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November 2019 Issue
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This is why we do it

Ross Stitt. Photo: David Bridgman

1996. That was the year we started. Facebook and Google didn’t exist. There was no Netflix, Twitter, Instagram or Uber. Sean Fitzpatrick was the captain of the All Blacks and Jim Bolger was the Prime Minister (although Winston Peters was deputy).

I’d seen a video of an ‘old’ guy at work celebrating his 50th birthday on a tramping trip with a group of fellow geriatrics. Something called the Cascade Saddle. I’d never been tramping; in fact, I’d never had much time for the great outdoors, but even I had to admit it looked spectacular.

How hard could it be, I thought. I was 35 and not unfit.

For reasons now lost in the mists of time, my suggestion of a tramp was eagerly embraced by my best friend and a couple of workmates. In no time, we were on our way to Nelson and the Heaphy Track. Three lawyers and an accountant – what could possibly go wrong? (Our choice of the Heaphy rather than Cascade Saddle for our first tramp suggests we can’t have been entirely stupid.)

Two memories of the Heaphy stand out – the majesty of the cabbage trees and nīkau palms on the West Coast, and the agony of my blisters. None of us can forget how, nursing our wounded feet, we all limped sheepishly across the tarmac to board our flight back to Auckland.

But something must have gone right because the following year three of us returned for more. The one who dropped out was 25 and unmarried – perhaps he had better things to do. Or perhaps he could see where this was heading. We replaced him with someone more appropriate – another thirty-something married lawyer.

At French Ridge Hut in Mt Aspiring National Park. Photo: Mark Reese

Our second trip was the Routeburn and Greenstone tracks and we acquitted ourselves with a little less ineptitude. There were still blisters, but at least we didn’t limp onto the plane. We might not have been hardcore Kiwi trampers yet, but we were on our way. And one thing was certain: we were hooked on the magic of the mountains, the rivers and the bush of the South Island.

The rest, as they say, is history. More than 20 years on and we’re still at it – five of us now with the addition in the early years of yet another thirty-something married lawyer. What we lack in diversity we more than make up for in enthusiasm.

We’ve returned almost every year to wander Te Wai Pounamu. We’ve tramped in five National Parks – Mt Aspiring, Fiordland, Arthur’s Pass, Nelson Lakes and Kahurangi. We’ve taken on the traditional (the Kepler Track, Gillespie Pass and the Travers-Sabine Circuit), the easy (the Motatapu Track, the Hump Ridge Track and the St James Walkway), the difficult (the Three Passes, Five Passes and Rabbit Pass) and everything in between.

Where did the time go? Suddenly, 60 is just around the corner. Between tramps, we’ve raised 13 children and experienced our share of life’s usual slings and arrows, including three divorces and a brush with cancer.

Why do we keep coming back? Anyone who has seen the last rays of the setting sun paint orange the mountaintops across an alpine valley; who has camped by a mountain tarn listening to the rain lash their tent; who has stared up at the vastness of a starry sky miles from civilisation, or who has played cards by headlamp in the cosy fug of a backcountry hut knows the answer to that question. We come for the beauty, for the tranquillity, for the physical and mental challenge, and above all for the camaraderie.

It’s impossible to list all the highlights from more than 20 tramps but a few stand out.

The Three Passes Route may well have been our greatest adventure. Several hours into the trip, in the pouring rain, we found ourselves chest-deep in the freezing Waimakariri River with daylight fading fast. We were well outside our comfort zone and no other hut has ever looked so welcoming as Carrington Hut did that night when at last we reached it. If our partners could have seen us, they might well have called it Five Go Mad in Arthur’s Pass.

The rest of the trip was equally eventful. Crossing the snow-covered Whitehorn Pass in bright sunshine, linking arms to cross the fast-flowing Cronin Stream, sharing the primitive Park Morpeth Hut with a laconic deer hunter and his latest kill, and zigzagging our way nervously up the daunting Browning Pass. To complete a remarkable experience, the helicopter that picked us up by the Styx River then retraced our journey, flying low over the passes and valleys we’d just walked.

Almost as adventurous was the Five Passes. I’ll never forget the beautiful Fohn Lakes and the surreal landscape of the Olivine Wilderness Area. We learned the trials of pitching a tent in inclement weather and the joy of sitting around a campfire under the stars. Sleeping in tents gave us a new appreciation of a humble DOC hut and its long-drop toilet.

Rabbit Pass had always been on our radar, but each year we seemed to find a preferable alternative. No doubt our decision-making was heavily influenced by the notorious reputation of the waterfall face below the pass. But after twenty-plus years, its omission was getting difficult to ignore. Eventually, we committed, comforted by the knowledge that for once we would avail ourselves of professional guides.

And so earlier this year, we finally confronted and crossed the waterfall face. Like so much in life, the anticipation was worse than the reality. Nevertheless, it was an important addition to the sense of shared achievement that we have built up over the years.

The weather turned nasty the day after we crossed the pass. For two nights we were stuck in a tent and when we did emerge, the rivers had risen so high that crossing the three-wire bridges over the roaring Kitchener and Matukituki Rivers was more intimidating than the waterfall face.

The weather was much more acceptable for our final day of the St James Walkway. It had started snowing just as we reached Boyle Flat Hut. That evening, while snowflakes drifted through the night, we played 500 by torchlight. The next morning, we woke to a magical scene – below a cerulean sky, snow blanketed the ground and icicles hung from the trees. There was not a breath of wind to disturb the stillness. If there’s a tramping heaven, it must be something like the winter wonderland we walked through that day.

A similar sense of awe greeted us the morning after a cold night camping on the flat below Cascade Saddle. There before us, in all their glory, were the Dart Glacier and Mt Aspiring/Tititea bathed in the early morning sunshine. Another time, we emerged from French Ridge Hut after a night of howling winds to a clear and cloudless day with the Matukituki Valley set out below. There is nothing like the sight of the snow-capped Alps or a glacial river valley to put life’s problems in perspective.

Of course, there have been adverse incidents along the way. A broken finger here, a sprained ankle there, but nothing consequential. A series of significant earthquakes, while we were staying in Liverpool Hut, gave us a fright. A sound like rolling thunder preceded each quake and after the hut stopped shaking, we waited anxiously to see whether a boulder had been dislodged above and would crash into our now fragile-seeming refuge.

After nearly 20 years of prevarication, the group finally walked the Rabbit Pass route in early 2019. Photo: Casey Plunket

Our biggest scare confirmed that water is the most dangerous element of Kiwi tramping.

Walking up the Wilkin River after several days of rain, we arrived across from Kerin Forks Hut just as dusk was falling. We were faced with the choice of crossing the river to the hut or setting up a makeshift camp where we were. It had started to rain and we were wet and cold. The vision of the hut so close proved too seductive.

We linked arms and were about halfway across when the current tore us apart and swept us away. The others managed to clamber ashore at various points downriver. Mine was the most ignominious exit. The force of the water dragged my overtrou down over my boots turning them into Gore-Tex leg irons that restricted my movement. I eventually crawled out of the river like a bedraggled merman.

One of the greatest pleasures of our trips is always the conversation. On foot in the wilderness or huddled around a hut fire, we canvass everything from music and movies, politics and politicians, travel and technology, wine and women. Jokes are told and gossip shared. Las Vegas rules apply of course – what’s said on the tramp, stays on the tramp.

Remarkably, in all our years we’ve never had any major conflict. Any disagreements we might have are usually minor matters of ‘tramping philosophy’ – whether it is better to dash to the next hut as quickly as possible or to stroll and ‘smell the roses’; whether we should exchange polite chat with strangers in the hut or seek to engage them in intense discussions about the meaning of life; and whether we need fine wines in glass bottles or can reduce our weight with cheap plonk in a plastic bladder.

You get to know someone well when you tramp with them, especially when you do it year after year. It must have been a misanthrope who said that familiarity breeds contempt. For us, it has bred only respect and affection.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives various definitions for the verb ‘to tramp’ including the one it attributes to New Zealand – ‘Walk for long distances in rough country for recreation’. That’s what we’ve been doing for more than two decades. And no one is more surprised than me that we’re still doing this. I never thought I’d develop a passion for any activity that requires you to bring your own toilet paper and to chase cairns and orange markers across the countryside. I never imagined that I’d willingly trudge up a hill, heart pounding, lungs gasping, and then trudge down the other side, trying not to slip on tree roots or do too much damage to my knees. And I certainly never dreamt that I’d view a plastic-covered foam mattress in a bunkroom as any kind of luxury.

But you can put up with a lot for great scenery and amazing company.

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