A night out; life lessons in the Tararua ranges

…sidle the headwater waterfall on the TR. The gorge just above the hut is sidled high on the TL into the sidestream. – Merv Rodgers, Tararua Footprints

“Mate, we need to think about setting off the PLBs,” I say. “I’m totally fucked.”

It’s getting dark. We’re standing in a gorge in waist deep water. Below us waterfalls block our way. Behind us another prevents retreat. After trying for 10 hours to make our way out of the headwaters of the Arete Stream, we’re out of options. This wasn’t part of the plan. That morning, stuffing our packs outside the biv in typical Tararua weather, Andrew proposes something else.

“If we take this ridge down from 1389 into the valley we can avoid walking along the tops for an hour and having to go over those beehives.”

He’s referring to three steep hills on Pinnacle Spur, which the track follows down to Arete Forks Hut. The day before he had glassed a potential route down another spur which might avoid the worst of the leatherwood which otherwise choked the headwaters.

“Well let’s have a go,” I say, in the spirit of adventure. We’ve escaped our dingy little offices and we’re as far from our cosseted city lives as we can get (in a long weekend). I try to shoulder my pack but I fail first attempt. The second try I perch the pack on the biv’s stoop and squeeze myself into the straps while it’s still on the decking. Once in, I strain against the webbing and wobble to my feet.

At the bottom, wrapped in an old pillow case, is 20 odd kilos of venison coiled in a bloody pile; half the stag Andrew shot yesterday. He’s got the other half. On top of the meat is sleeping bag, tent fly, spare clothes, food, cooking equipment, binoculars, water bladder, wet weathers, compass, maps, knives, camera, rifle cleaning kit, first aid kit, GPS, emergency PLB (personal locator beacon), and other miscellaneous bits and pieces; everything you might need for a week in the bush. All wrapped up in a bright orange pack liner. On the outside, because the pack’s so full, I’ve strapped my sleeping mat, hut shoes, plastic mug and a bag of rubbish. Missing are my sunglasses, left somewhere in the tussock two days before where I sat in the late afternoon sun, imagining deer behind every clump of matagouri.

I sling my rifle and pull my hood up against the wind blasting across the tops. This is good, I think, enjoying the extra weight of the venison. Manly, hunter-gatherer shit. Soon we’re dropping into the sweeping basin at the top of the valley. The weight of our packs bears down on us and our boots start losing traction on the tussock. Then the tussock gives way to leatherwood; nearly impenetrable.

An hour later and all we can see is more leatherwood reaching down into the headwaters of the stream. We angle towards a slight ridge where the thigh-lacerating scrub looks a little thinner. From there we see a slip which has cleared a path down the hill. Reaching it we collapse on the scree and look at each other.

“It’s going to be a tough one eh?”

“Yep.”

By mid-afternoon we’ve reached the headwaters of the Arete Stream. The valley floor is steeper than we anticipated. Trees hang over the rocks, forming a tunnel for the water tumbling down through boulders. We skirt wide pools and slither down small waterfalls. Unnoticed by us, as we descend, the valley becomes a gorge. Then we reach a waterfall too high to climb down and we clamber out of the river to bypass it. As we climb one of us says, “We must only be half an hour from the hut now.”

But the side of the valley is steep and then falls away completely in cliffs above the river. The bush is dense; small beech saplings growing over moss and loose rocks. Each step needs to be pushed through a tangle of fallen branches. Andrew falls behind. I can still hear him though, swearing and crashing through the bush.

“I’m sorry,” he says simply when I wait for him to catch up. “I’m not as fit as you.”

He’s read my silence perfectly.

After an hour of sidling we’ve travelled 300 metres.

Another hour even less.

Eventually we’re not really moving at all. We’ve got no water and can’t get down to the river to get any. The scrub’s the only thing keeping us from falling, but it’s so dense that it’s holding us stationary.

“I’m going to get a migraine soon,” Andrew says. “…Dehydration.”

“Just keep going, we’ll reach the track down to the hut soon.”

Another 15 minutes and we’ve gone 10 more metres.

“We need to go back,” Andrew says slumping in his pack straps.

“But it’s taken us two hours to get this far, no point in going all that way back now.”

I get out the map and the GPS. We’re 200 metres from the hut, if that.

“Let’s just make a big final push and get there.”

“At this rate 200 metres will take us a couple of hours. And I can’t keep going at this rate.”

He’s right, it would take hours at the rate we were going, and neither of us wants to be bluffed on dark. We start retracing our steps back to the waterfall, but we’re moving so slowly that night’s going to catch us before we reach the hut.

“We need to go faster. You need to do something.”

It’s my way of telling him he needs to lighten his pack. Defeated, Andrew drags the new meat bag he bought before the trip out of his pack and shoves it and its contents down a bank. I untie the plastic bag of rubbish that has been snagging all day and throw it down with the meat, not caring what I will think later. Things can’t get much worse. The only thing to save today will be making it to the hut tonight.

Back at the waterfall we look for another way down. We decide to climb down the other bank. There are only 500 metres and one 20 metre contour line separating us and the hut. This should translate into a 10 minute walk. Back in the river below the waterfall I stride off with renewed vigour, thinking of the dinner I’m going to cook when we arrive. Within 50 metres we reach another smaller waterfall.

“Let’s just jump it,” I say. “It must be the last fall before the hut.”

The weight of my pack drives me forward and under as I hit the water. Water runs up my nose and I panic, flailing and using my rifle as a prop to help me up. The weight of my saturated fleece pulls me back. Staggering out of the pool I haven’t gone 10 metres when I see them. Two more waterfalls. Both drop four or five metres onto rocks, no possibility of jumping or climbing down, no way to sidle the sheer faces of the cliffs. Turning to the waterfall we’ve just jumped down we contemplate how to get back up. It’s not high but the rocks are smooth, all mossy with no handholds. Staying put in a pool of waist-deep water isn’t an option though. I’m shivering now. Andrew climbs around to see if there’s a way down that I haven’t noticed. I wriggle onto a rock to get out of the water. Andrew comes back looking grim.

“We’ll just have to get back up the waterfall. Try and get onto that ledge up there.”

Standing on my pack, the ledge is chest high. Smooth and sloping, nothing to grab onto. I thrust myself up, wriggling on my stomach. I dig my fingers into moss, feeling it peel away in sheets. Andrew pushes and with a flail I’m up. He passes me the packs and then faces the ledge. With nothing to stand on, it’s at his chin height. When he jumps I grab him and pull. He’s too heavy though and I start sliding. I lean back as far as I can. He thrashes and kicks against the rock for traction. His hand is slipping out of my grasp. I pull harder but can’t pull him up. I’m being dragged down. We’re both going to fall back into the pool with our packs on the ledge, out of reach. Then somehow he’s up on the ledge with me.

We walk back to the first waterfall. There’s just no way we can get back up the way we came down. I’ve been pushing the pace all day. I vomited up the last thing I tried to eat. We’re out over the edge and I’m ready to hit the safety net, not caring about the shame of calling for help. But Andrew has found new reserves and takes the lead.

“If we just climb back up there mate we’ll be able to make a camp, have a feed and a sleep. Everything will look better in the morning.”

My unjustified resentment of him – for choosing this dreadful route, for falling behind all day – has melted away into a pool of self-pity. He disappears and I sit meekly on a rock staring at my boots while he finds another way up; a crack in the rock running up out of the gorge. Dusk falls as we clamber up the chimney. Andrew goes back to get water, I start collecting firewood and clearing an area to pitch the fly.

Sitting next to the fire in dry clothes, things seem manageable. Over crushed cabin bread and cheese and mugs of tea we discuss what we will do in the morning. The thought of retracing our tracks back to the tops is too demoralising to seriously contemplate. That leaves trying to find a way down. For the moment though it’s enough to be out of the gorge; I’m done making decisions for the day.

In the night a stag roars nearby and I burrow deeper in my bag against the chill in the air. I don’t want morning to arrive. It does though, and for a while I try to ignore the lightening sky. I’m forced to admit I’m awake when Andrew hands me a mug of tea and a bowl of porridge. The grey light of dawn isn’t a confidence inspiring atmosphere to be heading into the unknown in but we’ve got serious distance to cover. We’re due out.

The night’s rest does little to restore my energy. To lighten my load I throw out the venison shoulder I carried all day yesterday; the rest I’m determined to get home. We decide to try the other side of the gorge, the true left. The first hour is as bad as the day before and a repeat experience seems likely. Eventually we reach a creek that must cut down to the main stream. It’s in a gorge of its own though and too steep to access. Following it down to the stream we hope to join it there but we’re prevented by more cliffs. Despondent, we slog back uphill to try higher up. Eventually we find an old overgrown slip that we slide down into the sidestream.

There’s only 100 metres or so down the creek before it joins the stream but we don’t know if we can make it. It’s steep and flows through a jumble of boulders and fallen logs in a series of small waterfalls. I climb down one logjam, then two, hoping desperately that we won’t have to come back up. Rounding a final bend in the creek, Arete Stream is suddenly ahead of us. We’re below the waterfalls, and it’s a quick fifteen minutes walk to the hut. We’re too tired to celebrate though; we’ve got a long walk to the Kiriwhakapapa road end ahead.

Occasionally, trudging down the Waingawa Gorge to Cow Creek Hut, or during the neverending plod up toBlueRange, a grim smile ghosts across my face. I’m remembering something Barry Crump said. It’s inevitable, if you spend enough time in the bush, that eventually you’ll spend an unplanned night out. Yeah that finally happened, and we’ve done mostly all right too; we’re heading back to civilization, but on our terms.

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