"And maybe bring something bright for your pack," I said to George Spearing when I rang him at Oamaru. "The hunters are out in force."
"Okay - so I don't wear my antler hat."
George was an adventurer. He'd hiked and kayaked the North Island in 1997. He'd bicycled offroad across the Nullabor. He'd tested one of Te Araroa's proposed routes in the South and waded waist-high in a flooded river to do it. He'd been in a kiwi stampede on Stewart Island - the things bouncing off his legs. And maybe, just maybe, he also knew where to find New Zealand's most sought after bottle.
We climbed to a saddle in the Takitimu Mountains and lost the trail markers soon after. Nothing but tussock and forest in front - we scanned the maps, took compass bearings on a nearby peak and felt we were on track, but stopped later. The route didn't feel right. I hadn't brought my GPS, but George produced a snappy little yellow unit, took a reading, and traced it onto the map - S5496.892, E.2118.253.
"What are those numbers?"
"New Zealand Map Grid references. It's the only accurate grid when you're using these maps. My old GPS gave only the longitude latitude readings. They'd be dead right sometimes and then you'd get a big error. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I almost deep-sixed the thing a couple of times."
I looked at him. I remembered back to my torchlight crawl up the Lindis River and Little Breast Hill, when I'd lost faith in my own GPS - it gave readings in longitude and latitude.
"I figured it out later," said George. "The projections on nautical charts allow you to mark out latitude and longitude straight across, with a rule. That's 100% accurate. The topo maps are projected differently. They follow the earth's curvature and if you try to measure latitude from the left hand side in a straight line, the waypoints on the right hand side will be out, sometimes by close to a kilometre. A great dawning came upon me when I figured that out."
"Yeah well - I just saw the light as well George."
There was no marked trail in front. The Takitimu peaks rose to sharp summits immediately west, but we moved gradually down from mountain shoulders to the river, and followed it down.
"And how's the Spearing bottle project going?"
"I reckon I've sussed out where they buried it now, and it's not in the spot most seem to think."
It was good country for walking and talking - tussocky. We were back on track and had nothing to watch for now but the occasional bog. We had the time, and George talked through his Stewart Island project.
In 1840 after the Treaty of Waitangi signings, HMS Herald sailed south from the Bay of Islands, to further secure New Zealand's status as a British colony. The ship sailed to Stewart Island and anchored in a bay. Captain Joseph Nias wrote the anchorage bearings into the ship's log. Major Thomas Bunbury rowed ashore with his marines to claim the island for the Crown. They buried the proclamation in a bottle. Bunbury gave a description of the site - on top of a small island that became a peninsula at low tide. The ship's interpreter also drew a picture of the scene - it showed the land in profile, the ship at anchor with pennants streaming. All those clues added up to a fairly comprehensive treasure map. But all attempts to find the bottle since had failed.
George had read the literature, and the location of the island seemed clear enough - in Shipbuilders Cove. He'd booked passage to the cove by fishing boat and spent two weeks in 2000 probing with a 1.3 metre spear.
Hard work, and no luck, but he'd got a good feel for the coastline. Back home in Oamaru, he again pored over the maps and the evidences. The 1840 sketch was a good match with Shipbuilders Cove, but he'd assumed all along the anchor bearings and the sketch of Shipbuilders Cove would confirm each other. When he checked, they didn't. The bearings referenced a couple of islands that couldn't be seen from the Cove.
"I spent my early life as a seaman," said George, "and I know that a ship's log is a legal document. It will be accurate, not least on a Royal Navy Man of War."
He got a copy of the ship's original log from Australia. That gave the bearings, but also something that wasn't mentioned in the other accounts - wind direction. The 1840 sketch showed the Herald's pennants streaming aft. The ship in the sketch lay head to the wind, and the only wind that would stretch the pennants aft in that position within Shipbuilders Cove was a westerly. The log stated the wind was north east.
George had just returned from the latest summer trip - he'd taken a compass and kayaked out to the original bearings. He'd allowed for the magnetic variation that occurs over time, then paddled ashore.
"I found a new cove, with an island there that was accessible at low tide," said George.
It was a good story. An effortless kilometre or two had gone by underfoot and now we prowled the bank of Waterloo Burn, seeking a crossing where we might, by sheer speed, and the protection afforded by knee-length gaiters, get across without letting the river into our boots. We splashed across and kept on. George raised his hand, miming the next stage of his search -
"So I'm holding up the sketch, and trying to find a vantage point on this new cove where everything falls into place with the picture - "
We'd spotted and skilfully avoiding every bog except the one I'd just fallen into, waist deep. George helped me out, dripping, and we went on -
"Anyway, I found if I stood on a small beach that was uncovered at low water, I could duplicate the landscape in the sketch. There's always a bit of artistic licence, but the island was there, and the silhouette of land behind the ship was a good match.
"Not only that. If the Herald was anchored out from here head to the wind in a northeast wind, she'd have lain port side to me with her pennants flying aft - just as she was in the sketch."
"So you found the place?"
"The place, but not the bottle. I'd been camp-bound by bad weather for days by then, and I had a rendezvous with the fishing boat that day. I only had about three hours to do the search finally. Lots of flax and regrowth. Erosion too, and for all we know the bottle may have been found eons ago and unknowingly cast aside. But I'll give it another go next summer. I'd like to do some more exploring down there anyway before my slippers eventually weld to my feet."
An Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club party was ensconsced in Beckett's hut by the time we tramped in. We warmed ourselves at their fire and talked awhile, then went out and pitched our separate tents on the soft carpet of the beech forest.
The night was cold and clear, but windy. The trees stirred overhead, and then a fierce gust swept the forest. I heard it coming from far off like some catspaw ripple across a wheatfield, but enormously amplified, an approaching surf that swept closer and closer and passed overhead with a roar.
The scale of it! A little later another giant gust came through, and for a long time I lay awake, trying to pick the moment when the next bout of fierce wind began to assert itself over the sussuration of the forest, and sweep down the mountainside. Every time it came through, like that feared rogue wave in a storm, I'd hear its approach for a good 10 or 15 seconds before it passed overhead with a tremendous whoosh and faded away to the west, leaving in its wake the tinkle of dry leaves falling on the tent.
I was snug, and tired, but I could choose, pleasantly relaxed by physical effort, to sleep or not to sleep. The giant gusts came and went and I stared out through the bars of the forest at the starfield beyond. I thought to myself - I love this - and right then felt a pang of regret that soon it would be over. Later I awoke in the night to a stag roaring in the forest.
Next day we walked on. The clutch of craggy Takitimu peaks gradually fell away to one side, while on the other a darkening storm cloud kept threatening to spill over the ridge. Walking with George was fun. He'd hiked America's Pacific Crest Trail in 1991 - 4,000 kilometres. He understood.
"I'm losing a little toenail," I said at one point..
"Yep. They're usually the first to go."
"And just today for some reason. My knee is hurting with every step - a slightly pulled tendon I'd guess."
"Yeh, I had a knee strap when I was doing the Pacific Crest - it helped. The worst thing is shin splints - had that?"
"Coming down a ridge onto the Sonoran Colorado Desert. I tore those muscles and did the shuffling six inch steps all the way in to camp. For a while I thought that was the end of my tramp. I hit the Voltaren then and just willed myself to mend."
We came off conservation land and crossed onto tussock downs. It was farming country, though where the track crossed through thickets of beech, as pretty as anything on the conservation estate. He hooked up with a farm road, and followed it down. Heifers rolled their eyes, tossed their big heads and wheeled reluctantly away from our approach. We came up to a gate where twenty of the big beasts were gathered. They flung the odd look back over the shoulder as we approached, but this time the obeisance was gone. This time, you could just see, the force was with them.
We came up and stopped. On the other side of the fence, tussling each other in a desultory kind of way were two enormous black bulls. It was a show just for the heifers who jostled at the fenceline, fascinated.
Then one of the bulls began to piss. It was a phenomenon, and I say that with little experience of bulls, but with an immediate comparison because, not to be outdone, the second bull immediately began to urinate as well, and it just wasn't in the same league.
Heifers, hikers, everyone crowded at the fence for a look. The black bull just stood there, hosing the ground underneath him. It went on and on, and it was one of those long minutes you're powerless to disturb. It was a rare vision. It was timeless. It was a kind of spell. And only my hiking companion, after we'd been watching already some 30 seconds was finally prepared to break it -
"I think," said George "He must be connected to the farm watersupply."
Later we topped a rise, and I saw in the distance a peak. I was excited by that. I knew it couldn't be any of the rounded terrain that now lay between me and the bottom of the South Island. I stopped George and pointed to the faint blue wedge on the skyline.
"I'm pretty sure that's Mt Anglem on Stewart Island."