12/2 Enter the Rat

Pahautea Hut to Rat Creek

27 k

The morning is filled with golden light, and we have a somewhat leisurely breakfast. At least, we are the last ones to leave the Hut site.The first bit is boardwalks and stairs to a neighbor peak, Hihikiwi, and we are already sweating. The boardwalks up here are such a complementary ornament to the scene, they feel like floating docks in an ocean of plants.

What’s coming next is fairly infamous as sections on this trail go- the Hihikiwi descent. Supposedly it’s some of the muddiest track on the trail, but so few of these rumors truly live up to their reputation, we don’t worry too much about it. There’s one more big saddle, and the last steep mini peak before the full descent starts. The mini peak is steep enough to have chains to help haul oneself up- how does that bode for the backside?It’s no Herekino, and it’s no Ratea. The descent is muddy, yes; steep, yes; time-consuming, yes; booby-trapped with roots, yes. The most unique aspect is actually the smell of this mud, which smells like something similar to cow pies. But it is not awful, and it doesn’t send me into an existential crisis. I find it mostly humorous, in a resigned way, as there are random short stretches of boardwalk dotted around the track, and almost all of them either start or end far from the solid end of the bog they are pretending to cross. It’s a nice gesture, if nothing else.

I pass a few hikers on their way up, many of them conspicuously new or infrequent backpackers from the looks of their gear. Many of them look anywhere from dazed to horrified, and I can’t blame them; I try not to appear too pleased that I am coming down rather than going up. “Am I close?!” asks one woman, after I’ve been descending for about 2 hours. “Uh…” I stall, unable to bring myself to share the harsh truth. “Just lie to me!” she commands when she sees the answer in my face. “Oh yeah, you’re not too far,” I tell her. “It’s really not too bad from here at all.”

A little under an hour later, I emerge at the bottom. When all four of us have gathered and snacked, we start a long, unremarkable gravel road walk that slowly unwinds for most of the day. There’s a funny little shed on the side of the road, a few upright planks with a corrugated tin roof haphazardly twisted into place. “Another quality construction by O’Neill!” a sign announces. We pass above farms, and through forest. I hardly notice the afternoon go by- my own thoughts rattle around noisily in my head. Eventually we cross a stile back onto single track, and reach a sharp corner in the creek with enough flat spaces for our tents. It’s mercifully shady, and it looks like it could be a GlowWorm spot. Prana waffles back and forth, wanting to go on to the marked camping, also not wanting it to be worse than this, and we pitch our tents. One disturbing detail that we notice is the unabashed presence of a very large rat. He seems unperturbed by our proximity, and doesn’t even acknowledge when we approach him. However, he doesn’t seem interested in any smells, even when we start to cook, so we relax. Maybe he’s old? Maybe he hasn’t had scary experiences to associate with people? As long as he keeps to himself and doesn’t chew into anything, he should be manageable.

We zip into our No Sandflies Allowed clubhouse early, and keep an eye on Mr. Rat. He comes pretty close to the tent a few times, and seems startled when he gets really close. Something is definitely wrong with him. I try to shoo him away without resorting to throwing things, and when he inspects my water bottle handle, reaching up with small hands to gently prod it, I make a big scene and hiss and squall, but I don’t think I make much of an impression. As long as he doesn’t have rabies and bite us, I amend my boundaries from earlier. He can even chew something if he has to, as long as we stay healthy. It’s much more likely that his unwellness is poison; there are so many poisoned bait traps set out for the possums and stoats since they are killing the birds. This thought does make me feel sorry for him. I guess the morning will tell.

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