Flash Frontier

Excerpt: Meeting Papa by Michelle Campbell

Interviews and Features

An excerpt from her recently published book about walking Te Araroa

A dewy frost coats the ground and tunnel webs spun on the hard edges of mingimingi are frozen like icicles. Jack and I climb up to the river terrace with cold tight muscles, finally reaching the access way to Longslip Station, where we are met with rocky greywacke – a harsh pathway leading up to Martha Saddle. The increasing steepness and emerging sun adding a salty sweat to our uphill grunt. I can see the zig zags breaking away towards the saddle but in the boulders ahead a neon-orange bucket hat and huge Osprey backpack stumbles around in the rocks. In big leather boots and striped thermal leggings the skinny frame wobbles from side to side.

He suddenly feels our presence behind him and comes to an abrupt stop.
‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I ask his back.

He turns, face as red as a crayfish, sweat dripping from his curly hair, unruly under his orange triangle inspired hat. He looks at the ground when he responds, ‘Yeah, all right, thanks – just hot.’

He’s a rare Kiwi but he motions for us to pass, shuffling onto to the side of the trail. ‘OK. Have a good one,’ I say.

He hisses a ‘yup’ like he’s on the verge of an asthma attack. I keep glancing down at him on the zig zags, worried he’ll faint, the neon orange bucket hat below us still lurching around slowly.

On Martha Saddle the distinct horn of Mount Aspiring rises above the ranges, peaks in every direction. The trail off the saddle is clear, a grey scar of padded schist made from the hundreds of feet before us, snaking down the shingle to the river bed below. I descend after Jack passing underneath the domineering schist towers along each side of the saddle. My knees ache under the impact but my momentum gains steadily as the descent sharpens. And when the trail bottoms out near the river I slam on the brakes, my quadriceps quivering as if they have been marinated in napalm. Muscles and joints screaming Enough! Hands to thighs, I rub the skin, trying to stop the irrepressible shaking. I look back towards the saddle pleased to see the distant dot of a neon orange bucket hat.

We scramble carefully over the precarious wet greywacke hanging over the swift current of the Timaru River before slogging up to Stody’s Hut in the desolate afternoon heat. I gulp at the air like a floundering fish, muscles still twitching in agony. I go to take a sip on my water bladder and a hollow hiss of air is delivered. ‘Damn it! No water!’

Jack scolds me, ‘I told you to take some from the river!’

‘It would have been too heavy! This walk is a goddamn nightmare!’

‘Stop whinging!’

I make a swift rebuttal. ‘I’m not whinging! I’m just saying it’s hard!’ I grab a hold of a tawai branch, trying to catch my breath. Sweat rains from my chin onto the dry earth and a swirl of black and white lands in my droplets. A miromiro with a creamy yellow chest gives me a judgemental cheet cheet, staring at me pitifully as it hops and flits in the dirt, then onto broken tawai branches, teasing me with its ability to fly. ‘Oh, go away, you!’

‘What?’ Jack whirls around.

‘Not you! Him!’ I point accusingly at the tiny black and white bird.
Jack wrinkles their face up at me. ‘What did he do to you?’

I watch the miromiro fly over to a boulder, with another cheet cheet as he looks me up and down. ‘I just….I just wanna be at the top already.’ My shoulders slump. ‘I’m exhausted.’ In the last week I have felt my body fighting back, truly resistant. There are only a few weeks left on Te Araroa, but my body is tired and sick of being ignored.

Jack unzips their hip belt pocket and hands me a Werther’s Original. ‘I know, sweetheart, and we will be soon.’

With my eyes locked to the miromiro I pop two Panadols and chase it with water pilfered from Jack’s supply. The bird grows bored and flies higher into the bush and with that, satisfied that I’ve won our staring competition, I push on to the top. The trail finally opening up with the little tin shack that is Stody’s Hut, residing in a clearing. I open the intentions book where, in the current weather conditions column, someone’s drawn an animal skeleton resting next to a cactus. Cartoonish and complete with big emaciated eyeballs, it’s a pretty accurate description.

One final unrelenting push leads us up to Breast Hill where we discover that the view has definitely been worth the climb. At a steel trig set in place on rocky outcrop we beam at the panorama for over an hour, watching the sun shift over Lake Hawea. A pink glaze drips over the Young and Mckerrow Ranges as the moon rises above the horn of Mount Aspiring. A gentle breeze licking the haumata at our feet as the stars take their place in the sky. We cannot rush, not with this view and we finally give ourselves time to be still. We ignore the hut that we know is further on and set up the tent as far from the boundary line of the station as possible, falling asleep to the gentle and far-off bleating of lambs. At 4:00 a.m., woken by my bladder, I step outside to a glittering night sky, the twinkling white galaxy of the Milky Way curved over my head. I crane my neck in awe, the stars so close to me they seem within reach – somewhere between the distant embrace of Ranginui’s arms, outstretched to meet those of his beloved Papatūānuku.

Michelle Campbell’s book, Meeting Papa, is available from https://www.etsy.com/shop/michellecampbellNZ

Ko Moumoukai te maunga
Ko Nuhaka te awa
Ko Takitimu to waka
Ko Ngati Kahungungu te Wairoa, Rongomaiwahine me Ngati Porou te iwi
Ko Ngati Rakaipaaka te hapu
Ko Ngai Tamakahu me Tane-nui-o-rangi te marae
Ko Michelle Campbell tōku ingoa

Michelle Campbell was born in Auckland, New Zealand and splits her time between Wellington and Owhango where she has a home right off Te Araroa. Each summer she enjoys meeting new walkers on their 3,000 kilometre odyssey. She has recently started teaching yoga and is on a journey to learn more Te Reo Māori and to understand more about traditional Māori healing methods including rongoā and romiromi. Meeting Papa is her first book.

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