Tramping & Hiking

First Steps

Once I stepped onto the trail at the sign, there was no turning back. I switched on my head torch. It's about ten years' old and the elastic headband has grown a little limp, like its owner. "Things just aren't as taut as they used to be," I thought. Still, I stepped with a certain jaunty bounce down the path to the first beach and onto firm sand. I turned off my head torch there and wondered if George and Derek above me had been gauging my progress.

I love walking at night. It has a dream-like quality in which time and space take on different forms to those in daylight. We did endless night operations in the Army and I've always enjoyed the sense of moving unseen while the rest of the world sleeps.

More by chance than design, I had started at around the turn of a low tide so I had more than enough time to walk the six kilometres or so to the next headland where the track crossed over to 90 Mile Beach.

It felt good to move and good to be on my way. I whistled the "Victory March" from Verdi's opera Aida under my breath as I strode along at a fine military clip. When my shoulders began to ache, I stopped for a breather, a gulp of water and a time check. 11.00 PM: all is well.

After about thirty minutes, I came across a stream pouring out of a salt water lake, rushing down to meet the incoming tide which was now beginning to lick around a forbidding line of blacks extending from a small headland. I took my shoes off and walked around the rocks. Hungry waves tugged at my calves and it was with relief that I found the next small beach and accessible high ground. I suddenly realised just how alone I felt on this remote stretch of coast.

I wasn't sure about the trail now. I took off my pack to reconnoitre a little way up the hillside. My torch revealed footprints, comforting in the darkness, so I returned for my pack and followed them up and over the first of several ridges, tufted with grass tussocks and shrubs.

To my right, the headland's mass loomed, all rock. Behind me, the lighthouse still flashed its warning light. To my left, the moonlight revealed lines of sand dunes stretching to the south, the hollows between in deep shadow. As I climbed, breathing hard, the sound of surf died away. Then came the sound of surf to my front, dim, distant and unmistakeable. 90 Mile Beach!

But how to get to it? The line of footprints had petered out and I cast about for the trail, growing tired and a little flustered, trying one way, and then another, each time retracing my steps. I sensed that the track would be higher up the flank of the headland but increasingly lacked the willpower and strength to find it.

A nippy little wind from the north-west had arisen and I was growing cold, a little disheartened. I'd had more than enough for one day. I fell to my knees, rolled out of my shoulder straps and lay panting on the sand.

After a while I stirred, rummaged in my rucksack and brought out water, stove and the food bag. "Tea!" I muttered to myself. "I need tea!"

While my Trangia stove flared and hissed in the gusty breeze, I scooped out a hollow in the sand behind my pack. Into this I put my thin mattress and then slid into the warmth of my "onesie". An excellent piece of kit, I thought. Having one's arms free in a sleeping bag made a real difference.

By moonlight and touch, I made a cup of tea, drank it, repacked my rucksack and lay down in the sheltering hollow.

Nearly 23 years before, my platoon and I had made a camp exactly like this in the Saudi Arabian desert on our second night after deploying on Operation Desert Storm. Then, it had been bitterly cold and an improbable shower of mixed sleet and rain had soaked us through and through in minutes. I had tucked a poncho around my wet sleeping bag and let the flapping cloth over my face lull me into a fitful sleep.  

Now, a few mosquitos whined half-heartedly around my exposed face but I didn't care. My eyelids drooped. Above me, Orion paced the skies, keeping watch. I thought of Rosa, far to the south.

I slept, cradled between earth and sky.

Stepping Into the Unknown

Reinga Lighthouse

[gallery type="square" columns="4" ids="614,613,616,611,615,612,617,610"] Cape Reinga simply blew me away.

From the earthen-walled car park, you have little idea of what awaits on the far side of the shadowed ten-metre or so tunnel leading to the Cape itself.

Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairu) is a place of deep cultural and spiritual significance to the Maori. It is here that the Tasman Sea (the male sea Te Moana Tapokopoko a Tawhaki) and Pacific Ocean (the female sea TeTai o Whiterela) clash and mingle. At their meeting place, a frothing line of whirlpools stretches out like the wake behind a canoe (waka). This represents the union of male and female and thus, the creation of life.

However, Te Rerenga Wairu also represents the dissolution of life. Kupe, the earliest known Maori voyager, named this place. The Maori believe that after death, their spirits depart from here to their ancestral home of Hawaiki somewhere in the eastern Pacific.

These themes are tastefully and succinctly explained in a series of carved signs so it is with a sense of heightened expectation that you enter the threshold through a tunnel. It is like stepping into a tomb but instead of moving into deeper darkness, you emerge, hushing and blinking, into light and breathtaking natural beauty.

A path curves away around a wind-blown hillside along which the spirits are reputed to move and above a prominent rock on which stands an ancient and twisted non-flowering pohutakawa tree, or kahini. The spirits travel down steps formed by the roots into the underworld and after a time, pass under the sea to the Trinity Islands just visible to the north. From there, they pass on to Hawaiki.

It simply took our breath away. Even Derek was lost for words. Some things just have to be experienced to be understood.

So, we meandered down the path towards the small white lighthouse, talking in hushed tones. I passed the green wooden sign marking the start of my trail and we paused to look along the two beaches and headland at the far end leading to 90 Mile Beach.

Derek recovered his zest and suggested that perhaps he and George could camp down there with me on my first night. The idea came to me in a flash. "I'll be walking all night," I said.

Well, I was here for adventure. Whether it was the influence of this wonderful place or the pent-up tension from a day of travelling, I felt an impatience to be alone and to make a start. Like the spirits, I wanted to go home, in this case into nature. I was ready, in fact more than ready, to start my hero's journey southwards.

At the lighthouse, we took a few photographs. A German mother and daughter wandered down. Mum had come to rescue her daughter from the charms of New Zealand and bring her home. She wanted to be a grandmother and had no intention of being a distant one. The daughter seemed perfectly cheerful about her fate and laughed good-naturedly about the intervention.

We wound our way back up the path and turned to climb the grass-covered hill. At the summit, we found a half-sozzled and very happy young Canadian woman, sipping wine in a deck chair and waiting for her husband to return from the car park with a blanket, protection against the chilly breeze that had sprung up.

George shivered and we walked back to the entrance where we sat in the shelter of a bank to watch the sun dip below the horizon. To the east, a half-moon rose and the first stars appeared.

A perfect night for walking, I thought happily, but first I must eat. The three of us sat by the rest rooms while I boiled water for the first of many pot noodles. Derek was fascinated by my gear. I unpacked it all, enjoying his interest as he pawed through it, uttering brief cries of admiration.

"How I wish we were coming with you!" he cried. "Eh, George? Ah, such adventures we have on ze trail with Richard!"

George looked doubtful but tactfully said nothing.

It was now fully dark. I had made them strong tea with condensed milk (a new treat for Derek: "Deleecious! Just deleecious! he exclaimed, sipping with Gallic appreciation.)

I repacked carefully, filled my water bottles, adjusted shoes and clothing, put my headlamp on my head, ready if I needed it, checked my travel clock. It was almost 10.00 PM. Time to go.

They each gave me a hug and wished me good luck. Derek said, "How I envy you!"

They watched as I re-entered the tunnel.

I tried to think of a suitable intent for this journey. The grass rustled and I thought of spirits travelling with me.

"Let me come home alive," I whispered to myself.

The grass fluttered in the dying evening breeze. Orion the Hunter, my constellation, twinkled brightly towards the east.

I gave a thin whoop and felt it blow back into my face. And so I stepped into the unknown.


Final Prep

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.

Welcome to Power Monkey

Power Monkey When I started walking and camping as a boy, the first men had just landed on the Moon.

Now, I'll be carrying a phone with more computing power than those astronauts could have dreamed of.

But, how do you keep that power-hungry little monster charged up?

Here's the solution I decided on.

Today, we dropped in to meet Guy (the owner of Top Gear on Rosedale Road) and to pick up the Power Monkey Explorer I'd found on Trade Me for $139.00.

This piece of gear will be important to me because it's how I'll keep my iPhone 4 charged during this trip.  And I'm packing that modern marvel because of its camera, built in library of books, maps and trail notes, compass, back-up flashlight and much more (including, of course, text, telephone and internet.)

First impressions of the solar charger are good. It feels solid enough to have a reassuring heft. You can charge it using mains electricity, via USB and a computer or by solar power.

So far, all three methods work. A full charge on the Power Monkey should replenish your iPhone's battery twice before you need to recharge "Curious George" (as I'll call it.)

Look out for a more in-depth review. Until then, here's a photo of the solar charger, battery and iPhone/iPod attachment with a little selfie of my hand to give it some scale.