An Arachnophobic’s Nightmare
As I came face to face with the umpteenth spider blocking my way, I started to second guess myself. There are only a handful of public access walks on Chatham Island, managed through New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC). The rest of the island is effectively private property and permission is required for access to a lot of places, and tourist levies are charged. I was keen to make use of the public routes, but when I’d voiced my intentions to walk the Rangaika track, I was informed that I should only do it with a guide. Being a regular tramper, and having studied a topographical map, I couldn’t see any reason for this, plus as an exceptional introvert, I really wasn’t keen on spending my day tramping with a stranger. So behind the wheel of yet another rental car on my last day on Chatham Island, I had set off east for the predicted 4-5hr hike.
Chatham Island does not do car parks, and there are limited places to pull over on the gravel roads that make up the island roads outside of Waitangi. There was just space for my car to pull onto the verge, and I was soon over the fence and crossing farmland next to a large copse of wind-shaped trees. I am more than familiar with DoCs orange pole markers, and the 4×4 track that led up the low hillside was so easy to follow. In places where animal tracks and quad bike tracks led off in varying directions, I knew I was heading up the hill, so even without poles it was easy to see where I was going. In fact as I gained height from the roadside altitude of about 20m, to the highest point of roughly 260m, I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about with having a guide.
As I’d worked my way up the hillside, the vegetation had changed from farmed grassland, to ever-taller vegetation, and a fence marked the perimeter of Thomas Mohi Tuuta Scenic Reserve, within which the trees had managed to attain a decent height away from the munching mouths of livestock. At the most southern aspect of the hike, I found myself atop a high cliff with a hazy view across Pitt Strait to Pitt Island. It was a crazy feeling to think about how isolated I was out here on a wild coast of a near-empty island far out in the Pacific Ocean. As much as I enjoy my own company, sometimes it would be nice to have someone to share those moments with. But one of the biggest things about hiking alone is the mental challenge and the personal growth that comes from getting out of my comfort zone. And after the first couple of hours of hiking, I was about to get to know my limits very well.
The track turned east and immediately dove into the dense forest across the fence line. Now it was just a matter of following the orange triangles that are another familiar sight when I’m hiking. The track was overgrown in places, and I found myself walking into a few spider webs, so started using my hands to swipe ahead of my face. But the deeper I plunged into the forest, the rougher the track got. The rougher the track got, the more caught out I would find myself when I unintentionally came across spider after spider at face height. Now, I’m not the worst arachnophobic in the World. In fact I can cope okay with being around them, and don’t mind little ones walking on me, but bigger spiders cause me to shudder and if one gets on my face I’ll let out a pathetic scream. I had to shimmy and dance round and under so many webs in an effort not to break the poor occupant’s hard work, but there were many that I just couldn’t get around, and I would break them with my arm, and then there were all the ones I didn’t see until I felt them on my skin or saw the spider right in front of my face.
I don’t know how many times I cried out involuntarily, but it was many and as the trail got harder and harder to follow, I realised why I’d been recommended a guide. This section went on for so long too which just made the experience that bit more miserable. When I finally made it out to the clearing at Rangaika it was a total relief. There was a stunning view along the coast, and I felt even more away from civilisation than I had at the last viewpoint. With all my nervousness and water consumption, I needed to use the long-drop that was conveniently placed here, but it was hardly surprising to open the door to discover a spider had spun a web across the doorway. I hesitated briefly, then realised that I could duck under it to get inside and duly did so. Looking out the doorway, I decided the view was so lovely and there was clearly no-one else around, so I didn’t bother to shut the door behind me. Instead, I sat on the long-drop throne with the toilet door open, and the view with my spider compadre suspended overhead in front of me.
The vegetation blocked the full extent of the coastal views here but what I could see was dramatic. The north end of Chatham Island is so low-lying, but as I’d discovered on my flight to Pitt Island, this southern end is so tall in comparison with steep-dropping cliffs marking the junction between land and sea. Pitt Island was still a hazy sight on the horizon, and I had merely insects to share the view with. As I left it behind, following the trail north, I was outside of the reserve fence, again following a wide 4×4 track. It was such a pleasant change, and I was glad to be out of the forest and on my way back to the car.
But after a couple of bends I was dismayed to see an orange marker and a stile lead me back into the forest once more, and just like the previous section, it was severely overgrown and I was immediately back to spider swatting. After a while, surrounded by what felt like an impenetrable jungle, the track petered out. I looked in front of me and to my side, trying to guess where it was supposed to go. Behind me I could see where I had come, but it really wasn’t clear where I was to go. I pushed through a patch of bush and saw a track, gratefully setting on it, but it very quickly led nowhere. I turned around to retrace my steps but because I’d pushed through vegetation to get where I was, I couldn’t see the track I’d come off, nor any markers, nor the bit of bush I’d pushed through to get there. It all just looked the same: dense and impenetrable.
I had a brief moment of panic as I realised I was on my own in the middle of a forest at the southern end of a barely-inhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody even knew I was there. But panic gets you nowhere and with a mental map of the lay of the land in my head, I realised that even if I was lost, I just had to pick a direction and bush-bash, and eventually I’d reach the fence at the edge of the reserve which I could then follow downhill. That eased my mind, and helped me choose a spot to push through which popped me back out at the actual track. Still not seeing where it led, I took another guess and pushed through another bit of bush to be greeted by the welcoming sight of an orange track marker and a rough track leading away. It led up and over a ridge, dropping down into a creek bed and back up the other side, where at last, the vegetation opened up a bit before depositing me back at the fence line and the 4×4 track I’d followed way back at the start.
My leg was bleeding from all the bush bashing I’d done. My shin was scratched raw. I had mixed feelings of triumph and sheepish stupidity for having done it in the first place, but I’d gone out my comfort zone and successfully overcome my fear of being lost. It was just a matter of retracing my earlier steps back across the farmland and down towards the Owenga road, which I reached 6.5hrs after I’d left it.
I drove west back to Waitangi and out the other side to the hill that overlooks Waitangi wharf. Here, a short track leads to a view point where I had an expansive view of Petre Bay and Waitangi at its southern end. A small fleet of fishing boats sat moored in the sheltered waters, and I took in the view, aware that I was heading home the next day. Eventually my stomach took me to the Hotel Chatham for my last dinner, and afterwards, I stretched my legs a little on the small beach out front before heading back to the motel up the hill. Like the night before, there was a beautiful sunset to frame the tractor that sat on the hillside, and I reflected on how good I’d had it with the weather.
It was moody the next morning as I ate breakfast and waited for the ride to the airport. Some of my favourite parts of my Homeland in Scotland are the wild and rugged Outer Hebrides where life grits its teeth and clings on despite the barrage that the Atlantic Ocean throws at it. I felt the exact same way about the Chatham Islands. They had that same feel about them, and I was sad to leave, although I was happy I’d done them justice, having seen so much on the two main islands. The same archaic plane that brought me there, took me home on its slow and low journey with the loud Rolls Royce engines turning the propellers. But I still had another week before I returned to work, so my return to Christchurch was not the end of my summer adventure.