Midnight Special

View from Mt Rintoul
View from Mt Rintoul

The special theory of relativity formulated by Albert Einstein in 1905 predicts that time slows for fast-moving objects. Presumably then, by moving quickly objects should have plenty of time to reach their destination. But we now have irrefutable proof that Einstein was wrong – because on a recent trip to the Richmond Range although we knew we were moving really fast everything always happened late.

The week before leaving on Friday evening Jackie and I had both been busy at work and we left in a rush to get to the ferry. But although we arrived travelling fast the ferry sailed late at 7:30 and not the usual 6 pm, putting us an hour and a half behind schedule to reach our first destination before we even started.

The crossing was calm and quiet and the pies edible. We left Picton and drove to Top Valley Road and camped comfortably in the grass under the trees that were still showing their bright autumn colours. And although there was a Met Service heavy rain warning for Saturday we woke to a calm morning with only light mist about the higher peaks and a valley fog that was slowly clearing.

We drove up the winding gravel road to the carpark, packed our gear, and wandered easily down the track to Lake Chalice. Jackie had made two recent trips to the area and neither had been particularly successful, and it had been a long time since I had been there so we were hoping that this would be an enjoyable one without any major dramas.

The track continued around the lake and was gentle easy walking. At the far end we sat on the sandy beach for a while looking over the mirror calm water as tui called from the surrounding forest. Then on down the Goulter River with the low sun casting an enchanting light through the tall beech trees. We reached the point where we reckoned the ridge on the opposite bank of the river would lead us up to Mt Edelweiss and which would then eventually take us on to Rintoul Hut for the night.

We knew that there was a long-abandoned track along the top of the ridge and that it was not shown anymore on the new edition of the map, but we hoped that there would be some trace of it left, or at least a few markers remaining to make travel a bit easier.

Although the climb was fairly steep and nearly 1,000 meters continuously up, the bush was open and the travel simple enough for us to think we were making good progress. We soon reached the shoulder of the peak but had not seen any sign of our hoped-for track. But this didn’t worry us too much as it was easy enough to contour between the tall trees along the side of the ridge watching the compass to make sure we were heading in the correct direction and not being lead astray by any smaller side spurs.

We made good progress for a while but then the further we went the more difficult the travel became. The open beech forest slowly gave way to smaller spindly trees that were so close together that it was often impossible to squeeze between them. Eventually we realised that further sidling was hopeless and so we headed straight up to the ridge crest thinking that our long-lost track may be there and make for easier going.

However, there was no sign of a ground trail or markers. But now we were committed to the ridge and with some cursing at the spiky stunted trees that caught clothing and packs we pushed on.

Then suddenly much to our pleasant surprise a reasonably good trail appeared. And then a bit further on there was an old white plastic marker on a tree. This was better we thought as we hurried on now only too aware that we were fast running out of daylight and still much further down the ridge than we hoped.

For the next couple of hours the track kept disappearing only to reappear further on just when we had given up hope of ever finding it again. Every now and then at random places there would be another marker. But all the time the travel was getting even more difficult – instead of a wide, easy-graded, and bush covered ridge there were rocky pinnacles to scramble over complete with low stunted and gnarly trees that we had to push through. At one point a big boulder that I was standing on somehow came unstuck and crashed down the slope fortunately to stop with a shuddering thud against the tree Jackie was clinging to.

It was now too dark to continue without headtorches and just to make things more interesting the dense mist that had earlier cleared away now rolled back over the ridges. So instead of the torch beam shining the way ahead there was just the bright reflection back from the cloud. From here on it was continually awkward travel but all the time we felt happy that we were making reasonable progress as we passed the easily recognisable peaks and saddles marked on the map.

It was with some relief we finally escaped the bush that had been tormenting us for so long and were able to climb the last boulder covered slopes to the summit of Purple Top, even if all we could see was the white glare of our torch beams in the mist. But we soon picked up a marker pole for the track heading down towards the hut although there certainly was no hope of easily finding the next ones when we could only see a few metres ahead.

So we set a compass bearing to follow down the scree covered slope and every now and then we would pass a marker that encouraged us that we still heading in the right direction. Then into the bush and finally easy travel to the welcoming hut where we opened the door sometime after 9 pm. We were happy enough to be there while at the same time realising that somehow we had arrived much later than planned – and also mindful that we still had a long way to go tomorrow.

The next day was misty when we left the hut but it cleared as we climbed the long slope to the summit of Mt Rintoul. And the view from the top certainly made it well worthwhile. Bush covered hills and rocky peaks filled 360 degrees, while shining in the distance were the Inland Kaikoura peaks with their new dusting of snow, and further south the higher peaks of Nelson Lakes. Mist filled the valleys and a few lazy clouds drifted in a clear blue sky above.

We stayed here for a little while enjoying the warm sun and taking in the view but we knew we had a long way still to go so, all too soon, we hurried off down the other side of the peak. Then there was an awkward rocky slope to a minor second high-point before dropping down to Old Man Hut. Here we realised that in spite of all our rushing we were already behind schedule again and would have to really race from here on if we were going to catch the Picton ferry home.

So off down the track back into the bush. The sunlight filtered down into the deep-green forest from the calm clear sky above, while just below us was the sparkling stream that we would follow to the Goulter Valley. This was Richmond Range tramping at its best, even if we were having to hurry along. Further down valley the track crossed the stream and we looked at the map to take stock of our progress. To our disbelief it seemed we were now even further behind time! There appeared to be still the same distance to go before we even got back to the Goulter and then we still had about a further four hours to get back to the car. At this point we thought that in spite of all our fast travel we had only an impossibly faint hope of getting out in time, but we were not quite ready to completely give up yet even if we decided to ease off a bit to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

We wandered on for about 15 minutes to suddenly arrive at the Goulter! We instantly realised that the map showed the stream crossing in the wrong place, and that we were actually much further on than we had figured – in fact about exactly where we originally thought we should be! But now it was too late – we had wasted time when we should have been moving faster and had absolutely no hope of making it up again.

But Jackie had important business at work on Monday and needed to be home early enough for last minute preparation so we figured there may be time to get her a flight home even if we had missed the ferry. So the rest of the afternoon was taken up walking as fast as we comfortably could along the tracks back to the lake then up the climb to the carpark where we arrived just as it getting dark. We drove off back down the road as Jackie made some calls to airports – but again we were likely to be just a few minutes later than needed to meet departure times. So again, so much for the rush.

We now both resigned ourselves to the later 10:40 pm sailing of the ferry – getting home at about 2 am didn’t seem too bad, and after all we had done that plenty of times before. But on arriving at the terminal to change the tickets we were told by the smiling man behind the counter that the ferry was in dock for repairs, but hey, there was a special cargo-only boat sailing at midnight he would get us on and which would arrive at our final destination Wellington at 3:15 am Monday. So we would finally be home about 4 am!

So there you have it – our travels are obvious proof that you can move as fast as possible but Einstein won’t come to your rescue and get you to where you want to be at the time you expect. We will be sending our account of the refutation of the special theory of relativity to a suitable publication sometime soon – but we’re in no hurry.

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