“Where are you Rach? I’m looking for you, but don’t know where you are.”
That was the missed call I’d just got on voicemail. It was half an hour old and obviously we had not been found.
I turned to the kids.
“We’d better start walking.”
I’d have forgiven them for complaining at the prospect of another 9km, but they just fell into line one behind the other and plodded off along the edge of the road. They’d already done 10km of hard slog – in places the going was tough enough that we moved so slowly the GPS didn’t detect any movement at all!
It’s not like we didn’t know it would be a tough walk. We’d been warned. In fact, we had been advised to go from Huia to Parau and not the other way round to make it a bit easier. Trouble was, we were going there and back; so we had to do it both ways.
At 12km for the return trip, and knowing we usually hike at 4-5km/hour, it seemed we could cover the distance easily in three hours. All the same, we packed a ham and cheese roll each. Just in case. I figured we’d eat them in the car on the way home.
I also figured we should attack the hard way first. So Parau to Huia it was.
UP UP UP
Apart from the steep ascent, other factors conspired to make this a hard walk, not the least of which was the fact that last night it had rained. For the first time since last winter, everything was sodden. Ground, grasses, ferns, leaves. We were accosted by supplejack vines and embraced by cobwebs. Moss and mud paved the way. Tree roots tripped us and smooth rocks deceived us into thinking they would be good to step on. Smooth can also be slippery.
So was the mud slide – as the mother went down the literal slippery slope, the children followed her on the figurative one of laughing at her misfortune. They laughed so hard they felt compelled to apolgise!
They had led the way down a steep bank and were now clambering up the other side, leaving a murky stream behind.
“aaaaaaagh I’m sliiiiiiiping,” I called, everything going into slow motion. So slow, in fact, that all the children had time to turn and focus on my left foot as it slid from the top of the mud wall to the bottom, my right leg being left behind at the summit, knee level with my shoulder. Each child was perfectly positioned to watch as that left foot reached the flat, and then continued its journey until almost completely submerged in the mud puddle, following my trusty walking pole in towards the centre of the earth.
Now, in intentional slow motion, I tentatively dragged the foot up through the mud, hoping the shoe would come too, but feeling significant resistance. With a satisfying slurp both emerged, somewhat heavier and twice the size, but otherwise unharmed. I accepted the earnest apologies, joined in the laughter, refused to take photographic evidence and proceeded ever upwards. Had I known a torrential downpour would later completely erase the badge of honour in the form of a mud-encrusted shoe, I may have clicked for posterity. Right then I just wanted to get up that next hill. Rumblings of concern about distance-covered versus distance-to-go were starting to invade my mind.
Over time – much time – they grew and turned out to be not unwarranted. The path never became easy. And when we stopped to don needed rainwear, we lost it completely (the path, that is). Map and compass aren’t particularly helpful when you don’t know where you are, but thankfully we spied an orange marker through the thickening drizzle, which was but a shadow of what was yet to come.
Apparently, according to the distance-covered reading on my phone, we had only to walk another 600 metres and we would come to the end of the trail. Buoyant hope mingled with the serious doubts I was starting to have about the wisdom of attempting to walk back. I had got past thinking, “Let’s just call this a failed mission and turn around now before it’s too late”, and was contemplating *how* to get us back to the car. The mud had been challenge enough before the rain – what would it be like now it was pouring down steadily and we’d need to navigate the steep downhills at the end when we’d be tired?
I had plenty of time to consider. The 600 metres stretched out three and a half kilometres. That supposed 6km in the brochure was actually nine. Going back again would be 18. Eighteen hard km!
We walked down to the beach and ate our rolls. Hope of walking back disappeared as decisively as the hills right next to us; they were swallowed by a foreboding mist.
Decision made: we would not walk back. Relief settled and merged with joy. I smiled. I just *knew* the technological husband would be pleased I would need to use the phone he had purchased for hiking emergencies!!
Only there was no service.
Then the story enters a boring stage. Mother walks a kilometre to the Huia store to enquire about busses. None. Ever. She uses the public phone – or tries to, but it’s broken. So she walks back to the kids, who are waiting in the surely visionless bus-stop. Despite said kids’ apprehension at the prospect, she decides to hitch a ride back to the car, but there is next to no traffic coming from the far west coast on a Friday afternoon, and every car that does pass is full.
Expecting resistance to the idea of walking back to the car, I am pleasantly surprised when everyone agrees. And that’s how we found ourselves waiting at the top of the hill in the Noah-like rain, waiting to be picked up.
You see, when we had got to the top of the hill it had occurred to me that there might be a phone signal. Indeed, there was.Enough to get a connection and hear Grandpa on the other end, but evidently not enough for him to hear me. So I dialled home. Aware that the phone-answerer is not the world’s best with instructions, I kept the conversation to the bare minimum.
“We are OK. But please ask Grandpa if he can come and pick us up. If he can’t, ask Dad when he gets home from work. Tell them to come to Huia. We are at the Huia Lookout. Any questions? No? Thanks.”
And so began the comedy of rescue errors. Not that we knew it at the time; we were just standing in the ever-increasing deluge waiting for what we assumed would be imminent rescue.
However…..despite intentionally NOT mentioning Parau, that was precisely what the phone-answerer heard, and exactly what he passed on to Grandpa.
(Before I go on, let me tell you Grandpa is the best rescuer you could ever hope for. Immediately he dropped his own plans and picked up a toolbox and tow rope. He already had a first aid kit in the car.
Just a few days ago he had mentioned with some concern in his voice, that he hoped I would not push the kids too far when we are in Spain. My belief that he would be supportive of the decision to abort this mission was not unfounded. He was, and sympathetic, too.)
So Grandpa went to Parau.
Rather predictably, he found our car parked at the side of the road, not looking in the least bit distressed.
Waiting quarter of an hour for us to appear gave just enough time for visions of broken legs and stretchers to take hold. So Grandpa headed up the Parau Track, too. Do you remember how I said it went up? UP UP UP. Up he went for twenty minutes, apparently forgetting he’s in his eighties now. By then the clouds that had closed in over the ridge as we ate lunch and were then dumping their contents on our bedraggled group at the Lookout were blown across to Parau. Grandpa slithered back down the track, a cloud in his heart and the cloud overhead dripping what was left on him.
Not one to be deterred, he decided to drive along the road and went further than he thought we could have walked. He didn’t know we were coming FROM that direction, and even he had to admit defeat and turn back when he had gone well past the realm of reasonableness.
Meanwhile, we had walked.
Once the storm had passed and phone signal had returned, we had discovered that missed call.
Realising no-one knew where we were, we abandoned our post at the Lookout and took the only prudent course of action: to move towards the car under our own steam in the two remaining hours of daylight.
We had got as far as Cornwallis when the phone rang. It was Grandpa.
Ten minutes later he would pull up beside us, emerge from the car and enquire, “What on earth happened?” Relief in his eyes betrayed the gruff edge to his voice.
It was a long story…..
By the way, while this story is true, a little poetic license was taken in its telling – there were actually sections of the track that were undemanding, and we were “lost” for under two minutes. While the mother’s slip was under a half a metre, nothing could have made it more funny at the time (well, OK, if I’d landed on my butt, it may have been funnier, but I don’t think those kids could have laughed any harder!)
You might be wondering why we didn’t try ringing Grandpa more frequently – for one, we only had his home number, and for two, we kept losing reception. You might also wonder why we didn’t call home again – we tried, but the unconcerned peeps there had gone out to deliver their newspapers.
Besides, as I say, we kept losing reception.