From disappointment to despair

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Over the next few days things went from disappointment to despair.

What I’m doing is a factual account, and I couldn’t use the footage I’d shot; I had to go back and re-shoot the scenes in the right place, and against the correct background.

A forecast break in the weather signaled an early start, and I drove back down from Westport to Lake Mahinapua, 10 km south of Hokitika.

West Coast bush

West Coast bush

Just after midday I set off up the track with my full kit; tripod, cameras, sound kit, spare batteries, script boards, waterproofs and lunch.

It was a good track. The sign said “Swimmers Beach: 15 minutes”.

From the car park at the lakeside there was no mountain view, but a kilometre around the lake to the north was “Swimmers Beach”, and it was the perfect place. It looked across a big lake, wide and clear, it was on Tasman’s sight-line, and it was exactly the vista I needed. I strode off confidently. I had four hours of light, and my filming point was just 15 minutes away down a good, level track.

I arrived back at ‘the Heems’ three hours later, soaked, cold, bloodied and exhausted, having failed to even get my camera’s from my pack (or my lunch for that matter).

I opened the door, slumped heavily onto the van steps, dumped my sodden pack, and pulled out the flask.

“Fifteen minutes my arse” I muttered into the coffee.

After ten minutes on the track I’d passed a sign saying “Swimmers Beach 5 minutes”. A hundred yards later the track stopped abruptly at water. Presumably the track normally ran along a little beach here, but now, it was under the lake.

I stepped up to the lake edge and looked in… it looked deep… too deep. I couldn’t see the bottom.

I decided to try and follow the shore through the bush… but it was really hard going, just dense, dense, dense bush. So I went back to the end of the track; perhaps I could wade around until I came to the beach.

I found a firm log to stand on and lowered a leg into the lake. The water was up to my shorts before I pulled back out, still with no sign of the bottom. I couldn’t go that way… not with a pack full of electronics. It would have to be through the bush.

The bush was so thick that you could never make a whole stride. Underfoot was alternately fern and moss, or fern and bog. Branches and roots hidden in the fern turned my ankles at each step. Rata vines obstructed progress at all heights; round my feet, knees, waist, chest, neck and head. Sometimes they got so wrapped around my pack that I couldn’t move forward or backwards. I had to take my pack off, thread it though the vines and wriggle through after it.

Topographic map detail showing the 'Swimmers Beach Walk' and the 'Mananui Bush Walk' to Ruatapu Beach.

Topographic map detail showing the ‘Swimmers Beach Walk’ and the ‘Mananui Bush Walk’ to Ruatapu Beach.

There was no respite. It was constantly over, under, or between branches; down onto my knees, up over fallen boughs… but always tangling, wet vines.

After an hour, I was blowing hard, scuffed and soaked. My boots were bags of water from the bogs, and my pack and the rest of me were soaked through from the dripping foliage.

Even though progress was incredibly slow, I simply must have completed the remaining “5 minutes” to the beach, but I could still see no sand. There was bush, or lake, but nothing else. There was no hard stuff in-between, and no firm place to stand my tripod.

There was no beach here today… not for swimmers, nor for over-zealous trampers.

I leaned back, resting on vines that held me up from the ground, and took a few moments to catch my breath. Then I pivoted around, and began threading my way back through the tangle.

It took twice as long to get back.

It seemed there were twice as many vines, twice as many bogs, and twice as many impenetrable flax barriers. Sometimes the vines conspired in groups to knot my feet to the ground, and sometimes I couldn’t force my way through the flax even on my knees, and had to double back. My shins, hands and arms were a mess of scratches, and I had earned a fat lip from a particularly stroppy vine.

I tripped twice as much, and swore twice as often.

Occasionally I saw a boot scuff on mossy bark reminding me that some imbecile had come this way just a couple of hours earlier.

I didn’t want to be lost in this. I still had plenty of light, but the bush was very dis-orienting. There was only an even grey sky, and the occasion glimpse I got revealed nothing of the sun’s position. All I could do to keep my direction true was to keep returning to the lake edge, but incredibly, the lake edge was even harder to get through. There, the rata gave way to walls of flax, twice my height and totally impenetrable.

I was relieved when I found the track again. I was only a kilometer or so from the van, but no-one knew I was there, or which direction I had gone. Certainly, no-one would expect that I’d gone straight into the bush… only a complete nutter would have done that.

Sitting on the van steps I figured that after all the recent rain, the beach probably didn’t even exist… it was under a metre of water. Or perhaps it is called “Swimmers Beach” because the only way to get to it, is to swim.

Either way, it was of no use to me today.

I was soaked, cold, filthy and tired, and was going to get no result at Mahinapua. I needed an alternative.

Fortunately, in my research, I’d seen another possibility.

Google Maps is really good, you can flick between the map and the satellite view. Sometimes “Streetview” lets me get a view of somewhere that I’m researching from the road, and while searching I’d seen this bridge… and the view from it. It was a few hundred metres off the sight line I wanted, but it should be accessible, and it definitely had clear sight of the mountains.

As I headed back towards Hokitika I turned right, towards Kokatahi and its bridge across the Hokitika river.

It was ideal. The valley was wide, but river itself was narrow, weaving through a broad flat expanse of boulder shoals and beaches. I had clear line of sight to the peaks… at least I would if they weren’t in cloud.

I pulled back onto the Hokitika campsite and soon had their washer and dryers filled and spinning. The carpet of the van was wet and muddy from where I’d dumped the pack, but the heater would dry it, and then the mud would brush out.

I showered for ages, retrieved my laundry, and then took my weary bones off to meet some friends. I was sorely in need of good counsel; I was feeling sorry for myself, and hadn’t spoken to anyone for three days.

Back at the van I still had work to do. Everything in my pack had been soaked. I’d sorted out my clothes, but the remainder was still wet. I dried my cameras slowly in the warm air of my heater, and then fired up my laptop and printer. The scripts and pictures that I needed for filming were all completely destroyed, just a blur of mingled colour on a sodden mat. I needed to re-print them all, and to adjust the scripts for the new location.

It was late when I got to bed, but I set the alarm just in case. In early evening the sky had cleared… and if it held, then I might get another shot at it first thing in the morning.

I woke to a clear sky and immediately packed-down to leave.

It was only about 20 minutes to the Kokatahi bridge and I was there before the sun had reached the valley floor. I knew exactly where I was going… there was a place I could drive right onto the river bed, where the stone base was compacted hard over the years by the wheels of fishermen’s cars.

Dawn at Kokatahi

Dawn at Kokatahi

I was in sun by the time I was set up, and I got into it straight away. The sky was clear and all the peaks I needed to identify were cloud free. It wouldn’t stay that way for long, whisps of cloud were already forming around the tops… so I got the essential mountain shots first.

I only had three scenes to do, but I did all three several times more than was strictly necessary… I might not get another go at this. If those peaks got snow covered then their appearance would be entirely different to what Tasman saw, and what I was trying to achieve would have to be compromised by explaining the presence of snow.

The 'high lying land' that Abel Tasman first saw, seen from the Hokitika river at Kokatahi

The ‘high lying land’ that Abel Tasman first saw, seen from the Hokitika river at Kokatahi

I had some lunch and moved on while the weather held. What I was doing next was the preceding piece of dialogue. It had me on a beach on the line Tasman was looking down when he saw land. But from the beach you couldn’t see the high land… there were dunes in the way. I already knew this; it was why my other locations had been so important.

I set up to film, but after a few minutes my sound system died… flat batteries, so I called it a day. I’d got the critical stuff ‘in the can’. For the rest I didn’t need a clear mountain view.

My batteries going flat was odd. I carry a spare for just this reason; a single battery doesn’t last for a whole day’s filming. But when I put the spare battery in, it yielded nothing at all… even though it was fully charged with the other one the night before.

I was to be plagued by this problem for over a week.

My sound kit would work in the van, but not on the beach. I tried everything. I charged and recharged my batteries, I tested leads, re-made leads, assembled, disassembled… always with the same result. It all worked perfectly in the van, but it would fail after a few minutes out at the beach.

Testing my sound kit in the van

Testing my sound kit in the van

I went back to Ruatapu beach four times. Each time I returned empty handed. Nothing I tried would make my sound kit work there for more than 10 minutes. I would set up, run a trial scene, review it, and then… silence.

I was completely at my wits end.

Between the weather and my equipment problems, I had achieved nothing for over a week… and I had no idea how to make everything work again.

If I couldn’t sort it out soon, then I’d have to give up, and head back to Piha… perhaps someone in the camera shop in Auckland could figure it out.

I was completely out of ideas. I’d tested everything, and I’d tried everything I could think of.

I was confused, and lonely, and beaten.

I needed uplifting company.

It was bitterly cold as I walked to and from meeting with some friends, and I started to think about just that… the cold.

My kit had worked flawlessly for months… but now it was winter, it would only work reliably indoors.

I devised a test.

I made an extension lead for the battery, and then headed over to the camp kitchen with all the gear I needed; camera, tripod, sound kit, charged batteries, leads… and a portable radio, and a fan heater.

In the kitchen there were five Japanese, and a freezer.

I put my battery on the extension lead inside the freezer, and wedged the door closed with a broom. Then I connected everything up while the battery chilled.

The batteries in the freezer were connected to the base unit, which was connected to the camera standing on my tripod. My wireless waist-belt unit had fresh batteries in it, and was on the workbench on the other side of the kitchen. It was connected to the lapel microphone, which in turn was set in front of the radio.

It must have looked odd. There I was with my bits and pieces of camera equipment distributed throughout the kitchen, but when you’ve stood alone in public places all over the country filming, talking to yourself, you get over being too self-conscious. Though I was rather hoping that the owners of the iced cream weren’t coming for it any time soon… I wanted that freezer door to stay shut.

The Japanese were doing something to food that involved a lot of shouting and making the kitchen stink of ginger, garlic and soy. But apart from stepping over the broom that I had wedged between a table leg and the freezer, they appeared otherwise completely oblivious to my presence.

Perhaps this is normal behaviour in Tokyo.

Satisfied that everything was properly connected, and that my batteries were chilled to the outdoor temperature I switched it all on.

I turned the radio on, raised the volume and checked the sound level meter on the camera.

Nothing!

Zip, Zilch, Rien, Nada, Nienta… Nothing!

Nothing at all on the meter… not even the slightest flicker.

I was delighted.

You have never in your life seen anyone so happy to see nothing happen!

Sitting in the freezer was a fully charged battery that half an hour earlier had powered my rig flawlessly… but now… nothing.

For the first time in a week, I was smiling. It was a broad triumphant smile that said ‘look at me, aren’t I the smart one’. I was the veritable ‘Cheshire cat’.

I took the battery out of the freezer and set it in front of the fan heater. Two minutes later bingo!… the sound level meter started to flicker.

I left it all running, and put the battery back into the freezer. A few minutes later… it all stopped working again.

Woo-hoo! Nothing! Brilliant!

I was grinning from ear to ear, hopping from foot to foot and congratulating myself roundly. If I’d had more joints in my arms, I’d have clapped myself on the back.

The Japanese still saw nothing. It was like I was a poltergeist in the room, which they hoped would go away if they ignored it assiduously enough. They sat in a row, their heads in rice bowls, taking turns to bark at each other in staccato bursts.

I had one more small experiment to do, and then I would be back in business. It involved boiling a large stone, wrapping it up, and seeing how long it stayed warm.

The next day I finished filming on Ruatapu Beach.

My pack for the day contained a new item. I had my tripod, cameras, sound kit, lunch, flask, warm hat, gloves, waterproofs… and a hot rock with some batteries strapped to it, wrapped up in woolen socks and a fleece.

I knocked the 4 scenes off in rapid succession. The set-up between shots took time, but once I was ready, they all went pretty easily… after all, I’d had plenty of practice.

My sound kit worked perfectly for the whole duration. Hot rocks rule!

I took some time to sit and enjoy the moment on the beach. It was just perfect. Yes, it was winter, but I was quite comfortable in my shorts with my coat. There was no wind, just frosty air and the gentle touch of warm sun on my skin.

Five Japanese walked past, but I don’t think they saw me.

By mid-afternoon I was driving back through Hokitika heading north. I wouldn’t be coming back this way again, I had everything I needed, and I was very pleased with it all.

Boiling a stone is all well and good, but the easy and obvious solution to my battery problem was a simple hot water bottle. I’d have bought one in Hokitika, but couldn’t. I’d walked the few streets looking for “Ye olde hotte water bottle shoppe” but there wasn’t one… so I’d had to improvise.

The Warehouse would have them, but that would have meant driving to Greymouth again, and I wasn’t quite that desperate yet. However, my next shooting location was at Serpentine Beach, North of Hokitika, and just South of Greymouth. Greymouth was the closer campsite, so I drove there in search of a ‘hottie’.

The Warehouse obliged, and I pulled back onto the familiar Greymouth campsite (at the end of the runway, by the cemetery) just as the sun was setting. As soon as I had the van level and plugged in I headed to the beach. It was littered with new wood, all freshly dried from the day’s sun and the sea breeze, and by the time the last of the sun had gone, my fire was crackling nicely.

I popped back to the van for those important things… long pants (I was still in shorts from the day’s shooting), a fold-up chair, my Swandri, a flask of coffee… and of course, Licorice Allsorts.

I wasn’t on my own for long. Soon a young Aussie couple of from Brisbane joined me and we got down to exchanging notes on where to go and what to do. That afternoon they’d been on the Monteith’s Brewery tour, so I was happy to advise them that they’d done everything Greymouth had to offer, and that there was no need to linger.

Early tomorrow they were heading to the Glaciers… they had a “Heli-tramp” booked. They’d be helicoptered high up onto the Franz Joseph glacier, and then go for a walkabout.

They had described at length how beautiful the scenery was so far on their trip. They’d only come from Christchurch, through Hamner to Greymouth. It was tempting to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet”, but I thought it better for them to find out for themselves.

The forecast for the next day was fine, and it should be an experience of a lifetime. I hoped it would be a good one for them.

I think Matt might have overdone the wine a bit. As they got up to leave he fell in the fire, but it was OK, there was no harm done. I only had to push a few sticks around and it was all good again.

Aussie’s!… no surprises there.

His sleeve was peppered with holes from his elbow to his shoulder. He was missing bits of hair from above his ear, and the red on his forehead looked like it would hurt in the morning. But his principal concern right then was that he’d spilled the last of his wine.

As he and Deb’ tottered off into the darkness he said he was fine, and not to worry… he had another bottle back at the van.

I didn’t have high hopes for their 7:00 a.m. start.

It was late by the time I’d finished pulling burning Australians from the fire, and I had a prompt start planned for myself, so I turned in too.

I was on Serpentine Beach before midday. An icy wind was dropping straight down from the snow covered peaks of Arthurs Pass, and it was very cold.

My field kit on Serpentine Beach. The batteries are strapped to a hot water bottle inside the Spiderman blanket.

My field kit on Serpentine Beach. The batteries are strapped to a hot water bottle inside the Spiderman blanket.

I was fortunate with the direction of the sun, and the background I needed. It meant I could set up my camera’s using the van as a wind-break. But I was still cold filming in my shorts and short sleeves.

The chill came straight down from the mountains, and straight up my shorts. I was cold from the instant I took my coat off.

I eyed my cissy batteries with envy. They sat there on the ground, resting on a hot water bottle, and wrapped in a child’s blanket ($20 total from The Warehouse).

Still… they worked fine, and that was all I needed.

It was afternoon as I drove through Greymouth again. But this time I wasn’t distressed to see it, it would be the last time.

A Black Hole is a phenomenon well known to astronomers and physicists. It is a body so massive that it’s gravity can’t be escaped; not even by light.

That’s how I felt about Greymouth; it had kept pulling me back. I just couldn’t get away from it.

As I descended the hill past Runanga, a sense of well-being and calm began to flow through me. I was past the Event Horizon. I had achieved escape velocity. I was finally free.

I checked off the now familiar places as I passed them; Nine Mile creek, Ten Mile creek, Fourteen Mile Bay, Barrytown, Burke’s Road… and then, Punakaiki.

I arrived in Punakaiki with enough light left for me to check out my next shooting location.

Punakaiki is famous for its layered rocks and blow-holes (it’s ‘Pancake Rocks’ to the tourists), but that’s not why I was there.

Tasman had passed Punakaiki on the afternoon of Dec 14th, and I’d explain that part of his progress from here. The sun’s position meant I could indicate his passage, with the blowholes (and the tourists) at my back.

I moved to the northernmost point on the track and looked up and down the coast. I had to look again… it was far more than I had expected. On the distant skyline, to the south I could still make out Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. They were 200 km’s away! (125 miles). That’s where I’d filmed the sequences at Gillespies Beach.

On my horizon to the north I could see Cape Foulwind… and that was completely unexpected. Tasman had described sailing towards a ‘low lying point’… it was named Cape Foulwind by Cook (he wasn’t having a good time). Tasman’s journal contains an unmistakable drawing of Cape Foulwind. It removes any shadow of doubt that the coast Tasman was sailing along was New Zealand.

I’d expected to have to stop at another location to make this particular point, but I could do it from right here. It only needed a minor re-write.

Late evening at the campsite at Punakaiki

Late evening at the campsite at Punakaiki

The campsite was delightful. It was dry and level, and thoughtfully planted throughout so that it seemed to be a part of the surrounding bush. It also backed directly onto a broad sandy beach.

That evening I sat and watched a glorious West Coast sunset from the beach, sheltered from the wind by sheer limestone cliffs and the thick line of bush that topped the dunes.

My chosen locations were at and around one of the lookout points on the Pancake Rocks, ‘Blowholes’ track. I didn’t have too much to do there, just two short pieces of dialogue, and me walking up to and then away from the vantage points. But this time I was the tourist attraction. There were a lot more than just my two cameras. It feels odd talking to a camera with half a dozen strangers looking on and snapping away, but I’m getting used to it.

By the afternoon I was sitting in the sun enjoying a coffee made by someone else. It had been quite a while since that had happened, and I enjoyed the moment, watching the steady procession of tourists in and out of the Blowholes track.

Then I walked back to the campsite to get ready.

Punakaiki is an oasis on the West Coast. It has a micro-climate quite different to its surroundings. I was struck straight away by the warm air, but you could see the difference in the bush too… it was thick and lush, but different. The bush here is sub-tropical like the Waitakere’s… with Nikau, Rimu, Matai… even cabbage trees.

I felt very at home, and set about gathering wood.

reparing the sunset fire at Punakaiki

Preparing the sunset fire at Punakaiki

My fire that night was a grand affair; it was more bonfire than campfire, and I was joined by two young lads from England on their ‘gap year’. I’ve no idea, of their names, I’ll call them Bill and Ben.

They were good company, flush with the excitement of youth, and on the adventure of a lifetime. They were full of questions about New Zealand, its History and Geography… and I was more than happy to oblige.

We watched the sunset, and burned some old trees. Later we watched the stars, meteorites and satellites, and then the moon came big and bright, lighting the beach and the breakers.

It was a good fire, and in the absence of Australian’s, nobody got hurt.

The fire left a deep warmth that easily outlasted the few paces through the night’s chill, back to the van and bed.

I was warm, comfortable and happy again.

As my sister Jane had recently written in a comment; “All’s well that ends well”… and it was.

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