Time out
Joel Zwartz (2014)

I: The hunter

Without breaking my stride, which would allow my damp body to rapidly cool down, I adjust my damp balaclava so I can peer with my right eye, and check that there is still a steep drop in that direction. I wear the balaclava lopsidedly, to cover my windward cheek from the Southerly breeze that finds the smallest piece of exposed skin. Most of the time I don't need to see out of that eye, and there is nobody to tell me how silly I look. I'm wandering on the Kelly Range, in Arthur's Pass National Park. I'm not lost but need to use a compass to navigate because I'm in the clouds, and can't see a thing.

Without warning, a dark figure appears in mid-air out of the white (that would be out of the blue, but there's no blue in sight). A falcon! A female falcon (the larger of this species), just a few metres away. Swooping, eek, straight for me! Homing in on the sound of my footsteps, which maybe she hoped sounded like those of a hare. Instinctively I half-raise my walking pole in defence. As our eyes meet, and she realises that her ears have put her wrong, she utters three short syllables in falconese ("what the fuck?"), slams on the brakes in a huge flare showing off her full span, spins and disappears back into the clouds.

"Oh, sorry mate", I call after the departed bird (sorry that I wasn't a defenceless bunny rabbit). Nice flying, anyway. Wow!

I have to get down from the tops to shelter, so I carry on, shaking my head at the strange interspecies interaction that has just occurred.

II: The hunted

Morning finds me climbing up tussock, rock and scree onto the Hunt Range. As I pause to rest out of the wind in a rare patch of sunlight, I grumble to myself, "I'm getting old." I didn't sleep well last night, and remember lying awake in my bunk, listening to kiwi calls in the night. Later on, as I'm picking my way down from the Hunt Range via a scree-that-wasn't (rocks too big that lock instead of sliding, making the thousand-metre descent a slow and tiring one), I disturb a nanny chamois and her yearling. They show me how you get down a mountain, legs pumping, propelling them straight downwards fearlessly, faster than falling, over a crest and out of sight. Antelopes! In New Zealand! I shudder to think of the ancient beast that could, without a gun, outpace those rocket-ships on their own ground. I muse for a bit about what made the sometimes curious chamois so skittish (or spooky as my hunting mates would say; easily spooked to the rest of us). Have they been shot at? Did they see my walking pole and think it was a rifle?

"You didn't need to run from me," I mutter. Good on you anyway.

III: The munted

I pick my way finally down to Julia Creek, but I can't rest yet, all day I've been looking forward to a hot soak. A few minutes of digging with a grubber found at the hut makes a bathtub-sized hole in the river gravel. As I ease my tired limbs into the hot water that seeps up into the pool, my hands are shaking slightly from cold and exhaustion. My head flops back and I give a long, heavy sigh. And then, after a few seconds of eyes-shut meditation: "Faaaark". It's not just my body that feels broken; I've also been carrying a mental burden for a while now. I came into the bush to be alone the day after the Christchurch earthquake. I was unaffected by the quake myself, and I'm ashamed to say there is noone I could think of to help or console. But that's because for a while now I've felt a long way away from the people around me. I seem to be no better at relating to people than animals. But at least with animals there is no expectation that we should meet minds, relate, see eye to eye...

Now I'm miles away, removed in blissful ignorance, as the rest of the nation gets live continuous updates of death tolls and property damage. Out here on the perimeter, there are no death tolls. In the cosmic scheme of things, this civil emergency was just a ripple. Misty drizzle falls into the wet rata-lined gorge, screening off the outside world from my universe. Just how far out am I, here in my private geothermal asylum? What magnitude would it take to shake me? What do I really care about? Contact with an alien intelligence? Now you're talking. Something that would view us humans as fauna in the wilderness, trying to make sense of us, second-guess our motives and aspirations, to see our planet through our eyes, and setting up an encounter ripe for misunderstanding, as with the falcon and the chamois and...

IV: The happy couple

I'm brought back to earth by a pair of whio, flying up the gorge and directly overhead, in close monogamous formation. Their cries, so different when heard separately, together become blended into a single voice. If they spot my sprawled nakedness below, they show no deviation from their flight plan. They continue on in their own world, and I'm happy to be ignored, happy for once not to make contact. They've got each other. I raise an imaginary glass to them. Kia ora. In the time it takes for their flight to cross my slack-jawed field of view, my train of thought has been derailed, and sent on another track.

That night I dream that the pair's flight continues through the night back to Christchurch, where they nest by a hidden creek in the Port Hills, and send their ducklings down to school in the town below.

The next day as I climb the track to Harman Pass, there is a bit more of a spring to my step. The Waimakariri valley is clear of cloud, and as I descend it seems as if I'm picking up speed as I go. Past Carrington Hut, the going is easier and I remove my pack to stow the walking pole so I can swing my arms. I shoulder it again and head on down the Waimak, back towards the world of Homo sapiens.