27 November 2007

Over the Ngamoko

Here at Leon Kinvig hut I settle in for the evening; wait for the billy to boil for an after-dinner brew. I'm here because the tops South of Toka were enveloped in cloud — lifting and lowering, to be sure, but mostly it stayed well below the ridgeline and I didn't want to risk losing my way to my original goal, Ngamoko hut. In that murk, losing my bearings would have been too likely. So, here I am, doing the walk in the other direction.

The billy's boiled.

I trudged my way up Knights Track, stopped for water and a muesli bar shortly after reaching the snowgrass, again for photos above the tarns on the summit of the Ngamoko Range just East of Toka, and arrived here at the hut comfortably in a bit over three hours.

Then it took me most of an hour to fix the leaking on-off valve on the MSR. I thought about lighting a fire instead, but persistence paid off and I managed to get it running safely.

The hut's been painted, only a few weeks ago; a pleasant two-tone scheme in dull greens, one pale, approaching grey-green, the other a darker muted green. I prefer this over the the old reddish-brown. Outside, the wind, as always here, and the sound of the river, the two merging. Which is wind, which is river? I can't tell, and don't care — I simply like the sound; it tells me where I am.

The flowers of Clematis festoon the bush, looking strangely incongruous, as if some god had strewn sprays of the big white-and-yellow flowers at random on her journey down the valley. A quarter past eight. Slowly, the light begins to fade. Big spiders hang in their webs — enormous, bloated, gravid Eriophora — while the gibbous moon hangs in the evening sky, framed by the silhouettes of stag-headed beeches. The cloud has cleared completely now; in the South-West the sky's taken on that indescribable, brilliant colour which seems to be no colour at all, not even white, just the colour of the concept of light. Further North, the darker sky's tinged with the faintest imaginable trace of salmon-pink; the moon brightens, burns in the evening. I stand on the verandah, warm boards beneath bare feet, hands cupped around the mug of tea. Taking sips, looking up at the moon; just the spiders and me. Thinking, if anyone saw me they might think I'm praying to that brilliant moon. Here, at home among the simple and elemental, I might almost feel the urge to do that — to pray.

But I watch instead; finish my mug of tea; go inside and write. If I could remember how to pray, I wouldn't know who, or what, to pray to. But, if I did, it wouldn't be to ask for anything for myself, other than to let my life continue as it is.


About 10 minutes downriver from Leon Kinvig hut a deer barks at me. Close. Out of sight, of course. The sound again, somewhere between the woof of a dog and a cough, but louder than either. Much louder, filling the forest. As I continue down the river, hopping from boulder to boulder, wading limpid water, sometimes thigh deep, I can follow the deer's progress by locating its bark — following me downriver but climbing higher into the forest, always out of sight.

The small, coarse-sand beaches disclose other signs of deer, too — hoofprints, some not more than a night old. That's a stag — you can tell by its size and shape, broader, with a more prominent heel than the print of a hind. And that must be a yearling, judging from its size.

Footprints, annotations in the sand, tell of other lives too. Below Leon Kinvig hut I found a few prints, several days old; prints that say whio, the only sign I've seen so far of these strange, beautiful birds. Here and there, possum prints, and, only 10 minutes or so from Ngamoko hut, suddenly I come across a bootprint. It looks fresh. Surely no one else is here, mid week? A slight trace of apprehension creeps in — if someone else is here, he's probably hunting, and not likely to be expecting anyone else. I think about donning my hi-viz vest, but as I find more bootprints it becomes clear they're several days old.

At Ngamoko the hut book reveals a surprising amount of activity: a hunter and his dog here for the day, up from mid Pohangina hut; Jean and Ivan were here last weekend; Kay and Phil here the Monday before that, passing through en route from Leon Kinvig to mid Pohangina. Two hunters here a few days before Phil and Kay, returning to Leon Kinvig. But before them, apparently no one has been here since April; Ngamoko has been deserted (apparently) for seven months. A year ago I was in the Indian Himalaya, where the idea of being alone for even a day was inconceivable. Here, seven months of solitude. In my seven months in India and Africa I never lived a day without meeting another human being. Usually, many human beings. To be born and raised in India, or Ghana, or Malawi, for example, must be to grow up with no concept of solitude, let alone seven months of it. Nor of clean, clear, safe water — in a global context, this achingly beautiful river must be like a dream. Such things are possible.

Am I the luckiest person alive? By what right did I earn this privilege?

But Ngamoko hut's solitude must be at least partly false. Someone's been here but shunned the hut book. Two almost-empty flagons, one of Jim Beam, the other of generic ruby port, sit in the alcove above the door, and a bag containing half a dozen sprouting potatoes hangs from a wall-mounted candle holder. Hunters, I guess; flown in, for sure — no one carries in flagons and bags of potatoes. Still, they'd have been here during the roar, around April; maybe May at the latest, so the seven months of solitude seems intact. And it seems they left the hut tidy, too, as none of the subsequent visitors noted anything untoward— unlike the scum who cut up their deer inside Leon Kinvig hut, crapped right outside the hut, and left the filth for the next party to clean up.

Try not to think about it.

So, I have Ngamoko hut to myself after all. The meander down the river, in no hurry, stopping for photos, taking my time, took about 3 hours. You could do it in under 2 if speed's important, but for me it wasn't. I took my time, crossing and recrossing the river through water hardly cold enough to be called cool; beautiful clear water, green in the big, deep pools, colourless where shallow, the ripples forming a network of light on the gravel bed, as if the water wasn't even there. Toetoe and cutty grass bending in the wind, white water rushing, pale grey riverbed boulders bright in the midday sun.

In the warm hut the light begins to fade; dusk settles. But the clear, infinite light of last night has been replaced by ominous clouds, thickening to overcast. What if the weather's ugly tomorrow? Do I still try to get out over the tops? I've done it before, but I was fitter then, with more margin for error, or at least more with which to battle the gale, the bitter cold, the poor and confusing visibility — and believe me, it's not to be taken lightly. I've been there, I've been disoriented up there in those conditions several times. I know how to survive, but tomorrow I don't want to have to employ those skills nor call on that experience. What should I do if the weather's bad? If I navigate without error I'll make it regardless of the conditions, but what if I head down the wrong spur? Should I, therefore, if the weather's bad, retrace my steps all the way to Leon Kinvig and cross the Ngamoko Range the way I know well? The thought's daunting, but at least I'd be certain of getting out (barring mishap) — shattered, for sure, but safe and on time.

I can't make the decision now. Wait for morning, assess the weather then.

And I don't want concern about tomorrow to detract from today. It's been an excellent one, and I've made it back to one of my favourite places in the Ruahine, after 22 months — 22 months that included time in India, Nepal, Africa, the UK, Paris. Time during which I often thought ahead to doing exactly this — putting a pack on my back and heading into the Ruahine; meeting no one. Solitude. Remoteness. Like stepping out of the imaginary world and into the real.

I write this by candlelight, in a darkening hut, the sound of the wind and the river coming and going.

And now — the sound of a whio, whistling in the river.

Grabbing the binoculars I make my way down the track to where I can see the river. I whistle — I'm here; please, speak to me. Immediately he answers, and the sound draws my focus to the middle of the pool, a dim shape, the distinct pale bill. I watch through the binoculars as he swims about, head stretched low over the water as he whistles. A little way upstream, then he turns and drifts, quick, bobbing, downstream, where he circles and whistles. He swims to the near edge of the pool, climbs onto a rock, turns this way and that a few times, then slips back into the pool.

I watch, with a tightness in my throat, the beginnings of tears behind my eyes.

I remember the Maharaja of Jamnagar, his love of his birds and his wildlife, his particular knowledge of and love for whio. How can this be possible — the impossible coincidence of our meeting? Part of the reason I came here, carrying the big lens, all one and a quarter kilos of it and the camera and other lens to boot, was the hope of a good photo of a whio, least in part so I could send my friend a print.

But photography's out of the question. Even through the brilliant Swarovskis the whio appears like a dream, intense yet indistinct.

It's enough. I've seen a whio; I've met my friends again.

As I climb back to the hut a ruru begins to call.


Shortly after 5 a.m. dawn begins to lighten the hut. When I crawl from my sleeping bag and check the sky, the decision, like the sky, is clear. I'll go out over the tops.

I'm away by 7, feeling strong, climbing fast and steadily, slightly surprised at how good I feel, the great energy. When a stag bearing a good head of velvet crashes away across the track no more than 20 metres ahead, I almost feel like bounding after it.

On the tops, though, the visibility's poor, down to a few hundred metres, and I'm relying on vague episodic memory, the recollection of the last time I walked this route, several years ago, and last night's working memory, recalling the scrupulously studied map on the hut wall. I walk steadily, carefully, methodically, not pushing too hard in the strong, cold wind. Near Whaingapuna the first decision's easy enough although I still feel a trace of anxiety — what if I'm wrong? Where might I be heading? I console myself with the knowledge that I know what to do — park up and wait; keep warm; I know R will do as I've asked and call the cops and the worst outcome will be nothing more than acute embarrassment and a little discomfort. But it's soon clear I'm on course. The anxiety sets in again later though, where the ridge seems to veer sharply to the left — much sharper than the map suggested. The alternative doesn't look right, though. I call on experience; that way seems too low, it seems to drop away too steeply. I veer left, looking back to memorise what it looks like if I have to return; again keeping the anxiety in check by reminding myself I'm in no danger other than that of the humiliation of being the object of a SAR operation or of the torment of waiting until I'm found.

But, as the ridge rises to a low peak, I'm sure I recognise where I am. Yes! There's the main ridge, lower and off to the right. I follow it, recognising the small bank with the well-worn step — and then, a bootprint. A few more, and a vague trail. And then the waratahs, emerging from the mist. The top of Shorts Track.


I drove home, nursing the almost empty tank. In town in the evening I looked around at all the people doing town stuff and in some way I saw through the pointlessness of most of what was happening around me; how superficial it seemed; busy yet idle. Perhaps I hadn't really made it all the way out from Ngamoko hut after all.

1. I'm away again for the next three days. Off to the ocean this time; a small, quiet East Coast beach. Reading, writing, photographing, eating, relaxing, conversing.

Photos (click to enlarge the smaller photos):
1. The ridge leading down to the Pohangina River and Leon Kinvig hut from just below Toka. Wednesday.
2. On Knights Track a few weeks ago. Similar weather. The dull green vegetation is leatherwood (tupare; Olearia colensoi); if there's no track through it, you're in trouble — a few hundred metres an hour is good going.
3. River terrace just upstream from Ngamoko hut, evening. This is a composite photo, stitched together from four handheld photos. The original's huge; this I've reduced to 1024 pixels wide.
4, 7. Pohangina rapids.
5. Snowgrass on the Ngamoko Range on the day I walked out.
6. The weather on the tops.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


Relatively Retiring. said...

Ah, yes - now I see! What a wonderful period of time. The photographs of water are so beautiful.
Lives full of joy and meaning can be lived in much less seclusion though,(or so I believe). And don't forget to buy petrol!

robin andrea said...

Yes, now I understand, wonderful beyond words. The contrast between your life last year at this time and this is breathtaking. You make me want to hear the Whio whistle, and wonder what I might pray for if ever I did such a thing. A beautiful journey, pete.

Ruahines said...

Superb Pete. You took me back to my own trip on the exact same route back in 2005. I did have to spend an extra night at Ngamoko because of wind and cloud up on those tops back to Shorts track. And the next morning at Mid Pohangina, just as I was heading back into the bush, I heard a chopper come looking for me! Still, it was a memorable way to see the ranges as they gave me a lift back to my car. I have traversed most every valley in the Ruahines now, but I find the Pohangina the most spiritual and mysterious.I have also stood in front of Ngamoko above the river and seen, perhaps the same, Blue Duck fly by. You capture the emotion of that experience. Welcome back to the Ruahines.

Beth said...

Gee, Pete, the whole thing is a prayer.

The water photos are extraordinary but it's the top one that really moves me. Thanks for this wonderful post.

zhoen said...

I've never felt a prayer needed a god. It's simply being willing to witness and be grateful. You've prayed here, and brought us along.

Duncan said...

This story took me back to similar times when I was in our high country, gorgeous water photos too Pete, thanks.

butuki said...

What a treat to read an account of a mountain walk that doesn't involve listing every item one has in one's pack and counting out the hours, temperatures, and altitudes. A walk which is taken slowly, feeling for the land as if you had transformed yourself, for a moment, into a pair of antennas. The names that you speak are strange to me, for sure, but I know exactly what you refer to when looking down at the mud and finding a boot rpint there. Or realizing that you are being watched, unseen, by a bird (the greatest thrill I ever had with a bird was being watched, for several hours, by a Snowy Owl in New Hampshire. Only as I was turning to leave did I finally notice the white form perched atop an old picket fence, its eyes fierce and aloof). So I followed beside you on this walk and could hear and smell and feel the aspects of the wind and grass.

Maybe more than many I think perhaps you might understand the aching I feel to be so long separated from such places and such moments. It's strange why being alone in the place I am now, where there are actually many people, seems to bring no reprieve, while I've never had any problems with spending hours, days, even weeks alone with the wild. What is it that makes the difference?

Perhaps because, as you put it, "Such dreams are possible." and I've lived in and seen such places (Oregon was and still is the dream that I long to see again) it's very hard to ratchet myself back down to a daily existence of "trying not to think about it. (do people actually do such inconsiderate things in New Zealand? In spite of my criticisms of Japan, I can't even imagine Japanese ever doing such things!) It's just sometimes not so easy to find your back, though, and often those wonderful places are so wonderful because it is hard to make a living there.

Pete, you've gotten me, in your letters, picking up and gently handling my camera again, excited about stepping out into the wind. And here you've gotten me almost breathless with anticipation of wondering the deserted winter trails here this coming winter. Maybe I can go in search of the ghostlike and elusive Scops Owl (Otus scops), or at least hear its call.

Brenda Schmidt said...

So beautiful, Pete. Your approach to life and living is something I admire deeply.

peregrina said...

Pete, every time that top photograph appears on my screen I catch my breath. The light on the ridge-top is just beautiful, especially against the cloud-shrouded tops behind. The two photographs of the rapids, are lovely, too, catching the evening light on the water so that above the rocks it looks like molten gold or molten bronze. Interesting to see the difference a slightly different angle and focal length can make to the same subject. Can you remember what shutter speed you used? It's perfect. You've got detail of the movement in the water without the splashier parts degenerating into cotton wool. (Although I suppose shutter speed needs to be related to the speed at which the water is flowing , too.)

This piece is beautifully written, Pete. It's only a couple of weeks or so since you said you were having trouble writing anything of quality. You certainly seem to have broken out of that state! For those of us who can go over the Ngamoko only by means of your eyes and words, it has been a wonderful trip. Vivid verbal as well as visual images.

I've always loved the expression "gibbous moon" along with those two other words that describe its states - waxing and waning. They're not in common parlance any longer. Do you think it's because so many of us are now urban dwellers who live in a blaze of artificial light once the sun goes down, so that the moon has lost its significance in our lives? Many of us probably no longer notice it much at all and, if asked, most of the time could probably not say which phase it is in. I wonder if that's why this pre-twentieth century vocabulary associated with the moon has remained static, in contrast to the rapid change in so much of our language since?


pohanginapete said...

rr: Yes, seclusion's certainly not necessary for a joyful, meaningful life, but for some of us it helps. On the other hand, I've just returned from a wonderful few days on the coast, where a friend and I joked about our misanthropic tendencies; however, there's no question those few days were enhanced by the companionship.
Oh yes — I set a new personal record for the longest distance travelled on one tank of petrol.

robin andrea: Thankyou, and I hope I'll be able to show you a few photos of whio soon — I'm off into the Ruahine again this Tuesday, helping with the survey. I was tempted to try to find and link to an audio file of whio calling (and probably will if I can find one), but maybe I'll wait until I can include it with the right photos, so you can see and hear at the same time. Best wishes to Roger for his recovery; sorry I've been quiet lately, but I have in fact been thinking about you and Roger. Thanks for calling in, and glad it's been worth the visit :^)

Cheers Robb. Ah, now I recall your entry in the Ngamoko hut book. Good decision to back off and head down to mid Pohangina; I know very well what it would have been like up on the tops.
The Ruahine certainly has its share of astonishingly beautiful rivers, but the Pohangina's the equal of any. Good to hear it from someone else who knows and appreciates it. Thanks, and I'm looking forward to catching up.

Beth: Maybe it is; and, as Zhoen says, maybe it's mostly about being grateful. Seeing that light on the water simply stopped me in my tracks; this was something I needed to show, to acknowledge.
It's curious; after reading your great and thoughtful post about the need not to post too frequently, and hearing how that resonated with so many other bloggers, I felt something like a sense of relief; that seemed to free me to write more easily. Funny that — how giving permission not to do something so often encourages one to do that thing. So, thanks Beth!

Zhoen: I think you've summed it up very well: prayer in situations like that somehow seems as if it should naturally be about acknowledging and gratitude — we might not know to whom or what, but I'd be surprised if the urge wasn't there in all of us. Thanks.

Cheers Duncan, great to know you understand what it's like being in places like these.

butuki/Miguel: as usual, there's so much to think about in your comment. I'm lucky I'm so easily able to enjoy being with people — lucky, too, that my friends accept me and my quirks so graciously — yet I can find solitude whenever I need it. Choice, I think, makes a world of difference. You're right, though — being where you'd rather not be does encourage greater appreciation of where you'd rather be.
I've noticed how, recently, the excitement seems to have returned to your writing. If I've had a small part to play in encouraging that, I'm delighted. Hearing about the snowy owl certainly got me buzzing — I love owls, and snowy owls are almost iconic. Good luck with the search for the scops — I'll looking forward to hearing about it!

Brenda: thanks :^D It's easy for me, of course — I have so fewer constraints than most people (no kids, for a start — although it seems misanthropic (misopaedic?) to think of kids as constraints when they so enrich life), and I have access to such wonderful places and people, that if I couldn't enjoy my life I'd deserve to be put down, I reckon.

Peregrina: when I photographed the ridge the light was changing from moment to moment as the mist swirled and broke, letting sun through, then closed in again. Patches of brilliant sunlight slid along the spur, faded out, returned, and this display kept going — I could have stayed there all afternoon, photographing or simply watching and taking it in. Sometimes the cloud cleared enough so I could see the valley down below clearly — even, at times, over into the Hawkes Bay farmland. I much preferred the “civilised” world to remain unseen behind that wonderful cloud, full of possibility.

Shutter speeds for getting that effect vary not just with the speed of the water, but the lens, the distance, and the light as well. I find the range 1/6th to 1/20th works well, with the middle of that range usually giving me the effect I want. Anything slower gives the cotton-wool effect, which I dislike, and faster speeds start to produce the glassy effect. I do find image stabilisation very helpful at those speeds, of course, and will often look for something on which to prop the camera — a rock or log, my pack, even my knees when I'm sitting down, or if I can still get the perspective I want, I'll lie down with my elbows and the camera as the vertices of a triangle. Ingenuity and practice help a lot.

I almost laughed aloud when you mentioned your love of the phrase “[the] gibbous moon”, and “waxing and waning”. I too find those expressions wonderfully evocative; slightly magical. In fact, I'd pointed that out to a friend just the other day, before I'd read your comment. Seems we're on the same wavelength (or maybe we're both lunatics?)

Peregrina said...

I think the right word is "lunatics", Pete! (Although the moon does, of course, also depend on wave-lengths, so maybe it should be a bob each way?)

The movement of light that occurs in high country during the weather conditions you describe can set the spine tingling at times.

Thanks for the information about shutter speeds. I hadn't realised lens-length and light made a difference. I asked because last weekend I photographed a little stream in the High Country that, partly fed by snow-melt, was tumbling down a steep mountainside. I used a fifteenth, I'm fairly sure. (I forgot to make a note of it, but don't think I'd have gone as slow as an eighth.) Anyway, it produced cotton-wool in the turbulent places, so maybe those were circumstances where a thirtieth would have been better. (My oldish camera's shutter speeds change only by full stops.) Next time I get a similar chance I'll bracket - and write it down.

Yes, "slightly magical" is a good description of those lunar words. I think "gibbous" somehow looks plump and sounds mildly eccentric, while "waxing" and "waning" for me have overtones (shininess, and pallor) which seem to particularly suit what they're describing.

Regarding the moon and my remarks about tending not to notice it: I didn't realise until a couple of years ago that, unlike the sun in the course of Earth's orbit around it, it doesn't rise (or set) following a regularly increasing or decreasing interval from one day to the next throughout its cycle. For example, where I live, the difference in the interval between moonrises on the day before yesterday and yesterday was 25 minutes, and between yesterday and today 40 minutes. Exactly two weeks earlier, the intervals were respectively 70 minutes and 73 minutes. I suppose one reason I hadn't observed this was because part of the time moonrise occurs in daylight and is not visible. But I don't remember ever hearing or reading it anywhere, either.

Thanks again for your detailed response. No need to reply to this.


Avus said...

Those water shots are absolutely terrific, Pete.
I, too,like to be alone with myself and my thoughts. People should understand that a "loner" is never lonely.
As to prayer - as Zhoen remarked - a god is not necessary. When one meditates on nature and is assimilated by it one's "prayer" is to nature itself.

pohanginapete said...

Re. loners — well said, Avus. I'd add that, contrary to popular misconception, not all loners are misanthropes (although on occasions some of us like to joke about being that way). Some of us feel just as happy in the company of others as on our own. I'd hate to have to choose.