St James Walkway in Winter


St James Walkway in Winter

5th September 2010

With my snow shoes packed away and my pack liner utilised for the first time on the trip I feel reasonably happy with a 1000hrs departure.  It’s a slightly overcast day, tending towards sunshine.  Lucretia stream is slightly up but I’m still able to comfortably skirt across without getting my boots wet.  Above the gorge I’m heartened to find the nozzle for my water container.  I’ve been using the top from a detergent bottle which has given my water the unedifying taste of cleaning liquid no matter how often I wash it out.  Score one for the positive column.

Lucretia Bivvy

Rain starts to fall and it seems I’m to be harassed by constant drizzle.  Pausing for a break I decide to get my pack cover tied into place sooner rather than later.  It actually works out quite well and I’m rather pleased by this improvisation even as I pledge to never again forget this essential piece of equipment.

Lewis Tops

A several hours I reach Nina River and begin the walk out.  I’m sure I’m still on course to reach the highway by 1300hrs even though I’m starting to moan and groan under the dead weight of my pack.  The travel is on attractive river flats until meeting up with the swingbridge track and reverting to well used bog.  The slog seems to be soaking up more time than I hoped and it is another two hours before I hear the sound of motor cars travelling with impersonal efficiency along the highway.

I had anticipated being able to rest under cover at Palmer’s lodge but there is a fire coming from the chimney so I opt for resting at the swing bridge at Lewis River.  It is 1400hrs, meaning I’ve taken an hour more than expected.  My heart sinks at the prospect of another night walk into the hut.  These are never pleasant.

 If there’s one thing I dislike more than navigating in the dark it’s walking along a highway.  It completely disrupts the tramping experience and I fall into a state of loathing for every speeding vehicle.  As road walks go this one isn’t too bad, for the most part I’m able to walk about a metre way from the sealed road and what traffic there is tends to pass in speeding packs.

After an hour I spot buildings in the distance and assume that I’m looking at the Boyle’s settlement.  Shortly after a passing car driver waves at me and I’m cheered enough to wave back.  I arrive at the Boyle’s shelter at 1530hrs, giving me three hours daylight.  Track signs confirm the walk will take four and a half hours.  I need to get moving and make the most of the light that I have.

If I believe that the purchase of the St James Station will have meant changes to the track then I’m quickly dissuaded.  Rather than make use of the river flats the track sticks to the forest and at times it climbs high to do so.  With time of the essence several times I’m tempted to drop onto the flats but they appear to be extremely boggy and I doubt that they would be quicker.  The forest is darkening and being in it reminds me of what I’m going to face later.  Several deep creek beds are crossed as well as a boulder moraine.  This is surprising as it’s not something I associate with the walkway.

After an hour of plodding a fierce wind begins to make the forest shake and shudder.  Thankfully the wind is at my back and it pushes me along.  I’m tired from the hours of walking and needing a drink.  I resist the urge and continue to trudge.  From above I hear an unmistakable crack.  Somewhere nearby a branch is about to fall.  I turn around and watch as a large log thumps onto the track no more than five metres away from where I’m standing.  I stare at the log and ponder that had I been two seconds slower I’d have been underneath this log.  There’s no denying that it would have killed me outright.  I waste no time moving on, I need to get clear of the dead beech trees that blight this area.

Pushing on I reach a point where I’m barely able to push one foot in front of the other.  I need to take a break and eat.  I’m low on energy and need a morale boost.  The forest canopy is thick and the light is gloomy.  There are several breaks on elevated flats where the comforts of tramping are evident but for the main part the travel is grim.  The track returns to the dank bogs of the well worn track.  The wind dissipates to be replaced by heavy rain.  I delay reaching for my headlight until it is near dark.  When I turn it on to full beam the light shines weakly, either because the battery is dying or because the rain is so heavy.  It barely cuts through.  My main worry is that the headlight will die away and leave me in the dark looking for my spare batteries.  Trying to make the switch would be extremely difficult and I’m unsettled by the circumstances I find myself in.

There are occasional markers on trees but these do not appear to be reflective and I am nearly on top of them before seeing them.  The prevalence of slush threatens to take me off track as it broadens out the path to the point of where it is nearly indistinguishable from the fringes.  There is nowhere suitable for camping so I need to steel myself and press on.

The track begins to wind unpredictably and this appears to be indicative of coming off the plateau and meeting up with the flats above the river.  As I reach this juncture the rain which has been heavy turns into a deluge.  My light picks up streaks of falling water but not much else.  Thankfully the markers continue to present themselves and the footing remains firm enough.  At last I reach a swing-bridge.  It is a blessed relief as I am vaguely aware of this point as being a juncture separating the tracks to Magdalen and Boyle Flats Hut.

The bridge is long and I can barely see the other bank.  The river flows forcefully but it does not have the wild vigour of a water channel in flood.  That will come soon enough if the rain continues at its current rate.  A track sign near the bridge wires confirms that I have reached the turnoff to Magdalen.  It indicates that it will take twenty minutes to reach Magdalen Hut while pressing on to Boyle will require an hour.  There is little hesitation in selecting the route down-river.  I expect Magdalen to be on a par with the bivvies I’ve spent the last five nights in, but possibly more run down and draughty.  This matters little if it means getting out of the rain and into somewhere dry and safe.

I have to expect that the seldom used side track will be poorly marked, bog ridden and overgrown.  As it is no more than one kilometre long I just need to keep walking and stay watchful.  What is most disconcerting is that it veers uncomfortably close to the river and what could undo me is if the bank has flooded.  Though the track sticks to the edge of the forest it is difficult to follow as trees are sparser and markers rare.

Expecting the hut to lurch up unexpectedly I grow anxious when I find myself walking on into the night.  Now my sweeps of the track include an extra scan of the fringes, lest the hut be located away from the river and obscurely placed.  The track narrows and steepens once more and once again I am conscious of the burbling river as it undercuts the bank.  Taking a step I encounter resistance and wonder if I have walked into a fence wire.  I can’t see anything and panicked try to press on.  The resistance increases and I sprawl onto my back, baffled by what has just occurred.  Am I under attack?  Scrambling to my feet I discover that my rope has come loose and that is has trailed behind me and hooked underneath a broken tree root.  Prising it loose is difficult but finally it comes free and I’m able to assess my situation.  The rope is not the only thing unravelling and I just what to find the shelter.  Have I walked past it?  Am I condemned to wandering through the darkness for something that is non-existent?

I hook the rope into my belt and continue, trusting that my plastic pack cover is still in place.  Ahead I get the sense of the open plains of the broad river flats.  The nagging dread that I will have to back track continues.  Perhaps I should have set out for Boyles after all.  It seems I have been walking for a long time but I haven’t checked my time piece since six thirty so it won’t help me to check it now.

Ahead I sense there is a side-stream coming in from the left.  Surely this should mean that there is a hut nearby as it doesn’t make sense for it to be on the other side.  I find nothing.  Another sweep of the stream catches the reflection of something on the other side.  It appears to be a toilet.  In the gloom I can also make out a hut.  To my surprise it is in the modern style.  For the first time in hours I get a genuine boost to morale.

There is just one challenge left, getting across the stream.  Thankfully it is forked and I’m able to get across the first stream without getting my boots wet.  It’s clear I won’t be able to do this for the main channel but my main concern is just being able to get through.  The water is no more than calf deep and when I emerge out of it I’m surprised to find that it has not flooded my boots.  Perhaps the gods believe I’m wet enough.  The last obstacle is a well constructed stile and finally I’m into the home paddock.

My initial impressions are correct.  The hut is new, built with wide verandas and decent outside cover.  I waste little time getting inside and lighting a candle.  Boots off, wet weather gear removed I begin to separate what has been saturated and what is dry.  When I’m finished a full layer is hung up outside and another two layers are hung up on the line above the fireplace.  Contemplating what I’ve been through I reflect that it isn’t particularly cold.  Looking around I quickly appreciate that this hut is a beauty.  It’s a classic six bunk design but with plenty of space.  It’s has large windows and excellent water proofing features.  I’ve left large puddles on the floor and set about sweeping it out onto the veranda with the broom.  The hut book announces that the hut was built in the last eighteen months.  What a piece of luck that I’ve decided to come here.

I turn my mind to cooking and only now do I consider what time it is.  It is about 7.40pm which means I was walking in the dark for about fifty minutes.  It felt longer than that after nearly ten hours on the hoof.  When dinner is ready I think back to what I’d told myself when the storm was at its worst, that I’d be under cover by 7.30pm and in bed by 8pm.  I’m mindful of this as I ease into my sleeping bag just as the hour ticks over.

As is often the case after a trying day dinner is delicious and being able to relax has an extra layer of pleasure.  Frankly I need stress, exertion and uncertainty in my life.  Ease and comfort becomes an incredibly unsatisfying ennui and I give thanks for these trials.  Adding to my enjoyment are some recent newspapers from the weekend’s shooting party and several women’s magazines that provide a refreshingly different perspective.

The most recent entry in the hutbook also causes interest.  It makes reference to an earthquake early on Sunday morning.  “Earthquake at 4.40am, lasted forty seconds.  Yikes!”  Though I’d been no more than twenty kilometres away I’d noticed nothing and I’m left wondering if this is a purely local event that didn’t travel to the upper Lucretia.  It will be days before I discover the full extent of the earthquake situation.

Sleep comes easily and after a week spent in bunks that provided no more than six foot of room it is a pleasure to be able to stretch out.  The sound of heavy rain only adds to the sense of comfort that comes from being indoors and well looked after.  I sleep in the following morning and make no effort whatsoever to get going.  My natural target would be Anne Hut, which I know to have burnt down.  On my previous trip on the St James Walkway I went from Boyle Flat Hut to Christopher Hut in one day. It had involved an early morning start and completing the final leg in deepening twilight.  With the extra hour and a half added between Magdalen and Boyles it’s not a leg I’m giving thought to.  At this stage Anne Hut represents a base from which to strike out for Lake Guyon Hut and even Caroline Biv.  It wouldn’t be possible to go over the Waiau Pass but perhaps it would make up for not being able to complete my intended route.

Magdeline Hut

The other option is to stay put.  Inspecting the side stream I discover that it has come up considerably and that it will not present something of a challenge and it is fast flowing and potentially unpredictable.  Subconsciously I’m over-estimating the threat presented by the small side-stream as it suits the other option I have in mind which is to stay put.  The discomfort that came from my strained back the previous day was considerable and it is sensible to rest and recover.  I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid back injuries throughout my life and I’ve seen how debilitating they can be to favour care over the cavalier.

Wood chopping fun

The new Magdalen Hut is such an enjoyable residence after the small, almost windowless bivvies I’ve been staying in that it would almost be perverse to leave in a rush.  With Anne Hut burnt down all that is available is a cullers hut which would be rudimentary at best.  I know that the rest of the St James Walkway huts are large, impersonal constructions.  Magdalen Hut represents my best opportunity to enjoy my surroundings.

Delightfully I discover a pack of cards and set about indulging in a series of games of patience.  It is years since I played with cards.  Also swirling around in my brain is the previous day’s close encounter with the falling branch.  If I’d been underneath that log it would have been an unpredictable, unforeseeable death.  It gives me something to ponder on my afternoon off.  Considering my life up until this point I decide that I’ve got no regrets, there’s no sense of incompleteness and I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved.  This state of mind comes out of the remarkable convergence I’ve experienced over the last year in matters personal, sporting and career.  Perhaps it’s no more than a few instances of good fortune which are just as likely to dissipate as they are to continue.  But I know that already, I’ve always lived my life with an awareness that nothing can be taken for granted.

Another thing I discover is hut food.  I’ve never considered eating something that has been left behind but after countless soups whilst cooped up in the mountains I’m running low on foodstuffs to be heated up.  There are several packets of noodles where the expiry date is in the future.  Having observed the eating habits of Bear Grylls on his hugely enjoyable survival romps I now appreciate that I might be too squeamish.  The noodles go down a treat.

Magdeline Hut

By mid-afternoon I become restless and decide that I need some exercise.  Maritana Stream remains high so making the trek to Boyle Flats Hut does not come to mind.  Although the relatively balmy condition don’t require a fire I decide that I could at least chop wood for future groups.  After gathering kindling I turn my mind to splintering small logs into easy burning bundles.  The chopping block is in the front paddock and after gathering the large axe I set about my task.  It is while engaged with this work that I’m surprised to discover a farmer approaching from the river.  I walk towards him as if he’s trespassing on my property, but mainly to acknowledge the presence of another after a week without speaking to another person.  I ask if he’s come from up the road.  He explains that he’s from Glenhope Station and would it be okay if he checked the hut book.  He refers to the hunters who stayed at the hut on the weekend as having been engaged in poaching.  He would like to get their names.  I grant permission and continue chopping.  While he is in the hut I wonder if I’ve left anything embarrassing lying around but turns out I haven’t, it’s clean and presentable.  When he returns I ask if he got what he was looking for.  He confirms that he did and asks if I’m walking the track.  He doesn’t linger.

It is a curious encounter and when the vehicle leaves I take a break from the wood chopping and go for a walk to the edge of the river.  Glenhope Station is about a kilometre away on the other side of Steyning Creek.  Unfortunately there is a sign stating that public access is not allowed beyond this point so I’m not inclined to explore further.  The intriguingly named Mons Sex Millia is a hill that provokes some interest for its climbing challenges.  Even though it is 1835 metres high there is only a sprinkling of snow on the tops.  Perhaps one day the government will also buy Glenhope Station as well as there appears to be intriguing tramping available in the region.

I return to my wood pile and split another buckets worth of wood.  When the time comes to fire up the stove I discover that it is has already been prepared.  All I need to do is add extra kindling and feed in my handy work once it gets going.  Getting a fire going always provokes a sense of well-being.  The insulating properties of the hut become very much apparent with a fire and I’m almost forced to shed clothing.  After a couple of hours of card playing and postcard writing it’s time for bed.  Despite a day of recuperating my ambitions for the following day remain limited to reaching the Anne Hut site.

7th September 2010

Upon waking my first task is to check Maritana Stream.  It has gone down overnight although it is still much higher that when I first crossed it.  Even so my assessment is that I will be able to comfortably cross it in thongs.  I’ll keep my boots dry for the rest of the walk.  Morning chores include cleaning out the fireplace, taking the cold ashes out to the bin that is well clear of the hut as well as deep.  As one good turn deserves another I prepare a fire for the next party.  For breakfast I opt for the hut food option of baked beans.  I don’t know how long they’ve been sitting there but as the hut is only 18 months old I figure that the odds are in my favour.  Bear Grylls, I think to myself.

Boyle Flat Hut

It’s instructive to retrace the track which I walked in the dark and examine where I’ve wondered off course.  The walkway sticks closely to the river, occasionally climbing high and sidling steeper slopes.  There are several indications of track slippage, marker poles swept onto the lower slopes, disturbed moraine, upended trees.

After an hour and a half I arrive at the setting of Boyle Flats Hut on its plateau above the river.  Dumping my bag at the swingbridge I pay a quick visit, mainly to check the hutbook to see if there are other trampers around.  An Australian duo passed through the previous week but the entries are mainly notable for providing information about the burning down of Anne Hut six weeks previous.  I’m curious about who the culprits might have been.  The police stated that they believe the fire to have been human error but it raises suspicion that there are no entries for the day before the fire is believed to have occurred.  There are certain sorts of backcountry users who don’t sign hutbooks, particularly hunters who have a disdain for the user pays concept.  Beyond this, tramping freeloaders will not sign in order to avoid detection.

Compared to Magdalen Hut Boyles Flats lacks charm and I’m pleased to have chosen to stay in the new hut.  Though the rain has generally cleared it is a slightly overcast day and this washes the colour out of the scenery.  It becomes slightly sunnier later in the morning and I can better appreciate the attractive Libretto Range.  A brief diversion takes me to the basic Rokeby Hut which is surprisingly warm with its lack of ventilation and windows.  Returning to the river flats I encounter cattle who choose to race off ahead of me rather than wait me out.

Before approaching Anne Saddle I break for lunch and am barely seated before spots of rain turn into something more consistent. It’s a good time to tie on the plastic cover and stay one step ahead of the gathering sandflies.  Anne Saddle is at 1,136 metres and takes a moderate amount of effort to reach.  A quick side trip beyond the pass provides some views of Travers Peak and an intriguing range of mountains that do look achievable.

The descent beyond the pass is mainly interesting for how different it is to five years ago when large clumps of snow spotted the tussock.  There is none of that today despite heavy dumps being recently flagged in the Boyle Flats Hut book.  The best thing about the walk to Anne Hut is that it is all downhill.  One side-stream involves fancy stepping to stay dry but this is all in the realm of staying amused.

My thoughts turn to the Anne Hut site and whether another party will be occupying the cullers hut.  If they are I’ll need to camp and an uncomfortable night will be in store.  Arriving just before 5pm I’m surprised by the amount of debris that comes out of a hut fire, stoves, pipes, sinks, frames.  The site is levelled and corrugate iron is grouped into a tidy pile.  The infamous ash bin is located near the toilet and is not more than twenty metres away from where the hut used to be.  It is full and it is easy to imagine hot ashes blowing off this and onto the hut.  I remain suspicious of the reason given for the hut’s destruction.  The fire I’d lit the previous evening was long extinguished by the time I removed the ashes to the bin.  Granted Kiwis seem to indulge in early morning fires and can be stupid to a fault it is hard to believe that trampers could be so careless; particularly when they were so careful not to leave their names behind.

Anne's Hut debris

The cullers hut is every bit as unattractive as I remember it, cramped, near windowless and with a rough concrete floor.  At least I’ve got it to myself so I’m able to utilise the four bunks to spread out my gear.  With the door open I get a bit more light and air while I’m cooking dinner.  As it’s been a long day’s tramping I’m not interested in doing too much more than resting up in the bunk after I’ve eaten dinner and it is quite cosy once I’m snuggled into my sleeping blanket.

Cullers Hut

When morning arrives I waste little time getting active.  There is little light available in the rudimentary hut so I need to get outdoors and away from the cloistered environment.  For the second time I leave my water bottle cap behind and although I remember when I’m no more than five minutes away from the hut there seems like little point in returning for it.  It is another overcast day so the prospects for memorable photos seem limited.  This is a shame as five years before I’d been struck by the beauty of the tussock plains laid out below Philospher’s Knob.

Anne's Hut debris

This is the section of the walk which the guide book warns is a dull traipse across the farmland of St James Station.  I’d been swayed by this description on my first trip and had completed this leg in the dark.  This time around I thoroughly enjoy it without the nervous search for a hut.  It is not long before I encounter the semi wild horses, at first a trio and further on a mob.  In between are the dead trees above Henry River and the scenic vistas from the swingbridge.  The sun peaks out intermittently but it is quickly doused by rain clouds and I’m more likely to get wet than tanned.

Scoured foundation

Pausing for morning tea above the flats that house the station I’m intrigued by the sturdy mountains to the south and the tramping possibilities that are offered up by following Waiau River and picking up the track along Stanley River.  This would provide access to Lake Guyon without needing to go near the farming property.  At this stage I haven’t decided I will end up by day’s end.  Staying at Christopher hut and exploring Lake Paget is a possibility as is pressing north and tracking the upper Waiau River.

St James Walkway horses

It is not the Waiau River that changes my plans rather the Ada.  It is not a broad channel but it is deep and powerful.  It would appear to be six feet deep in parts where the force of the water have gouged out the channel.  The water has a blue quality that is suggests depths better not tested.  The Waiau will have to wait another year.  The Ada River makes for an invigorating stroll upstream that ameliorates the disappointment that might be felt towards the lingering low cloud.  The Spenser Mountains are veiled and once again I can only imagine their beauty.

There is magic afoot however when I encounter two seemingly identical horses on the track, both with brown coats and long white streaks down the bridges of their nose.  A standoff ensues, both parties calmly contemplating the other before the twins slowly walk around me, heads down, slightly wary.  I’m slightly surprised by their condition, ribs protruding slightly despite what appear to be lush conditions.

Second time around there is little need to speculate about the location of Christopher Ada Hut.  The hut book provides little resolution about the mystery of the Anne Hut fire.  Again, there is a weeklong gap prior to the date of the blaze and those discovering it don’t add anything new, other than to observe that it’s prudent to carry a tent.  Attempts to have lunch outside are thwarted by sand-flies and the large space inside isn’t appealing.  After half an hour I become restless and decide to press on towards Ada Pass Hut.  The delay means I’ll be arriving just on sunset and something in my psyche enjoys the thought.

Momentarily the mist clears and I can appreciate the vaguely threatening vista of snow fields creeping out of the mountains and pressing towards the dark V of the forest.  To add to the atmosphere a dead horse lies decomposing on the track, it’s dead eyes open and gazing towards the hills.  To continue with the deathly theme the cullers hut just beyond the large hut has a horses’ skull perched on a pole.

The afternoon’s walk is made interesting by the choices that need to be made.  The official route takes a high turn into the forest and for a moment I follow it before recalling that the track used to be on the valley floor next to the river and with superb views of the Spenser Mountains.  Annoyed, I turn back and follow the old path, quickly arriving at the flats.  The reason for the changes are hard to discern, occasionally the track is undercut by the river but walking with eyes open is about all that is required to prevent injury.  Having been delayed on the first night by pointless meandering in the dark forest I’m irritated to the point where I consider kicking away the logs that close off the old track.  The old track markers are still in place and the flats offer the best walking of the day.

Several avalanche paths are crossed and so innocuous do these appear that I pause here for afternoon tea.  Two years ago the track had been closed due to the alleged avalanche threat and it’s hard to imagine how the denuded tops could pose a danger.  Ada Pass Hut is a couple of kilometres beyond the pass so reaching the high point offers a welcome marker.  The light is thickening by the time I reach the splendidly positioned hut.  After dumping my bag I immediately set off for a quick scout of approaches to the three tarns route.  The other route I examine is the forest approach towards the Zampa ridge.  Both offer adventurous options for the following day if the weather improves.

Ada Pass Hut

Ada Pass Hut is a dark, ominous place and I briefly fill the spaces with some card games and boiling the billy.  On the noticeboard is a poster for a missing American tramper, Edward Reynolds who was last sighted at East Matukitaki Hut heading for the Three Tarn pass.  A list of his equipment is provided with instructions on what to do if it is located.  Reynolds went missing in February of the previous year and is described as a lightweight tramper with no PLB and essentially no hope.  Given the remoteness of the region he disappeared his body might never be found.  Adding poignancy to the situation is that Reynolds is a once obese man who found his calling when he discovered tramping.  Perhaps this might offer some solace to his grieving family in the States but it isn’t likely.

There was a time when I didn’t take a PLB and it used to weigh heavily on me whenever there was trouble.  It would seem the most likely cause of death is drowning with the body pinned on a riverbed.  The other possibility is a fall with the body obscured at the base of a bluff.  In situations like this all you can hope for is that it happened instantaneously and that it wasn’t a lingering experience of internal bleeding, immobility and dehydration.

Though I make no revisions to my plans perhaps it weighs on my decision making process overnight.  Waking early I discover fog and gloom.  It seems reasonable to expect that this will continue throughout the day.  Already I’ve turned my mind to the challenge of reaching the road by the time the bus comes through from Nelson.  This will get me to Christchurch by 2pm and allow me to see some events at the writer’s festival today as well as a full day of events tomorrow.  I’m forgoing a day of climbing in the Spenser’s but the weather suggests that conditions would be dubious and I’ve already had a day of highly scenic photography.  Passing up a day without the pack on can’t make up for the fact that I’ll be expending effort for reasons other than advancing myself along the track.  After years of this activity walking with a pack provides a sense of security so that freedom walking can seem risky and uncomfortable.

Once underway I am focussed on no more than reaching Cannibal Gorge Hut in good time.  As it turns out I’m there before 8am.  Once again I discover an uninhabited, sprawling hut.  Too my considerable annoyance I notice that the fog is starting to dissipate and there are traces of blue in the sky.  There’s no going back, even if I rue the opportunity that I’m passing up.  The walk to highway 73 takes another two hours meaning I’ve arrived with a reasonable amount of time to spare.  If I’ve lost the opportunity to ramble in the mountains I at least want to indulge in some nature photography amidst the flora near Lewis Pass.  The tarn and mountain views from the pass provide some consolation for my misjudgement of the day.

Carrying a pack hasn’t got any easier and I’m glad to get it over with.  While waiting I’m amazed at how many tourists drive the campervans and stop off for an identical photo of the mountains overlooking the tarn.  If all you’re seeing is the view from the road then your experience is going to be much diminished.  As I need to make myself as conspicuous as possible to the bus driver the presence of the large vehicles is inconvenient.  I’m pleased when they disappear.

The other point of interest is the start of the walk to the Lewis Tops nearby.  This is the spot where I had anticipated arriving after trekking from Brass Monkey Biv.  From here the ascent looks achievable and a few moments of contemplation provide the opportunity to commit to a further attempt.

When the bus comes it hides in the slip stream of a semi trailer.  The bus is empty and doesn’t look like it is a passenger service.  I start towards it and it slows down, passes and then backs up.  Lifting the pack I wrench my back painfully so that when I get into the bus it is done with considerable stiffness.  The driver isn’t particularly garrulous but when he learns that I’ve been in the mountains for ten days he explains that Christchurch was hit by a major earthquake the previous weekend and is in a state of lockdown.  Suddenly the hutbook entry makes sense.

The epicentre was about 70 kilometres away from Christchurch but as the initial quake registered 7.1 it rumbled destructively into the city.  The main impact was to destroy the older brick based buildings, particularly the historical churches.  I wonder if I’m going to be able to get accommodation for the evening but the driver believes the YMCA is still standing; whether it is full of the homeless remains to be seen.  It occurs to me I might need to use my tent for the first time once I arrive at the city.

We lunch at Culverden where I buy a meat pie, ice cream and a newspaper.  Although I’d been bracing for the discovery of a Liberal/National government when I came off the track I instead learn that the Independents have opted to support the continuation of the Labor government.  The pragmatism of the move is interesting and I discuss the ramifications with the driver.  The other discovery is that the Writer’s Festival has been cancelled.  I’m coming out for nothing!  Should I ask to be dropped off somewhere and set about returning to the mountains in the afternoon?  I can’t quite believe I’ve selected the only Writer’s Festival in the world to be cancelled due to earthquake.

As we head towards the suburban outskirts we encounter the first instance of church spire rubble and I wonder how desolate the city is going to look  Although there are some brick walls that look like they’ve been twisted in a giants hands most residential properties appear to be unaffected.  This isn’t surprising as the housing stock is generally wood base, single story and lightly loaded.

The driver drops me off at the YHA, about as far as you could get from the YMCA.  Phoning ahead I confirm a room and begin the long walk.  Many of the main streets are blocked off with barricades and a number of buildings have extensive damage including collapsed walls and broken windows.  In some cases the entire building has fallen in on itself and industrial machinery has been brought in to clear away the bricks, twisted steel and assorted rubbish.

At the YMCA there is a sign in book to indicate whether you’re in the building or not.  I grab some brochures and ponder what I might do to fill in the day now that the Writer’s Festival is off the agenda.  A tour of the peninsula would be repetitious and the thought of day trips to Arthurs’ Pass or Dunedin are unappealing.  After showering I head out back to the city and pass the Police centre where the army has taken up residence.  The only people on the streets are tourists like myself.  It feels slightly ghoulish but with the shops and main thoroughfares closed there isn’t too much to do beyond checking out the damage.

At the local internet cafe I discover that my father has been bothering my work colleagues and tee up a time to talk to Christine over Skype, later in the evening.  A visit to my favourite Korean restaurant provides nourishment.  When I return later in the evening for the Skype connection it starts to rain so that I’m slightly wet by the time I reach the cafe.  Talking to Christine provides a semblance of normality to procedures though as we’re talking a tremor runs through the building and the realities of continuing aftershocks is brought home.

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