We had spent well over a month tramping in New Zealand when we entered the Tararua Mountains at the dams near Shannon, so we weren’t intimidated by the signs warning of rough tracks. We’d already tramped down Ninety Mile Beach, conquered Pirongia and Pureora, and made the Tongariro Crossing.

We were sure of ourselves, maybe even cocky – so cocky that we began hiking at 4.30 in the afternoon for what we assured ourselves would be a quick walk to the Harris Creek Hut, despite being weighed down by packs loaded with a full seven days’ worth of food.

The poorly maintained track was fraught with thick forest, blow-downs, and washouts, and we were subjected to numerous river crossings. The problem came when we realised we had hiked long enough to have arrived at the Harris Creek Hut, but hadn’t seen any sign of it.

Where’s that hut?

Thinking our heavy packs and the difficult track might have slowed us down more than we’d perceived, we elected to keep tramping. But as the hours passed and 9pm approached, we got increasingly discouraged. Could it really take us such a long time to hike just a few kilometres?

Tensions between us grew as daylight faded and our empty stomachs began to demand dinner, but we had no choice but to keep going, slipping and falling as we went.

We had begun using Chad’s headlamp to light our way, struggling to make out the orange triangles that marked the trail, when the darkened form of what we hoped was a hut appeared just ahead of us. Dashing onto the deck, we ripped open the logbook and saw that it was… the Mangahao Flats Hut! A sign on the wall said the Harris Creek Hut had been removed.

The following morning we lounged around lazily, knowing we had only a brief hike to the next hut. But once we began hiking, Chad experienced a bad popping feeling in the tendon above the knee, and the pain that had been only dull before became much worse. So we decided to divert course to the nearby Te Matawai Hut.

We reached a poorly marked junction that appeared to lead to the hut, and, anxious to get the day over with, we took it without consulting the map.

We descended sharply about 200 metres into a ravine, painstakingly lowering ourselves using branches and roots for handholds. A tree Eric was holding onto suddenly decided it had had enough of remaining firmly planted in the ground, and he fell silently backward – tree in hand – with a horrified look on his face. He fell about four metres down into a flax bush, although fortunately he wasn’t too badly hurt.

Dead-end track

The markers came to an abrupt end at the Ohau River, and we struggled to find where the track resumed on the other side. We took another look at the map and discovered we’d taken a dead-end track that shot off just before the junction to the Te Matawai Hut!

So we were forced to climb back out of the horrid ravine before we could even begin to make the arduous ascent to the hut; Chad’s knee only exacerbated matters. Relief is the only word that can express our feelings when we finally arrived at the hut at about 6pm in the evening.

But hope was in sight: the next day’s tramp was brief and led to a beautiful hut overlooking the sea. We drank copious amounts of coffee and cocoa, psyching ourselves up for the final day out to Levin, a gradual descent that led us to the coast, where we met a guy named Joe who took us to his beachside hut in Welly for beers. Next stop: the South Island.