Hiking the Travers- Sabine Circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand, Feb 29- March 8


Hopeless Hut We arrived at night, at the moment before utter darkness, only because our eyes remembered the natural day. If I stopped, I would shake in tiredness, and in the dim forest and pink-grey sky my quiet mind just watched my legs walk on and on. 

We woke up in a cloud. At first the mountains were just thin black outlines in a dawn of silhouttes, the world reduced to the form of things. 

We are alone in a tiny hut high in this rocky valley. We are like a drop, the weight of our presence sinking the earth down from the mountains. We are the knowing pit of the belly. 

On all sides, I have to tilt my head almost straight up to see the top of the ridge line. I am the littlest seed dropped into a garden hole before it is tapped over with soil. This morning, I am inside the womb, and it is the world which is instead emerging. Here, I feel less like I am traveling and more like worlds are coming, with purpose, towards me.


At noon, when the mountains have come into color, the color is story and history-- scrub, outcrops, ledges, the lumpiness of age. Across the valley, vast smooth scree summits drip down like veins of water, the elegance of forsaking form to forces, of being old and becoming something new. 

At noon, Hopeless Creek is a creek of light, not of water. The always plunking twirling back and forth down worn holding rocks, this is the sound of water. But in the same way a sound holds a word in a translucent, mysterious way, this sound holds the light. 

The bare rocks of the scree slope across the creek are the bones of the avalanche zone and the steep terror of winter is palpable in the way the fleshy bits of plant life have been gnawed to the edges of the slide. We are among mountains which thrum that what hasn't happened is the same thing as what hasn't yet happened, and what is.

This is a land where water, air, rock and life are almost visibly becoming each other. 

  Travers Pass

This pass was a slower journey. In Chile, the moment when you stopped seeing where you came from and started seeing where you were going was one moment. Here, the air stands still as if it too has finished catching its breath and is silently contemplating what surrounds it. Here, the pass is a passage, and after one side falls away the mountains take you in, saying only-- here, is tuff and crag, some snow, some shapelessness. When the distant jagged peaks can't yet be seen, can no longer be seen, I feel that I'm actually in the mountain, a truer prolonged passing through, a place in itself. 

Across the pass a bowl of mountains are filled with clouds, and this land is kind in revealing only enough at a time to let me know it is real. The mountain I am in is like enough to the mountain far away that I believe far away to be a firm place where I could sit and look back at myself like a speck. 

      This silence is like an agreement, and when the shrieks and echoes of hikers break the pact it's evident that nothing is holding the silence. It is cloaking and not substance of rock and ice, it holds itself. 


Blue Lake

I guessed we were close to Blue Lake when the creeks started disappearing. It was difficult to choose which rocks to step on because the water was translucent like mountain air. The stream had the effect of water, it pulled algae in long strands and sharply reflected the mountains, but it did not have the substance. 

We sleep tucked under a tree near the shores of Blue Lake. In the morning, the water is a deep turquoise, with holes of dark aqua, violet, and shallows neon green. This is the most optically clear freshwater in the world. The sun gleams through and the lake hides nothing. Some particles of pollen float on the surface and they seem suspended in the air. 

     For the Ngāti Apa, the lake is a trail marker called Rotomairewhenua, Lake of the Peaceful Lands. I wonder about the trail markers where I'm from, the ones that tell me I've arrived in my own peaceful lands. I have such an urge to slip in and swim, to have the peace all around my naked body. When I fill my bottle from the outlet and drink it pure, I wonder if the water feels anything of the same, like it is swimming in gratitude, or in living imagination, or perhaps just in a very small space. 

I walk alone up to Lake Constance, another world of mountains coming over the horizon. There is a shift happening in my mind this year in believing what is real. The vertical cliff casting a shadow across the scree is not incredible, the opaque, feathery turquoise of the lake is not otherworldly. I can believe this. I can believe this can be here for good, I can picture a world where I am surrounded by mountains of vast majesty which are really just beginning, where I am among the first to see this and not the last. 

      I am alone now. No one is coming, and everyone is gone. In Patagonia, the mountains were beautiful in a charged, eerie way-- I did not want to look at them, I wanted to be them. I wanted to lie down and die among them, to not be different from them. Here, I am more like the mountains while living and feeling. This is a land not long ago colonized and tracked by the same powers that colonized my own mind, and I feel more like I should be alive here. Why.

I want to see history as I can see the natural world-- as something with intense meaning, with rhythms to be expected, which shock in how they appear, which are endless and unfailing, whose magic or mystery is only our own. Constance and Blue were separated by a massive landslide and the highest peak still has a hollowness, with boulders crumbling below. It has never been so obvious to me how a rock is a piece of a mountain, how this boulder at the base of the scree has a history explained better by space than by time. From a distance, the shards are the mountain. The growing lichen seems to say that the shards are standing still. The growing is the mountain. Perhaps this isn't different from writing history. 

   Speargrass Creek and Robert's Ridge

On the last morning I woke up before dawn and ducked out of the trees to eat muesli in the cool, yellow valley, the full moon high in the sky with a crescent lit, pink clouds floating quickly in front if it. There is a certain divinity, or rather a faithfulness, in the mornings of long days. Days that contain only what is yet to be seen, when scrambling the length of daylight is not ahead of me but within me.

In the early morning the earth is all my own, and I pause in the cupped hands of Speargrass watershed like a little object found and observed. The rocky moonscapes fold behind each other in the distance, and I am in the fleshy shadows where the sun has not yet risen. The shape of this valley existed before hands, or cupped hands, I realize. My folded hands are rather like the valley.

On the ridge, I walk like flying. I have no affinity for words and move through the mountain in an individual way, finding for my body the least loose places. On the ridge, to go anywhere but forward is scree slide, precipice and hazard, the ridge is not like poetry.


The only words I thought, as the mist and the silence expanded, I thought over and again. What a thing to be a woman alone on a mountain. What a thing to be a woman on a mountain.

I haven't been sure where this trip ended. These peaks and clear waters laid themselves plain; when they couldn't hold on, they didn't. It is like being slithered by the eel in Lake Rotoroa when we jumped in sweaty after a long, slow day. The scene was not the canyoned turquoise inlet, not the green folds of mountains lining the shore. The scene was only the upsetting muscular smoothness pushing against my torso, against my ankles. My hair didn't even get wet; for all the honesty of the landscape, it's about the eel inside, the body below the surface, the touching of the two.