As the fire slowly came to life, shadows danced across the surfaces of the hut, empty but for its sole occupant for the night. A single tealight in the middle of the table provided a paltry luminous supplement to aid in visibility. As I laid out the last of my gear across the wooden tabletop for a last minute equipment check, a chuckle spread across my face at the futility of it all. If something was missing now, I would have to do without it. I was well out of range of mobile coverage, and the only phone at Brown Hut would only dial local numbers (this did not include mobile phones). J and E were half-way back to Takaka/Pohara, where they would be spending the night in much more comfortable accomodation.
Too lazy to pack everything away on the spot, I plopped myself down on a bench in front of the fireplace, peered into the dancing flames and pondered the rollercoaster events of the past 48 hours that had led me here.
It had all started with a late night arrival into Christchurch just two days earlier – the touchdown of the flight at 2350h meant that by the time we had bumbled our way around town, located the YHA where we would spend the night, and got ready for bed, it was nearly 3 in the morning. E was hysterical as it was technically now five hours past his bedtime, and so when we finally managed to hit the sheets, everyone went out like a light.
Barely five hours later, thanks in part to jet lag, we were up and awake, and rearing to start our adventure and forget the stresses and worries of the last five or so months. It was at this time that J noticed a blur patch in the corner of her vision. As we went about the day having breakfast, exploring Christchurch and picking up supplies, the blurry patch continued to spread. Things escalated quickly from there, and a subsequent visit to a pharmacist turned into a walk-in appointment at the GP, which was then followed by an urgent appointment with an ophthalmologist at the local hospital. By this time, J was in pain, unable to open her eyes in bright light, and tearing profusely. Suspected viral conjunctivitis, cornea detachment, and scratched cornea were a few possibilities that were tossed around. The doctor wasn’t sure, but the only thing that was certain was that her cornea was clouded over. J was given the equivalent of a lubricant for her eyes, and we were strongly recommended to stay in Christchurch for at least another night.
We were all somewhat in shock. All our plans were now up in the air. After managing to find an affordable motel nearby, I checked J in and let her get some much needed shut-eye, while I spent the next hour or so calling round the various motels, service providers and the New Zealand DOC to cancel all our arrangements for the next few days. As shattered as I was, it was a no brainer – J needed me by her side, and it would have been criminal for me to go off galavanting in the mountains leaving her alone and blind in bed with a hyperactive 2 year old to look after. We were all glum – the weather forecast for the week was promising, but as far as we were concerned, it was looking more like a boring week stuck in a motel room with the lights off, interspersed with numerous trips to the doctor. We couldn’t even watch TV as it hurt her eyes. And there was the question none of us dared to ponder – what if it was permanent? I shuddered at the thought.
We said many prayers that day, and I did all I could to allow J to have as much rest as possible – the only time she felt relief from the pain was when she slept. E and I went for a walk in a nearby park, and we later went to the local grill for a hearty meal – which J struggled to enjoy since she couldn’t see. By this time, her other eye had become sensitive as well, and it was just easier for her to have both eyes shut. After dinner, we all went to bed early – with mum down, there was nothing the rest of us could really enjoy. I read E a couple of stories and, after he dropped off to sleep, I lay in bed, with prayers and miserable thoughts floating in my head until I finally drifted off to sleep.
J was the first to awaken the next morning, and, hardly daring to say it, she grabbed my shoulder and stirred me from my sleep, whispering: “Darling – I think I’m ok!”. It was nothing less than a miracle. Not only did her eyes not hurt – her vision had been completely restored. Glory to God!
The rest of the day was a happy but frantic attempt to salvage our holiday – calling round to re-book as many cancellations as we could, and rearrange my track transportation. We also had to now make the 6 hour drive to Takaka that we were meant to do the day before, and to try and get me on to the 5:45 bus to Brown Hut, and somehow squeeze in lunch and another stop for supplies along the way. It was a frantic drive through some spectacular scenery, but in the end, it was all for nought – we missed the bus. J very kindly offered to make the 2 hour return journey to drop me off, and so, after a shower and a meal together, we all made the trip to Brown Hut together, where they dropped me off in the rain after a few heartfelt goodbyes and well wishes.
As the car slowly left down the winding unsealed road back out of the forest, I was left with only the light of my headlamp, highlighting the falling raindrops as the drizzle persisted. It was a short five minute trudge down the track to Brown Hut, my accomodation for the evening, a sturdy buidling of stone with all the basics and then some – a fireplace, walls, a roof and communal bunks with mattresses. The hut itself was relatively clean – minimal cobwebs and some rat droppings here and there, but otherwise in very good stead for a structure that, these days anyway, is hardly used. Situated at the Golden Bay end of the Heaphy Track, the hut was originally intended as an overnight resting point for hikers completing the track who had to wait for flooded waters in the several rivers through which the road out passed, to recede. In recent years, those rivers have all been bridged, and so now, other than the odd hunter or two, it generally sits quietly on its own, with the roar of the nearby Aorere river for company.
For me though, it was just the perfect spot for me to launch my crossing of the Heaphy Track – a 78 kilometer crossing of the mountains in Kahurangi National Park, covering a route used by maori greenstone seekers, and early 19th century prospectors. Covering around 2000m of total ascent, the route is typically hiked in 4-6 days, or mountain biked in 2-3 days. As usual, my plan was to do the express tour and cross the track on foot in two days, covering 62km from Brown Hut to Heaphy Hut on day 1, and then finishing the remaning 16km the next day by lunch time.
I still had my niggling tib post tendon along for the ride, so the plan (as usual) was to take it slow, with a generous 12 hours to get through the 62km on day 1. Staying overnight from Brown Hut meant that I could start literally at the crack of dawn, and with sunrise at 0600 and senset at 0830, this would leave me with 2.5 hours of daylight for wiggle room, and hopefully allow me to have a leisurely time soaking in the sights, smells and the atmosphere of the NZ mountains that I have grown to love over the past year or so.
And that brings us back to me, sitting on a bench in an empty hut, the only soul for miles around with only the sound of the crackling fire, raindrops on roof and the rush of the Aorere river. I was glad to be there, relieved and very grateful that J’s eyes had been healed, but couldn’t help feeling a slight pang of uncertainty. My tib post certainly was not fully recovered, and dealing with that injury over the past few months meant that I had lost a great deal of fitness. A 62km mountain crossing, albeit a rather gentle one, was still no meagre distance to cover in a day, and only now that I had had some time to myself to sit and ponder, did the magnitude of the task ahead begin to sink in. I finished up my supper of instant noodles, and put a kettle over the fire to boil before curling into my sleeping bag and dozing off to bed, my heart a swirling mess of anticipation and anxiety.
To be continued……