But let wind or winter come, they can be as spiteful and as dangerous to fools as higher hills. - Paul Powell, "Just Where Do You Think You've Been?"
Trampers don't get too many, "Woo! Hoo!" moments.
However, last Saturday, soaked to the skin and standing four kilometres down a flooding river gorge in the Tararua Ranges, I lifted my arms to the sheer moss-walled rock walls and shouted, "Woo! Hoo!" in a short-lived outburst of pent-up tension and muscle-melting relief.
I looked across at the three slippery boulders that had offered giant-sized stepping stones from one side of the river to the other and grinned before stumbling onwards, downstream into the gathering gloom.
The Tararua Ranges are one of the meccas of New Zealand tramping. Steep-sided, riven with ravines, rock walls, and ridges, clad in near-impenetrable bush and subject to the fickle temperament of Huey the weather god who sends storm conditions for over 200 days a year, the Tararuas present formidable challenges to trampers, hunters and fishermen. More search and rescue operations to look for baffled, overdue and lost adventurers are mounted in them than anywhere else in New Zealand.
From Palmerston North southwards to Levin, their high ridges had filled my horizon to the east as I walked the road for a morning and afternoon before catching a lift with an endearing Jane Austen fan fiction addict. The contrast between the bucolic countryside of Austen's England and the savage terrain to my left could not have been greater.
The day after arriving in Levin, I walked down the ten-kilometre approach road to the trail-head car park before accepting a grateful lift from a couple smelling strongly of ylang-ylang clashing with other healing aromas. Prayer beads dangled from their necks. An Om symbol swayed from the rear-view mirror in time with the car's uneven progress over lumpy tarmac.
"We're exploring!" the gray-haired woman exclaimed gaily. "We've just come back from a permaculture seminar in Wellington and we looked at each other and said, 'Just for once, the jolly old organic garden and the worm farm and the meditation centre can do without us for the day can't they, you darling man?'" She reached over and fondly stroked her white-haired partner's cheek. He blinked lazily, blissed out.
It felt like meeting Pippa and Tom from the TV series, "The Good Life", thirty or forty years after they'd dropped out of the race to start a farm in the midst of suburbia. The encounter helped me relax. The truth was, I felt nervous about entering these ranges on my own and especially with a dodgy weather forecast in the offing.
Like a bird of ill-omen, a small helicopter flew out of a ravine, trailing a bright red cargo bag from a wire undersling, as we pulled into the car-park. Landing, it disgorged a hunter with a rifle and two trampers, crouched in the downdraft of the rotor blades.
"I hope I won't need it," I thought. One of the trampers approached me while I filled out the DOC log book. We had a chat about my plans.
"It's a hot day. You can walk up this river here," he pointed to my map with a grimy finger, "And stay in this hut here. The forecast tomorrow is crap so you'll be better off the high ridges. But you can walk down this river here. It doesn't flood too much." His finger traced a route down a winding blue line. "That'll bring you out here and you can walk out here or here on Monday or Tuesday." The finger stabbed at a couple of dotted trails.
"Have you got an emergency locator beacon?" he asked. I shook my head. "GPS?" I shook my head again. "Doing it the old-fashioned way, eh?" He grinned. "Good on you. You'll be alright."
And his advice was sound. I enjoyed a delightful four hour walk up a small river, crossing it repeatedly, swimming in a crystal-clear, turquoise-blue and emerald-green pool and reaching a small recently-refurbished hut as evening shadows raced down the dark-green slopes, bring a rush of cold air and reminding me that I had gained about 500 metres in elevation.
I dined in solitary splendour by the glow of candles and the flickering glow of a fire behind the stove door while my soaked clothes and shoes dried.
By next morning, the rain had arrived. After a quick photo between showers, I climbed a steep ridge, which led to another and then a third. The forest had grown dark and tendrils of mist crept through the thick, moss-clad trees, blown by an increasing cool wind, which brought increasingly heavy showers and then a sustained rainfall. A hut, a 30 minute walk away, beckoned, and I answered the call. Although I would have to backtrack to find the steep ridge that led down to the next river, the promise of a hot cup of tea and an early lunch under shelter was too much to resist.
Just as I tucked into a peanut butter and honey sandwich washed down with mushroom soup laced with croutons, the door opened and an American tramper, dripping water, entered. He decided to sit out the wet weather before tackling the high ridges leading to Wellington, seven days away. I decided to push on down the next river.
"Stay safe," he said, mournfully, squeezing out his socks.
I found the ridge leading downwards through twisted trees furred with thick green moss. It steepened into a typical knee-trembling Tararua decline until at times I climbed down backwards, reaching from root-step to root-step while hanging from branches and tree trunks, while the sound of the river below grew louder.
When I reached it, I stumbled into the open and looked around me with mixed emotions. 50 metres above me the dripping gorge walls disappeared in mist and sheets of rain. Behind me lay a steep climb back the way I had come: my escape route if I needed it. Before me lay the river, ten metres wide, shin deep, flowing over and between grey stones and moss-covered boulders, twisting away out of view downstream. The steep banks as well as tangled piles of tree trunks, branches and other detritus of floodwaters soon forced me into the river bed itself.
The cold water numbed my feet and sapped my energy. The gloom turned the water surface silver making it impossible to judge the outline of the slippery stones beneath. I had to place every foot with care. A twisted ankle or knee, let alone a broken one, didn't bear thinking about. Down here, nature brings swift punishment to a moment's inattention. When my walking pole slipped on a treacherous stone, I stumbled, slid, slipped and fell, bruising my hands as they slid between the rocks.
Although the watery push-up had not dented me it had turned my map to unreadable pulp. Splashing to a small island of shingle, I reviewed my limited options. "Forwards or backwards, Major? Are you a man or a mouse?"
"I'm a m-m-man!" I said through chattering teeth and plunged onwards, downstream.
I regretted my bravado by late afternoon and resembled a drowned rat more than a human. I had no idea where I was, had fallen more times than I could count and felt more than a little worried by the endless rain, weeping forests and darkening skies. Fortuitously, the valley opened up into a small valley. I clambered up the bank, stepped around a copse and caught my breath with the kind of stunned pleasure you experience when you find a long-forgotten $50 note in a pocket.
The hut might have been tiny- no larger than a suburban garden shed- but it looked like the Taj Mahal to me. I practically tore open the door in stunned disbelief. My river port in a storm!
Ten minutes later, sipping hot tea and wrapped in dry clothes and the "onesie", with the glow from a candle stub at least giving the illusion of a fire, I reckoned myself a very happy chappie indeed.
Yes, it was an effort to put on cold sodden clothes the next morning and it was a wrench to leave this sanctuary for the uncertain waters but I felt pleased with myself. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," I reminded myself while I sloshed forwards. Brave words. A few hours later, when the water level in a flooded pool set between forbidding cliffs reached my chest, I called it quits and turned back. 24 hours in this damn river was enough Tararau adventure to last a lifetime and I could reach that ridge-line hut with it's wood-burning stove by nightfall if I stepped out.
And so I did. The rain eased to a drizzle. However, the mountains continued to weep water while grey mist wraiths rose from the saturated ground to haunt the twisted moss-clad trees. The Tararuas are not just unpredictable. They are not of this world or at least, speak of an older world, long before man appeared.
Three days later, I walked back through the gates of the campground in Levin. I was in good spirits, pleasantly tired and dry at last. The weather god had relented and blessed the ranges with a day of brilliant sunshine and a clarity of ear that gave me the sense of possessing a hawk's keen vision.
On the final ridgle-line, I had gazed enthralled at Mount Ruapehu rising to the north and even Mount Taranaki standing in lonely exile westwards. I fancied I could even see the dark line of the Whanganui River valley flowing into the sea.
It had been a day of dreams, hopes and fine walking. It also offered a reminder of tears once shed when I found a small cross marking the spot where a tramper had succumbed to the effects of exposure, less than half an hour's walk from shelter.
"How'd ya go in the Tararuas?" the campground owner asked me.
"Next time, I'll wear gumboots and fishing waders," I smiled.
We stood for a moment in companionable manly silence. Above us the ridge lines glowed innocently in the evening light.
"Good to be out," he commented. It was a statement, not a question.
"Woo, hoo," I affirmed.