A Teacher Appears

They say that teachers pop up in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely disguises

And I've written before that hikers visiting from abroad are surprised and sometimes dismayed by just how challenging New Zealand's back-country is.

Mary-Louise was no exception. When this sixty-plus year old Canadian woman staggered into the hut at nightfall, I knew all was not well.

Her hands trembled as she unfastened her wet boots. Blisters covered her soaked feet. A pressure bandage supported a weak knee. It had taken her 15 hours to cover a six hour stretch of trail. She was dehydrated, famished and unfocused. Not surprisingly, I sensed tears lay not far beneath the surface.

"This is a disaster waiting to happen," I thought, nervously watching her fumble with a pot of boiling water precariously balanced on a gas cooker.

"And if a disaster happens, I'll need to sort it out," was the next thought. "Actually, even if nothing happens before I leave in the morning, can I leave her in this state?"

I knew the answer and to be brutally honest, it pissed me off.

The agenda for tomorrow did not include lending a helping hand to someone who should know better.

Heck, the priority for tonight was to sleep, not to fetch water or watch another tramper fuss inside a disorganised pack or hear her complain about the New Zealand trails I loved while all the time minutes turned into hours.

Shallow and heartless, isn't it?

Despite all this time on the trail, all those tens of thousands of footsteps leading me deeper and deeper into nature's therapy room in the hope of being a better, stronger, happier person while helping others do the same, all I could think about was my needs.

When we turned in shortly before midnight, I slept restlessly on a lumpy bed stuffed with duty, responsibility, resentment and selfishness.

At the far end of the platform, Mary-Louise tossed and turned also.

I knew what it felt like, being too tired to sleep.

In the morning, I was away early. Mary-Louise's trail led north, mine south.

However, after 30 minutes, I found a discarded inflatable mattress by the trail. The label read, "Made in Canada."

"Oh, bugger it!" I groaned. For a nano-second, I considered dropping it and walking on.

Instead, I hid my pack in the trees and loped back to the hut, mattress under one arm, survival kit and stick under the other.

Mary-Louise was up, pecking shortsightedly through her gear while making breakfast.

As she ate, we looked at maps.

"No harm in resting here for a day," I suggested hopefully.

Her eyes showed a flash of steel and she shook her head. She'd booked a cabin in Whakapapa Village and didn't want to risk losing the reservation. I understood that.

I sighed inwardly. "There's a shorter trail down to the road. You could hitch a lift from there," I suggested, trying another angle.

Another glint of steel flashed behind her lenses, followed by a head shake. That cabin with its hot shower, sheets and pillow must be the Promised Land to her. Secretly, I sympathised.

"How about I carry your pack for the first and hardest section?" I asked. "There are two stream crossings and several steep climbs but once you're through those, you're over the worst."

She dropped her head, considered and softened. "Well, I don't like to ask for help, but thank you," she decided.

"No trouble!" I said, surprising myself. It really wasn't any trouble at all. "Let's get you packed up."

Organising her gear took a precious hour but it was fun.

It turned out that Air New Zealand had lost her kit. She'd borrowed what she could. It's never easy, using other people's stuff.

She had a troublesome emergency beacon that had stopped working. I fiddled with it, lights glowed and we sent an overdue "I'm OK" message to an undoubtedly anxious friend waiting for news.

Suddenly there was one less problem.

I was patient, she was willing. We packed up, swept the hut and then walked as a team, up the trail I'd travelled the day before.

I enjoyed letting her know what was coming up, planning rest-stops, checking in.

We swapped stories about grizzly bears and wild pigs, found common ground in a love of naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, and discovered that we had each decided to walk a different path to the one our parents' had laid out for us.

Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that she was teaching me, whether she knew it or not, what it was to be a guide.

It felt right and added unexpected spice to the morning.

We halted at the final ridge and I pointed out the markers leading onward.

Before we parted, there was one last service to perform.

I knelt to fit her gaiters with their awkward buckles and then rose to adjust her backpack straps. "You sure you'll be alright now?" I asked.

"Oh, yah, I'll be fine," she said in her laconic accent. "Long day ahead but I'll get there."

"You will indeed," I thought as I watched her clamber carefully down into the ravine before I turned southward once more.

When I next looked back, she was a tiny dot against the stones, moving slowly but surely onwards.

A little later, I met a strapping young man bearing an enormous backpack as lightly as one would carry a pillow.

I told him about Mary-Louise.

He beamed. "Maybe I can carry her pack!" he suggested, almost drooling at the thought.

"That's the spirit!" I said.

Soon after that encounter, I found a cheerful party of Taupo Tramping Club members sprawled on the shore of Lake Surprise for their lunch break. They  insisted I share fruit slices and energy bars with them.

And then, just after I reclaimed my pack, a $20 note fluttered across my path.

I swooped on it with a cry of joy.

So, it's been a mind-, heart-, belly- and wallet-filling day in nature's therapy room.

It just doesn't get better than that.