I have this pesky habit of nearly getting myself killed which, so far, has proven to be a harder problem to kick than smoking or binge drinking. In my defence, it’s not like I’m going out there and doing things that are completely idiotic on the surface, e.g. car-surfing, picking fights with strangers or doing my own electrical work to ‘save money.’ Rather, it’s just plain old ignorance that usually lands me in a spot of trouble. I make a mistake simply because I don’t know any better even though it seems super obvious in hindsight, but that’s 20/20 for a reason, right? Regardless, I always manage to come through the other side relatively unscathed and have a good story to tell. However, this isn’t a story borne from me simply being unaware or inexperienced (like my first climb of Kozzie or my slog through Rakiura). Rather, this is a tale of me being too big for my britches and getting a stark reminder to cool my heels. Remember, it only takes six inches of water for a car to float and only a couple of feet for a fall to become deadly…
I pulled into Lake Tekapo late one night, aghast at the ridiculous prices at the bowser – $2.09 a litre!? That’s ridiculous! (Later, I would be living across the street from a servo whose prices grazed the $3 a litre mark due to this worldwide inflation nonsense. How captivating to see the alarm on motorists’ faces grow to outrageous proportions are the months dragged on). Regardless of the dent in my wallet, I got a good night’s rest and decided to head up Mt John early in the morning, where an observatory studies our cosmos due to the clear skies. That is probably why there’s a fantastic lookout across the lake and the snow-capped mountains up there too.
Mt John is roughly a thousand metres above sea-level, but given the town of Lake Tekapo already sits 700 metres above the Pacific Ocean, getting to the top of Mt John is ‘only’ another 300 metres. Put another way, climbing to the top of Mt John would be like climbing all the stairs to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow, that sounds challenging, but climbing the mountain doesn’t. Naturally, I felt pretty arrogant about the whole thing – “300 metres? Pfft, easy peasy! I’ve climbed higher!” – and wandered up the mountain before the first rays of Winter light. The ascent was pitch black, with only my handy-dandy flashlight to guide my way up the winding dirt path.
There was absolutely zero sound – no rustling of leaves amongst the trees, no snapping of twigs from wandering animals, no wind passing over the grass and sending a chill down my spine (it was already cold enough for that, hence why I donned my gloves). Well, it was silent if you discount my panting and the occasional curse when I saw a monster within the shadows, who always disappeared when I shone my torch at it. Feeling the paranoia gnaw at me, I found a bench near the top and rested for but a moment before setting off again. I climbed the stairs cut into the steep hill that led to two paths: one to the observatory, the other to the tippy-top of Mt John. I chose the latter given the first was shut and clambered up the rocks to the summit.
The view was glorious: the Sun rose over the Snow-capped mountains from the North-North-East, bringing the black waters below to life as the town’s lights began to fade in the dawn. A light breeze played with my hair as I sat cross-legged on a smooth boulder, allowing a smile to creep onto my face. I was two thousand kilometres away from home, several kilometres from the nearest person and a million miles away from all my problems. Past memories that haunted me left me alone. I was certain that future events I was desperately trying to control would unfold in the way I desired as all associated anxiety dissipated. I felt incredibly at peace up there: I just sat and really enjoyed my time in the present.
That lasted a good ten minutes before being shattered by ten thousand thoughts all screaming: “Time to go back down!” “Do it in the shortest time possible!” “Places to go, things to see!”
Thrown out of my tranquil state, I readily obliged the agitated thoughts in my head. But I didn’t head back the same way – I always like to take another route if available. And according to my map, there was a path that took me further away from town and the observatory, but it would nonetheless take me down the mountain and follow the shores of the lake. I found the path, which followed a fence, so I felt absolutely fine and didn’t worry about a thing. However, slowly but surely, the path became less defined. As in, it was definitely an area many people walked through, but in a less uniform way. The grass had been trampled and driven over, but there was no consensus on where people should primarily do so, leading to thinner tracks of dirt scattered in all directions. Huh, the map didn’t say anything about that. The Sun hadn’t yet risen over the mountains, but there was more than enough light to see what was going on here. No matter – I’ll pick one of the tracks and I’m sure it’ll head in the right direction.
That wasn’t the smartest decision – now it wasn’t clear at all where I should be going next since the tracks had all but disappeared. Now, current me would just backtrack and revisit the route I had initially used to come up (I wouldn’t do this if I were lost, but the path back up the summit was clearly visible from where I was standing, even if it petered out partway). But back-then me was stupid and thought “Eh, I’m sure I’ll find a way down if I just keep going. After all, the map says there’s a path somewhere around here. (Note: when the map and reality are showing you two different things, stick with what reality’s telling you!) Besides, I don’t want to climb back up the hill!” If I knew about the fast-approaching alternative, I would’ve picked walking up a slight incline in a heartbeat.
I continued for a while until I hit an awkward situation: The relatively flat plains gave way to precipitous slopes. B-But the map is saying there’s a path! I was stumped as to what to do for a moment. But then, I saw what looked like a shallow groove that led all the way down to the lake, and, like a moron, I thought “It doesn’t look that steep, so this must be the path.” Here’s the thing: it’s very hard to estimate the angle of a mountain, especially from the top or the bottom. It’s either way steeper or flatter than you think. Even experts have trouble with guessing the angle, so neophyte me had no chance.
So down the side of the mountain I go. It was easy enough at first and I started to see the walking track that surrounds the lake down below. It was ‘only’ a hundred or so metres away. I thought I was on the right track. I thought I was fine. Then it got a bit steeper. Then a lot steeper. I had second thoughts about this route.
Then, a stone underneath my boot gave way and I started to fall. Fast.
Instinctively, I squatted down and onto my back to prevent myself tumbling forwards. That worked, but I was still sliding down and getting my back scratched to high hell by all the dry grass. I dug my heels in and grasped at the shrubs that surrounded me. The incline got steeper, but luckily for me there were tiny ridges that (oh so slightly) jutted out parallel to the ground. My literal grasping at straws had slowed my ascent enough for my heels to land on one of these ridges and stay firmly planted on it. I still manhandled some poor shrubs, clinging for dear life, as I took a deep breath and assessed the situation.
My boots, back and bag was completely covered in dirt and something squishy and smelly, but deducing what this mystery substance could have been was the least of my concerns. I was stuck on a roughly forty to fifty degree slope, dozens of metres up with absolutely no climbing equipment to help me out. That doesn’t sound too bad, you may be thinking. You sound as unexperienced as I was, and look where it got me! Let me put it this way: extremely steep roads that you’re afraid to park your car on are only about eighteen degrees! The steepest road in the world (Baldwin Street in Dunedin) is on a knee-destroying thirty-five-degree angle (talking from experience – I was shaking by the time I got to the top!), and any slope more than forty-five degrees is generally listed as ‘do not attempt’ in the skiing world!
“Well, this isn’t good,” I muttered in what was the biggest understatement of all time. I had also figured that where I was probably wasn’t the track the map had been showing me. Insightful commentary aside, I guessed there was about seventy metres between me and the track, but there was no way I was about to attempt a direct route down; after my harrowing experience sliding uncontrollably just moments prior and seeing where that got me, I proved to be a quick learner. Besides, I wasn’t guaranteed to come through another attempt like that unscathed. And there was no way I was going to climb back up the mountain – the same problem would occur. So, what was I to do? I was stuck.
That’s when I saw the little bunny running above me as I was looking up. He was sprinting as fast as his fluffy legs could take him, which captivated me – so quick, seemingly oblivious to the fact he was on the side of a mountain. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, which is how I noticed that as he was running to my right, he was actually descending – he started above my head, now he was standing at my level, about twenty metres away from me. He was descending the mountain by walking sideways. But he stopped and turned around to stare at me with beady black eyes, watching me intently. If it worked for him, surely it’d work for me too, right? I didn’t have any other option (at least, so I thought – my ego clearly blinded me to many better decisions I could’ve made up to that point, so why not blind me to better decisions in that moment?). I decided to follow the rabbit and hoped to God that he didn’t plunge me into a hole and force me to eat cake or drink tea.
The ridges I was walking along were barely the width of one of my feet and blended in so well I sometimes had trouble locating them. There were mounds of rabbit shit all over them, which I had no choice but to step in – gross, yes, but I had bigger priorities (on an unrelated note, I solved the mystery of what was all over my back). It was agonisingly slow progress as I grabbed onto these remarkably sturdy shrubs and placed one foot over the other like I was a runway model wearing hiking boots instead of stilettos. Occasionally the ridge would end and I would need to drop to the ridge below it. This was terrifying – I needed to slide a foot or two, which could’ve easily turned into a fifty-metre tumble. Luckily, the worst malady I suffered (apart from heart palpitations) was nearly rolling my ankle. But to my relief, I was descending the mountain.
And the rabbit would wait until I was roughly five to ten metres away, hop a short distance away and turn back to look at me and monitor my progress. The rabbit waited patiently for me before continuing his trek down the mountain, showing me the path to take. I was always impressed by how swiftly he did it, but then again he did live here and probably did this all day every day. That’s when it hit me: I, a human, part of the species that has travelled to the moon and returned on several occasions, was using a rabbit as an experienced guide in an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. The rabbit knew more than me in that scenario, and it was only through the rabbit’s good graces that I would make it. It was a truly humbling experience and my already immense respect for animals grew even larger (I have been humbled several times since – the ego can put Houdini to shame with its disappearing-reappearing stunt, but it has to try a little harder each time it tries to pull it off!).
After about twenty or so gruelling minutes of sideways climbing, the rabbit turned and hopped directly down the mountain to the lake’s edge. Again, he turned to face me from all the way down below. I was shocked; although I was definitely closer to the ground, there was no way I could attempt to walk down it now! Or so I thought. Suddenly, the ridge I was on merged with a [relatively] flat piece of land. Don’t get me wrong, it was still steep, but nowhere near the sheer drops I was just facing, and I could stand on this incline comfortably. I looked down and saw the rabbit directly in front of me, still looking into my eyes, with plenty of shrubbery and long grass between us, almost like it was saying to me ‘Even if you trip, your fall will be cushioned.’ I was worried about sudden dips or hidden rocks that could cause serious injury, but I trusted the rabbit and walked this last thirty or so metres. Well, it turned into an awkward half jog at the end as gravity did its thing, but I had successfully climbed down the side of the mountain.
As soon as I got to the bottom, I felt onto my hands and knees on the flat, damp ground, so grateful to be on stable land again. I looked to my left and saw the rabbit standing about five metres away. His ear twitched and he disappeared into the grass at the foot of Mt John before I could get a photo or thank him. I smiled, somehow knowing he understood how I felt. I got up and walked back to town. Along the way I passed this woman who saw me in my sorry state. I gave a weak smile as she raised an eyebrow and gave me wide berth. I don’t blame her – I was covered in filth. I looked insane. And in all honesty, I was insane (and still am!).
But that experience has been an impactful one (albeit one I may have failed to appreciate in full until much later). First, I realise just how fragile I am and take even the smallest of hazards seriously – at least, the ones that I’m aware of. Heights of about three metres could easily maim or kill me, so I treat with respect every hill or mountain I walk on/around. I have a much easier time admitting when I’m wrong and don’t let a bruised ego prevent me from turning around if need be (but that pesky inexperience, even in the face of intellectual understanding, still lands me in trouble, but that’s understandable). And I feel no shame in asking for help if needed, even if it’s from a rabbit – everyone and everything has something of value they can add to this world, and that rabbit helped me out of a sticky situation, thus allowing me to discover more of our world and our stories. In fact, he has become part of my story, my experience, and my contribution to the human experience. How about that – a simple rabbit gained so much significance and I was knocked down a few pegs!
So be a rabbit today. Help someone out, even if your assistance seems inconsequential – after all, the smallest of things can make the biggest difference. It only takes a smile to brighten someone’s day, it only takes a rabbit to rescue you from a mountain, it only takes six inches of water for a car to float and only a couple of feet for a fall to become deadly…
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