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From Manakau to Te Ao Whekere

by Lorraine Johns

It’s the second day of Easter. The sun is shining and in the air is the cheerful bustle of families and friends on holiday together. It’s late in the day and I’m wandering along a river. I can hear the wind stirring, but it touches me only lightly in the sheltered gorge. I know these waters well – the Hapuku River in the Seaward Kaikouras. I might have been tempted to call this river an old friend, if it wasn’t for the greasiness of the rock that paves the way ahead.

It has taken me all day to get here and now I rarely even cross the river, hastily bouldering over obstacles. For the price of a precarious moment or two, this is a fast way to travel and I arrive at my bivvy site below Stace Saddle in less than three hours, just on dark.

On this particular trip I’m revisiting memories. I’d set off from Christchurch the previous day to immerse myself in the Lewis tops. It was one of those days where hunters and deer materialise in and out of mist, fortunately not at the same time. Where the dewy veil draws back abruptly to allow a clear view from the summit, but the bushline is regained as the gales are picking up and fog is reclaiming the tops. I had traced out a circuit over Mount Technical (cellphone reception on the peak allowing me to take a call from my little goddaughter Amelie), nipping across to Brass Monkey Bivouac, before retreating to the security of a cosy bed.

Tonight I’ve left all homeliness behind, but I’m not alone. For a start there are the Christchurch Tramping Club boys who have returned from an attempt on Manakau, being driven back from the summit ridge by a rising and powerful wind. Then there is the little possum that refuses to budge until I half-heartedly throw something at it, deliberately missing. And then there is the big possum, and this time I possibly only miss because my aim is poor. The sky is clear and the moon full, so it’s tempting to keep on walking. But there is an unlimited supply of water at my bedside, so I settle in on the banks of the creek. I pack everything away from prying eyes, except my empty billy, which I balance on my cooker ready for the next morning.

I settle into my bivvy bag. Just one more thing now. I rummage around my first aid kit, but cannot find the sleeping tablet I’d carefully packed. I stare at my empty hand and the night darkens as anxiety washes over me. In the course of an evening eight weeks ago, my life changed forever. I silently whisper words from a list of French vocabulary over again, but there is only one thing on my mind. I close my eyes and the blackness swirls around me.

All of a sudden, a clanging sound rings in one ear, piercing my half-slumber. I shriek as my empty billy topples off my cooker and I open my eyes to see the little possum scuttling away. I glance nervously at the boys, but no-one stirs. The immortal part of myself apparently intact, I close my eyes. My billy chimes again. This time it is the large possum. I do not squeal, but as it slinks away, my parting thoughts are decidedly unfriendly. I take the billy off the cooker, but as night draws to a close, I’m pretty sure I didn’t dream those paws touching my legs …

When my alarm rings I wake to find water seeping into the narrow opening of my bivvy bag. I zip it up, entombing myself. When my alarm next wakes me, it’s still raining lightly, but it’s definitely time to start moving. Breakfast is a subdued affair as I stand gazing upon the route ahead, as it disappears into thick mist. The boys come over to introduce themselves, and I tell them I’m going to go through with my plan, because my car’s on the other side. They offer me a lift, but I’ve fallen too far into a heuristic trap. “It might clear” their leader cheerfully offers, unconvincingly, as I step into the gloom.

I stop for nothing and soon find myself heading along the ridge from Stace Saddle. I can see little except for the muted colours of the scrub at my feet and the faint outline of dark jutting rock just ahead, as the trail winds upward. There is a gentle breeze and the rain is light, but the tussock is saturated and the air feels cold. Ah I’m soaked and my gloveless fingers are pretty numb, but the moisture on my face cannot be fully attributed to the elements. My mood suffers, I’m suffering. All the more reason to be here. So I switch my iPod on and play the saddest song that I know. On repeat. For the next hour or so the most notable occurrence involves passing a lone, but very large, slug. With grim satisfaction I resolve to bypass all peaks and just keep on walking until I’m off the ridge and back at the car.  

Then, suddenly, everything begins to change. A rainbow materialises in the mist, stretching out from my feet through the narrow rock corridors into dissipating cloud. I know what is going to happen next. As I gain the broad ridge, I burst out of the grey and into the blue. It is clearer than crystal, the landscape painted with a palette so vibrant as to confound the senses. And there is my mountain, its distinctive banding softly beckoning. The air is still and I give myself over to the gentle warmth of the autumn sun. I take everything out, everything off. Nothing feels more pressing right now than being warm and dry. There’s cellphone reception up here so I reach out to my friends. Ellie and Gina are attending weddings. Fiona is riding around a farm. Colin likes the look of my mountain and tells me that he knows why I am here. Nank is asked to work out where here is (too easy!).

It’s not entirely possible to relax right now, so after a while I put some damp clothes back on (don’t want to scandalise the alpine slugs) and head up the hill. The rock is starting to radiate heat by the time I near the culmination of Surveyor Spur. I stash my overnight gear safely away, to give my body a break while I tackle the summit ridge. I think that it is a strange reality to be in such a beautiful place when I am so sad. But there is no place in the world that feels better to me right now. I continue walking carefully along the ridge and look around me.

I appreciate the shifting colours, the way my horizon keeps changing with every step higher, and that I’m going to be able to see everything from the summit. The Totaranuni farmer Kevin later tells me about his late buddy who took on the difficult challenge of ascending the face of Manakau in winter, with more than one cold night spent sleeping out on the route. With a leg on each side of the ridge I can say it’s like being in two different worlds, especially as the sun is arcing through the sky, casting a lengthening shadow over the steep face to my left, while the gently-sloping flanks to my right bask in its glow.

And just like that I find myself on the summit of Manakau, the casual splendour of the Seaward Kaikouras laid bare. An old memory wells up, a longing to traverse this ridgeline in its entirety. There is a large remnant block of snow on the north side of the summit, and I smile because a gem of a plan for next summer is forming. But for now, it’s time to follow a different path. Though not before I stash some marshmallow Easter eggs in the summit cairn … and send another “guess where” picture to Nank.


Guess where? The summit of Manakau. Photo by Lorraine Johns

When I arrive back at my gear it is getting on in the afternoon, but there’s something very reassuring about carrying my home on my back. I take a bit of time to melt snow and think that I may as well prepare dinner. One specially dehydrated for the trip Rob and I had planned in the first week of February, a trip for which I had spent the summer training and with which I was completely preoccupied as the clock was ticking away. I am thinking a lot and I try to brush my thoughts aside, but I have to think about something. So I think that even though it’s a little early for dinner and I’d been planning on carrying mine while it rehydrated, I might as well consume it now.

Shortly, I rise and continue along the ridge. But, you know, there is a tall and lean fella bounding nimbly just ahead of me. He isn’t looking my way but I can almost see that infectious grin, his light tread carrying him beyond my reach. I’ve been following in those steps all day, as I’ve done so many times before, the precious imprint of my special person.

There is a crescent moon tonight. As I write I can see it shining over The Beehive. The city lights flicker as families reunite for their evening meal. We are all under the same moon, silhouetted against the deepening blue-black sky, as dusk quietly yields to the still autumn night. I look upon the vast emptiness of the cloudless horizon, yearning for a world that can never be.

Time passes and I find myself drawing water from an icy river, near glaciated headwaters. The pale winter moon is waxing. I see fire glowing in the windowpanes of the nearby hut and can feel the warmth of the merry voices within. The clumsy movements of my numb fingers delay me from returning. I am alone and whisper, where are you.

Night begins to fall as I walk along the particular ridge in this particular story. Something unearthly is rising up above the thick cloud that extends from the sprawling roots of the mountain out to the sea. It’s a blood moon! It looks more like a mushroom. But it’s still really nice. I’m a little tired, my stamina is lacking and I’m getting cold as I head downhill. I don my down jacket and decide I’m not going to climb anything else today. But when I start re-ascending, my spirits rise in step with my body temperature. I soon arrive at a little campsite, on a flat spot near the toe of Te Ao Whekere’s summit ridge. I tell myself I’ll set up then go climb my peak. But as soon as my bed is made, I jump into it.

Perhaps you were expecting me to show a little more resolve? Ah but I’m blissfully warm in my winter sleeping bag, with both a thermarest and snowfoam to cushion my sleep. I am also cocooned in my sturdy bivvy bag. And I have some delicious food which I resolve to eat immediately.

I know this must contrast starkly with the experience that same young man, Simon, had here under a full moon, one wintry spring. I imagine it all through his eyes, wondering if he slept in this same spot – if sleep is what you can call it when you shiver through the night with little more than the satisfaction of travelling light and fast between you and the freezing air. Simon would tell me all about his experiences with great delight, making me laugh, the conversation often starting with a message from the summit like it did on his own journey here.


Simon would surely sigh if he knew that I was lying here reading recipes from a magazine stashed away in my pack, having travelled neither light nor fast today. But it is not a bad thing to be so well set up so far above sea level, on a rocky alpine plateau lit up by the full moon. And when I turn the page it reveals recipes dreamed up by my favourite chef! I’m even snacking on one of his creations! I write to Mr Jeremy Dixon later and tell him a little about this moment. When he replies he sounds delighted and even forgives me for the Whittaker’s milk chocolate that I have ‘fessed up to eating earlier in the day. Maybe calories weigh less at altitude?

It’s a bewitching place to go to sleep, and even after I do succumb, my rest is disturbed at least once, providing an opportunity to take it all in again. The moon is shining very brightly and I think that I could get up and ascend Te Ao Whekere, but promptly fall back to sleep. When I finally wake, I lie on my back a while, watching the sun rise over the Kaikoura Peninsula, the sky tinged a soft pink. The many years I spent learning from Simon have provided me with what I need to navigate these mountains. But even more so, my eyes are opened to experiencing the wonder around me in every possible way.

Summiting the peak is quite uneventful, except for the business of the summit shot. I’ve been taking selfies on each of my mountains, something the photogenic Simon would usually do. Right now, no matter what angle I try, my eyes are so puffy I look like a baby frog.

The descent is pretty straightforward. Or at least would have been if I’d possessed more than 300 millilitres of water without also being cursed with whale-like consumption tendencies. I split the descent into three sections distinguished by rapidly depleting sips of water, and then a fourth section of pure thirst. I see lots of scree, I see more goats. The magic has gone, I run out of water, so of course I take the long way down into the embrace of the matagouri lurking below. I reach the road late morning and go crazy drinking from a stream that is clearly a hangout for the local bovines.

When I arrive back at Kevin and Sandy’s farm, they kindly invite me in for some refreshments and chat. Their orphan deer Lucky has been looking after Ellie’s car during my absence, having clearly been struck by Cupid’s arrow. I am slightly relieved to find neither hybrid offspring nor empty wrappers where my chocolate supply is secreted away. I then eat that chocolate all the way to Christchurch, only pausing twice (for more chocolate in Kaikoura, and to destroy some of the evidence before I pick Ryan and Ellie up from Christchurch Airport).

I ask a trusted friend what she thinks of all this. She worries. She reminds me of certain comments. That is, observations from those who felt I needed to get more perspective on what has happened to me. In one breath they might speak of their affection and respect for my lost love, then in the next tell me what I need to do so I can see my situation as less severe. After all, we’d been shortly separated. But grief is personal, and it is not a problem to be repaired or an illness to be healed. I once read that when someone else tries to fix, rationalise, or deny the pain that accompanies grief, this only deepens the bereaved person’s terror. But if you haven’t experienced grief, there are no words to convey its horror. I tell my friend that I wish nobody would ever have cause to understand what this is like.

I tell her a number of things actually.

I tell her I wish to have my voice. That I am stronger, sometimes.

I tell her I feel very humble that many people reached out in sympathy and with kindness, including those who were also grieving their friend, and those who didn’t even know me at all. And I’m so grateful to those who took me in when I was unable to sleep with the door closed, because I didn’t want to be shut away in darkness.

But above all, I tell my friend that I need to write about my experiences because there was a time when all I could do was read such accounts, difficult though they were to find, those of the person who loved and lost a climber.

And finally I tell her there is one more reason.

I still wander alone in the dark. I can see the stars above me, but day hasn’t dawned. There isn’t a moment, waking or not, where I am not conscious of what has been lost. The smallest of thoughts can linger, awaiting a cure that does not exist. I think of the joy Simon took in writing about his adventures and how happy I was to be asked first to read about them. I want very much to read about them one more time. Always one more time. So here I am, taking up the pen.


Posted: 01/02/16

Posted By: Sefton Priestley