Relax. It's Not a Race.

Stepping out of the hut at 6.30 the next morning, the cold mountain air tickled my nostrils, reminding me that I was now in high country.

And the snow-capped tips of Mt Ruepehu glowing enticingly far above in the first rays of dawn showed just how big and remote this land is.

It's not a place to mess around in.

Up here, even in summer, sunshine can turn to snow, a calm breeze into a gale and a mountain into an quaking nightmare in minutes.

When I thought about it, why anyone  ventures to Tongariro is beyond reason. Perhaps it explains why so many trampers race from hut to hut, heads down, legs pumping, trekking poles flicking, one eye on the weather, the other on the trail.

It's not a pell-mell dash to claim the best bunk or the seat closest to the fire. It's about gaining the security of a roof and four square walls before some calamity strikes.

It's a race to safety and security.

While I scrabbled, leaning on my paint-roller trekking pole, up an endless series of ridges and slid, arms flailing for balance, down into ravines, I experienced the compulsion to race ahead.

It's not the answer. I'd tried it twice on the first two sections of the trail between Cape Reinga and Auckland. Racing had cost me a toe nail while giving me tendinitis, a painfully bruised heel and a sore ankle.

Now, I vowed, my mantra would be, "Relax. It's not a race."

I found it easier said than done, however.

Even after reaching my destination, Mangaturuturu Hut, soon after midday, I had to give myself a good old-fashioned post-lunch talking-to.

"Richard, you are going to while away the rest of the day here like a sensible little tramper. You are not going to walk to the next hut even though you could reach it before dark. Why push too hard or risk injury? Where's the medal?" There's nothing like a bit of self-chastening from time to time. I highly recommend it.

Instead of walking, I washed in a freezing stream, admired the scenery, napped, sorted gear, whittled some paint drips off my trekking pole, trimmed my nails, contemplated my navel and generally mooned about in a sinfully idle fashion.

I ate a delicious candle-lit supper while the shadows lengthened and evening turned to night.

However, just as I was about to blow out the candle and relax into a well-earned "onesie" coma on my bunk, the door opened.

My hard-won serenity vanished in an instant because the figure that staggered into the room had clearly walked a long, tough race that day and beaten nightfall by the narrowest of margins.

Self-satisfied, fit, confident and relaxed, I thought I had all the answers.

In fact, I'd just met the person who would teach me an important lesson.