I wake up in a bed bigger than my van. I open the curtains to find the city of Wellington has disappeared. The harbour obliterated by cloud. The nearest hills invisible. Kaka squawks and tui whistles are interrupted by sirens. The city is still out there. During the morning dog walk, Iain and Charlotte talk about whether they think their potential new cleaner will turn up. “There’s a 50/50 chance,” Ian reckons. “she will or she won’t.” “Do you fancy a job Chris? $25 an hour. 4 hours a week.” “I’m sorry but my rate is $35.” “Never mind then.” When the new cleaner doesn’t show, Iain grabs the vacuum and volunteers me for mopping the floors. When was the last time I saw a mop? It’s definitely been a while. Longer even since I used one. The rate here is better than I ever got at home. I’m pretty sure the kitchen floor was a 20p job. About an hour later, in my mind I’m $35 closer to paying off my things I’ve broken debt. Iain settles in with the puzzle pages of the daily paper. He tries to draw me in for help with the cryptic crossword. “They’re nonsense, you can keep it.” I tell him. He explains how some of the clues work as he fills in a few words. With a handful of letters I’m able to start unpicking some of the clues. “Brilliant, awesome, marvellous. How did you get that?” Iain asks. “Well it’s obvious isn’t it?” You either see it or you don’t.” I’m hooked.
The lockdown in Auckland shows no signs of lifting. Worse even, cases are found in towns across the new regional border in the Waikato. The infected areas are merged with Auckland. Restrictions are spreading. My plan was to be in Auckland by now. Two weeks from now I wanted to be putting my first boot prints on the sands of 90 Mile Beach. I’ve waited and I’ve delayed. I’m not confident I’m going to be starting at all. Iain listens to me spill my anxious beans and begins to put forward an alternative. “You don’t have to start at the South Island, you can start anywhere South of the Waikato.” Where am I willing to miss? I’ve already done the mudfest of Mount Pirongia. I’ve made the Tongariro Crossing twice. What did I come here planning to do? There’s still one Great Walk. Iain and I had already talked about doing the Whanganui River Journey together, so why not start there? Get the potential for a logistical nightmare out of the way. He can bus home, I can keep on walking. “Come here a couple of weeks before, sell the van and we’ll get in the boat.” It’s a Plan B, but when do I commit? Now is as good a time as ever. Best case scenario, I walk all the way to Bluff. Better, I return to National Park and walk the remaining trail Northbound to Cape Reinga. “Let’s do it.”
I’ve got three weeks until I need to return to Wellington to sell the van. Before then the next thing on the plan is to walk the Mt Holdsworth-Jumbo Circuit. Iain agreed to come along to start getting his legs in shape for the start of tramping season. I’ve watched the weather forecast for days, waiting for a break in the rain. The best we might be able to hope for is a break in the wind. We settle on mid-week. There’s going to be wind, there’s going to be rain but it won’t be life threatening. At least that’s what the weatherman says anyway. I’ve already put off attempting the circuit three times. It’s now or never. We hit the road, heading around the next corner of the Tararua Range. The drive takes us over Remutaka Hill, a road that reminds me it isn’t driving I dislike so much but more parking. Blue skies await in the Wairarapa but cotton wool clouds still hang over the mountains.
We stop in Greytown for a coffee and a snack. Iain picks up a copy of the paper so we can attempt the cryptic crossword when we reach Powell Hut. From the car park at the Holdsworth Road end we begin on a gravel path with carries us a little deeper before the climb begins. The signposts for the circuit shift in times and space. We gain a kilometre, we lose an hour. Is it even worth paying attention? There’s a booked space in the hut at the end. We’ll get there when we get there. We haven’t gone far before Iain is puffing, sweating, regretting having taken the whole winter off. I step aside and let him set the pace. Going outside some time requires a bit of a push but it is always worth it. The Rocky Lookout is home to a small crowd, the most people I’ve seen in the hills for weeks. The green outer walls of the Tararuas touch the low sky. The Gentle Annie track is well named; a steady climb to another track junction. “Let’s take a break here,” I suggest. I’m trying this new thing. Stopping every 90 minutes to snack and drink and rest. This way I’ll actually eat my snacks and not have to carry them. Iain ponders the other trail leading to the Waiohine River. He’s thinking about his own next outing. You only need to spend a few minutes looking at a map of the Tararuas to realise there’s a huge network of tracks linking huts and any number of adventures are possible. Time to carry on. We follow the ridge to the Mountain House shelter where a family our enjoying a picnic. One of the children shouts out “We’re going to Powell Hut!” “So are we!” I say, “We’ll see you there.” From here the track launches upwards. Staircases of three and four steps make short work of the altitude. The forest disappears into wraith-grey clouds. Up we go until we break free of the trees and into an ocean of cloud. “I think it’s time for another break,” Iain suggests. “I reckon we’re only about 300 meters from the hut,” I tell him. I don’t tell him those 300 meters are straight up so we push on. The swirling sky breaks apart to reveal views down valleys and, eventually, across the Wairarapa. We’ve already seen far more than I was expecting. I point beyond Iain. “There it is!” The red ridge of a roof. Powell Hut is palatial with multiple bunk rooms, gas stoves and solar lighting. For now, we have it to ourselves. We make our beds in the smallest bunk room, increasing our chances of a peaceful night’s sleep. I set out to investigate the wood shed. There’s some, but not much firewood. Iain sets about breaking it down so we’ve got enough to warm the spacious living area.
A good night’s sleep in a hut is a rare and lucky thing. The small crowd spread across the four bunk rooms and Iain and I were able to have a room of our own. I suspect Iain would have a preferred a room to himself now that I am becoming a more than competent snorer. With the quality and depth of sleep that I had I expected to have done a lot of talking but he confirms it was mostly guttural breathing. I put water on for coffee. Kit is folded down, packed away. I look at my waterproofs. I look at the mass of weather. Yes? No? Yes. No. Jacket but not trousers. Iain is more sensible and wraps up entirely. Five minutes after we’ve left the hut I have to stop. I haven’t put the rain cover on my pack. “I’ve always thought of those as bad marketing,” Iain tells me. “Nothing says this pack isn’t waterproof like providing a rain cover.” I think any extra layer of protection is worth having, especially as I know my pack isn’t waterproof. I load up again and we head into the mouth of the beast. Rain falls in scattered showers. The howling wind drives shards of rain across my face. The weather was never going to be perfect. I was sort of hoping for less than favourable conditions. Iain leads the way up to the summit of Mount Holdsworth. The trig point a shadow in the clouds. Already my shorts are soaked through. My phone in my pocket as wet as a river pebble. Those waterproof trousers would have made all the difference. We take a quick photo at the summit and press on. The wind comes snapping across the exposed track, tearing at the peak of my cap, yanking on the rain cover over my pack. I end up holding my hat with one hand, and my cover with the other which I eventually decide isn’t ideal. I tighten my cap, pull my hood closer over my head. I tuck the rain cover away. With the wind pulling it free, the rain has already made a strong attack on the fabric. I’m now relying on the pack liner and dry bags to maintain a defence.
The way ahead is marked by poles. Visibility shifts in seconds. The views still remain better than I had hoped for, especially after I tuck my waterlogged glasses off and tuck them in to my pond filled pocket. The menace of the mountains is clear, even here on the outer ridge. Swirling winds. Steep drops into deep valleys of folded greys and greens. Jagged black peaks lined with yellow tussock. Then everything disappears in a wash cycle of white, only the mud and puddle of the next few steps remains. Beyond the reach of the trees the only shelter are the mountains themselves. If the track tucks in out of the wind, we get a moment of peace. We cross the bump between the tops of Holdsworth and Jumbo. The track leads up again, higher into the weather swirling around Mount Jumbo. We turn away from the tops, back towards the Atiwhakatu valley. The sign points towards Jumbo Hut and down there on the bush line, the small white box is clearly visible. A short day, but a good one in weather conditions more life affirming than threatening. The imminent hut brings thoughts of dry clothes, but of course, no firewood. Iain manages to scrape enough together from the bush edge. Jumbo Hut is more like the huts I’ve become accustomed to in my few nights on other hillsides. Small, cold, and damp. Interestingly, as in worryingly, the hut is tied down to the ground with a series of what appears to be brand new steel cables. Views of the whale back hills roll out to the farmed plains. Magnificent equally when the whole world disappears entirely. I shut the door on the outside. Iain slowly gets the hut warmed up and we while away the afternoon with cards, the remains of the crossword. I badger Iain with poorly formed philosophies and challenging views on how to solve the world’s problems. Our wet gear spread across half the hut. As the day draws on, it seems as though tonight we will have the place to ourselves. Unfortunately for Iain there’s only one room, so he’ll have to put up with all my noise once more.
Without curtains, I find the natural light is never a rude awakening. The clouds of breath forming in front of my face make getting up less inviting. Iain moves first. Ok, fine I’ll get up. We potter about. Tidying up Jumbo Hut a little. The sky begins to clear as we take our leave. The tussock gives way to the stunted beeches and their jackets of moss. Rain Gauge Spur is a steep drop from the edge of the open tops to Atiwhakatu Hut on the banks of the stream. The moss gives way to ferns. Trunks of different bark mark the changing climate on the valley’s edge. Iain and I tread gently. Long drops between tree roots and rain wet rocks. The descent takes us an hour, aligning us with the sign at the top. Our noses, and everything else, has a look around Atiwhakatu Hut. We flip a handful of mattresses the last occupants forgot about then walk out. The Atiwhakatu Track is one of the most well formed tracks I’ve stepped foot on in some times. Wide enough for us to walk side by side. Our talk flows through subjects of vaccines, trail maintenance and the St. James Walkway, and my fears about abandoning Plan A in favour of Plan B. Plan B is the same as Plan A really, it just happens to happen in a slightly different order. Everything remains on the table of possibilities. The transition is going to hurt, and then as I become used to my new way of living it too will end. Then I change again, a long flight home to another series of unknowns. What next? The anticipation is beginning to weigh more than my pack. Doing a big walk I can manage. There’s a finish line. At some defined point, it ends. The rest of my life, what comes after, is a little harder. I don’t know what I want to do. For now at least, I can park the future. I still have three weeks of exploring disguised as training to go. A period of hope. Hope the whole thing doesn’t get shut down. There are still a few more places I’d like to see before I’m restricted to where my feet can take me. We’re back at the car park. I give Iain a hug. Only now realising how much I needed some time with a good mate. Even if we did sit in a damp , glorified shed in silence together for a few hours. He drives off, to be seen again in only a matter of weeks. I figure out what to do to get me through the next few days. Manageable time scales. Manageable problems, like food, somewhere to sleep, some hot water from a shower. At the end, I gave Iain my word. I’d have the Whanganui River Journey planned by the end of the weekend. Now I’ve got to get it done.