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Ellis Hut - Kahurangi National Park. A better story.

Day 1. I summited Mt Arthur, enjoyed the views, reached Ellis Hut. Everything went as planned. Day 1 was perfect. Day 2: I had a sleepless night, was forced to backtrack, lost one of my hiking poles, endured the toughest track out and got lost. Everything went wrong. Day 2 was awesome.

Lynn O’Rourke Hayes wrote once that “unexpected adventures make for better stories”. I couldn’t agree more, as long as I got out to tell the tale.

This tale started with a bit of wind…

According to the Beaufort scale, “progress is generally impeded” in winds from 63 to 75km/h (Force 8). The 23rd of November at 7.20am on the Ellis Basin Route, my walking was indeed seriously impeded. As soon as I reached the ridgeline at 1700m, where the track veers left towards Winter Peak, I could barely stand on my feet. I tried a few steps, walking more sideways than forward. In the most violent gusts, I had no choice but to sit down and anchor my feet to the rocky ground to keep from being blown away. My progress wasn’t just impeded anymore, it was simply impossible.

Bracing myself against the stronger gusts, I sat staring at my intended route, up Winter Peak and down Mt Arthur Route, which now had become out of reach, too dangerous. The marker poles whistled hollow songs. The cold bit my face. The wind raged on, and yet nothing moved. The rocks, the grass, the snow, they all didn’t seem to mind. The mountains looked placid.

I wasn’t.

After crawling on all fours to find a less exposed spot, I reached for my phone. I like it very much when decisions are easy. This one couldn’t have been more obvious: I had to backtrack. There was another track heading South from Ellis Hut to reach the Baton Valley Road End. This was my way out. I called a friend to let him know my plans and ask him to come and get me there in about 7 hours.

Back at the hut, the sign indicated 5h30 to the road end. The tall beech trees were still, protected from the wind. The river was cascading peacefully down and the bellbirds filled the air with their beautiful song. I had my ride sorted to go home. All was well. It would be an easy and enjoyable way out.

Until I realized it wasn’t going to be.

The Ellis Track was an aweful mess. Snaking along the river in a narrow gorge, it went steeply up and down, following the folds of the terrain and crossing the river numerous times. In many places, tramping turned into climbing, with roots and rocks to hold on to, or even a 20m long chain to help progress.

To make things more fun, an countless number of large trees were lying across the path, or the track had simply vanished, taken away by wash outs. I thought I was making good progress, when I suddenly faced the very same 20m long chain I came down from what seemed like ages ago. A slight knot in my stomach came with the realization I had been walking backwards for an unknown amount of time. It was OK, I wasn’t really lost. Still on the track, all I had to do was turn around and resume walking. But the question was HOW? how did that happen? I’ve heard stories like that before, and even sometimes laughed at them. I certainly won’t anymore. Whether I sat down for a snack break and simply started back up the wrong way, or I went off track to go around a fallen tree, and rejoined the track backwards, I will never know. What I know is my lack of sleep obviously had a terrible effect on my lucidity, and allowed that kind of mistake to happen.

The wind, roaring and shaking the hut all night long, had kept me from sleeping. Running on adrenaline and with my mind and body entirely engaged by the arduous track, I wasn’t aware of my tiredness. Another exhaustion-induced senseless action took place at a river-crossing. To free my hands, I attempted to throw one of my poles up the 3 meter-high bank, so I could haul myself up from the river. I failed, of course, and helplessly watched my pole being washed away in the current.

Still, after all, that hike was awesome. The mixture of good decisions and luck that made things work out, the lesson of resilience I got from it, the exploration of new places, the wild beauty of the river, the spotting of the incredibly cute Riflemans (New Zealand smallest birds), the immense privilege to observe the rare Kaka, all of that made my day.

So yes, unexpected adventures make for better stories, but make sure you’re prepared for the unexpected.

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