The silence of the land - Te Araroa's tramping lesson


We made Mid Wairoa hut by late afternoon, and Tomo was soon flicking through the hut book. Already fairly fluent in English, he always studied the tramper comments to improve his grasp on the language.

"What is Loo?"

"It means lavatory, Tomo."

"Ah - new word. Good. And this one Meat-safe"?

"You'll see a box outside the huts with mesh sides. It lets the air in, but keeps flies off the pig or deer kills. Hunters use them."


"Corrugated iron. Look it up in your electronic dictionary."

Tomo keyed it in:
"Making a wrinkle, making a waving or something."

"Not exactly. New Zealand is a young society. We built shelters in the back country and we used corrugated iron. We fenced with No 8 wire. These things became symbols. We're affectionate towards them. See someone's written here: 'At last ! Marmite in squeeze tubes'. Same sort of thing. Corrugated iron. No 8 wire. Marmite. They're New Zealand icons, but they're clown icons. I think New Zealanders don't take their national symbols as seriously as America, or Japan."

"And this one," said Tomo. "Bit of a grunt"?

"It's tramping slang Tomo. A hard slog - a big effort to get someplace."

On the trail next morning, I had the privilege of setting Tomo right yet again.

"Aaaiii ! Wasp bite! A bite!"

"No Tomo, you were stung. That is a wasp sting."

He more than repaid my meticulous tutoring later, picking up from where it had come untied and dropped onto the trail behind me, a tattered piece of cloth.

"Geoff. This is yours ?"

My lucky blue hanky.

Wairoa River, waterfall

For hours we followed a wilderness track alongside the Wairoa River, sometimes high above it in the gorges, sometimes crossing and recrossing it. Then the beech forest stopped abruptly. The hills ahead sloped away red, so rich in magnesium and iron that the forest recoiled, and only stunted shrubs remained.

Upper Wairoa River, rust lichen

We climbed a steep river bank, and I picked up shiny, jade-green fragments of rock. Serpentinite. The track, across a small plateau, led directly to the Upper Wairoa Hut, right on the margin of the Red Hills. The hut was remote - in January, just four people had passed through, Allen and Sue Higgins from the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, Frederick and Claudia Anheuser from Germany. It was swept and clean. It had firewood, an axe, a gypsy hook over the grate, billies, Readers Digest of October 1983, a bible, a novel, The Hill Station by J G Farrell.

Bucket In one corner was a galvanised bucket, with seven dry blowflies in it, which I took down to the Miner River and cleaned. Then I allowed the bucket sinkage in a pool, and carried it back, brimming. The riverwater tasted hard, bitter.

Te Araroa's proposed route was to climb to a 1,370-metre saddle then follow the poled route north across the flanks of Mt Ellis before curving south again round the edge of the Red Hills, to Hunters Hut - that was a day's tramp - then to Porter Hut - another day's tramp. Then out to St Arnaud.

Tomo and I spread out the maps. What if we climbed to the saddle then turned directly south, hiked up to Porter Ridge, along the ridge some six kilometres, then dropped down a long spur to Porter Hut? That would trim a full day off the Richmond Range tramp. It would also take us through the middle of the Red Hills. It was an unmarked route and it was high, but it looked okay.

We agreed to make the decision next day at the saddle. We'd do it, but only if the weather held.


The track to the saddle was steep and marked by DOC orange triangles, or cairns. Tomo wanted to move ahead faster than me, but the mist was down, we'd lose sight of each other, and we came to an agreement. He'd stop and wait every half-hour, or, if he felt there was any ambiguity in the track, he'd wait at that point.

I was alone, enclosed by mist. The tough little plants around me were doubly dwarfed - their growth constrained by altitude and calcium deficiency. Even the hardy matagouri was a flattened creeper in the rocks.

Underground streams tinkled underfoot. Water spilled occasionally down rock faces, and I drank: Tectonic Water - flinty flavours with a hint of bottom rock and a bitter aftertaste. I was having fun. Right then, I could have marketed barrels of this stuff around the world. Tectonic Water cures cancer - No, that was probably going a bit far. Tectonic water - causes cancer. No, that wouldn't fly.

I pushed on up through waist-high tussock, and as I reached the saddle the sun burned away the last of the mist and opened views through to Red Hill (1790 m), the highest point in the Richmond Range Forest Park. It was a good day.

Okay - we'd do the unmarked route along Porter Ridge. I notched into the GPS the spur we'd need to descend later and we climbed to 1600 metres. By then the ridgeline that had looked relatively smooth on the map was a mass of steep and jagged rock. We took an obvious detour, sidling around a rock-field below the ridge. The rocks were big, they forced you to jump one to the other. I saw Tomo leaping and balancing with his two hill-sticks somewhere below me, but turned back to my own leaping, the clatter of my Lekis, and lost sight of him. Half an hour on, I reached the end of the rock-field. A tussocky flank stretched away south, and it was an easy sidle up to the ridge.

There was no sign of Tomo. I called, and listened. No reply.

If he'd come through ahead of me, as was likely, the edge of the rock-field seemed a natural place to wait. In case he was still behind me, I simply waited there. Even if he'd gone on towards the ridge though, he should be in sight, and after a time I went on myself, but slowly, looking over my shoulder.

The fact was, I didn't know if he'd emerged safely from that jumbled field. I remembered how some of the big rocks in there had moved underfoot, threatening your balance. It was an unforgiving place to fall.

He could be in there, injured. Unlikely. But possible.
I called and listened.

One part of me knew this was a silly mistake. He'd turn up. Another part of me had him lying in the rockfield, brained. It would be an enormous area to search, full of big rocks and cavities.

The blue day had a tinge of menace. That cloud way out to the west was a hard, self-contained, over-bright, over-perfect, cloud, like those glossy models of their meals that Asian restaurants display. It winked in the light. It was high above the plains. It was dead-level with my head. It was being borne in, inexorably, from the west . . .

Get a grip. But altitude is always a little spooky. You don't linger in the tops, yet I was lingering. Time was going by, and we needed time for any unpredicted impediments on the ridge route. I was angry, worried, exasperated.

I called again. The blank hills gave nothing back. Not even an echo.

The ground around me was fairly open and either strewn with small rocks, or lightly tussocked. You could see a long way, but as you moved across it, softly contoured spurs rose and fell, and obscured a lot of territory. I called. I moved across the land, angling upwards, but kept a bearing on my exit point from the rock field, in case I had finally to go back there and search.

Half an hour went by. Way off to the north, on a rocky highpoint, a human silhouette appeared, stood looking. It was too far away to call. I waved, but there was no answering wave. I opened the pack, emptied the bright yellow packliner, and held it up. Too late, the figure was gone.

I set off toward the rocky outcrop, climbed it myself, called, descended again, and then Tomo appeared around a rocky corner. We looked at each other:

"This is not my fault!"

"Where were you!"

"I wait on the ridge."

"I was calling."

"I heard you call. I call back."

"We have a wind from the west. You could hear me, but I couldn't hear you? Why didn't you come down?"

"I wait. The ridge is the route. The ridge is the route. We both know the ridge is the route. You should come up to the ridge."

Exiting the rockfield, he'd cut straight up to the ridge, through broken rock. That route hadn't occurred to me. To me, the obvious route to the ridge was to follow the tussock up in a more oblique sidle.

We talked past each other for a moment, then Tomo suddenly banged his two hill sticks sharply on the ground.

"My English . . . My English . . . So - so - frustrating !"

I looked at him.

"Are we still going to do Porter Ridge?"

"We are not going to do the ridge," said Tomo, anticipating my rejection.

"Yes we are - we're doing the ridge. You want to lead off?"

"I will never go in front. Never!"


The yellow liner was still blatantly secured to the outside of my pack. Useful just a few moments before, it was vaguely insulting to anyone following on now, but I didn't care too much. I walked south, going back over our tense exchange. Somewhere in that exchange, Tomo had said he'd been right back across the rockfield looking for me. He'd been as concerned as I was - he'd done more perhaps, in respect of searching, than I had. He was as right as I was. I stopped and stuffed the yellow liner back in my pack. As Tomo came up, I held out my hand.

"It's a cultural misunderstanding Tomo. You did what you thought best, and so did I. When we meet Kevin again, we'll see what he says - he's a search and rescue man."

Red Hills Motueka River

To the east, Porter Ridge dropped away into a red glaciated valley, a landscape so smooth as to look almost upholstered. We passed house-sized chunks of pitch-black rock from which rose pitch-black butterflies. Grasshoppers with red armpits sprang back and forward across our path. I scooped up sand, and slipped it into a plastic bag for the later delight of my friends. The heaviest sand, the reddest sand, in New Zealand - the world.

So we walked finally along a high ridge of Mars, and the two of us finished the walk easy with each other again, taking turns to lead, and discussing the differences in the Japanese concepts of beauty. Kirei - beautiful. Shibui - beautiful, but also cool.

A rocky descent to Porter Hut left me, for the first time en route, with blisters, but happy nonetheless. The evening came on perfect. No wind. No cloud. A thousand frogs began to croak in a nearby swamp. The South Island twilight lingered beyond the dark horizon of bush in a broad band of yellow, shading up to purple where Jupiter shone.

"Shibui Tomo?"

"Yes. Shibui."

We tramped out of the Richmond Range next day. Kevin drove out along Highway 62, to meet us, and I marked a fencepost at the roadside, ready to start the 12 km walk down to St Arnaud next day. But meantime, we were hungry for good food, and over a restaurant dinner in Blenheim that night we did the whole trip again, and laid out the incident on Red Hill for Kevin's judgement.

"The mistake was - you didn't stay together. Right at the beginning of that rock field, it was important not to lose sight of each other."

"And do either of you have a whistle? I suggest you carry a whistle."