Take Me to the River

At around midday, I paused for a breather where the single road to Pipriki crested a high saddle before winding down a narrow forested valley.

Not that I was out of breath: I had just been deposited there by a kindly and incredibly fit Maori chap in a battered van, heading home early from a fencing job. He was my age or a little older but with many fewer gray hairs, skin that shone with health and muscles built on muscles.

I felt like a pale and puny stick figure by comparison.

"Too hot, bro!" he'd laughed, showing even white teeth. "Not for me! For the young fella with me! Young guys got no staying power these days!"

He was in roaring good humour. What was he going to do with his free afternoon? I asked.

"No problem there, bro! Catch me a fish dinner in a stream!" His teeth flashed at the thought. "People 'round here don't need a supermarket 'cept for flour, sugar and so on. The land gives us what we need. Just make sure you give the first fish you catch back to the water! Then she keeps lookin' after you!"

While the sound of the van died away into the stillness, I thought about the supplies I'd picked up earlier way back in Ohakune. I doubted Mr Countdown would foot my grocery bill, no matter how many times I gave back a packet of instant soup, or whatever first came to hand.

"In some ways, you're kidding yourself," I thought. "Sure, you're 'walking the land and meeting the people', but it's still artificial. You're tied to shops, tied to roads and tied to what's in your pack."

I suppose the next logical step would be to become a bushman in the truest sense of the word. My respect for Maori ways, already high, went up a notch as I surveyed the rugged terrain, clawed by water, wind and fire.

But that would have to wait. I had hours of walking ahead of me, if I was to reach Pipriki and the Whanganui River by nightfall.

Walking downward, I relfected on my day so far and wondered what lay ahead.

It had begun badly in pre-dawn darkness when a group of young Germans broke camp with revving motors, glaring headlights and the sqeal and thump of doors. I'd seriously considered giving them the wild pig treatment by roaring like a wild man and lurching out of the trees in my black and orange "onesie", perhaps with my dew-streaked tarp hanging from my outstretched arms for dramatic effect.

"That would give those inconsiderate young sods  a holiday memory to pass down through the generations," I thought. I nearly did it, too.

With further sleep impossible after their noisy departure, I performed my usual geriatric commando roll from under my shelter and tottered onto unsteady feet.

A curtain twitched in the window of a nearby camper van.

"Sshh! Be quiet," I imagined a nervous wife saying to her dozy husband. "Ze madman is awake!"

I'd rummaged in my empty ration sack and found one last crumpled, slightly torn tea bag. This I brewed to a deep tannin before sipping the bitter liquid, bereft of milk or sugar, while quietly spitting out escaped tea leaves. The curtain twitched again when I walked past the quiet campervan.

No doubt the wife was watching and breathing a sigh of relief. "At last! He is going!"

However, things improved from there. A brisk 90 minute road walk lifted my spirits and the first vehicle I stuck out my thumb to, stopped and emitted a comforting blast of warm air from the cabin.

And the driver was a semi-retired diesel mechanic with a mottled face, veined nose and an endearing stammer. Perhaps because of this, he was a man of few words even if those he spoke were intended to help a jaded traveller.

"Old p-p-prison," he pointed out as we whizzed past a group of derelict huts.

"B-b-bad in winter," came a warning while we negotiated a hairpin bend.

"C-c-cops c-c-caught me speeding here," he mourned as a lay-by flashed past. A ruminative "B-b-b-buggers!" followed this confession.

All too soon, he dropped me off at the New World supermarket in the ski and hiking town of Okahune. Famished, stomach growling, I roamed the sparkling aisles in search of plunder and then retired with my booty to a sun-washed picnic bench in the local park.

This I converted first into a kitchen bench for oatmeal and coffee, then into a shaving stand and then back into a countertop to make eight peanut butter and honey sandwichees and divide my other goodies into ziploc bags of various sizes.

The unusual activity attracted the  locals. Soon, half a dozen had wandered over. I seriously considered charging a fee. Kiwis simply adore eccentrics like me. Older women coo, men look envious and pretty soon the yarns about past exploits start coming out. Even the local cop wandered over and helpfully pointed out the best spot to hitch-hike from. It's not that he wanted to run me out of town; he genuinely wanted to help.

This is simply a terrific country, especially when you see it by foot.

Notwithstanding the cop's advice, I ended up walking for another hot 90 minutes before the van and its cheerful, self-sufficient driver pulled up.

It had been a good day. Everything was taking me closer to the river, even those rude campers.

And then it got even better when I came across another Maori chap in blue overalls setting possum traps by the roadside. I stopped, we had a chat and he pointed out the place where a tiny meadow lay hidden by trees and guarded by a stream and near-vertical bank.

"Camp up there," he said. "Nobody'll bother you and you won't disturb the bad boys and their green tobacco plants." He winked and I returned it. Be it moonshine in the Appalachians or marijuana here, hill people just can't seem to resist thumbing their nose at authority.

I didn't need alcohol or herbs to help me sleep, just sweetly-scented grass, the last birdsong and the sound of rushing water from the stream nearby, taking me with it down to the water, the fabled Whanganui River.