One rain forest, three hunters and a great walk

The calm in between the storm: swans cruise on Lake Waikaremoana.

The calm in between the storm: swans cruise on Lake Waikaremoana.

We left Auckland, heading for Lake Waikaremoana at 3pm, which meant we were officially running late. This fact didn’t surprise either of us, but it did mean that we’d be driving through the rainforest at night, and likely in a thunderstorm.  We stopped for gas in Huntley and the cashier told Colin she was planning a visit to Austin, TX while he paid for fuel. We were impressed by this; Kiwis always say they’re either planning a trip to Vegas or have already been. I hopped in the driver’s seat to get my initiation in the Caldina. The sun went down before Rotorua, and the drizzle began as we detoured in search of a quick dinner at Burger Fuel.

After consuming our whopping veggie burgers, Colin got back in the driver’s seat and we pressed on. If it had been light out, we would’ve seen the mountains in the distance, rising up to meet us against the flat expanse of cow pasture. Soon enough, the pavement ended and a gravelly dirt road took its place. The caution signs weren’t bluffing: rock slides were plentiful, as were the blind curves in the road. The jungle walls rose up around us, and the occasional frog was visible hopping across the road in the headlights. At one point we turned a sharp corner and were greeted by orange cones surrounding a giant boulder, which had tumbled from the cliff side earlier on. When we finally reached Big Bush Holiday Park, it was 11pm and we were properly exhausted. Our water taxi was booked for 9am the following morning, and we planned to pass the night in the car rather than camp in the rain.

Inside the main building yellow lights glowed, illuminating Native American themed wall-hangings, a painting of a family headed west in a covered wagon, and a statue of a chief in full headdress. Empty bottles of Sapphire gin served as candle holders, leading Colin to comment that it must be somebody’s drink of choice. Carey, a short, broad-shouldered man with thick, calloused hands and a ball-cap, greeted us warmly. He organized a cup of tea to take the chill off and gestured to a couple free chairs at a table littered with brochures and booking materials. I think it was when we asked about good camping spots in the park that the conversation took a dark turn.

“If you’re really keen, I would be very careful choosing where you camp for the night. But actually, I wouldn’t advise it,” he said. “We’re in the middle of the roar and there are some real mongrels [with guns] out there. You should drive back to Rotorua and camp there.”

I exchanged looks with Colin, who pressed Carey for information.

“It’s a bit lawless out here. A lot of hunters are out shining for deer at night, and they’re doing it right up against camp sites. I don’t want to scare you, but a couple years back there was a big scandal when a teacher from Wellington was shot while she was brushing her teeth next to a river near her tent. She had one of those head torches with two separate lights, so they kind of look like eyes. A hunter shot her in the head, thinking she was a deer. Pretty bad stuff. But I don’t know why campers are wearing those torches with two lights on their heads.”

I shuddered. I refrained from spitting my tea all over the table. Was he identifying with the hunter, or the victim? Staring out the doorway into the wet, inky night, my thoughts quickly turned to the teacher’s partner – only meters away in the tent – and her friends and family.

Carey continued, “Then last year one of my boys was out hunting with a couple of his buddies in a real remote part of the forest. They came to this little clearing, and then across the field in this bit of bush they saw a couple of eyes. My boy got ready to take aim and shoot, but something made one of the other guys pause and he told him to wait a minute. Turns out it was a couple of guys who must’ve heard them drive up and got spooked and hid. Probably harvesting pot up there or something. Anyway they were also wearing those stupid double lights on their heads – the ones that look like eyes.”

At this point I was thoroughly uncomfortable and felt a bit like we’d driven into some kind of nightmare. He went on to tell us about a backcountry DOC campsite that encompasses this pretty little clearing up against a row of trees, behind which is a large open field where deer love to graze and hunters love to shoot. Only a matter of time before a hunter takes a shot at a deer there, misses, and his bullet goes flying through the trees and into that campsite. Later, as the conversation shifted somewhat and Colin was amiably chatting with Carey about guns, I was grateful not to have to make meaningless chitter chatter. Colin’s ability to talk to people from all walks of life and relate to them in a genuine fashion is a quality I deeply admire and one I benefit from regularly. In any case, guns and hunting would prove a reoccurring theme over the next few days. Like questioning the French about wine and cheese, or the Canadian’s about maple syrup, Kiwis tend to enjoy asking us about our politics and our weapons.

Just to clarify, there’s no hunting season in New Zealand, and though Kiwis aren’t allowed handguns, restrictions are pretty loosey goosey around rifles and there’s a lot of trading and bartering that goes on, especially in the backwoods. I did some post-tramping research, and I think most serious hunters would say that those who go shining shouldn’t be classified as proper hunters, and that they give everyone else a bad name. Regarding the incident with the teacher who was shot brushing her teeth – I came across a forum that showed most real hunters were equally as outraged as everyone else.

On our second night in the Te Urewera National Park, two amiably loud-mouthed, burley fisherman who were spending Easter weekend cruising Lake Waikaremoana offered us a couple of ice-cold Tui’s as they warmed themselves by the lodge’s fireplace and queried us: “So, Americans, what’s the deal with conceal and carry? If you can carry it, but you can’t shoot anyone, what’s the point?”

I’m pretty sure they were kidding, but still.

So there we were, surrounded by misty mountains and lush New Zealand bush, wondering where exactly the hunters were in relation to the hikers, and thinking a little bit about nature and death (at least I was). On our third night in the forest (second night on the walk itself) Colin came across an empty shell in the cooking shelter. The next morning, some hunter’s packs were dropped off after having been ferried in. On our fourth morning, it was a couple of boys and their dad (who happened to be wearing a sort of ominous black trench coat and gum boots, but by this point my imagination was on fire) loading their guns and setting off for the day.

 

Taking my boots off to cross a river on the way to Korokoro Falls.

Taking my boots off to cross a river on the way to Korokoro Falls.

The situation at its most basic: on one of the busiest weekends of the year, it would seem like a bad idea to have so many hunters and hikers going into the forest at the same time.

It’s somewhat surreal to go tramping in late April and see a fair amount of camo, blaze orange and rifles. It takes a bit of the serenity out of the experience, and it also completely disillusions you about getting out of the city and “back to nature.” The Great Walks definitely have a reputation of being “people highways,” and it was mostly my naiveté to believe that if we went toward the end of the season it would be quieter. It was still an incredible experience, but the constant traffic of tourists and hunters destroyed the remote feeling of being out in the wilderness. Indeed, at one point while we were hiking a little out-and-back waterfall track, there were so many people passing us by it felt as though there was a parking lot at the other end.

For all that, we were lucky enough to have long stretches of trail to ourselves, and the black swans with their little crew of cygnets cruising the lake distracted us from other grumblings. On our last day on the track, somewhat miraculously the sun came out and cast its beautifully warm rays over the lake, with tumbling cotton candy clouds drifting over the horizon. After three days of rain, it felt like we ascended to heaven as we climbed that mountain and looked out over the world. Unfortunately we were pressed for time, so we agreed to only stop for photos of birds and strange mushrooms. Colin, however, became deeply enamored of the trees, and was constantly falling behind in an attempt to capture their gloriously mossy branches.

 

Tramping through the mossy wood.

Tramping through the mossy wood.

We skipped down the mountain, and as we approached the end of the trail, we fell into step with a pair of hunters from Hamilton. They were impressed with our climb and we traded stories about our time in the bush. An annual trip, the guys spent two days buried deep in the forest, far away from the Great Walk track. They had a successful hunt and were packing out the deer on their backs. Both the very definition of strapping young lads, one of the guys made sure to tell us that they never kill more than they can carry. They both expressed a deep appreciation of how beautiful and unique a place the Te Urewera National Park is, and how lucky they are to have unlimited access to it. They even offered us a ride to our car if we missed our shuttle (which was a distinct possibility).

The sun, as we all know, has magical properties, and everyone we met was in great spirits. Carey made no fuss that we’d shifted our pick-up time and then missed it anyway, and he’d waited for us and then immediately had to turn around to fetch us again. He had that calm-after-the-storm character that those of us who’ve worked a season in Door County get on the first day of October. Finally, we climbed into the Caldina – a bit stiff and sweaty – and set off down the dusty trail toward Rotorua. It was amazing to see the forest transformed from the dark, mossy rock walls from the night we arrived into lush, verdant mountains plunging towards the glassy blue of Lake Waikaremoana.

 

The sun finally came out on our last day, just in time to capture this incredible view.

The sun finally came out on our last day, just in time to capture this incredible view.

We decided to stop for the night at a pretty little spot next to a river very near the entry to the forest park, where there were a few other campers already set up. We pulled in and scouted out a spot for our tent between giant piles of cow dung – it became immediately obvious who was responsible for keeping the plot nicely mowed. No doubt curious about our intentions, two middle aged men and one young boy came over to chat us up. As fate would have it, they were also hunters from Hamilton, who came and set up camp at that very spot at least once a year. They knew the woman who owned a large plot of land across the road, and were planning on going out there in the morning to see if some venison might be on the menu. As dusk turned to absolute darkness and stars began to dance, we simmered some veggies underneath the back hatch of the Caldina. After a bit, our neighbors wandered back over to see what we were up to. They watched our little operation as we talked more about the woods and life in New Zealand. Eventually, they invited us to cook in their little “kitchen tent” which was a much more advanced, and well-lit, operation. We ate our fajitas by their fire, sharing our second beer offered to us by a group of hunters, and swapping stories while the river rushed in the background.

Throughout the evening, the father (the family member who initially approached us – a little more outgoing than the rest, having formerly lived in London with his wife) shone his powerful flashlight into the trees, casting about for the tell-tale glare of possum’s eyes. We didn’t see any, but I noticed that nearly every car that drove by after dusk was doing the same. These little marsupials are mostly arboreal and therefore generally found high up in the boughs. Shining for them isn’t illegal, but all the same it made me vaguely uncomfortable being in such close proximity to blokes looking to score a couple of possum pelts.  As I said, I did a bit of sniffing around the internet when we got home and found a couple of forums for NZ hunters, a line which stuck out from one of them was, “Hunters are just as freaked out when someone shines into their tent in the middle of the night as anyone else.”

The night passed without incident – in fact I slept better than I had the whole great walk. We woke up to a misty morning, with a couple of rare blue ducks, or Whios, scraping the rocks in search of insect larvae. I washed the dishes and tried to spot an eel swimming in the current. The sun slowly rose over the tree tops and shone on our little valley, causing small puffs of steam to rise into the air. It was going to be a beautiful day.

***All photos courtesy of Colin Frater

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~ by bjordt on April 30, 2014.

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