Man vs Kea on Cascade Saddle

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Man vs Kea on Cascade Saddle

The road to Paradise has many features, views of lakes, rivers and mountain ranges.  At Diamond Lake there are a cluster of vehicles preparing for the evening camp.  In the dusky light the vistas of the Richardson Range are splendid, reminiscent of the American West before all remoteness was squeezed out of that country.  To the north west the light hits the mountain slopes with spectacular resplendence.  Though the map would suggest the road is flat there is a moderate climb involved and sure footedness required when scooting over the dips awash with muddy water.  For a brief period two women walk on the road ahead of me before turning off at a gate leading to a lodge.  It is the last I’ll see of people on foot until reaching the tramp proper the following morning.

Beyond Paradise the road rejoins the Dart River and I’m treated to darkening views of the Humboldt Mountains.  There is something intrinsically lovely about walking at this time of day when the harsh light has given way to softly glowing incandescence.  To my right I’m intrigued by the mountain flanks leading off Turret Head.  Somewhere in there are supposed to be several navigable passes from the Earnslaw Burn.  All I see are spectacular bluffs and the requirement for extreme leg strength.

Further into the valley the only company is to be found with farm animals, cows and calves who find curiosity piqued by my presence and sheep who are so alarmed by my slow moving form that they bolt ahead of me without assessing the ample opportunities to take five steps towards the safety of the forest.  In no time I am herding a flock down the road.  Some sheep appear to be more comfortable with continuing to walk to the north even though I have passed by them.  The stupidity of sheep does little to enhance the scenery and I’m pleased when the last of these dim-witted animals manages to backtrack.

The dirt track reaches Mill Flat and then enters the eerie darkness of the forest near Dundas Creek.  Animals make fleeting appearances on the road before disappearing into the murk.  I stick to the middle of the road and can’t help but be spooked.  When I emerge out of the darkness to the benign openness of Dans Paddock I waste little time locating a camp-site that is out of view of the road.  It is after 9pm and I’m relieved to have finished tramping for the day.

It is mid-morning before I proceed, goaded by the regular traffic passing on the nearby road and more particularly the disconcerting amount of slowdowns that occur.  Only after watching one tourist get out and walk to a mound from where he can take a photograph of the mountains ahead do I appreciate what is going on.  Rejoining the road I’m required to use a fallen tree trunk in order to get over one creek and have the added piquancy of a four wheel drive vehicle passing as I attempt the manoeuvre.  There is an even bigger challenge ahead when I discover a large ford across a creek.  A number of vehicles have parked on this side of the creek as they have been reluctant to risk the depths.  A couple are assessing the water when I arrive.  He is another of the breed of English wags who have recently emigrated to New Zealand.  When I ask that they dive in and save me if I get swept away he jokes that they will turn around and head home.  The crossing is no more than knee deep and easy enough.  I am surprised when they don’t take the opportunity to follow in my footsteps.

I am not far from Chinaman’s Bluff, the official end of the Rees Dart track.  I pass a tramper coming the other way who says he’s catching the bus but can’t bear the thought of waiting in a sandfly infested enclosure.  I admire his Scottish pluck and I’m surprised to learn that he has only completed the standard track as his attitude could comfortably take him into more remote areas.

I’ve never been to Chinaman’s Bluff as the last time I did this walk I got the jet boat from much further up the track.  It is the first time I’ve been on an official track for some time and I’m looking for a challenge.  Ten minutes down the path I encounter a large group of older trampers and join them in the re-filling of water bottles at the waterfall.  Soon after I take the opportunity to drop onto the banks of the Dart River and watch the kayaking group on the other side.  I settle in for lunch expecting to be entertained by the fearful kayakers as they make their way across the large ripples of the fast flowing water.  Instead their instructors set up a large fly and provide lunch.  I’m underwhelmed by the delay, particularly as there is a whisper of rain in the air.

The official track emerges on the river flats and then begins to climb into the forest.  Bored with the prospect of prescribed travel I opt to return to the bank so that I’m able to follow the progress of the river.  As the river braids quite widely I opt to take my boots off and cross the shallow band of water.  It isn’t the wisest move as further ahead the river swings hard to the bank through a narrow channel.  I will need to cross this channel in order to get back to the bank.  Perhaps it would be safer to return the way I’ve come but this would require an acknowledgment of an error and as a supposedly experienced tramper this is too galling to admit.  The crossing involves following a line of pebbles out into the deeper part of the channel.  The water runs fast and is extremely cold, not good when I’m wearing thongs.  Every step is painful and I’m extremely wary about stumbling.  The biggest difficulty comes when I get into the main channel and discover it is deeply undercut near the bank.  The urge to panic is strong and I’m reminded of a similar encounter in the Matukituki the previous year.  A quick surge and I’m out of the water, safe but chastened.

I can’t quite understand how things got out of hand so easily and I still need to cross a pool full of quicksand and get my boots on.  The procedure takes ten minutes but at least the track is in sight as it has ventured back to the water’s edge.  I promise myself to not be so careless in future.  The track alternates between the forest and river flats.  The only variation from this is an ascent over a high bluff which involves a dizzying overlook of the braided river.  From this height it is possible to make out the Barrier Range with its unbroken chain of snow covered peaks.  Directly below, the Dart River presents graceful opaque curves as it cuts through the soft sandstone of the flats.  Fortunately this part of the walk is fenced off as the view is distracting enough for a careless wander over the edge to be distinctly possible.  From above waterfalls tumble onto the track and this means some quick stepping is required to avoid getting drenched.

Back on the flats I take a moment out to sit by the river and watch the eddies circle back in on themselves.  While I sit several jet boats propel themselves maniacally upriver with their captive audiences.  When they return I’m spotted and waved to as if I’m part of the fauna.  I wave back and wait for the waves of silences to wash upon the shore.

To add interest to the walk I set myself the task of undertaking every creek crossing while keeping my boots dry.  This can entail considerable pre-planning to select the best spots from which to make my hopeful leaps.  Eventually I come to a deeper, fast flowing side-stream but rather than surrender I spend ten minutes throwing small boulders into the water until I have created a series of underwater hopping stones.  Success seems unlikely but rather than go stumbling headfirst into the brisk flow I clamber across, leaving splashing ripples in my wake.  It’s a whimsical moment of creative thinking and I delight in the small victory.

Upon arriving at Sandy Bluff I’m taken by the charm of the river setting and the warmth of the afternoon sun.  So much so that I decide to set up camp, thinking more of taking a cleansing swim than looking at how much further I could press on up valley.  Sandflies quickly disabuse me of the swimming notion.  Such is the press of insects that it is all I can do to erect the tent, obtain water and dive under cover.  It takes half an hour to kill all of the sandflies that have made their way into the vestibule.  It takes an inordinate amount of time before I am ready to cook my meal and another bout of trapping and killing the biting gnats must take place before I can relax.  Eventually twilight settles on the scene and I can appreciate the attractive setting of emerald forest leading to dusky slopes and ivory peaks.

Despite the early close to the day’s walking I’m unable to rouse myself at the onset of dawn.  Instead, I’m aware of more industrious trampers passing nearby on their way out to the road-end.  Eventually I rouse myself and proceed to Daley’s Hut.  The hut book confirms that six or seven trampers were present the previous evening and that they have already made good use of the morning.

More alarmingly there’s a prominent warning on the whiteboard of an imminent southern front.  It warns trampers to leave the area as soon as possible.  I’m filled with horror over what is coming.  The prospect of descending the Cascade Saddle with a full pack has already made me wary and the thought of doing this in a downpour fills me with dread.  The other scenario that makes me fearful is the possibility that I will be trapped by the sidestreams of the upper Dart.  A tramper lost her life almost a year to the day attempting to cross these streams while they were in flood and I’ve often wondered what I would have done had I been in her situation.

At last I have my motivation.  No longer do I struggle to rouse myself to the walking ahead.  For the first time on this trip my mind is focussed on what could be lost if I linger, what can be gained if I display resolve and urgency.  Before pressing on to Cattle Flat I spend a diverting 15 minutes using the swingbridge near Margaret Burn to reach the other side of the Dart.  It may well be my first visit to this side of the river and the swirl of white water and the oblong, chalky boulders standing steadfast against the wild flow make it a memorable one.

Back on the track I find myself walking alone, wondering whether I might be the only tramper in the valley.  Then when I reach the vast plains of Cattle Flat I begin to encounter pods of trampers streaming downriver.  I’m briefly entertained watching a young European sink deep into the slush when crossing one of the numerous steep gullies.  Elsewhere I encounter Englishwomen, Koreans and New Zealanders.  Still they keep coming.  A group of crusty locals advise me that the warden at Dart Hut is threatening to not let trampers leave the hut the following morning if the front has arrived.  This seems like an outrageous imposition and the impact has been to precipitate the surging flow of walkers.  We exchange information on how long it will take to our respective huts.  I estimate 3 and a half hours but to my shame I realise they will cover the ground much quicker than this.  It seems I’m incapable of travelling at speed.

Chastened by the news I push hard along the track, straining hard as it climbs upvalley.  Rain does not appear imminent but I’m aware of how quickly a front can pass through.  The afternoon is well advanced when I arrive at Dart Hart, a behemoth of a construction based near the juncture of Snowy Creek and the Dart River.  There are numerous trampers both inside and outside the hut but I don’t seek to initiate any conversations as I quickly ingest the food I need for the next leg.  I’m on edge about the weather warnings and a possible run in with the warden.  I sign the hut book but intimate that I might be camping nearby.  At the camp-site nearby a German woman is setting up her tent.  Ignoring the level ground I sidle over the swing-bridge and climb onto the knoll overlooking the hut.  I’m self conscious about the possibility of being watched by nosy trampers.  Getting out of sight provides relief and I turn my mind to Cascade Saddle.

This is a walk that I’ve done many times.  The biggest surprise is to discover trampers still returning from their day trip to the Dart Glacier.  I encounter one couple as they plunge into a fast running side stream.  I’m forty metres upstream boulder hoping  across.  An hour later I’m startled to discover a motley group of Israelis and Europeans in the upper reaches of the moraine.  It is my last chance to address the log book deceit and I pull one of them over to request that they update my entry.  I emphasise that if it storms tonight I will wait until the weather clears before moving on.  This is the precaution the woman who drowned last year failed to take.  Without a tent she felt compelled to attempt to ford the streams.  Had she waited the storm out she’d have been wet and uncomfortable but it's  unlikely she’d have been threatened by hypothermia in the middle of summer.

After this encounter I feel emboldened to push on and as the travel has proceeded swiftly I’m giving thought to a late evening crossing of Cascade Saddle.  Is it safer to cross in the dark or in a thunderstorm?  On the weather front I seem to have caught a break.  Having expected a deluge at any minute the dark clouds are in abeyance and do not seem to get any closer.  Upon reaching the terminal of the Dart Glacier I’m comfortable enough to take photos and reminisce about other visits.  There has been significant recession over the last decade and the neve looks particularly dirty, closer in look to a coal mine than the traditional depiction of a glacier.

Travel through the terrain becomes more difficult as the track has been reconfigured to deal with the erosion.  I follow a false lead until it reaches a massive drop into a deep valley and I’m forced to backtrack before dropping close to the river and the large chunks of ice. The track begins to climb steeply though the moraine, marked by occasional poles and cairns.  The way through is occasionally obscured and requires diligent scrambling and alert scanning of the horizon.  A large slab of schist forms a barrier to the north which at least focuses attention on sidling north-east despite the temptation to continue following the glacier.  Of course the bowl-like slopes of the schist have been formed by the glacier which fills the bulk of the cavity.  Only when I climb higher do I appreciate how the ice has formed the landscape.  Progress slows as the route steepens and doubts begins to crowd in about the chances of making an attempt on the saddle tonight.

Resting up on a broad ledge that seems to mark the halfway point of the climb I’m joined by a healthy looking kea who takes up residence on the shiny trail.  It flies off and I think no more of interacting with the bird life.  Little do I realise that I will think of little else during the upcoming evening.  Despite the urgency with which I travel the lure of the glacier is too much to ignore, even in the gloomy light the compulsion to photograph the striking mass striated ice is overwhelming.  Casting a glance down-valley I’m pleased to be able to observe how far I’ve come, how high I’ve climbed.  The clouds remain white though the certainty that dark forms continue to approach cannot be denied.

Shortly after, I reach the ledge that directly overlooks the glacier and the trench that provides the semblance of protection.  By now I’m actively looking for a protected camp-site, confident in the knowledge that I’ve crossed every side stream that could prevent me continuing to the saddle.  Nearby is a long gravel pit which is recommended as the camp-site for the area.  Having camped here before I know that the area is badly exposed to northern and southern winds as well as offering only the loosest soil on which to secure a tent.  Having thoroughly check the site I move off with a clear conscience.  The climb leads to the saddle near Cascade Creek.  Here there are large slabs of snow as well as prominent tussock knolls which appear to be protected from the possibility of flooding.  The mountains above offer a buffer against any winds that may accompany a storm.  The area is remarkably scenic and there is just enough light left to appreciate the grand beauty of it.  The camp-site is easy to choose and my tent is erected in quick time.

As I plunge in each tent peg I’m joined by a kea.  I’m not sure if it is the same bird that had visited me on the Dart River side of the valley.  There is something sickly about this bird which suggests it is another animal.  My first priority is to begin to prepare a meal.  To do this I’ll need to retreat inside the tent.  While I’ve been outside the kea has lingered on the fringes of the knoll, hiding in the tussock grass, seemingly indifferent to my activity.  Something about its demeanour suggests this is a ruse and that the bird is keenly alert, observing me at all times out of the side of its eye.  There’s only way to test this fear and that is to delve into the tent and observe what happens.  By the time I’ve turned myself around in the tent the bird has scurried to the edge of the vestibule.  Is it possible for a bird to be so crafty?  So far I’ve ignored its presence but it’s apparent that I must assert myself as the dominant animal.  A show of force is required.  I emerge from the tent, waving my trekking stick and yelling.  The kea scarpers back to the edge of the knoll, comically bouncing from leg to leg, its wings tucked in tightly to its chubby body.

Have I won the battle?  There’s only one way to test the theory.  I return to the tent but stay hidden where I can witness that mountain parrot’s activity.  I’m amazed by what takes place.  As soon as I’m out of sight the feathered fiend hurtles towards the tent with manic intensity.  I show myself but this merely halts the advance, there is no retreat beyond a distance that is just out of reach of a trekking pole.  There seems to be infinite patience in my adversaries' approach.  With night falling and a storm approaching it seems unbelievable that my biggest problem is an elderly beaked being weighing no more than three kilograms.  Better to prepare the evening meal and not be taken in by what is clearly a minor issue.

Perhaps I should explain the danger posed by the roguish local.  Kea possess enormous intelligence and are imbued with impish curiosity about their world.  Unfortunately they are easily bored and this they sate through a finely honed destructive streak.  They will inspect, fondle, nibble but ultimately shred and destroy any trinket they get their claws on.  They could tear the fragile fabric that makes up the modern tent to pieces in minutes if left alone.  I need to impose fear in the mind of this uninvited guest and instil the instinct for self preservation that is inherent in all wild animals.  In circumstances like this the kea is a victim of its own charisma.  This bird was obviously used to being fed by those who set up tents and it had learnt that the best way to be fed was to be persistent.  This was a formidable foe who would not be easily shaken.  Once I have boiled the water and begun rehydrating my meal I dress in my wet weather gear and emerge to scare the bejesus out of the waddling moocher.

The chase takes us to the edge of the knoll and then up the bank.  No matter how hard I chase I can't seem to induce the flight instinct.  The kea evades me using no more than its stubby little feet.  This is galling and I resort to throwing stones to emphasise the lack of welcome that is available to this uninvited malingerer.  I have to trust that the animal has enough evasion skills to avoid being hit as it is a protected species and I have no wish to injure what is an admirable survivor.  Worryingly it takes not actions at all to avoid being tagged and I wonder if my foe is too old to care.  Perhaps it has learnt that a few beatings go hand in hand with obtaining the next sustaining meal.  With a light, cold rain lashing the area I have no choice other than to retreat back to my comfortable interior.

By the time I’m ready for dinner my dark passenger is at the door, wolfish, ravenous.  With each mouthful it watches me intently, again with disconcerting patience.  I have no choice but to keep the tent flap open so I can keep track of the implacable shadow.  As the rain intensifies I’m in a quandary about what I need to protect, what I can sacrifice.  It seems I have no choice other than to placate the local.  I’m on its turf and it is keenly aware that I’m largely immobile and no threat to it.  It’s crazy brave and not to be fobbed off.  Into the gloom I flick the food pack like I’m dispatching a Frisbee.  The myrtled monster harries after its prey and I can only hope that this will keep it distracted.  The zips go up against the rain and I prepare to wait out the night.

With the pocket predator at large and in control it’s impossible to relax.  Another show of force would seem to be necessary.  Before long I’m aware that I’m being stalked.  There is a malevolent tug on one of the tent pegs.  It’s at the door and mocking me for needing to shelter from the storm.  Perhaps I can blind it by turning my head lamp onto it.  Sure enough, when I open up the tent I discover the beast nearby.  The beam of light does indeed drive it back and before long it has retreated to the tussock slope leading off the knoll.  As soon as I close up the tent flap it returns to continue tugging at the tent flap.  With the portents of the storm becoming stronger I’m spiralling towards panic.  I need to make a stronger impression.

Wearing nothing more than underwear and thongs I emerge to stalk my tormentor.  Making to approach it I’m shock by its next move.  With mocking calm it moves to the other side of the tent.  Can it be this smart?  It surely can for several circumnavigations of the shelter are completed before I can close the gap and chase it into the tussock fringes.  Continued pursuit leads further up the knoll and eventually it disappears into the distant dark so that I’m unable to pick it out amidst the gloom.  This is not going as I expected but with the horizontal rain lashing my bare skin I need to get back inside.  The evening has taken on an uncontrolled dream-like quality and I’m not sure what will happen next.  It’s unlikely I’ve seen the last of this cunning warrior but after trying to discern its careful tread out of the howl and lash of rain and wind I’m lulled into sleep.

Loss of consciousness brings no relief as I’m plunged into a nightmarish world where more traditional predators such as sharks and lions chomp into my flesh.  The biting mandibles are palpable.  I can feel my foot being severed, the teeth scything through ligaments.  This manifests itself in the sensation of my toes being nipped and bitten.  So realistic I startle awake before drifting back into the chasms of uneasy sleep.  Again, I wake with a start as my fingers are nipped.  This time I’m sure it’s no dream.  What I’ve been experiencing is a beak seeking out indentations in the homogenous form of the tent.  I punch the lining of the tent where I’ve been bitten and in a rage open up the vestibule.  Pausing only to put on thongs I grab my ice axe and set off in pursuit of the green menace.  If I get near it I intend to cleave its head.  This time my opponent retreats onto the snow laden slope and we race to the top, me flaying about on the icier sections.  Can this really be happening?  The kea pauses only to assess that I fully intend to track it to the top before finally setting flight.  Hopefully this will be the last I see of it.

Though the wind continues to bend and distort the tent it is not accompanied by the heavy thud that would come with a storm front.  It seems I will have the opportunity to reach the descent into the Matukituki before the deluge arrives.  Having slept so little the temptation is to rest in the murky dawn light.  A familiar tugging on the tent pegs dissuades me of such backtracking.  In the gloom I pack up while my observer waits at a distance.  I can appreciate its powers of perseverance and inherent toughness to survive in such harsh terrain.  Sleep deprived but safe has never been such a terrible combination in this kind of environment and to take in the misty, diffuse nature of the approaching day is to appreciate that time is on my side.  I even have time to collect the shredded packets I’ve offered to the kea.  When I move away the animal ignores me in favour of forensically examining the camp-site.  It is only interested in searching for food.  What I had taken to be a personal battle of wills was no more than the quest for energy.  Appreciating this I feel empathy but also a humbling appreciation of the ephemeral quality of my presence here.

There has been no opportunity to mull over the dangers ahead.  The descent from the Cascade Saddle to the Matukituki Valley is discouraged and this will be the first time I’ve done it while carrying a pack.  Conditions can vary from season to season, sometimes snow will linger late into Summer, other years the snowgrass presents more of a threat.  The accidents that have occurred here have been horrific and the deaths particularly tragic for their poignant quality.  Trampers have thrown themselves onto the slopes in order to prevent the fall of loved ones and lost their lives doing so.  To perish after toppling over a bluff is usually a slow and painful business, ruptured organs and internal bleeding leading to grim deaths.  It is this that has me dreading what lies ahead.

The descent into Cascade Creek is never less than interesting.  Today it involves discovering coloured ribbons attached to a wire in a flat, protected quarry.  These are part of a Buddhist tradition that I don’t understand.  Such ribbons are common in the Everest region.    I wonder if I’d pushed on to this region whether same problems with the Kea would have occurred.  Would it have continued to track me if I’d continued on my way?  It’s a pointless speculation made in the fog of uncertainty and mental exhaustion that comes from strenuous exertion and limited rest.

Beyond the quarry are large patches of snow that are scatted about like jigsaw puzzle pieces.  These are just crusty enough to walk on without resorting to crampons.  Given the bleakness of the day I’m almost certain not to encounter another person in the area so safe travel is essential.  The presence of fog is probably good, better that than the totality of storm clouds.

Cascade Creek is running just low enough for me to get across by walking downstream and keeping my heels above the water level.  Once across I have breakfast and contemplate the climb towards the Pylon.  I’m conscious of staying on rock and avoiding treading on snowgrass.  It is a section of track that requires nerve as the route crosses a slab of rock using no more than a narrow fault-line running at a fortuitous horizontal angle.

This is the most difficult part of the climb to the Pylon and soon after I arrive at the snow slope leading off the mountain.  In Spring this is the section that will delay the opening of the Cascade Saddle track.  Sometimes the snow remains in the early months of Summer and it can present as unnerving obstacle for those looking to get through.  This is what I have brought my crampons for and it comes as a surprise when the slope ends quickly and reaching the well worn path.  For ten metres I continue to wear the crampons, somewhat disbelieving that it could be this straightforward.  It doesn’t take long to appreciate that I’m endangering myself in the ungainly footwear and the steel teeth are reluctantly dispensed back into the pack.

The drop into the Matukituki Valley looks as formidable as it always does, even with fog obscuring most of the detail of the long descent.  There will be no views of Aspiring today.  I elect to travel slowly and with inordinate care.  Fortunately there is no need to step onto tussock and only on one occasion do I stray away from the track before retreating and discovering a more straightforward line.  From time to time the sun actually breaks out of the cloud and promises a dry weather day.

On the way down I visit some of the notable photo opportunities in the park, the ledge leading out like a gangplank to a knoll with a sheer drop, the tussock pelt that hangs in thick clumps to the shanks of the mountain, the layers of knolls and bluffs that give the climb its formidable reputation.  After coming off the mountain there is the time consuming business of travelling through the dank forest as it wends its way to the valley.  As I emerge out of the trees it is to encounter the onset of heavy rain and to discover that vehicles are now allowed to drive all the way to Aspiring Hut.  It appears that a tent city has been established in the camping grounds but so miserable is the weather that the few stragglers left look somewhat lonely in the holiday digs.

For me the exertions of the day are over, despite it being just on lunch-time.  I’ve already been travelling for seven hours so I feel no need for guilt.  In some ways I’ve arrived early as I have accommodation booked for the following day in Wanaka but would be taking pot luck were I to head out today.  The sensible approach would have been to pay for accommodation in the commodious Aspiring Hut.  Instead I settle for lunch and a seat nearby a guided climbing party.  Their intention is to attempt to climb Mt Aspiring and soon they will be heading into the increasing rain to climb to French Ridge hut.  Perhaps in two days time the weather will have cleared enough for them to make an attempt.  The guide is a self assured and modest chap who is cross-examined by an earnest traveller who introduces himself as a former Aspiring hut warden and climber.

Instead of paying twenty dollars to stay in the warm and dry stone cottage I venture into the nearby forest in order to set up camp.  A brief break in weather allows me to do this while staying dry but it is a damp afternoon that follows as I rest up.  Outside the long promised front unleashes a steady downpour.  In a forest valley I’m well protected from the worst of it and the afternoon is spent reading.

The following morning does not quite go to plan.  The walkout to the road-end is roughly about ten kilometres and the morning shuttle arrives quite early.  I need to be travelling just on dawn to be sure that I will reach it in time.  With the heavy rain that has fallen I’m slowed at several creek crossings and even with a distant tramper providing me with a sense of my own pace I’m struggling to reach my destination before the departure time.  To make matters worse the road-end shelter can be seen from a fair distance away and as I hurry towards it I witness the shuttle arriving, parking, collecting trampers and departing.  This consigns me to a six hour wait for the afternoon shuttle, all for the sake of getting up fifteen minutes earlier in the morning.

It isn’t as frustrating as it might have been for it means I can spend another six hours in the mountain setting.  It provides me with time to write a series of postcards, to boil water for a number of cups of chocolate and to observe and listen to the stories of other trampers.  A young American couple provides entertainment with the details of their lives, she an environmental student living in New Zealand while she completes her degree, he a love-lorn follower.  They have spent the last two days stuck in the tent, no doubt putting the time to good use!  An extended family from East Germany wanders in, two sisters in late middle age and their husbands.  They are interesting without having to provide the details of their lives.  The Americans leap onto the opportunity to wangle a lift and hurry after their benefactor.  Japanese tourists begin to congregate when the afternoon transport finally arrives.  There is time for a final self-portrait and in this I look content and at home, well rugged up against the worst of the weather.

On the road out of the National Park we stop to observe two magnificent 16 point stags.  These are breeders and they are magnificent.  I have a room at the backpackers on the hill, my preferred destination when staying in Wanaka.  It is a Saturday afternoon and thoughts of visiting the local cinema are quickly quelled upon realising that it is a sell-out.  The rain has seen to that.  I spend my time moving between internet cafes and the supermarket.  From the outdoors shop I buy Graeme Dingle’s autobiography from a badly sun-burnt assistant.  He’s about my age and mentions that he’s spent the last week in the Mt Cook National Park trying to stay alive.  He didn’t have time to put on sun cream.  One of my first purchases is moisturiser to apply to my dried out face.  It is a soothing balm.

The following morning I’m waiting for the bus to Dunedin.  The sun is out and the glaciated mountains frame the vivid blue of the lake.  Wanaka is an effortlessly charismatic town and always provides a memorable coda to any trip.  Departure is a smooth process, dropped off at the airport several hours before the flight, another trove of memories tucked away in the corners of my well-worn pack.

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