The alarm going off at 2am didn’t thrill me, but to be honest I was already awake. That’s what night shifts do to you. Adding an extra tablespoon of espresso grind to my plunger had me off to a faux-alert and shaky start.
The gravel road wound through the bush, illuminating the occasional possum and briefly, a mob of three deer. That was a good sign. James and I were heading to a hut in the Ruahines with Eli the hound, in the hope of getting close to a roaring stag. It was still very early in the roar, as my non-hunting colleague booked the prime dates up well in advance, so we weren’t sure how much luck we would have. It was great to be getting out in the fresh air anyway. Great that is, until we got out of the car in the rain, at 4am. Fighting off the desire to sleep, we trudged in the dark through shin-deep mud, down hill. Eli had his pack on too – loaded up with his food and gear, then a bunch of our food too. Admittedly I packed his bag with 3.5 kg of the more dense and heavy items to try to slow the perky little bugger down! I had made the pack the day before from his harness and some Hunting and Fishing toiletries bags so it was a bit of a risk trying it out on a trip. He coped very well once he lost the hangdog look, and it sat very nicely on his back. Within half an hour the battery for my head torch gave up and I made a mental note to pack spares next time.
A particularly steep bit of hill was challenging due to the rifle scabbard protruding below my pack and occasionally propelling me forward. Nothing wakes you up faster than nearly flying face first down a mud-covered near-vertical slope in the dark! After several near-misses involving said scabbard and a few muttered swear words, we reached an area overlooking a gigantic slip in perfect time, first light. After several minutes of glassing a spiker, hind and fawn, and a separate hind were seen. The novelty of seeing deer in the wild never wears thin, and we considered taking a meat animal.
A few minutes on I was very glad we decided not to – we reached the stream and the level was up. The water was the colour of black tea but we could still see the bottom and although the flow was a bit faster than I was comfortable with, James lead a discussion on a plan of attack that gave me confidence.
It certainly was challenging. And I was more scared than I let on, initially. However as we went on my confidence increased too and I began to lead the way. That was until I fell in after an awkward “dance” on slippery rocks and cursed the fact that i hadn’t (for the first time ever) remembered a waterproof dry-bag for my clothes and sleeping bag…. I made a mental note to add it to my list of must-haves for each trip.
There were a couple of crossings over swift but deep water where I was worried about Eli, and we put a leash around his neck for safety and obviously took his backpack off. He is not a very strong swimmer – the same dog that was put on a rock 10m from shore in lake Taupo and screamed like a hyena until all the sunbathers on the beach left… true story. But today he listened perfectly despite his fear, and when told to get in the water he trusted us as we hauled him through the current.
The worst bits were actually where we skirted through the riverflats through the trees rather than the river bed. Every time my pack hit a branch, a tree-load of water was deposited down my back. Branches would hit my face. Crap would get stuck between my pack and the back of my neck. Sticks would get in my hair. My pack would be stuck between trees… it was very frustrating and a lot of branches were broken in order to vent a building rage, under the guise of ‘trail maintenance for the return trip.’ We were very pleased to see the hut after a slow trek, and set up camp. Happily, all my kit was miraculously dry despite my dunking. From the deck we could hear a few stags moaning in the distance, but nothing was really getting going yet. It is tradition to have a “gourmet” dinner on the first night, and beef burgers were exactly the right fit.
Later that night we were about to sleep when there was a loud scrape then a bump on the deck. As we wondered what on Earth it was, the door flew open, scaring some un-lady-like words out of me. It was 9.30 at night and we were literally about to sleep, but this guy obviously came to the bush to talk about himself, a lot. In the middle of one of his stories about how awesome he was I realised he was cooking with his gas cooker with all the windows shut and decided he was trying to kill us all. He was so busy talking that he didn’t notice me scampering around in my undies letting in some air. After shutting down another one of his stories with a rather pointed “goodnight” and then hand signals to Jimmy to stop replying, he got the hint, started snoring, and then thrashed around in his bunk like a dying fish on land the whole night. I’m really glad he had a good sleep.
Early the next morning we extracted ourselves from the never-ending stories of our rather irritating companion and hit the hills. We were excited to be getting out and exploring. It sounds all magical and wonderful, the idea of walking through the bush and looking for deer. Imagine the mossy forest floor, birds singing gaily in the trees and sparkling spiderwebs well away from face-level, glittering with jewels of dew in the still morning sun. In reality the bit we got stuck in was hell. Being free of a pack I was able to slither on my belly between supplejack and crawl under branches pushing my rifle in front of me, but for James it was a frustrating experience. The supplejack snagged his pack like a snare, and I had to free him multiple times while he counted under his breath. He was getting rightly pissed off with the whole situation. I wasn’t having a great time finding all the spiderwebs with my face and feeling them stretch tight across my lips and eyelids. It seemed my cheeks were taking the brunt of the branches and my face felt like it had been slapped several times. I was grateful to have been wearing gardening gloves to protect the sparkly thing adorning my finger, as they made it much easier to rip the bushlawyer off my clothes and out of my skin without sacrificing the integrity of my seal skin gloves. The added benefits were that my fingers didn’t end up like velcro, no nails were broken, and I maintained sensory ability while not having over-heated hands in the warm weather. James was whacked several times with Ongaonga and complained as the bush lawyer bit into his skin and then tore its way out.
Finally we found a marked track and the going was so much better. It was amazing to be able to walk upright and it was incredible how an orange triangle lifted our spirits so considerably. The track took us up near the tops until the bush opened up, so we left it and began hunting. Eli put us onto some fresh sign and things were looking good, but as we got higher the wind picked up and swirled strongly in all directions. With the increase in altitude and an abrupt change in the weather, it was suddenly very cold. We had a bite to eat and considered the wind, before deciding it was pretty pointless to carry on. Following the track down sure did make things a whole lot easier, and we reached the bottom in record time, happily finding the hut vacated.
We had no sooner entered the hut when there was a rumble outside.
“What was that?”
“Ummm, a rock rolling in the river?”
It came again, this time unmistakable. The sky boiled as gray clouds tumbled and darkened the sky and thunder pounded the heavens from all directions. An absolute downpour started while thunder rumbled and crashed continuously; interrupted only by lightning. It was the most impressive storm I had ever seen/heard, and totally unexpected. Hoping the hut had some kind of earthing system, I made a mental note to check more than one weather forecast next time. Within a very short time the stream across from the hut (our only source of water) turned brown, and I put the clean metal bucket from by the fireplace out to catch rain water for drinking.
After a solid night of rain, the bucket was full, and the stream was a raging chocolate torrent. There was no way we were getting out through that. Eli didn’t mind and snuggled into the nearest sleeping bag. He kept overheating my legs and being shaken out of the bottom of my bag. We were stuck in the hut, unable to even hunt behind the hut because we were basically sandwiched between the flooded river and an ongaonga thicket. That stuff will kill basically anything that gets stung enough times – even horses have died after blundering into it. I embarked on reading the biggest book in the hut (which some nasty person tore the middle pages out of – who does that??) and James attacked the substantial pile of hunting magazines. To make it worse the book was about absolutely nothing. We somehow managed to pass most of the day until it was time to make a call on what to do. At 2.30pm the river check left only one option – stay an extra (unplanned) night. This lead to an emotional rollercoaster for me between optimism, despair, worry for my animals at home, and boredom combined with tiredness. So mostly negative. Contact with friends via a wavering one-bar of cell phone reception, a hot meal, taking stock of our remaining food, as well as a hug or two brought me round, and I managed a good sleep. The rain had stopped around 2pm and we were hopeful for a fine night to get the river down.
The next morning was fine, and as soon as it was light I checked the river, to find it well down and pretty clear. Better than when we had first come in!! We packed our stuff, tidied the hut and headed upstream. The going was much easier this time (possibly due to the trail maintenance from a few days earlier!) and we made great time. When we reached the track i learned that it is not ok to tickle someone’s naked bum as they are hopping on one foot on the side of the river trying to get into dry pants….
We’d heard a few moans on our way in but from the tops we could hear some pretty good roars starting up. It was hard to know if you were hearing a stag or a person at times though. Being a Friday now we knew there would be a fair few people heading in, so the rifle was packed away and we had high vis on us on the trail. Last year James had been in an area very close to where a young man was shot on a track, so that was always in the back of our minds. Eli at one point winded and indicated very seriously. There must have been something there because he started a very quiet whine to signal the urgency. I took a peek but couldn’t see anything; I’ve learned from experience though that the dog is far more likely to be right than I am! We saw a few people as we were heading out, two lots heading in and a single guy without a pack who motored past us after giving Eli a rough pat on the head.
A four hour slog up hill to reach the car seemed to take forever as I tripped over hidden stumps, went to my knees in mud and was battered by the leatherwoods. Still, there’s nothing quite like the sight of the vehicle after a trip like that, and sometimes I wonder if that joy is what keeps me going back into the bush. That and the wonderful feeling of a hot shower!