After nine months of living in Wellington, and one month before returning home to England, Robert Yates went southward. Into the depths of the South Island he ventured, finding the kind of south only few get to know, full of snow and mountain peaks and harsh winds, taking with him a journal and determination. Part autobiography, part fiction; this is the tale of Robert Yates’ southern excursion.
[ trumbling ] verb, noun, adj. —a state of trembling and bumbling, characterised also by a sorry need to move for fear of stopping
[ grandsire ] noun. —one who feels excessively old
Within climbing distance of Mount Luxmore’s peak, harassed by cold fog, dense as bad cream, Trumbling Grandsire pondered the difference between distance and destination as the DOC ranger told him he was ill equipped for the weather and that they would not make it to the top.
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Back in her cabin, with tea that tasted of the stove, she told him of boys who had been frozen eye deep in wintery drifts after shunning the advice of those more experienced than themselves, and her tone was one of mournful pride, as if the Kepler trail were a barely tamed fighting dog she’d raised from a pup, a thing that was destined to maim if poorly handled.
“How long does it take for a man to become a mountain goat?” thought Grandsire, growing bored with the woman’s blustery tales of danger. “How many blisters and cans of uncooked beans?”
He had met a Frenchman with no knowledge of mountaineering, no shovels, no crampons, no GPS beacon for letting people know where you’d been buried, and he had dodged the censure of the rangers and tramped the trail with five feet of trigger happy snow on the upper reaches; he said it had been the scariest journey of his life and probably the greatest.
“Why do people applaud Shackleton but frown on milk-faced yuppies trekking out of their comfort zones? All adventurers are mad and who is to say one adventure is madder than another? One man’s South Pole is another man’s breakfast.”
“I was thinking badly out loud,” replied Trumbling, and went back to musing over his numerous failures of destination: the peaks he had not reached, the valleys where no paths led.
Ben Lomond was just a practice run, to blow the cobwebs from his veins, a very tall spike amidst many tall spikes around Queenstown. He felt intrepid because he’d found a stick sturdy enough to take his walking weight, then slipped a mile from the summit, broke a strap on his rucksack, lost his hat in a trench, and realised he had forgotten his sun lotion. The afternoon up there was bright enough to turn grown men into dried fruit.
He tripped back to the city centre, took a bitty, limping stroll down the escapade, watched people gunning around the lake on strange motorboats shaped like sharks, knowing he needed to relax and enjoy himself despite the botched ascent, knowing that enjoyment was what travelling should be about, but remembering all the other times he had failed to do so, jittery and scattered throughout places that weren’t his. He worried about spending too much money, and had to blow nearly one-hundred dollars on beers and a fine curry just to keep his head screwed on, so that the volume in his brain went down but his body temperature went up like Apollo 13, and sleeping that night in the dorm was fretful with sweat and fumes.
So he struck further south in search of zeniths, where the great sounds had been cut deep from the coast by giants trying to blast passage into the centre of the country, and even they failed to make it all the way. He rode around Te Anau with a minute Taiwanese woman who was more startled by overtaking cars than the absurd landscape, and they chatted in faltering English about the Taiwanese work ethic and her chronic lack of weekends, confirming in Trumbling’s mind that he wasn’t the only one hopeless at happiness.
But there he was, cut off from most things and tied chest first to others, craning skywards from the windows of a hatchback, into the void separating the rock pinnacles from the valley beds they sprang from, and the lakes that mirror snow in the sky, and the land building itself up layer by layer through blue water, pine, spidery moss, granite, sharpness, mist, ice and heaven itself and all of it one static, living thing, and sometimes the collective effect was vast enough to by-pass the springs of his soul, to quiver something so far down in him that he wondered if it was merely a wavering of surface, nothing profound at all, but yes, there was a stirring connectivity in knowing that the first men to walk that land, barefoot and bereft of even the idea of a hatchback, knew the landscape was too great to reckon with as a series of geographical shapes and that it needed legends for its creation, like the sun and the moon in the tales of ancient tribes, or even modern ones, for they too are distant and impossible to comprehend, and that these vast fjords must have been carved by titans trailblazing from the ocean towards calmer ground, because the human in you is shaken by it all, and all natural triumphs that shake us must be given faces and tales and names.
“Do you have girlfriend?” said Grandsire’s Taiwanese companion.
He said he did not.
“You smoke a lot. Perhaps you don’t smoke, you get girlfriend.”
They parted amicably. Trumbling headed for the Hump Ridge track, a route he planned to master and say he had seen, not with his mind’s eye but with his feet.
He took more rides with new faces: a Māori woman who said coming home after ten years was bizarre; a hunter with a dog the size of a foal, wearing his lack of formal education as proudly as a Victoria Cross; an Aussie mum and her daughter who had both survived a grisly car crash six months previously and decided life wasn’t as eternal as they’d once thought.
He landed in Tuatapere under hosepipes of rain, took shelter in the old bank building and discovered it was a gallery. A gent painting oil landscapes told him it was all about owning a place by dictating the way that light fell on it, to which Trumbling nodded and thought he half understood and complimented the man on his work and the Johnny Cash records he was playing. Then he got regally steamed with some locals in the bar opposite and when they laughed at him just for thinking of attempting the Hump Ridge during the arse end of winter he declared he was a seasoned tramper, which even the drunkest punter didn’t buy. He bought a cider for a woman on the fruit machines who looked like she was falling apart and he felt he was contributing to the community.
The next morning, head like some horrid savannah with bells ringing in places he couldn’t see, Grandsire rode with a bunch of men going to pick cockles in the silt of the Waiau river. They thought him mad as Caligula but dropped him at the trailhead with a bag of salted cashews and the best of luck.
The opening beach was convent grey, surf up in the air and messing around, and he pecked out the first four miles gazing more intently at shabby holiday huts than the water. One had “Miles Away” splashed in gaudy white letters on its tilted roof and he couldn’t work out if it sounded wistful and heroic, firing beyond the frontier, or deranged and detached. Then the ascent began, amidst dripping trees which bothered Grandsire but didn’t faze the sand-flies. He’d heard they had been placed there by a goddess to stop men from settling in the hills, and fair play to her, he thought. Snow started poking out of the bush like spring growth, he startled a deer and the deer startled him, the slope went up like a climbing wall just as his feet reached saturation point and the cashews were wrecked too. He stuck Brahms’ second piano concerto in his ears and conducted it furiously all the way to the top.
On the wildest heights all plants had been swept and frozen into contorted forms. Everything was harsh, white, or invisible. He blindly stumbled his way through troughs of snow far bulkier than himself, across buried boardwalks, to the Okaka lodge, all doors locked for the winter except one arctic dorm, no firewood, no lights, no taps. Trumbling melted snow for his drinking water, burrowed into his sleeping bag like a chilly mole and spent the night listening to the tendons in his shins shout and creak with the wind. He could not understand the appeal of Everest. He wanted broth and a world where being outside without a bear skin would not kill you.
But God, who he’d always approached circuitously, works in mysterious ways up where the earth’s high crust meets the stars, and when Trumbling woke in the early hours the spirit in the sky had cleared every cloud from the ridges, and the sun shone from its rising gulf as bright and sheer as magnesium gold, and Fjordland’s majestic stretch was before him like nothing else had ever been. The tumbling bluffs and pine drops on the way up that could only be imagined and regretted on the way up, now spread out as far as the sea, a green, furrowed carpet of plunder, and Grandsire wondered whether going against people’s advice and going alone brought its own peculiar rewards and private vistas. He shared a sandwich with no one but the trail itself and headed down to the coast with the snow melting and the wind no longer a devil, pausing on his way to register the fact that the light falling at this particular time in this particular place was his and his alone, and he didn’t need to shape it.
Port Craig, where whales meet the beach, Stewart Island low on the horizon, a new map to be slogged through, and rusted machinery from the abandoned logging community scattered along the weedy shingle, proving that even divine sand-flies can’t keep men away when there’s timber to be had, and that anything can become a part of history if you leave it in the grass for long enough. Grandsire bunked down in the old school house, burnt one of his novels for kindling and filled the room with smoke.
Before he slept he read an old trail leaflet. It said that a century ago it could take a worker out there more than twenty-four hours to reach a hospital if a log saw went through their hand. He tried to work out how long it would take him to reach safety if tomorrow he were to sprain his ankle on the pebbles. He dozed trying to picture how big a whale would appear from the shore, wondering if he was the most isolated man on the south coast, had visions of a tidal wave higher than a weather front sailing in during the night, its approach signalled only by a typhoon roar and the vanishing of lights in the sky, wondered who it was who had once looked at the moon and said “let’s go there next,” and what did it mean to blaze trails, what was an adventure and what was a walk, were they determined by the balance between fear and boredom, comfort and pain, and what is moving about anyway? Distance, destination, the shapes and spaces in between.