A day off quickly becomes two, might as well become three. The big task for this week is to get my second vaccine, which I can’t do until the vaccination centres reopen after another public holiday. I settled in at Dannevirke Campground, busier than last time I was here but still closer to empty than it is to full. I end up spending a fair amount of time chatting with an old boy on a self described spiritual journey. He left Dannevirke 43 years ago, after a strange dream involving his mother’s grave he’s finally come home. How long he plans to stay, what he plans to do he doesn’t know. His door is open to opportunity. We talk about football for a while. “At this insurance conference, I picked up this beautiful white t-shirt,” he told me. “Only when one of my mates told me to take that crap off, did I learn it was a Tottenham Hotspur shirt.” I do not do enough of my jobs, but why should I? It’s supposed to be time off. I go no further than the supermarket to get something for dinner. The following morning I drive back to Masterton to receive my second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Like the first one, the appointment time appears to be completely arbitrary. After an hour of musical chairs I’m warned of the possible side affects, told to take it easy and given my second jab by a man who grew up in Basingstoke. Is my home town the centre of the known universe? Am I actually the main character after all?
The weather forecast looks suspicious. I make plans to walk most of the Holdsworth-Kaitoke Track and stay off the tops. This also counts in my book as taking it easy. I resupply. I find dehydrated peas in the Masterton New World. The first time in months I’ve seen them. I even manage to pick up a packet of olives. I really should have accepted the truth by now. Pak N Save might be the cheapest supermarket but if you want the good stuff, you go to New World. This logic seemingly applies only if a town has both. I pack most of my bag before I’m interrupted by the local fascist Vaughn Tonker, who I stop taking seriously when he tells me you can’t buy bacon is British supermarkets and London has no go zones under Sharia Law. I confuse him when I politely inform him that bacon is readily available in most British supermarkets and you can go anywhere you like in London. I make the suggestion that he contacts his so called lieutenants in London. I had hoped he would catch on to the idea that I wasn’t particularly interested in his right-wing rheoric but he doesn’t go away. I change the subject and get him talking about the Tararuas. Like Derrick, he used to be in there all the time hunting deer, he even worked on putting up a ladder in the main range. What happened to him to encourage such deranged world views? One of the last things he says to me is “an Arab stole my wife.” I have no way of knowing if that’s even close to true but if it is it might explain a thing or two. I feel pity more than anything and relief that he doesn’t come back to show me proof that bacon has been removed from the shelves.
I mark the last ever night sleep in my van with restless sleep. Is it because it’s my final night and I’m sentimental? More likely it’s the handful of mosquitoes incessantly buzzing around my ears. Being in a municipal car park doesn’t help. The occasional roar of engine, flash of lights. The neo-nazi staying over the road doesn’t aid in my levels of comfort. I get up groggy, have breakfast, enjoy a coffee. I wash my dishes one last time with the hand pump tap over the plastic sink. The movements are automatic. I’ve done this hundreds of times before. I throw my pack on the bed, haul myself in to the driver’s seat and make my way to Holdsworth for one more turn. Unlike my last two visits it is neither the school holidays, nor a weekend. The carpark is dead. I made a decision this morning not to buy more gas. A shake of the three canisters rolling around in the back suggests I’ve got enough to get by. I might not be able to enjoy quite as many cups of tea as I would normally but I am also running out of teabags. Everything is coming to an end. I pull the weight of my pack on and set off towards the Gentle Annie track. This is all familiar to me now, being my fifth time on this particularly well maintained track. As I turn up hill, it drops to the second time but that’s still enough to remember. I heat up fast on the climb but I also make good time. I pause at the Rocky Lookout. The red roof of Powell Hut visible on the edge of Holdsworth. The summit is missing. Another 300 meters of whipped grey clouds has settled across the tops. I carry on to the benches that mark the junction for the track that leads to Totara Flats Hut. Two and a half hours away. I’m going to arrive too early. I’m already having regrets about skipping on the gas. Despite another poor forecast I can see the jagged edge of the main range. How long it will last I don’t know. The track goes down hill almost all the way to Totara Creek. I wonder if I’ve finally become accustomed to the beech forest. The trees are starting to look more or less the same. Moments later I’ve got my phone in my hands taking too many photos because it’s so green and beautiful. The bush smells sweet. Pleasant until I realise what it means. Spring in full swing. Pollen floats on the wind. There’s something out here I don’t like. The openings in my nose close. Must remember to put antihistamines in the first aid kit. Things get more intense as I move closer towards the creek. Knots of twisted black supple jack vines, occasional Nikau palms. The forest becomes more like a jungle. I follow the creek until I hit the wide Waiohine River. The swing bridge is brand new, built earlier this year. The open valley is exposed to the racing wind. I make my way across and emerge at Totara Flats Hut.
Modern, spacious with socks strewn across the deck. I assumed that meant people were here but I have the place to myself. Inside I find another two thirds of an outfit, a scattering of empty wine bottles and a packet of chicken noodle soup. I will help with one of those things. Half the windows are wide open, nobody has flipped their mattresses, the floor could do with a sweep, and there’s not much firewood. Totara Flats Hut is too close to civilisation, too easy to get to. Somehow this excuses people from doing the basics. I decide I’ll stay here anyway. I was feeling fairly nauseous on the way in. I put it down to side affects of the vaccine and commit to taking it easy for the rest of the day. My plan is to do two-thirds of the Holdsworth-Kaitoke track. Cross Cone Saddle, pitch up at Tutwai Hut tomorrow night and then come back here the night after on my way out. Already I can hear a voice telling me I’ve not pushed myself hard enough in these last few weeks. I ignore it. I potter about the hut, put the mattresses up on their sides, pile the trash in the corner. I’ve come in dry and it’s warm enough. I don’t need to light the fire. A nearby tui, and I’m sure it’s only one, belts out the occasional Zelda dungeon jingle. I take a closer look at the river. Too fast. Too wide. Too many mentions of eels coming up for a nibble in the intentions book. If I’m not lighting the fire, I won’t be able to dry my pants. I also choose to ignore the fact there’s nobody around and I could quite easily go in without. This has to end soon. This time last year I already had one sea swim and one river swim in me. This has to end soon. I’m missing out on a marginally better experience because I don’t want to be cold for five minutes. I look for another excuse and come up with swimming alone in a Tararua river is dangerous, which is just enough for me to settle. I get comfortable with so much of the day left. I flick through a couple of dated copies of Wilderness Magazine. I think I’ll take my chance on a cup of tea. Every cup of tea is a gamble. Betting the next hot meal on having enough gas. Again, I get away with it. I get my cuppa and the same canister does dinner. Might even do breakfast. All I really need in the morning is enough hot water for a coffee. Oats can be enjoyed cold I’m sure. I look ahead to the next section. I see myself arriving at Tutuwai Hut too early again. The weather is supposed to decline so at least I’ll have another job to do; dry out wet gear. I feel mentally ready for bigger days. My body might feel otherwise. Someone has left the crosswords from old newspapers. I sit and stare at the cryptic clues and get nothing. I need to Iain’s help to get me started. I look to the concise clues and find today I’m no better off.
I have yet another restless night. I really should have gone in the river. At least then I’d know for sure if being unclean is the problem. After half an hour the voice saying I want more sleep yields to the voice saying I have to get up. A 5 hour day sounds like a cruise, especially considering I’ve got almost 15km to do. I’d gotten used to moving one kilometre an hour along Tararua waterways. Today might involve moving at speed. The so called Totara Flats are surprisingly flat. The green expanse of grass seems more suited to a town park than a mountain valley. A pair of shelducks are mightily displeased by my presence. They circle me. A pair of spur-winged plover take flight to join the ducks. I keep following the track, which keeps following the Waiohine River. There’s a huge slip at one of the bends. I remember reading abut one in the intentions book. Something about needing more triangle markers. I wonder if this is the one. It is marked on the map, the track seemingly passing below so I stick to the river. A four times regulation size triangle directs me up the slip-side. I have half a look at the boulders along the river, I suspect you could stay low and follow the water. I might be wrong, so I follow the triangle. A little further on a signpost has lost it’s way. Lying down on the track side, one way points to the river route, the other to the wet weather alternative. I could have stayed low after all.
I come to the first swing bridge at Makaka Creek. Halfway across a commotion up ahead startles me. One big billy goat opts not to trip-trap over this bridge and disappears back into the bush. Probably best for both of us. I turn away from the Waiohine River and begin the climb towards Cone Saddle. I start seriously sweating on the way up. I make an agreement with myself. No matter what, when I reach Tutuwai Hut I will get in the river. This section of the track has the most tree-fall. I’m way past caring if they make a sound. How many other trees did it bring down? Is it easy to pass? Both are more important questions. Across one such fallen giant the forest floor opens up. I’d gotten used to the track having fern lined shoulders. Now the track might be any easy route through. I scan for orange. Nothing. The last triangle is probably under the fallen tree. As long as I’m moving in the right direction I’ll pick it up again. With deer, goat, and pig present in this part of the Taraua Forest Park the track I’m now following is definitely a track, I’m no longer certain it’s The Track. I begin to circle back, retracing my steps when I spot the sunken gravel and an orange triangle nailed to a tree root. Either I’m getting good at this, or I’m burning through a lifetime of luck over these two years.
I keep moving. Stopping occasionally to take photos of how green everything is. I honestly believed I might have got over it by now but here we are. I will admit it is starting to look the same now. Even that might have more to do with having spent three weeks on the same side of the same forest park. I come to Cone Saddle where a sign post points me 20 minutes down hill towards Cone Hut. When I see another sign post before I see the hut I worry I’ve gotten myself turned around. Somehow doubled back. The sign post points me on. 10 more minutes. Either I’ve dropped way off the pace or these signs are wrong. The Totara slab walls and tin roof finally appear. I have a little nosy inside which is mostly the bunk platforms and the open fire place. I push on towards Tutuwai Hut. I come out on the Tauherenikau River and follow the track through the edge of the bush. I come to a clearing with a huge picnic bench. Nice, but where’s the hut? I carry on for a while but no sign. I turn back. I missed the snapped arm of a sign post. Tutuwai Hut is tucked away on a shelf above the river flats. If you didn’t know it was there you could literally walk straight past it. This makes the hut a long way from the river but a deal is a deal. I take my dry clothes and towel down the to the nearest bend. Of course the water never reaches above my thighs. I splash about as best I can, rinsing off the layers of sweat. The water is definitely still too cold but I do feel significantly better for it. Back up at the hut I listen to children’s singing, waiting for my serenity to be shattered. They get close but never come in. Just a day walk, perhaps. On a Thursday. Why aren’t they in school? I half hope for a quiet night at least no loud children. Tomorrow is Friday, I’ll happily share then.
The long awaited rain finally arrives, bouncing off the hut roof. Only a day late. Not that I’m complaining. For the first time in possibly forever I’ve made it to a second hut with dry feet. Rain on corrugated plastic reminds me of childhood holidays. The same sound will now remind me of this adult one too. Nobody else has arrived. I tuck myself in for another night on my own. I wake up when light flashes through the hut window. I check my phone. 22:59. Really? Someone arriving this late. I hastily push in my ear plugs, pull on my eye mask and roll over. So much for testing the theory of a wash making for a better sleep. When I next check the time it’s 6am. Might as well get up. When I get back from the toilet a man is feeding his very excited to see me Staffordshire Bull Terrier her breakfast. He introduces himself “Morning, I’m Nick. This is Star.. I hope we didn’t wake you last night.” I give the wiggling dog a belly rub and decide I can forgive Nick for his late arrival. Two sets of wet weather gear are hanging on the verandah. “Hannah’s still in bed,” NIck tells me. She’s on the move when I go back inside. I get two more boils out of my gas canister. I give it a shake. Might yet get one more cup of tea out of it. By the time we’re all fed and packed we’re ready at the same time. “Are you guys fast?” I ask, trying to decide if I want to go first or wait for them to get ahead. “You can walk with us if you want,” Hannah suggests, and why not? They seem like decent people. We’re going the same way this morning. The first hour back to Cone Hut passes quickly in the getting to know each other conversations. Hannah, Nick and Star were hoping to do the Southern Crossing but the questionable forecast encouraged a change of plans. With Friday already off work they decided to take advantage of Thursday evening and get stuck in. An explanation for the late arrive. Fair enough.
We push on to Cone Saddle which still feels further away than it actually is. By the time we’ve hit the track junction I’ve made up my mind to follow Cone Ridge back to Totara Flats Hut to change things up. Hannah, Nick and Star are headed for Neill Forks Hut so we stay together for a while longer. I think about going with them all the way but I’m really keen on a swim in the Waiohine River. The initial grunt up towards Cone Peak is steep and slow. Conversation drops to zero. Hannah stops us, she’s not feeling too good. We take a break. Hannah hands me some sour gummy worms to refuel with. Nick hands me a piece of chocolate. I like walking with other people. We set off once more. Star bounds effortlessly over logs, leaping up ladders of roots. The rest of us are not so fast. She runs ahead, comes back as if to ask “what’s taking you so long?” The ferns drop off, as does the temperature. The trees slide inside their jackets of moss. Getting close to the top now. The cover breaks and I’m out on a tiny slice of the ridge. The weather is not fine. The main range is clagged in but we can see. Up ahead Mount Holdsworth is tucked into the clouds. Mount Hector lies somewhere behind a wall of black. Anything can happen. Another break, rain jackets come on. Drizzle comes in. The open ground disappears beneath another carpet of trees. The goblin forest is tight and low. I’m glad I’m not claustrophobic. I have to take my cap off as I keep bumping my head on low hanging branches I haven’t seen. Cone Ridge Track rides the edge rather than the top, which makes some of the steps down more like precarious drops. The going is slow. I don’t mind. The forest is beautiful. “We don’t have this where I come from,” I tell Nick. “You have Kate Moss, we have actual moss,” he replies. I laugh, without shame. It isn’t funny, but it is. The goblins remain until the turn off for Neill Forks Hut. “So, are you coming with us?” Hannah asks. I’ve been thinking about it. I haven’t been talking about it. “It’s hard to get to in a day, you might only be here one time,” Nick tells me. It’s true. I will never come back here so why not? It’s an extra few hours tomorrow. I can avoid any potential weekend crowds that might walk in to Totara Flats Hut. “I did have my heart set on a swim in the Waiohine.” I say, as my only attempt at an excuse. “Neill Creek runs right by,” Nick says, “I’m sure there’ll be a spot for a swim there.” which settles the issue.
I immediately regret my decision. The drop down in to the valley may as well be vertical. The ground underfoot gives way like marbles. Every step comes with the question. Will it hold? Probably not. “Did you touchdown?” Hannah asks Nik after a fall. “My bum didn’t touch the ground,” he replies. This is apparently how you distinguish between just a slip and a full blown fall. I slide down not long after, only just managing to stay on my feet. Maybe Hannah does too but being at the back she escapes notice. A very human sounding whistle comes up from the valley. Nik starts whistling back. I’m distracted by another sound altogether. Something more jurassic. There’s a Kaka close by. The rust orange and metallic grey wings sweep out of a nearby tree and the parrot disappears. The rumours are true. They are returning to the forest. The human whistling never produces an owner. I wonder if it was a bird after all. The valley eventually bottoms out. The single roar of water becomes individual gurgles. The clear blue pools are visible first, then the rush of white. Along the stream the green walls of Neill Forks Hut appear. Nik drops his pack and falls straight into the creek. I step in more slowly. I find a stop deep enough to dive in. I throw myself headfirst in to the current and manage 10 strokes before the cold chokes me. The three of us sit on the banks, fully clothed dripping wet. I’ve often considered a hot shower after these adventures to be a luxury. Looking at the water here, far enough from the modern world to be safe to drink. This is real luxury. To be able to wash, swim, and drink in the rivers as they are. The location is stunning. The full submerge has made me feel alive, happy. Good decisions were made today. So long as I don’t think about the climb back up to Cone Ridge in the morning. We sit in the sun, enjoying the warm contrast to the cold water. Nik hands me half a beer. “Are you sure?” I ask. Prompting the second asking that I have decided is enough to share someone else’s luxury item. “I’ve got two more stashed at Tutuwai.” he tells me. Knowing they’d be going back that way, he’s deposited food, drinks and even his tent somewhere near, but presumably well hidden. Not a bad plan to shed some weight. Once the sun is gone, it’s gone. A slow retreat in to the hut follows. Tomorrow can wait.
“The problem with stacking firewood,” Hannah explains, “the dry stuff is always at the bottom.” Clothes are carried inside and hung out on various lines attached to the ceiling. The bunks in Neill Forks Hut look like they’ve come out of a world war two field hospital. When I get in to mine, the mattress sags and everything sinks to the middle as if it were a hammock. How will this contribute to a good night’s sleep I wonder? Nik wakes Hannah up by putting Star up on her bunk. The dog promptly heads directly to Hannah’s face to give it a good licking. The fully clothed wash happened early enough for most of my clothes to dry in the sun. Putting them on in the morning, they feel almost clean. Socks dry without a crust. Shirt without the stick. My new friends put enough water on to boil for me to also have a cup of tea. The climb out of Neill Forks isn’t as bad as any of us were expecting and we get up faster than we got down. Cone Ridge is a cold cruise. I retreat inside my rain jacket. Hannah and I talk about the pros and cons of van life. We bump into some of their other friends who I’d have met sooner had i stuck to the plan and gone to Totara Flats. The drop down to the gorge is steep and slippery. I’m grateful to my poles. Nik makes the first touchdown. I’m not sure if that puts him in the lead or last place. We have a snack and a hot drink on the deck of Totara Flats Hut in the sun, watching the rain showers sweep through. We depart in opposite directions. I think I’ll push it on the way out. Pump along the flats, knacker myself on the way out. The last climb to rejoin the Holdsworth highway feels like it may go on forever. I pass a huge group of kids heading in and I’m glad I’m on my way out. Powell Hut is invisible. A huge train of cloud rolls across the tops. I’m in full sun, the wind is blowing a refreshing mist of rain over me. I keep up the pace. I get out. I get back to the van. This is it, the last drive back to Wellington.