I am currently sitting by a fire in a cabin made entirely of pine–the deck, dining room table, bunk beds, benches, and shelves. Because of this, everything not in pine sticks out. The 2012 bottle of Silverstone merlot, one red bowl, a yellow dust pan, and a green map on the wall of the very trail we are on, The Old Ghost Road near the Buller Gorge in the South Island of New Zealand. The cabin made of pine sits 1200 meters high (around 4,000 feet) and when I gaze out (no “looking” here, it’s all “gazing” or “soaking up”), the mountains are below my eye level. We drove to Lyell Campground in the middle of nowhere, to then take a shiny red helicopter to the even-more-middle-of-nowhere. Nana will finally get some alone time for seven days.
Wayne, the charming pilot, flew with the greatest of ease, sometimes using only one finger. He laughed when I tried to get in the driver’s seat but didn’t play along for long. The ride started off beautiful and after about five minutes, turned to ridiculously breathtaking. It was like a laughable beauty, where circumstances become so extravagant that all one can do is laugh. We soared over mountain ranges and the Buller Gorge and said “wow” and “oooh, my” into our microphones attached to our shiny red ear muffs.
Wayne took us through a gap in the ridge of a mountain and it felt like we were on a rollercoaster. Everyone gasped, and even though Wayne has taken this trip countless times, I think he gasped, too. Mountain after mountain, pointed ridges, rock faces, blue skies, and tui birds. Oooh, my.
Our fearless leader is a man at the ripe age of sixty who is much more fit than I, with blue eyes and a face that lights up when he smiles. Marion splits his time between New Zealand and Brevard, NC. What a smart man. He was an outdoor education teacher and a camp director and I imagine he was great at both. He is instantly likable. His passion for this trail overwhelms my heart and I can feel myself falling in love with this area and thinking of ways to stay.
We unloaded firewood that the helicopter dropped in a huge white bag (called a fadge), unpacked our stuff in the tiny cozy pine room, and sat down with coffee while Marion caught us up on what our week would look like. Kasey, Brittany, and I are three of the four volunteers this week. Our new friend is Ross from Nelson, NZ. He is in his mid-fifties and has a calming presence about him that oozes wisdom. Ross has a lot to teach us and I can’t wait to learn. If these mountains were a person, they’d be Ross’ best man at his wedding. He grew up around this area and has a deep love for this project because he has longed to be able to hike in these mountains for years. He speaks of the history of this land and tells us stories about driving through as a kid. It’s amazing to think of the small number of people who have seen this view or slipped down these slopes. He estimates that it’s been less than 100.
The Old Ghost Road is connecting an old mining road that was never completed back in the 1870s. Marion and a few of his mates got together and submitted a proposal to the DOC (Department of Conservation) to complete an 80km (50 mile) tramping and cycling trail. Many told them it was a waste of time and it wouldn’t be accepted. Instead, they received 2 million dollars in funding and the DOC claims this walk will be one of the Great Walks of the World. And here we are to help make it happen, all because Brittany’s mom works at a bank in Brevard that Marion takes his money to.
During the “induction”, Marion said, “Well, the website said we’d have hot showers, but…that hasn’t happened yet, so I’m using a bucket with a sponge and some hot water from the stovetop. It’s truly glorious. And, another misconception is that it said there’d be a hut mother who would cook. There is not one.”
“Sounds like lots of misconceptions…” Kasey said playfully.
“But there’s more Speight’s ale!” Marion retorted.
Marion talks about the DOC a lot. He says things like, “And DOC didn’t like that. DOC wanted it to be this way.” I picture a man that looks like Gandalf, called Doc, sitting at an old oversized oak desk with a feather pen, wearing tiny glasses that sit on the edge of his nose, making decisions about the trail. DOC seems to be behind this project because he believes it will be the Grand Canyon of New Zealand. So cool. I really need to go see the Grand Canyon of the US.
The crew here last week finished 400m of the trail and we walked it today. It was unbelievable. Huge views, whimsical forests, a glacier pond, and rushing rivers. Marion, Ross, and we girls started plowing through the earth and making a trail that will be enjoyed for years to come. We followed the general layout of the walk, through thick bush and over rocks, and then decided where it should go by imagining being on a mountain bike. I embarrassingly told Marion that I put my mountain bike on a stationary trainer for the last few years and read books or watched Ellen while I rode. So I didn’t have a wealth of trail riding experience to help with this process. I didn’t even have a dollar’s worth.
But Marion is a patient man with a gift of encouragement. We laid out the trail, started digging, and he would look up and say, “This is absolutely brilliant! You are making a fine trail.” His excitement and the sunshine made today a true delight and one I will never forget. We spent a solid half hour walking up and down the mountain, thinking about ways to make it work for a cyclist. I’d stand in one spot, Brittany in another, Kasey in another, and Marion and Ross scratched their heads and talked to themselves. Then, as if he had won the lottery, Marion excitedly said, “There’s the haystack!” I thought he was being metaphorical. Like, there’s the haystack and I found the needle needed to lay out this trail perfectly. But the clouds had moved and he could see the mountaintop named Haystack.
The beds aren’t special and I’m using my rolled up jacket as a pillow, but somehow I know I will sleep like a rock. We worked hard today. My calves are still burning from the big hike a couple days ago and today I’ve added a back soreness that feels so nice, like I’m earning my keep (chicken on the grill, steamed broccoli, mashed potatoes, and raspberries from Ross’ garden).
So much more to come… I don’t want to overwhelm you.