Perhaps it was already past midnight, first hours into a brand new year; perhaps only an hour had past since he crawled into his sleeping bag.
It was already pitch black. The moon and the stars were swallowed up whole by storm clouds promising a miserable hike the following day.
New year’s day 2017.
The fine volcanic dust tasted arid. It was this inexplicable texture on his tongue that woke him in the first place after a fitful sleep.
‘Might want to pitch your tent a little lower, mate, will be heavy winds tongiht. Gale force, they recon,’ Sam informs.
Sam is an anarchist at heart. ‘there’s always room for tents, mate. It’ll be fourteen dollars. Have a credit card on ya,? The. On raised kind?’ he asks him.
He looks into his shirt pocket. Finding it empty he promises to return with the money after picking his tent.
He knows he had spent the last paper currency on a good will gesture.
His hitch hike from Tamaranui to Tongariro National park was suppose to take 120 kms on trail. But the weather window was small, just two days and the rest, for days looked ominous.
He didn’t know what the town looked like when he got into the car. His driver didn’t either. They got carried away, talking about the impact of 1080 drops in the bush to control possum infestations. They both agree that that much cyanide must surely impact the forest adversely. If it can kill possums, it can kill the birds and the bees, too.
He looks up and the road sign says, whanganui is 30 kms away, and his trail map says national park, his destination, was already 120 kms behind.
Bewildered, it dawns on him the 20 min car ride covered the 40 highway kms in a flash. 40 highway kms =129 trail kms.
He feels foolish. His driver feels bad but is on a schedule to surprise his mum for new years. They pull over and he hands Scott the 20 dollar bill he had, his last bit of paper currency, for his gas money.
You see, Scott, the driver had never left his home town in the south island until a month ago and he is now returning home after a month of travel and cycling about the bush. He knew Scott was short on money, even if he didn’t ask for anything in return for the hitch. He gives him the twenty and wish him an early happy new year.
The the monotony of relentless hard asphalt is not kind on your feet, especially when you are loaded with an extra 25 lbs on your back. And it was sunny. He knows it would be tedious, thirsty work if he decides to walk that narrow highway.
New Zealand’s highways have a maximum speed of 100 km/h. Walking on one without a much of a shoulder feels as if the cars are zipping past at warp speed. He wonders if there’s enough space between him and the cars should be stick out his thumb for a hitch back to where he should be. It’s tight.
He had never really felt comfortable hitching for rides. Hitching on the Appalachian trail had left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.
It’s not that anything terrible had happened but you knew that you weren’t getting ride in part because of your skin colour, that people preceived you as a threat. Of course there’s no certainty and that’s the sad part: that you are not sure why they didn’t offer you a ride but people often spoke of getting easy hitches. You start to wonder if it’s you.
Everytime a car passes you by you don’t just think of it as the driver was in a hurry or didn’t pick up any hitch hikers, they aren’t going your direction or whatever else charitable excuse you may make for them skipping you by.
No. You think it’s you, that you are brown skinned male with a beard. You fight that uneasy feeling but you can’t help yourself. With every passing car you grow weary and you learn not to depend getting on hitches into or out of towns as the forgone conclusion it happens to be for most of your other friends.
I can only image how much worse this is for women, especiallyof colour hitching about…That dread that naggs you like splinter in your brain that you don’t want to name because you want to believe that human beings, the ones you are about to encounter at least, are inherently good people…
The mini van comes to a gradual stop just ahead of him. She must have seen him well before he decides to try his thumb again.
‘I can take you to national park, she says and he gets in.
Sometimes you meet people and you can sense their vibe immediately. Even if you fail to trust or recognize your first impression your instincts are rarely wrong. That’s the beauty of solo travel. You develop an instinct for people. Acting on it is harder of course but you always develop that instinct quickly on the road.
Let’s call her Artemis. Artemis exudes a calm reassurance that he had felt only several times before in his life. He knows that this, in itself, isn’t special but he nevertheless feels relieved of a burden and an anxiety he didn’t know he was harbouring. Everything will be OK. She didn’t need to say a word.
Artemis was Mauri. She tells him a story about her son stranded somewhere far from home on the road, about how she had phoned the local radio station to ask them to send out a message to the listeners to give her baby a ride home.
She doesn’t know if her son got the ride because the radio station broadcasted her message. But she was happy when he got home safely. So she picks up hitch hikers, but she admits that she can read their “feel.” She silently said without so many words that she read my anxiety, that splinter in my brain.
This isn’t an objective case study. This isn’t scientific. But he felt her reassuring presence. It was as palpable as the shirt he wore.
December 30th, 2016 he sets out to hike the Tongariro crossing. There’s only two days of good weather. Artemis dropped him off 19 trail kms from the approach to the crossing. He starts to walk and another car pulls over. This time, another elderly woman. She was on her way to find a rare Alpine flower.
He feels good. Like he can climb a mountain and decides that on that day, he will.
He walks, takes a side trail and ends up somewhere magical far off the track. It is a an Alpine lake.
Lonesome as it was magestic on the base of two active volcanoes. One snow capped, the other shrouded in storm clouds.
He pitches his tent and lights a small cook fire to the gentle lapping soundscape of a twotoned aquamarine crater lake.
He strips naked and plunge into the icy water and emerges into the sunlight to bask in the shadow of two tumultuous peaks. He knows the sky will shimmer in a silvery haze of diffuse star light that evening. He drinks his tea, slips into his 900 downfilled cocoon…
The hut warden Sam tells him the following day that mt.ngaurahue and MT.raupehu are both active and should one one of them erupts during the course of the night, we should carry out sausages and marshmallows with us so that we at least make the best of a fiery situation.
We chuckle but hope for the best.hr asdures us that these mountains only erupt every three years to mark the anniversary of rolling Stones concerts in new Zealand. It was an elaborate pun. I don’t think too many people got the joke. Dear Sam!
He made us each a pork potsticker dumpling that, night tho, as if to make up for the bad jokes.
He was right though about the gale force winds. He wasn’t quite sure the tent would hold out. He hoped the violent bending of the super light but super strong DAC aluminum poles would hold out the night, but he underestimated the volcanic dust.
He had climbed MT. Ngauruhue that morning and trekked his way thru one of the most unique, desolate, starkly beautiful volcanic flow zones in his life.
He now knew that he could die happy knowing that he had a pretty good idea what Martian terrain must surely look, even if colonizing Mars was not to be in his life time.
You may know mt ngauruhue by a different name from a different context.
Sauron forged the one ring in the fires of mount. Doom and only there can it be undone, tells Gandalf to the secret council at Rivendell. Sam and frodo takes the one ring to mount Doom and cast into the magma.
Frodo takes the credit but it was gollum that takes the ring for a volcanic plunge. Mount. The ring is destroyed and mount. Doom erupts.
MT.ngauruhue did not erupt that day but it was very cold. He almost lost his way a few times to the summit and had to traverse several nervy hundred meters laterally to safer footing away from loose lava scree.
The snow atop the active volcano was ironic. He picked himself two pebbels from the summit for keepsakes and bootskied his way down a trecherous scree slope.
That night, on the last day of 2016 he slept in the shadow of my.doom and woke in the middle of the night with fine volcanic dust in his mouth.
Have you ever tasted a volcano?