THIS IS THE STORY OF TWO NEW FRIENDS, ONE WASP STING, AND A VERY RAINY MOUNTAIN RANGE. On the day in question, I woke up to an unimaginably beautiful Monday in Auckland – of the “not a cloud in the sky” variety. I was having breakfast with a dear friend of mine from the Blue Breeze, who I hadn’t managed to catch up with in several months. We had a blissful morning meal at Queenie’s, where we sat outside to soak up the sun’s rays (but not before driving around for 15 minutes in search of a parking spot). Then we hopped in the van and headed west.
There are a few other details that are crucial to this story; one is that, though an experienced driver of manual cars, I had never really driven around Auckland – only cycled; the other is that I had only driven the van on one other occasion, which was on the country roads around Napier (a quaint seaside town, 4 hours south of Auckland) several months before. The third important detail is that Auckland – like most of New Zealand – is comprised of many hills, some of which are quite large and steep. I will also admit that Colin asked me if I understood and was familiar with the van’s quirks, to which I casually shrugged and nodded.
I had briefly studied the directions on google maps, so I was pretty sure I knew the way out toward the Waitakere ranges. Almost immediately, however, I missed the turn onto the motorway and Milly was tasked with trying to redirect us. I made a few instinctive turns, hoping they would lead us back in the right direction. Milly tried to get her smartphone to pull up our whereabouts and remedy the situation with directions as quickly as possible. It may be an understatement to call what we did “the scenic route”, but we did get back on track eventually.
A quick description of Milly: a perpetually tan, slim Aussie from Tasmania with thick, brown Pantene Pro V hair and a soothing, gravely voice. Milly’s been living in Auckland for four years, and working as the Maitre’d at the Blue Breeze Inn for the last year. She studied as a florist, is a truly gifted musician, and generally one of those glowing, charismatic people that brings laughter and light where she goes. In short, she’s a gem. It was pretty much the first time we’d really gotten the chance to hang out together. I was quickly making a name for myself as someone who inadvertently creates adventure and takes her friends along for the ride.
Sudden side thought: no wonder Colin and I are always setting out for a casual day trip and ending up on some incredible escapade, we’re each as bad as the other.
When we finally reached our destination – a hike in the Waitaks that I’d done before with Colin – I parked the van on a small downward slope in the gravel parking lot. This would prove problematic later. I glanced up and furrowed my brow at a large, deep grey cloud hovering over the forest. We ventured into the woods – me with my daypack full of water and some snacks, Milly with only a long-sleeve shirt and a pair of sunglasses.
We intended to do a shorter loop than the one Colin and I had done previously, and for this reason we reckoned there was time to detour and explore another track I hadn’t been on before. We crossed a small stream, jumping from rock to rock, and climbed up into another bit of native forest. Since we hadn’t seen one another in ages, we were talking incessantly, barely stopping to notice what was going on around us. Neither of us heard the gentle pitter patter of rain drops on fern leaves. We did not see the trees dip and bend, their leaves laden with water droplets. We didn’t even realize that the birds had ceased their singing and retreated to their respective bushy nooks to wait out the storm. Not until the ground in front of us began to swell with rain (which doesn’t take much, actually, the volcanic soil being so moisture rich in the first place) and large muddy patches popped up out of nowhere, did we stop to take note of our situation.
The state of affairs being that we were in the middle of the forest, with absolutely no cell reception, no raincoats, both wearing mediocre walking shoes, and in the center of a heavy downpour. So we stopped beneath a magnificent tree and stood waiting for the rain to let up while we continued to tell each other stories. Perhaps 10 minutes went by before we decided to head back. The trail we had just tread on was now made unrecognizable by the rain, liberally sprinkled with little pools of water and patches of mud. When we finally reached the intersection from which we detoured, we decided to press on rather than go back the way we came. We reasoned that the rain would stop, so why let it spoil our adventure?
Soon we encountered another short side path that led to a pretty little waterfall. I was walking ahead of Milly when I felt a sharp pain on the back of my leg. I stopped short and brushed my hand across the aching spot on my thigh. I felt something insect-like come off and tumble to the ground. Surprised by the amount of pain I was in and unable to comprehend what just happened, I searched the ground for the culprit. I couldn’t see anything but leaf litter. I asked Milly to have a look at the place on my thigh that was beginning to throb. There was a small red speck, she said, but nothing really.
“What hurts you like that in the woods in New Zealand?” she asked.
The answer lay a little way further down the track. True to form, the rain had stopped and sunlight was breaking through the clouds, sending it’s glorious rays to the forest floor. In the dapples of sunlight, I could see something buzzing around. Then it hit me: wasps. Wasps! Of course. The Department of Conservation (DOC) had issued warnings on their website about wasps some time ago; I remembered reading them while searching for good tramping trails. All the same, it had never occurred to me that I might be stung on the trail. I had no Benadryl – nothing to reduce the swelling. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been stung. Had I reacted badly? I knew my mom was mildly allergic. I also knew you could develop allergies like that. So, as you might imagine, my paranoia was swelling in tandem with my wasp sting.
I decided the best and only thing to do was to ignore the sting. Milly and I climbed up a little-used trail and bushwhacked a bit to get to another waterfall that Colin had discovered last time (while we were in Africa, Colin developed a reputation for his insatiable curiosity and was often called upon to go do a little reconnaissance because he was always game for adventure – eventually our friends coined a phrase for this: re-colin). The waterfall, which boasted a deep blue pool, was definitely worth sidetracking for. We rehydrated, shared some almonds and enjoyed the view while wishing it was warm enough to swim.
Back on the main trail, we began a steep ascent that seemed to go on forever. 40 minutes into the endless and swiftly rising switchbacks, I got a nagging feeling that we’d missed the turnoff for the shorter circuit and were now in the midst of the full 6 hour hike. The sting was visibly swollen now, with the hot, pink skin spreading from the back of my knee joint and up towards my butt.
“It’s a good thing you’re small, so I can carry you out of here if it comes to that,” Milly joked.
“Oh I’m sure search and rescue wouldn’t mind air-lifting me out of the bush because I’m possibly allergic to a wasp sting. Maybe we should head to the nearest heli-pad,” I said.
As I mentioned, the sun had returned to the Waitaks and even with the rapidly swelling sting, I was in good spirits. When we finally reached the summit, a trail map confirmed my suspicions that we had gone too far. Neither of us was really surprised – it seemed typical considering the other events of the day. We pressed on, enjoying the swift descent and remarking on the blaze orange moss and bright blue toadstools.
And at long last we emerged from the forest, mud-splattered but smiling.
While Milly freshened up by a little river near the car park, I hoisted up the passenger seat (that’s where the engine is), in order to top-up the coolant. I’d seen Colin do this a million times, and he’d offered to show me again the night before. Foolishly I had declined, saying that I remembered how it was done. Now, peering into the engine, it seemed that there were two areas into which coolant could be poured. One of them was what I assumed to be the reservoir. The other was a black cap marked “coolant” attached to a pipe that presumably funneled the liquid further into the depths of the engine and eventually disappeared we-know-not-where. Milly returned and we talked through the situation. Neither of us had reception, so we couldn’t call Colin for answers. We had to rely on our own instinct and cunning to resolve the situation. Milly pointed to a tube that appeared to connect the black cap to the plastic reservoir bucket. We reasoned that meant it was drawing the neon green liquid from from the reservoir as needed, and thus deducted that was where I should pour my jug of coolant.
Having overcome the latest obstacle, we hopped into the van. I started the engine, let it run for a minute and then put it in reverse. Instead of going backwards, however, we rolled forwards and I slammed on the brake in panic. I made sure I was in reverse – which I was. I tried to give it a little extra gas this time, but we still rolled forward. Worried that we would roll into the gate directly in front of us, Milly got out and pushed while I gave her gas. The tires were spinning on the gravel, but with Milly’s hulk-like strength she was able to give the van the extra bit of leverage we needed to gain traction. Feeling a little shaken from all the day’s hurdles, I pulled out of the lot and we started the drive home.
About a half hour into our journey back into Auckland, I began to get increasingly nervous about the giant hill that was looming in my immediate future. It would almost certainly require a hill start. I got to the dreaded intersection – which was a round-a-bout – and because the person coming through failed to signal (they were turning left and I was going straight), I was forced to come to a full stop. Ironically, Milly and I had just been discussing the way Kiwis fail to indicate when approaching round-a-bouts, often causing traffic jams. Unfortunately for me, the Ford Explorer that had been closely tailing me the whole way back from Huia was right up on my ass. I put the e-brake on, gently eased off it and tried to give the old van enough gas so that I wouldn’t roll back. For whatever reason, the clutch didn’t engage and I did roll back. Feeling unnerved, I took a deep breath and tried again. A second time, I rolled back. Now my rear end was pretty close to the hood of the Explorer behind me, and I didn’t have the courage to risk rolling back again.
“I can’t do this,” I said to Milly, my hands white-knuckled on the wheel.
“Of course you can,” she said. “Take as long as you need. They can wait.”
And with that, she rolled down the window and beckoned the impatient muppet behind me to get back. I put on my flashers. It felt like time had stopped altogether. When he backed up sufficiently, I took a deep breath and tried one more time. Amazingly, the clutch caught, and we continued through the intersection. I was so rattled, however, that I immediately missed my next turn and had to pull over and turn around again. Luckily, it was pretty much a straight shot the rest of the way home with only small hills to contend with. The worst was certainly behind us. When I finally parked the van at Countdown and walked inside to buy us some celebratory craft brews, my legs felt wobbly and the ball of anxiety that had been setting up residence in my stomach sloshed around uncomfortably. Colin met us at the store, and it wasn’t until I’d handed over the keys and talked through a few things with him that I finally felt the colony of butterflies in my stomach take flight in search of some other poor sucker on a hill.
Later, when we raised our crisp pilsners in a salute to our many misadventures and various triumphs, anxiety officially gave way to relieved exhaustion. While Milly and I washed the mud off our sneakers, Colin prepped one of his gourmet pizzas. A pleasant warmth filled the room as we related our adventures. That night I slept deeply, with only the echo of my flatmates’ observation in my head: you just don’t let anything stand in your way, do you?