On Parks Peak Ridge I stop to wait for John and Robb, propping up my pack in the partial shade of the low, gnarled elfin forest and leaning back against it. I take off my boots and socks and enjoy the feel of moss and stones and twigs underfoot, the wind cooling my feet as I relax and look down the track in the hard, flat light of the middle of the day. A tiny fly lands on my hand. Brilliant! It’s an acrocerid, one of those bizarre flies one might encounter in some weird, distorted dream, yet here it is, clinging to my finger, staggering slightly, seemingly uncoordinated, as if conscious of its own strangeness. These flies parasitise spiders, laying countless eggs that hatch into larvae that somehow find a spider, burrow inside and eat it alive. We know little more than that. In Europe the Large Hadron Collider seems poised to disclose some of the most profound knowledge about the very nature of existence, yet this tiny creature wobbling on my finger remains mostly a mystery.
With its tiny head and bulbous body it reminds me of a Larson cartoon. Other acrocerids seem even more like the product of an industrial accident, with hugely distorted bodies that look as if someone's attached the head in the wrong place, and with brighter colours — this one seems boringly black, although at least shiny. I'm reminded of another bizarre group of flies, the pipunculids, which have enormously enlarged heads, and I can't help thinking god must have had a bad day when assembling these two families — "Oops, wrong head for the pipunculids; oh well, I'll just fit the other head to the acrocerids."
I photograph it, wishing I had the macro gear but not regretting the saving in weight. I'd thought about bringing the 300 mm, too, but the thought of an extra kilo and a quarter in the pack made that decision easy. Later, further along the track a pair of popokatea (whiteheads) follow me a short way, flitting close by and offering what would have been the best opportunity I've ever had for photographs. No use with the short zoom, though, so I just enjoy watching them for a little while. Perhaps they have a nest nearby? They certainly seem to pay me more attention than usual. I move on, not disappointed at being unable to photograph them: my pack's a comfortable weight and I've been able to see the little birds differently, to pay attention to the birds rather than the potential photograph.
At Parks Peak hut I sleep outside with the bivvy bag open enough to see the sky. Without contact lenses I can't see the stars clearly, but still enough to see they cover the whole wide, wild, limitless sky, and I drift into sleep thinking about vastness and immensity, our own utter insignificance and the likelihood I'll never know just how alone we truly are. If we knew without doubt we were utterly alone in our universe, that no other sentient or even complex life shared the cosmos with us, would we treat our world with greater respect? Would we truly treasure it at last, knowing these wild forests and the largely unknown inhabitants of our oceans, the countless unnamed insects and all these species vanishing at an enormously accelerated rate have no counterpart on any planet circling any of those billions and billions of stars looking down on me right now? Would the knowledge we have nowhere to escape to frighten us into taking better care of our home?
I doubt it. Thoughts like this seem beyond the ability of many of those whose primary concerns focus on the accumulation of financial wealth, material possessions and status — the most luxurious car, the largest home theatre, an obscene salary — while too many others struggle simply to stay alive, to find makeshift shelter and enough to eat, leaving no time for these thoughts; for these people, what's important contracts into no further than the next day and the immediate surroundings.
Besides, even if other complex life does exist somewhere out there, we're unlikely ever to be able to reach it (or it us); more to the point, the knowledge should make no difference — surely we should act as if our planet and all its inhabitants are truly unique?
Perhaps, too, the idea that our existence is so precarious frightens many of us into denial? Maybe that's what I'm doing, as I put aside these thoughts and relax into enjoying what I still have, drifting off with the stars overhead, the quiet breeze through snowgrass, the cool night air on my face. I wake often but drop straight back to sleep, comfortable, contented, wishing for nothing other than simply to be here. Shortly before retiring for the night I'd seen a shooting star, and in one of those harmless, possibly even beneficial acts of superstition, made a wish on it — a wish on behalf of someone else because I realised I wished for nothing more than to be where I was.
In the morning the bivvy bag's drenched with dew. I walk quietly past Robb's tent, into the elfin forest and along to the top of the track leading down to Upper Makaroro hut. There, last evening, we'd relaxed and watched the kind of sunset for which words always seem inadequate. We'd identified a few features on the main range, listened to the little miromiro singing, watched colour creep across the sky and dusk fill the valley, sipped a little whisky, yarned and photographed. Now the morning sky holds little of the evening’s spectacular colour but white cloud lies like a ragged duvet along the main range and the near-silhouettes of the ridges and valleys recede in that gorgeous atmospheric perspective that never fails to arrest me. I look towards Ruahine Corner, imagine the long walk there and wonder how it might have changed since my last visit, too many years ago. Then, the hut had been commandeered by hunters who'd helicoptered in with fourteen dozen cans of beer, a twelve pack of toilet rolls and an expectation of ownership. They'd eventually mellowed until even the old grumpy one talked to us in sentences of more than a single grunt, but they never offered us a beer, and we camped out that night, well away from the hut — a good decision, as even from a hundred metres I could hear snoring like the borborygmus of some subterranean god. What a difference to be tramping with Robb and John, for whom the Ruahine represents a place for renewal and appreciation, a place to be respected, a place important in itself. In contrast, the hunters had seemed to treat Ruahine Corner as a playground, an opportunity to get away from the wife, somewhere to be used; as a place to shoot at things and get wasted (in that order, I hoped, but couldn't guarantee — hence our rapid departure the next day).
But not all hunters treat the Ruahine like those four. On that same trip we'd met two hunters at Upper Makaroro hut; we'd arrived first so began making room for them. No worries, they'd said, we've got a tent, we'll camp by the river. They did, and by daybreak they'd packed and gone, keen to make the most of their hunting time. They'd walked up the river, too — no easy flight in for them.
As the sun begins to bleach the subtle colour from the day, I return and rearrange the bivvy bag to dry, eat breakfast and chat with Robb and John. The party of four who’d stayed in the hut last night set off down Parks Peak Ridge on the last leg of their trip. We, on the other hand, head further in, down the track to Upper Makaroro, and in the quiet of the early morning I fall quickly into the rhythm of the steep descent. Time passes easily in this state; thoughts wander; memories rise up and meander, one leading another out from who knows where; focus drifts from the next few steps to glimpses of the valley through the beeches and back to the next few steps. Who else might arrive at Upper Makaroro today? Who might even now be leaving, perhaps starting up the track towards us?
But I meet no one, and when I arrive the hut's empty and clean. I relax for a while, collect water from the river, get cleaned up. Surprisingly, the sandflies seem to be on holiday too, even at the river's edge where they're usually annoying. Back at the hut there's nothing to do but wait and relax. If I had a cooker I'd put a brew on for the others, but Robb's carrying it — two, actually. No wonder his pack's so heavy.
Shortly after Robb and John arrive they head down to the river. A minute or two later an enormous bellow of delight fills the valley as Robb plunges in. Everything about him seems larger than life and here in the Ruahine he’s particularly energised; in contrast, John’s delight seems more restrained but none the lesser, with a serenity and humour that reminds me of an old Chinese sage. These two have shared many Ruahine journeys and complement each other so well that I could easily feel like the odd one out. Yet I don't; I feel welcomed, included, part of the friendship. Tramping alone, as I mostly do, has rewards not attainable in any other way, but the pleasures of good company in wild places can be no less satisfying. Solitude allows a degree of contemplation not possible in even the best of company, but it also denies one the opportunity for enlightening or entertaining discussions, and anyone who's ever lain back on a remote mountainside and looked over range upon range of mountains receding to the blue horizon knows what it means to share that with a great friend. In those situations words seldom add anything worthwhile — the understanding communicates itself. A life lacking either solitude or companionship seems like a life denied its full range of joys. The two can't co-exist in the same place and time — solitude can't be shared — yet each seems energised by the possibility of the other. Tramping alone seems richer because I've tramped with wonderful people, and my solitary journeys will feel richer for having wandered here with John and Robb.
In the afternoon we leave our packs at the hut and explore up the river. Robb's heard rumours about a waterfall, so we wade the cool water, skip from rock to rock along the bouldery beaches, sometimes take shortcuts across terraces dense with toetoe, and peer into deep, clear pools where good-sized trout cruise, lazy and sleek until they see us and speed into the cover of an overhanging bank or deep shadow. As far as I can tell, they’re all rainbows, their colours clear through a metre or more of water. Suddenly I hear Robb call out and I turn, alarmed until I realise he's so excited he can hardly get the words out properly — he's seen a whio, startled, bursting up from the water and disappearing up the river. John catches a glimpse of it but by the time I turn back the bird's gone. No matter; I'm glad the others have seen it, glad they can confirm at least one lives on this stretch of the river.
We walk on, crossing and recrossing until we come to a fork in the river. A line of rocks looks deliberately arranged as a pointer, although it lacks the arrowhead. It seems to indicate the larger of the two branches, so we head that way and argue about how many more bends in the river to negotiate before turning back. Then we strike the inevitable problem of deciding what constitutes a bend in the river. What a joy to have nothing more important to contest.
In fact, we haven't even finished exploring the concept of a bend before we hear a faint rumbling. Robb stops and looks at us.
"That sounds promising," he says.
We push on and the sound grows louder. The river narrows into a tight, slightly eerie little gorge which we wade through, the roar of the falls now unmistakeable. At the far end the gorge widens slightly into a kind of small amphitheatre with the cliff on the true right curving overhead so we're almost in a kind of cave, and there, just around the corner, the waterfall plunges into a deep pool. Robb dives in, finding it shallower than he'd expected; John photographs him then follows him in. I pick up Robb's camera to grab a few more photos, but the battery's exhausted. I've left my camera at the hut and again I don't regret it — one less worry, and I'm loving the freedom of walking with just the Leki poles.
Back at the fork, John and I look down at the line of rocks. Maybe it indicates the distance to the falls, he suggests, with each rock indicating a bend in the river. I point out there seem to be many more rocks than bends, to which he replies that maybe the big rocks represent large bends and the small rocks represent small bends. I compliment him on his ability to bend the evidence to fit his theory, and he grins.
"I've worked for years in a bureaucracy," he says.
Back at the hut the Glenmorangie comes out. A karearea calls several times from upriver and I point out the sound to John, but the bird doesn't appear. We talk about everything from politics to forensic entomology, the right temperature to brew teas and the entertaining but distinctly un-Christian language of one of the Christians at Parks Peak when he'd tripped on an unlaced boot that morning (only a momentary lapse, but we found it difficult to avoid laughing uncharitably at the recollection). All in all, not a bad day.
The next day we walk and wade the Makaroro down to Barlow hut. While well built and comfortable, Barlow lacks the character of Upper Makaroro, and even the new Parks Peak hut, although much of the difference might arise from location. Parks Peak and Upper Makaroro sit in wonderful locations — the former among the elfin beech forest, the latter a good day's walk from any road and close to this beautiful river — but Barlow's only a couple of hours from the carpark and already the signs of modification by humans have begun to grate. Here, too much buddleia crowds the banks and islands and the riverbed's beginning to broaden, to lose some of its wildness as if preparing itself for the farmland. Huts this close to a road suffer from too many visits by people intent on partying where they think they won't be interrupted by any authority, or by people who lack experience not just in tramping but in the etiquette of looking after huts. Sure enough, when we get to Barlow we find the floor unswept, bottles on benches, an unwashed pot on the cooker and an opened packet of bhuja mix propped on a bench, but no sign of anyone still around — no sleeping bag or gear or food bag. I’ve seen much worse, but the place needs a good clean. I take the pots and a water bottle to the river, wash the dirty pot, fill everything with water and return to find John sweeping the floor and tidying. The hut and its location lack the character and wildness of the upper reaches of the river, but the wildness in those upper reaches has come at a cost. Robb's sprained ankle, sustained when a boulder had given way and he'd ended up on his back in the riverbed, has begun to stiffen and it hurts when he puts weight on it. I sense he's uneasy about the walk out to the car tomorrow. John hasn't got off lightly either; partway down the river he'd turned to me and remarked on how lovely the river was — how clean, how the boulders were largely free of algae and therefore how good it was to be able to walk freely without having to test every boulder. A minute or two later, while wading shin deep along the edge of a pool, he'd slipped and I'd seen his knee smash hard into the rough rock of the bank. I feared the worst — an impact like that would surely have caused substantial damage — but after a moment or two he'd recovered his composure and carried on. It bled and swelled up but I never heard him mention it, except when I enquired and he shrugged it off, merely acknowledging it was "a bit swollen".
In the morning we redistribute our loads and John and I give Robb a headstart while we clean and tidy the hut. By the time we catch up with him I'm feeling relieved because he's made good time down the river, despite limping on a painful ankle. As we pass the foot of Colenso Spur I remember my first trip here, when I'd become caught up in a search for a missing tramper. For four days I'd met search parties and helped out with information, marking boot prints (none, as it turned out, belonging to the missing tramper) and thinking of possible scenarios that might be worth checking. On the last day I'd met two searchers and helped set up a temporary radio mast on Parks Peak Ridge. They offered me a lift out — too tempting, so they winched me up into the Iroquois and flew me down to the base. In the afternoon I went back up in the Iroquois as a spotter and as we began searching in earnest after winching down a dog and handler, I caught a glimpse of something red in a steep, narrow side stream. We'd found the tramper, but by then it was too late.
Could that happen to me, or to Robb or John, on a solo trip? Of course, but with reasonable precautions and the right attitude, tramping alone might be safer than driving — at least one doesn't risk disastrous consequences arising from someone else's bad decisions. But now we walk together, down this wide riverbed in perfect tramping weather — mild, just cloudy enough to shield us from the worst of the sun — with the river crossings no more than shin deep and refreshing. We walk together, adding to our own histories, creating a shared history, becoming part of the history of this place. If we can know a place, at least to some degree, what might a place know of us, at least to some degree — and how might this place remember us?