10/29 Across the Gorge, An Unusual Dessert

Parking by Giant Stump to Waipapa River Crossing

13 km

An early start, the plan being to race the rain that may come today. If something prevents us from crossing the gorge today, we will be out of luck for the next week, or have the option of backtracking and taking a long high water bypass, which ironically we were on when we mis-turned onto the busy state highway yesterday. Prana and I leave camp slightly before Parker, since filtering water takes longer for us. At the concrete ford, which is the indicator for water levels in the gorge, progress looks positive. We fill the water bags, and at 7:00 am, it starts to rain.

We wait a lengthy time for Parker to catch up, then all square with the fact that if the weather keeps deteriorating, we may have to turn around. None of us have any idea what the gorge will actually look like, or how much rain it will take to make it flood, flash or otherwise. We take a long track downhill, and eventually are deposited on the edge of the stream. The rain has stopped.

The gorge is beautiful, although not severe; the banks and bars are rough cobbles, with a few patches of course sand. The grayness of the light oscillates in the sky as clouds disperse and thicken. There are a few side streams coming in that have miniature waterfalls adorning the courses.

The water is clear, and while many of the pools are deep there is almost always a shallow shoal crossing when the creek swings from one side of bed to the other. There is one particularly brisk deep pool that is crotch deep, and a large eel is back in the shadows behind a log. Eels! I knew they were in the streams and pools here, but for such a small stream, this one is much bigger than I would have guessed! Once noticed, they are easier to spot in subsequent deep pools, one eel per pool. Are they old? Are they lonely? The seem surprisingly graceful and peaceful, and timid, not displaying the ornery, abrasive, lumbering stupidity I had assumed. A small trout flickers as well, and Parker starts to have some interest in fishing. Realizing we are already most of the way through the gorge, even at our slower pace, and the weather is still holding, we make plans for a long afternoon break at the turn off that takes us out of the bed of the stream, and out of flood danger.

Abruptly, the stream mouth fans out at an intersection with a bigger river, and a huge pool stretches in front of us. We take the long way around to cross a shallow shoal line, and suddenly we are at the forest trail leading out of the river with hours to spare and the sun pops out for a moment. We kick off shoes, mud free for the first time in recent memory. Parker gets out his fishing gear, and we all quietly bask in the beauty of this spot. For lunch we eat Veggie-mite for the first time. Prana is the only one that falls in love with it.

The map notes inform us the next several kilometer are grade easy, so we sit for hours; I write, Prana reads, Parker fishes. Sebastian catches up (how is he behind us?) and passes on. His blisters are bad, but his food is running out. A lanky fellow made out of calf muscles with fine features and a tiny pack walks up. He can barely stand and chat for three minutes, his legs shuffling and shifting on their own, like a horse held on a bit. He’s very friendly, a contented, happy soul; he just prefers walking to everything else.

After some more time passes we see John appear in the gorge. John! I was hoping we would see him today. He cheerfully waves and works his way over. He is excited to see Parker fishing, and after gifting a piece of salami for bait, brokers a deal that if Parker catches an eel, John will show him how to butcher and cook it.

The afternoon light gets long enough that Prana and I head up to camp. Parker wants to try his luck a little longer.

So the interesting thing about an ‘easy’ track is, apparently the word ‘easy’ doesn’t directly translate between the two Englishes. The trail is a half hearted attempt at that, often narrower than one shoe and sloping alarmingly towards the river below, crossing over sheer bedrock with a smear of mud. “It’s labeled easy because there’s no elevation changes,” Prana tries to look on the bright side, but ten feet later the trail begins grinding this observation beneath the heel of its boot. Even though it bounces between a pretty narrow range in elevations, it steeply scrambles up and slides down the vertical bank, making three times the effort, and distance, out of it. We find out later from John it’s a wild pig trail. But nothing’s ever all bad, is it? There was one magical moment, when we were catching our breath and balance, perched above and enchanted by a shoal in the creek that had a bizarre acoustic quality- some kind of tiny crashing wave that made a deep and musical sound like a didgeridoo, or a stand up bass being plucked.

When we get to camp we wonder how late Parker will fish, and if he will run himself out of light on the slow going to this camp. Just as we muster the will to set up the tent, it starts lightly raining, and Parker rushes in off the trail, with a shining face and a heavy pack. “I caught an eel! It’s in my backpack. I was trying to hurry but it’s pretty heavy.”

“What?!” We both exclaim, happy for him, startled, shocked. “No way!”

He recounts the story of landing it and removing the head, then hightailing it up here. The muscular outline fills the mesh pocket on the front of his bag.

We all hope John arrives, as none of us have any clue what to do with the creature. Not long after, he does, and true to the bargain, talks Parker through the processing. Unsure what to do with the skin (which peels off inside out, like a knee high sock!) and the innards, John prompts “fling it in the bush. You hikers come over, and you’re so careful; we live here, and we fling it, because we know it will walk off by the morning.”

We fry up slices in some garlic avocado oil…and it is delicious. Variably textured through the slice, firm without being stringy, it’s got a thick layer of fat around the outside, which tastes clear as the stream and melts on the tongue. “Full of omega 3s,” John assures us. We polish off a surprising amount, and are left satisfied, our hands coated in eel fat, which drips off our elbows.

All content with the day, we lay in our delicate little shelters, listening to the rain patter and the ki-wi shriek it’s name.

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