For the first time overnight I find the van is too hot. Having sat in the sun for four days, with little time for the doors and windows to be thrown open the heat has settled in to the curtains, the cushions. I toss and turn, trying to find a comfortable spot. In the end I get up and crack the sliding door. Some fresh air will do me good. Lucky for me that I won’t be spending too many nights in the back of the van this month. When the morning comes I’m ready for it. I do a quick shop in Wanaka, pick up enough to get me through the next two days. I fill up with diesel and then hit the road towards the Matukituki Valley. I’m joining dots. Up the East branch of the Matukituki I would find Rabbit Pass. Over the pass is the head of the Wilkin Valley and a route to join the Gillespie Pass Circuit. In the West branch, is the Cascade Saddle route which would send me into the Dart Valley. The gravel road up the Mautukituki valley is ground to sand. Mount Aspiring stands firm, snow and ice still covering the summit even after all this heat. Dust clouds fly up where a few cars come the other way. Dry fords and a few low wet ones cross the road. Raspberry Creek is the end of the road. I repack my bag in the Raspberry Creek carpark, shedding kilos of camping gear.
The track along the river is mostly flat. Sun beats down but wind blows down the valley. I’m not too hot. I do feel tired though and I’ve still got a long way to go. Older folks break at a beach overhung with trees. I pause to watch them dive into the river current, take a few strokes, flow downstream and haul out. I make a mental note of the spot for my journey out. In the open meadows a couple of trampers come the other way. “Hey guys,” I greet them. “Oh hey, I know you!” Canadian Kim is on her way back to the carpark. We both confirm our route out from Lake Crucible was good. “Where have you guys been?” I enquire. “Liverpool Hut,” Kim says. “How was the climb?” The answer; “Worth it.” Kim’s friend steps off the trail and points his pole, “You can see it from here.” The pale red dot on a plateau half way up a mountain looks a long way off. Am I really going all that way? Guess so. The guys head out and I move further in. As I close in on Aspiring Hut A group of women pass me by. “Not far to go now,” one of them says. I’m obviously not looking my best. I point with my pole up to the pale red dot on the edge of the valley. “It is where I’m headed.” I stop at Aspiring Hut for a drink, snack, and have a little rest. There are climbers here, coming out from attempts on Mount Aspiring itself. “Now, what do you think made him buy shorts in that colour?” one says to another as one tall old boy walks away in bright yellow shorts. I laugh. I realise Yellow Shorts is heading up the Cascade Saddle route. I follow the line as best I can. I struggle to see anything that resembles a path. All I see is how steep, how high it is. I don’t think I’ll be coming back to give that one a go in any hurry.
Time to get back to it. I pass the Department of Conservation warden. She stops to check I have a booking for Liverpool Hut. She looks unconvinced when I claim I booked it last night but she doesn’t ask for proof. She recommends a swim at Pearl Flat before I start the climb up out of the valley. The trail is easy going all the way to the bridge over Liverpool Stream. Great Walk quality, anyone could walk this far up the Matukituki valley. I pause to admire a huge set of twin falls, each spraying up mist in its own rock carved bowls. Big country in a small country. I drop my things, undress and plunge into the biting cold refreshing flow of the Liverpool Stream. I come out refreshed. Ready, I hope, for a big ascent. I pull my boots back on and notice the laces are fraying already. The metal clips on my gaiters have begun to saw through the laces. I don’t have a spare pair. I’m going to have to hope they hold out until tomorrow. As if that wasn’t a big enough issue to worry about when I go to put my pack on I rnotice I only have one sandal. For fuck sake. Come on now. How have I done that? I’ve either dropped it on the trail, or it never made it into the pack in the first place. I only just bought them. They were in the Christmas sale which is over now. That’s going to be an expensive replacement. It was bad enough knowing I would have to replace my old gear at some stage, without having to think about the new gear already. I try to talk myself out of the crisis. I suppose my luck had to run out sometime. There’s nothing I can do about it now.
On the map, the ascent to Liverpool Hut looks like 100 meters up for every 100 meters forward. Some parts are so steep I give up on the poles and climb with my hands before I end up crawling. All the time I’m looking where I’m going, looking down. Occasionally looking too far down, off the track to the drop back down to the stream. This is already quite high. Each step gained is fought for. I’m struggling. Maybe this was too much. Beyond me. I am afraid. There are too many opportunities for failure. Big, falling off the side of a mountain failure. The view is both spectacular and terrifying. I expect going down will be even worse. I pick a tree, move up to it. Stop, breathe. Pick another tree. Eventually I run out of trees. I’ve reached the bush line. First I spot the small red cubicle, the toilet. Then, a little further back I see the hut but I can’t get there yet. The track continues up. In the bushes I hear a rustling. What could possibly be up this high? A small green face with a yellow and black beak appears. Oh no. Not a Kea. Not here. Not now. I need to get off the steep edge. I do not need to also prevent a parrot from stealing any of my stuff. I gain a few steps, stop, check back. I’m still being followed. Sometimes the bird gains on me, sometimes I get ahead. I reach the top of the track, things level out for a second before dropping down again. The Kea has taken more interest in one of the predator traps than me. I’ve escaped. I drop down into the empty Liverpool Hut. I watch the dying light climb out of the valley, up the mountains. The snow turning yellow then pink. The distant summit of Mount Aspiring another 2km higher than where I am now still in full sun. Having survived I feel good. I’m alive, I’ve made it. I remain undefeated. When I booked my bunk there were two other spaces already taken. Watching darkness arrive I wonder if it’s too late now for anyone else to turn up.
I dream of an easy route down. It is only a dream. I wake in the night needing a wee. I turn over to find I’m still all alone so far up here. 10 bunks for the price of one. A bargain. I stand out on the deck under the clear night sky. The milky way running across the valley. Billions and billions of stars burn away. There are no streetlights, no cars, no house windows flashing with the glow of television. Only the light of the night sky. My friendly neighbourhood Kea drops by early in the morning to tap about on the roof and scream to his buddies. I don’t rush but I probably should to beat the heat in the valley. I enjoy the space, the freedom, the peace (kea screams aside). I wipe down, sweep up, load up and head out. As I close the hut door behind me I see the silhouette of a person on the ridge I’ve got to return to. I wonder if these are really late arrivals. As we draw closer to each other “good morning” passes between us. They’re travelling light, one pack between two. Day trippers who left Aspiring Hut at 6am to get here now. “You didn’t happen to see a black sandal on your way in did you?” I ask with a hopeful tone. “Sorry, no but then we weren’t really looking for one.” Never mind.
The climb down was nowhere near as bad as I’d anticipated. That doesn’t mean it was good. My pack catches on rocks, on the trees behind me. I slide on any slab of schist with a sloping angle greater than about 10 degrees. I get stuck and the only way to get unstuck is a controlled fall. The less deliberate falls go well in that I fall backwards, towards the mountainside rather than out into the abyss. Another pair of humans are on their way up. We stop to chat, all of us taking an excuse for a break. I tell them they’re nearly there, which is true. They’re much closer to the top than I am to the bottom. “Is that a relative term?” the older woman asks me. Isn’t it always? On the great journey of life that has bought you to this moment, you are so much closer to the tiny red hut on the plateau than your starting point. The end is always closer than the start. Unless you’re me, who still feels like they’ve just started and knows they’ve got another four hours walking out in the midday sun. A fantail escorts me down for a while. I stop to watch it snap up a second, third and fourth breakfast, squeaking happily away. I’m much happier than I was coming up yesterday. The valley floor comes up slowly. I step forwards rather than down. Delighted to know the hardest work is over. And I didn’t die either.
I refresh in the Liverpool Stream again. Now I really must keep my eyes peeled for that sandal. It’s an unnatural shape, a dark colour. I’m sure it will stand out. Maybe it’s still in the van. I could have easily only picked up one. I check with the warden back at Apsiring Hut to see if anyone handed it in, or if she saw it on her way out. Nothing doing. There’s still two hours of trail on which to find it. Just beyond the hut, one of the orange trail marking poles is the wrong shape. Something is hanging off the top. I don’t remember one looking the wrong shape yesterday. Is it my sandal? I can’t be that lucky, can I? There can’t be many ominous shoes out here. I am that lucky. The missing sandal sits on top of the pole, waiting for collection. I put it firmly inside my pack with the other one. From now on, nothing goes outside the pack that can’t be cheaply replaced. The rest of the walk out is long and hot. I stop for another swim beneath the trees in the Matukituki River. I wade out to waist deep before diving into the current. I soak my shirt and my hat. I’m well dry by the time I get back to the van.
I drive back to Wananka. I stop to see That Wanaka Tree, which is just a tree. I take my souvenir photo so I can show everyone I went to Wananka. In the van I become aware of my own smell. Four, five days of funk. There are times when I wish I had more hiking clothes so I don’t have to worry so much about laundry. Then I remember that $8 for a wash and dry is a lot cheaper than $59 for a pair of shorts. I drive out to Cromwell, to Lowburn Harbour. Familiar territory. Hoping for a quiet evening. No such luck. The summer holidays must still be on. There’s a huge inflatable assault course in the lake. There are cars and vans everywhere. I find a spot far from the lake. I think to myself, could I go again tomorrow, if I had to? The answer, probably. The reality now is I don’t. I can have a full day of rest. Do nothing. Go nowhere. Although I should probably go to the shop, otherwise I’m going to be eating snacks all day tomorrow. I don’t though. I spend the day finishing up packets of nuts, biscuits, crackers. What else have I got I can eat? A packet of instant noodles. Then, after almost 10 days of summer the weather breaks. Rain comes in over the hills. The high peaks around Lake Dunstan are delivered a fresh dusting of snow.