasty teeth hissed and rattled and waved its claws. I packed up straight after. I closed the door behind me noting the loose bit of corrugated iron beside the door that served as a possum flap. And then I left and was glad to be gone.

 

Fencer's knot

On down the Ahuriri River. I'd crossed a provincial boundary somewhere around here and Otago's signature was immediate - the flat iron fenceposts common to the treeless tussocky downs. And, since there was no place to nail the end of a coil of wire, a fencer's knot to tie the end of one roll of no 8 wire to the next.

I went on down to the junction of the Ahuriri River then round to a river bridge on Birchwood Road. The pink Hyundai waited there. I made a mark at the bridge, and we drove 20 kilometres, following the Ahuriri River to Omarama.