Over the hill

Into big sky country

I’d just spent the last year of my life as her caregiver. Stoking the last embers of old coal that warmed the hearts of so many. I’d been given the gift of her time and I needed some sort of closure. So as her world ended I needed to find the trailhead of another for me. It just seemed appropriate to ride to where it all began – Te Araroa up on the East Cape of Te Ika-a-Maui. The north island of New Zealand.

It was mid-September. I’d packed light and quietly stepped out the door into that cold-grey Whitemans valley mist. I tapped the weathered saddle of my old Surly before walking my way up the path, out into the world and was gone.

I didn’t have a plan. All I knew is I wanted to do this as much for me, as for her. My only thought was to see the sunrise on a new world and with it my own. This was a trail best taken alone. 

I took that now familiar rolling road through Mangaroa then up and across the Rimutaka’s into a low ceiling of morning cloud. Its temper gathering in tightening pleats as it blew and squeezed through the narrowing valley walls until I reached the summit. The skeletons of rusting fell engines were the only remnants of a small community that once called this place home. Home and me alone, shivering in the low cloud under the bow of a king Macrocarpa. Behind me, the long descent back to the world of the upper valleys, in front was a wonder.

That long summit tunnel separates those two worlds, and it’s a clear distinction. That whipper wind remained but the sagging grey overcast turned to a high arch over the mountains and dissipating waves across the big Wairarapa sky. I dropped down through the tunnel and trail to the valley floor below. 

Back roads inevitably lead to places unknown and for me, this particular road turned into a stream. I didn’t have the power to push through the current and rock to get to the other side and soon had two feet firmly anchored to the river bed. Wet feet don’t mean cold feet. Time to push on.

The Duke

The Duke

Paul and I have known each other for more than three decades. He’d recently remarried and moved to Carterton, so I’d arranged (sodden feet and all) for a long overdue catch-up. One of life’s characters, he is a great father, a marriage celebrant and a gun enthusiast. And typically as we sat down over a coffee came the question… “fancy a shoot?”.

Out back of Gladstone, just over the Makahakaha stream is a short dusty off-road track down to a tiny corral with a saloon facade better known as the ‘Wairarapa Pistol & Shooting Sports Club’. It was there that I received my first proper lessons in gun etiquette.

Paul set about constructing some devilish obstacle range with hidden targets, barrel barricades and two-by-fours, so we could both practice the finer art of pistol shooting. And with a “yip, ah huh, good, great shot, keeping going, pour it on”, he continually encouraged me until I’d emptied my clip.

Like a scene from a bad western. With the smell of burnt powder on my grip and brass casings strewn across the yellowing prairie grass of an early summer sun, I slowly sauntered back to the bar to reload. I’m not really a gun-toting kind of guy, but as the Duke once said “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.“ So I continued to reload again… and again.

A memorable first day on the trail. Was it unplanned… yes. Completely clueless… absolutely!

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