Back on the sheepskin couch.
I was fortunate enough to have a 12 hour delay in Australia, I seriously mean that. This gave me plentyyyy of time to search the Internet for all things New Zealand. I came across a listing in a backpackers forum for volunteers needed. I didn’t really understand the job but what I did understand was that I would be fed and housed for a week, so I inquired.
The volunteering was to take place in Te Urewera National Park. Ask any of the locals and they’ve never heard of it, despite it being quite large. It can be found in the north central region of the North Island, about 5 hours East of Auckland. It’s got a ton of Mauri roots and was told that in 5 years time the land will be given back to the Mauris, and no longer be a National Park. Whether this information is true or not, I am not responsible.
There were about 20 volunteers, and 8 of us got helicoptered to a remote hut about 19 kilometers in. The hut was cozy, but was occupied by more mice than humans. We split up into teams of 4, 3 volunteers and 1 Ranger. Our job was to set Stoat (weasel looking things) Traps, you know, to kill the stoats and possums. You see, these stoats are not native to NZ and were introduced from Australia awhile back and are killing the native birds. Totally screwed up. They have no predators and do as they please, eating Kiwi eggs for breakfast in order to fuel up for their tree killing sprees in the afternoon — all the while, feeling not one ounce of remorse. Damn stoats. I felt good about being part of the killing force, I’ll do anything to save a tree!
The traps we set averaged at 40lbs, and we strapped them to our backs. We hiked 12 hours and laid about 30 traps each day, per team of 4. The Te Ureweras is not your everyday Yosemite, these “trails” were not maintained, meaning we had a GPS and bushwhacked our way through the forest looking for the drop sites. We’d mostly be on our hands and knees crawling up mossy slopes hoping each step would hold. The huge horizontal box rattling on your back didn’t help much. It would have been nice to see a view after climbing all day but the canopy was so rich you couldn’t see out. We were in deep, we heard only the birds, and it was a completely enriching experience. I welcomed it all, I loved it. Even the 27 river crossings a day. In fact, on the very FIRST river crossing of the very FIRST 5 minutes of work, I tried to stay dry (my toes were still numb from the night before) and rock hopped. I SLAMMED my tailbone on the rock. It hurt pretty bad, but I was wet and cold and it was 7am and I knew it wasn’t broken, so I got up and promised myself to never rock hop again. Besides, you aren’t having any fun if your boots are dry! And they weren’t, ever, until Sunday.
Both groups stayed at the same Hut and we would cook dinner and hang out at night. We all got along great and had a lot of good laughs. Most people were from Auckland area and it was fun chatting with them. The leader of my group was a legend by the name of Jinx. He is probably early 50’s, thin build, but has more strength and stamina then I’ve seen in anyone of youth. He doesn’t even drink water. Since we were in the bush for 12 hours, everyone was quite outgoing with how much food they were packing, 2/3 sandwiches, 8 pieces of fruit, 2 bags of gorp (oh I’m sorry kiwis, Scroggin!), 12 bags of fruit snacks, huge chocolate bars, and of course a watermelon. But jinx? Nah, he threw in a 3litre bottle of fruit juice and a handful of random packaged snacks. He didn’t even look to see what he packed, he literally reached down into a food bin and whatever was in his hand, was his fuel for the day. It was inspirational, in a weird and twisted way. Every time we’d stop for a snack or lunch he didn’t eat anything, he’d just smile and say “all good!” And keep moving. He didn’t say much, but that didn’t stop me from learning an abundance from him. Just the way he worked, his attitude, his patience, his perfection, and his complete disregard for nutrients while maintaining the same amount of extreme stamina throughout the whole day. My favorite Jinx moment was on our hike back to the Hut the first day. We got caught in the dark and saw glowing possum eyes, Jinx sees it and goes “oh yeah, Possum?” Takes the Pick Mattock and chops its head off in 2 swings. It squeals first, an awful high pitched screech, and then nothing. He took the glow right out of those eyeballs. “I don’t like doing it, it doesn’t make me feel like a man, but if it’ll save a tree…”
They failed to mention to us that yes, we’d be helicoptered in, but no, we wouldn’t be helicoptered out. Although not a strenuous hike, it was long and it was through the river, so I bet before I left I was gonna lose an ankle during one of the crossings. I lost that bet, thank goodness.
During the hike out I invited the 2 other American guys to join me for the weekend, I was going up to the Coromandels and would love some hiking and camping buddies. They jumped at the invite (they’ve been hitchhiking). They ended up staying with me and the wagon for a whole week, and all the way down to Wellington. We camped for free every night (except one where we stayed with a wonderful couple that Nate knew) and we did a lot of tough hikes. Although, we did have one beach day, that was nice.
I learned a ton from Nate and Kyle, and it really shaped the way I have been taking on the South Island. I can’t believe I used to pay for campsites! Now my stomach drops if I have to pay, it’s the worst. We got along really well and it was wonderful having people to chat with at dinner and guys to take on the days with. It’s exactly what I needed, and what I wanted. I could do a whole blog post just on that week. So many stories, so many adventures. What a time.