3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

Midnight with the Mice; Weka in the Morning

Water glinted on the grey stones like light on dragonfly wings. The Pelorus River was the color of paradise and the day was hot. I dashed down to the riverbank and quickly changed into my swimsuit. The aerial assault began within seconds. Thousands of sandflies, the color of evil, swarmed every inch of exposed skin; which was a lot considering the bikini.

image

I jumped into the cold river. Respite! Until I came up for air. A black cloud of biting bugs covered my face. I dove under and swam as far as I could, then came up for air. There was only enough time for a couple breaths before they found me. Back under the surface until my lungs ached, up for air, attacked, swim again, need to breathe, biting bugs… I gave up. I crawled from the water, grabbed my clothes and ran from the river in defeat.

Of course, the itchy memory didn’t stop me from repeating this experience two hours later at the Captains Creek Hut. Sandflies put mosquitoes to shame. I might actually enjoy a mosquito bite if it meant respite from these merciless insects. Though there are thirteen species of sandflies in New Zealand, only two will drive you to madness – a small comfort when you’re scratching your skin off. An ever-so helpful article in the magazine Wilderness offered tips on defending yourself, including: don’t wear dark colors, and cover up your legs, arms, feet, hands, and face. Oh okay.

Our latest intel described the next hut down the trail as a “hot, sandfly hell,” so we stopped early at Captains Creek. Someone had written “mouse house” on the door. Inside the metal box was covered in rat and mouse droppings. I checked the Intentions Book. The last ten entries said “mice.”

We pitched our tents as far from the hut as we could and hung our food by the river. After an early dinner, we had retired by 8:00. I awoke suddenly at 10:00. Did I hear something? Rustling. The last remnants of daylight hadn’t quite sunk below the mountain walls. Perhaps it was a weka, a curious, flightless bird the size of a chicken known for mischief and thievery. Whatever it was, it was pulling on the corner of my tent.

“Get outta here!” I swatted the wall.

Quiet. It tugged on my tent again.

“Stop that!”

“What do you think it is?” Dad asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s starting to piss me off.”

Dad got up.

“It stole my ZSeat!”

The small Thermarest seat was 8 feet away from his tent and chewed full of holes.

“And it chewed the line on my tent!”

“I don’t think that was a weka.”

“No, that’s rats.”

Wide awake, we sat inside our tents, waiting for the slightest sound. Scratching, tugging, and chewing noises were followed by a shout and a slap on the tent. An hour of this passed.

I cast my light outside into the vestibule. A rat perched on my boots, staring back irreverently. I shouted! It scurried away and at the same moment a mouse ran across my backpack.

“I am not gonna get any sleep,” I said.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, they’re gonna be just as bad in the hut.”

“We can’t stay out here. They’ll chew up our tents.”

“You want to check out the hut?”

“Not really.”

We checked out the hut. Two mice raced off the beds, leaving a trail of presents behind them.

“God…”

“Let’s hike on,” Dad said.

By now it was past midnight on a moonless night. I stopped to examine our decision making framework. Hiking into unknown territory on a trail with steep drops down a cliff was beyond irrational. But so was having my face chewed off by rats. We could either lay away all night, fighting rodents or stumble through the dark hoping to find a flat spot to pitch our tents.

We opted to stumble.

The mice watched with looks of disappointment as we packed our food away and left the hut. I flipped them the bird on the way out.

Going was slow. We picked our way over rocks and roots, around turns in the trail, through thick beech forest, hoping with all our might for a stroke of luck. With every step and every minute, this was was starting to seem real stupid. This is how dumb Americans die. There was nothing. Not a break in the trees nor a clearing wide enough in the trail.

We came to a swingbridge. It was secured on either side of the river with bolts in two flat paddocks.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Good enough for me.”

We pitched our tents on opposing sides of the bridge and were asleep by 2:00 am.

The next morning, I heard a noise. Not again… I sat up and looked out. A weka poked his head under the vestibule and pulled on my water bag.

“That’s not for you. Go away!”

He retreated. I heard him stalking around my tent, looking for trouble. Dad crossed the bridge and shooed him off. We made our coffee and swatted sandflies.

“You’ve got trouble,” I said.

Across the river, another weka pulled at Dad’s loose gear. He ran across the swingbridge and chased the obnoxious bird away. It couldn’t be bothered to go far and waited for Dad to cross the river again before resuming his gear inspection. Dad wobbled back across the precarious bridge, waving his arms and yelling. The weka stalked off and watched Dad from a safe distance. We packed up and moved out.

Plotting weka.

Plotting weka.

Te Araroa began its rocky ascent into the mountains. The Richmond Alpine Track was a big one. Big climbs, big descents, big miles. We moved above tree line as the sun flared red on the barren mountain tops. Up high, rain and wind are more than just an inconvenience. Serious weather can trap you on a ridge line, making travel forwards or backwards impossible. The last report showed a system moving in. We had to cross Mt. Rintoul before it did.

image

image

image

The next day we pushed across a high ridge with all of the South Island unfolding in the distance. When we settled into the Old Man Hut below Rintoul a bank of clouds was building over the line of podocarp trees. The storm system was supposed to have held off another day. Man, I didn’t want to sit in this hut and wait for it to pass.

Morning was a thick impenetrable grey. We decided to press on and see what the weather was like above tree line.

Not good. A strong wind blew a wall of mist across the narrow stretch of trail. We couldn’t see one marker to the next. Perhaps it was folly, but we went for it. Dad and I alternated walking ahead to the next marker while the other waited at the previous. We hollered back when a marker came into sight. We hiked upwards into stronger winds and thicker clouds, shouting over the din, but finding a marker at each interval.

image

image

The 6″ wide trail paralleled a long cliff. The bottom was obscured by fog, but there was no doubt it would be a long drop if you lost your footing. After the smaller summit of Little Rintoul, we scrambled down a long scree slope, with boulders tumbling underfoot. But the clouds began to break. Blue peeled back grey and soon the sun was out.

Dad looked up from the base of Mt. Rintoul and cried, “Nooooooo.”

We were nowhere near the top. But there was nothing else to do, but go up. At the summit, I bent over onto my trekking poles, sweat dripping from my nose. It had been a long climb, but I finally had the feeling that at last I was really here in New Zealand. Really doing it. After 4 years of dreaming, I’d made it happen.

3 Responses to “Midnight with the Mice; Weka in the Morning”

  1. Pamela mccullough

    Yikes!! That rat story is horrifying!! I’ve dealt with mice on steroids in the Saddleback Mountains of Maine (AT), but that is nothing compared to rats!!

    You guys are monsters!! The challenges and hurdles you’ve conquered! Heroes! You are heroes!!

    HIke on! I am so excited for you!!

    Reply
  2. Brian Meston

    I can sympathize with you and your sandfly episode. Those things are brutal. In the seconds it took me to get my 5mm wetsuit off in Doubtful Sound, those things ravaged me.

    Sounds like you are now in the heart of the adventure, though. The south island is an amazing place, with huge mountains, rivers, fjords, etc. Enjoy every moment!

    Reply
  3. Larry Gill

    Great real life stories you are sharing. The mice and rats seem inconvenient, but the sand flies–geeze those dang sand flies are terrible–makes me itch to read about their attacks.
    You two make up a pair of one tough dude and one tough dudette. It’s OK to call you that, Margaret? Well, one tough young lady! Savor every moment–there will never be another just like the previous one. LG

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Larry Gill Cancel reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS