A Tramp Abroad Redux—the Sound of Moss
New Zealand: 2/8/18 Waikanae— Kapakapanui Hut, 2/9 Kapakapanui Hut—Renata Hut, 2/10 Renata Hut—Waikanae via Akatarawa saddle.
The other day I overheard someone (probably American) say “I’ll walk, maybe take a short hike, but I won’t go tramping!” An offhand comment by a tourist that’s soon forgotten but which, for some reason, has been stuck in my head ever since. Clearly tramping, the Kiwi term for backpacking in the bush, is not for everyone. It demands a certain level of fitness and high tolerance for minor discomfort, but the rewards, whew! Context: once again I find myself teaching in a Georgia Tech program at Victoria University, Wellington and have been in New Zealand since early January. Two years ago, I was in the same situation but had just finished hiking the Te Araroa Trail (The 3000 km New Zealand Long Trail here). Since then, I have torn my medial meniscus along with a small muscle in the back of that same knee. The orthopedist says the only repair is knee replacement, so before going into the shop for some mods, I decided to put as many miles on the original equipment as I can stand. Most of my time since arriving has been wandering the city and its environs, trying to strengthen both knees by walking at least ten miles daily. City walking without a fully loaded backpack is only minimally strenuous, so basically I’ve been a tourist. I went up to Taupo and did the Tongariro crossing, took the ferry across to wander Days Bay and Eastbourne, and in Wellington climbed Mt. Victoria only to find the path led out onto a car park with buses disgorging cameras strapped to dazed people.
This is all just to say that I have been walking, some hiking, but definitely not tramping. I can confirm is that Wellington is my favorite city. Te Papa is a world-class museum, you can get a flat white on any corner, Little Beer Quarter is as fine a pub as you will ever encounter, and the local brewers —particularly Garage Project—are beyond compare. The national tourist destinations—Queenstown, Wanaka, Taupo, Rotorua—offer high adventure and excitement, and one can, of course, tour the wine regions, sniffing and comparing, but, and the Kiwis clearly know this, all that is mere window dressing. It’s bucket-list tourism. Few countries offer the density, variety, and comprehensiveness of the Hut/campsite/trail system of New Zealand, and that’s the best reason for flying halfway around the world. Of course people know about the Great Walks, those curated, reservation-only treks, but they make up but a fraction of the countryside made accessible by national parks and continuous negotiation with private landholders. The tourist destinations are spectacular, but New Zealand is a land best understood through patient, step by step encounter with its many off-the-beaten-path paths.
In order to break out of tourist mode and also shakedown my trekking set-up, a tramp was in order. I had much of the same gear used on my round-the-world trekking year but I changed packs (my 28 liter Zpack was a little worn and I wanted the greater capacity offered by a new model ZPack Nero 38). In planning, I realized my last decent tramp was in August of 2016 on Iceland’s Laugavegur trail, far too long ago for mental well-being (here). The Tararuas loom large in my memory. They are a range where the trail absolutely determines the time. This is not to say that all trails don’t determine time, but to acknowlege that the Tararuas are deceptive, sometimes demanding a full hour to walk what on a map looks like an easy kilometer. My first time through, in 2015, I found myself marooned in a hut for two days as the rain and wind howled, then had to make up time on a trail that denied that very possibility. A return to these mountains was in part contrition for a stretch skipped that year when faced with the choice of continuing on from Otaki Forks over one more range followed by a long road walk into Waikanae or catching a ride with some very nice kiwis to Otaki to watch (in a pub at 4:00am) the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup (here). My penance this year was a long road walk out of Waikanae followed by an incredibly steep ascent to the Kapakapanui Hut, then, on the next days, an ascent of Mt. Kapakapanui and a trek to the Renata Range. The road walk on the first day was hot and dusty, broken only by a stop at the Pottery Farm Cafe where, over a cold Tui, I talked to Ed, an engaging gentleman from the Cook Islands who had just celebrated his 80th birthday (here). Much later in the evening, I arrived at an empty hut, soaked with sweat but clearly remembering why you must tramp when you visit New Zealand.
The first and most obvious reason is solitude. I have long preferred solo hiking (here) as you take on all responsibility for distance, pace, navigation and safety. All thought is bent toward the trek, and the triviality of daily life recedes. You are not overwhelmed by voices, the smell of soap and shampoo, or constantly adjusting to a different trekking tempo. Of course it is possible to experience solitude with hiking partners, but such companions are rare. The best rough-terrain partner is my son Bennett. Together we have hiked all of the Appalachian Trail, part of the Pacific Crest, and the Trans-Swiss (the last was not a difficult terrain trek—our camelbaks were replaced by wine bottles). I also had a remarkable hiking partner for much of the Camino de Santiago, but that is an entirely different sort of trek. This short tramp in the Tararuas brought a moment when I stood on a narrow ridge looking to my left at the headwaters of the Otaki river, and to the right at the beginning of the Waikanae, and just ahead, the confluence of the entire system that drains the Hutt Valley. Such moments are arresting and demand silent, solitary contemplation. Tramping brings solitude which is an absence—the loss of chatter—but also a presence: trekking hard and alone requires and enables a presencing-of-self generally denied in daily life. Of course, solitary tramping is not available to everyone—something my stiff and painful knee reminded me every step—but for those who can, it is a gift without parallel.
New Zealand outdoors is raw. It feels geologically brand new, something any visitor learns immediately. There are plenty of volcanos, regular earthquakes, and steep-sided mountains that seem ready to give way any moment. Such sights are awesome (in the traditional sense of the word), but tramping reminds us that the spectatorial is not a fully embodied experience. Seeing a landscape (the term itself is part of a culture of the spectacle) is by no means comparable to being in the landscape (Brutal Beauty) A simple example (one familiar to NZ trampers): after scrambling up a steep and usually muddy path where gnarled roots are not just aesthetically appealing but also serve as hand and footholds, you find yourself on a high ridge entering a beech forest. Foresters in Europe and North America marvel at mature beech forests because of the almost palpable yellow light that filters through the leaves (see Joan Maloof and Peter Wohlleben), but New Zealand beech produce a completely different effect. They cluster in forests on the mountain tops, bent and twisted by unremitting winds sweeping the islands. Their leaves are tiny, round, dark green, and seem to repel light rather than filter it, though when shed they make a forgiving soft brown path which is welcome after mud, rocks and roots. Their arresting features are masses of moss, ferns, and innumerable epiphytes festooning their trunks and branches. More magical than anything in a Peter Jackson film, entering such a forest is a full body experience. The humidity seems to go up as the temperature drops. The hairs on your arms respond even as your heart rate slows. The smell is both faint and acute, the merest but cleanest whiff of turned soil, and the moss itself breaths. We have no words to describe the sound of moss. The forest shuts down all sound except your own blood. The moss absorbs and gives off all, so you stand, quite literally, speechless, listening intently for what is not there. That absence is only made present by tramping.
Addendum: Not generally a superstitious person, I do have some faith in Trail Karma. In any trek you have to treat the path with humility, taking what it offers with a minimum of whine, and leaving all the places you stop the way you found them. It’s not something as simple as leave-no-trace, but instead is slipping into the rhythm of the place. Sometimes it’s difficult not to mutter under your breath at a trail designer who takes you up every slight rise in elevation or crosses a stream every 50 yards. A good bit of my recent tramp was on paths not particularly well-travelled, so they were covered with branches that trip gnarled knees, along with downed trees that must be clambered over, crawled under, or circumvented through the bush. And yes, the first 3 kilometers included 7 stream crossings. Nothing like starting a hike with soaked feet. The weather report warned for rain Saturday afternoon with gale force winds on Sunday. Having done my share of that sort of trekking, I opted to head out Saturday, avoiding re-climbing the Kapakapanui by following a mountain bike trail out to the Akatarawa Saddle. That meant my afternoon would be a long road walk back to Waikanae. About five minutes from the saddle, I passed a burned-out car on the trail with a bag of garbage smoldering by the front wheel. My arrival at the road coincided with the siren-screaming approach of a fire truck, van, and police car, all up on a call to inspect the burning car. I showed them a picture of the vehicle and directed them to the spot, so in return my trip to Waikanae was not a three hour trudge, but instead was 15 minutes in a fire truck with a crew of jovial Kiwis. Trail Karma— don’t mumble about the trail, take it on its own terms and make them yours.
T. Hugh Crawford