Chapter 1 DISCOVERY: Part 4

For three hours I didn’t see a soul and merrily sang my way through my meagre repertoire of songs feeling whole-heartedly that this was exactly where and how I was supposed to be. The track meandered from lush bush to sandy beach, occasionally rising high enough to give views of the coastline with undulating bush-clad hills sweeping down into golden, crescent bays and turquoise tidal inlets. I felt like a true pioneer as I stopped at a small cove to heat water for my cup-a-soup lunch and detoured to see fur seals at a lonely granite headland called Separation Point.

Mid-afternoon I arrived at the hut where I was to spend the night. The log cabin was nestled against the trees in a small clearing, looking very deserted indeed. I pushed the door gingerly and went in. No one was home. With no locks on the doors, no electricity and no means of communication with the outside world, my brain clicked into overdrive. Now it was ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ parts one to fifteen that screamed unnervingly in fast-motion through my brain. I breathed deeply and reminded myself that I was independent and bold – and no doubt other trampers would turn up as the evening drew in. Meanwhile there was kindling and wood for a fire as well as a few candle stubs that I judiciously packed away for later; I’d totally forgotten that I might need a torch. As the flames crackled comfortingly I settled down to read until it got too dark.

Sometime after five o’clock a middle-aged man arrived. He said barely a word, hunching over the flame of his Coleman fuel stove heating instant noodles. The potential dangers of being stuck in the middle of nowhere with one man were not lost on me, a city dweller who’d been around too many bad stories. Clouds blackened and the light dwindled, night falling fast in the forest. A stalwart couple in well-worn gear marched in with cheery hellos, set up their stove and disappeared again, tent in hand. The rain began. Forest rain. Heavy drops, fresh and clean. The campers could be heard laughing and joking as they pitched their tent together in the deluge, unimpressed by the suggestion of spare beds inside. We sat in the kitchen on heavy wooden benches at rough-hewn tables, shadows accompanied by the hiss of burning gas, the wandering light of flames on walls, the harsh scrape of fork on aluminium and the scratch of pen on paper; travellers intent on the business of eating, writing diaries by torch and candle light and saving their breath. Horror movies and crime were long forgotten as I settled down a little later in my attic room, snug in my sleeping bag and let the song of clean rain sing me deep into a satisfied sleep.

The next morning it was still pouring. Giant drops hurled themselves from the clouds, intent on drowning the earth and everything on it. I was undeterred. This was an adventure to be faced, whatever the weather. Within minutes of leaving the hut my shoes and feet were soaked, but I didn’t care, it would take a lot more than a bit of water to drown my spirits. I was English after all. Hadn’t my parents dragged me over hill and dale as a child come rain or shine? If anything, the downpour just made me happier, as though washing my cares away. There is nothing quite so special as the feeling of drinking hot tea outside on a rainy day, or reaching shelter after striding resolutely through a cloudburst. Half an hour later, however, I realised that my sleeping bag, still slung under my little pack, was also getting wet and I certainly cared about that – I had another two nights in huts to survive. Though I hadn’t packed much, I did have a spare black plastic bag and I stopped under an ancient looking, twisted tree to fashion a makeshift rain cover, giving myself a hearty pack on the back for my ingenuity. I wasn’t such a clueless city chick after all.

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Chapter 1 DISCOVERY: Part 3

Four hundred and twenty kilometres later I arrived in another of the country’s main towns – Nelson. Situated almost bang in the middle of the South Island’s north coast in the centre of the wide Tasman Bay, Nelson boasts the most sun in the country and long, yellow beaches. The weather was fine, my curiosity whet and my legs stiff from the journey.

“I fancy a walk,” I told the desk clerk at the small backpackers I checked into that evening, “Any suggestions?”

Early next morning I stowed most of my things in the hostel’s storeroom taking only the bare essentials in my tiny daypack, my sleeping bag slung on string from the bottom. My destination was Abel Tasman National Park on the western tip of Tasman Bay where I planned to complete a three-day hike beginning at a place call Totaranui, a three-and-a-half hour bus-ride away. We inexplicably changed bus three times on the way, our driver changing with us on each occasion, and stopped for a good half hour for ‘morning tea’ at a delightfully homely place with a spectacular view of forested hills still clinging to the remnants of morning mist. Thus refreshed we arrived at our destination in a leisurely fashion but not a minute late and I eagerly headed for the information kiosk where I had been assured I could obtain a map. The shutters were down, the door padlocked.

“Ah well,” I shrugged at a similarly disadvantaged couple as I secured my pack, “Best foot forward!” And I set out to see what I would see.

It didn’t take me long to get well and truly lost. The path was easy enough to follow, but my imagination, I was sure, had run far, far away. I appeared to be on the set of ‘Jurassic Park’. Thick, lush jungle plunged up and down either side of the track with more plants than I could take in. Some of the trees I recognised, but there were so many different species of fern, some growing exuberantly across the forest floor, others with thick, honeycomb- patterned trunks and broad, feathered leaves spreading high above my head. Green was everywhere in all shades and I was sure I’d never seen such natural opulence or felt such life surging from the earth. The forest was so thick that had there been no path, I would have needed a machete to hack my way through. After the almost Englishness of Christchurch I was quite unprepared for this, surprised and delighted beyond measure. If a Brontosaurus had popped its head through the branches to munch the curling leaves of one of the towering tree ferns, I wouldn’t have flinched. The last thing I’d expected was to find myself foraying into a tropical dreamland and the smile on my face grew at every turn. Little fantail birds fluttered around my head, snacking on bugs disturbed by my passage. I fancied they were keeping me company and tried to mimic their twittering, hoping they might come even closer, perhaps even perch on my hand or head. The sounds of warbling, ringing and complex trills punctuated the quiet – native birds the like of which I had never heard before. Once in a while I stood absolutely still to listen, losing myself in the sounds of nature; wind in the trees, chirruping of unseen crickets, birds singing and the crackle and rustle as they moved between the branches. The air was full of the cycle of life, scent of trees growing and dying, the mulch of leaves red-brown under foot. My self was lost among it, all remnants of fatigue spirited away.