Running Away on the Abel Tasman Track

I felt stuck in Christchurch. New Zealand was off on its New Year’s holiday, so Christchurch was emptied out. Everything was closed. Barber shops would re-open in five weeks time. Bus routes were on the holiday schedule. Even the hospital was closed, and calls to it went directly to this recording: We will be closed until January 20th, if you wish to speak with someone, please page Dave at…. Shop owners had taped to front doors notes that said, Sorry, we are closed until so and so date; some of these notes had been up long enough, absorbing the occasional sunlight, that the tape adhesive had given out so the notes lie face up on the flooring.

I was house and dog sitting until the first of January when I would drive north to Nelson and begin hiking the Abel Tasman Great Walk. I was lazy until then, doing nothing substantial except reading Life of Pi, whose plot had an odd bit of symmetry with my days: Boy in isolation, confined with animals, too much idle thinking time, dreams of food. I made highly caloric meals at night, stomach stretching amounts of beef stroganoff and a tri-meat bolognese, and then lounged like a bloated walrus for hours while watching the complete Mr. Bean series. I took long walks, first around the neighborhood and then Christchurch city, nearly always with the dogs roped in front of me pulling hard, tightening their leashes, choking themselves.

Christchurch is a city whose flesh was shaken off of it. The 2011 earthquake’s epicenter was, almost literally, Christchurch’s downtown. Suburbs were tilted from extensive soil liquefaction. 115 people died in a single building’s collapse. 181 died in all. The city, walking through it, is an exoskeleton, really. It’s concrete and stone epidermis is gone, and the population down-ticked for a bit after the disaster. It was 375,000 at the time of the earthquake, down ten thousand after that, but it’s back up, again at 375,000. Buildings are open, not necessarily for business, but open. They’re architectural cadavers. Their foundations are exposed, ceiling and floor ribs are naked. All that supporting iron rebar, the concrete paneling and flooring, that hangs from high floors like shredded viscera. The scalping teeth of back hoe tractors wait at ground level for continued excavation. But with this ribs split open view, a different part of Christchurch is visible. You can see it, heart pumping, even with the city on vacation. Some buildings in the center business district have a shrink wrap removed gleam and are open to commercial tenants. There is a public space where shipping containers have been outfitted into coffee shops, bars, and take away restaurants. Tourists and locals patronize all the vendors, fathers challenge sons to games of ping pong on the free plaza tables, and there’s a tatted, hospitable grunge that stores that survive between destroyed buildings have. A steel sculpture of interlocked panels that look like plant leaves formed into an ice cream cone is just there, kind of for no reason except for why not. And half of the old stone cathedral still stands surrounded by a chainlink fence that people peer through to get photos. Outside the chainlink, and in line with the cathedral’s exposed knave, is an open wall structure, in size a shed but in spirit an altar perhaps, and from there you can see pigeons roosting in the cathedral rafters. Tuffs of clumped grasses and species of flowers grow from sod squares on the shed’s sides and eaves. There is also a column made of heavy stones held in form by chicken wire, the column twice the height of a man with a circa five foot diameter. The stones have marker inscriptions: dates, people’s names, the places where they came from, small notes such as “Love Always.” Similar sentiments are graffitied all over the city on its bricks and in its nooks. The people who disliked Christchurch I reckon have moved elsewhere. The people whose souls were intertwined with the place before the walls fell, they are still here. That soul is visible, and there is the sense that even when the walls go back up, the soul has found its external place and grown in the exposure. Where it is is where it will stay.


I drove north. It was New Year’s day and the inebriates were secluded in shade drawn rooms sipping fluid, so the roads were mostly mine. All the better because I discovered that the reallocation car I’d reserved was a 4×4 Toyota Hilux with an extended cab. It had the width of a Wal-Mart assisted service customer; I wasn’t accustomed to it, and while driving I felt a bit like one of those Star Wars AT-AT drivers who have no below-front-window awareness.

Whenever I pick up a rental car I’m aware that the first half hour is the most crucial. That’s the period of acquaintance, when the tasks of understanding vehicular spacial awareness and learning gas pedal sensitivity steal from the typical attention to road rules and traffic. Bad shit is just more likely to happen.

Twenty minutes after I picked up the car I drove it down the narrow driveway of the home I was looking after. Ten minutes and a u-turn later I got the truck hopelessly stuck. To get it out I swiped the entire left side on a telephone pole. The opposite fender pushed a wood picket fence to the point of timber cracking (the fence remained upright and seemed structurally sound after I checked it though). Over the next six hour drive I fretted over the potential damage charges, and whenever I stopped I buffed the scrapes out the best I could using spit and toothpaste. I stared long enough at the damage that my imagination filled in the gouges that were a fingernail’s depth. “This is fine,” I thought, so it was with a Hail Mary prayer that I dropped the car off hoping the rental company employees would be too hung over to notice or record the damage. Four months and no credit card charge later makes me think they were.

I liked Nelson immediately. I arrived late afternoon and went directly to the home of Jon and Sarah, a semi-retired Kiwi couple I’d found through Airbnb. Their house was on Monopoli street, which was my introduction to the historic fact that Nelson had had an influx of Italians during the same band of years that America did, roughly 1880-1920, and that home-country Italians must still have Nelson thumbtacked on living room globes because Italian expats make their way down to Nelson with regularity.

Walking around Nelson gave me a sense as to why.

The temperature was balmy in the Mediterranean tradition of the word—warm with a breeze. The water color and views were similar to those you might see standing on the island of Capri. West of town is a thumb of a bay, and there is a sandy beach that the town crowds into during the summer. In the distance is the Abel Tasman national park. On cloudy days it is a darker gauze on the horizon and on a clear day it’s a green marvel, an EKG line of mountain that invites an outdoorsman’s imagination. The park is far enough from Nelson that mornings and evenings give the sierra that crepuscular blue that is always the product of mountains combined with distance.

Before I turned down Monopoli I came near or saw the streets Napoli and Bella and De Leva. Monopoli was a Florentine country home’s window sill of oregano smells, basil, garlic, the nightshade odor of tomato vines. The home purlieus were small garden plots that were sumptuous in the way Italians are uniquely capable of conjuring, overfilled with productive culinary greenery and tended to by accented, tawny colored individuals who were bent and gloveless with hands moving delicate in herb nests. Passing them I received more ciaos than I did hellos.

Jon in particular was intensely proud of his submersion into Italian expat culture. He referred to the population often and kept a garden in a raised soil bed in the backyard. Sitting back there when the wind came in and kind of vortexed around made the patio smell like a raw pasta sauce. That night Jon pulled out a locally published book on Nelson’s Italian community’s history and read surnames with an Italian inflection and was able to give personal anecdotes regarding certain lineages.

I said goodnight early and prepared my pack for the next day. The bus picked up at sunrise and the ride was a couple of hours. We shed passengers each hour, the ones who’d booked kayak excursions or day boat trips. Five other people sat next to trekking bags as I did. When the bus let us off at the trail head there was every evidence that the Abel Tasman was more of a holiday park than a bush walking trail: A coffee and ice cream shop was appurtenant to the trail head; across the street were trash bags stuffed and stacked in the New York City style; and there was a massive parking lot with a sign that said, “Unlocked cars contribute to the growing crime rate!” to which someone added the edits “Unlocked cars thieves contribute to the growing crime rate!”

The other through hikers were preparing their gear, again going through their pre-walk checklists, chugging water, refilling bottles, applying sunscreen and deet. Two of them, married and American, looked to be about my age. The woman was egg shell white and had covered every part of her skin with clothing. She protected her face with a Harvard Business School hat, so I asked her what year she graduated in case she knew Josh Petersel. “Oh, way before then,” she said when I told her his year. Her husband was Asian and extremely fit. He wore Lulu Lemon everything and was fixing a wick-away bandana around his neck. I asked them for their stories. He worked for Apple and she was a principal at a start up that she’d convinced to move her to England “for a change of pace.” They’d met at an elite undergrad and married not long after graduating. His voice was deep and came across as reserved and aloof, nearly bored. That was an oil in water contrast to her, who displayed a timid uncertainty. She said three times when we set off together that, “We’ll probably not see you again because I’m so slow.”

The beginning of the hike was crowded with day hikers and tourists holding either cameras or portable artillery. Chinese women created a trail canopy with their umbrella hats and I walked quickly to get out of the jam and completed a rather unremarkable first leg.

In pictures Abel looks like it’s in the tropics. The advertisement brochures show banana colored kayaks suspended over clear shallows with jungly bush on the nearby land. There are four different colored bands of blue in the sea and sky. On a sunny day Abel does look like that, but my first day was chalk colored and excessively bright. The clouds were a theatre scrim that the sun burst behind. It magnified the light until clouds that were gray came over. The views were limited as the trail was a gash on a hill side; to the left was a forest slope and to the right was a tree screen with branches too thick to consistently see the ocean through. Occasionally the trail turned to a natural, denuded lookout or there were turnouts to bushwhacked foot paths that led to low promontories. More common were colorful plastic triangles that the DOC nailed into trees to indicate the location of rodent traps and poison drops. (The DOC engages in an aggressive, genocidal campaign to rid New Zealand entirely of its rodent population, which is not native and which threatens New Zealand’s unique bird life. Markers of this campaign dot the country, e.g. in these plastic triangles and in homemade street side billboards that say “Stop poisoning our water with 1080.”)

The more stellar views, I imagined, were the ones looking in, views that an armada of kayakers were enjoying. There were pocket clusters of paddlers, bobbing over unbroken wave swell and coming near rocks on the high tide current to snap photos. When I watched them while I stood on cliff edges overlooking the sea, I felt I could be in their boats after a jump and a quick freestyle.

I was always cognizant of the tide because the upcoming trail had been laid over an estuary that was impassable during high tide. When I arrived it was completely flooded, the water at the step off point was far above my knee. It would be a few hours until it was passable, so I turned around and walked the short distance to Anchorage Beach to pass the time.

Anchorage is a minuscule Riviera. Yachts were anchored near the shore, not oligarchical yachts, these yachts wouldn’t announce their size while still on the horizon: There were no gleaming brass cleats or tanned female forms with floss bikinis supine on sterns, and the flags on the masts were New Zealand flags. A New Zealand yacht means old and plain. Tourists waded in and out toting kayaks. Most people were lying on the pilsner beach sand although a few intrepid people were in the tolerably cold water splashing around.

I napped and checked the tide again. Most of the water had receded, but a gully in the estuary’s middle still had a quick ebbing current. I removed my shoes and walked over the mud until I reached the gully and planted my poles in the water that I used to meter the water’s fall. I spent an hour like this, barefoot, cradling my tracking bag like a child to prevent it getting muddy. Crabs in the hundreds were around me, scuttling into small cave colonies, making mud sounds that sounded like popping bubbles. On the opposite bank groups of people congregated and tested the depths with their poles. Some lifted their packs over their heads and took off their pants to cross.

Walking Sticks

After crossing it was another three hours to the Bark Bay campsite. It was surrounded by mud flats, and on it were sail boats leaning on their keels and groups of kayaks with their ropes laced together and anchored by stones. It’s atypical to share a campsite with boaters while hiking, so I was jealous of what they were able to bring to shore as compared to what a backpacker brings. Backpackers sleep in tents that are cocoons, their food is sparse so as to be devoid of excess weight; noodles and dehydrated meals in vacuum sealed bags are the staples. These weight considerations don’t cross a boater’s mind. They drank wine and had racks of beer. Their tents were palatial, many room affairs with awnings and waterproof gables and welcome matts. Some parties had entire kitchen pantries packed into totable containers, and they sat around campfires with cast iron skillets filled with bacon and beans, and then sat around later with different cast iron pans warming cookies and brownies.

It began to rain almost as soon as I arrived. The sand pebbles were an opaque beige and water made them stick to everything, but they drained the water well so pools weren’t forming and I was able to set up my tent and not worry about water seeping through over the course of the night. But when I went to bed I heard an incessant buzzing. I figured it came from mosquitos that’d come in whenever I opened and closed the tent flap, but the buzzing was no floating around, idle buzzing, it was like surgically implanted in my ear. I began to think that it was coming from inside my mattress pad. “How is that even possible?” I thought. I began to hone in on a sound and pressed the spot with my thumb. I did this repeatedly, sometimes ending the buzz, sometimes just muting it for a few moments before it came back, weaker but present. I found places to put my head where the buzzing was more distant so I could fall asleep. In the morning I heard it again. I thought it was ridiculous to believe mosquitos had gotten into my mattress pad and if I sliced it open I’d discover a mozzie crypt. Curious, I opened my tent flap, leaned out, and lifted up the part of the tent I slept on. From it came over a dozen dust colored hornets from their sand burrows, way more intent on escaping my weight than meting any punishment, but the story of how I slept on a wasp nest all night was a source of quick amusement to a number of Kiwis.

The day was a downpour. The trail was a quagmire that was squelching under my steps. At one point half my leg and a boot disappeared into a mud vacuum. By the time I arrived at the next campsite the sun was out, and all the soggy people that had arrived before me were basking and drying out their clothes. The married hikers arrived. They sat on the DOC hut patio with an older gentleman. They looked west to where the trail again went over an estuary that required a tidal crossing. Dots of moving color were on the other side testing depths.

Walking Across the Estuary

The man who was there stood over most people, all his other features were large as well: ears overgrown, wrinkles descended long on his face—whatever place on his face could be blue printed for wrinkles had wrinkles—beard that had not been cut in some time. The four of us watched people cross, and hours later, when the tide had gone fully out, the man and I scouted the crossing. He pointed to a place he thought would be easiest to cross, and in the morning we crossed there together. The going was easy, the water barely went up to our knees. We focused on other things, so I asked him what he did. “I’m working on a book.” He had an American accent.

“What about?”

“The 2008 financial crisis.”

“Are you an economist?”

“No, I just have some thoughts on it.” He said this with a bemused reticence. When I asked for the thoughts he didn’t expand his answer.

“Did you move to New Zealand to work on it?”

“Santa Cruz. I came out here to get some air. I don’t think my editor is happy about it.”

We were at the other end and sat near a trickling steam of salt water to wash our feet. I finished washing before him and set off. “Good luck on the book,” I said and he wished me good luck as well.

The rest of the day was brilliant. Each beach I came to was an envelope inviting an opening. I swam in each. In and out of shore broke barrels, my muscles, among other things, shrinking in the cold. At one beach I swam through what felt like a tub of jelly balls but turned out to be translucence sea gooseberries: invisible in the water and in your hand unless held in a certain way to reflect sunlight.

Abel Tasman Empty Beach

While drying in the sun the HBS/Apple couple came upon me.

“Did you know who the guy at the hut was?” She asked.

“No idea.”

“Matthew Lee.”

“Oh, of course.” I said, exaggerating the inflection to make clear I had no clue who that was.

“He’s the Lehman whistle blower.” She said, the man who first brought Lehman’s number skewing scheme to light and lost his job over it.

“How did you figure that out?” I asked.

Her husband said, “He was reluctant to say anything about what he did, all he said was that he worked in finance. He didn’t tell us his name, but when he said I worked in finance in New York City I all of a sudden knew where I recognized him from. I just need to do to Google search when we get off the trail to confirm.”

Once I got off the track I did the same. The Matthew Lee in Google image was the same man. The picture was from years ago, yet he looked a bit more worn, a bit more tired. When I’d seen him, gray had incompletely descended on him. He was in hiking gear and sandals, and this look was more fitting than the notch lapel suit and the tie of his picture. The Matthew Lee I saw was a man quite far from the Matthew Lee that had acted years ago in a way that would put him on the Abel checking tidal flows. The people who are in New Zealand alone, I think, the same could be said about all of them.

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