Trumped by the Kepler Track

A two hour direct bus from Queenstown put me in Te Anau, and the driver utilized the bus’s emptiness to reveal his kind nature and drop me off at my hostel on the town outskirts. The kindness spared me a twenty minute walk from town center even though all I carried was my trek bag with hiking necessities. The majority of my belongings were in a hostel closet in Queenstown because hiking the Kepler Track would be my only doing in Te Anau. Decent thing too since Te Anau is more a tourist stop than a destination. There are jade jewelry shops, massive cafes with intermittent periods of high turn over from tour bus stop overs, some B&Bs, and mediocre pie cafes advertising unsubstantiated claims about so and so pie being the best in New Zealand. There were slim pickings at the supermarket, and the price for a Whittaker’s chocolate bar was higher than the national average.

Te Anau was not without charm, and Alice, at least enjoyed it. I’d exchanged messages with her a week before and she said come by and stay awhile. She was working on a farm, which lent to her affection since I think the richness of a small town, even one configured to cater to tourists, is in the experiences it proffers when you commit to its stable and narrow culture. Time and attention sow small rewards. I looked on Te Anau like any passing tourist, exhausting its town limits with a two hour walk and believing within thirty minutes that I’d seen everything I was meant to see.

The hostel was next to an alpaca ranch. A herd stared dumbly at me from over a wire fence as I knocked on the patio door to the main building in search of the hostel’s owner. I walked around the building. The grass was supremely green, and uncut blades sprung high enough to cover my shoe toes. South island was experiencing periods of ample rain, which coaxed lushness from everything. The weather’s defining characteristic though was wind. When I walked back around I envied the lavishness of the alpaca coat because the wind chill felt unbearable without a proper jacket.

The alpacas were also ideal foreground props to a snowy mountain range that was in the distance.

I walked around the property, which was at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac. The distance from town mirrored the distance the owners had from typical business sense. When I’d called that morning to reserve a bed, the owner asked, “One night for one person?” I responded, “Two nights…tonight and tomorrow. It will just be me.” He confirmed and hung up. I called back a few seconds later. “Hi, we just spoke about reserving one bed for tonight and tomorrow night.” “Oh for tonight as well?” “That’s right.” “Okay, I have you down for tonight and tomorrow night. What time you expecting to be around?” “Four.” “I’ll see you then.” “Wait. The name is Antonio.”

Owner whereabouts uncertain, I went to the hostel and claimed a bed. The living room was cozy with a number of sofas and a crackling wood stove. I picked a corner, put in ear plugs, and burrowed my head into the pages of Middlesex in order to get some freedom from an obnoxious, older Canadian gentleman who was making his rounds upsetting the quiet of the other travelers.

To me, older hostel travelers (OHTs) border on the intolerable. Hostel travel is a mixed bag to begin with; after months in and out of hostels I’ve become both enamored with people and weary of them. My opinion depends on my mood, but frequently the array of people and their experiences make for fine companionship, especially when talk is over alcohol late at night. But when I want to read or write, the social desires of others make for annoying talk. Yet, regardless of mood, the particular conversational nuances of OHTs are notably grinding. Their anecdotes and experiences, almost without fail, take on the form of parable. I sense that they want to impart stories rather than share them. Young hostelers give and take, they hope to receive in return for their story or perspective something new that can enrich them. OHTs, the most bothersome, seem to prefer the reverence of the young.

The OHTs very presence is odd because hostels are still the providence of the young, and the OHTs’s perspectives are forced into the millennial milieu. Occasionally families or older traveling couples will be in a hostel, but they keep to themselves, and to them the hostel is a budget rather than lifestyle choice. I recall one other obnoxious, older Canadian gentleman with whom I shared a room in Rotorua. He was in his fifties but had slowed age’s showings through endless exercise and tennis playing. The pace at which he talked was a gallop. I think that the part of his brain that formulated thoughts had simply closed up shop and re-opened on the tip of his tongue lest a moment go by without his saying something. And what he talked about was just inane: He couldn’t believe that a person in the kitchen used a cutting knife to spread peanut butter; he couldn’t believe that someone used the cutting board he had just taken a break from using. To him these were not simply acts of ignorance, they were personal affronts to him. And he was one of those characters who had to physically re-enact scenes. To indicate that his antagonist was speaking he not only altered his voice, but he jumped to the physical space the antagonist would have inhabited, so during a monologue this man would step from one spot to another depending on who in his story was speaking. The man simply would not shut up too. The one time he asked me a question was one morning after another roommate’s alarm went off at 6 am; he said from over his duvet, “Hey Antonio, what are your thoughts on Donald Trump?”

The night before day one on the Kepler was mild torture. Wind drafts in the hallway slammed doors left open by middle of the night bathroom users, so I woke up with two hours sleep. There was an immovable viscosity to my muscles, and simply walking the 7km to the Kepler entrance exhausted what little energy I had. For some reason I was anticipating an easy first day. In reality no day on any Great Walk was more difficult.

After a 5.6km first leg around a segment of Lake Te Anau, the trail lifted out of what felt like a common park and angled into thicker forest. It didn’t bother me that the first day was plain with no remarkable views and without particularly gripping scenes of nature because I knew that the Kepler’s great promise resided in its second day—a trail that wobbled like built on a blade over a mountain ridge that had splendid lake and mountain scenery to either side. But for the moment I was resorting to the simple advice of “put one foot in front of the other” to make it to the end of day one. Each step forward took an incredible amount of will, and what allowed me to finish the mountain at all was the reasoning: I just took one step, what’s one more?

The 8.2km ascent felt like absolute death. And my bag decided to become like every ally I’d ever had in every Risk game I’d ever played and betrayed me when it was most opportune to do so—as soon as the trail lifted to its steepest pitch. I swayed across the track and tried my damnedest to not look like a sad and sorry sack to the hikers who were descending. I admitted that I’d probably let myself physically go a bit too much leading up to the hike. It had been over a week since my last Great Walk trek and I’d been content eating burgers and being lazy. Once my eyelids started to fall I had to act. I sat on the first large stump I found, left my pack buckled across my chest and waist, slumped my chin onto my chest, and fell asleep. An hour later I woke up more groggy and sluggish, but the nap had filled with energy a reservoir that I dipped into once I emerged from the tree line and saw I had a kilometer left to the hut.

The wind was ferocious on the mountain top. When I was in the forest, mostly protected, I’d seen that the wind had uprooted trees. What the wind does is twirl the trees like in a blender, and the constant swirling lessens the roots’ grip on the soil until the correct gust simply plops the tree over. Entire swaths of forest in New Zealand have been leveled this way.

Once rain began falling I collapsed my trekking poles and ran to the hut.

The foyer where hikers typically leave their boots, hiking poles, and wet gear was full, signaling to me that I was one of the last to arrive. The hut was massive, the largest I’d seen on any track. The first floor was a sizable kitchen with two long prep tables and probably eight gas burners. A low divide separated the kitchen from the dining area, which had communal tables with benches, all full, and a string of connected windows that looked out to high mountains whose tops were serrated edges cutting incoming cloud cover. The look of physical exertion was weaning out of people. They relaxed and unwound with teas and snacks in front of them and chatted with neighbors.

Two bunk rooms were at the top of a short staircase. I initially put my things down in the smaller of the rooms, which was the size of a studio apartment and had one bunk row on two levels, but I realized that everyone in the room was Japanese and was eyeing me with that frustrated exasperation that basic bitches have when an unattractive guy at a bar says to them hi, how are you. Hint taken, I gathered my things. The other room was like a barracks. Forty bunks were ordered around a main walkway and five alcoves. Each bunk was made from sturdy wood, and most had foot and headboards, which made the beds more like berths. Wood divides were built between each bunk set and would later in the night prove to be a sort of “go ahead and fart, no one will know it was you” privacy mask that I’d say at least 20% of people took advantage of. The windows were open despite the deplorable weather, and this aided in detracting from the damp stuffiness. Few people were in the room, but bags consumed the floor. Delicate foot play was needed to land in the footholds between them. I found an empty mattress at the end of an alcove, put my bag down, and took out my sleeping bag. I didn’t even change, just unrolled the sleeping bag and lay on top of it and fell asleep to delirious dreams, the faint percussion of footsteps, and the wind gaining force outside.

I woke in early evening with a slight appetite. The kitchen was in full prep mode: salami was being chopped, water was boiling in kettles, goon bags had been tapped. I found a space for my stove next to an unclaimed assortment of nuts and spices that bore the 365 Whole Foods label. When a girl came up to grab an item I said, “Did you bring those all the way from America?”

“Sure did, we came prepared.”

The we in this equation were the newly weds Kate and Rhett. My tendency when meeting someone with an “adult” trait—things like owning a home, being married, or having a full time job—is to assume they’re a touch older. As if somehow, by imparting more advanced age onto them, I’m excusing my own adolescent lifestyle. I pegged Kate and Rhett to be a smidgen above thirty. Either they both wore make up or were blessed with flawless cosmetic appearances. Kate’s face was mature and lovely. Rhett’s amicable and creaseless with a finely trimmed beard. Kate’s hair was wind blown perfection and Rhett’s might as well have been a pic on a hip barber shop poster, sandy with short sides and an immaculate offset part held in place without the sheen of product. They both had athletic clothes that didn’t clash (contrasted with me who wore a bright blue merino long sleeve underneath a crimson tee and with khaki colored shorts). Sitting across from them was like viewing an orthodontics promotional. Kate was a year younger than myself; Rhett was five years older. In short they were the ideal Millennial couple: Home owners, job and dog havers, possessors of adult responsibilities but still capable of an in-depth and considered conversation about Instagram. While we talked they sipped wine from out of plastic tumblers. I just knew they had a color coordinated Kitchen Aid and Le Creuset Dutch oven. Hardwood floors and West Elm carpets were a certainty.

In the kitchen they were a stellar team: Rhett did everything and Kate watched. We had dinner together then talked through it and continued on until the kitchen crowd thinned out. When the lights went out a man sleeping on the kitchen floor yelled out, “Alright, time’s up!”

The day was February 5th, so the Trump presidency still felt and fit like a new and poorly made Russian slipper. His election had clamped into place newspaper headlines in New Zealand, so his presidency and baboonery were main focuses. The constancy of the coverage made Americans a sought after curiosity by the Kiwis. They made me answer for the election, the how and why, and wanted to know my thoughts. “I don’t support the President,” I would say.

One Kiwi teacher told me, “We were obsessed. And when America elected him we felt like we knew it was coming the whole time.” There is at least that courtesy they extend to the American tourist: “When America elected him.” Like they don’t blame the individual American for the monstrosity. America, the amorphous collective, did this. The America which is neither understandable nor knowable.

“Putting aside political arguments for a second, and whether Hillary was even a good candidate, what is most upsetting,” Rhett agreed, “Is that before Trump I had this idea—you can call it old fashioned—but it was this idea that if you played by the rules, if you tried to be a  good person, treated others with respect, worked hard, then you could get ahead and achieve the American Dream, or whatever you’d like to call it. You could have your job and wife and feel that you achieved it and it wasn’t to the detriment of anyone else. No person was harmed in the making of your American Dream. Whether or not that’s true is a separate discussion. But what matters about the idea is that I aspired to be decent to people. I think I’m a good person—or I’ve tried to be—and I’m trying to live up to this idea that I was raised with. What Trump’s election did for me is it told me that I was wrong. That that idea was wrong. It was proof that everything I thought about what America was, or what it meant to be American, wasn’t true. Here’s a man who is hateful, is petty, he belittles others, he fucks over business owners, tosses his financial weight around to get his way and screws people out of what they rightfully earned. What his election told me is that you can be an asshole and not only can you make it in our Country, you can lead it. There’s no need to be respectful, you can call a woman a fat pig and a whore and talk about grabbing her pussy, or whatever, and that doesn’t make you un-presidential. You can be a narrow minded, bigoted bully who takes pride in not understanding the world, and that won’t hold you back. That’s the lesson I got from his election. His election pulled the rug from under my belief, so now I think I was raised on a lie. It’s a lie because the people who gave me this idea are people who were never destined to make it in America. Or it’s a lie because the country changed sometime between my upbringing and now. With either one, I feel like a distant relative in my own country.”

Our conversation was interrupted midway by a flute. The DOC hut warden had come through the throng to a fore position in the kitchen and had, without warning, began blowing into his whittled instrument.

He was an able looking man of slight frame. His eccentric hair and mossy beard were fox colored, and he swayed on fatless legs knobbed like shillelaghs as he entertained us with Maori welcoming songs and bird calls. “This dude has probably not left this hut for thirty years,” Rhett whispered.

The man spoke so softly that ears had to be turned to him. His voice puttered, “We are keeping an eye on the weather. Right now we are expecting to get high winds for the ridge crossing tomorrow. If that is the case in the morning then we will let you know. I will have an update, so plan to gather for a meeting here in the morning at 7:30. I ask that no one leave before then as if the wind is too much, we may have to close down the trail. Now…” he passed out of news and into stories about the Kepler’s history, facts about the construction history of the hut and about the track’s florae and faunae. He had laid a number of taxidermic creatures on the table next to him, so he pulled one and held its neck between his fingers. It was a horrendous mess of hair with a gnarly face. “This is a stoat. You may see those pink triangles on the track, these are to let the DOC know where traps were set to catch these little buggers. If you did not know already, then you will now know that New Zealand has quite a stoat, weasel, and ferret problem. In the 1880s, farmers were looking for a way to fight rabbits that were into and destroying their crops. So they went to the government for help, and the government, in its wisdom and against advice from experts, allowed these stoats, weasels, and ferrets to be introduced. It did solve the rabbit problem, but it caused far greater problems, as you can imagine.

“New Zealand has no natural mammals except for one species of bat, but what we do have is birdlife. They have been here for so long and without natural predators that they lost the ability to fly. So when the stoats, weasels, and ferrets were finished eating all the little rabbits, they found food that was much easier to get for them—those flightless birds’s eggs. Many of our flightless birds went extinct, and many others were on the brink of extinction until the government came in and realized that our bird faunae was a natural treasure worth preserving.  Now the government’s goal is to make New Zealand one-hundred percent stoat, ferret, and weasel free. They’ve achieved this in some parts through extensive trapping, like I’ve mentioned, and also through a controversial campaign of 1080 poison use. But, unfortunately, much of the damage to our wildlife has already been done. It would take a great amount of luck for any one of you to see a flightless wild bird on the main islands. If it’s kiwis you’re wanting to see, you will have to go off to islands in the south, which are surrounded by water that stoats, ferrets, and weasels can not swim over. But for many other of our flightless bird species, the most you will see of them is stuffed ones in museums.” He passed around the stoat.

I slept through the morning meeting. Based on the conversations I overheard the track was closed. Winds outside were over 80 kilometers an hour, but further up on the ridge line they were 220, a speed that would take us off the mountain like paper airplanes. It was the third time in the season that the track was closed.

A part of me was glad to be turned around. Once I’d internalized the possibility of the track’s closure I’d accepted it’s inevitability. The same low spirits that other hikers felt didn’t strike me. Many people traveled across the world and had pinned hopes of a stellar trip onto activities that had to fit within a narrow span of days. As much as I wanted to put eyes onto every foot of the country and its glorious landscapes I was content to let circumstances beyond my control trump my plans. Part of the trip, I’d learned by then, was to simply face the negative as it came, when it came, but to do what it took to keep going.

∗∗∗

NB: If you’re a New Zealand geography buff you may have recognized the featured image as not the Kepler Track. Correct. I didn’t take a single photo of the Kepler, so the above image was the closest thing I had to Kepler’s landscape. It’s of Roy’s Peak in Wanaka.

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