Through Mirkwood

Something about the second forested range, the Raetea Forest, makes it very different to the other two ranges on this northern section of the trail.

This quality led me to think of it as Mirkwood.

It is not about its length, elevation, wildlife or geography. Nor is it about the condition of the track.

It loomed over me while I walked up the track in the rain with lightning flashing and thunder booming behind the southern escarpment. I sensed it the following morning when I awoke groggy, wondered why the water wouldn't boil and found I had forgotten to fill the pot. 

And I guessed it when I fell asleep during my mid-morning break and opened my eyes to a dull gloom and tendrils of mist. 

The track seemed to have no beginning and no end. Sometimes it petered out into a deadfall. At other times unmarked trail junctions appeared. 

Vegetation and vines clung so close to the trail you could rarely see more than a few metres. 

Spider webs clung to ferns and sometimes draped across the track.  

The ridge is waterless for its entire 16 kilometre, 10 hour strength-sapping, knee-trembling length. 

I felt watched. And I felt vulnerable.

My stomach knotted with anxiety at the thought of a fall, a sprain or worse, a broken bone. 

Early on, I had stubbed my broken toenail on a root and then banged the shin against a fallen log. 

Every step became more painful and doubts about my ability to continue for the weeks and months ahead clouded my mind. 

I pushed blindly on while the sky darkened and the humid air grew even more moist with the threat of rain. Thunder rolled dully to the south. 

At last, I came to a sodden track, lumpy with cows' hoof prints, in which my tired, strained and sore feet slipped and twisted. 

Toward the end, a final pool of muddy water ten metres long with an enormous mass of black, purple and white algae floating in the middle barred my way. It smelled rotten. 

No way around: on both sides tangled bush channelled me to the water. 

I thrust my stick in, measured it against my leg and found it knee deep. 

Ever the hopeless optimist, I made an effort to shuffle along the slippery banks by holding onto saplings. 

The attempt was doomed. Faced with the unpalatable choice of either falling backwards or merely lowering myself down, I chose the former and sloshed my way carefully to the far end.

I wrung out my socks and trail shoes. My feet looked white and puckered, the toenail bruised. I sluiced it with water and wrapped a fresh bandage around it. I knew it would come off soon but doing something made me feel better. 

The rain and thunder began shortly afterward, drops like cold moonstones. I put on my waterproof jacket to keep the chill off. With water streaming down my glasses, I splashed and slid down slippery rain channels into a meadow. 

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun and the late afternoon sun broke through. 

Like Bilbo Baggins escaping Mirkwood, I stumbled from the Raetea Forest a weary little hobbit. (Perhaps I should say, "A hobbit with a hammock.)

A Maori man leaned on the verandah surveying his estate, at ease. 

He was the first person I had talked to since yesterday when I had briefly exchanged information with a wild pig hunter. 

We exchanged courtesies as an ancient dog limped up. "I know how you feel, old boy," I said, patting his head.

 I limped on down the gravel path leading to the main road. 

I had made it through Mirkwood.