There is no room in Waihohonu Hut tonight. Nor is there any room four nights from now. Neither way around Ruapehu will work if I leave today. I remain unconvinced all those expected will show up. Nowhere in the weather forecast for the next five days does the sun appear. I accept that a rest day, enforced as it is, is for the best. My right knee gave up on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. I was coming down staircases one step at a time, favouring my still holding it together left leg. I winced down hill, grimacing with each shot of pain. A day off will do me good. I sit in the back of Josh’s car while the rain falls to say goodbye to my friends, who I hope to see again soon. The rest of the day is gentle. I lie down in the van for another hour, waiting to see if the rain will stop falling. It doesn’t. I drive down to the local FourSquare supermarket for lunch. I return to the Department of Conservation office for a parking permit. “What for?” the woman behind the counter asks. Well, for my van, obviously. She wants to know what I’m up to. “I’m going around the mountain,” “You know the weather doesn’t look great,” The weather hasn’t looked great since I left Wellington and I’ve already had a good 24 hours in the mountains. I’m not hopeful but the forecast is wrong too often not to believe I might get away with a dry day or two. On leaving another woman tries to loan me a personal locator beacon. I’ve been carrying one since the end of last winter. I might actually know a thing or two about taking care of myself in the wilderness now. I then slowly, steadily repack my bag for a longer but less intense tramp around another volcano. I load food, stove, sleeping bag. The weight adding up. I have no idea how I was carrying all this, plus my tent, almost two months ago. I started slow, short, steadily increasing weight, distance, days away. Always walking. Sometimes running. My legs are not in the same condition. Too much time has passed. My bag is mostly packed. My chores are done. My leg has stopped screaming at me. I remember one of the laces on my boots snapped. At the time this wasn’t an issue. The boot seemed to hold itself together, presumably with dried on dirt deep in the Goretex. Probably worth fixing anyway. The replacements I realise all too late are probably a bit short. Of course, when I bought them, I bought two pairs so I’d always have a spare. Another brilliant decision potentially gone to waste. I give old mate Matt up in Auckland a nudge regarding one of the remaining Great Walks on my arbitrary to-do list. Lake Waikaremoana, let’s get it sorted. I need to get my legs back up to speed. Up to weight. Up to ups and downs. A thought I don’t want flashes. What if I make it worse? I won’t know what to do. Stop? Shorter days but a heavier pack and worse weather. It might not be my smartest plan after all.
The days are shorter. There is less light. This does not push me out the door. My walking times are going to be shorter too. From the village of Whakapapa back to Waihohonu Hut won’t take me more than 5 hours. I take my time in getting ready, making final preparations. Toothbrush and toothpaste the final entries in my pack. Rain comes and goes. I park up around 9:30am, not even late by a lot of people’s standards. I know the way, the route, the track. I pass a mother and daughter who are doing the Tongariro Northern Circuit in reverse. They’re excited to be out. At the Taranaki Falls turn off I stop to change. The clouds lifting, the rain finally easing. Fleece off, then hat, then waterproof. A brief impression of summer. The clouds part around Ruapehu. Only two days ago there was no snow. Now the jagged tops of the mountain sparkle with white. Ngauruhoe stays hidden. I wonder how much snow is up there. When the clouds lift higher still, the answer is not a lot. A sprinkling on the edge of the crater. Crossing back over the Tama Saddle my knee aches a little and then passes. Did something click into place? Has something had the stretch it needed? In a way I would be happier if the pain was constant, or so bad it stops be from walking altogether. On the flat stretches I’m fine. Climbing up hills I’m still picking up speed. I only ever have a problem coming down steep or steps and even that is inconsistent. While I consider whether or not I should make an appointment with a doctor, or a physio and say “hey look my knee hurts sometimes but not always and sometimes never at all, what’s wrong with it?” my destination comes in to view. I’ve made good time, better even than I was expecting. The weather has been kind, no sign of the forecast thunderstorms or hail. At first I think I’m the first arrival but lying down in one of the windows a woman takes a nap. I have more time to appreciate the vastness of Waihohonu Hut . Having this much space changes the environment. Nobody is forced to sit on anyone else’s lap. There is room to move. A choice of whether to be social or not. There’s a novel feature. A hot tap. Heated by the solar panels or a wet back on the fire. Apparently, this is to save gas, but is also exceptionally handy for getting dishes actually clean for a change.
I blink stars into existence. Too early. When raspberry pink clouds appear it is time to get up. Some people have already left by the time I stumble out in to the communal area. Others are busy boiling water, rinsing dishes. Nobody is going my way. Outside first light creeps down the mountainside. The snow on Ruapehu glows pink. There’s no sign of Ngaruhuoe, still tucked away under a blanket of purple-grey clouds. Again I don’t find myself in a rush but I’m still leaving early, tying my laces at 8:30am. I have a half day’s walk to Rangipo Hut ahead of me. In the boot room I hear a couple of women talking. “Do you think the water will be ok to drink? What if I get diarrhoea?” I laugh. “Where are you planning on drinking from?” I ask. “From the springs.” she says. “I’ll be filling my water bottle up there, it’s probably cleaner than your tap water at home.” She looks reassured. I stop at the clean, cold water of the Ohinepango Springs, drinking deep from the mountain fresh water. Not long after I greet three walkers coming from the other direction. If they’ve come from Rangipo Hut they must have left early. They don’t pause to talk. There’s a chance they’re the last people I see for a few days. Objects shimmer in the morning light. Down below, perhaps a car park on the desert road. Up ahead, closer to the snow line there’s something else. Surely not the hut, it can’t be that close. Then I remember there’s a winter ski field up there somewhere.
I enter new terrain for the first time in a long time. A desert. A desert in name only. The Rangipo Desert, a barren landscape of ash and smashed pumice which still receives almost 30cm of rain a year. Patches of tussock and snow grass cling on where they can. The regular eruptions and dry winds make this an inhospitable place. Across the Rangipo Desert the pole markers ride up and over ridge lines. The trail visible for miles ahead. The only sound is of a plane flying across blue skies far above my head. There are a few clouds along the horizon, about as far away as I can see. I walk through dry creek beds and cross fast flowing streams. In the valley far below I watch white streaks slide up and down State Highway 1. Ruapehu appears largest when all I can see is the summit, still visible over the lava dunes. Wind races over the Tama Saddle, driving the vanguard of clouds. The fluffy white army slowly, steadily breaches the broken peaks of Ruapehu. While I stop to take a photo, I hear, then feel a massive explosion. The sound came from behind me. The mountain hasn’t moved. Then I remember the red cross hatching on the map. A military exclusion zone where guns can go off at any time. I’m relieved the mountain hasn’t gone off. I cross the road to the ski field, which I think makes me over halfway. Then I come across warning signs. The Wangaehu River valley is a known lahar path. A sudden surge of mud-laden water can roar through the valley at any time, destroying all within it’s path. Previous bridges have been wiped out. I’m lucky to find the current one still standing. Look up out of the disaster carved rocks I can’t help but feel this is perhaps the most beautiful view so far. Sulphur yellow patches of pumice sprinkled over the red and purple ash dust. I come past the signs advising I’m now out of the hazard area. I follow the white picket fence of trail markers. Then, tucked away among wind rounded boulders is the Rangipo Hut. Just in time for lunch.
Having spent a month being paid to swing a dangerous weapon above my head, I pick up the axe by the wood pile. I need to break kindling if I’m to have any chance of getting a fire going. The hut is already cold despite seeing the best of the morning sun. Chopping wood happens just like in the movies. Stand a block of pine up, swing the axe down, now you have two blocks of pine. I’m interested in catching the edges, shaving off thinner pieces. I break enough for me, and then for the next person coming through. I move inside and get the fire going. Rangipo Hut flinches in the wind. The wood pops and cracks. A floorboard dips and groans when I step on it. I sit my pan on top of the pioneer stove. Nobody else is here. The fire is on anyway. No point in letting that free energy go to waste. I boil water for a cup of tea. My pan seems mostly fine with this approach. With my nose in a book the afternoon disappears. Nobody arrives. I watch the sky shift from light to dark. The air outside becoming colder. I switch my bed out from one of the bunk rooms to the platform in the communal area, figuring to make he most of the fire’s warmth.
There’s blue sky out of the window. Over the opposing range there’s black. The neon glow of predawn light. By the time I get up the electric colours have faded to pastels. Clouds hang heavy to the south. I’m on the trail early. Ready to go, walking out into the sun, into the wind. The so called desert leaves me exposed. There is no escape. Things remain comfortable enough until I reach a deep valley. A drop down to the bridge. A grunt up the other side. Gales blasting down from Ruapehu slow my progress, sting my face. For now, the mountain remains in view. Clouds being to battle against one ridge. The desert ends in flashes of green. Shrubs first, then pockets of beech forest. The usual mix of arbitrary and strategic boardwalks begin to appear. The Mangaehuhu Hut must be close. The signs are often the same. Improvements in track quality, and then a toilet appears. At the front of the hut I meet Winston. He’s pulling his pack on making ready to leave. “Where have you come from?” he asks. The standard question. “Rangipo Hut, what about you?” “Blyth, heading your way.” I’m heading to Blyth. We exchange notes on the trail. Sounds like it’ll be easy in both directions. I look at the time. I’m nearly there. Winston has a way to go yet. He’ll be lucky to arrive before dark. “There’s another group of 6 women on their way, I think they’ll be staying here.” he says, before disappearing into the thinning trees. The boardwalks continue out in to the bush. The trees thicken, the soil holds more moisture, more nutrients. Streams are full, running clear, supposedly riddled with giardia, often full of toxic volcanic chemicals. Some of these streams are bridged, others I have to step over. I start moving down hill, sliding on roots, slipping on mud. All it takes is one of these, out of control. A serious fall. a poor landing. A broken anything. After another slide, I step off the trail. Women are headed up the hill. We pause to chat. The usual, where are you from? Immediate term, not originally. Where are you headed? They ask me if I’ve seen Winston, clearly concerned about his habit of leaving late and walking after dark. He seemed like he was doing alright to me. We pass on by. I hit the junction for Blyth Hut. The 35 minute to the hut sign is oddly specific, which normally means it’s correct. The track climbs again, through forest, into a stream bed. A final surge up a huge slip and I’ve arrived. Shoes outside, no smoke. Nobody home. Three bunks claimed. I take the other bunk room for myself and get the fire on. I’m sipping on my first cup of tea when three blokes with rifles turn up.
The first comes in and greets me with a hello. Then Shane comes in and introduces himself. “That’s Brad,” he says pointing to the other man in the hut, “and the one out there is Michael.” Father and sons, spending their first night together in a hut. They’re pleased to find I’ve already got fire going, settle in, and start to get warmed up. Shane steps out for a wash. I know this is a good idea but I’m coming to realise I’m a fair weather swimmer. A lie, I’ve always known I’m a fair weather swimmer. I’ve tried sometimes to go cold but I’m too soft. Shane comes back from his wash wearing what looks like camouflage silk pyjamas. For when you hunt in your sleep? I can’t help but join in with his sons in taking the piss. He’s carried in an inflatable pillow and a pillowcase. Then he starts complaining about how much his pack weighs. “I bet you’re an expert at this by now,” he tells me. Not even close, but I do seem to be better off at making do without. The boys are kind enough to share some port with me, which is an unusual choice for a hut tipple but I’m not complaining. I ask if they’ve got a weather forecast for the morning. “Snow,” Michael tells me. I laugh. “Maybe up there on the top,” I say confidently. “It isn’t going to snow down here.” I hear rain in the night, at least I hope it’s rain. When I wake up I peer out of the window. No white stuff on the ground. When Michael gets up, I gesture outside. “See, no snow.” He shrugs. “Maybe it’s coming later.” When I leave I’m glad to find the snow still isn’t falling.
I arrived at Whakapapaiti Hut as the sun wet down, which was not the plan. I was expecting to arrive early afternoon and have a relaxed evening. Instead I’m stressed there won’t be a bunk for me. I didn’t bother to pack my inflatable mattress. I’ll have to sleep on the floor. As I got closer I noticed no smoke. No shoes on the deck. I open the door. Nobody else is here. I have to bump my other tasks in order to get the fire on fast. With the sun gone, the cold creeps in quickly. Where did it all go wrong? Everywhere. I left Blyth Hut in the clouds, cold but at least it wasn’t wet. Spits of rain hit me as I drew close to the Ohakune Mountain Road. I stopped, swapping fleece for my (is it still?) waterproof. This was wise. The rain started to bounce, like hail. Oh, it is hail. Then it began to drift down slowly, like snow. Oh no. Of course I was still wearing my shorts. I marched on up the road into the snow. What little I could see of Ruapehu looked epic. White highlights in shadowed valleys. I turned off the road back into the wilderness. I came down the side of a vertical stream, the pole marker is way down in the valley. I get my route choice wrong. No mud. No tracks. I have to cross the stream. Narrow, slippery, near vertical. Worry kicks in. This could be it. When walking goes wrong. I make it down. I look back. Yes! I came down that. Mangaturuturu Hut is around the corner. Across another river. Too easy, which is easy to say once you’ve made it.
The sign says I’ve got another 7 hours to Whakapapaiti Hut. One of the trail apps on my phone says 3.5 hours. One of them has to be wrong. I’m usually faster than the Department of Conservation signs. I’d like to get a bit closer to the end today. I trust my phone. I go up and over ridge lines, down in to the stream valleys. Each time I breach the next summit I celebrate to myself. “Come on!” Each one is a little bit harder. Soon I’m thinking is this a path or a mudslide and why am I here? Hail and sleet come again. I pass two more mad people coming from the other direction. They’re nearly there. I’ve still got a long way to go. Those 3.5 hours have already passed. I go back up again. “No more,” I think, and go up again. Ngauruhoe appears over the next ridge. Must be getting close. One more climb is more like four before I see Whakapapaiti Hut down in the valley. The trail markers lead the other way. No, no, no. I ride the slide in the mud. My feet are wet. My fingers are numb. Gloves. I have gloves. I stop to put them on. Still the trail winds on. I watch the markers climb another hill. I can’t but also I can’t not. I have to keep moving. At last there’s a sign pointing down the valley, towards the hut. 30 more minutes. I am almost there. Almost done. Don’t rush, don’t run. I fall along the trail. I was trying to avoid days like this and I’m always trying to avoid cooking in the dark.
Snuggled in my sleeping bag I am warm. The hut is cold. Outside, even colder. An empty hut means I can slide out and get dressed. I thought about keeping the fire going all night but I don’t know how this one works. I needed to close something to keep the air out. The fire burns too efficiently. The pine blocks are turned to ash. I warm up with a coffee, undoing the effect when I pull on damp socks and wet boots. Today is a short day. Today I am walking out, which is good because I find my knee is struggling again. Rock hopping across the river doesn’t help. The cold isn’t helping either. Winter is coming. I need to get out of the mountains. Or buy thermals. Shorts over thermals is the New Zealand winter tramping look. Drizzle crashes down. Streams run next to the track, the track branches into streams. In, out, up, down. A boardwalk saves me for a while. Then there is the final ridge. The one I knew I couldn’t go over yesterday, and didn’t have to. I remember looking at the map last night. I don’t go over at all. I contour around. Yes! I dive in to the bush. The orange beech leaf trail lined by green. There are white and yellow fungi along the edge. No idea which taste good, which will make me see God, and which will cause immediate catastrophic organ failure. I leave them alone. The walk takes me longer than the sign indicated. A slower pace, enforced by pain. I find I actually don’t mind moving slower. There is no rush. I have nowhere I need to be. I finally pop out in a car park. Whakapapa Village. I unlocad my pack in to the van. I sit for a minute. I know where I’m going next. New Plymouth, to attempt to get around the other volcano. Mount Taranaki. The weather has already turned. I am going to get wet again. I am going to get cold. I need to be more prepared. I need to spend less time outside, more time in the sheltered, fire warm huts. No more big pushes. Have a plan and try sticking to it. Try staying hydrated. Try having regular snack breaks. Try not fucking up your knee anymore.