I’m still adjusting to seeing so many men wearing so little clothing. Even with a hard frost on the ground, there are several Kiwi men who put on, not only in shorts, but STUBBIES! Shorts so short most American men (and many women as well!) wouldn’t be caught dead in them. Bizzare.
The most shocking stubbies-wearer we encountered on our first West Coast backcountry exploration went by Allen. He’s as grisly as they come, a leathery older man whose work at the nation’s mega-corporate dairy processing plant in Timaru slows down in the winter. (They have yet to figure out a way to artificially force year-round milk from cows as we’ve done eggs from chickens. So when the cows are enduring the necessary cold-season pregnancy the cogs at the factory stop turning.) Allen is an archetype of a befuddling sort found here in Kiwi land. He’s as blue-collar as can be from his daily grind to his outlook on life. When the hut warden scolded him for putting his plastic trash in the wood stove (plastic produces toxic smoke and the particulate lingers on the roof where it’s washed into the hut’s rain-catchment water supply), Allen just grunted. A man of few words, we did manage to get out of him that he spends most of his free time backpacking. He even volunteered that the longest he’s been “in the bush” without seeing another person is eight days. For me, stumbling downstairs bleary-eyed for breakfast and encountering the tall, long-legged Allen in tiny shorts eliminated any need for a caffeine wake-up.
We shared the Welcome Flat hut with Allen, a group of four city-slickers out for the weekend, and a gregarious in-late-out-early hunter. This particular hike is famous for the hot springs awaiting the tired, trail-worn feet that cover the seven-hour journey up the valley. While we didn’t have to ford any rivers, we did encounter the highest, sketchiest swing bridges yet. A glance at a “swing bridge” inspires little confidence. All told, six tiny wire cables (the diameter of an M&M comes to mind) are all that stand between you and the icy river gorge far below. Four cables form the walking surface, spread apart by a cross bar every foot or so. The other two wires are strung at “handrail” level, and chain-link fencing runs from one hand wire down across the four walking wires, and up the other side. All together, it’s like a trench of metal swiss-cheese so narrow that Pat, with his size 13’s, has a tough time getting one foot in front of the other. We took turns bouncing across, adhering to the one-person limit signs and stopping to admire the views and the breathtaking drops.
It was fantastic to be back in the rainforest! I read the other day at a DOC (Department of Conservation) display that something like 85-90% of the south island is covered in beech forest. While the west coast does have beech, it also grows an impressive array of other flora, including the delightful tree fern. It looks enough like a palm tree to make the whole place feel like Costa Rica (minus 40 blessed degrees). Much of the trail snaked through chest-high banks of mud-sand. Combined with the usual required scrambling, we had ourselves a genuine seven-hour adventure!
After slipping, sliding, climbing, and crashing through all types of terrain, the steaming hot pools were a welcome sight. We dropped our packs and didn’t leave the relaxing waters until dinner time! We couldn’t resist another soak after the sun had gone down, and we got up before the crack of dawn for a moonlight dip. Delightful! The night sky in New Zealand is amazing, rivaled only by my experience of starry evenings high in the Rockies. Viewing the whole spectacular display from the hot springs: enchanting!
The following morning I finally sighted my first non-winged wildlife, immediately rocketing the Welcome Flat trail into the top three on my NZ hikes list. The first was a chamois (said “Sham-whah”, but usually shortened to “Shammy”) whose hind end I saw disappearing down the trail in front of me just shortly after leaving the hut. This alone was unbelievable and thrilling, given our previous experience of nothingness in the NZ wild. Which is why I could barely contain myself when, upon stopping halfway across a swing bridge to look around, I spotted a tahr (“tar”) on the
riverbank below. A silent drama played out as I furiously tried to mime to Pat that there was a tahr *right underneath him* and frantically vacillated between trying to take a picture without dropping our hiking poles into the river below and running the rest of the way across the sketchy-one-person-bridge so Pat could come out and see it. I finally dashed the distance to the other side landing in time to see the tahr* nonchalantly slip into the woods as Pat climbed onto the wires. Dang!
There were plenty of consolation prizes for Pat, though. We saw our first wekas (forest chickens – said “Weck-uh”), we arrived back at the carpark to an intense double rainbow, AND we met a friendly possum hunter
who kept a bonfire roaring all evening! We fixed up a delicious Thai curry and swapped stories with Josh, a thirty-something kiwi bloke, well into the darkness. He owns an “eco” rafting company that helicopters customers and their gear deep into the wilderness. They pump up the rafts, paddle down river, stop at hot springs, go hunting and fishing – whatever the guests want – all for about $400 a person. Um, wow. In the off-season, he supplements his income by trapping and killing one of the most-hated, introduced kiwi pests – the possum – for its fur.
He described the ins and outs of finding a good spot to run a trap line, explained how he removes the fur, and even let us feel some of the goods he’d collected so far. Possum fur is coveted because it’s super-soft and has a hollow core like a polar bear’s, making it a superb
insulator. Apparently they’re attracted to big trees, so Josh stakes out a trap line when he finds a forest giant with possum runs near it. Once their legs are caught in the traps, the possums usually go to sleep but “freak out” the next day when they hear him coming. He clubs them on the head (yes, this makes them dead), and then plucks the fur with a “peeling” motion that clears out three inch patches per peel. The fur sells for $200 cash per kg ($100 a pound) and rising. It takes a couple of possums to make a pound, and a couple more to make a kg.
Before the night was up, our possum-hunting-friend solved lots of kiwi mysteries and de-mystified the kiwi psyche for me. A perfect end to our West Coast beginning!
See rainbows and breathtaking vistas by clicking here.
*Tahr and chammy have split reputations among Kiwi’s. Hunters love them for the reason they were introduced – the thrill of the kill! (I just said that because it rhymes.) Other non-hunters want them completely eradicated because they destroy the fragile balance of the local ecosystem that evolved without the presence of ANY mammals (we’re not counting the bat). Ironically, this creates a conundrum in which the originalists are all for the hunters doing their thing, but the hunting industry is all for keeping the goats on the slopes. Rumor has it some guiding companies are raising and re-releasing the animals to keep the sport alive.