I was feeling bold - bold and stupid. This wasn't particularly unusual, but I decided that the burning in my core had become pretty acidic and would burn a hole right through my chest if I didn't run off on some solo madness pronto. It's winter. It's New Zealand. Mom let me borrow her car. Let's hope it wasn't the last time.
As always, I took the 'pig route' (or 'pig root' as some idiot put it on wikipedia, or Highway 85 if you're a townie) over the barren plains of Central Otago. Swinging past St Bathans was hard, because I could happily have stopped to visit Jack the dog and Jude at the Vulcan hotel. But I saved myself for Clyde, which - like so many virginities saved for a special someone - turned out to be a waste. I really don't like Clyde. The main street is beautiful. Every other building is hideous, the people are weird/ rich and it all sits waiting for doom under a huge dam.
Instead of bounding head-first into true solo adventure, I stopped in Wanaka for a night to visit Ellie. We drank a few pints in this quite lovely bar packed to the brim with 17-year-old looking snowboarders. Observance/ question: these guys wear their extremely stupid flat caps on their heads, tilted to the side, even in a bar, even at night. So, my question is this: do they wear them when they're naked? Say, during sex? Ellie said she thinks they do, with thick snowboarding socks on too. Mm. If anyone is brave/ desperate enough to investigate, do let me know.
Plusses of stopping in Wanaka = any moment I spent with dear Ellie, her dad's fabulous cooking and watching Terms of Endearment (during which her dad cried, but both Ellie and I remained as stony-faced as ever. We are truly heartless). AND: driving over the Crown Range the next day. Check it out.
Selfie on the top of the Crown Range
On the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy (a stretch of road I love) the weather started to pack up. Note the Düsterkeit in the following photos. Gorgeeeous.
In Glenorchy, the woman in the shop/ DOC office told me there was an "extreme weather warning" for the whole area and asked if I had a personal location beacon thing (I did) and all the other questions. I chirpily went on my way.
The road from Kinloch lodge to the start of the Greenstone/ Caples track is a pretty rough road with a few fords to cross. Usually it's about two or three fords and they are nothing dramatic, just put the car in first and roll through. They seemed a bit worse than usual on the way in, and my nerves started to jangle. Worse, my petrol light had chosen this inopportune moment to come on. I had passed several gas stations in Queenstown but hadn't stopped since 1. I hate going to petrol stations anytime ever and 2. I really don't like Queenstown and it was busy as. The hunters I ran into later described this as "woman's logic", which - despite my rampant feminism - I found quite hilarious. It certainly is ME logic. In any case, the rain was becoming harder and faster, I was hangry, the car was struggling and the petrol light was becoming more and more insistent - and I was only on the way out.
At one point I thought cheerily "what would Martha Gellhorn do?", then I remembered how in her drives across East Africa she had been religious about checking oil and petrol at every opportunity and even carried extra of both in her grunty old 4WD. As in, Martha Gellhorn would never be this stupid.
After an extremely long and stomach-knot inducing drive, I pulled into the car-park (after a hairy confrontation with a cow) and a mosquito promptly flew in the window and bit my hand. What the jesus christ. It is freezing and still?! Anyway. Anyway. I ate some day-old coleslaw, felt mildly ill, put all my wet-weather gear on and started up the damn hill, trying to will myself to enjoy this. You have bankrupted yourself for this I reminded myself. The other voice chimed in, reminding me that the alternate plan for the weekend would have been days off, cosy bed, BBC and fire places. Why do you do this? I asked myself a million times. It rained, I crossed a few rivers, I trudged along - alone and muttering, swearing and saying "oh my GOD" whenever I saw one of the beautiful snow-covered peaks of the Humboldt mountains. It was a confusing time.
Below: the (rainy) views from the hut veranda.
After what felt like the rise and fall of an entire empire, I turned a corner and saw the beautiful Mid-Caples Hut - with smoke pouring out of the chimney! This was something of a surprise, as I had seen no sign of human life and expected to arrive to an empty hut. I was too tired and cold to expect anything but the best from my new friends, and I was right. The hut was warm and filled with four gentleman hunters from the Dunedin area, on their annual group trip to go deer hunting - which they've been doing since 1976. As I slopped in they looked at me in alarm and said: "only DRY people allowed in here" and burst out laughing. Then they cooked pancakes, which I thought were delicious, but they said I was just delirious from cold and exhaustion and that they would more accurately be described as "edible." Then they gave me Haloumi cheese, a million stories and saved my life.
Above: my dinner of chicken green curry with rice and a PUMP bottle full of pinot noir.
Below: the place where one of the hunters had rubbed off the condensation so he could sit by the window looking out.
As all people who spend a lot of time around each other do, the hunters had developed their own way of communicating and their own brand of jargon. For example, if something was going to be dangerous or a bad idea, they would call it "a bit exciting." For example, "crossing that river tomorrow is going to be a bit exciting." (It was).
Alternately, when we were walking through a particularly beautiful spot, Frans interrupted our awed silence to state: "well, this is tolerable isn't it?"
One of the hunters had managed to nick a deer slightly, catching a bit of fur but nothing more (he said he had made sure there was no blood, as he would hate to be sending an injured animal off to die slowly). This piece of fur was a running gag in the hut - there were various requests that it be framed or mounted, or that it be taken it into a lab to see if they can work out how big the deer would have been. The resident scientist/ bee keeper found this especially hilarious.
The fur also matched one of the other hunter's hair colour and the suspicion that it was he who was was nicked, not a deer, was also bandied about.
Below: Gary with his war-era gas cooker. "Three times a day Gary tries to burn down the hut" Brett told me after Gary threw a lit match into his gas cooker, "but he always fails."
For dinner they all ate the infamous freeze-fried 'Backcountry Cuisine' and told me it should say "first, walk for ten hours" on the instructions, because that's what you have to do to make it taste good. Below, a picture of the 'apricot crumble.'
The walk back was a lot more fun than the walk in, as I had Frans telling me stories of his (mis)adventures the whole way and the rain was easing up. Despite this, the rivers were more swollen than ever from the combination of rain and snow melt and I was feeling very apprehensive about taking Mom's Toyota Corolla across the many fords on the way back; I told the hunters this approximately every 8 minutes. They surrounded me with their guns and khaki and called themselves my "armed escort" and said they would also escort me out and make sure I was ok. The road back was truly awful, but at every ford they were waiting to guide me across and at one particular ford - when I was hopping about too scared to drive over (it was deep and fast, and there was a cliff to one side), Bernie (aka MY HERO) came over and drove the car for me. We both nearly died, but we didn't and that's what really counts.
Below, Frans with some of the deer they killed. The relationship these men have with this land and with the animals they hunt was really incredible to me. They were deeply conscientious and ranted at length about the problem of irresponsible/ reckless hunters (their going joke was "Oh I'm just going to shoot at this shadow in the bush"). They talked about how they feel hunting is far more ethical than the meat industry, because the animal gets a life in the wild "and, if you're a good hunter, it'll be dead before it even knows anything happened." They bragged about their families and how many years they'd been married - when I said to Frans that it must be hard to stay in love for so long, he laughed and said "no, it's easy. The trick is, choose the right person, and the trick for doing that is to be yourself. Then there are no surprises."
NB: the petrol lasted 'til I was back in Glenorchy, where I spent my last $50 on gas and gingerly drove back to Waikouaiti via the pig route. I told the car I would honour it if it made it. It did, so I put flowers on the bonnet, kissed it and did a small dance of gratitude. My old theme song ("petrol light please go out, I've got no money in my bank account") has never had more weight or relevance.