Gillespie Pass

The Dark Side

Tramping is not all sweetness and light. It has a dark side too.

For most of the day, a dark shadow had prowled at the edge of my mind like a hyena slinking around the glow of a campfire.

I did my best to push it back and focus on the simple pleasures of walking through this wild landscape under clearing skies. Elat, the Israeli “racing snake” had left the Young Hut at dawn and Akira, the young Japanese hiker had departed soon after. I had been third in line.

Many trampers enter wild areas looking for solitude. It’s an unspoken rule that we give each other space and often make loose arrangements to depart in sequence. At the same time, more experienced trampers keep an eye out for the less confident ones. When I came across Akira hesitantly contemplating the majestic waterfall-ribbed cirque girdled by Mt Awful’s snow-capped flanks, I invited him to join me for the steep climb up and over the Gillespie Pass.

At the summit, I showed him how to shelter from the freezing wind while we took photographs. After descending, I guided him to the camping spot my stepson and I had used the year before. There we ate lunch in the warm sunshine. I’m deeply interested in Japanese culture and their reverence for the natural world expressed through Shintoism. Despite the language barrier, we had a good connection. After a short but restorative nap, we continued our descent through sun-dappled beech forests to the wide grasslands of the Siberia Valley and the glittering sapphire pools of the stream flowing through it.

However, Mt Awful rising behind me and Mt Dreadful looming in front reminded me why a dispirited 19th Century Pakeha explorer suffering severe privations in these high valleys had projected his experiences on them. The day after tomorrow, I would be facing both Waterfall Flat and Rabbit Pass alone. Frankly, the prospect scared me witless and everything I had researched about this passage standing between the Wilkin River and the East Branch of the Matukituki River added to my anxiety.

Siberia Hut diverted me for an hour for afternoon tea. Akira would spend the night there. It's becoming an increasingly popular hut with a permanent summer warden, clean toilets and solar-powered lighting. There's even a mountain radio to book a seat on a jet boat or aircraft if you just want to spend a day or several enjoying short walks without the effort of humping a large pack upriver. One of these walks leads to Lake Crucible. Valentino and I had walked to it last year and finding it still filled with ice from overhanging Mt Alba, we had dared each to become polar bears.

I made some notes and mentally flagged the hut as an ideal place to introduce future clients to nature's therapy room. Then I shouldered my pack and continued down the valley towards the Wilkin River. Beyond its broad but relatively shallow waters lay Kerin Forks Hut, my destination for the night. Perhaps I was more tired than I thought, or maybe the growing sense of foreboding had weakened my confidence, or it could have been disappointment at finding the hut crowded but I found myself on edge. As the last arrival, I would be sleeping on the floor.

That night, lying on my skinny mattress and listening to quadrophonic snores, the shadow rose again. This time I could not hold it back. My stomach churned with anxiety as I imagined myself trapped on the high ground between Waterfall Flat and Rabbit Pass in driving rain, unable to advance or retreat, my way barred by wet snow-grass, slippery and treacherous as ice. Two years ago, a British tramper had been found in his sleeping bag a month after he had gone missing. He had survived a 50 metre fall but not the exposure that followed. The image gripped me in black claws.

I forced my tired brain to loosen the cold grasp of fear. "This isn't a life or death mission. You can always turn back if you have to," I consoled myself. Then I chuckled at another thought. "I'd like to see Anthony Robbins awaken the giant within when he's stuck half-way up Waterfall Flat." In my mind's eye, I shout encouragement, "Keep going, Tony, mate! You can do it!"

He can't respond because he's gripping a clump of snow-grass between his perfect white Californian teeth.

The dark shadow recedes. I've shone a spotlight on my fears and they've shown themselves to be the illusion they really are.

Tribal Trampers

Have you ever wondered what types of people come from all corners of the world to spend time in nature’s therapy room? Or, what sort of people carry all their worldly possessions on their backs, fall in freezing rivers, live on simple rations, sleep in spartan accommodation, plod along trails in wet shoes for hour after hour, knowing that if they take a wrong turn it could end in drama and still call it fun?

Let's find out, shall we?

Six hours after wading out of the Makarora River, I reached Young Hut. Perched just below the tree-line and above the upper reaches of the South Branch of the Young River, the hut is a modern refuge. The coal smoke curling from the chimney pipe foretold a warm welcome. I climbed the steps to the verandah, brushed past the familiar row of gaiters and socks hanging from a clothesline and stepped inside the warm wood-panelled room to join other members of the tramping tribe.

We're an international group. Tonight, we're here from Britain, Israel, Sweden, Australia, Japan and Germany as well as New Zealand. Retired grey-haired elders chat happily with twenty-year old students. Business executives swap stories with tradesmen. Only here could such an eclectic mix of people find so much common ground.

We’ve got finely-tuned bullshit detectors because spending so much time away from modern distractions allows intuition to flourish. Deeds count more than words.

We're modest. Whatever our status or income at home, we like living on a shoestring budget out here. The stripped-down, spartan lifestyle is part of our pleasure. It’s a link with how our ancestors lived: pared down and close to nature. In our own ways, we find joy in treading lightly. We have different tastes for luxuries on the trail: for one person, it’s chocolate, for another a pair of fluffy sleeping socks, for another a home-made pillow. We have our little quirks and rituals. We’re strong individuals but we’re also tolerant of others.

And we’re kind-hearted. On the trail, strangers stop to say, “hello”. We’re generous, not just with a helping hand or small items of equipment, but with how we relate to each other. Arguments and hurt feelings on the trail are unheard of; opinions are expressed with tact if at all. We never gossip. We’re cheerful: a good drenching is a great story. It's easy to laugh at your own misfortune and you like others joining in. We’ve all been there. It's like a badge of honour.

We don’t care what we look like because it's who we are on the trail that counts.

We feel fear and move through it.

We know discomfort and rise above it.

We push into our limits and expand them.

I think trampers are incredibly cool people. They're a tribe worth joining. It's certainly been fun and rewarding for me.

Some of us tonight will never see each other again. And some will meet on another trail. Yet others will become friends or customers or colleagues. This is a very different kind of networking event!

Fortunately, tribal membership is easy and cheap.

If this excites you, then try out a nice easy trail of just a few days. If you need some direction, then send me an email or ask in a comment and I'll put you on the right path.

You'll come back a happier, more relaxed person with a renewed sense of purpose.

"I'm Not Doing So Good!"

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.

Laugh.

I'm doing pretty good.