A broken car and a five-hour nighttime Tararua trip begin a lifetime of tramping for one seven-year-old.
It wasn’t the best text message to receive a couple of hours out from the planned rendezvous at the road end. ‘Radiator blown up. Getting towed to Palmerston North’.
Awkward sentences, especially for a family who were taking their seven-year-old son on his first real tramp and were hoping things would go smoothly.
It seemed like a fairly simple operation. Meet at Putara Road, in the north-eastern corner of the Tararuas, and walk three hours to Roaring Stag Lodge, arriving by mid-afternoon, in time to enjoy the sun on the riverbank. But tramping is all about coping with the unexpected, and a non-compliant car is just one of the many barbs that could be thrust at you.
With no phone reception in the deep green depths of the Tararua foothills, there was nothing to do but plod on to the hut and hope the radiator could be repaired in time for our friends to get to the hut before nightfall.
The ironic thing was, we chose this trip because we considered it low-risk. We didn’t want anything too hard or drama-filled that might leave a bad impression on the youngest member. It just goes to show you can’t control everything, no matter how well you plan.
We arrived at the spacious hut and spent a few hours relaxing by the river, collecting firewood and eating cheese and crackers, every now and then listening out hopefully for the sound of voices and for muddy footsteps arriving. But no one came. Clouds slowly laid a blanket over the hills, the temperature dropped and shadows smothered the afternoon light. Somewhere, out there, a seven-year-old first-time tramper was sloshing through Tararua bog in a race against nightfall.
We decided to send out a search party. I had given my nine-year-old son two-way radios for Christmas, and this was the perfect time to test them out on a rescue mission. He set off back up the track with my uncle to try to intercept the stragglers. He enjoyed being referred to as the ‘rescue party’. I radioed to check on their progress after 20 minutes.
‘Good conditions, over,” he reported, but no sign of our missing friends. Back at the hut, we ate dinner and got the fire going. An hour passed and the radio was silent. My concern started growing as it ticked over to 7.30pm and there was still no reply from the rescue party. Surely they would have turned around and come back to the hut by now. I pulled on my boots and set off with a two-way radio and a torch. Out of the 11 people in our party, there were now more of us in the bush than in the hut, which wasn’t quite how we had planned it for nightfall on day one.
I crossed the second of two streams going back towards Putara Road and kept trying to rouse a response on the radio. No reply. I was getting worried now. I climbed a small rise and called again, without much hope: “Come in, come in!” Then, a faint reply: “Go ahead.” The relief was immeasurable.
The two searchers reported they had turned around and were heading back to the hut. There was no sign of the others. The rescue mission had failed, but at least the searchers were safe.
Half an hour later we convened on the hut’s deck and it was agreed the others must have failed to get their car fixed and abandoned the trip. It was probably sensible. There would always be next time.
The fire crackled and we relaxed into the familiar routine of cards, laughter and red wine. Outside, the Ruamahunga River seemed to grow louder – a constant, industrial-like drone – now that darkness had robbed the ranges of visual cues.
But then, out of the deep blue bush, a different sound. Voices, shouts, and the unmistakeable clip-clop of boots on the deck. We rushed out, not quite believing what we were seeing. They’d made it!
A more joyous occasion you couldn’t imagine. Laughter, questions and offerings of wine, food and slaps on the back. And in the middle of it all, seven-year-old Miles, his first tramp; five hours through mud and across mountain streams, daylight collapsing around him, with mum, dad and older brother by his side. A beaming face, round and bright as the moon that rose over the Ruamahunga, safely delivered to that most wondrous of havens: a happy hut.
A tramping career off to a flying start. Welcome aboard the journey.