When I saw the Moonlight Southern Crossing on last winter’s trip schedule I was immediately taken by a strange urge to join in to go and walk among the moonlit clouds. But it clashed with the AIC (like this year, more about that later) so, as Lyndsay had asked full commitment of all AIC punters, I had to bide my time. I knew it had come when I saw the trip reappear in this year’s winter schedule and I think I was among the first ones on the list. Then it was just a matter of waiting.
I had not done a Southern Crossing before, in fact, I hardly knew the western Tararuas at all, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. way a slight euphemism: ”Perfect days” are hardly perfect when sitting in an office or, like me, shaking and baking stuff in a fumehood. Nevertheless, the question was if those ”perfect days” would last until the weekend or if it would be over just before it was time to go, as it has done so often before. We were lucky and all of us, Andrew, Eric, Lisa, Matt, Nick, Roger and the undersigned, gathered with good spirits at the railway station to enjoy our one-way ride to adventure.
The Paraparaumu fish’n’chips shop gave us the calories necessary for the ascent after a lengthy wait. The co-waiting crowd didn’t quite look like they needed the calories for a Southern Crossing, but they seemed to enjoy their Friday night meals nevertheless. Somewhat later, we stood in the heavy dew at Otaki Forks making the last arrangements and getting ready to head off into the cold, clear and windless night. We used headlamps for the uneventful walk up to Field Hut. There were two Aucklanders in the hut preparing their supper when we came by. They gave us rather funny looks when we explained what were up to. In return they had to endure yearning looks for their fresh pasta with broccoli. Obviously, the power of the Paraparaumu fish was beginning to fade, so we grabbed some quick bites before heading off again.
When passing through the bushline shortly thereafter we shut off and packed away our torches. It was magic up along the ridges. The moon was gleaming from a cloudless, star-pierced sky. On the ground far below us the lights of Wairarapa, Wellington and the Kapiti Coast twinkled in the dark. There were patches of light frost and some mud puddles were slightly crunchy, but after a week of ”perfect days” the conditions were ideal. Some of the older punters told us young fellows about how many times they had walked here without seeing anything – something that seemed rather unbelievable this peaceful night. Even the wind seemed to have stopped for a break to stand still and enjoy it all.
We wandered on to Kime hut, apparently the coldest in the Tararuas. There we all huddled up in the front room so as to not disturb whoever was inside. That turned out to be a good decision, as the little room was soon warmed up by a roaring billy of steaming hot chocolate that provided additional warmth from inside. Some yawns were already evident here and we felt a little stiff when heading out into the night again. Midnight on Hector with a little snow on the ground. Stop for some long-time exposures of strange postures.
Going down the other side of Hector proved to be the trickiest bit of the whole trip. We had to zig-zag in between some windblown and frozen-and thawed-many-times chunks of white stuff that once must have been snow. The march around the Dress Circle was getting lengthy. Here Roger and some followers started singing various tunes to keep awake and cheerful. Thus the rest of us were able to ascend to Alpha accompanied by a rather skewed version of God Defend New Zealand emanating from the murky distance. In doing so we were worried about what the pills that our bold leader Andrew had promised for Alpha hut might do to these guys: The green triple G energising pills (guarana, ginko and ginseng) were strictly not to be taken by persons tending to hyperactivity. And here we were at 3 am walking along the ridges singing various national anthems, still intending to continue for yet a few hours. And this was not hyperactivity ?
At Alpha hut we had another brew and some more food. The Paraparaumu food was now long gone, as evidenced by the ceasing of Andrew’s loud burps – something he claimed to be caused by that groper that wasn’t quite dead yet and insisted on keeping on turning. Now it seemed to have given in completely and the rest of us were also getting tired: One of us almost fell asleep in the corner, whilst I sat on the teat of my hydrating system and kept wondering why my pants were getting wetter and wetter. This was when Andrew popped out the aforementioned magic green triple G pills. Diligently, we all swallowed them and wondered what would come next.
No big flashes, no urge to run, no dancing on the tables, just a silent determination to carry on – or was it the realisation that it was closer to continue than to turn back? The strategy had already been used by Nansen when crossing Greenland in 1888: He figured that he would be able to get more out of his men by them being let off at the uninhabited and fierce east coast of Greenland and heading towards the villages in west, rather than leaving from the west with the option of turning back. Not that our choice was that stark that night, but it’s always good to put one’s efforts into perspective.
I remember looking at the map in the hut and reading the description of the next section out to the Kaitoke roadend. ”A long slog along the ridge” it was printed in DOC language. That worried me, because DOC seldom uses that sort of language in describing its own tracks. Normally it is a ”narrow undulating track” or an ”energetic walk”, but never had I seen something called a ”long slog”. Little did I know. At least there was this place called Hell’s Gate along the way. Surely, that must be something interesting to deserve such a name, so that must be something to look forward to.
At 4 am we set off, probably to the relief of whoever else was in the hut. They must have been surprised to find a few lines of new names appearing in the hut book overnight. The lamps came out of the packs and each of us dived back into that little ring of light that seemed to define existence and space. We will never know what it would have been like without those pills, but to me it didn’t seem to make much difference, apart from for Lisa. Around that time she realised that she wouldn’t make it back to Porirua before 10 o’clock in the morning to instruct on the AIC course unless she increased the pace a bit, which meant leaving us behind. So shortly thereafter we saw a headlamp disappearing at a frightening pace. (After the code of conduct for club busdrivers that we were given recently, does this mean that we soon need one for over-energetic AIC instructors?)
If Nick hadn`t told me, I would have missed Hell’s Gate completely. So much for that excitement. But in a sense, this place deserved its name, because from here the Long Slog started. And DOC is right, it is one and deserves no other description, particularly when done just before sunrise. This period of staring into that little ring of light and stumbling over roots, sometimes interrupted by sitting down on the soft moss to swiftly get carried away into a much more pleasant semi-dream world has only left diffuse memories, and they are of a Long Slog.
Once the eastern sky started to catch fire, quickly followed by Mother Sun sifting her awakening yellow rays through the beech thicket to the pale punters, the spirits rose quickly. In fact, it was fascinating to feel how the body became re-energised (relatively) and conversations started again. However, it was rather sad that the expected symphonic morning greeting by the awakening birds was limited to a few hesitant fragments by maybe all in all 10 individuals spread over 2 hours.
After some more food the few more hours left to go didn’t seem that much any more. We decended quite swiftly towards Kaitoke with a splendid view of Wellington, its harbour and the sleepy valleys extending from it. In the background the mighty Kaikouras rose out of the mist on the ocean to provide the perfect backdrop- a splendid ending to a splendid trip!