Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chapter 1 DISCOVERY: Part 5

The weather meant that I had to retrace my steps. I’d been advised that the higher path I’d wanted to take was treacherous in the rain, but as I walked I recalled a couple of dry sandstone slips I’d crossed the previous day. The channels running down the hillsides made it obvious that in wet weather, these sections of the supposedly safer path would be moving. Singing against the deluge, I kept up an urgent pace, keen to reach the slips before the path was washed away. Sure enough, the slips were acting as a run-off from the hills. The path, really just a trodden strip of mud, was breaking away in chunks before my eyes. Sooner rather than later, I told myself and picked my way carefully across. Fully immersed in my adventure my over-active imagination dramatised all sorts of potential disasters and I envisaged slipping and falling, my nails scraping futilely at the ochre mud as I slid toward my doom. It was all so exciting. How sensible I was to have purchased a bright orange pack-a-mac; they should have no trouble locating my body when they finally came looking.

In spite of the rain, or perhaps because of it, the day’s walk was wonderful. Heading towards the tidal crossing where I would have to wait for the water to become shallow enough to make walking or wading possible, I relished my solitude and the continuing luxuriance of the forest. Inevitably, other trampers were already sitting on the bank of the estuary and I got talking to a couple of chaps from the States who were taking time out from a business trip to see a little of the country. As we sat in the shelter of a tree, I realised how wet I was and began to shiver a little with the cold. Quickly revising my plans, I agreed to walk to the next hut along the track and keep the company of the two amicable Americans. My new friends proved to be perfect walking companions, keeping silence when there was nothing to be said, exchanging words when something was to be remarked upon or pointed out. We arrived soggily at the hut to find a soaked couple attempting, without much luck, to light the fire; a large wood stove rammed with rather damp-looking wood. It took some hard graft, but an hour later we had a blaze going and our wet gear dangled from lines slung across the room. My sleeping bag, it turned out, was soaked through and I was glad indeed that I hadn’t walked further that day. By bedtime it was not only dry, but warm and smelling comfortingly of wood smoke.

Our next day’s walk, for now we were three, was a six-hour stretch commencing with another tidal crossing that we had to make before seven-thirty am. We set off after a hasty breakfast, arriving at the designated place little more than ten minutes later. Already the water was quite high and we made a swift decision to get into our swimming things before it was even deeper. Bikini on I followed my leader as he picked a safe route across the little estuary. The scenery was never anything but stunning and now that it wasn’t raining, walking was easy and less time was spent looking at our feet. Unfamiliar as we were with everything we saw there were constant remarks to look at this, or listen to that, and stops to photograph weather-sculpted rocks against taffeta sea and cotton sky. We were as happy and excited as five-year-olds on their first ever nature trail. At our final inlet crossing for the day we took off shoes and socks, squelching across the shellfish-strewn mud flat to the sandy bay, delighting in the cool, black goo that oozed satisfyingly between our toes. With long stretches of yellow-white sand against twisting tea-tree, black beech and the ferns that were green beyond green, I was almost dismayed that the hut at the tree line was the last of my walk. A quick chilly dip in the sea followed by an even colder shower was like sugar after fresh, bitter lemon. Refreshed and hungry I cooked in the company of a full hut and ate on the beach with my new friends as kayakers paddled in and joined the party. Travel tips and fanciful stories from all corners of the globe mingled with the wind and waves whispering on the sand.

My initiation into the New Zealand outdoors had sown a seed that was to grow into an endlessly branching tree of fascination. By the end of my two month stay I’d heli-hiked on a glacier; jumped out of an aeroplane trusting my life to my tandem instructor – twice; completed numerous walks through landscapes that included dramatic granite cliffs, wide turquoise lakes and high, barren volcanoes; I’d seen sea-lions, penguins and albatross; abseiled a hundred feet down into the bowels of the earth; kayaked on eerily still fjords and left little bits of my heart and soul in every place I’d visited. I boarded my plane to my next destination with a lump in my throat and only one thought on my mind – I had to live in New Zealand.

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