Serendipity

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I was in Hokitika to stock up on essentials; things were getting critical. My milk was extremely low, I needed butter, I had run out of custard and I was completely out of Liquorice Allsorts.

The weather there was oddly all mixed up; cloud, wind, rain and clear all at the same time. To the north the headlands were silhouetted against a brilliant peach sky, and to the south the mountains stood clear; bright and shining brilliantly against blue… while in Hokitika itself, it was overcast, dull and cold.

Hokitika Beach, looking north

Hokitika Beach, looking north

After shopping I’d gone down to the Hokitika river mouth to grab a few pictures of the log strewn beach, and a long abandoned jetty on the Hokitika River. As I walked back towards the van I saw someone lighting a fire on the beach, so I wandered over. Perhaps I was a moth in a previous lifetime, perhaps I just like fires… or perhaps I was just cold. Anyway, I went over and started adding sticks to the fledgling fire. I saw no signs of a back-pack, so I had expected the person to be a local, but it turned out to be a young woman tourist.

She was Anna, Italian, travelling around with a Spanish guy, but they’d become separated. He’d gone off to walk on Mt Brewster… and was now a day overdue. She was to fly out of Auckland in three days’ time, and he was going to drive her there. His car was their accommodation. All up she was worried, and generally a bit down in the mouth. So she’d lit the fire to cheer herself up.

We looked at the options and I suggested I could take her to a good junction for hitch-hiking north; to where the West Coast road meets the Arthur’s pass road. If her friend re-appeared he’d have to pass through that junction anyway. It seemed like a plan, and doing something was better than doing nothing, so we picked up her pack from the back-packers and set off out of town going north.

If we hadn’t heard from her friend by dark I knew I’d have to call the police and alert them to a missing tourist near Mt Brewster in the Haast Pass; fortunately, I didn’t have to make that call.

Soon after we were on our way she got a call. Her friend had got stuck on the mountain, but he was now on his way, and about four or five hours behind of us… but having car problems. His engine was overheating, but it was a relief to know that he was Ok. We switched the plan around a bit.

I was heading to a campsite on a riverbank at the foot of Arthurs Pass, near to the junction I was was going to drop Anna at. I was particularly interested in this place as I could have a fire there, and since Anna also seemed to have a penchant for fires we decided that we’d go there, and her friend ‘Havi’ would come to us.

At the riverbank Anna and I assembled a very impressive pile of wood, and even though there was still another hour’s light, we set it going. It seemed we both enjoyed the simple comfort that a fire brings. I pulled out the chairs and the flask, and we set to staring into the flickering, listening to the crackling, dodging the smoke, and swapping stories.

It is amazing just how connected we all are in the world.

Anna’s English was very good. She asked where I was from in England and I was amazed to find that she actually knew my home town, Burton-on-Trent… she is the first person in NZ ever to have heard of it. Anna was a molecular biologist, and had spent some time in Nottingham (just 25 miles away from Burton), doing research on the ageing mechanism within neurons. Now, I‘m geeky enough to be fascinated by this sort of thing, so we talked for ages; about the nature of brain vs mind, DNA, the passing of instincts through generations and so on.

I asked her a question which she couldn’t really answer to my satisfaction (no-one has yet). “If my skin is only a month old, how come I look nearly sixty?”… I’m still working on that one.

As we discussed ‘instinct’ I used ‘fear of heights’ to demonstrate an instinct that was based on an idea rather than anything physical, (so how is this instinct, based on an idea, passed in DNA?) and in passing she mentioned that her passion was climbing… so that took us to our next round of conversations; climbing experiences and places we had climbed.

We sat talking at the fire with periodic updates from Havi on his progress… he was still having car trouble, but making progress.

San Martino di Castrozza

San Martino di Castrozza

Anna, it turned out was from San Martino Di Castrozza (in Italy)… and I’d been there! It was the location of my first foray into Alpine climbing; the first peak we climbed was beyond the glaciers above her village ‘ (Anna: I looked it up… it was one of the peaks on ‘Cimon della Pala’). It proved nearly fatal for my climbing partner Tony… but that’s a story for another time.

Havi called in again to say he was nearly out of petrol, and still 30 minutes short of Hokitika.

Anna was quite something. She hadn’t just worked in neuro-science, she’d also done voluntary work in Peru… which she spoke passionately about. She was currently touring but trying to work out where her future lay… she could have a comfortable life in research, or she could go and help people in need, and be broke. I wasn’t in a position to offer career advice to a molecular biologist, but said that in my experience, money had never made me feel good, but helping others had.

Finally, Havi arrived.

He had managed to find us, in the middle nowhere, down an unmarked track, on a riverbank, in the dark… and so our fireside circle was completed.

He had been lost in the bush on the Haast pass, his car had been overheating, he was driving on his emergency tyre, and had just managed to get to Hokitika before he ran out of petrol. He’d had quite a day, and by the time he arrived he was quite ready for a good fire, and a good feed.

They ate what all travellers seem to eat… pasta… which to my eyes lacked any of the essential ingredients… like sausages, bacon, eggs, or chips.

Anna and Havi by the fire

Anna and Havi by the fire

Havi (also a climber) told us all about his adventure on Mt Brewster. From the hut, he’d been unable to find the track out again, and had spent a day thrashing around the thick, steep bush, fording and re-fording streams, and slipping and sliding over wet boulders. In the end he’d given up, and gone back to the hut for safety, and to re-think his position.

The hut had a fire, and in the course of drying his stuff out he’d managed to completely burn his good shoes… which made his successful exit the next morning (the same morning as these events) particularly uncomfortable.

I drew stumps at 11:00 and left them to the fire.

The morning came warm and sunny. We shared good coffee before they went on their way, re-united, and back on plan. They were off to Aurthur’s Pass for a bit of ‘bouldering’ before heading to Picton. At some stage (soon I hoped) Havi also needed to get a proper tyre on the front driver’s side, before they made a last dash to Auckland Airport.

It was, all ways round, a delightful and serependitious encounter. Anna had been cold, stranded and worried, I hadn’t had a conversation longer than two sentences since Gillespies, and Havi had escaped the mountains and other obstacles to catch up with Anna again. It had worked out very well for all of us.

To Anna and Havi: Thank you for a wonderful evening. Anna: I hope that your mountain in India is everything you expect it to be, and Havi, good luck with your ethical clothing line.
I wish you both good travelling.

After they left I brought the blog-map up to date and took a leg stretcher along the river bank.


It was a beautiful little corner of the world. I was a couple of kilometres from Kumara (yes… it’s actually called that), parked on a gravel bank on a bend in the river that formed Arthur’s Pass. The light sparkling on the river, the gravel bank, and the tree lined shore all shrieked that I should pull out my fishing and go and stand in the water… which I would have, except it was cold!

The a curved embankment behind the van made a perfect wind-break, and a natural sun trap, the only drawback being that the sudden warmth after days of cold and wet had brought the sand flies out of hiding.

I’d have happily have stayed another day, except some inconsiderate a**hole had burned all the good wood! Instead, I did the only rational thing to do in winter when the Sun comes out. I was 4 kilometres from the West Coast, so I went to the beach… I’d have been crazy not to, right?

Just when you think you’ve seen all the area has to offer, you get more. The closest beach access was Serpentine Road, which I was familiar with from my Tasman researches. On that beach right there I was forty kilometres and exactly due south of Abel Tasman’s position when he first saw New Zealand.

Today, straight down the coast to the South, the Southern Alps were shining high, wide and handsome in a clear winter sky.

The Southern Alps from just south of Greymouth

The Southern Alps from just south of Greymouth

Those mountains were 138 km away (that’s 86 miles to the decimally challenged). There is no doubt whatsoever that Abel Tasman could have seen the Southern Alps from his location on Dec 13th 1642, … but he didn’t. The Southern Alps can be seen from his location on that day, but they were not the first land he saw. Just how we know that he didn’t see the mountain that bears his name was why I’d gone to film at Gillespies Beach… and you have to wait just a little longer before I tell you about that.

The other surprise was that I was now at the start line of the famous ‘Coast to coast’ race. Shame, I’d missed the start, eh?. It made me tired just to think about it, so I did the decent thing. I put my feet up and had a sandwich. Then, having burned the mozzie candle at both ends last night, I had a nap.

With only an hour of sunlight left I closed up the office, and left the beach.

The last 24 hours had been quite marvelous, and I was now replete with Serendipity, which was a good thing, as I was now headed to its antithesis; Greymouth.

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