Michelle Campbell (Ngāti Kahungungu te Wairoa) remembers a minimally restful night on Te Araroa, the ‘walk of a lifetime’ that stretches the length of Aotearoa.
This piece appears in the new anthology Across the Pass: New Zealand Tramping Writing, and originally comes from Campbell’s 2020 book Meeting Papa: a journey on Te Araroa.
Campbell’s partner Jack prefers the pronouns “they” and “them”.
The trail becomes steeper as we near Pāhautea Hut, a muddy slog over slippery tree roots and windfall. Whauwhaupaku [five finger] brushes against us on the ascent, dark green leaves with wet sinewy fingers. Sticky threads of spider webs break over our faces and we claw at the fibres with our clammy damp hands. At the summit we have no view, just thick white cloud that surrounds us, but then something strange happens.
Jack turns to me in disbelief. “Boardwalks? Why now?”
We place our feet already coated in a thick layer of mud on pristine boards. Following them as they loop around the exposed top of Pirongia Mountain, where the lumpy fog finally reveals sheets of pale green tin.
“The hut!” Jack yells. We have never seen a hut like it.
I walk around its exterior. “Is that a boot washing station? Purposebuilt tent pads? This is fancy as!”
Steam escapes from our bodies as we peel off wet layers in the boot room. I see Oscar, Vince and Skye through the windowpane of the hut door, Oscar’s face reminiscent of a thundercloud.
Oscar barks at me as I near the bench seat. “Why is the trail like this? It’s like every time there is a forest, the trail is fucked!”
He looks at me like I’m supposed to give him an answer, but all I can do is shrug my shoulders.
“I’d rather walk roads!” he hollers. “No more trail like this! I don’t even care about being a thru-hiker anymore. I’m walking the road around the next forest!”
I’m not sure who he is talking to anymore. He swishes around the hut in a thin rain jacket and even thinner rain pants tending to a tiny alcohol stove that appears to be made out of a tuna can while he grizzles, “I need to get my stuff dry. Why is there no fire in this hut?” He sprinkles his noodles with something that looks like breadcrumbs out of a zip-lock bag.
I can’t help but stare as he sits down to eat.
“What is that?” I ask him.
“Crushed potato chips … for calories. You need like four thousand calories a day. How many calories do you eat a day?”
I’ve never even thought about it. “I don’t know. I … I have no idea.”
Oscar gives me an annoyed glance. “You need calories on the trail, man! So many calories.” He shakes his head, the gangster tattoos thick on his neck squirming under the strain of his bulging veins and desperate to flee.
I nod my head, trying to understand his frustration, but he seems so unreasonably angry about nothing. He returns to pacing around the kitchen rinsing his tiny pot under cold water.
Vince takes Oscar’s place at the table and asks both Jack and me an interesting question. “So how much weight have you two lost on the trail?”
The question is kindly asked but takes me by surprise. “Well … I haven’t … none.”
“Really? No way! I lost five kilos from Cape Reinga to Auckland. I had to stop in Auckland for a while, try and put it all back on, but it’s just happened again.” He looks down at his flat belly, the limp fabric of his shirt hanging from his waist.
“Woah! Five kilos? That’s a lot,” Jack says. Then they look at me and laugh. “Nah, we eat too much to lose anything.”
It’s true. Despite not coating everything in a sprinkling of crushed potato chips, Jack and I cannot seem to stop eating. Our appetites increase with every section of the trail we walk, a chewing hunger that means nothing is off limits. Our food bags were loaded and we ate almost every two hours. And when we weren’t on the trail, small towns and their bounty of ice creams, pies and chips were a major detriment to our bank balance.
“Yeah, it’s my own fault,” Vince says. “I find it really hard to stop when I’m walking. I just don’t like stopping so I don’t eat much during the day. I’ve been finding the trail quite hard in that way.”
I nod my head sympathetically but I don’t quite get it. On this trail I have been eating unapologetically and loving it. Eating everything and anything I want is a form of freedom I have never experienced in my life. Try as I might, I just can’t understand Vince’s predicament.
Oscar lets out a disappointed sigh when Jack spreads out our cooking gear. “Are you guys staying?” he asks. “I need someone to walk with. I wanna get out of here.”
The rain hammers on the tin roof over our heads. We have only walked 11 kilometres to get here, but the decision for Jack and me is clear. “Yup,” we say. “Definitely.”
Oscar frowns at us then moves towards the kitchen window. He keeps looking out at the rain – as if by doing so he can somehow make it suddenly stop. He mutters softly at nothing, the “tsks” hissing from his lips getting louder.
Later in the day a group of teenagers arrive. They collectively stand on the hut deck in the rain, looking unsure of themselves. More arrivals join them in a slow dribble. First there are five, then eight and then suddenly there is no more space on the deck.
I watch the large group milling about in their Hunting & Fishing fleeces and Red Bands, staring at us through the window. Two adult leaders show up, looking stressed and tired. Their presence seems to signal the go-ahead: the teens rush into the hut and a frenzy of bagging bunks ensues. The windows fog with claggy humidity and wet clothes are strewn from bunk ladders, the fabric slowly dripping water that pools all over the floor. Teens thunder across the floorboards in all directions.
Our quiet Te Araroa oasis is turning swiftly into chaos.
I lean over to Jack. “I think we’d getter get a bunk,” I say, “or else we are gonna miss out.”
I scrawl our hut pass numbers into the intentions book following the walkers before me, abbreviating my intentions to TA SOBO, Te Araroa Southbound.
We chat to the main trip leader who, along with four other adults, is responsible for 17 teenage students undertaking Duke of Edinburgh. He hadn’t quite planned on the bubble of Te Araroa walkers and we hadn’t quite planned on the bubble of DOEs. When more Te Araroa walkers arrive the generous 20-bunk hut suddenly seems too small. Eric arrives then – he opens the hut door and we smile and wave to each other through the bodies. He looks past me at the teenagers sliding along the floor in their possum socks, seeing who slides the furthest with screaming “Wooohhhs!” He calmly closes the door and heads out to pitch his tent in the rain.
Leo arrives and heads straight to the bench seat opening up his cookpot for another round of rice and sardines. Carla and Sven arrive soon after him, drenched and dripping with water – and irritated because on the way to the hut they were told by some of the students that the hut was full. “Is there anything worse?” Carla says. “We have been walking in the rain for hours and they say that to me, why?”
I pat her soaking wet shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll make room.”
Later that night, while sharing the smaller bunk room in the hut with 11 other Te Araroa walkers, I want to kill Leo, who sleeps in an emergency foil bag. He crinkles around loudly in his bunk and I wonder, Why? Why is he using an emergency foil for a sleeping bag? With every turn and subtle breath the scratchy foil rubs and crinkles together like a potato chip packet. Shhrrr, crissshhh, swhrrr, crisssh, shrrwwrrr. I toss and turn but I can’t sleep – and neither can anybody else.
A body on the top bunk sits up in the darkness. I hear Carla softly whisper, “Is somebody eating? What is that noise?”
Leo continues to snore, each breath followed with a swhrrr of foil. I lie in my bunk and stare wide-eyed in the dark, the suffocating air thick with the putrid sweat and sourness of soaking wet clothes and dirty unwashed bodies. I contemplate putting my ear plugs that aren’t blocking out the sound of Leo’s rustling bag into my nostrils.
Across the Pass: A Collection of New Zealand Tramping Writing, selected by Shaun Barnett (Otago University Press, $45) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.