How one simple mistake set off a chain of events that had this intrepid tramper scratching his head and wondering where on earth he was.
Could there be a better hut in the country than Asbestos Cottage in which to sit around an open fire in a manuka armchair strung with potato sacks, unfurl a map and hatch a plan to get hopelessly lost?
For 37 years the secluded hideaway in Kahurangi National Park was home to Henry and Annie Chaffey, lovers who fled wretched first marriages to live as recluses in the isolated hills behind Takaka. They died in the early 1950s, and their former home was faithfully restored in 1997 in a way that preserves both the homeliness and loneliness the couple (especially Annie) must have felt. My partner Karen, 10-year-old son Dorian and I were staying there on the first night of a four-day tramp around the Mt Arthur Tablelands area. Surrounded by rusted shovels and pans, axes, ancient snail shells and the very tools the Chaffeys once used, there was a pioneering feel to the task of planning our next day’s route, even if we were in well-trodden country.
We wanted to get onto Cobb Ridge, tramp past Lake Peel and end the day at Balloon Hut. Asbestos Cottage sits at around 830m and the marked track leads to the Takaka River before climbing the steep Bullock Track 700m to the crest of Cobb Ridge. It would mean going down before we went up. I shook my head at the prospect of needlessly losing altitude.
Staring into Annie’s old fireplace, an effort-saving idea slowly flickered to life. Blackadder might have ominously described it a ‘cunning plan’. Earlier that afternoon we’d discovered an old sign pointing up the hill behind the cottage. It said, ‘Unmaintained track to Cobb Ridge’. The bait had been dangled.
It offered us an enticing shortcut – a way to climb straight to the ridge without losing height first. The track wasn’t marked on the map, but we had met a tramper the day before who said he’d walked it and it was fine. So it was settled. We let the fire die and fell well-fed into bunks in Henry and Annie’s old bedroom, pampered by the sense of unearned comfort we take for granted these days, and giving thanks to forebears like the Chaffeys, whose tough lives we’ve turned into romantic folklore.
The morning dawned bright and dewy. A resident weka pecked at the wet ground and mist pooled like a puddle in the valley below. We pulled on our packs and prepared to leave the beaten track, not yet knowing it was us who would end up thoroughly beaten.
It started well. The track was a doddle; the most well-maintained unmaintained track I’ve ever walked. It climbed sharply at first, then reduced to a gentle gradient. Bellbirds and fantails chimed, and the sun shot lemony shards of light through the glistening beech forest. It was a wonderful time to be tramping, and we congratulated ourselves for choosing such an ingenious route amendment.
We soon reached the crest of what was quite obviously Cobb Ridge, where a signpost at the T-junction pointed left to ‘Tablelands’. Our unusually quick pace surprised us. It should have been the first warning sign that something wasn’t quite right.
Travel was easy along Cobb Ridge. It was cool, the gradient was benign, and our minds were already racing ahead to the long afternoon that beckoned, lounging around in the sun at Balloon Hut. After about 20 minutes, the track took a sharp turn left and went noticeably downhill. According to the map, we would soon be arriving at another T-junction, at Bullock Track, where we would turn right and pick up the track again as it continued up Cobb Ridge. But the junction didn’t arrive. Instead, we seemed to be dropping lower into the valley. I pulled out the map and studied it again. We shouldn’t have been losing this much height. I got out the compass, which showed we were heading south-east. This wasn’t right either. If we were on Cobb Ridge, we should be going south-west.
Karen and Dorian took off their packs and we huddled around the map, trying to work out just where we were. There was a rocky outcrop nearby that gave a view of some distant tops, but being unfamiliar with the area we couldn’t identify any helpful landmarks. I usually carry a GPS but had left it behind for this tramp, ironically because I thought there was no chance we’d need it. I had also decided to buy a park map rather than a much more useful topographical map because we would have required two topo maps to cover our intended trip. The park map cost more than twice as much as two topo maps, was less detailed, harder to read and had no heights on the contour lines. Our eyes and legs told us one thing, though: we were dropping off Cobb Ridge when we shouldn’t be.
So where had we gone wrong? We decided that the point where the track veered left and descended must have been the intersection with Bullock Track. We must have missed it. If we backtracked to that point, we should be fine. So we turned around and set off uphill. Annoyed with myself for missing an obvious junction and impatient to make amends, I strode out faster until I was well ahead of Karen and Dorian. I planned to stop at the junction and wait for them. But where was that junction? And why was my compass telling me I was walking west? Seeing as I was retracing steps along Cobb Ridge, I should be going north-east. Was my compass screwy? The whole thing made no sense.
Confounded, I stopped to wait for Karen and Dorian to catch up. But they didn’t come. “Hey!” I called but got no response. I slung my pack back on and retraced my steps, expecting to meet them coming towards me. But the bush was silent. A slight ripple of panic began to spread. My mind wandered to worst case scenarios. Maybe they had wandered off the track. Maybe Dorian was lost, alone, and Karen was trying to find him. Why had I allowed us to separate, especially when we were already half lost? What started out as a simple missed junction was fast becoming something much more serious.
My mind drifted to a report I read from late last year about a group of teenagers who went missing on an innocuous track on the Coromandel Peninsula after erroneously following pink markers used for pest control. They were forced to spend a night in the bush before rescuers found them. I remember thinking how silly they must have been. But now look at us! At least the teenagers had the good sense to stay together. All through New Zealand’s backcountry history are examples of people getting lost by making one small mistake. It’s what you do after that mistake, and whether you then make more mistakes, that can be the difference between life and death.
All of a sudden, relief! I turned a corner and found Karen and Dorian sitting forlornly on a log, at the junction where I should have stopped. In my haste, I had somehow tramped straight past it. It was a wonderful moment, but the reconnection didn’t quite translate to resolution. The junction wasn’t a junction at all. It was simply a bend in the track. Then where the hell were we? There was no point turning around for the third time and going back up the track – I had just walked so far back that I’d practically returned to our first junction on the top of Cobb Ridge. Why then, had we not come across the intersection with Bullock Track, and why was the track descending into the valley? We must still be on Cobb Ridge because we hadn’t come to any branches. But every sign – the gradient, how low we were in the valley, the compass bearing – told us we weren’t.
There was only one option that I could see, and it wasn’t a particularly scientific one: continue down the track and see where it went. So we turned around, again, and walked downhill towards our destiny, whatever it was. My best guess was that we were on Bullock Track heading towards Lower Junction on the Takaka River, but it was only a hunch.
After about 10 minutes we dropped down a rocky outcrop and arrived at a junction with a signpost. Surely, clarity at last! If only. The signpost pointed to the track we had just walked down and read, ‘Unmaintained track to Cobb Ridge’, just like the one at the back of Asbestos Cottage. So we weren’t on Bullock Track. And we weren’t on Cobb Ridge. We were on the unmaintained track we had started on that morning. Except we couldn’t be because we had turned onto the Cobb Ridge track and hadn’t left it, so how could we now be back on the unmaintained track? My head started to spin. I wouldn’t have been more befuddled if the next signpost had announced, ‘Everest Base Camp – 500m’.
There was nothing to do but keep walking. We weren’t in danger. It was warm, we had plenty of hours of daylight and we were on a track, even if we didn’t know which track it was. I gave up trying to solve the riddle and let the track dictate our fate. At least we were together, and we were safe.
About half an hour later fate delivered us to a tell-all signpost and our situational ignorance was extinguished. It was Lower Junction. The jig was up. For the first time since leaving Asbestos Cottage, we knew where we were, and our location was dripping with irony. It was the very place the morning’s ‘short-cut’ caper was designed to avoid.
What had we done so wrong to get so disoriented? I studied the map and the answer slowly crystallised. How could we have been so stupid? The unmaintained track we had begun following from Asbestos Cottage was just a branch of another unmaintained track. The junction we thought was Cobb Ridge was just a minor spur. We were never on Cobb Ridge at all. I spoke the words to Karen almost under my breath. “We were never on Cobb Ridge”.
The reason nothing made sense now made sense. We were basing everything on a completely false assumption: that we had been walking along Cobb Ridge. One geographical oversight – and the subsequent failure to recognise and account for that mistake – had set off a domino of discombobulation. Suddenly it all made sense. That was why we reached the top of (what we thought was) Cobb Ridge so fast. That was why the compass was saying south-east when it should have said south-west. That was why we never came across the junction with Bullock Track. With our minds fixated on a false belief, reality would never be reconciled, no matter how much reasoning we applied. A textbook case of confirmation bias. The pre-existing view that we’d turned onto the Cobb Ridge track meant we never revisited that junction in our minds to question it.
For several minutes we sat at Lower Junction and nibbled glumly on chocolate. We had endured not so much a physical ordeal as a mental one, but it was just as exhausting. I felt stupid; I could almost hear Annie and Henry Chaffey laughing at us for getting lost in their backyard.
We didn’t get the long afternoon at Balloon Hut we’d hoped for. It turned into a 10 hour day and we fell upon the hut exhausted. But the sun was still on the deck long enough for us to peel off our boots, brew up a cuppa and recount our adventure to the other trampers as the late light lit the tussock gold. Two of those trampers, Conrad and Gail from Masterton, had camped next to us two days earlier in Takaka, so it almost felt like a reunion.
“You’ve had quite a day,” said Conrad. I reflected on the morning spent traipsing up and down that bloody track, scrutinising that useless park map over and over, calling in vain to my family through the deaf forest as they called for me, working myself up into a state of panic and confusion as lost hours ticked by. Quite a day indeed.
Dorian drained the last of his drink as the sun sank and the tussocky swathe of the Tablelands glowed like a thousand campfires. He shuffled his deck of cards and said, “Yeah. We’ve had a good day, actually.”