As the alert levels drop one-by-one and our access to the mountains is restored, we dream about the things we’re most looking forward to on our first trip back in the great outdoors.
Nothing will make you feel more like declaring “I’m back!” than when you reach your first hut. Those blue mattresses; the slight echo as your voice reverberates off the walls; those old copies of Wilderness from an age when people ventured into the hills wearing mullets; that moment when you put the pack down, feel the breeze blowing over your sodden back and listen to the gorgeous sound of absolutely nothing; and conversely, the often alarming creaks when you drift off to sleep, as the building’s wooden frame cools in the chill of night. Our huts are the backcountry’s way of saying ‘welcome home’.
2. The smell of a sleeping bag
If your beloved sleeping bag is more than several outings old, it will have developed its own unique scent. It’s one you’ll likely have forgotten about, but when you slide back inside you’ll be instantly reminded of every adventure you’ve been on together. The smell – a blend of fabric, previous huts, sweat and carefully-released methane – might not be one you’ll want to bottle, but the memories it evokes will far outweigh any hint of stench.
3. The song of the tui and bellbird
Sure, you may hear these birds every day from your own garden, but the experience takes on a different form in the backcountry, as their pure, angelic notes echo across the valley, compelling you to stop and admire.
There’s a certain irony that, for many of us, self-isolating has meant anything but. Instead, it’s resulted in an intense amount of time with the same few people 24/7. And however much you might love your family, the chance to enjoy a few hours (or days) alone is one most will crave. That’s why trampers up and down the country will be chomping at the bit to return to a world where there’s no-one at all. Feel free to scream the things that have been irritating you these past weeks – “Eggs don’t go in the fridge!”; “Don’t wash the greasy dishes first!”; “Why do you breathe so loudly?!” – you’ll find it most therapeutic.
5. The yarns
Something of a contradiction to the previous entry, but then we trampers are a funny bunch. We crave solitude, yet love nothing more than sharing a good yarn in the evening. Whether it’s a story about getting stuck on an ice cliff, or one where a weka ran off with breakfast, the tramping fraternity has wonderful tales to tell, and hearing them again will be music to our ears.
6. Lunch with a view
How nice it’ll be to find a beautiful spot, say “yep, this’ll do”, and enjoy your asparagus rolls while gazing at a waterfall, a mountain, a glacier, or frankly anything that isn’t your front room or garden.
7. Your very own flycatchers
You’re not normally walking for long before you first encounter that flitting, fidgeting little fella with the angry-looking eyebrows. Fantails are nothing short of utterly delightful, and being followed by one that repeatedly swoops to catch the insects circling above your head is one of the great joys of the New Zealand outdoors.
8. Backcountry coffee
There’s no such thing as a bad coffee in the outdoors. Whether it’s one that uses the finest beans from Colombia, or that powdery stuff that comes in buckets, the only real requirement is that it’s hot. And sitting on the deck of a hut on an icy morning where the sun has yet to make its mark, there’s just nothing better than cradling a hot beverage with both hands and warming your face in the steam.
9. Aching legs
We’re not talking anything that needs medical treatment here. Just that satisfying ache you feel the morning after a day or two in the hills. It’s a pain that means a good time was had – a healthy time, an outdoorsy time, an exploratory time. The tighter the muscles have seized, the greater the workout you’ve had, and the more license you have to put your feet up the following day.
Even though we were housebound for a good reason, every soul – young and old – would have been itching to get their sense of freedom back. For us trampers, that means the ability to get back out into nature again. No more hours spent looking at black dotted lines on Topo maps thinking, ‘I wonder what that track is like’. Instead, this beautiful country of ours is open again for exploration, and those weeks when it wasn’t have reminded us just how much we cherish it.
And the things we haven’t missed…
Nothing would put more of a dampener on your first return to the outdoors than tripping over and impaling your buttock on one of these razor-sharp bushes of evil.
2. The longdrop
Like prostate exams, we’re glad we have them, but they’re in no way pleasant.
Oh yeah, them! You forget, that favourite photo you took of a mountain lake at sunrise was immediately followed by the line, “Great stuff… now let’s get out of here before we get eaten alive!”
4. Snoring hut-mates
The bane of a good night’s sleep when you often need it most.
5. Dodgy knees
Just when you thought the lockdown had restored them to their youthful strength!
– Matthew is Wilderness’s former deputy editor. He currently lives in Wales with his wife and two sons and spends too much time dreaming about one day returning to his adopted country.