Each step is a thousand subconscious decisions when you’re in the hills.
You weigh up the stability or otherwise of the ground before you, consider the position of your feet, your pace, your fatigue, the odd muscular twinges that you hope won’t turn into
anything more serious. You check whether the ground is wet or whether there are tree roots poking out or other trip hazards. You assess the gradient of the terrain. And then you place your foot. Half a breath later, or maybe a whole breath if it’s steep, you do the same thing again. And on it goes, until you reach your destination.
The slopes of the ridge fell away from me at either side, sweeping down into the valley. Densely-packed bush lined the hills as far as the eye could see, the Painted Forest living up to its name as the silver and green patches of canopy formed shapes like brush-strokes. It was hard to believe I was only a half-hour’s drive away from Dunedin as I laid my pack down on the ridge and took a breather. It felt as though the hills went on forever.
Sometimes the most unplanned adventures turn out to be the best, and this was both spectacularly unplanned and a spectacularly good decision. I had been feeling restless the previous evening, bored of towns and craving solitude and vast skies. I had yet to spend a night in a backcountry hut after relying on the tent so much whilst travelling, and I knew I couldn’t leave New Zealand without sampling the incredible network of tramping huts across the country. Flicking through the road atlas, I found one not too far away. Right, I
decided. That would be tomorrow night’s home.
Up through the bush to the crest of the hills where trees can no longer thrive against the winds and winter, and long grasses take over the vegetation. Once on the ridgeline, things change. Perspective becomes easier, headspace becomes clearer. The endless expanse of land and sky allows your mind to rest for a while. There’s no place I feel more alive, even when my feet are screaming and my hips are aching from packhorsing my life along on my back for days on end. One foot in front of the other becomes all there is.
Being above things, too, allows you a chance to look down, a shift in perspective that sucks away any worries or difficult decisions that were clouding your mind. I find it easiest to acknowledge the impermanence of things, good and bad, when I’m above them. Looking
down and across the valleys and hills and knowing how many lives I might unknowingly be looking into far below, my own problems and concerns fade into perspective. The sheer volume of possible lives that surround you at all times on ground level becomes manageable. Above things, it’s easier to see that there’s more.
‘There is no Zen on the mountaintops, the Zen is in the valleys’ – the quote came to me as I crossed a creek after a steep 1200-foot descent aptly named ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ (memories of the West Highland Way came flooding back!) that I knew I was going to have to make up for as soon as I moved on the next morning. I’m still not sure to what extent I agree, but it’s true that the valleys provide the grace notes against the superfluousness of the struggling uphills, the sliding downhills, or the glory of the ridgeline views. Valleys offer calm and rest, and a chance to cool my feet in the creek next to a sign warning me that penguins come ashore in the late afternoon so I should do my best not to disturb them. It took me a good while to realise that this particular sign might just have been
stolen from a beach somewhere along the coast. I’m not sure any penguin has ever made it this far up the river. I moved on.
The Jubilee Hut, nestled on a hillside looking across the valley to the site of its predecessor, was perfect except for its lack of stove – however, seeing as the previous incarnation burnt to the ground, there was perhaps a reason for this. A ten-bunk hut, with a sort of giant bunk bed that could sleep five people next to each other on each level, it definitely could have been a crowded experience, but when I arrived as the sun was beginning to slant its first evening rays around the hilltops, it was deserted.
I’ve spent many nights alone in my tent in the hills, but none alone in such a structure
as this – it felt a bit strange to make myself dinner in such a big empty space. I’d settled into the rhythms of solitude throughout the day, though, and was so much looking forward to my evening to myself (especially after over five months travelling with my partner – some time alone was definitely a rare event!) that at first I was slightly annoyed when I found myself with company. However, it turned out to be completely unwarranted; if I could have described an ideal companion for a night in the wilderness, I probably wouldn’t have been too far off! I spent a wonderful evening sharing stories and Jeff Buckley songs with a Literature and Gender Studies student from the University of Otago who had hiked up to the hut to spend a few days in the hills trying to get some studying done. It was the sort of encounter that is so special and unique, an immediate connection,
but something that is far more common that one would expect in the hills. There’s a shared understanding of the joy of hiking all day to spend a night away from the city, and a shared knowledge that you will most likely never see your evening companion again back in the real world, that makes for very honest connections. Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s nothing to be feared from spilling your soul; there’s no consequence to telling something to a stranger. But perhaps it’s just because everybody feels so good after spending the day outside in a beautiful place that they want to share that joy with others and create real connections. Whatever it is, the conversation that results is always excellent.
The morning found no sign of the predicted downpour, but the Silver Peaks are notorious for their changeable weather, so I set off determined to cover ground quickly and keep an eye on the weather. Making up for the steep descent of the previous afternoon quickly warmed me up and soon I was back on the ridge, looking down on the thick cloud and fog nestling in the valley, in a private world of peaks rising out of the cloud, looking as though they were suspended in mid-air. Everything had an ethereal morning quality about it, the air still with the potential for later change. I crossed my fingers as I watched the cloud roll in on my left and right, miraculously parting along my ridge to give me clear views and dry air. It was perfect.
The trail took me down the side of the valley through knee-high grass wet from the night’s rain that quickly soaked me to the skin. A short detour, and I was at the ABC Cave – a huge limestone cave in the hillside, complete with bunk, complete with two people asleep in it who I tried and failed not to wake. We were as surprised as each other to find ourselves there, I think. Murderers and madmen had been on my mind, mulling over the fact that a convicted murdered escaped his asylum in the 1970s and successfully laid low for three weeks amongst the caves in these hills. Coming across human presence in them myself had confused my trains of thoughts somewhat unwarrantedly and I made a swift, and probably uncalled-for, exit.
Back up to the ridge and my haven above the clouds, and down down down along forest tracks, navigating soaked tree-roots that did their best to trip me up and leave me to the wandering axe murderers of the hills (or, perhaps, simply the fantail birds that followed me along the very-far-from-spooky track). After a seemingly endless descent I came across a second hut, built in memory of a local man, Philip J Cox, who had loved the outdoors and died in a car crash on his way back from a weekend hike not too long ago. The memorial plaque was a beautiful tribute and I only hope that one day people can say
something as beautiful about me, that I leave behind an impression that inspires friendship, a love of the outdoors, and encouragement, in others. Time will tell.
The final miles of any trail are are mixture of emotions. Returning to civilisation – even after only one night away, I feel similar to how I have done spending a week or more hiking along – with a clearer head, a tired body, and priceless memories definitely makes
the transition back to the everyday a little better. Aches and pains find rest; the curses thrown at that unexpected last steep ascent (tempered, slightly, by the smell of pine wood all around) quiet themselves, and of course there’s always the pint at the end of the walk to look forward to. But, especially with solitary walks, there is always a part of yourself left on the trail, exchanged for your experiences, a part that nobody can really share unless they accompanied you on your hike. Perhaps that is truly why the human connections found in the hills are so special: a shared experience is something we cannot help but form bonds with others about, even when both parties experienced it in solitude.