The big picture, the small things

The first part of the walk followed the Caples Greenstone track, a self-contained circuit that also linked through to the Routeburn and it was busy. We stopped often to gossip with oncoming trampers. The huts ahead were full. Choppers had brought in hunters, and their gear, and for lack of beds trampers were sleeping under the huts. We came up to Slyburn Hut and it was tramper city. Packs stood on the grass, yellow packliners pulled open, gear spilling. Wet clothes hung everywhere, boots were propped to the sun, with inners stripped out. People trekked back and forth to the loo. Smoke columned from an open fire where an Australian family sat on logs reading novels, and away in the forest I could hear the snap of dead branches from a firewood detail at work. People stirred pots on stoves, doled out food to kids, mixed the drinks. The air was crosscut by foreign accents. I began to pitch my tent.

"Hef - quick!"

Miriam came running, and I followed her back to a bush beside the hut. Two kakariki, velvet green, flew out of the bush, chattering.

Then everything stopped. Hut people came onto the porch. Camp ground people stood or sat, every head turned west, and I was witness to a ritual. People stopped for the sunset.They grouped, pointing out this and that cloud or colour that lay on the tops, or they stood alone. They watched it intensify and flouresce, then turned away with the fading of it, and then night fell. The fire threw out a circle of soft light. People chatted about whatever. The Ngai Tahu plan for a gondola route through to Milford Sound - no way. The tumble into the Greenstone River - the English woman showed her bruises. The coloured glass of this pendant in the firelight - the Bulgarian I talked to was on his second circuit of the Greenstone Caples, making a humble living from it, threading the glass beads at every hut stop, and selling the ear-rings and necklaces, or swapping them for food. Low voices and laughter were still rising and falling as I went to bed.

Next day we went uphill amongst moss that softened every outline on the forest floor. This was the Mavora Lakes Walk and we were following the old orange W - the New Zealand Walkway symbol. We glimpsed the Greenstone River winding into distance far below. A bellbird sang -

"That's so nice."

And sang again -

"Where are you Mr Bellbird?"

No answer -

"I'm over here," chimed my wife.

We passed a bush. She brushed it with her hand in passing -

"Hebe, hebe, hebe."

I tramped on, and she was gone. It was familiar this. She'd just drop away, and I'd go back to find her studying maybe some thin hooded native orchid. She'd name it, and seek to know it. In the bush she looked and listened more acutely than anyone else I knew, stooping over every tiny plant on the path. I went back to where she'd stopped beside a mountain pine -

"It's fruiting. Look - " she'd gently teased it apart, and was studying it. "a black seed on a white fleshy foot."

A little sundew, its sticky globules shining, was next, then a birds nest fungus.

"Look. They have eggs in this little cup, but they've all blown away."

The closeup things. She looked around, charmed by it.

"Everything in its own place, doing its own thing."

"Come on Miriam."

The track wound on through a low garden of clumpy mountain pine, crossed on boulders over the gush of Pass Burn and led upward through beech forest to the saddle. We descended into tussock overlooking a small lake, passed old fencewire in the trees, and pushed along the edge of a valley through waist-high tussock. The track disappeared. The old walkway poles had long since fallen, or were hidden by tussock, and even when maybe one in five still stood proud, the faded orange band was hard to pick in a yellow valley. The hut too was wrongly marked on the topo map, but we finally pushed through a cattleproof turntable made from an old cartwheel and Taipo hut was ours, and ours alone.

We made a brew, relaxed, spread ourselves, and I took the hut book over to my bunk. It was mid-April. Since the beginning of the year just 39 trampers had come through. The book had a Hut Code marked in bullet points - the rules by which the back country huts functioned -

It went on through the rules for rifles, the rules for dogs, and finally someone had added, close as they could in layout and paragraphing to the other Hut Rules -

Out the window were clean black-rock mountains dusted with snow. Seemed like a sensible enough message, but it really got up the nose of the one who'd scrawled -

"Whatever fucknut! Have another joint you zenned out loser!"

There was tension between hunters and trampers, between jet-boaters who'd come all the way up the Mararoa River and penned their adventure into the hut book and those who overprinted the feat - Well so what that you jetboated 200 metres past the hut?

The hut book though carried the first evidences I'd seen of New Zealand-long, or South Island-long walks. In May 1999 Netherlands couple Carlyn and Leon Breda had come this far from Cape Reinga, and noted the Mavora Lakes leg - "Rivers very hard to cross after heavy rain. Quite dangerous."

In February 1998, Goetten Andreas from South Germany came through from Picton taking 80 days to Taipo Hut, and estimating another 20 to Bluff - "I saw so many beautiful places."

In February 2000 Scottish trampers Will Boyd and Denny had tramped down from Cape Reinga in a 6-month marathon - "Nearly there!"

The water pipes were iced up in the morning, the mountains all around dusted with fresh snow.

"Frozen worms," said Miriam as we set off, and stooped to touch them. "Quite soft. Just no sign of life."

We crossed the Mararoa River on a swing bridge, saw an eel, came on down the valley, splashed across steep streams, and tramped cattle country.

Closeup things. Miriam's finger traced the brief flight of a tussock moth, then pointed downward at a big dry splatter of steer shit.

"This stuff reminds me of egg cartons - "

"Really?" I paid no more attention to that. Sometimes she got it right. Sometimes she got it wrong. Simple as that. Even after every marital loyalty had been summonsed, you had to say that egg cartons was not a realistic appraisal - of anything.

We walked on. Call me the big picture man. Map in one hand, I measured our walking progress against the huge ice-planed sides of the Thomson Mountains. Map to hand, sunnies on, I squinted into snow mountains, tried to comprehend whole landscapes. Was the summit immediately west of us Mt Mavora, or simply a sub summit of this, the biggest mountain in the valley?

"It is papier mache isn't it?" said Miriam suddenly. "It's grasses, chewed up, soaked in acid, spat out the other end and left in the sun to dry."

We came out at the North Mavora Lake on the fourth day. The lake was a mirror, tawny with the reflections of mountains. We walked beside it for hours, until the farmland disappeared and we again trod soft forest paths. The day was still. The lake shone. From the forest we could look directly into it, and saw small slim shadows moving at exactly our speed, visible for minutes at a time, as they patrolled parallel to the shore, fingerling trout. They swam over shining stones, boundary riders to a roll of green underwater weed that stood out parallel to the shore, and beyond that green roll the lake fell away into transparent depths.

The Mavora Lakes Walk came out at a road-end 25 kilometres from the nearest highway. Before leaving we'd checked to see if any shuttle service would bring a minivan into the DoC campground where the walk ends to pick up hiking parties. None would.

We'd walked 25 kilometres already that day, and were tired. I planned to walk the marginal strip on the Mararoa River down to Princhester Creek ready for the next leg through the Takitimu Mountains, but come to that - if we managed to get a ride, both of us would do it, and I'd come back and pick up my mark.

The DoC Mavora Lakes camp was almost deserted and our smiles were all the more charming in consequence. Waikato day visitors listened sympathetically to my casual mention that after a 27 kilometre tramp already that day we might have to walk all the way to Te Anau as well. They wished us luck, and drove off, waving pleasantly. I buttonholed an American couple in a hire car, but they were staying overnight to fish.

We walked on down the road towards South Mavora Lake. A 4WD vehicle was parked in a layby, the driver dressed in fatigues, leaning on the bonnet.

"Hi there. Heading back to Te Anau later I guess?"

"No," said the man. "A friend's coming in to show me mouse fishing tonight."

"Mouse fishing?"

"A mouse lure. You make them out of alkathene. We'll be fishing for the very biggest trout. They go on the silhouette at night, they go for mice, the movement in the water."

No rides, but it was here, in a roadside thicket between the North and South Mavora Lakes, that the long-ago promise of Joseph Banks at Ship Cove came true. Bellbirds - 10 or 12 of them in forest on one side of the road. Bellbirds - another six or so perched amongst the thin screen of trees at the other side of the road. A convocation of them, and busy. The birds gonged one to another non-stop. They sped swiftly from one side to another and gonged again, and kept gonging. A couple of tired trampers, transfixed on a dusty road. This was the most melodious wild music they'd ever heard.