For the first time I find myself not worried about heading out on the trail. There are no concerns, which in itself because a cause for concern, for worry. Have I become complacent? This might result in me leaving something important behind. My final check, rather than what’s in the bag, is what is left in the van. Is there anything here I still need? The answer appears to be no. I look forward to arriving at the Perry Saddle Hut to find what I’ve forgotten. I arrive far too early at Takaka Aerodrome. The shuttle isn’t due to leave for another hour and a half. Behind the desk, Edward suggests I head back into Takaka to grab a coffee. I compromise and head back into the van for a cup of tea. I read a few chapters of my book. With 10 minutes to go I return to the terminal building. Two other gentlemen have arrived, Peter introduced himself and his brother Eugene. We’re waiting for a flight to arrive from Wellington bringing a couple of cyclists. Due to the low, water-filled clouds there’s a slight delay. I’m not too bothered, the first day shouldn’t take more than 5 hours. Peter, Eugene and I share our back stories. This is Peter’s first tramping experience. Eugene is a member of a tramping club, this will be his sixth crossing of the Heaphy Track. “Do you know how much your pack ways?” Peter asks me. “No idea, I’ve not seen a set of scales in months, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s around 15 kilos.” Edward joins in, “Do you want to check? We’ve got scales here.” I weigh in at 15.05kg. We put me in the reasonably experienced tramper category. The tiny plane appears at the end of the runway, growing no larger as it approaches the terminal building. Richie and Brad unload their folded down bikes. We all load up the shuttle, trying to keep as much of our gear out of the rain, out of the puddles as possible.
The drive in takes over an hour. The rain never stops. I keep thinking I’ll be alright, I don’t have my tent. At the end of the day I’ll get to Perry Saddle Hut like everyone else and warm up by the fire. I mention to the team how quiet the Abel Tasman Coast Track was. “I don’t expect the huts will be very busy.” We arrive at the Brown Hut car park. The shelter appears to be in the process of being rebuilt. There is nowhere dry to make final adjustments. I rapidly take my boots off, pull my waterproof trousers on. I take the rain cover out and wrap up my backpack. Sufficiently protected from the relentless downpour I set off with one foot in front of the other. The Heaphy Track is like an old English bridleway. Wide enough for an all terrain vehicle, such as a horse. A black horse, with a dark, hooded rider chasing down a nasty little hobbit. In today’s downpour the track also resembles a river bed. The steady, comfortable climb is made more challenging by the deep puddles, the streams gunning off the path. Torrents cascade down narrow galleys, waterfalls pound the track. What should be simple stream crossings are ankle deep. There’s no point in taking my boots off. They’re saturated. My feet squelch as much with the water within as the water without. I check back at unusual sounds, expecting Ritchie and Brad to come past on their bikes at any second. They can’t be too far behind. Between the trees the views are non-existent. Ridge lines disappear like shadows. Twisting, swirling clouds climb up the trees and down the mountainside. Rain beats down. There is no escape. I hear the squeak of a bike brake. Brad comes round the corner, Ritchie not far behind. “What do you reckon, are we half way?” he asks. “I really hope so.” I genuinely have no idea. i know there’s a shelter coming up but I don’t know how far away it is. Maybe that’s half way. By the time I reach the Aorere Shetler I’ve found a puddle in the bottom of the rain cover. Less than ideal. I try to put my bag down without placing it in the puddle so I can attempt to empty out the excess water. I’ll need to try and readjust, to prevent the build up again. Beyond the shelter I get the next break at Flannagan’s Corner. This is the highest point on the trail. I’ve reached the end of the relentless climb from the trail head. I step up on to the picnic table to survey the view. All I really get is a bright white streak on the opposing grey hill which must be a waterfall. I wonder if it’s there when the weather is dry.
I pass the first distance marker, the only one I’ve seen. 1km to the hut. Relief. At last I see my home for the night. The house-sized hut nestled among the trees. No smoke rises from the chimney but I know Richie and Brad must be there. I come in through the door into the lobby filled with wet weather gear. There isn’t an empty peg for me to hang my stuff so I don’t take anything off. I open the main door. There are people everywhere, the hut might be full. There’s got to be somewhere for me to hang out my stuff. Ritchie points me towards the other entrance where 5 empty hooks give me somewhere to hang my coat, my waterproof trousers, my rain cover. I move back towards the fire. I can hardly get close. A drying rack loaded with damp clothes blocks the way. A small rack climbs one side filled with steaming socks. I find a space for my boots behind the fireplace. I squeeze my socks in to two distant gaps and hope for the best. I move into one of the bunk rooms, surprised to find an empty bottom bunk. I unpack my gear and start to make my bed. In the bottom of my bag, inside my supposedly waterproof bag liner is a puddle. Nestled in the puddle in my sleeping bag. Fuck. I go back to the main room, unravelled, wet sleeping bag in hand. Ritchie kindly clears some room, moving drier gear further away allowing me to get closer. The sleeping bag dries out. I empty the plastic bag liner outside, towelling down the inside so I can at least start again tomorrow. What went wrong? Maybe the puddle in the bottom of the rain cover seeped through the bottom of the bag. How it passed through the plastic I’ll never know. Water, as someone pointed out, cannot be stopped.
I wake up, or I roll over, again and again and again. My sleeping bag hadn’t dried out entirely. There’s a damp patch in the hood, around my head. Condensation has been dripping off the ceiling. Between us we’ve brought a lot of water inside. Nobody was on the bunk above me so I lay unprotected from the sporadic drips. I don’t know if it’s light out or somebody torch. I roll over again, look at the window. I think it’s time to get up. There’s already a rush in the kitchen. People getting ready for an early start. Most of my fellow guests are tackling a bigger day than me, skipping over two huts to complete the trail in four days rather than five. A woman from Queenstown gifts me a lighter. I didn’t bring anything to ignite the provided gas stoves. A foolish assumption they would self-ignite. I no longer have to ride my luck, hoping for others to look after me. The morning is clear, for me today will be quite short. I go back to Flannagan’s Corner while the skies are clear to take in the missed views of yesterday. The rivers, waterfalls and puddles that flooded the track have mainly cleared. My feet stay dry. The wind has vanished. The track is silent aside from the whistle of a blackbird. The view is, of course, incredible. Green peaks under an expanse of deep blue. The white streak of the waterfall is less obvious but it remains. I get back to the hut to find it empty, piles of clothes still cover one of the tables. Someone is going to miss those. I take a quick peek at the ambitiously named “mountain spa.” A cold, brown creek flows into a deep pool. Maybe on a bright, hot summer’s afternoon but not today. I still feel damp from yesterday’s rain. Time to make my way towards Saxon Hut.
I keep an eye out for the carnivorous snail, Powelliphanta, who might be visible on the trackside after rain. Nothing. Although it’s hard to look for something when you don’t really know what you’re looking for. I open my Real Fruit Dinosaurs. Another trial for snacks; “healthy” gummies rather than dried fruit puree. There are about five thumbnail sized dinosaurs in each pack. A treat but probably not worth the money. Along the rock-lined walls of the track water drips through neon moss. Cobwebs laced with droplets glow like fairy lights. The forest has held on to a lot of yesterday’s downpour. Gouland Downs opens up beyond Perry Saddle. They remind me of the moors back home, only they’re covered with dense, thick, waxy plants. Brown, tannin rich streams flow through the Downs. A yellow sign with a black silhouette informs me I’m now in Takahe territory. Old mate Matt from Auckland told me he’d seen these mega-bigtime Pukekos when he completed the Heaphy Track. One of the wardens on the Abel Tasman Coast Track gave me a similar story. I pass Picnic Bench Corner, where a picnic table sits on a turn in the track. Beyond this is Boot Pole Corner. Another turn, this time with a pole boots strung from it. I am unsure if these are boots which have given up on the trail, or boots people have carried in specifically to hang on the pole. Either way, I was impressed by the imagination behind the names of these two places. I can see the next band of forest up ahead, the end of the Downs approaching. I was convinced I’d see Takahe. Again, nothing. Other birds chirp in the approaching trees. I feel a little disappointed, my expectations were too high. I reach the Gouland Downs Hut. I join Susan, Cheryl and John at their table for lunch, noting the tuna sachets and rice cakes they’re munching on. I crack out my marginally improved hiker’s cheeseboard. A block of Edam, sticks of Chorizo, and a re-sealable packet of sun-dried tomatoes. Not the olives I was hoping for but I’m quite pleased with the tomatoey goodness. A tall (tall for a bird anyway) South Island Robin investigates the spread, filling its beak with crumbs. I nosy around the hut, a rustic affair. Bunks on one wall, open fire on the other. Cosy but not mine. The Downs are split by a small pocket of goblin forest. A carpet of moss covers every surface. There’s a final climb for me. I’m tiring now. The 1km to the hut sign appears. I decide I like this method. Not enough to be discouraging, but one to let you know. You’re almost there. Keep going. Peter and Eugene are already at Saxon Hut. The fire is going. I realise I’m completely dry. I make up my bed on the top bunks among the imaginative carvings of “I was not here” and “Liar”. My sleeping bag is dry too! The pot, I am informed has just boiled. Wonderful. I make a cup of tea, settle down on one of the benches. Nothing to do now but let the day pass by. Listen to the conversation of those around me. Ask questions about what’s that you’ve got there? Oh you dehydrated it yourself? How convenient to have an oven of your own. I hope the evening will bring a few more birds. A weka patrols the outside, picking up anything that looks like food. Pecking at bags to see if they reveal anything worth stealing. I enjoy the diverse mix of company. A pilot, a pastry chef, a banker to name but a few.
Without lights the day ends at dusk. People begin drifting to their bunks too early. I wake up after a few hours under the belief I’m sharing the bunk with a weka that’s trying to peck out my eyes. To my relief I find it’s only Peter and his snore. No physical trauma for me this time, only mental. I struggle to get back to sleep. I recognise the warning signs, I need a wee. I’m on the top bunk, Peter is somewhere near the ladder. There are four people down below. I imagine if I move I’ll wake everyone else up. For a while I spin like a rotisserie chicken, trying to find the most tolerable position. Someone else moves first and I’m sure they’re carrying a lantern. The whole hut lights up, then the light goes out. Someone crawls back into bed. I hear the door go again, I figure everyone must be awake at this point so slip out to use the toilet. I spook Eugene as he comes back through the door, not expecting to find someone on the other side. I climb back in to bed, feeling more comfortable. Bright blue light burns through the window at my feet. I’m awake for good now. Time to start. I fill the big pan and boil water for anyone who wants some. Everyone else looks after themselves, so I enjoy a few more hot drinks. I’m in no rush again today. This is my shortest stretch. I’ll be lucky if I’m on my feet for more than 3 hours. The track is maybe the best I’ve seen. Tightly packed white gravel. Easy walking out of the tussock flats into the meandering climb through the beech forest. Thick rugs of moss, white lichen, endless, limitless greens. The orange streams gurgle alongside the track. I catch up with Peter and Eugene, we walk the final 1km to the hut together. White branches like waiters arms carrying dishes of leaves. Peter says they look like parachutes. Out of the windows in the trees I catch glimpses of the West Coast, the ocean. I’ve come so far already. On arrival Eugene offers me some of the fruit loaf Peter’s wife baked for them. I can hardly refuse. Eugene seems very keen for me to eat more. He hands me the loaf, which I’m convinced you could build houses with. He’s desperate to be carrying less of it. Peter toasts a couple of slices over the stove. I’m pleased Eugene conceded to carrying it in, the loaf is absolutely delicious with a cup of tea. We sit in the window with the million dollar view behind us. The mountains to the sea, the mouth of the Heaphy river visible down the valley.
Peter and I brave the “mountain spa.” Down the mud track to the cool, cold creek. A plunge pool you can only really sit down in. Enough to take the grime off, to rinse the sleep out of my eyes. To feel incredibly refreshed. Others trickle in, faces I don’t recognise. The next batch of trampers coming all the way from Perry Saddle Hut. Susan told me I should speak to John about Te Araroa. The long path. He walked in 6 years ago in his 60s. 3000km down the length of New Zealand. The longer I’m on my feet for the more reasonable it sounds. My experience deepens. My confidence hardens. 5 days isn’t enough. This is the last of the ‘long’ Great Walks and there were only two. I’m going to have to push myself. The South Island at least has the opportunities. I’ve got plans right through until January. I realise I could work through next Autumn, next Winter. Sell the van in Spring and set off from Cape Reinga in October. Could I reach Bluff before my visa expires? That would be an adventure. With still plenty of light left, Eugene and I take to the hills to check out another lookout. The trail is more what I’ve been used to, deep trenches filled with water. Big steps up. Eugene flies up hill, with legs long enough to straddle the ditch. As if the view down at the hut wasn’t enough, now the hut is involved. The mountains stretch all the way back to Mount Perry. The Tasman Sea glistening beyond the final ridge lines. The final conversations of the night stretch over usual topics. How good it is to be here, how bad things look at home. How do you escape the cage? Will anyone pay you to experience this level of joy?
Some of the keys to my hiking success. Go early, go alone. I march through the cold morning mountain air. I descend through beech forest to podocarp. Early light sprinkled across leaves, over moss. A tomtit lands on a branch overheard. The sunlight glistening through the wings of the fly caught in his beak. The depths of the forest moving towards the day. A knotted mass of supple jack vines. Tuis croaking. Other birds chirping. Human voices in the forest sound out of place. I catch up with people I didn’t see leave. Backpacks I don’t recognise. They aren’t those I know. Those I do, I catch up with. While they definitely don’t feed crumbs to a South Island Robin. We watch the skinny grey bird with the white breast fill its beak with human food. It darts off to a nearby tree where it feeds a nearly full grown chick. Eugene leads on, Peter falls in behind him, and then me. Taking pleasure in Peter’s vocal enthusiasm for the outdoors. Isn’t everything just beautiful? Limestone cliffs appears between tree trunks. In the valley below the Heaphy River flows over round white boulders. We reach the 1km marker to the Lewis Hut where our paths separate. The wind catches the aroma of the drop toilets, blowing it straight up my nose. This is goodbye. Eugene tells me to give him a call if ever I need a shower in Nelson. Peter says he hopes I’ll drop by when I walk Te Araroa. The long path passing right behind his bach. At the bend in the river the sandflies hunt in packs. I apply repellent and hope for the best. Alone again I follow the brown waters of the river that shimmer blue under the bright sky. Massive rata trees break up the tropical trunks of the nikau palms. The forest, changing again, for one last time. The alpine environment left behind, somewhere further up the trail. The day becomes warm, has been warm for a while. I pause at a branch overhanging the river, the ends heavy with the nests of common shags. I pass my last 1km to the hut marker. Closing in on the final night, on the end of the trail. There’s enough room for me to save bottom bunks for Susan, John and Cheryl. I started this five day journey alone, I’ve been found myself now attached to groups of others.
On the deck at the Heaphy Hut, Blister Girl and Her Friend give a big talk about going for a swim. They sound confident. The day is warm enough that I can readily see myself taking a plunge. I’m certainly not going to be shown up by anyone else. I get changed. Five of us end up walking down to the river. One of The Midwives jumps in, then the other. More confident than me. I stride in, diving under the dark waters. The only one to get my hair wet. The cold shock rushes in. I emerge with a whoop before turning back to shore. Blister Girl and Her Friend haven’t gotten deeper than their thighs. At least their big words encouraged me to freshen up. I spend the afternoon cooking my flesh in the afternoon sun. The sandflies seem to approve of my gently roasting ankles. This feels like the first truly hot day. This feels like the first time I’ve received a serious number of bites. The air thicker than in the peaks. The transition from alpine to the ocean complete. I should probably put on more sunscreen, more repellent. I spend an age watching the incoming tide rush upstream. Surf pounds on the rocks on the far shore. One day to go. My older friends arrive. “May I show your to your room?” They’re pleased to find bottom bunks. I’m pleased to find there’s still one left for me. The room with children in could go either way. They might be noisy with excitement. At least I can rely on two of the occupants not snoring. It might turn out to be a quiet night.
I bump into the Two Guys on the beach. We have a chat, talk about how good the day’s walk was. The common question at this point seems to be “How are you getting out?” The three of us, it turns out are on the same shuttle to Karamea airstrip where we’re catching a scenic flight back to Takaka. One of the Two Guys, Jack, has ruined his knee. He’s not sure what he’s done. Nobody is sure what he’s done. He was limping heavily yesterday, too much distance, too much weight. Not enough prep. I know this feeling, I’ve been there before. There’s general concern about whether or not he should continue to walk out or if the warden needs to arrange a helicopter. He doesn’t want to fly out. He’s stuck somewhere between pride and embarrassed. We all express our opinions, which definitely doesn’t help. Some of the older men stick to their roles. “Walk it off mate, she’ll be right.” Sounds deadly familiar, doesn’t it Dad? In the end the soundest advice seems to be sleep on it, see how you feel in the morning. The night closes in, the sun sliding down the sky towards the sea. I grab a hot drink and head down towards the benches at the end of the lawn. Another ridiculously good location for prices you’d never find at home. The outdoors in New Zealand is made easily accessible to all. I sit with The Midwives, who share some chocolate with me and together we all watch the day end.
In the morning Jack gets taped up, strapped in and commits to walking out. A few of us exchange concerned glances. 5 hours to do 16km at a hobbling pace. I’m not confident. I’ve got space in my backpack, I’ve eaten my way through the food weight. “Can I take anything out of your bag to make it easier?” I end up with an extra sleeping bag, I’d expected more. No more words can help but I offer some anyway. “Take your time, take it easy. Once I get out the end I’ll drop my pack and come back for yours.” An easy pledge to make when you’re feeling fresh at the start of the day. I head out into the trail. I come across Cheryl and Susan first, taking photos of the lichen growing on the nikau palms. “Ah,” I say as I pass, “the artists at work.” The Midwives fly in behind me, I step off the trail to let them pass. Ok, bye-e. I wave them on. They might still be at the trail end when I get there. I come across John, moving slowly along. One foot in front of the other. I’ve shared bunk rooms, tables, the trail with these people. They’ve made it more enjoyable. Been a salve for the fluctuating loneliness of living on the road. I catch the next bunch. “Did you see the penguin?” Blister Girl and Her Friend ask me. “Are you sure? Looks like a shag to me.” I’m not convinced. “We’ll get a closer look around the beach,” they say. I carry on walking through the palms, keeping one eye on the bird in the surf. The penguin spreads its wings in a black iron cross. I laugh out loud. My eyes are better than I think. The beaches of the West Coast are incredible. Short surf, golden sand backed by rising peaks covered in coconut-less palms. Swing bridges cross rivers that sing over sun bleached pebbles. Sea mist climbs into the valleys. Sun light sparkles through the palm fronds.
I’m focused on getting to the Kohaihai shelter. The sooner I get there the sooner I can contact the shuttle company. The better chance I have of buying Jack more time. As the morning draws on I realise I’m not going to be able to get that much further back up the track once I finish. I’ll still need to turn around again and come back. My conscience is caught between wanting to help someone else and taking care of myself first. I pass halfway, I pass a sign that says I have an hour to go. I know I’ll do it in less. I crest the final hill, the white of caravans bright in the distance. I smash through the final ks. I blow out into the car park. Drop my pack, pick up my phone and try to get a call through. I speak to Richard who understands the situation. He can hold the shuttle for an extra half an hour. He tells me I can get signal an hour back up the trail at Scotts Beach. I should call him again when I get there. “Do you think he’ll make it?” One of the Midwives ask. Honestly, I don’t. He can’t be moving fast enough. I hope he’s at Scotts Beach when I get there. Blister Girl and Her Friend look at me funny when I go back the other way. “Where are you going?” “I’m going to get Jack’s pack.” “He got a helicopter out?” At least I hope it’s a question. “We heard one fly over not long after we left.” They left before me, he was still planning to walk when I left. I’m sure I’ll find him. I have no way of knowing if he changed his mind and turned back. I pass Blister Girl’s Mum. We have the same conversation. I get back to the final lookout. Half an hour to the beach. Around the corner is Jack. “Shit,” I say. I didn’t expect to see you here. They’ve made good time. Amazingly good time. I can’t believe it. “Do you want me to take your pack?” I ask. “No, I want to finish” I respect his determination. “Did you go to the lookout? Is it good?” “Go,” I say, “See for yourself, you’ve got time.” I race back to the carpark to let Richard know we’re all good. We’re all going to get out on schedule. I leave it the full hour, just to be sure he gets off the trail. He emerges almost dead on. Richard is pleased, we get the shuttle back on time.
The tiny plane comes in to land. I’ve never been in anything so small. Edward’s the pilot. He weighs our bags, I’m not sure for what reason as everything seems to be in order. He puts them in the back. “Do we have to put our phones on airplane mode?” Jack asks. “Nah it’ll be alright,” replied Edward. “If anyone calls you you’re welcome to try and answer it.” We’re strapped in, headphones on. Edward mumbles what I assume is important flight traffic control information into his mouthpiece. He presses far too few buttons on the dashboard and we’re taxi-ing down the runway. In seconds we’re climbing. We’re above Karamea, over the sea. Moving towards the mountains. Heading back the way we’ve come. Edward points out the Gouland Downs, Mount Perry, the tiny speck in the forest that turns out to be Perry Saddle Hut. Along the horizon a mass of cloud sits where we might be able to see Mount Taranaki on a clear day. The plane drops on to the tarmac, rolls towards the hangar. We disembark. The five day journey completed in reverse in half an hour. I jump in the van, which starts without problem. I go back to Takaka and wash the damp, the dirt, the sweat, the cold creek, the colder river off. I finish the day with the well earned rewards of a beer and a burger at Roots Bar. Not quite as good as the one I had in Marahau which at least confirms I wasn’t only thinking of real food when I decided it was one of the best I’ve ever had. I crawl into the van, lie in the soft embrace of the foam mattress. Another Great Walk complete, I’ve got a month until I walk the Kepler Track. The same question as always comes to me as I drift off. What next? What now?