It was a series of unfortunate events; character building; ouch.
It started out well. Friday afternoon, Cleo and I made our way to the Clubs and Societies building to catch the bus that would take us and 76 others to Fiordland, where we would be spending the weekend tramping around in small groups. The bus ride was five hours long, but between napping and talking Annelise, a Kiwi in my group, about American politics, my impression of Kiwi clothing, and traveling, it really wasn’t so bad. At 11pm, we pulled up to the car park, where the groups promptly separated and erected their tents.
We awoke at 6, long before the sun was up. Surrounded by mountains, it would take another two hours, at least, until it rose above the peaks. The eight members of our group left the car park at 7:25 and started walking. Soon, we got to a wire bridge, similar to a tightrope, but with an extra wire at each side for support. And then the real tramping started.
The terrain was rugged. Fiordland has vegetation like none I’ve ever seen before. It is said to rain 360 days of the year, though I’m sure that’s not true, but it either way, it is never completely dry. Thick mosses grow everywhere– on rocks, up trees, into holes in the ground that are so disguised as solid footholds that sometimes people put a foot down, expecting it to hit something hard, but then fall an extra couple of inches and roll their ankle. Sometimes that happens to people. Like me. About four hours in, we were nearing the end of the marked trail, and I lost track of my footing. Not that I needed anything to slow me down… I was already the slowest in the group, unpracticed in this type of rough, slippery terrain. Nonetheless, I slipped on a rock covered in moss and rolled my right ankle. I stopped for a few minutes, and Cleo gave me an ankle brace. It was tight, but I took it anyway, got up, and continued.
I offered the group my favorite riddle: There’s a b (or bee or be, it’s up to you to decide what to do with that. It’s a hard riddle to write out.) in my hand, what’s in my eye? Try to figure it out, it’s a good one. If you want the answer, let me know… I won’t give it away here though.
We came to another river. Last year, Cleo and three others got to this point and had to wait three hours for the river to recede. This time, though, the log lying a good couple of feet above the river was not submerged under water, albeit it was wet and slimy, and we were able to scoot ourselves across it. Again… slimy (and only a litte satisfying).
We soon got to the first of two waterfalls, the smaller of the two, which isn’t saying much, because it was still sufficiently tall. We climbed up a steep and unmarked hill along the side of the waterfall. Thick cushions of moss covered the slope, and I saw no more suitable way to ascend than to crawl on my hands and knees– a challenging feat, given a heavy pack was pulling me in the other direction.
It was beautiful. The water was clear as could be, mostly runoff from the surrounding mountain peaks. Moss covered mazes of winding branches that reached across the stream. White lichens and yellow flowers lined some of the moss, and occasionally a purple mushroom would pop up. While I do not like mushrooms– you probably all know by now that I cannot stand fungus of any sort– I do appreciate their beauty and unique biology. And purple mushrooms are not something I see every day.
We walked uphill a bit longer, and finally we got to a flat stretch. But there was a catch. While it may have been flat, it was densely covered with thin, wiry trees and with ferns whose edges were of a knife quality. With each advance, the branches and ferns cut the skin on my arms and legs raw, needles digging into the flesh. It took a long time to get out, too long. By the time we emerged from the ferns, my skin was red and sore. I had scratches on top of bruises, and my ankle was still sore and there was a too-tight brace digging into my foot. But the mountains were pretty.
Last week, we had to drive an hour out of Dunedin in order to have a river crossing lesson. The river we crossed was waist-deep and swift, and we learned techniques for getting across it safely, packs and all. This did not exclude the possibility of getting very wet. Luckily, the only rivers we came across this far were smaller, thigh-high at the deepest. But our shoes and socks (and at times, shorts) were still wet and squishy.
We stopped for lunch in a sunny field (and mind you, this was no grassy field, but more like a flatish stretch of dryish land with ample room to sit) next to the stream, with a view of the behemoth second waterfall. This is where the group got stuck and had to camp out last year, because they tried to ascend the rocky right side of the waterfall instead of the grassy left side. Don’t misunderstand– just because it is grassy does not mean it is easy, not by any means. It was steep– probably a 60 degree angle– and some of the holds were better than others. We pulled ourselves up by grabbing onto shrubbery and long grass that was sticking out of the dirt, but sometimes, the shrubbery was sharp. There are these plants called Spaniards that are like knives. If you touch it the wrong way, it will make you bleed. Even if you don’t touch it the wrong way, it hurts the way it sounds like knife poison plant might feel. Yeah.
It took an hour to get to the top. Some parts were steeper than others, and some rockier. I felt most at ease on the rocky segments because I’m used to gripping onto rocks for dear life, but that part was scariest for much of the group, and we moved slowly and carefully (as carefully as we could, given the circumstances of having to support heavy packs and wearing wet shoes). My ankle still hurt, and I was getting tired. I’ve climbed for hours on end before, but this type of terrain was different, physically demanding in a different way from what I’m used to.
Two hundred meters higher, we stopped, having ascending the waterfall. And breathe. I got a picture of me with a carrot. That’s a thing now.
I also took off the ankle brace, which had begun to cut off my circulation. When I took it off, it’d left a deep indentation at the bottom of my soggy foot. It was gross. Sorry, Zo, for that imagery. I know you’ll be reading this and I am truly sorry you had to read that.
The land was flatter here, a short hiatus from the steepness we’d just encountered. In the distance were snowcapped mountains. It was still warm out, but there was ice packed down into some of the concavities in the sides of the mountains. The ice, I learned, was maintained because of the extreme pressure that came from more ice on top of it. The ice at the bottom had a bluish tinge from the pressure. It was wonderful to stop, but clouds were rapidly approaching. The forecast called for a storm later that night, and we had to make it up another mountainside.
This one was less steep, but harder. Maybe I was just tired, and maybe it was my ankle, but I moved at a sloth’s pace and had to stop frequently. But this was the last uphill stretch of the trip, the rest would be downhill, for the most part. The route we took is called U-Pass, named for the shape the two rocky cliffs at the top of this hill formed. They had separated at some point because of erosion and earthquakes, and they formed a nice U shape. But no time to enjoy that, I had to make it to the top.
Finally, I did. It was no longer sunny, though, I could even feel the sky spitting down at me. It was getting windy. But we stopped for a brief chocolate/scenery break before we kept going.
The next part was downhill. It was steep, though probably not as steep as the way we’d come up, but rocky. Rocky was bad. Rocky hurt my ankle more than anything because if my foot turend awkwardly on its side, I would feel it. I took it slooooooowly. And it still hurt. But eventually, I made it down. Now we had to find a campsite. This was not easy, as there were very few flat spots in this park. Even the places that look flat had bumps sticking out of the ground.
We walked a bit more and finally found a spot by a few boulders. It was not ideal, but is a camping site ever? Shhh don’t answer that. There’s a Calvin and Hobbes quote that comes to mind: “The funny thing about life is that it’s never so bad that is can’t get worse.” And it’s true; it still hadn’t started to rain.
I still cannot get over what we brought for dinner: mushrooms and bacon. Seriously????? Luckily pasta and some other vegetables were involved, and they cooked those separately, for my benefit. It actually taste quite nice, especially after a long, long day. We’d been hiking for 10 hours.
Dinner was the first time I really felt like an American. I was the only American on the trip, which is how I liked it, but I’ll tell ya, when you’re the only one of something, you really do feel it. There is a slight difference in vocabulary, for example. I mentioned the sports arena, and they laughed at me and thought that was cute. I meant stadium. I use the two interchangeably, and I guess there is a slight difference, but it was enough to them to make them all stop and laugh. And did you know that eating peanut butter out of a spoon is an American thing? I was finally getting the Kiwi culture lesson I’d been hoping for. We ended the night with Tim Tam Slams.
We went to bed at 9:30 and planned to wake at 8:30. Sweet as.
Problem is, I woke up several times throughout the night. Most notably was at 5:00, when Cleo whispered, “I think there’s a mouse in your bag.” In the middle of the night, this sounded plausible. Not that there were any mice around at all, and it was pretty windy out, but it seemed like a valid concern at the time. Luckily, there was no mouse. But a couple minutes later, I whispered back, “I think I’m sick.”
I awkwardly stumbled out of the tent with my headlamp set to its red color (finally figured out what that’s good for– you know what it’s like when you turn on a light after it’s been dark for a while and then it hurts your eyes? Red doesn’t hurt your eyes) and immediately started to feel hot and dizzy. And my ankle hurt, especially in my non-supportive crocs on the uneven ground. I fell to the ground by a boulder and threw up. But I felt a whole lot better afterwards! And it still hadn’t started raining. But it soon did. I got back into my tent, and minutes later, we heard it.
At 8:30, we got up and made breakfast. It really wasn’t raining that badly, just enough to make things very wet. We then packed up and left around 11. We didn’t have to be back for pickup until 4.
The first part of the trip was flat but rocky. Ouch. But we moved at a decent pace, handrailing a stream and getting our shoes wet again.
But then we got to a deeper, more rapid part of the stream and had to go deeper inland, into an unmarked, dense and mossy forest. There were more sharp ferns. At first, I was fine; the moss was soft and provided a cushion for my ankle. But then it got denser and steeper. Places that looked solid were actually holes, and I rolled my ankle a couple of times. Once, my legs folded and I just kneeled in pain for a few seconds before soldiering on. After an hour of not knowing where we were, we came to a clearing. Almost there?
Not quite. There were more rocks to be scrambled over, steeply. It was raining, and they were covered in moss and slippery. But they were very pretty. I wish I’d gotten a picture of them, but my camera was packed away so it wouldn’t get wet. The lichen was white and orange, and on top of the green and yellow moss, it all looked beautiful. I tried to focus on the nature, rather than on my ankle. Positude, not negitude.
Then we came to a river. I sat in it, washing my dirt from my legs from all the times I fell. I was soaking wet anyway, saturated to the point where I didn’t care if I dunked my whole body under water. We kept going. There was about an hour left, and this was on marked trail. It was much easier to move.
Finally we made it out. My ankle was feeling ok, since the last part of the trail was pretty flat and similar to the terrain I’m used to, but I was soggy and cold, we all were. We set up a tarp to sit under and I went into the woods to change into dry clothes. They didn’t stay dry long, though. It was still raining.
An hour and a half later, the bus came to pick us up. Somehow, my group got lucky and managed to reserve a spot on a 12-person bus. That was nice. But the seats were wet, and then so became my butt again.
On the ride home, we had an intense debate over whether or not pizza originated in the States. I was 80% sure it did. They were 100% sure it did not. I blame a faulty school system for teaching me otherwise because pizza did, in fact, originate in Italy.
We made it home by 11. I was all chewed up. New Zealand wilderness destroyed me. But I’ll be back.