I have not posted for a while and a lot has happened in that time. I’ve started a new job, I’ve bought a house. Lots of big, ridiculous decisions.
I’ve thought every now and then about writing a blog post and then felt a bit overwhelmed as soon as I opened up my laptop. So here I am, writing in bite size pieces about some of the good things that I feel right now.
I have my own house. By my own, I really mean the bank has a house and I’m paying it interest. I’m not complaining. I’m very grateful. It’s a happy little house and I love it.
I live ten houses down the road from a good friend who has had an eye on the foliage outside my house for months. Now that I own it, she feels entitled to rob me. This, to me, is both hilarious and heartwarming.
Last year at work I almost burnt out. I started making some changes around September/October but have felt emotionally and physically exhausted ever since. Until now. I realised this weekend that I’m no longer spending all my weekends and evenings recovering from work. I hardly noticed myself recovering but I think I might be close.
I’m taking control of my eating. And I think this time it might stick. I love feeling like I have some self control, some discipline, again. When I manage to stick to a sensible diet, I feel like I start getting more control over every other part of my life.
I have a new job. I have mixed feelings about it and they fluctuate every week. I’m not passionate about it, devoted to it, like I was for my last job… and that sounds really bad, but I’m actually really happy to now be in a job where I feel moderately apathetic about it – I have no intention of killing myself for it, and I’m trying to make sure I go home and forget about it.
I just finished reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It feels bittersweet and nostalgic, a reminder of those times when a new Harry Potter book would arrive after a long, long wait. I would devour them, barely pausing to eat – on one occasion reading solidly from Saturday 11am to Sunday 3am – and then have to wait until my friend K. had also finished them, at which point we would dissect them on the phone for several hours. What a gift. I’m so grateful to the authors of good books.
This week, I was eating the most delicious curry at a Sri Lankan foodstall I’ve recently discovered. Really, really delicious, and not something you can find anywhere else in this town. And I was suddenly hit with an overwhelming need to share this news with my mother, who died over ten years ago.
For one moment, it was a tiny glimpse of what life would have been like if she were still around.
Before marrying my dad, Mum spent about 8 years of her life living in southern India where the curries are not the same as the Punjabi-style curries we tend to get here. When she came back to New Zealand, she brought with her a lifelong love for making and eating Indian food.
I would have been on the phone to her within five minutes and we would be arranging to meet in town on the weekend. She would have been a little bit sceptical but cautiously interested. She would have ended up hunting down recipes from tenuous connections and cooking Sri Lankan curries for the next six months.
The Sri Lankan curry incident set it all off again. I would have loved telling Mum about the curry. But there are so many things I would love to talk to her about. There’s about to be a big change in my working life and there’s no one I would like to talk to about it more.
There’s an ache to grief like this. It’s not like the immediate loss. It’s like a missing limb to which you’ve become more accustomed to missing, but its absence is just as glaring.
The words ‘I miss you’ just don’t feel quite right. I’ve been thinking that I prefer the French equivalent – ‘tu me manques’. It’s usually translated as ‘I miss you’ but it actually, literally, means ‘you are missing from me’.
Over the years she’s been gone I have sometimes struggled with a feeling of guilt for spending time grieving. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but sometimes you put things in perspective just a little bit too much – you think about how some people never even got to know their mothers, or how some other people’s mothers weren’t good mothers. So what right do I have to just keep missing a good person who was in my life for 19 years?
It’s only recently that it occurred to me I was doing this to myself and how unreasonable that was. I was thinking of that verse – to those who have been given much, more shall be given – and how it seems unjust but there’s a complicated truth to it. I thought about how reasonable it would be that someone who is eminently missable should be missed. Grief, in a way, is a gift: the evidence that she lived a life that has left a mark.
I was lucky enough to spend my Easter long weekend with some good friends from work, camping by the seaside in one of New Zealand’s beautiful national parks – Abel Tasman. It’s a land of beaches and coves and bays and greenery and unnatural warmth for the South Island – so that even at this time of year camping and swimming were viable options.
I’m sure there’ll be more to come. But for now I will tell you a story.
Last year, we went camping at the same beach (Totaranui) but we did not bring firewood. There are concrete fire pits all around the campsite and this turned out to be a real oversight. We managed to find some dry wood but it was largely of the kindling variety – nothing bigger was dry enough, so we had to get up every five minutes to get more wood for the fire.
It’s the first night of camping, and this year we’re far more prepared. L. is moving to the other side of the world in a few weeks, so she dismantled her bookcase, which she had built from wood found on the side of the road, and brought it along to burn. In combination, the sacrifice of the bookcase starts feeling quite uncomfortable when she also starts using pages ripped from her Lonely Planet Canada, 1997 edition, to start the fire. We all get it, in theory – she’s never going to use that book again, nor is anyone else – and yet it feels decidedly uncomfortable.
However, we settle down with our only remaining bag of marshmallows – the second bag had already been stolen by a villainous weka – and some wine. We sidle up to the fire and start getting comfortable:
When suddenly: the fire explodes. Literally explodes.
It’s satisfying to know that when something ridiculous happens you will react more quickly than you normally feel capable of. In my case, I throw myself backwards so fast that there is probably some kind of realignment in the equilibrium of the universe (slight exaggeration perhaps). It all happens so quickly that we look at each with a ‘did that really just happen?’ and just start going ‘um, so the fire just exploded, did we do something wrong?’
One of us had the presence of mind (or, poor priorities!) to photograph the aftermath before we all started running around stamping out sparks:
Doesn’t that just look so much more evil than the previous photo?
We find there are logs that have been thrown into another fire pit behind the first, and are still burning away happily. We find there are sparks burning holes all over my picnic chair, which I had thrown out behind me, but none of us seem to be hurt at all.
A man comes running over from the other side of the camping ground (we later decide he’s probably called Murray, Steve or Bert) who is really relieved to see we’re all okay and swears with gusto. Apparently, from the window of his little cabin, he saw four people’s heads glowing, heard a sudden and almighty boom – the explosion flying up above the pretty good-sized tree that’s between us and him – and then couldn’t see anybody at all. He was hurrying over thinking he might need to clean up a rather disturbing mess.
As we’ve pretty much put out the fire now we’re starting to laugh at the ridiculousness of what just happened and the fact that we’re not hurt. Murray/Steve/Bert is getting pretty excited too, and we’re all trying to figure out what happened. Murray/Steve/Bert reckons that it might be all the rain they had a few days before – a massive inundation. It probably got in underneath the concrete of the fire pit and was boiling away – the steam building up until it burst.
[Update 9 April: Another theory recently offered by a friend who is a botanist by training – he thinks it was caused by an underground methane pocket from a layer of rotting vegetation – quite common in a coastal/sandy environment.]
That – or if you’re superstitious, it might be the book burning.
We’re laughing away and gazing at the fire pit when I suddenly start to feel like my back is warm. Unnaturally calmly: ‘Guys, can you check my back? Is there any chance I’m on fire?’ They can’t see anything but I take my coat off – and there it is – sparks have flown into the hood of my coat and are happily burning away.
How did none of us get hurt?!
The next morning, in the sunlight, we check out the fire pit. There are whole slabs of concrete which were ripped away by the explosion:
We think we got lucky. The explosion seems to have gone high rather than wide – so it went straight up and then the sparks fell in a ring wide around us. Where we all fell, we were in a little fire-free donut – except for my hood, nothing seems to have landed on us.
I am going through the slightly exciting but mostly frightening process of potentially buying my first house. So far it’s going really well… if really well means falling head over heels in love with everything that is the opposite of sensible.
My dream house is basically a tiny cottage with a sweet but dilapidated ambience. I have been known to totally ignore things like a lack of insulation, sloping floors and rotting piles while wandering around saying things aloud like ‘This is where I will write my novel!’
Fortunately for me I have a sensible father and a friend with a background in construction who have already rescued me from throwing money at not just one but two properties in this category. The first was totally lacking in insulation and over 130 years old; the second had windows missing that I had not even noticed on my first walk through the property, and would never see the sun in the winter months.
Since these experiences I have been trying to be more sensible. But last night I noticed I was sitting at home debating potential names for the pet I will be able to own once I have my own house. I had got so far ahead of myself that, instead of concentrating on the work of property-hunting; instead of considering whether it is a sensible decision to commit to pet ownership; instead of thinking about whether I want a cat, a dog, a goldfish, a HORSE – I was trying to decide on the most hilarious literary- or history-inspired names for my generic animal.
(And yes, there’s a list now. William Makepeace Thackeray. Virginia Woolf. Mr Willoughby. Dick van Dyke. I am thinking that I will know for sure once I actually see the cat/dog/animal.)
One day, one faraway day in the future, maybe I will make major life decisions based on sound judgment and careful cost-benefit analysis.
On the Kepler Track, J. and I walked 50.6 km. I measured my steps, and they were 84,652. We climbed from 205m to a total height of 1400m (4600 ft), and then down again. It was 22 solid hours of walking over three days, and each day got longer as we went.
It’s only three days of my life, but I really did come away feeling like it was more defining than seems logical. I learned a lot.
Things I learned about tramping
The weather changes really, really rapidly in Fiordland.
Tramping packs are way heavier than I thought they would be. I had kind of assumed, well, 10 kgs, that’s not a huge proportion of my body mass, it can’t make that much difference, right? It turns out that it does. And that makes it really hard to climb mountains. (Astonishing truths for you today.)
Extended downhill sections, despite all my expectations, are the worst. Approximately three months later, I still have a bruised big toe from Day 2.
Long hours have more of an impact than I had thought, even in the flatter sections, particularly after several days of walking. Tramping food (or at least the food we took) is generally horribly dry and even when I was tired and famished I couldn’t stomach it.
On a positive note, other people find it difficult too. Including people who look significantly fitter than me.
People in the huts are really friendly. I kind of assumed it would be like walking into a hipster gym wearing trackies and getting scrutinized by fit people in lycra. It really wasn’t. There was no judgment. If you made it up there, you deserve to be there.
Things I learned about myself
It’s a very different thing, being somewhere you actually have to keep walking or you will die – there’s no option to just turn around or stay put for a while.
I tended to lose confidence about one third of the way in, every day. It’s something about already starting to be tired but still having to walk about double what you’ve already walked.
But making it to the end each day, and to the end overall, was a massive confidence boost. I put on a lot of weight last year after having lost quite a lot the year before, and I wasn’t feeling huge amounts of self-love. There were moments each day on the Kepler where I was talking to myself in pretty nasty ways about my general capability and decision-making skills! To prove my own voices wrong was quite a powerful thing.
Next time, to cope with the challenge of getting myself through each day I need to be mentally prepared for what’s coming up, and research more than the basic elevation profile. There were a few nasty surprises for me throughout the Kepler where I had assumed that an entire section was flat or gently downhill, but there were sections that were suddenly uphill.
However, what I really need to do is: more things like this.
It’s 28 November 2015. I awake in a bunkroom, with a view out through a mosquito-netted window to a verdant green landscape… and more rain. I have slept very little, despite the peace of this location, and I have a crick in my neck. It’s hard to look forward with optimism when you have a crick in your neck.
We’re trying to leave by 8am because today is the longest day. We’re walking more than a normal day – two extra hours beyond the next hut so that we finish the track slightly early, getting picked up at Rainbow Reach rather than doing the whole Kepler loop.
It’s all right, I tell myself. On the elevation profile, it’s all downhill from here! It should be fine!
Slightly discouraged as we set out – uphill. It’s not even that steep uphill, but after two days of steep climbs and steep descents my legs are feeling wobbly.
I regain energy as we start to head steadily downwards. Particularly as we look backwards to the beautiful Iris Burn valley, marvelling at the mountains from whence we came – now covered in snow. It’s a Jurassic Park-esque scene.
A conspiracy of keas is waiting to ambush us near the land slip. And yes, I looked that up, and it is a conspiracy of keas. Which works really well.
This is all fairly lovely and I start to walk with real enthusiasm, thinking we’re sure to make it to Rainbow Reach well before we need to, making progress like this.
Of course we slow down. But it’s a lovely walk. It’s rainforest day today.
About two hours in, depression hits as we reach the first shelter. It’s raining hard, and I’m already wet through. There are three more hours to go before we’re due to reach Moturau Hut, and another two hours until Rainbow Reach, and other shelter-mates mention there’s a bit of a climb before Moturau Hut. Curses on you, elevation profile! You have misled me!
But I put another layer on and soldier forward (or rather, stumble forward knowing I have absolutely no choice). The straps on my poles are starting to cut into my hands in the wet. We meet people coming the other way looking really happy – why?!
I’m insanely encouraged to reach the Manapouri lakeside – I’m really not sure but I think that means the hut can’t be far off, and that means another milestone. There’s another downpour, and five minutes later we reach Moturau Hut, and sit exhausted on the deck watching it pelt down. A marginally better lunch of Vogels dipped in tuna/mayo, but I’m still experiencing this weirdness of not really being able to stomach food.
The DOC ranger for Moturau Hut arrives – a young friendly woman who talks about the birds who hang around here, and the fact that very few raincoats cope in the Fiordland climate.
Another moment of encouragement arrives when we see a sign announcing that Rainbow Reach is only 1.5 hours away. Still – it’s 1.5 hours away, and we have been told there’s going to be a detour up a hill because of damage to the track in the storm.
I stumble down the track, but it’s happier, jokier and slightly faster stumbling after our brief rest. I’m thinking about what I will eat tonight and what it will be like to shower.
We clamber over multiple trees that have fallen in the high winds the other night and this is fairly hilarious as we have lost our ability to clamber and are basically slumping/rolling over trees with packs attached, relying on gravity to fall down the other side. We are starting to meet fresh-faced day walkers who seem to spring over massive tree trunks like mountain goats after they have watched our slow and ponderous efforts. We must look like messy, cold, unfit hobos.
We’re walking past beautiful things – peaceful wetlands, riversides… Lord of the Rings filming locations… it’s all very nice but now I am just focused on finishing.
Our final detour arrives and we climb up a muddy, slippery hillside around a nasty slip – it’s very slow work and I am grateful for my poles. And then it’s only a few minutes until there’s the most beautiful sight in the world – the sign heralding Rainbow Reach (which really is a lovely name).
The joy is immediate.
We are about to cross the final swingbridge when J. remembers the need to document this auspicious moment on film. I’m not sure if the relief is coming through on my face, but this photo is taken after 8.5 hours of walking in one day, and 22 hours and 86,000 steps over the last 3 days. I’m happy.
We collapse on the mud by the road. Everything is funny now. The bus arrives as booked and scheduled to collect us and it’s a short but surreal drive back to civilization. We face one more walk – from the motel reception to our room.
HOT SHOWER. FEEL SO CLEAN.
PIZZA AND ALCOHOL.
We did it!!!
The next morning, we’re at the DOC Visitor Centre in Te Anau to buy a map of the track we just conquered. There’s a young German woman at the Centre who has arrived to pick up her Kepler Track hut tickets – she has no sleeping bag, and she’s wearing jeans. She’s absolutely aghast when the DOC staff tell her she’s not equipped, and they won’t give her the ticket.
“I’m from Germany, I know alpine conditions! I walked the Tongariro Crossing in jeans! The forecast is okay! I’ll just put a warm jacket and socks on, I don’t need a sleeping bag!”
The DOC staff are very patient, very calm, but firm. “Well, I’m from Switzerland, and I know the conditions here. The weather changes in an instant. We are sick of people not listening to us and then us having to rescue them. We spend thousands of dollars every year rescuing people who are not well prepared. You go in like that and then New Zealanders have to risk their lives to rescue you.”
It’s an amazing conversation to listen to, coming from where we have just come. I actually feel speechless, after the experience of the last few days, to think that she would think that she could do that walk in jeans and with no sleeping bag, and not die.
And the moral of the story is… be prepared for anything!
Then we drive home. And stop at a vineyard on the way.
27 November 2015. We awake after a fitful sleep. Even with ear plugs, last night, there was no way of ignoring the sound of 150 hm/hour winds slamming into your building as the whole structure shakes around you and you wonder if the roof will stay on. But as we get up the wind sounds more manageable.
We all wait a little longer to make sure DOC thinks it’s okay to keep going. It turns out that it’s safe to proceed – but there will still be high winds, cold, snow, hail and rain.
Some decide to go back – I am starting to feel sick at the thought of another day like the last, and as the weather is worse I’m worried about whether I might hold J. up and therefore inevitably cause her to become hypothermic and die. (Because I am a calm, rational person.) Luckily J. doesn’t even give me the option of turning back, and we set out.
There’s a light rain and I start to calm down as it’s just not as bad as I would have thought. There are other people leaving at the same time and they are about as slow as me, if not slower. It shouldn’t be this way, but psychologically it’s a boost.
We are climbing at this point, circling around the mountain and up towards Mount Luxmore, to the high point of the entire tramp at 1400 m / 4600 ft. We are skirting a volcanic looking landscape:
As we turn the corner, coming out from the protection of Mount Luxmore between us and the west, I realise what the weather guy was talking about: driving sleet, snow, rain and hail.
It’s exhausting work making our way through the cold to the first emergency shelter at Forest Burn. We pass the Mount Luxmore high point with a concession to photography (below) but really my heart’s not in it. It doesn’t help that, while the elevation profile made it look like we’d be going downhill for some time here, it didn’t really work out like that.
I’m pretty sure that this is the part where friends of mine tried to get through an avalanche one month earlier and nearly fell off the mountain. I’m sort of intrigued by the assumption that the steep descent beside us, shrouded in cloud, must normally open up some impressive views, but actually I’m mostly just focusing on keeping moving.
The weather seems to get even worse as we start to approach the shelter, which is a tiny little hut that is not intended for any kind of habitation, but for shelter from the weather. We slump onto the floor, feeling colder and colder from the effect of stopping. The driving rain outside is very depressing. There are a few of us here, but no one’s talking because we’re just recovering and hoping that the weather will miraculously lift.
Try to eat but I just feel like I will possibly die here and I’m only a third of the way through the day. The only thing that gets me up off that hut floor is that if I don’t keep moving I will probably die.
We stumble off into the rain again, but – thank the Lord – the clouds soon part, the sun comes out, and we are close to the most scenic part of the walk, looking out over the south fiord of Lake Te Anau. There’s something about the potential for great photos, and not being pummelled by ridiculous weather, that brings my energy back. [And this is why you, the reader, will see the majority of my photos look like the tramp was a pleasant walk in the sunshine.]
I am also massively and illogically encouraged to see people, who left Luxmore Hut at a similar time to us, struggling along at a similar pace, and one passing with a heartfelt “I’m knackered!”
This is where I really start to think, “Hmm. Maybe this is worth it.”
This is the kind of energy that enables us to request the one and only photo of the two of us that we manage on the whole trip:
We are coming up to the ridgeline now:
Some of the best photos are of dark clouds in the distance over the ridge lines. These beautiful dark clouds arrive with us approximately 10 minutes later – and the driving rain, hail and snow begins again.
It’s a surreal thing. I have never before experienced hail actually flying UP a hill at me at a 45° angle and hitting me in the face. I start to laugh to myself – maybe I’m turning mad? – when the words from the hymn come to my mind, and I mentally cross out the last line:
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees… when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze…
The steepest part of the entire 3-day tramp seems to come close to the second emergency shelter, just when I’m really flagging. J. comes to the rescue, dropping her pack a little ahead and coming back to grab mine so I can get up the steep part a little less weighed down. She’s the best!
At Hanging Valley I feel slightly less terrible as we slump again on a cold shelter floor, because we’re about to start the descent to Iris Burn and that means downhill from here on in. I struggle my way through a dry sandwich with dry Vogels, dry cheese, dry salami – why is tramping food so dry?
A kea turns up to check us out and everyone gets excited. Even the two of us, for whom keas are not so new and revolutionary, feel a bit cheered up by the idea that we’re being visited. We have to stop some of the overseas visitors from feeding him/her, but we’re pretty sure that as soon as we leave they’ll probably go ahead and do it anyway.
We start heading downhill, some of which is down a precarious staircase, and the snow is starting to settle. We can’t see anything around us. Suddenly we reach the bushline, and suddenly we are less cold and slightly more sheltered.
It’s a long, long downhill. Having the poles is massively helpful but even so… my toes start slipping forward in my boots and getting crushed between toenail and skin. Absolutely charming.
After a couple of hours we reach a small building with a sign saying This is NOT Iris Burn Hut – 30 minutes away. Hallelujah! Only 30 minutes to go!
Whoever put that sign in place is a sociopath. 1 hour later, I arrive at the hut feeling very put out but very relieved.
Iris Burn Hut is cosy and warm, with a roaring fire, and crammed full of people who are all very relieved to be there. It’s lovely to see the people we met the night before – like a reunion after a period of intense suffering – and we hang out with the friendly Australians, Germans, Koreans and Scots.
We intend to go and visit the apparently beautiful Iris Burn waterfall during a break in the rain, but as soon as I put my jacket on, the rain starts again, AND I realise that my “guaranteed waterproof alpine coat” is completely soaked through from today’s walk. Thanks, Columbia.
So we stay put. It’s a beautiful, beautiful valley, we’re surrounded by waterfalls, and the sun is shining through the rain. We can see the snow settling on the mountains we’ve just descended. It’s incredibly atmospheric.
That evening we meet the Iris Burn DOC ranger who is a lovely man with a big smile who is clearly absolutely passionate about his job. He tells us an amusing story about keas that got stuck in the long drop at Hanging Valley shelter, and how he let them out – stumbling out like drunk old men, completely covered in poo.
He educates us on the birds and plants we’ll see on the next day of the tramp.
When we marvel about the wind he tells us that it’s not unheard of for people to have to crawl along the ridgeline.
Then he gives us a massive guilt trip about a plastic bottle that was left on the side of the track and which no one picked up as we passed.
When our watches flick over to 9pm, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. It is now a respectable time to collapse into bed. I snuggle up into my warm sleeping bag feeling pretty amazed that I made it through the day.
Day 2 completed: 7.5 hours, 14.6 kilometres walked, climbing from 1085 metres to 1400 metres, then descending to 500 metres above sea level.