Wednesday, 24 March 2010


The idea of travelling alone scared me a bit. But then I realised that if it got sticky, I'd just deal with it. Turn every problem into an opportunity and you can't go wrong. I'd totally forgotten I already knew how to do that.

This is something that I got from soul-gazing with Oz in Christchurch park, seeing the past, present and future as one and differentiating between spiritual and physical energies. And seeing energy in monochrome, a bit like when Neo sees everything in code in the Matrix. None of this paragraph seems real - I have a bit of reading to do before I can express it properly.

The Israelis, love ‘em

Most Israelis I've met have blown me away with a lust for life. None more so than these two... we stand in the gut of huge glacial flue, they stand on the opposite bank of the melt-water river and we try to shout small talk over the roar. The conversation, as with all encounters with people in the wild, started with a stunned silence at seeing another human being coming out of nowhere.

What gets me, with jaw dropping impact, is their kit. Trainers and hoodies, off-track half way up a 2500m mountain. They wave a clear plastic bottle in the air and point at the glacier way above. Nutters! I laugh as it clicks. They'd just gone up there to get some ice from the glacier and were now returning to the valley with their prize. I let out an American Indian war cry to sum up my reaction and they jump up and down with redoubled enthusiasm before tip-toeing down the scree to the main track a couple of hours below.


Annabelle and I sit on the verge of the quiet road in the montanes of the southern alps. We wait for the fruition of what would normally be mission impossible. But with Pat on the case, impossible is nothing. A bus comes over the horizon pulling with it a trailer and four kayaks. He's only gone and bloody done it!

Luckily for me, my brother happens to be a rock'n'roller. A master at inspiring the ragged edge and riding the tiger, his 20 day trip to NZ is a rollercoaster. We hooked up half way through and within 2 days of being with us in Arthur's Pass he'd managed to arrange a four day adventure to float from Arthur's Pass down the Waimak to Christchurch.

Between here and there is the complete unknown. Wild country. The nearest road will be 50km away. Just Annabelle, Oz, Pat and myself and the river. I always knew it'd be big when he came over - but then I expect nothing less from Pat. And of course it turned out to be one of the best highlights of my 6 month trip. N1B.

Down river, part 1

Three days ago we'd put the kayaks on the banks for the first time. Luckily for us (Annabelle, Pat and myself) Oz had done this before which made him the most responsible out of all of us.

"So has anyone else ever done this before?" he ventured.

We all shook our heads. Nope. The river surged by.

"I've got a phobia of water" said Pat.
"I'm a crap swimmer" I chipped in.
Annabelle reserved an ominous silence for her own hopes and fears.

I kind of imagined what went through Oz's head, and proceeded to laugh my ass off. This had all the signs of a real epic. Bring it on.

Oz did a cracking job of teaching us how to capsize which was a big deal because apparently there was a gorge section ahead. None of us really liked airing thoughts on what the gorge section might be like, it was important to maintain optimism at this stage. The first practice of "falling out" I got my boot trapped in the boat and nearly got swept down the river. The second time I came up under the kayak and it was... well... embarrassing. And a bit worrying really. Everyone else did fine. Pat was particularly smooth at it, which was good, coz he'd be doing a lot of that later on.

The gleam in ranger's eye

A smile, a twinkle in the eye, the sharing of a secret. Information usually reserved for the locals, released only after achieving mutual respect. She told me where it was and how to get there. She smiled the smile of someone who knows I going to have a good experience, but knows I couldn't possibly imagine how good. "You don't have to thank me" she said, "I'm just the messenger". I pretty much run out of the Mt Cook visitor centre, my pack airborne behind me.

Bye Oz

Its been four fantastic months on and off the road travelling with Oz. He's an outstanding bloke - I don't know many people who share the same views on going with the flow, and our experiences have rubbed us deep into the fabric of New Zealand. It's been a privilege to have set off into the unknown with him.

Now, we both have specific things to do in our last days in NZ so this is goodbye for a while. Him the tramping hippie, me the hippie tramper.

I watch as he pads off with guitar slung over his back, melting into the crowd. I hope he finds what he wants in Takaka, I smile as I know he will. The lucky bastard gets to work in one of the nicest kitchens on the planet and experience a community in one of the most beautiful hippie capitals in the world.

As for me, it's just one thing... the Dusky track. I jump on a local bus and get the hell out of Christchurch city centre.

The pancake and the stone

I am one of the throng visiting the "pancake rocks". Punakaki is famous for its "pancake rocks". Its "pancake rocks" bring in thousands of tourists every year. I look at them. It's true, they do look like pancakes made out of rock. Lots of them stacked on top of each other, like the ones I had in a diner in New York, but without the maple syrup.

But are these the only rocks on the coast? I think not. It's amazing how everyone, including myself, has descended on this bit of coast when there are literally thousands of miles of incredible natural elements to be seen. The reason we are here in Punakai of course is because some smart person gave these rocks a name. We all know what a pancake is so we can relate to this natural phenomenon. And now Punakai makes a lot of money.

It made me think. I think we give things labels primarily for survival, and later philosophy. Words speed up our ability to function in the physical world. If someone ran at you with a spear, questioning the nature of the spear wouldn't be much consolation while it's poking out the other side of your torso. If we spent all day analysing what is meant by a chair we'd probably never get round to sitting on it. So things get labels, or words, to speed up our comprehension of reality. Words provide generic meanings, and getting specific about a single entity can take up books of words. Nothing new there.

Two months later I scrabble up a mountain and put my foot on a stone about 30cm across. Everything about me stops. I put the pack down and look at the stone. At first glance there is nothing amazing about this stone. I have trodden over a million stones in my life, but there's something very strange about this one. I feel a huge connection with it, which is crazy because it is just a rock. I have no vocabulary to explain anything about the connection, other than it makes me stop for five minutes questioning whether there is something special about this stone or I'm just loosing my mind. The connection I have makes it the most incredible rock I have ever witnessed in my life.

If I hadn't "felt" it, I wouldn't have noticed it. This thought makes me look up and around. At this point in time I don't have words for anything else I can see. Maybe crude ones like mountains, glaciers, forest... some general features I can see even have pet names given to them by explorers. But all of a sudden I am hit by the things that don't have a specific name. Which is pretty much everything. And everything looks back, and laughs at my traditional thought process. Every other individual "rock" is insulted by my limited vocabulary, as is every individual "tree" and every individual "cloud". I am paralysed with wonder and cannot move for several minutes.

Hut of huts

I sit in the doorway of Sefton bivvy - this hut echoes every definition I ever had of 'idyllic'. I'm so high up that I am looking down at a chopper flying up the Mount Cook valley. It took 4 hours of off-track scrambling to get here, and on arrival I immediately got on the radio and changed my plan of intentions with the DOC to stay here for not one, but three days.

I have the place to myself. There is everything I need here. No beds, just a floor space 2m x 3m, a water butt, a candle and a glacier 100 meters away. I hadn't even planned on coming here... as with most trip highlights.

The days are bathed in beautifully warm sunlight. In the dark the temperature lingers at 4°C and I lie on every bit of insulation I can find. Last night I crept out of the hut to go for a piss, only to see the valley below carpeted entirely in cloud, the tops licking at the base of the hut. The moon illuminated the vista, giving the impression that I was standing at the edge of an ethereal lake. Or was I dreaming?

The fear

Panic pushes my mind into a spin and I start running. Uphill. With a 20 kg pack on. After 3 hours of continuous off-track climbing. At an altitude of 1400m.

STOP! Idiot, stop. I force myself to stand still and assess. I listen to my heart which is banging like a machine gun. Jesus, if I keep this up I’ll have a coronary in a minute. I wait until my heart stops trying to break my rib cage open and try to assess what the hell is going on. Above is a gnarly cliff hiding the horizon with no obvious route, 800m below is the Mt Cook valley which looks like it wants to eat me and I'm on an exposed ridge. The end is nowhere in sight and I have 60 minutes before it gets dark. I need mental control NOW. Panic had stemmed from shock, shock had stemmed from fear, fear had come from a bad situation. And as my good friend AK would say, you should never push a bad situation.

I'd arrived at the trail head earlier that day. There had been just enough time to research the route, throw my excess kit into a bush and hit the trek. I'd got rough directions to Sefton bivvy hut, but as it was all off-track the going had been tough hands and knees stuff. I'd missed a good line on the way up and paid the price with a difficult traverse. To make matters worse, after finishing the traverse and coming out onto the main ridge I saw what I had previously thought was the hut. But now I could see it wasn't the hut. It was a big boulder that looked like a hut, but it definitely was not a hut. Hence the moment.

And now time is running out. Apart from having nowhere to bivvy down on the harsh slope it feels so exposed that the smallest cloud could pick me up and blow me into the chasm.

I was impressed at my STOP. It was the right thing to do. I had controlled my mind, reigned in my grip on reality. Now I can rationalise. I figure if this fairly worn line is going uphill it MUST go to the hut. Or at least to a point where I can see it. I'll just keep plodding on, keep the BPM down, chill Winston.

Forty-five minutes later I crest another ridge and there, in all its sunset splendour, lies Sefton Bivvy hut. Its location is so totally spectacular, and my relief is so great, that I scream and punch the air. "YOU F**KING BEAUTY!!!!" just about sums it up. Epic over, I grin all the way up the last section, and make the last radio call with enough time to cook lentils.

Glaciers alive!

I'd seen glaciers from a distance before.

"Oh you've got to go and see the glacier up close, it's so stunning!" everyone had said.

Really? I mean honestly, aren't they just persistent swathes of snow? Which bit are you getting excited about exactly? Conversationally, I didn't get it. So when I was in Mt Cook a few weeks ago I thought I'd go up to a glacier. To see if I could get it.

The noises took me by surprise. It would talk, using a massive vocabulary for the short time I was there. The occasional groans during the nights, as you'd expect from any sleeping giant, were on the same bassy frequencies as thunder. As the sun warmed it in the morning it made the kind of noises you'd expect from any mottled blue brute getting out of bed. Hours of silence would be punctuated with scrapes, grinds, gushes of melt water, crashes, cracks, collapses, slips, rockfall. I could never see exactly where they came from of course - each noise was "from inside" and without warning, which only added to the prowess of the phenomenon. Its formidable aura prompted me to read my book on a well protected spot, but I kept it within arm's reach and occasionally patted it.

On the last sunset I did naked yoga on it, assuming crampons don't count as clothes. As I tried to connect my mind to it for the first time I immediately felt an enormous sense of pity. It was dying. As are we, but somehow because it's bigger and defenceless, it's much sadder. The longer I sat there, the more I realised that it's not just stunning, it's alive. This made me realise a lot about our misperceptions of the label "life". I think a lot of us are in the wrong paradigm, but that's another blog post.

I spent three days up there. I have just finished the descent and now I sit in a field in the valley watching a stupefying sunset over Mount Cook. There is not a cloud in the sky and Cook is shrouded in glaciers similar to mine, all melting. No one around me speaks. We all get it.

Boiling point

I was fifteen, or thereabouts, when our physics teacher explained how the boiling point of water drops the higher you go. I imagined taking a stove up to the top of a mountain to boil water would be quite exciting. But, as I sat there in on an uncomfortable wooden stool, dressed in a ridiculous uniform with the rest of my life ahead of me, it never occurred to me that the experience might also be beautiful. This was what I could see above the boiling lentils... click to enlarge.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The perfect hitch

The sun wanes on a dusty highway. My boots lead me and my pack towards the plains. I parallel a commuting exodus out of the Christchurch metropolis, my thumb high in the air, my back to the mechanical fish.

A black car swings off the road and stops in front of me. It's a Toyota Celica, my teen-dream car... the nineties model, with more curves than Jessica Rabbit and a custom spoiler which could send us all Back to the Future.

Cars like this don't normally stop for hobos like me. I jog up to the window, confused. I do the usual scan over the driver seat for alcohol and weapons... but all is squeaky.

"Need a ride?" he says.
"Er, yeah! Thanks... where you headed?" I ask.
"Wherever you like mate, I'm just going for a drive."

I kind of hesitate, am I dreaming?

"Sweet! How does Mount Cook sound?"
"Cool, I never been there before."
"Me neither..." I grin, "Let's do it!"

I trade stories for cigarettes and bubble gum. We pull away and I navigate him up the ranges, bass pumping out of his 1.2 kW sound system, blowing bubbles all the way. At the end of a three hour ride he drops me off at two perfect hammock trees and gives me his hi-viz jacket, which in a week or so will save my ass.

"What's you name" I'd asked at the beginning.
"FREEDOM" he'd said.


A theory of relativity

S'been a while. Maybe just because the extraordinary experiences have become the norm. Life being amazing and all, can have a lot to do with change. I have noticed that it's usually only the second differential of cumulative experience - that is the rate of change of change - which drives me to write. It's almost like it's the twists and turns of the flux remind me I'm alive. And for one without a memory, reminders need to be pounced on before they slip away. So here's some more...