I’m used to tramping with ‘Fit’ tramping groups. They are about efficiencyand speed of travel. In automotive terms they are the WRC of tramping; all carbon fibre, welded alloy and blowoff valves. They have a metaphorical go faster lever, so when the call goes out to kick it in the guts, the lever is thrown and the land blurs like the Millennium Falcon has just made the jump to lightspeed and the group ends up at their desired location instantaneously. However, the disadvantage is there is often no place for comfort.
On the other hand ‘Easy medium’ tramping groups are driven by a different philosophy. One of enjoying the surroundings and the company of the fellow tramper. Comfort comes high on the list of considerations. In car terms these are the white-wall shod 57 Chevys; low revs, plush upholstery and elbows out the window. The price to pay for all this comfort and enjoyment is there’s no go faster lever, and that’s fair enough. But sometimes, even on an ‘Easy’ trip, that lever would come in oh-so handy.
In our case its 5pm and night is falling fast. We’re standing at the end of Lake Christabel after seven hours’ walk. And there’s still seven kilometres to go.
It’s been slow going because the track is covered with twisted tree trunks and roots. We had held out hope that having reached the lake the walk around its shore would be like walking on the shores of Lake Rotoiti or Wairarapa… or even Lake Geneva may be. But it’s not; it’s worse. The contours bunch together at the shoreline as if they’re not wanting a swim, and the forest has reached an acme of rooty tangledness. The resultant track is a bastard. As well as a twisted tree obstacle-course there are a lot of slippery rocky ledges which threaten to escort the tired tramper off five metre drops down toward the lake.
Someone forlornly looks at the lake in the last of the daylight and comments how nice a boat would be right about now. With no go faster lever there’s nothing for it but to plod on. But as John periodically reminds us, it’s not all bad. The scenery is lovely, the weather for the most part has held off, it’s mild, and the company is very pleasant. We soon fall into a stumbling formation; Tatiana and Clinton at the front route finding (or should I say root finding), followed by Donna and Debbie, then me, with John at the back fighting a rear-guard action against the dark forest and chiming in with occasional encouragements. Six figures dwarfed by the forest with only six puny head torches strapped to six puny heads to hold the darkness at bay.
And so the minutes and hours pass by broken by sporadic curses, when are we going to be there, and grade 30 climbing moves by John to retrieve a bluffed walking pole. My mind wanders… …most of my current discomfort is caused by the weight of my pack, and most of that weight is from two kumara I was assigned to take. Such is their mass, when packing I had seriously considered drilling them out and now wished I had. In a moment of clarity I realised Einstein had missed the obvious- The Kumara Theory of Relativity: “The longer one carries a kumara the heavier it becomes”. Some quick mental calculus placed the pair I was lugging about somewhere between lead and rutherfordium on the periodic table.
Finally after two hours we break free of the forest on to gloriously horizontal flats beside the Blue Grey River. Our relief lasts for a good two or three minutes. Then the track peters out. I double-back to check for missed deviations. Nothing.
We have an impressive array of navigational aids including maps, compasses and GPS’s; not to mention the two kumara (some say that a kumara spun on end will always fall pointing toward Dargaville in a similar fashion as a spun carrot will always end up pointing toward Ohakune). We are not lost. We can precisely pin-point our position on the Earth’s surface. It is the track that’s lost.
I’m tasked to scrub-bash at 90 degrees to our direction of travel in case the track is running on a parallel course to us. I walk upright into the first metre of scrub, stoop for the following two metres and then find myself on all fours crawling through matagouri type scratchiness. I get to a point where it’s impossible to make progress even crawling. I reverse out and get a Don King hairdo from a scrubby barber. After replacing my hat and head torch on my newly coiffed head and thrashing around in the scrub for a few more minutes I re-join the others. Donna reiterates that the last marker is actually very close. So we must be on the track. The only possible way it could go now is in the river. So that’s where I go. It’s knee deep but being so near the head of the lake it’s hardly flowing at all. Sure enough, 30 metres upstream the recalcitrant track reappears on the bank.
Ten hours after starting and three hours after dark we finally reach Lake Christabel Hut. We’re all exhausted.
The next morning the hut wakes at a respectable hour. We’re not the only occupants with a couple having walked in via Rough Creek the previous day. They seem very pleasant. The guy holds some sort of position in the Anglican Church. He mentions working with the Bishop of Christchurch so we end up referring to him among ourselves as “The Bishop”. From his description the Rough Creek track doesn’t sound too bad and they made pretty good time coming in, although they do look fast.
I’m quite keen to head out today as is Donna, no doubt thinking of spending Monday morning relaxing in hot pools and not having to rush for the 6:40pm ferry. However, John is fairly adamant that we need a day to rest up so it’s decided to make an early start the next morning instead. I’m certainly very tired having got little sleep in the night with a sore throat and headache. A few of us go for a relaxing walk up the start of the track that eventually goes over to the Robinson River.
We spend the rest of the afternoon dozing, reading or chatting. Donna somehow manages to get the fire going. A couple of hands of 500 are played. Later in the evening a group of four arrive at the hut having bush-bashed from Jackson Creek to the north including spending a very wet night out on the tops.
The next morning we’re away before dawn at 6:20am. The plan was for 6am start but this is an Easy Medium tramp after all. The track isn’t all smooth sailing but it’s better than the one on the way in. I’m relishing a kumara-free pack and it’s good to be walking in the dark knowing it’s going to be light soon as opposed to the other way around. By 11am we’re on the tops at the high point having climbed 750m in elevation. We name the pass Hickey’s Pass in honour of our leader.
Now all that’s left is to head down Rough Creek. Its slow going getting down to the bushline as the route is steep with big Dr Suess-designed tussock clumps. Based on The Bishop’s times they must have been going at pretty good pace. As we haven’t got a lot of time up our sleeve at the bushline Tatiana and Clinton go on ahead to get the van. And of course just to be consistent the last bit of forested track doesn’t let us go easily. This one is obviously a close relation to the Lake Christabel track.
By 3pm we’re safe and sound at the road but there’s no sign of Tatiana, Clinton or the van. However, after a few minutes the van hoves into view. We gladly take off boots and eat assorted snacks. I often think the end of a tramp is the best part (which is wrong really). We can’t linger too long though as we’re really cutting it fine to make the ferry on time. North of Murchison John phones the ferry to say we’re running late. Short of a valid excuse he adds “because of traffic” as we drive down the completely deserted highway.
The ferry does indeed leave on time at 6:40 and we also do indeed arrive at 6:40 in time to witness it ease out into Queen Charlotte Sound, complete with its cargo of the other ‘fitter’ WTMC groups who we’re not surprised to learn have spent most of the weekend in or around hot pools.
We rebook for the 11:30pm sailing and have a highly deserved beer and meal at the Toot and Whistle.
By the time I get home it’s 3:15am. I set my alarm for 6:15 to get up for work and reflect that this easy medium tramping is certainly much harder than I thought. Would I do another one? Maybe, but first I need to do some more fit trips in preparation.
Thanks to Debbie, Donna, Tatiana, Clinton and John who made it an enjoyable trip despite it being tough going at times.