Perched on a rocky outcrop high above the valley below, looking out on a mountainous scrub landscape bathed in the ebbing warmth of a late autumn sun, I gave thanks to my understanding of God for this day and the wonders within it.
The climb up Mt Pukanui in the Rangitata gorge was in progress, it is one of the first to be encountered as you leave the flat fertile Mid-Canterbury plain and head west into the tussock grass and dry lands of the Alps, it was a journey I was taking alone. Many times on the way up the voice of old school and scout masters called loudly from my chequered past and said "you should never go into the mountains alone boy". I just had to smile as I extracted my foot from a deep ankle-width crack in the rock or lost my footing and landed breathless in a thorn bush.
There is no track up this mountain from the gorge side, it is simply too steep, but it has been grazed lightly by flocks of sheep for about a century. Whenever I was in doubt about the right trail up, there was always a simple solution, just follow the sheep turds to the summit, mother nature has honed their hill climbing and pasture finding skills to perfection. Oh Joy.
After about an hour from the start at about 1 PM I stopped and turned to look at the ever more fantastic view. As I did so I noticed way off in the distance little red dots had appeared in the river below. It took a second to realise these were the famous Rangitata whitewater rafts. The idea of floating down a wild water river had always fired my imagination, something I should do but hadn't got round to. So, as it was about lunchtime, off came the pack, out came the grub and thermos and as luck would have it I was able to park my person on a handy granite outcrop covered in moss and lichen to watch the show.
A flotilla of three river rafts and two canoe outriders were inching gradually along toward the angry, threshing patch of river below me. I'm sure the canoes were the safety guard, they went down each set of rapids first then stood by as the rafts came down after them. At awkward or dangerous stretches the rafts would haul up onto a beach just ahead and the leaders would get the small crowd of amateur rafters to study the waters flow and explain what the 'crowd' had to do on their way to get down and through.
I couldn't see their faces, they were all so far away, but I could tell by the reverential way they re-boarded their craft for the challenge ahead they were apprehensive but focused. To be honest I was by now so engrossed I was boarding the raft with them, living it with them..... And so they came, small tribes of humanity bound together by fortune and circumstance in their small raft to follow the river wherever it may lead. Strangers before and after but for a day thrown together as comrades with their friend in the sky watching over them. The nose of each raft went over the edge of the drop.
With paddles aloft they fell forward into the icy tumult of froth and churning blue water. For a split second those behind seemed to pile into those in front with the raft leader at the very back using his twin paddles to control the direction. The raft jacknifed as the nose came up, throwing all the occupants outward, somehow they all hung on and the recovery canoes held their position below the rapids. Coming out of the spume and froth the rafts bobbed and paddlers manoeuvred, navigating between big rocks jutting out of the undulating powerful flow.
It was a lot of fun watching one group trying to extricate themselves after paddlers and leader got pushed up against a big rock by the current and were not going anywhere. In the course of a minute or so you could see them change from a "What can we do?" bunch of individuals into a determined team pushing the raft off the rock with all their might. And when they did break free they paddled and bobbed downstream to become little red dots once more, gradually passing beyond sight. I knew it had happened and yet it was as if it had never been. All their noise, energy, screams and zest departed from this place with them leaving it beautiful and desolate as before.
Sitting on the summit, examining my legs and arms for cuts and scrapes, pulling thorns and burrs from my boots and pants, I was happy. For a few minutes on this day amongst the days of my life I was truly happy. The view was just spectacular: from Timaru to the port hills of Christchurch and beyond to the Pacific ocean where whales pass on their journey to the Southern Ocean, around to the snow capped mountains and glaciers of the west coast and south to Mt Cook, amazing and humbling.
On the way down as the sun retreated to the west over the rugged skyline and the lengthening shadows brought the day to a close I reflected on the whitewater rafters and their challenge, also my poor aching limbs and theirs:
"and if everything is now as it was before they came, who then would know they had ever been there and lived those glorious minutes in this place as they did?"
Perhaps some measure of my happiness will come to you here, and you too will remember the whitewater rafters, and my day on the mountain, and know that we lived.
These moments will stay with me forever.
Max Crean (c) 2010
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