Start, Forest Creek

#16: Over the Two Thumb Range
Samuel Butler's remnants


Antler Hut

I tramped up Forest Creek three hours and struck one bit of history - the remains of Samuel Butler's first hut at Mesopotamia. One small mound of stones and a plaque, fenced off with hurricane, and barbed wire.

Then a yellow ute with Bugger painted on the bonnet. I'd tramped five hours by then, every 4WD track had long ago tailed out and it seemed unlikely given all the crumble-edged channels of Forest Creek, that any vehicle might ever make it this far.

The ute was neatly parked below an old stone hut with 8-point antlers nailed above the door. I guessed at hunters, went up to the hut and stuck my head in - no-one home. I checked the longdrop too, at a glance for the thing was no more than a stand and a seat without walls. No-one home, and I went on

I was looking for a willow tree.

Ex Forest Service man Graeme Larcombe had once walked the same route I was walking now. Look for a willow, he'd said, and an old pack-horse track that zig zagged up the hill behind it, that led into the Two Thumbs Range. The route required four station permissions and I'd rung three of them, and left an answerphone message with the fourth - I was walking with everyone's blessing, but sighted no willow.

Two rabbiters came down-river with a .22 rifle and a dog. They knew the willow. It was, said Max Crisp, unmissable. It looked odd, and beside it lay what had once been a hut and was now just half a wall and a pile of stones. The instruction was clear and good. Maybe Max could help me with another worry. I pointed back over his shoulder. The wind was stirring the dust, and powerful clouds were piling up.


Max Crisp"There's no rain in the air," said Max Crisp, "It'll be good for two or three days." And his younger sidekick, Jacob Barwick added -

"Straight up and down the valley like this is a good wind."

The good wind tugged at my lucky hanky for hours after I left them. The cloud thickened and the wind got stronger. Forest Creek narrowed into a gorge, the wind funnelled up the cliff face alongside, and a stone fell. It blind-tapped its way down and I stopped and watched it - the first South Island stone I'd seen fall. Surrounded by as much fallen and water rolled stone as I had been, the thought had recurred - why, when I was spending whole days in zones that were full of it, did I not see or hear any rock fall? The wind gusted, and seven more pebbles fell off the cliff, more or less at my feet.

I pitched camp on a grassy terrace beside the willow. I ate quickly in the shelter of the stone wall, then hurried indoors. Darkness fell, the lightning flared and thunder rolled. I lay in the tent doing the maths. I'd been tramping 38 days so far - for simplicity call it 36, which was a tenth of a year - and I'd seen 8 stones fall. If I was in for a whole year I could expect to see 80 stones fall. One small heap compared to the South Island's endless stones.

The thunder echoed through the headworks of Forest Creek. This was no time to be going into the mountains. I lay there, flossing my teeth. If you collapsed time, I thought, the degradation of the South would sound like this. If you collapsed it sufficiently to make an observable process of the abysmal sliding of slow rock beneath the island, the fearsome jolting of the upraising peaks, the insidious creaking of the ice, the cataclysmic avalanching, and the deep thunking of a billion river-rolled rocks there'd be this continuous thunder. Years would go past as nano seconds, you'd effectively eliminate yourself. You would not be here, watching lightning x-ray your tent. Bugger it - you should not be here. I cursed the locals softly. I give you these thoughts without conclusion. Rain began to snik, then steadily to beat on the thin nylon fabric overhead. I rolled over and went to sleep.

Next day was clear, but fierce gusts staggered me on the slopes as I climbed the old pack trail, hooked up with Neutral Creek, and finally followed one of its tributaries to a tarn at 1,900 metres.

Tussock country wasn't safe for fire, but I was determined to celebrate. I adjusted stepping stones out to a flat dry stone that lay in the tarn, set up the Whisperlite there and brewed a noon-time coffee from tarn water.

This was the highest point on the South Island walk, and I sat there, eating cabin bread and cheese, drinking the coffee, looking back over range after blue range fading into distance, and far below me the glint of the Rangitata. I've come across this land, these rivers. Every step.

The pleasure that gave me was real but elusive. It wasn't challenge so much. Occasionally the views it yielded, like this one, were intense. There was something about the detail of it all too that shone - the first brown serrated beech leaf, the green chunk of serpentine, the red shotgun shell, the bird skull, Upper Wairoa Hut, Blue Lake Hut, Caroline shelter . . . . huts by the dozen, and dozens of people from Kevin Wills to Max Crisp. All of it was out there in the folds of the land - out in the blue.

I looked to the clouds. South Island skies often have a cataclysmic feel. South Island cloud is a vast arch, or it is a long smooth wind-stroked boa, or it is a big white lens. Tramping along below it, looking up I'd often thought the South Island skies had three separate weathers. Today too. Ragged bits of nimbus sailed past at eye level. Lenticular clouds pressed onto the alpine summits. Above all of that, the sky was brushed with mare's tail wisps of cirrus.

Looking backI went on up the tumbled slope behind the tarn to the standing pillars of rock there, and at 12.45 pm crossed over the 1940 metre pass. It was unnamed on the map, but okay, I'd been tramping 39 days, I'd covered around 711 kilometres which was just over half way so I named the place, Midway Pass.