Ashley Trek

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

The first time the boys were out in the bush on their own.

Ashley Trek

Graeme cajoled Henry into going with him on a trek in the mountains starting at somewhere called ‘Ashley Gorge’. Graeme was nearly two years older than Henry, they went to the same school and belonged to the same rugby club, but they weren’t mates. Graeme had been issued a challenge by his uncle who thought he would benefit from some wilderness training, and naturally enough, Henry had wondered why Graeme had chosen him. It turned out that Graeme’s parents had been at Birdlings Flat when everyone thought Henry and his mate we lost walking around Lake Forsyth, and Graeme’s mum knew Henry’s so it was Graeme’s mum who had suggested that Henry go on the trek with him.

The trek would involve two solid days tramping with an overnight camp in the bush. So they needed a tent, a sleeping bag each and groundsheet, food, a waterproof parka and of course, a pack to carry it all in. Henry’s sister had a pack with a wooden frame, he had a secondhand sleeping bag and his father gave him a piece of oiled canvas from a tarpaulin that had ripped. Henry didn’t have a clue what he was letting himself in for, but was enthusiastic to experience something new.

During the planning, Graeme showed Henry a topo map of the area. He marked where they were to be dropped off at Ashley Gorge and the route up Canary Stream and then head eastward to bring them out to the Glentui Bush road. The map didn’t show any forest cover, but Graeme had been told to expect that most of the journey would be through native forest. It was obvious to Henry that by following the river to Canary Stream meant they would have to ford the river lots of times and that it was a long, winding way, but on the other hand, the going was flat. Henry suggested that they wade the river once, in bare feet, and then, with dry footwear, follow an obvious ridge to the top of a hill in a roughly northwest direction and head down a steep-sided ridge, still roughly northwest, towards Canary Stream. It looked reasonable to Graeme and he agreed.

Graeme’s father dropped them off at the river and as they had planned, they took off their boots and socks to wade the river. It wasn’t swift or deep, only just above their knees, but it was cold! The stones were river-worn so it was easy on their feet, although the cold numbed them. Once reshod, the pair climbed the steep bank onto the forest. The map only showed contours, so the pair hadn’t supposed the area would be bush-clad from the start, they were used to the tussocky Port Hills with perhaps bush in the gullies and gorse on some of the slopes, but before them was a wall of bush that looked to be tangled and difficult to push through.

‘That must be the ridge we intended to climb.’ Henry said pointing to it.

‘Do you reckon we can push through it though?’ Asked Graeme dubiously.

‘We can try.’ Henry was also dubious, but he was thinking of the many river crossings if they decided to change their minds.

‘Let’s see if we can get up there.’ Henry suggested, nodding in the direction.

It was scrubby vegetation and a bit difficult to push through at first, just the same, they were sure they were on the ridge they wanted to climb, so they started up it. The vegetation is often more sparse on ridgetops because of exposure and because moisture either evaporates or drains away quickly. The deer population often use ridge tops while heading to and from water or to different grazing areas, and Graeme, who was leading, found the track that led up their ridge. It was steep and branches slapped at their faces, and they stumbled over lichen-covered rocks or exposed tree roots as they climbed. Suddenly like a curtain going up, they walked out into a large open area of tussock land where the sun shone down from a clear blue sky.

‘Well, we’ve made it to the top of this mountain,’ Graeme smiled, ‘time for a rest.’

‘It’s just a foothill,’ Henry corrected, looking around, ‘those are the mountains.’ He pointed westward. The forested mountains Henry pointed to were still foothills of the mighty Southern Alps, and in reality, they had no idea of the enormous area in which are they were walking.

‘We can go down that grassy ridge.’ Suggested Graeme, pointing to it, ‘and then we can drop into Canary Stream.’

‘Ok.’ Henry agreed, and they set off downhill.

There was another animal heading down the ridge and as they dropped into the beech forest the trees became larger and the footing easier because there was moss on the forest floor, which softened their tread. This was temperate rainforest, beech forest, but not pristine, because continual browsing by introduced animals, meant there was virtually no understory, just unpalatable ferns… and the spongy moss. Here and there, there were areas of scrub like mingimingi that was also unpalatable to browsing animals. Although it was steep, the boys weren’t impeded except for their heavy packs, which made their shoulders sore and caused them now and then, to lose their balance. Inexperienced trampers quickly learn ways to lighten their load, and the boys were learning.

The boys stopped for a time when they reached Canary Stream, it was a chance to have a drink, and to them the water tasted good despite the colour, caused by seepage filtering through the root structure of the moss. They were happy to have found the stream so easily.

‘According to this,’ Graeme said pointing at the map, ‘we follow the stream up to the next small stream coming down from our right, and then we can set up camp for the night.’

‘Ok,’ replied Henry, ‘but my shoulders are really sore, I’m going to put moss under my shoulder straps to see if it helps.’

‘Good idea.’ Agreed Graeme, and they both pulled moss from a fallen tree trunk and packed it beneath their straps.

They had planned to overnight camp where a smaller stream meets the Canary Stream and as they approached what they thought was the spot, they spooked a half grown deer still with white spots along its back. They never expected to see deer and the sight of this one excited them. The area was small and flat, raised above the stream and its small tributary, ideal for a campsite. They pitched their tent and prepared to spend their first night on their own in a forest. Henry had his small spirit stove and fried some sausages while Graeme dug the bread out of his pack… he cursed when found it had squashed. It didn’t deter them, they were hungry so they ate the bread with cold baked beans straight from the can while they waited for the sausages to cook.

‘Let’s have another look at that map before it gets dark.’ Henry said. In the bush it gets dark much quicker than outside.

‘I can’t find the map!’ Graeme said softly as he emptied his pack. ‘We must have left it back there when we last looked at it!’

‘But you haven’t lost your compass, have you? Henry asked… checking

‘Yeah, it’s here.’ Replied Graeme showing it, ‘But how’d we leave the blimmin’ map behind?’

The important thing was not to fret, and to get some rest so the boys climbed into their sleeping bags, but couldn’t get comfortable because of stones and tree roots under the moss. They wriggled around and packed moss to fill the hollows… but it didn’t work.

‘What do you reckon we should do in the morning then?’ Graeme asked, worrying about the map.

‘Have breakfast.’ Henry replied with a grunt… ‘Oops the baked beans are working.’

‘No, about finishing this trek.’ Graeme sounded a bit nervous.

‘Well, we can follow this here Canary Stream back to the river and walk out to the gorge quite easily, or…’

‘Or what?’ Graeme asked.

‘Have you got a picture of the map in your head?’ Asked Henry.

‘Yes… no, have you?’ Graeme replied.

‘Yeah, it’s in my head.’ Henry explained.  ‘I sort of planned in my mind’s eye where we were going when we had the map. We just need follow the stream up to the next creek on this side of the stream, and then head directly east until we hit the Glentui Road. It’ll be ok as long as we don’t… lose… the… blimmin’… compass.’

‘Are you sure though?’ Graeme sounded dubious.

‘Pretty sure.’ Henry replied. ‘Anyway, we’ll look real ninnies if we don’t finish the trek like we’re supposed to, won’t we?’

‘Yeah.’ Replied Graeme, still not enthused. ‘As long as you’re sure.’

‘As long as you don’t lose the blimmin’ compass.’ Henry insisted.

There wasn’t much sleep had that night, the ground was just too uncomfortable. At first light Henry made some millet porridge and threw in a couple of handfuls of raisins to sweeten it while Graeme packed the tent. They could see bits of blue sky, so thought the day must have been fine, but it was cool under the forest. They set off on a steady climb, which was easy going beside the stream, although sometimes they had to cross rocky outcrops that were slippery with moss where they had to take care. It took them just over an hour to reach the creek that Henry had in mind.


Hydration wasn’t talked about in those days, they didn’t carry bottles, but the pair were alert enough to have a good drink before they began to climb.

‘If we follow this ridge,’ Henry asked, ‘what direction would we be heading?’

‘Not far off east,’ replied Graeme checking the compass, ‘a bit north of east perhaps.’

‘Well, it might be easier to follow the ridge then.’ Henry reckoned, ‘But we’ll need to follow the compass bearing for the rest of the way.’

The ridge wasn’t too steep and the vegetation was easy to walk through, they didn’t realise the depletion of lower vegetation by browsing animals was actually helping them in their quest. After an hour or so’s climb, they reached the top and stopped to rest and to change the moss pads on their shoulder straps.

‘There doesn’t seem to be a defined ridge going down,’ said Graeme, ‘but it isn’t any steeper either.’

‘No,’ agreed Henry, ‘but we’d better try to follow the compass accurately, keep checking it.’ And Graeme nodded as they headed downhill.

The pair lost count of the times they climbed up… only to descended, but Graeme carefully kept accurately on the easterly bearing. They weren’t climbing directly uphill any more, but across the slope, which was easier walking, but increased the distance. By two o’clock, they were beginning to get tired.

‘How many more of these mountains do we have to climb?’ Graeme asked when they reached the bottom of another gulley. ‘We’ve come blimmin’ miles!’

‘Yeah, we’ve come a long way all right.’ Henry agreed. ‘Maybe a couple more to climb, but I can’t be sure. We’re following the compass, so we’ll make it ok.’

‘Ok,’ groaned Graeme, ‘let’s go.’ His groan was because his legs were stiffening and his back and shoulder were aching, so they packed more moss under their shoulder straps.

The climb seemed not so long this time, maybe it was the rest… but they noticed there was a bit more under-scrub which afforded them more daylight. The ridge flattened and suddenly they were in bright sunlight and standing on brightly lit tawny tussock-land.

‘Look! There’s the coast!’ Graeme was pointing excitedly.

‘But…’ Henry scratched his head and his heart pounded, ‘but it’s the wrong side! It’s the west coast! How’d we do that?’

Well it was impossible, because the mountain range is far wider than the distance they had travelled, and snow-capped too.

‘Really?’ Graeme was shocked too, and his heart sank.

‘No, that’s not possible…’ Henry was realising that they must be seeing the east coast and exhaustion had disoriented him, ‘Look over there in the distance, those are the Port Hills! We’ve blimmin’ made it!’

Elation and relief swept over the pair, and they were all smiles!

‘Down there!’ Graeme pointed, ‘there’s a road.’

‘Glentui Bush Road!’ Henry elbowed his mate. ‘Must be, that’s where we meet your dad!’

They sat on a large rock on the edge of the road, pleased that they wouldn’t need to hump their packs onto the backs again!

‘You know,’ Henry mused, ‘we’ve made it, but if I’m honest, we were lucky. Y’know, we weren’t properly prepared for this.’

‘Yeah,’ agreed Graeme, ‘next time, I’ll lighten my pack!’

Just then Graeme’s dad came around the corner.








Submitted: June 11, 2021

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