by Hank Leukart
April 18, 2016
Hanging by a wire
My hiking and paddling trip across New Zealand’s South Island takes a miserable turn.
A rescue helicopter hovers above a ravine on the Toaroha Track on New Zealand’s South Island.
In February 2016, I began hiking and paddling a continuous route down the length of New Zealand's South Island. This essay starts at the beginning of my sixth stage after having finished 31 days and 578 kilometers. Start with the first essay about the trip for the whole story.T
OAROHA RIVER, New Zealand — When the French Trio — Raphaël, Charlotte, and Alain — and I arrive in Hokitika to take a rest day, the streets are filled with teenagers and twenty-somethings wearing banana, unicorn, and Bob Marley costumes, hula skirts and leis, and long fake beards. I’m confused. Have I been in the wilderness longer than I thought? Is this the future, a place where dressing like fruit is the fashion du jour? Quickly, I realize that we’ve walked into the Wildfoods Festival, Hokitika’s biggest weekend of the year, during which the town’s 3,000-person population balloons to 10,000. Not psychologically prepared to deal with drunken partying after spending 10 quiet days in the wilderness, the French Trio and I decide to build a large bonfire on the beach by ourselves and spend the night relaxing under the stars, feeling the cool drizzling rain on our skin, munching on supermarket pizza, and recounting stories of our days hiking together.
In the morning, Alain goes fishing at Sunset Point near the mouth of the Hokitika River and manages to catch a kahawai, an Australian salmon. I’ll be leaving the French Trio shortly to continue hiking across the island, so the three of us decide to have one last “hut night” together — in a Hokitika motel room I booked that we brand Hank Hut. In it, we drink wine, cook the fish, and bake a large, celebratory chocolate cake for our final hurrah.
“Be careful on the Whitcombe,” Raphaël warns me, as we eat. “It’s a real adventure.” I’ve finished nearly half of my trip across New Zealand’s South Island, but I’m feeling nervous, because I’m about to tackle what may be the single most difficult section of my adventure: a hike over rugged Whitcombe Pass, a crossing of the notoriously swift and dangerous Rakaia River, a hike over Butler Saddle, and a packraft down the Lawrence River to Erewhon, where I’ll reconnect with the Te Araroa. (The Te Araroa’s trail notes urge hikers to hitchhike around the Rakaia due to a risk of drowning when fording the river, but I plan to mitigate this concern by using my packraft to cross.)
After saying goodbye to my friends, I hike up the Toaroha River toward Cedar Flat Hot Pools Hut. As usual, the trail isn’t always marked, and I spend a lot of the day bouncing in and out of the river, alternating between easy forest trail and difficult routes around boulders along the riverbed. Because I started the day late, the sun sets before I reach the hut, and it’s dark and raining heavily when it becomes clear that the only route forward requires me to walk directly into the deep, fast-moving river. This isn’t something I want to do in pitch black, and I assume that I must have missed a trail leading out of the river to the hut. Frustrated, I backtrack and carefully scan the bushline in the dark, searching for a trail marker. It takes me 30 minutes to discover a small opening in the tree line, which, thankfully, eventually leads me to a trail over a swing bridge that leads to the hut. There’s no one else inside, so I eat a quiet dinner while reading the hut’s guestbook, which shows that the hut’s last visitors left five days ago. Not many people use this trail.
I’m frustrated when I wake in the morning and it’s still raining, because I don’t want to wait out yet another bad-weather day trapped in a hut. So, when the rain clears at around 11 AM, I decide to continue up the trail. Energized, as always, by the Dances with Wolves soundtrack, I follow the track up the river valley, moving up and down through steep ravines and creek beds intersecting with the Toaroha River. To my dismay, the rain begins again after a couple hours, and the steeply descending sections of the trail, covered in snow grass, become very slippery. Quickly, I’m soaking and exhausted, trying to navigate the wet trail while having to carry a heavy, nine-day supply worth of food. Not even Dances with Wolves manages to lift my mood.
I’m about a two-hour walk from the next hut, Top Toaroha, when I find myself standing at the top of a particularly steep drop-off, descending down into a creek bed below. I don’t see an obvious trail leading down the cliff, but it’s not uncommon in New Zealand for landslides to have washed away sheer trail sections. I spot an orange trail marker on the ravine’s opposite side, so I know that the intended route is to climb down into the ravine and then back out.
But, when I take my first step down, the snow grass is more slippery than I expect. Suddenly, I’m sliding at a dangerous speed, totally out of control, down the embankment. When I reach the bottom, my left foot and leg smash into the ground. I hear an alien popping sound. Disoriented, it takes me some moments to realize that I’m lying on the ground, at the bottom of the cliff, in the rain.
My ankle hurts, though I suspect that it’s only a bad sprain. I decide to try to escape the freezing rain by walking on to the next hut, where I’ll be able to better evaluate the severity of my ankle injury. However, when I stand up and try to take a single step, I’m suddenly screaming. The pain is excruciating. I fall immediately back to the ground.
“Fuck!” I yell to no one. “I can’t walk! Oh, shit!”
For ten minutes, not knowing what to do, I sit in the rain, with my sopping clothes sticking to my skin. I’m getting very cold, very fast. I’m baffled that I’ve had an accident like this on a trail that’s not particularly hazardous; I’m still days away from reaching the more dangerous Whitcombe Pass. Nevertheless, this area doesn’t have mobile phone service, and I know from the previous hut’s guestbook that it will probably take at least five days for another hiker to wander by me on this rarely-used trail.
Suddenly, I can see the next three miserable months of my life in my imagination: hospitals, doctors, surgeries, and eventually, being stuck, not able to hike, in my Los Angeles apartment. I’m angry and sad that I’m not going to be able to finish my hiking and paddling dream trip across New Zealand’s South Island — one of the greatest wilderness adventures of my life. And, one of the worst parts is that I know I’ll never be able to reunite with my favorite people still on the island: German Te Araroa hikers Jana, Carsten, Lena, and Neil; French lawyer, Sophia; 60-year-old, New Zealander Henk; my hilarious logistics team, Kiwis Brittany and Andy; the super-tough, Kiwi, father-daughter combo Stu and Julia; and, of course, the French Trio: Raphaël, Charlotte, and Alain.
I don’t want to, but I know I don’t have much of a choice. I push the SOS button on my SPOT Gen3, a satellite-based emergency messenger, designed to send daily check-in messages and location updates — my mom’s favorite feature — and summon a search & rescue team in the case of an emergency.
I purchased the SPOT device because it’s one of the least expensive emergency messengers, but I have been aware from the start of my trip that it only works with a clear view of a Globalstar satellite in the sky. I also know that it’s a one-way-only communication device. Even though I have pressed the SOS button, I have no way of knowing whether my call for help has been successfully transmitted. At the bottom of this ravine, surrounded by high cliffs with substantial tree cover overhead, I don’t like my chances. Furthermore, if local rescuers receive my message, I have no idea how they will respond. Will they hike here from the nearest road? That could take two days. Will they send a helicopter? There’s nowhere nearby that I can see where a pilot could land a chopper; rescuers may need to land somewhere far away and hike for hours to reach me.
I decide to prepare myself psychologically for a three-to-five-day stay at the bottom of the ravine. I set up my tent — by hopping around on one leg — on top of some moss and fallen trees. The ground around me is not flat, and maneuvering with only one working leg is nearly impossible, but I manage to construct the tent well enough that I can get out of the rain, inflate my air mattress, pull out my sleeping bag, strip off my wet clothing, and get into my sleeping bag to dry and warm up.
Once inside, after devouring some chocolate peanut butter cups and trail mix, I make plans for the moment the rain stops. I need water, so I’ll crawl to the nearby creek, fill up my CamelBak, and drag it back to my tent. I suspect that my SPOT won’t be able to successfully transmit my SOS message, and I’m also afraid that passing hikers or rescuers won’t be able to see me in this creek bed. So, I’ll inflate my bright red packraft as a visible signal and crawl out of the ravine to higher ground, dragging the raft and messenger device with me. Finally, I’ll make a campfire.
I’m just about to crawl to the creek for water, when I hear the sound of a helicopter rotor. That’s impossible, I think. It’s been just over an hour since I pushed the SOS button! I look outside the tent just in time to see a helicopter whiz by above the Toaroha River. Maybe it was just a sightseeing flight, I think. But, 20 minutes later, the helicopter returns, flies over “my” ravine, and slowly lowers, until it’s hovering 15 meters above me. The rotor wash is like a tornado, and the only thing stopping my tent from being ripped away is the weight of me in it. Suddenly, a woman attached to a cable descends from the hovering helicopter and lands next to me.
“Hi, how you going?” she asks. Even in an emergency, the New Zealand accent is charming.
“I’m so embarrassed,” I say. “But, I think I’ve broken my leg.”
As she looks at my leg, the woman tells me that her name is Sarah. She says that she’s a helicopter paramedic who descends from helicopters into the New Zealand wilderness on a daily basis.
“Well, it certainly looks like you smashed it pretty good.” She attaches a foam splint to my lower leg. “It looks deformed. Good on ya for pushing button. You did the right thing.”
After we pack my tent and other gear back into my backpack, the helicopter returns, hovering above us again. Sarah attaches my backpack to a wire that pulls it into the helicopter. Then, she attaches a chest harness and the wire to me.
“When you’re in the air, lean back,” she warns. “If you start spinning, you can use your arms as rudders to control the spin.”
Slowly, the hovering helicopter’s winch starts pulling me up.
I’m hanging on a cable, 15 meters in the air, from a helicopter above a river valley in the New Zealand wilderness. I feel myself spinning, so I lean back and stretch out my arms. I sigh. I can’t seem to control the spin.
Read the last essay in this series about my hiking and packrafting trip across New Zealand’s South Island, in which I become friends with my hospital roommate, a cranky, 70-year-old kiwi named Jim.
The French Trio and I sit under a tree canopy on the trail to Grassy Flats Hut near Kokathai, New Zealand.
Starting on the Toaroha Track requires walking down a dirt-road easement through Middlebranch Farm near Hokitika, New Zealand.
My SPOT Gen3 device sits in the rain while transmitting an SOS signal to the Globalstar satellite network.