Four months is the longest I’ve spent anywhere, with anyone, since I arrived in New Zealand. My planting crew mates supported me in the beginning, pushed me through the middle and watched me coast through to the finish. Now I have left them. They are gone. Napier isn’t on the map of my future. I can’t imagine ever going back. We all shake hands with messages of good luck and have fun, be safe and take care. My final nights at Westshore Holiday Park are on the house. A small token of appreciation. The owners wish me luck. The permanent residents tell me to take care. I spend my last day of relative comfort taking everything out of the van so I can put it all back again. I already know I will miss the luxury of a shower every day, access to electricity, the convenience of a kitchen. I realise too I will miss the ease of routine. Come the morning I’ll be on the road again, heading directly to the nearest trail head. Time to find out how tree planting has impacted my hill fitness.
In the process of going to and from all of the stupid shops in Napier trying to buy essentials to once more survive in the van, I lost a trainer. Out of the side door, as has happened a few times before. Only, when it happened before I’d only stopped once. There was only one place my shoe could be. Now, I have no idea. No memory of anything slipping. I want to get going rather than retrace all my steps. I tell myself “I needed a new pair,” and then, “I’ll be leaving them behind somewhere soon anyway.” As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, I couldn’t get gas for the van stove either. I’ll figure that out later. So I go, beyond the reaches of town to where the traffic disappears. The road narrows, twisting and climbing out of the vineyards and orchards into dairy country. I pass fields of cows towards still higher hills where the cows give way to sheep. On a clear day the Ruahine Range is visible from Westshore. A black smudge on the horizon, lately iced with streaks of white. Now I’m heading straight for them. The snow lined summits disappearing into the clouds. A menacing wall of rock where winter still lingers. I open and close the gates across pastures. I admire the pristine white coats of new spring lambs as they dart away to the haggard yellow of mum. There are three other cars already in the carpark when I arrive. A chance for company. Other pulls in while I’m still faffing. Too long out of the game. It doesn’t take me more than a minute to realise I’ve forgotten something essential; toilet paper. Less than ideal. I will have to hope I get lucky.
Finally ready to start moving, I tinker with my newest toy. A Garmin inReach Mini. Unsatisfied with how long it will take to complete setting up my Covid-19 vaccine GPS, I went out and purchased a literal tracking device. As if carrying a mobile phone at all times wasn’t bad enough. First I have to learn how to use it. I have come to Sunrise Track with this in mind. A family friendly climb up to the bush line. Also, it’s been about 5 months since I last put my pack on. A sustained 5km ascent seems like a sensible way to reintroduce myself to the backcountry. I set off, through a few more lamb filled fields towards the edge of the old growth of native forest. Two fat green Keruru burst from the bush line as I tag in. I run my hand through low hanging Rimu needles, run my fingers across hammer dent tree bark. My mind knows it is good to be back. My body feels less certain. What is this weight? What is this uphill? Be thankful today will be over shortly. The track is firm, zig-zagging up the ridge face. I pass a handful of day trippers coming down, wrapped up in all their layers. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt. “I’m starting to feel like I’m under dressed,” I tell them. “Just wait until you get out of the trees,” they reply. Not long after I break into the stunted beech, then the open ground. The first sight of Sunrise Hut, as always, is the toilet, and then the roof. I have arrived. At last.
The couple who left the carpark before me are already here, layered up. “That wind hits you when you get up here doesn’t it?” he asks me. “It sure does,” I say, eyes wandering around the hut. An easy walk to spectacular views across Hawkes Bay makes this one of the most popular huts in the Ruahines. Sunrise Hut is suitably equipped and well looked after. I snag a bunk out the back and begin to spread out. Unloaded and with extra layers on, I head back outside to have a look around. Tussock grasses flex in the gusts. Clouds race across the sky. The dark green of forest below gives way to lighter shades of grass. The farmland seems to roll all the way to the sky. Somewhere between the two should be the a glint of Pacific Ocean. I follow the track around the back of the hut and on to the exposed ridge. The wind snatches at my feet, trying to push me back. I steady myself and take it all in. My initial impression of the basin behind Sunrise Hut is awe. This is the North Island. Things aren’t meant to be this epic up here. What comes next is terror, when I realise my plan is to follow the knife edge ridge to Armstrong Saddle, then up over Te Atuaoparapara. “I’ve done worse before,” I tell myself, as if this will help. Robert Ridge with Lylie last year was probably a mistake. I still remember sliding on the ice, falling with the rocks wondering what exactly it was we thought we were doing up there. That day we got lucky. Maybe things will look different in the morning. Once I’ve had a sleep, once I’m kitted up, once I’m out there doing it, it’ll be ok.
Dry pine log roar in the wood burner. The hut now well above room temperature. After a simple dinner of tuna and noodles I sit in the main window with my Kindle, reading and watching the light fade over the bay. Night falls. The streetlights of somewhere, Hastings maybe, are the only definition in the dark. The handful of other guests slowly retire. I try to hold out a little longer. I don’t last. I crawl in to my sleeping bag. The wind doesn’t so much whistle through the chimney but scream. In the night I dream of planting trees. It is over, but when will it really end? The wind stays up all night, gently tugging at the edges of the hut. After a fitful night I find myself awake. Sunrise is soon. I pull on my clothes and head on to the small plateau in front of the hut. The orange glow of dawn spreads across the horizon. The sky turns pink as the sun slowly emerges from behind a distant hill. I decide to take another look behind the hut. On the small ridge, the wind is even more aggressive than yesterday. I lose my footing and slide backwards in the gust. The 1600 meter plus summits and buried deep in the clouds. Feeling neither brave or stupid, I decide to take the easy way down.
Over breakfast I chat with the other guests. Some are like me, working holidayers, out to avoid the weekend crowds. The first couple I met are natives from further North. They’re here because their flight down South was cancelled because of the Delta variant spread. This is a substitute holiday. Nobody has any good tips for nearby trips for me. We trickle out, heading back down the way we came. At the junction for Waiapawa Forks Hut the track narrows, tree fall increases. Staggering and stumbling along I find my confidence is low. Taking the easy way out I conclude was the best decision I could have made. I reach the river bed, the water coursing low and fast. I didn’t check which side of the river the hut is on. I follow the sign, which suggests 200m downstream. I cross once, I cross twice, I cross a third time before it’s time to make certain. Still on the wrong side. My feet are wet enough by the time I finish the short burst up the opposite bank to Waipawa Forks Hut. The black and white strobe of a tomtit lights up the small lawn. The clock shows 10am. I consider walking all the way out. There’s no rush.
I slide open the deadbolt on the outside of the door. I’m still not sure what these are for other than to inspire the fear that someone else might come along and lock you in. Inside on the table there’s enough trash to suggest someone is living here. Empty bottles, gas canisters, and a handful of napkins which I quickly stash in my own pocket. One problem solved. Beneath the table are a couple of pairs of work boots. I have a look in both bunk rooms. Nobody here. In the hut book, it doesn’t read as though anyone has been here in the last 10 days. I take my new napkins down to the long drop toilet and find a little bit of relief. I hang my socks out in the sun. I sit on the concrete step out front of the hut and listen to the orchestral outdoors. The steady rumble of the Waipawa River, the wind breaking through the canopy, the squeak of a fantail dancing through nearby branches. Combined the sounds begin to mimic human voices. Can I hear the pitter patter of tiny pink feet on wood or is it just a bubbling in my guts? The old huts have a life of their own. The wood stretching in the warmth of the sun. The entire structure flexing gently in the wind. Or is it footsteps? Is that the sound of a door opening? I suspect tonight I will be alone. At first the isolation is unsettling. I haven’t been truly alone in a long time.
In Waipawa Forks Hut I have time to read, to write, to think. Time has disappeared. Four months have gone by. I’ve registered my intentions to walk Te Araroa. I’ve made a donation to the cause. Auckland remains in lockdown. The plan I had in mind is pushed back and back. A quiet despair settles, steadily rising to screaming anxiety. Not just can I go? But also, if I do go, can I make it? For every time I say yes, I find myself thinking of 112 reasons why I might not. Not prepared. Not fit. Not confident. No good. Four months have gone. The last time I was out with my pack I got injured. I worry about a repeat. Another end to it all. Not even that long ago I dreamed it was possible. I carried my full pack weight over the Travers Saddle. I dumped out 30km days. I was flying after a summer on the trail. Can I get back to that in a month? With high winds and heavy rain always in the forecast I suspect not. With the best routes in the North Island being point to point, or already ticked off, I suspect not. I wonder if I’m looking for an excuse. Of course it would be easier not to go. The silent wish is the outbreak of Covid-19 spreads, a lengthy lockdown ensues. I go home, I say “oh well, it wasn’t to be,” and forget about the whole thing. Maybe I can’t get to Cape Reinga. I might not be able to return to Auckland to sell the van. If the lockdown stays and the city remains closed to me, there are still things I can do. I can still complete the Whanganui River Journey. I can tramp a Southern Crossing of the Tararuas. I could find someone to buy the van in Wellington. I can walk the length of the South Island. Or maybe I could keep the van, I can go back to the Kahurangi. I can walk the Old Ghost Road. I can revisit the West Coast with more time. I can pause in Arthur’s Pass. There are no rules. There is no way things have to be. They will be what they are. I get the fire on. I sip on my beer and I wonder if I still have anything downloaded on Netflix to slip through the early evening with other than my thoughts.
The scratching of tiny feet at the door wakes me. A possum or a rat is still better than the get up for work alarm I’ve become accustomed to. Even if it is still too early, too dark. I find my headlamp, get dressed and open the door. No sign of the attempting visitor. I go through the familiar morning checklist. Coffee, porridge, tea. I load my pack and sweep the floor. Being finished so early yesterday has allowed my socks to dry. Pulling on boots that are cold with damp, rather than wet with river. A pleasure that won’t last long. I could retrace my steps, back to Sunrise Track and down to the carpark. The other, more entertaining option is to follow the Waipawa River to the edge of the bush. The meandering stream knocks into steep cliffs on corners, closing off the route. The thing to do is cross the fast, blue water. The plastic soles on my boots are no help on the wet boulders. Instead I plunge knee deep, aiming for the more supportive gravel. In one deep corner a rock flashes, then moves upstream. My best, uneducated guess is out loud. “Oh a fish!” A trout, maybe? I braid a path through the river and along both banks. This time I remembered to check, the exit is on the true left. Looking downstream. The track on the right tells me I’m close. I have something easier to walk along now too. I make the final crossing over a concrete bridge and take the track all the way back to the carpark. Back at the van before 9am. My big reward is the roll of toilet paper someone has left in the long drop. Now I’m faced with new old hurdles. What to do with the rest of the day? And where to sleep tonight? A quick scan of comments on Campermate tells me the showers in Dannevirke are worth the trip. I buy some toilet paper of my own before rolling along the highway. I watch the ghosts of clouds fall as rain over the Ruahines. I check in to a new holiday park for the first time in too long and let the high pressure hot water give me a new set of skin.