128 hours

Trip Start Nov 18, 2010
1
11
Trip End Jun 24, 2011


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Where I stayed
In the wilderness

Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The tramp started so promisingly, as ever, with a bike ride. A kind offer from fellow guests at the Gazebo left me bagless over the hill, a soaring two and a half hours, pushing slowly uphill then flying down sweeping curves, overtaking trucks in the exhilarated joy of an unencumbered descent, the steering sharp and legs working harder than the brakes, the slight burning in my muscles as welcome as the smile on my face.
Sadly, three weeks off the bike was enough to make life a bit more difficult once loaded up in Motueka. The final 50km to Tapawera, uphill though almost imperceptibly so, was a struggle, to the point of pushing over one final, steep climb. At least the welcome at the Tapawera Settle was warm and full of good advice for the forthcoming tramp. Irritatingly, the whole point in pushing on to Tapawera was to share the track transport to Rolling River junction; not great when the other party then fails to show up.

The first day of the Wangapeka track was a good day to appreciate the process of walking. Which is to say, whilst pretty, the scenery wasn't the breathtaking, attention grabbing terrain of Tongariro or the strenuous all day climb of the Abel Tasman inland route, the track was in decent condition as it undulated alongside the Wangapeka and my head soon began to clear of thought, making room to subconsciously settle the events of the past few weeks. Even sighting a Whio, the rare blue duck, failed to elicit much more than a curiosity satisfied, though I did take a few moments to poke around the historic Cecil King's hut, a rickety old place with a character so lacking in many more modern huts, no matter how well appointed.
Stone Hut was reached in the early afternoon, a short days' walk but enough when carrying a more than usually overloaded bag; a clearing surrounded by high hills, the clear waters of the Wangapeka and the sunlight my company; time to think. The way I wish more evenings could be.

The next day dawned bright and clear - perfect for a short morning walk up the nearby Mt Luna. On this basis, I packed as little as I thought would be needed for a half day - water, waterproofs and snacks for the trip - and left the rest of my gear wrapped in my sleeping bag with a note on top to say I would be back by the early afternoon.
It wasn't the easiest start to the side trip, wading across the Wangapeka, but the climb through forests lit by the early morning sun, alongside streams and waterfalls with almost no weight on my back, couldn't help but make me feel glad for every aching muscle the ride had provoked. I was feeling pretty good by the time I reached the end of the trail, a grassy meadow funneling me ever upwards to the inviting peak.
So close, but not an easy climb without a path. My initial impulse to take the most direct route soon had to be changed when, whilst pushing through waist deep grasses I found myself shin deep in a stream. Avoiding the rivulets, I headed for the gentle slopes of the valley side. Which turned out not to be so gentle as I switchbacked my way halfway up the ridge, hitting the south face well short of the peak, forcing me to traverse landslides of scree and battle through armies of mountain shrubs, dense with inch-long thorns. A short scramble brought me up to the western ridge; from there, an easy walk up the deadened, rocky landscape from which (I assume) the mountain acquired the name. Not the easiest hour, but to be standing at 1600m and surrounded by craggy peaks and dense, forested river valleys......
And then the descent. Having not had the easiest scramble up, I chose to follow the other ridge down, hoping it would be more conducive to a fast descent. This was a mistake. Not only was it far more challenging (even necessitating some newly acquired climbing skills in places) it led me to change my route, and things started to go wrong. I am certain I began on the correct ridge, so I can only assume that in crossing the south face in search of a better way down, I somehow crossed another ridge without noticing, taking it for a fold in the face; however it came about, I ended up descending the north face instead of the south. I was only to discover this a week later.
I finally managed to negotiate the descent by following the course of an emerging stream; damp shoes, dry feet, safe route. No longer worrying about a fall, I could take in the view. It was somehow different than before, but I still seemed to be aiming for a grassy meadow. I figured it was the same, viewed from a different angle. Even when I had reached the treeline and spent an hour in a futile search for the orange trail marker, I managed to convince myself I was in the right place. The brain has an amazing ability to deceive itself in the face of all evidence, it seems.
Not yet conscious of my mistake, I followed an entirely logical train of thought: follow the stream. Working on the assumption I had come down the correct side of the mountain and remembering from my map (so helpfully left behind at the hut) the ridge running from Mt Luna to the Wangapeka Saddle, a point on the track, I reasoned the stream had to drain South, either  to the Wangapeka or to the stream I had followed on my way up. And so I walked.
The streams began to merge as I pushed my way through the undergrowth, the trickles becoming stronger and the forest at once unknown and familiar. An hour or so in, just as I was beginning to question my choices, I saw the first of the false markers, a small off-white rectangle cut from a venetian blind. I had come across these old route finders before; crucially, I had seen a few running parallel to the orange markers that morning. In my mind, this confirmed that I was on the correct path; I should have realised that I ought to have hit the proper trail by this point, even allowing for my slow movement through the unbroken branches.
Certain as I was that I was on the correct side of the ridge, when it became clear that I wasn't going to be re-tracing my steps down the mountain (far later than it should have) I began to work under the assumption that I would come out somewhere in between Stone Hut and the Wangapeka Saddle. Flawless logic. So, in my state of denial, I pressed on through mulch and stream, breaking through bush and over storm-felled beech. Even in my ignorance I could tell this path hadn't been walked for a while, though that didn't stop me from seeing huts in every unusual angle in the distance, always resolving to a rock face or fallen tree and fallen hopes when approached; then distraction in the form of a wasps' nest in a downed trunk, a dozen stings to ankle and shoulder a welcome reprieve from the dawning realisation of the fading light.
My denial of the reality of my mistake could no longer be forced when twilight grew. There was no way I could have been walking for seven hours and not yet come to my river. At least in denying reality, I had also managed to deny hunger - no food for that time, yet distracted enough not to notice until beyond the point where hunger is an issue. Sleep was my only concern; fortunately not shelter on a clear night. Finding myself between two clear markers (a rarity) I settled in the soft mulch beneath my tinfoil emergency blanket, the physical exhaustion of a 12 hour day on little more than snack food overwhelming the torment of my mistake, the decision left for morning.

To go back or to press on along a half-marked path? Despite now being slightly more aware of my predicament, and also the terrain through which I had already passed, I chose badly.
For four hours I made relatively fast progress, keeping the river within earshot if not eyesight. A bend in the river would mean fast progress along the stones if it meandered to the right, slow going up and over a steep ridge if to the left. Impatience and irritation got the better of me; straight up seemed better than picking a safe route that might involve backtracking twenty minutes. Until you fall. A foot on a small ridge that wasn't there, fallen leaves disguising a protruding root, 10 feet fallen before a chance to react, grasping at a handhold, then solid ground once more beneath my feet. And blood. A gaping hole, 4 inches down my left wrist, the skin split an inch apart, off-white lumps visible. And blood; and panic; and strangely clear thought. Stem the flow, a hairband does the job. Keep it raised, not easy descending with one arm in the air. Get to the stream, clean the wound.
Clear of decaying forest matter and excess crimson, the gash looked....better? Less life-threatening, perhaps, though infection was still a worry. My panic subsiding, I came to a decision - wait. I had a clearing, albeit small and infested with sandflies and wasps. I had water to drink and to clean. The weather was still good. Give it the rest of the day, maybe a second. Assess the situation. Stop moving and think.
So I finally began to face the reality of the situation. My injury looked nasty, but wasn't immediately a problem, enough that I would take a day to see how it developed before making any more decisions. I had no food, but I was past hunger. I had 7 days fixed in my mind. Water, no food - 7 days (though I later found out it is possible to survive a remarkable 40 days or longer without food). This was only day 2. Plenty of time; still had energy reserves. Do me good to lose some weight.
This all seems too calm and rational, but is not too far from the truth. The fall and subsequent panic forced it from me. There were moments of anger at the decisions I had made, but they served no purpose and I had other issues to deal with that first afternoon of waiting, so I kept myself calm, kept thoughts of food suppressed. What good would they have done? Come nightfall, I settled down in the sand, a headscarf protecting my face from the tender nibbles of sandflies, much colder at the valley floor with no shelter from the breeze. I barely slept.

I woke in pain. Contact lenses, not removed for 48 hours. Not good. Even after scraping them from my corneas, it was a couple of hours before I could keep my eyes open without a stabbing pain; looking upwards into the sunlight wasn't an option until well into the afternoon. Visibility reduced to a blur, I picked my way around the rocky clearing cautiously when I had to move; mostly, I sat in frustration. My arm looked no better than the day before, but fortunately also no worse. My riverside resort seemed no more hospitable (less so after a night tormented by sandflies) - the clearing was small, a narrow strip of sky between steep hillsides; enough to be spotted by a helicopter? I wasn't convinced, though I was beginning to think in terms of rescue rather than finding my own way out. I would have to find a better place though. Preferably without the sandflies. Returning the way I had come didn't seem like a sensible idea, so it would have to be downstream. And maybe there was a chance the path was just around the next bend..so pressing on still seemed a good course of action, but how? A foolish hour saw me binding driftwood with my backpack, attempting to construct a raft on which to float to safety, an idea soon abandoned when I saw the results of my labours, distinctly lacking in backcountry expertise. My attempts to start a fire were similarly hampered by not having the first clue as to what I should be doing, though this didn't stop me repeatedly trying. Slightly more successful was my construction of a small windbreak beside my sleeping hollow, mainly because this required no more than piling up long branches.
Worse than anything were the tricks my mind was playing. I heard helicopters. This should have been reassuring, but I saw nothing through the tiny window in the forest overhead, so I began to rationalise what I was hearing. I was only 3 days out, it seemed unlikely that I had even been reported missing, let alone a mission be underway; the noise had to have another source. What could be causing it? River rapids? Perhaps, I convinced myself, it was just a cruel twist of fate that rapids echoing in the valley should sound like rotors. That thought was to plague me; better that than a false hope a dozen times a day?
Not even contemplating anything other than survival, my third day passed mostly in frustration, at idiotic schemes unrealised, at the boredom of sitting and waiting, at the prospect of another cold night alone.

Come the morning, I chose to move on, and create the illusion of progress. Ever one for self-delusion, I dismantled my 'raft', re-packed my now tattered emergency blanket and some water and once more set off into the wilderness.
Wary of false footing and painfully aware of a blurred landscape, progress was slow over the bluffs. Torn and scratched by unforgiving bush, tired through lack of food, to wade the river whenever possible and avoid the climbs became my path of choice. Cold and wet is temporary, a hole in my arm less so. Not yet entirely accepting of my plight, I found myself strangely humbled by the remote serenity of the valley as seen from mid-river, a view perhaps never before appreciated from this perspective, perhaps never again. And perhaps still not, since all I really saw was a vague blur.
Circumstances change. The fast progress of the river route halted when, unknowingly, I followed it into a cutting when I should have followed the ridge route. The sides grew steeper, the river deeper until sheer walls and tumbling waters blocked my way. Still I explored the options, until a slip on a wet rock forced my feet from under me and my head into a stone wall. Bleeding above the ear, stunned more than in pain, my eyes finally opened to the absurdity of what I had done and what I was still attempting to do. Here before me was the clearing I had hoped to find, wide and exposed, fallen wood for shelter and distraction, few sandflies and no wasps.More than that, a serene and beautiful refuge in which to wait out my fate. The rock knocked a moment of clarity into me - there was no more I could do. I lacked the energy to push further downstream, so all I could do was was wait and hope I had been reported missing, that Search and Rescue were looking in the right direction. A thought at once unsettling and calming, to acknowledge I no longer had control over the outcome of my situation.
So I set about distracting myself from thoughts I didn't want to have; shelter seemed a good priority. Moving slowly through necessity, it took a couple of hours to construct a laughably basic lean-to that proved to be of little protection against the wind - thank goodness it didn't rain. Hard to judge if it trapped any heat; with my blanket in tatters, the nights became cold. As a distraction, though, it served it's purpose, a temporary but all encompassing focus, and one that could be recalled and 'improved' throughout my wait. My attempts to create fire were just as frustrating as before, though no less valuable as a way of occupying my copious time; the hours tick by at a painful pace when all there is to do is keep certain thoughts out of your head.
The transience of dusk was a difficult time. Which was preferable: the numb, frozen frustration of a fitful night, thoughts of food creeping in around the edges of consciousness, or to be fully awake and aware of what may happen?

A tired and difficult day, lying on a rock with my thoughts. No distractions, no energy for distractions, forced finally to really take a look at my life; where I had been, where I was going, how I had ended up where I was and all the decisions I had made leading to this moment in my existence. An unusual luxury, to be facing the possibility of death yet to have the time and space to actually consider with calm detachment the course of my 30 years on this planet; to come to terms with my own mortality, a concept quite abstract in everyday life.
Disappointment. That I hadn't done more with my time; at opportunities missed; at how little point there seemed to most of my life, at how few people I truly knew, how much I had left unsaid  and how few words I could find to say.
Looking forward, I was almost surprised to find that the next chapter in my life, returning to uni and starting on a career path, drawing a line underneath an astonishing and unsatisfying and glorious near decade of travel, felt like the right thing for me to be doing.
Through it all, an almost numb detachment, an acceptance. For years I have joked about dying somewhere remote and beautiful. To finally be in this situation didn't seem at all ironic, it felt almost right, the way things had to be. I didn't want to die, but that was out of my control. All that was left was for me to accept and appreciate that life had brought me here, to this moment, whatever may come of it.

I emerged from one more sleep deprived night, the remains of my blanket now all but useless, wrapped around shoulders, hips, knees, feet, to face another exhausting day of inactivity. By this point as much drained mentally as physically and accepting of the perceived inevitable, I set about writing some final words to those that mattered most. How little I could find to say after 8 years of daily rambling! To fill one tiny notebook took the better part of the day, the mental effort required taking my mind far away from the immediacy of the situation, the detachment for once a blessing.
The day passed within my head and nowhere else, time not writing spent lying on my rock and summoning the strength to once more pick up my pen, as weighty as the largest branch of my shelter, until, almost unnoticed, the shadows grew long and the temperature dropped. With the fading light I crawled to my tragic excuse for a shelter, hoping the mental exertions of the day had tired me to the point where I could sleep through the cold, though not seriously expecting it. And in the blissful half-consciousness that precedes sleep, a helicopter. A dream? A trick of acoustics? No. Rescue.
With what energy I had, I was out of my shelter and on my feet, waving to the dark blur where once there had been sky. Just visible, a figure waving back as the shape passed overhead and disappeared from view.  

The next half hour is still much of a blur. A short, stunned wait, trying to figure out just what I should be feeling - relief, I felt would be appropriate - and the medic was beside me, fixing me into a harness to be winched into the waiting vehicle. A stunted conversation, struggling to interact after 7 days with just my thoughts for company. Also possibly down to extremely low blood sugar, for which I was taken to the nearest hut - once it had been found - and injected with two large syringes of glucose (which I could feel spreading up my arm in the blood stream), plyed with sugary tea and boiled sweets, all of which must have come as a bit of a shock to the lone occupant of the hut, just settling in for a quiet night. Not sure he entirely understood what was happening. Not sure I did either. Back in the helicopter, wrapped in blankets, a constant supply of food coming my way, struggling to understand what I was hearing. 4 day operation? 50 people out searching for me? The media? My father?? Some mistake?
But no. That blurred form as we landed at Nelson hospital did slowly resolve itself into my father. And as little as I understood of what was going on, it felt so good not to be alone.
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