*** note to self—don’t finish a biography about Ted Bundy before backpacking solo in the New Zealand Bush
Poronui truly is part of something bigger—it is bordered on all sides by two national parks. Sometimes I’ll be doing dishes at the Stables--overlooking an epic view of the Kaimanwa Mountain Range and the Kaweke’s and I’ll see a lone man, occasionally accompanied by loyal, tawny hound, crossing through the high grass. In New Zealand they call thru-hikers or hikers in general—trampers. Throughout national parks, small, Department of Conservation Huts, or DOC Huts can be found nestled in quiet beech forest valleys. Some are painted a bright orange so hunters can find them despite heavy snow—others blend into the grey and green of the wilderness seamlessly.
I’ve wanted to backpack into huts since I arrived in New Zealand but I’ve been slightly nervous because hiking in a different country means the trail insignia and patterns are different. Treking in other countries is kind of like learning a different language. But I decided that if I backpacked for the first time through a national park as close to Poronui as possible then I’d at least have the comfort of knowing the terrain and have experts to send me in the right direction. I’m learning that sometimes it’s about baby steps. Bird by bird as Anne Lamott says.
As I flew from Poronui to the Rangatiki river an amazing thing happened—the dense bush forest opened up to a desolate, ruddy and ochre desert landscape punctuated by a slender, blue trail through the center. The Ngaruroro river (which I can’t pronounce for the life of me) is wide and winding and hugged by steep mountain ranges on either side. On the bank of the river is the Boyd Airstrip—an odd sight to see from the air—seemingly random and out of place. Beside the airstrip, high in the hills, is Boyd Hut. I picked the Boyd Hut as my first backpacking destination. It’s a five minute helicopter ride but 4-6 hours, 10 miles on foot.
This whole idea was very typical sammie-style i.e. no planning involved, very little thought and preparations. Ben, (the fishing-guide-turned helicopter-pilot-married-to-my-manager) drew me a lovely little map and I kind of just gathered what gear I had and hit the road (don't try this at home).
First—this is no PCT. It's not even like the trails around Desolation Wilderness. You follow these orange little reflective arrows on what’s called the “poled route." Because it’s rare that someone hikes through these trails, most of the path is overgrown and very often it’s indistinguishable from the surrounding woods. On top of that, this valley received an epic storm last winter that uprooted gigantic trees. Their roots were so wide and sprawling that, when sent skyward—they left me awestruck. So, despite my best intentions, I got a little lost on several occasions.
Secondly—there were a LOT of river crossings. Which meant that my leather, Danner boots (a gift from the ACE Hotel) that have served me well in Oregon and California utterly failed me on this hike. Hip-deep river water + leather boots = a real mess. But crossing barefoot is even more precarious. In the end, the hike was very reminiscent of my childhood swim team practices where we were forced to swim laps wearing our shoes and jeans.
Thirdly—the hut had 16 bunks and while I was hoping to have it all to myself—I knew, logically, there was a good chance of having to share my slice of solace with an odd tramper or hunter or two.
Enter Farm-boy and his entourage.
Believe me, I am well-schooled in the art of a mullet. And yet, I have never in all of my years seen a mullet quite like the ones this group sported. They were carefully shaved except for a small-rectangular square in the back of their heads that sprouted a thick crop of hair. It made me think of a chia pet.
Raised by a family of women who I’d describe as pacifists—I’d never held a gun until I moved to New Zealand and I’m not super used to them. As I walked up to the Boyd Hut the first thing I saw was a LOT of guns. Then I noticed Farm-boy and his son and his sons' friend lounging around—basking in the late-afternoon sun wearing wife-beaters and smoking home-rolled cigarettes. They have the thickest Kiwi accents I have ever heard and they’re impressed but also a little horrified by the fact that I just walked to the hut that they were flown to by helicopter. Who would walk all that way?! Apparently Farm-boy used too, but no longer does.
Farm-boy (he never actually gave me his real name, despite my asking several times) is 60 years old? With grey-hair and biceps that an old-western paperback could only describe as thunderous. He works in logging operations and he and his son fly in to hunt about every three months. Feeling slightly anti-social and trying to get over my aversion to lots of weapons and mullets, I decided to head down to the river, read my book and go for a swim. When I returned, they were gone on an evening hunt.
The heat of the day caused the hut to swell but as the temperature dropped the wood constricted and shrunk, causing wild creaking noises and loud snaps. And here I am in my bunk, listening to these ominous, night sounds and trying not to think about the gigantic Ted Bundy biopic I finished that very morning. Surprisingly, I slept like a baby.
When I awoke, the family was lounging on the porch and I was feeling slightly better rested, friendlier, and all-around less judgmental and closed-minded, so I joined them for two hours of what could be one of the most interesting cultural exchanges of my life.
I think what was important for me to keep in mind that day is that, while cliche, humans are born with hearts and arteries and phalanges and while we all essentially operate the same way--we really are bred and molded by our environments. So while I may have been horrified about their descriptions of mowing down rabbits and hares in their cars for the fun of it, I had to remember to keep things in perspective and just listen. Farm-boy said, "You American's treasure your wildlife--everything here is just a pest," when describing shooting hundreds of turkeys in one session and not saving a single one for meat or feathers or anything of purpose. It was also the first time I'd ever heard any sort of racism by white New Zealanders towards Maori's. I really, really, really wanted to close-up around these men and perhaps I should have? But I also found that there was intense love for their families, their woods and their bush and a deep respect for their history.
The media and even our own prejudices want us to believe that we live in a one-dimensional world. But people aren't paper-dolls that you can dress and undress in the costumes of "the heretic,""the racist" "the liberal" "the white-girl with no worldly experience but thinks she knows it all" depending on what category fits them best. It's much more malleable and uncertain and in the end, I found I was the prejudiced one--because I was uncomfortable by language and demeanor that was alien to me, I was the one who took nearly 24 hours to simply smile--to listen.
So, while I backpacked into the bush to find solace, I didn’t find as much as I was expecting. I think next time I might camp instead of stay in a hut? But, I also would never have met Farm-boy, and that would have been a tragedy.