A story about two first-time multi-day hikers, determined to get a bottom bunk on the Kepler track in New Zealand.
He and I checked our boot laces. They were tied tight, satisfied we moved our attention to our pack straps; all the while checking off items from a mental list of the things we needed for the next four days. We did not have time to loiter, we had to get going if we were to claim those bottom bunks. It was important, you see, those elusive bottom bunks seem to bring you a ‘you made it in good time’ nod from fellow trampers and we did not want to miss that. No, because we were determined first-timers and we were going to put up a fight. Also, we did not want to face the climb to the top bunk, not after climbing 900m (2952 feet).
We were already two hours behind schedule thanks to the preparation that is demanded by a four day hike in a far away land. But this delay only cemented our determination. We packed up, laced up and thumbs-up’ed, then we set out.
The world wide web ensured that we see many, many photos of this Great Walk even before we got to the actual place. But of course those pictures don’t do justice. That’s the cliched truth until that time when humankind figures how to convey human emotions through landscape photos. Maybe someone already did and I am just ignorant (and a bad photographer) but I digress..
Ten minutes into the walk, we were walking on a path that seemed like a scratch on a gigantic moss carpet. The kind of scratch that a curious kid delivers to a freshly bought dining table. But it wasn’t just the moss, there were ferns, a lot of ferns — ones that lure you in with their moves, ones that make you stare, ones that make you feel like you are in Paradise on Earth, if you believe in such a thing. And standing guard to the moss and ferns were the beech trees. Tall and motherly , looking down kindly at the little ones at their feet.
Of course we got lured in, we were held hostage by the greenery that surrounded us, by the feast for all our senses. A thought struck me — one which I instantly tried to push, shove and flush away. I did not want to think of work while I was in this Paradise. But these thoughts, they have their way of staying. They linger until they are completely formed and until you give It some attention. The thought — It reminded me of the recommendations I make at work to my clients — install green features such as plants, green walls, etc., in your office. I bolster this recommendation with a brief explanation: ‘Studies have shown that being surrounded by plants has a positive effect on the mind, it increases productivity and reduces absenteeism.’ Really, why do we need to perform a study to say that humans like being around plants and trees. But we are in a world where sometimes a scientific proof holds much more water than our own intuition. Needless to say, I was productive for the rest of the hike. My brain just intuitively emptied all thoughts that did not have anything to do with the my present situation.
An hour into the walk, we hit the lake edge of Te Anau. We stopped, admired the beauty, ate a banana, packed the peel, took a long look at those grey clouds and set off again. We had 4.30 hours still to go and we did not like to get wet.
We did get wet. Grey clouds here always seem to mean their business. Not ones to change their minds so easily. A little unlike those city grey clouds. Now those ones are fickle-minded. How many times did the sky get covered in rain clouds and clear out because they changed their mind? The problem is that they instill this false hope in our hearts, a hope that is crushed by the mountain rain clouds. We trudged along the path, protected from getting soaking wet by the forest tree canopies. Years of living in the city meant that my mind had made certain correlations. RAIN :: WET. It seemed like this correlation was written in fresh ink in my mind, considering the rate at which it got washed away.
As it rained, the forest became more mysterious. We were climbing deeper and higher into the forest and yet it showed no signs of revealing Itself. No, It acted like a shy bride, only peeking out at times. And if you were lucky enough to have caught a glimpse, you were wide-open-mouth awed. And then the rain drops fall into your mouth. You drink it, because it is fresh.
We shut our mouths and held our course. Switchbacks, steep stairs, and slippery rocks were overcome and the mysteriously shrouded forest became a mainstay event.
And then we cleared the tree tops. We hit the sign that said that there was only 45 minutes between us and our bottom bunks. We threw our back packs, we raised our arms and we danced a little dance. The rain had stopped. And everything looked and felt beautiful.
And that is the last photo I took on this day. It started pelting down on us. With no tree cover, we were completely exposed to the rain and the wind. The Wind. Henceforth, it is highly important to treat the Wind with respect. The Wind was the reason I thought of my very early death. I could see Newspaper headings with my name on it “ Wind pushed hiker over the cliff”. Determined to not make that one a reality, I put away my phone and really focused on not getting blown away.
We had climbed most of the 900 m by now and our city legs were forced to summon more strength to keep going against the Wind.
We made it to the hut within 45 minutes and the first order of business after removing all the dripping wet gear was to find a bottom bunk. We could see the kitchen and common area as we removed our gear and were surprised by how full the hut was. A seed of doubt was sown in our minds. Maybe, just maybe that two-hour late start really hurt us. But there may yet be hope. We hurried to the bunk rooms, climbed the stairs as quickly as our tired legs would allow us and then walked from one bunk room to the other.
No, they were all taken. All gone. Too late.
We tried not to show it on our faces. We were playing it cool. Nobody needed to know this was our first ever multi-day hike; or that we really wanted those bottom bunks. No, they did not need to know.
I am happy to report that we got nods from our fellow hikers. Nods that said “Glad you made it before the storm got worse”; Less verbose nods that said “You made it”; Nods that knew the look on our faces “Sorry you lost the bottom bunks, it happens to the best of us” or some cheeky nods that said “Better luck next time kiddo”.
But our bodies, now completely exhausted and our minds weary from having lost the chase were just happy to be in a warm place eating warm food surrounded by warm people. Who cares about bottom bunks anyway?
We slept like logs and woke up to a beautiful day. The storm passed over the night and the blue sky was back.
We had breakfast with a view. We washed up, packed up, laced up and thumbs-up’ed, then we set out.
We left behind the hut, nothing else. Not the time spent there, definitely not the will to claim a bottom bunk. We woke up feeling refreshed and we left early. WE ARE GOING TO DO IT TODAY!
Stay tuned for Day 2 story..