Today (Sunday, 8 December), I opted out of visiting "Crazy Land" where Rosa's family lives. I had the perfect excuse, which was to finish my food shopping and pack for my departure tomorrow. Armed with a bank card, I wandered up to the local Countdown supermarket, where I spent a happy hour prowling the aisles, looking for bargains. Food on the trail is about balancing four factors: tastiness, energy, weight and of course, price.
If wary housewives wondered about this middle-aged eccentric muttering to himself as he scanned food labels with his near-perfect prescription hipster-style spectacles perched on his forehead, I didn't notice because I was too busy trying to perform feats of mental arithmetic.
"If this brand of energy bar gives me 8 servings of 100 grams, each of 872 kilojoules for $3.99, then how does that compare with this other brand, which offers 6 bars of 91 grams, each of 997 kilojoules and discounted down to $2.60?"
This is not easy stuff, especially for someone as numerically-dyslexic as me. Besides, it made my brain hurt.
I soon decided to base my decisions on price alone. I gaily tossed boxes of discounted oatmeal sachets, condensed milk, tea bags, instant coffee, two chorizo sausages, energy bars and ziplock plastic bags into my shopping cart. I gloated especially over twelve home-brand pot noodle cups in beef, chicken and oriental flavours (at 62 cents per 1397 kilojoules and so light they seemed to float off the shelves, they were the bargain of the century and would be sure to warm up many a cool night at the end of each day.
From Countdown and with money to spare, I carried my shopping bags across the car park to another supermarket, New World, where I hoped to find two boxes of Nairn's oat biscuits.
"Yes! There they are and on special too," I noted with happiness. Springing for the organic variety (an extra 57 cents per box, but Rosa would be pleased) I popped two boxes in the cart. On a roll now, I found the household goods aisle and with a small inward whoop of delight saw that a packet of three thermal socks could be had for $6.97. Bargain!
I even had change for a last bottle of wine.
So, I was a happy chap as I walked back down the hill to Milford, evenly balanced with a shopping bag in each hand.
Back at home, I went into overdrive, shredding open cardboard boxes, removing every spare piece of packaging and placing the discarded packaging in the kitchen sink. I had to empty it twice into the recycle bin outside the front door and as always, I bemoaned the sheer waste of modern life.
I divided the food into separate ziplock bags, one each for breakfast, lunch and snacks and dinner for the first week and another three bags for the second week. Rooting around on my tramping gear shelf, I found two drawstring stuff sacks and placed a week's worth of food in each.
They felt surprisingly hefty, I thought, as I placed them on the floor next to my backpack.
With them, I put my battered but trusty Trangia cook set together with a disposable lighter, a litre bottle of methylated spirits, a white plastic mug, green plastic bowl, a metal spoon and two empty water bottles.
The cooking system complete, I turned my attention to the other "systems" I use in tramping.
The trial "Survival Outdoor System" or "onesie", my Hennessy Hammock and a very thin mattress made up my sleeping system. After a little thought, I added a lightweight tarp made of a lightweight nylon that I had purchased years earlier.
I divide my clothing system into day/walking (wet) and night/sleeping (dry) clothing. Into the day bag goes running shorts, a merino t-shirt, synthetic thermal tights, a pair of my new thermal socks, an old quick-drying long-sleeved running shirt, peaked cap and trail shoes. Into the night bag, I placed another pair of thermal socks, merino tights, a synthetic thermal top, a merino "beanie" cap, and gloves. A third bag held a lightweight down jacket, a micro-fleece jacket and a wool jumper. Into the fourth bag went my new waterproof jacket and trousers.
Next, I readied my navigation system. I was trialling an iPhone 4 in an "Otter" waterproof case and powered by a solar-powered "Power Monkey Explorer". Relying on technology without testing it extensively beforehand would prove to be a serious mistake. Be warned.
Then, I prepared my health and hygiene system: a basic first aid kit (waterproof bandaids, ibobrufen tablets, a bandage in case of sprains, anti-fungal foot cream) plus a washing kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, razor and small micro-fibre travel towel.) I don't carry soap on the trail. It's not because I like to be a grub but because I do my best not to pollute.
Into another small sandwich bag I placed the items for what I rather dramatically call my "Survival System". It contains two knives (an ancient Swiss Army knife I've had forever and a small Opinel single blade pocket knife), a Silva compass on a lanyard, a disposable lighter, a magnesium fire-starter, a short length of candle, a head-torch, dark glasses, driver's license , two credit cards "just in case" and a little cash. This bag stays with me all the time. On the trail, I wear the compass, fire-starter and my glasses.
Finally, I turned to the "Mind System". These are the things I take to provide intellectual stimulation (if one has the energy for such a thing after hours thrashing up hill and down dale burdened like one of those over-worked donkeys spinster ladies are forever setting up charities for.) This is made up of a 64 page school exercise book, three pens, a small tripod, a tiny microphone and lead for podcasting and of course, the iPhone with its excellent still and video camera, voice recording and iBook apps.
These basic systems complete, I turned to the "completely unnecessary but nice to have" system: a small tin box with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the lid that Rosa gave me ages ago and handy for all those little odds and ends that crop up on the trail, a necklace of prayer beads a friend and Hare Krishna devotee pressed on me in hopes of my spiritual conversion (never in a month of Sundays, I fear) and a battered little book containing tramping wisdom another friend thought would be useful.
It doesn't seem like much but after I had stuffed and re-stuffed all these systems into my blue rucksack, it bulged like an over-stuffed anaconda digesting a family of goats.
By now, Rosa had returned and watched my preparations with that expression of pity, amusement and superiority that I knew so well. It says as plainly as words, "As much as I love you, we both know that this will end in tears." My mother does it, my sisters do it, my daughter and step-daughter do it, girlfriends in the past have done it. Women must take it in with their mother's milk, I swear.
"Try putting it on," she suggested helpfully from the armchair. She leaned back comfortably and got ready to gloat.
I gave an experimental tug. The bag just sat there. I tightened what passes for my abdominal six pack and adopted a nonchalant expression, bent my knees and exerted all my strength. I wish I could say that hunter-like I swung it gracefully onto my broad shoulders, while my biceps rippled like pythons bunching. In fact, I couldn't stifle a small wheeze of surprise and pain. My knees buckled and I staggered a little on the Persian carpet.
"How does that feel, darling?" Rosa asked, twisting the knife.
"Alright," I whimpered, adjusting the waist belt with some difficulty.
"Well! Looks like you're ready to go then!" she remarked brightly. "How about a glass of that wine?"
Gratefully but carefully, I eased the pack back down. A floorboard creaked. I straightened with some difficulty. Rosa smiled and it seemed as if generations of women smiled with her.
"Good idea, darling," I said.