I watched the young Dutch couple ahead of me pause at the bank of the Makarora River and take stock. Their body language communicated indecision and hesitation even from a couple of hundred of metres away. The man stepped forward cautiously, waded to the far bank and waited. The second figure left the safety of the bank. I kept my eye on her even as my feet searched for sound footing on the shingle banks. Halfway across, she suddenly stooped, wobbled and flailed her arms. I heard a distant cry over the roaring water as she fell in. The heartless icy current seized her at once, tumbling her downstream. I dropped my pack and sprinted for the river. Shit! Shit! Shit!
What was it with this trip? Nothing had gone right so far. Two short lifts and a long road walk yesterday had left me woefully short of the trailhead at Makarora. I'd camped near an arguing couple from Canada who'd been silenced only when a freezing wind brought the first rattling gusts of rain. With no luck hitch-hiking in the morning and fed up with standing half-frozen by the side of the road, I'd given in and flagged a passing bus on its way to Fox Glacier.
Now, two hours later and $30 lighter, I was witnessing a potential drowning. By the time I reached the river, the Dutch tourist had crawled to the bank. I helped her to her feet. Water streamed from her clothes and pack. A brightly-striped Tibetan hat with a metre-long tassel drooped forlornly from the side of her head.
"Are you OK?" I asked with concern.
"Nein! I'm not doing so good," she chattered. Already, she had begun to shiver violently from the effects of 14º C glacial meltwater, the cutting wind and shock. "We need to get you dry now," I said with urgency. Hypothermia can set in far more swiftly than people realise. We went through her pack. No dry-bag or waterproof pack-liner but the spare clothes and her sleeping bag felt more or less dry. I do try to be a gentleman tramper so I turned my back while this dishy Dutch blonde stripped and re-dressed. I helped her wrap the sleeping bag around her, wrung out her clothes and re-packed them.
"All better?" I asked.
"Ja, danke, thank you," she said. They had left their car in the park a 20 minute or so walk away across the river flats and fields. She waved to her boyfriend on the far bank and pointed to herself and then toward the car park.
"Do you want me to walk there with you?" I asked and she shook her head, thanked me again and set off, still clad in her sleeping bag, the pack over the top of it. The boyfriend clearly didn't fancy his chances of recrossing the river without a dunking and disappeared along the trail leading to a bridge far upstream.
And looking again at the swiftly flowing water, I didn't feel too certain about my chances, either. NZ trampers don't encounter the bears, mountain lions or Lyme Disease-infected ticks that their North American counterparts do. Nor do they need to contend with the snakes, spiders and disease-bearing mosquitoes of their Australian cousins. However, we have dangerously unpredictable weather and cold, fast-flowing rivers. Between them, these elements have contributed to many accidents, deaths and drownings.
Last year, my stepson and I had crossed this river at this point without difficulty during what had been an exceptionally hot and dry summer. This year had seen much more rain and over the last few days the freezing level at night had dropped to only 900 metres, chilling the water even more.
Standing on the bank, I weighed up the options. I chucked a piece of driftwood in the current and walked downstream. It outstripped me but only just. I guessed that at its deepest point the current would only reach knee-high. I looked at the run out and chose an entry point where if I did get carried away, the current would carry me into calmer water and the bank. If the Dutch girl could make it to shore, then so could I. It was too late in the day to walk upstream to the Blue Pools bridge and all the way back downstream in order to reach Young Hut before dark.
The only snag was that I would have to cross alone and unobserved because the Dutch tourist had not waited. A more experienced tramper would have. Nonetheless, I put on my pack, tightened the straps, gripped my stick and stepped in. Within a few feet the water was up to my knees and the current sucked at my feet and staff. A few more feet and I was concentrating hard, sliding my feet with difficulty over the rounded stones. An incautious movement and I was falling forward and sideways, head under, hands scrabbling for purchase. Fuelled by adrenaline, I came up, found my feet and stumbled forward, only to go down once more.
But I was over the worst and between the run out and a shelving bank, I rose victoriously to my feet and splashed ashore. By some miracle, my glasses had stayed on and I clambered up the bank to a patch of thistle-strewn grass. Off with the pack. It could wait. I knew I had water-proofed it well. Open the small bag containing my iPhone, notebook and survival gear and other items, each one in its own zip-loc bag. All good. Undress. Dress in dry gear. Spread out wet stuff. Do push-ups. Boil water. Eat lunch.
Drink hot chocolate.
I'm doing pretty good.