Mt Aspiring National Park

The Real Voyage of Discovery

Tararua Ranges Waterfall

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes. - Marcel Proust

Richard Margesson at Lake Lucidus

Spending just a few hours in nature's therapy room helps me see the world with fresh eyes.

It's not just that the colours in nature are so harmonious or that the process of putting one foot in front of the other allows the mind and body to work in synchronicity.

I put the change in perspective down to the brain rewiring itself.

How we think filters our experience of reality.

For example, severely depressed people report that they see in shades of grey. The brain has literally filtered out vibrant colours.

But if a brain can do that, then it can rewire itself to bring colours back into life.

There is no better place to do that than in nature. And there is no better activity to encourage the process than walking in nature, with other people.

What's Your Goal?

The tired Toyota mini-van shuddered and wheezed to a stop outside the Glenorchy Hotel. Chris the driver slid open the battered door and my new tramping companions and I tumbled out onto the hot tarmac and stretched our cramped limbs gratefully.

Chris grinned at me, white teeth bared in a tanned face bristling with stubble. “Ready for a beer, mate?”

He didn’t need to ask.

On the trail, people form loose affiliations that may last for a day or a lifetime.

Chris and I had met three days earlier in the Dart Valley where he was running a hopeless race against sunset, a strong wind and nearly 1000m of elevation to reach the Cascade Saddle. I had met the others later. Walking separately by day and meeting up by evening, we’d climbed Rees Saddle in a freezing gale and walked down the Rees River flats to Chris’s van under welcome sunshine. Once again, the weather god’s smiles had followed a tempestuous but short-lived tantrum.

After the first beer, I tottered over to the large map of Mt Aspiring Park with one of my companions. I put a finger on Makarora and another on Glenorchy. The iPhone clicked while I grinned self-consciously. It didn’t feel quite real, finishing. Gladness, relief and regret mingled while a second beer followed the first.

“Eleven days, four passes, one man. Well, I did it!” I basked for a while in a glow of alcohol and achievement.

However, during a spell of post-completion melancholy later that evening, I thought, “The numbers are immaterial. It’s not about the kilometres or hours walked or counting nights in huts vs nights under the stars. It’s about the inner journey.”

I remembered a quote by the renowned Italian climber, Walter Bonatti.

“Mountains are the means, the person is the end. The goal is not to reach the tops of mountains, but to improve the person.”

His words matched my experience and gave it a new context. It’s how I want to work with people in the future.

I called Rosa a second time just to hear her voice once more. My melancholy evaporated. We’ll be reunited in less than three weeks time. She's proud of me and I'm grateful for her support.

Between then and now, lies the final trail of this four month te araroa, this long pathway down New Zealand. It winds through rain-soaked native forest and along wild beaches far to the south. It's a place where kiwi birds feed on sand and penguins roost under trees.

Stewart Island, here we come!

No Security

At the start of the trail leading up and over the Cascade Saddle to the Dart River valley, I stopped in my tracks to read the conspicuous warning sign.

Many trampers and climbers over the years have fallen to their deaths on this trail. Over-confidence, lack of knowledge, inadequate equipment, bad weather and slippery snow-grass have all been contributing factors to the accident rate.

In Mt Aspiring Hut the evening before, the DOC  hut warden and I had settled into a leisurely conversation about the joys and the perils of this trail. “The problem,” she’d said, “Is the 'run out' if you start sliding. There is simply no protection on sections of the trail.”

It's a compelling metaphor for business and for life. To go higher and reach further, there are times when you have to leave safety behind and move into the unknown. While I climbed through a beech forest, dappled with early morning light, I reflected. One part of my mind concentrated on footfalls while the other roamed free.

It’s a choice: to stay with the known, the comfortable, safe and familiar or to extend yourself and step into the new. I believe we humans are born to walk, to venture into untrodden territory, to open new possibilities and to prove that the only limits are the ones you place on yourself. This irresistible compulsion to explore and grow must be wired into our DNA. What better place to experience it, than in a setting like this with Mt Aspiring a beckoning symbol of our individual ambitions and dreams? How better to extend  your capacity to take risks in daily life than to test it here in nature’s therapy room?

“Steady on, Major,” I smiled, stepping beyond the tree line. The orange marker poles marched up the slope above me to the distant ridge, crisp and stark against the dazzling clarity of a southern sky. “Here comes the fun part.”

The higher I climbed, the more the gulf to my right yawned, exposing teeth of rock, just a metre or so from the trail. Where a tongue of rock jutted out to hang over the blue-shadowed valley 1000 metres below, I stopped, knowing what I had to do.

“You want to bring people into a place like this for personal growth? Then let’s see what it’s like!”

I wanted a photograph to show people what it’s like to stand on the edge of the unknown. I just prayed the photograph would not be the last record of this tramper's terminal slip into oblivion. As soon as I heard the self-timer's electronic voice counting down, I crept forward, hunched like a soldier under fire, knees trembling, instinctively trying to make myself smaller and resisting the urge to cling to the ground. My senses whirled. No security here!

“Bugger!” I said after gingerly returning and examining the photograph. “Not good enough! Do it again, Major!”

The second time was easier. Nonetheless, it took an effort of will to stand upright, extend my arms and open fully to Mt Aspiring. As if on cue, a hawk wheeled and shrieked. I answered with a long, “Woo! Hoo!”

Later, up on the saddle and during the long descent into the Dart Valley, past the dripping snout of the glacier and along the river toward the hut tucked into the protective shoulder of a mountain, the elation of that moment remained.

In the late afternoon, I met a tramper running up the trail, wearing shorts, singlet and a daypack.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?” I asked with a smile.

“Up to the saddle,” he panted. “Is it far?”

“You won’t make it up there before nightfall let alone get back to the hut,” I said.

He considered and sensibly decided to lower his sights something more achievable and less risky.

There are times when the hard reality of the trail constrains our sense of unlimited potential.

Get High

Today, I decided to get high with Eli from Israel.

Before you judge, I’m talking about a natural high, not a drug-induced one. It’s splitting hairs, though. A good steep climb up through a tangled beech forest and out onto an exposed ridge-line sends a  powerful stream of chemicals through your brain.

The reward? A state of blissed-out euphoria. After lunch, I sunk onto a patch of alpine grass a hundred metres above French Ridge Hut. Cradled in a sun-warmed bowl that sheltered me from the cutting wind, I focussed dreamily on rainbow curtains shimmering from a wind-blown waterfall and on clouds boiling over a pass only to evaporate against invisible fingers of warmth rising from the valley.

Eli, my equally spaced-out walking companion is my age but an inexperienced tramper. He’s having a bad “trip" because he feels anxious about walking back down on his own. He’s brought a little food and a sleeping bag but no stove or fuel. I offer to share mine and he relaxes.

I came up here for solitude but now I find how enriching it is to share an evening with this kind and thoughtful stranger. There is nothing like getting high in nature’s therapy room.

Most people want an instant fix without effort. Doctors, psychiatrists and drug dealers are happy to oblige. But you can’t get this natural high without stepping into the pharmacopeia of nature’s therapy room.

Come on in and blow your mind.

Trail Angels

Today, I want to become a trail angel.

I’ve written about how an angel named Yvonne rescued me and how I helped a distressed hiker. Those stories are just two examples showing how the trail brings out the best in people.

So when Ken, the cheerful driver and owner of KT Taxis in Wanaka dropped me at the trail head leading to Mt Aspiring Hut, I was not surprised to find two young Israeli hikers making coffee for an 80 year old Kiwi tramper who had just finished a three day walk.

You find a lot of Israelis in the South Island and most of them are celebrating their release from three years of compulsory military service. Taking a year abroad is as much a rite of passage for these young people as working in Europe is for New Zealanders.

After a short two hour walk up the Matukituki River, the Israeli couple and I talked while we ate supper in Mt Aspiring Hut’s airy living area, lit by the early evening sun flaming on the peaks.

They told me a fascinating story about the Israel National Trail. A more mature version of NZ’s Te Araroa Trail (the INT was inaugurated in 1995; the TAT in 2011) and shorter (1000 kms; the TAT is over 3,000 kms), walking the INT is now as much a part of national consciousness for Israel as military service.

“It’s wonderful!” the woman enthused, “You don’t even need to camp because every night you can sleep in a kibbutz or someone’s home! They feed you and give you a couch or bed for the night. In exchange,  you might do something for them like weed a flower bed, something like that.”

Her partner interrupted with a laugh, “She hates camping!”

“My wife Rosa hates it too. She’s a ‘glamper’ not a ‘tramper’.” I explained about the growing trend of ‘glamping’ or ‘glamour camping’ where sybaritic urbanites can get a taste of the outdoors while sleeping in luxurious tents and beds with all the mod cons.

“That’s me!” the woman said. “We pretty well ‘couch-surfed’ along the National Trail. But what really surprised us was how this trail has united our country even more. There are so many divisions in our society but the trail and the “trail angels” help smooth them over.”

Lying in my bunk that night, I thought about the Te Araroa Trail. When I was still following it up in Northland, I had noticed again and again how the natural helpfulness of Kiwis had begun to flower along its length. I wouldn’t be surprised if flocks of trail angels appear in time.

Actually, they exist already in the form of helpful DOC staffers and volunteers, tramping club members, local people, hunters and trampers. NZ might not need a formal network because it already has one.

That's the spirit of this country and it's one of a few core national qualities that draw people like the Israeli couple to it.

And I now want to take Rosa to Israel so we can experience their trail angels for ourselves.

Kiwis at Play

The first cold and heavy raindrops pockmarking the dusty gravel road and a warning mutter of thunder from the lowering clouds sealed the deal for me. All day, I had pondered how to vary my original plan. The truth was, I had bitten off more than I could comfortably chew. I had been walking in wilderness for five days and wanted to rest for a day or two but didn’t have the food to do it.

A signpost spelled out my choices: to the left, Wanaka, over an hour’s slow drive south. To the right, Mt Aspiring Hut, a 2.5 hour walk northwards, and gateway to the third of four major passes I needed to climb. With the rain splattering on my waterproofs, I tuned inward and allowed intuition to take over. I turned northward into the gathering gloom.

“Keep at it, Major," I said, urging my tired legs and wet feet onward over the sharp gravel while temporising, “If the first car heading to Wanaka stops to give me a lift, I’ll take it!”

Not that I expected one to appear so late in the day. Nonetheless, headlights appeared, weaving slowly down the rough road. A camper van! I stuck out my thumb. It stopped and the window rolled down.

“We can’t take you,” the woman said in a French accent. My face fell and she smiled. “But our friends will! They’re just behind us!”

When I had left Wanaka a week ago, the town had been more or less empty with plenty of “Vacancy” signs in the windows of its motels and hostels. Now the park held marquees and a fun fair and the town was packed with Kiwis at play. Happy adults clutching overflowing drinks spilled onto the streets from pub doors, excited children roamed in packs and muscular athletes in fluorescent cycling gear hovered around ranks of mountain bikes.

I raced to the motor camp and snagged the last remaining tent site. I asked the glowing receptionist what the excitement was all about. “The South Island Agricultural Show plus the Motatapu Mountain Bike Race,” she replied breathlessly. Beaming at the thought of so much long-awaited entertainment, she turned away to register a long convoy of motorhomes waiting at the gate.

After setting up my tarp beneath a fruit tree, I showered, ate and slid beneath it into the familiar comfort of my “onesies”. Nothing, not the sound of berries pattering down a few inches above my face, nor the raucous laughter of gumboot-shod Kiwi farming families barbecuing steaks, nor the cries of children moving from excitement to over-tiredness could keep me awake. After a damp and chilly dawn way back on Ruth Flat, I had walked down a flowing river bed, climbed high up the flank of a mountain to avoid an impassable gorge and along a riverside trail until I crossed another river, the West Branch of the Matukituki. Tired beyond tired, I lapsed into a coma.

Shatteringly, a donkey’s bray paralysed my ear drums. On cue, all hell broke loose. Horses whinnied, cows bellowed, rooster crowed and sheep bleated. “Christ! I’ve been teleported to Old McDonald’s farm!” I thought wildly, sitting bolt upright on my skinny mattress. A brief exploration in my “onesies” revealed not only that I had slept through the night but that I had unwittingly set up my tarp just a hedgerow away from the show ground’s animal pens.

By mid-morning, the clouds lifted, light sparkled on wet grass, the show grounds heaved with people and animals, the bicyclists set off in a wheeled tide to cheers. After shopping for supplies, I absorbed the holiday spirit and watched South Island Kiwis at play.

I called Rosa and let her know what I was doing.

“What’s the show like?” she asked.

“Incredibly sweet,” I told her. “It’s everything a proper country fair should be."

She laughed about my dawn alarm call next to the stockyard. “Oh! I wish I’d been with you!” she cried.

“I know. You’d be milking every last ounce of enjoyment from the weekend,” I smiled, imagining her leaning over a fence to watch the bulls from a safe distance. Of course, she’d dress up in gumboots and an anorak to fit in. At times like this, I miss my playful Kiwi wife so much it hurts.

A Day to Remember

"Today will be one to remember," I thought, stepping silently onto the wet grass outside the dark hut. I shouldered my pack and inhaled clean pre-dawn alpine air. Far above me, Mounts Castor and Pollux flamed in the first light of morning sunshine, ethereal and unreachable.

My prayers to Huey the Weather God had been answered. Since crossing Gillespie Pass two days earlier, the weather had steadily improved. Reassuringly, a professional guide and two clients would be following behind me on their own transit up and over Waterfall Flat and Rabbit Pass. My fears had evaporated yesterday and a good night's rest last night after the near-sleepless one the night before had energised me.

The climb up to Waterfall Flat felt delightful. Sitting by one of the innumerable crystal clear streams spilling from the slopes above,  I tucked into a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and coffee fortified with sweet condensed milk. An inquisitive and cheeky kea, the world's only alpine parrot and surely the most intelligent of all birds, fluttered over to play games.

However, this was neither the time nor place to linger. The pressure was on. Behind and below me, distant figures approached steadily. It was time to move.

The first short section steepened steadily until a rock wall barred further progress. "Christ! They can't be serious!" I thought. Handhold by handhold, foothold by foothold, I groped my way upwards, face pressed tightly against rock, earth and grass, hands and feet groping, the pack pulling backward in answer to gravity's inexorable demand. If I could have used my teeth as a climbing aid, I would have.

"Nibbling my way up to Rabbit Pass," I thought. "That's a different technique."

Perversely, the higher I climbed, the more confident I felt. Relaxed yet poised, concentrating intensely, I moved into a state of flow and heightened perception, a heady concoction of adrenaline, dopamine and other chemicals. When I reached the final orange marker and gazed in wonder along the upper reaches of the Wilkin River, the air shimmered and colours glowed.

"Wow! This is a natural high!"

I gazed back down the slope and made out the tiny figures of the guided party. And then came a welcome surprise as a fit 72 year-old stepped around a rock wall. I'd met John four days before when he gave me a short lift to Lake Hawea. A former deer-culler and master bushman, he possessed vast knowledge of NZ's backcountry. Although he'd long since traded in his rifle for a fearsome-looking camera, he still headed for the hills at every opportunity. We grinned, shook hands and waited for the guided party to join us.

John and I teamed up. I felt glad for the company. Among his many virtues, John liked to walk in silence so we headed into the rising wind funnelled between the rock walls alone yet together. When we turned to climb the long ridge leading up to Rabbit Pass, 50 knot gusts pulled us toward the black water-worn gorge at our feet.

We reached the final obstacle at mid-afternoon. I gazed over the precipice with misgiving. The first twenty metres of damp rock-face and loose grit steepened until it dropped out of sight over a cliff. Forty metres below that, a belt of scree slid down to firmer ground. Feet scrabbling for purchase on loose rock, we slid down to the cliff-top. After sliding out of my pack straps, I reconnoitred. With a dry mouth, I realised just how exposed I was. Turning, heart knocking against my ribs, I pulled myself back with difficulty.

Above us, the guide's head appeared on the ridge-line and shouted brief directions into the void. " Go left!" John now took the lead while I put on my pack. "Who put a bloody route through here!" I muttered, looking between my knees for the next tenuous foothold while my fingers tightened on fragile handholds.

Ten minutes later, with Rabbit Pass behind us, we watched the clients safely lowered by rope. After waiting for the guide, we slid down the loose scree slopes and onto firm ground. As the adrenaline and elation wore off, the steep descent to the Matukituki River over grass tussocks and down into the boulder-strewn stream-bed left us with bruised and wet feet. John and I shook hands and parted as friends. He would camp near the guided party's bivouac and I would make a final push to Ruth Flat two hours' scramble downstream.

The haunting cries of waterfowl sounded across the meadows when I wearily stepped onto them from the river bed. I made a fly camp on a sheltered step of grass. The last of the sun illuminated the glaciated ramparts of the Tartarus Icefall and streaming waterfalls. It had been a day to remember and a long one. I had been walking and climbing for fourteen hours. I lit a small campfire and sipped hot chocolate, absorbing the stillness. The fire crackled and glowing sparks rose upward, miniature shooting stars against a spangled canopy.

Deep in Tiritiri O Te Moana, the Southern Alps, I rested in the heart of nature's therapy room.

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.


I'm doing pretty good.


Go Wild While You Can

Despite the ear plugs, I couldn't sleep. At least they muffled Brett's monologue and allowed me to sift through the wild ideas bubbling away in my neural circuitry. This journey down the length of NZ now had an end date less than four weeks distant. "Let's finish on a real high note," I thought and allowed myself to dream big. Almost at once, I knew what I would do.