Over Easter, the TR Crew went to Martinborough. To balance out our heavy schedule of wine drinking and pie eating, Emily arranged for us to go on a walk. We were going to see the ‘chasm’, some kind of natural rock formation by a river. She sold it to us as a nature ramble — a half day, packed lunch wander in the country. “Your feet might get a bit wet,” she said.
We showed up on the day. The owner of the land rumbled up to us on his four-wheeled bike-tractor-ATV thing. He was a true Kiwi farmer: gumboots with stubbies, a shabby khaki wool jersey. He looked us up and down, taking in Jef’s two-door Cynos, Keith’s country-casual wear and my inability to name his vehicle. He snorted. “You know you’ll get wet, right?”
“Duh,” we said, as three-quarters of us searched for reception on our iPhones.
“I mean really wet,” the farmer added, sucking dubiously on his words. “It’s not summer anymore. Sure you want to do this?”
We were so offended. Who was this country bumpkin, to assume we were some kind of soft city folk who couldn’t handle getting our tootsies damp? We all go to the gym. We’d packed sandwiches.
“Okay then,” the farmer said, swallowing a laugh. “Check in with me when you get back. If you’re gone more than four hours, I’ll come looking for you.”
Emily grew up in the country. I’ve seen a sheep give birth. Jeffrey once went to a nun’s birthday party. Four hours? We’d smash this in three. And we’d have a picnic and get new Facebook profile pictures while we did it.
We ambled pleasantly through the woods to the first river crossing. As Jef and I amble considerably faster than Emily and Keith, we arrived at the river well ahead of them. Emily had the map and instructions, but we decided the crossing looked pretty straightforward. There was a path beaten into the dirt that lead to a narrow part of the river, so we forged ahead.
“Are we fording a river right now?” Jef asked me, stepping onto a rock. “I want to say I’ve ford—”
He stopped. I knew why, because I’d also just put my foot into the river. “It’s not summer anymore” didn’t begin to describe it. It was ankle deep, and I could feel it in my teeth. I wasn’t going to be the first to say anything, so I started out, picking my way through the rocks. The current was deceptively strong and the rocks were crowded and slippery.
Emily and Keith, who’d stopped to take their socks off, followed behind. Emily, head in the map, said, “um, guys? Are you sure this is the way.”
“It looks like the way!” we said, preoccupied with our agony.
It wasn’t the way.
Later, detour rectified, we decided it was going to be cake. After the first river crossing, we trekked easily through fields and native bush, chasing the sheep (me) and stopping to take photos (Emily). We had lunch by an amazing rock formation, surveying the valley with the smug confidence of success.
Shortly afterwards, the track turned into a thin path along the side of a cliff. We could hear the river thundering along below us as we wove our way down. The directions told us we’d eventually find a ladder which we could use to climb down to the river, where we’d pass a waterfall before making our way along the riverbank to our starting point.
We didn’t find a ladder. We found two ladders, tied together end-to-end. The top of the top ladder was roped to a tree that hung out over the sheer cliff-face. The bottom of the bottom ladder was in the river. This should have given us some warning.
Once down the ladder, we realised that riverbank was a misnomer. There was riverbed, and there was cliff. And the riverbed was covered in freezing, raging river to our knees. Gasping and panting at the cold, we forged for the waterfall. The water crept gradually deeper. You couldn’t see the bottom through the swirling current, so we felt and edged our way blindly through the rocks, slipping and sliding into holes and onto boulders. Eventually I lost all feeling below the knee, which helped.
We didn’t realise this would be the last dry land we saw.
After the waterfall, our instructions ended. We were to make our way down the river until we passed the point we’d started at. We set out. The water, already averaging somewhere around our mid-shins, rose steadily. It crept up over my knees and lapped at the bottom of my shorts. The holes got deeper and the boulders got bigger. The current tore at our legs as we fought for balance.
About half an hour in, we reached a huge rock. It stuck out of the water like a waterslide, several times taller than we were. Tangled brush and scrub ran up one side of it. We tried, but couldn’t find a way around it. I climbed the rock, which was green and slippery with moss. Over the sheer edge was a drop taller than I was into the water. I turned to signal to the others, my feet went out from under me, and I tumbled backwards down the rock towards the raging river.
Luckily the skin on my shins and palms eventually broke my fall.
“We can’t go that way,” I announced, scuttling back to the group.
Keith looked at me. “Are you sure?”
I wasn’t remotely. “100%,” I said, checking to see if I was visibly bleeding.
We tried to go around. The water crept up to my butt and over it. It reached my waist. We debated whether to carry our backpacks over our heads. Jef slipped in a hole and was soaked to his chest. “Fuck this,” he said, and marched back to my rockslide. (To picture this accurately, you need to know that he was wearing a woolen cardigan and jeans rolled up to mid-thigh. With Teva sandals and my crocheted hat. All of it soaking wet.) He scampered up to the top and looked over. And then he jumped off.
Moments later Emily discovered a space to crawl through which didn’t involve either falling down or jumping off anything. Keith looked at me suspiciously. “I must have missed it,” I said.
I don’t know how, since I fell in it.
Three hours came and went. We scrambled up banks and under fallen trees. Eels swirled in the eddies. Jef and I both fell on our asses. Emily and Keith were lost somewhere behind us, forging steadily along as Jef and I waged some kind of war with the river and the clock. (Spoiler: they both won.)
The cliffs closed in until we were working our way through a dark, low tunnel of water, surrounded by gleaming rock formations and mini waterfalls. The canopy and the rocks knitted together until were feeling our way in the dark, and then, all of a sudden, the walls of the chasm opened up again and we were back in the sunlight. The river drained away to ankle deep and we saw the bank we’d passed on our way to lunch.
A single eel looped lazily by our feet. We fed it pieces of our leftover sandwiches and catalogued our cuts and bruises.
Finally Emily and Keith appeared, and together, we clambered up the bank and staggered back to the road.
“How’d it go?” the farmer asked us, taking in our soaked clothes and chattering teeth.
“Awesome,” we said. “Totally awesome.”
And it was.