The pastoral leaseholds I’d come up to so far mostly had legal access running through on roads, or riverbeds, or fishing access corridors.Where I’d crossed actual leasehold land, the passage had usually been brief.
But the 65 kilometres of high country ahead crossed through three pastoral leaseholdings in a row. I phoned the farmers and got the okay from all three, but on a one-off basis - no permissions for any national trail.
I wasn’t too worried about that. Te Araroa Trust had an agreement with the Department of Conservation that brought us into the Crown Tenure review process. Under CTR the South Island’s pastoral leases were being divided into land suitable for farming, which could then be freeholded, and into land that would be managed by DoC as recreation or scientific reserve.
In Twizel, DoC people had discussed with me the trail route through to Hawea they’d be most likely to favour. It used mainly DoC estate and needed to traverse only one brief strip of pastoral lease. That strip could possibly be gained under the CTR process, though not for a few years yet.
After that talk, I knew Te Araroa’s route to Hawea would be different from the one immediately in front, but I wanted to test my navigation on the big rolling hills and high ridges of Otago high country, and I decided to take advantage of the permissions I had, and go anyway.
It was also a chance to get a farmer’s perspective on the general problems of trampers on pastoral land, and before I left I went in to talk to Russell Emmerson. By reputation his Forest Range station ran one of the best merino flocks in Otago, and I sat down to listen.
The South Island summer, suggested Russell, was the time most trampers would choose to walk any trail. But summer was exactly the season where sheep grazed the same high ground a trail would favour and the mobs would be frequently disturbed.
OSH regulations also worried high country farmers, he said. Did the farmers have to individually warn every tramper of anticipated hazards, as OSH seemed to suggest?
And fire - who’d look after landowner compensation if any tramper’s careless match destroyed grazing? Search and rescue also - who’d be responsible for signing trampers in and out of country that could quickly turn hazardous? And disease - foot rot and other animal infections might spread on trampers’ boots from one farm to another.
Rubbish and the failure of trampers to bury their waste was another problem, and all of the uncertainties and potential disturbances together might be seen to transgress the clause in the pastoral lease contract that guaranteed leaseholders “quiet enjoyment” as a fundamental right.
But as to my one-off tramp, that was okay. Russell took my map, checked my route, offered me the station’s hunting lodge as an overnight stop, and asked me to wipe my boots before crossing his boundary.
Back to my mark on the Ahuriri River Bridge then off at a fast clip, Leki working, lucky hanky jerking. Along Avon Burn, past the sheep yards - it was good to be back . Sunshine, fresh air, an open road so to speak. I had 65 kilometres of hill country in front, and I planned to walk it fast. It was criss-crossed by trails but I’d lodged waypoints in the GPS. There’d be no confusion.
I sweated in the valley for hours. Before starting I’d swapped my usual polyprop for a linen shirt, and that was a mistake for it just got wringing wet, and whenever I stopped on a climb, the sweat went dead cold. That was hardly important though. I was climbing fast, reached a major 1,200 metre pass in good time and stopped for a drink.
Luck. There right before me on the ground was a fencer’s knot. Unattached to a fence, a nice patina of rust, the distinctive No. 8 wire granny knot. It was a little Otago icon, a good find, and I put it in my pocket. I swung the pack on again, then had a thought. I’d put this pass in the GPS as the first major waypoint - I was confident about it, but I may as well check. I fired up the GPS, and my eyebrows shot up. Wrong pass. The way the GPS read, I should be over on the next hill.
Well whatever. I pulled out the compass. I was headed the right way at least, and the Lindis River would be hard to miss. I went on down a steep track to the valley below.
Time passed. I came to the river and followed it down. The sun began to sink and the big soft shoulders of the Otago hills held the shadows and glowed. A daylight moon hung above it all in a clear sky. Sheep trotted away in front. This was the life, a New Zealander in New Zealand all day long.
I came up towards the big rocky cleft of the Lindis River Gorge, and there standing high above it was Little Breast Hill. On the flank of the hill I saw the gleam of a hut. I calculated 6 kilometres to go.
I forded the Lindis back and forth in the gorge, then a 4WD track led away and I followed it up to a high terrace. By now I’d done 30 kilometres and was walking by moonlight. The track diverged somewhere up ahead one trail going on along this high terrace, and one winding up to the summit of Little Breast Hill. I came to a junction. This was my second major waypoint and I checked the GPS. Okay - wrong junction. The GPS readout put the position of the right junction somewhere back to the north-west, 800 metres away, back in the dark hills. I found that hard to believe, and looked around, trying to get my bearings by sight. Little Breast Hill - where the hell was it? In the black range beside me I could see three or four silhouette summits that might qualify as Little Breast Hill.
The GPS had been very accurate all the way down the South Island - could I trust it now? I studied the map by torchlight. I found the terrace I’d climbed, the ford I’d crossed, the sharp bend in the track I’d just wound up. Everything seemed to confirm that this junction was the right one and I should now take the uphill track. The GPS must be in error. An enormous error like that was unheard of though - must be that I’d be caught by the war in Afghanistan. The Americans controlled the system, and must be mucking with it to put the Taleban gunners off their game.That was the only explanation I could think of.
I zigzagged up to 1000 metres and by 9 pm found the Little Breast Hill hunting hut. Unpainted corrugated iron walls gleamed in the moonlight, and a spring pumped away beside it. I opened the door onto a nicely ordered paradise. Cooking gas, magazines, maps on the wall, bunks with blankets and pillows, cupboards stocked with tea bags, jams, pots and pans. I made dinner and sat looking out the big windows at the moon and the Otago hills.
Next day I set off early up Little Breast Hill. It was a classic Otago day - a blue sky, silence, and black rock outcrops standing up from the tussock as thresholds to emptiness. I climbed to 1600 metres, saw the 3,000-metre summit of Mt Aspiring standing to the west, and the 4WD track I needed to follow running away across fairly benign hills until it dwindled to a thread in the distance.
By the close of day I stood on to a high viewpoint above Lake Hawea gazing at the vast and misted valley below where four distant specks - I guessed at Harvards - looped and rolled. The mobile worked here, and I rang Russell Emmerson and Peter Patterson, who’d asked me to call and sign off.
“A great walk Russell, and no incidents except my GPS is worthless. All the readings were wrong, and I’m guessing the Americans put an error in the system.”
“Yeah?” said Russell. “I flew to Christchurch yesterday and we hit the waypoints all the way through.”
I came steeply down beside Johns Creek, out past the firewood stacks of Lake Hawea Station, and into town. Night fell as I trudged an interminable lakefront strip finally to the Lake Hawea Motor Inn. The kitchen was closed but the staff hustled me some battered fish, and I went up to the bar to order a beer.
“Where you from?”
“I’m from Auckland.”
There was the usual long pause, a slight inclination of the barman’s head to the picture windows, to the perfection of a full moon now risen and the silhouette of cabbage trees against a glimmering lake.
“Be raining in Auckland. Or muggy or windy or something up there wouldn’t it?”