My van life adventure began in the Hutt Valley, at Kaitoke Regional Park. Dark and cold in the late afternoon. I find myself not far away with overnight temperatures threatening to touch zero. I foolishly assumed I had wiped the last of the condensation from above my bed. I check myself into Wellington’s Kiwi Holiday Park. I need to do laundry. I’d like a hot shower. The weather for the next two days is predicted to be not total shit for this part of the country, at this time of year. I have to make the most of it by putting my pack on and heading out for another hiking adventure. The trailhead is nearby. I don’t have to rush but it would be nice to start getting back into the habit of setting off early. Naturally I waste the afternoon not getting myself organised.
I wake up at 5am. No. I roll over. When I wake up again it’s 8am. Oh no. I signed myself off yesterday afternoon with all the good intentions of getting everything done this morning. I’d even put myself up for a cooked breakfast. I have an all too brief shower and get out of there at precisely 10am. I know packing my bag won’t take long, I can do it in the car park. When I get to the car park old mate Iain gives me a call to start putting the final plan together for another little adventure we’ve started planning for next week. “Tomorrow Iain,” I tell him, “let’s sort it tomorrow.” 11am. Finally moving. I hope the 7-9 hour estimate for the walk up to Alpha Hut is on the high side.
The journey starts pleasantly enough along the well marked track through the zip lines and forest high wires of the nearby outdoor education centre. I feel like I’m moving well, everything is comfortable which is good because this is going to be my biggest day on my feet since Lake Waikaremoana. The native bush gives way to thickets of gorse. The small yellow flowers flavouring the air with coconut and butter. The heat from the middle of the day sun is starting to warm on my arms. I’d only put sunscreen on my nose and ears, anticipating a day of sheltered walking beneath the canopy of trees. The convenient layers of gravel disappear. The sun dried polished clay does not get along with the plastic soles of my boots. I enjoy several near misses, skating along the smooth surface. The trees return, bringing with them better mud and an inescapable feeling of calm. I wonder if I’ll ever get over this. After 18 months of New Zealand’s native forest I still greet it with joy. The golden shafts of light penetrate the the high ceiling, the leaves of green light up like stained glass. This is my church. Walking is my prayer.
A dead log becomes my picnic bench for lunch. The view down the Hutt Valley is staggering. I can see the harbour, Wellington perched on its hills, and across the Cook Straight; the snow capped giants of the Kaikoura Ranges. What a day! I set off once more and find myself spending a lifetime in the kingdom of moss. The goblin forest can take me when I’m done. I squelch through mud, stealing glances at the salt shake of snow on the main range of the Tararuas. I won’t get up there today, I left it too late. The Marchant Ridge feels longer than it is. The track wobbles across the crest, from one summit to the next. The final ascent is named Omega. At the top there’s no trig, no cairn. A signpost tells me I’ve still got an hour to go. That 7-9 is beginning to look like an accurate estimate. I look across to the cloud free peaks. I have seen the mountain tops of the Tararuas. Almost up close. From here I can see where my path takes me. The height I’d gained getting up to Omega is given up to a saddle called Hell’s Gate, which really isn’t all that bad. Coming up the other side is less enjoyable. Patches of snow linger on the ground. The wind finally begins to take notice of me. I go over one final, unnamed bump and then begin moving up the side of Alpha. Alpha Hut appears as a single wall, growing into a relatively new (built in the 80s), fully sealed wooden hut. I open the door to find I have the place to myself. I also find that the hut has managed to cling on to some of the heat of the day. I exhale and can’t see my breath. There’s even some firewood! Not that I’m going to have much time to enjoy a fire. Last light can’t be far away and I’ve still got to have dinner.
I’m getting used to having a hut to myself. I unroll my sleeping system. I spread other belongings across the empty bunk next to me. At the one table I spread my dinner, breakfast and lunch packs across three sides. I strip down in the middle of the room beforeI fill the drying rack with my sweat damp hiking clothes. The wind speed rises through the night. The hut whistles in response. I wake to find I’ve either been swallowed by the clouds or I’m swimming in rain. The views I had yesterday have disappeared entirely. I feel fortunate enough to have even seen the peaks. I spend a little, but not enough time looking at the network of trails linking hut to hut, peak to peak and decide to adjust my plans accordingly. Below the Marchant Ridge Track, there are tracks on either side of the Tauherenikau River. Following a river is easy enough. I’ll be out of the wind. The terrain should be easier, so I might even get back to the van faster. All of which sounds reasonable, logical and definitely isn’t. I have travelled along enough rivers in New Zealand to know better than to picture broad flats and easy trails. The drop down Block XVI Track is simple enough. Orange arrows, enough foot traffic prior to me to keep a cut track. The track ends in the river.
The sign post propped up against the tree should have been a warning. I don’t pay enough attention. The river side track must start near here. Unless of course it’s gone into the river. At least I’ve got a major landmark. So long as I’m following the river South-West-ish I’ll be fine. Sometimes I find the track sometimes I don’t. I’m bush bashing, and I don’t want to be. I find an orange triangle and follow it into another mess of life. I find another and follow a trail into a stream. I lose my way entirely. I’m following the stream I hit the river, there’s no way around. Maybe I was supposed to go up? I find half a track and follow it. Nope. I drop down the other side. This is stupid. There’s a tent pitched on the other bank. Fuck it. I’ll cross the river. Maybe the track on that side will be better? Half way across I remember my phone is in my pocket. I take it out to put it where? In my hands. The first place that’s going in the river if I fall. I put it back in my pocket. The next step takes me waist deep. The next takes me out and on to the bank. My phone is wet, obviously. But it seems fine. And the track is better on this side.
I pass a couple of men on their way in. “Have you been this way?” one asks. “Nope.” “There’s a bit of a climb here up over a slip, nothing major but take care.” Following the obvious marked detour on to a trail wide enough for both of my feet well away from the slip I wonder what the fuss was about. Only because I’ve been on the other side and I know how much worse it can be. A couple of fishermen sneak up behind me. The crackle of twig and leave gives them away. I step aside to let them pass. Other people are about. More and more heading in. I’d got used to having places to myself. Down here in the valley it feels like summer. Blue skies cruise over heard. The forest bathes in warmth. I think it might also be the weekend. I eventually reach the Smith Creek Shelter. I’m still over an hour away from the van, closing in on yesterday’s total walking time. I might have been better off coming out the way I’d gone in. Over the tops. There’s one last climb over Puffer Saddle. Down below civilisation appears in the form of farms and roads. Nestled behind those nearest trees is my little white box. I finally arrive back. The car park now full. Others have parked outside the gate, along the grass next to the road. I give Iain a call. He doesn’t answer.
The exit from the Tararuas leads me towards Wellington. It wasn’t supposed to. I was going to head over Remutaka Hill to continue exploring this new found playground. Iain’s initial call gave me a moment to pause. Paying a visit to the Kerr residence before crossing in to the Wairarapa makes more sense. I push through the capital traffic into the Karori hills. I’ve enjoyed my solitude but I’m starting to find I need more time with friends. Something a little difficult to do when most of them are half the world away. Invisible cracks are forming. Distance seems to grow. Growing doubt is swept away when I knock on the door. The wet black noses of Mopty and Nara give me a wet welcome. Iain’s friendly embrace is closer to warm. A night becomes a few days as we plot our next excursion.
I try to help out after dinner by loading the dishwasher. I pour the powder into the dispenser. At first I assumed it was a thick liquid slow to pour, Iain told me it definitely is a powder and I end up with too much in the dispenser. I attempt to close it anyway. No joy. Iain hands me a knife to scrape away the excess under the hinge. I still can’t close the lid. Ian had a go, he can’t do it either. The tiniest of plastic locks has snapped. Almost certainly when I tried to close the lid. Not embarrassed at all. In the evening I head in to the shower. I turn on the tap and step under the water and the shower head falls apart over my head. Now I’m just waiting to see what my third break is. I might have been better off staying away after all.