19 June 2015

The No. 1 Line hare

The first part of the No. 1 Line track weaves gently through possum-shattered forest, past the sign indicating the side track to the giant rimu — ‘Giant rimu: 1 min’, it says, but if you look at the sign you can see the tree just 20 metres away — and on to the junction where the track branches. The left branch takes you to the giant rata banded with sheet metal to keep possums from climbing the double trunk and eating the tree into oblivion, and the right branch begins the climb that steepens progressively before reaching the first lookout about 20 minutes from the car and then carries on more gently to the top seat. Beyond that, the re-marked track winds down and up and around and through horopito and toro and other scrub and eventually into the tupare, the leatherwood, also known by worse names, and right over to Kiritaki hut on the other side of the range. If you had the time and the inclination you could walk all the way across the southern Ruahine Range to Hawkes Bay. I might do that one day, although Hawkes Bay’s farmlands hold no appeal for me, and the only truly compelling reason for visiting Hawkes Bay would be to return to the coast, to Flounder Bay and the Cove of Giants and Earthquake Bay.

But too many memories haunt me in those places.

Shortly after the climb began I heard voices. I kept walking, almost soundlessly because the recent rain had left the ground damp and soft. I heard something coming down the track and guessed it would be a dog — the only other car at the end of the road had been a ute with a large, box-like canopy  that advertised ‘K9 search detection dog training’. I stopped so I wouldn’t be detected, so I’d see the dog before it saw me.

Sure enough, a beautiful, sleek dog, mostly but not entirely Alsatian, came running down the track. A transmitter collar encircled its neck, the short aerial pointing up and slightly back. The dog carried something I couldn’t identify in its mouth. If the dog had been black it might have materialised from Tarkovsky's Stalker, and I fell in love immediately. Not wishing to startle it — startling anything with a mouthful of fangs is never a good idea — I called out when it got to within about ten metres.

‘Hello there,’ I called.

The dog braked hard and looked at me. I wondered if it would start growling, but instead it looked at me while it made up its mind. Then it barked a few times — muffled barks, because it still hung on to the thing in its mouth, but loud enough to let someone — its owners, perhaps me — know it was barking. The barking didn’t sound aggressive. I tried to encourage the dog, who turned out to be a bitch but only literally, to come closer to check me out and understand I wasn’t a threat, but she turned and trotted back up the track.

I followed, and soon met the owners — a man about my age in a blaze orange camo fleece jacket, and a much younger woman. Both had UK accents, his more marked than hers. They'd taken the dogs — the other was a gorgeous, small, part-golden-lab — to the top seat. We chatted for a while. The small gorgeous semi-lab sat obediently next to the man while the semi-Alsatian tugged on the thing in its mouth as the woman tugged back. The dog kept her eyes on the woman the whole time with that beseeching ‘Play with me, pleeeease!’ look, which the woman refused, although it was obvious she loved the dog.

The little lab-like thing, the man said (although he didn’t call it that), would be re-certified as a search-and-rescue dog in September, her current certification having expired.

I wanted to get accidentally lost so I could be found by one of these beautiful dogs.

Eventually we went in different directions, slightly reluctantly.

‘Nice to have met you,’ the man said.

‘Likewise,’ I replied, ‘nice to have met you too.’

I started walking up the track, pausing momentarily to scruffle the little dog's head and let  it sniff my hand. Its nose felt damp and very soft and I felt a quick surreptitious lick of its tongue. They started down, but the part-Alsatian came bounding up the track after me, no doubt thinking I was a better bet for some playtime. The woman called it back, and unfortunately it obeyed her.

When I’d seen the ute parked at the end of the road my heart had sunk. I’d wanted the place to myself. Yet, when the dog turned and disappeared, my heart sank again, very slightly. I almost wished they’d been going up the track so I could have brewed tea for them at the top.


The compensations of solitude take some beating, though. At the top seat I had the whole mountain range to myself. I assembled the Caldera and started heating water and after the Lapsang Souchong had steeped put the foam pad on the still-frozen ground and sat, tea at hand, and scanned the far mountainside for deer. I saw one, too — big, dark body; cream-coloured arse; too far away for the Bushnells to resolve antlers if the deer had any. It probably did, I decided, concluding on the basis of the animal’s bulk that it was a stag. I put the binoculars down, wrote a few notes in the little Moleskine, and when I picked up the binoculars again the deer had gone.

I continued to scan the mountainside. A bird flew into the field of view — a falcon! I followed it through the 10x42s, watching it flare its tail, hover momentarily, then circle around as if checking a potential meal fluttering in the scrub far below. Then it carried on up the gully and disappeared. I watched a little while longer, wondering whether it might reappear, but I never saw it again. Just like the deer.


Back at the car, I put the camera on the seat next to me, the 100-300 mm lens mounted. Already the late afternoon had begun to darken slightly, and cloud had begun to encroach from the south and west. I drove slowly down the gravel road and at the hairpin bend slowed to a crawl, glancing across the small gully. I’ve often seen a hare there (I’m tempted to call this part of the road the Hare-pin Bend) and hoped to see it again.

And there it was, half crouching, ears laid back against its shoulders, looking nervous. I slowed and stopped, turned the engine off and wound the window down. Through the lens I could see the hare staring at me. Very quickly, though, it began to relax and groom itself, wiping its paws over its face, nibbling its toes. On two occasions it punched the air rapidly with its front paws, like a boxer warming up. Finally it nibbled some grass then loped a short distance across the hillside. I photographed carefully, trying different ISO settings to search for the best combination of shutter speed and image noise. Mostly I just liked watching it. I love hares, love their wildness, the way they seem so comfortable in their solitary lives, the aura of mystery that accompanies them. Rabbits seem busy and jumpy and preoccupied and sometimes a little dimwitted — harebrained, I suppose — but hares in contrast strike me as far more contemplative and comfortable in their own being, except of course when they think they might be shot. I’m glad this hare so quickly realised I offered no threat.

The hare was nibbling weeds in the middle of the rough hillside when I turned away, put the camera down, started the car, and eased slowly down the road. When I looked back, the hare had gone. In those few seconds it had vanished as utterly as if it had been absorbed into the hillside. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had.


1, 3 & 4. The hare. From the series of photographs.
2. The No. 1 Line track just before the top seat. Late March 2015.
Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor