Malcolm Prouting, the current owner of Mesopotamia Station had agreed to fly us over the Rangitata River at seven.
We set the alarm for six.
Today's earworm was to be the lovely Morning Flower Alarm Tone that comes standard with my Samsung Galaxy.
Whiona liked it so much she told me not to turn it off..."Leave it on...it's really nice", she mumbled as it doolallied on.
We made it out of the house and down the road in time to get a ride on Malcolm's ute to the hangar.
As he opened up the big shed there sat the little helicopter...our ride...then Malcolm started dragging the Cessna out onto the runway.
"Are we going in the plane?" I asked.
"Yep, I've got a meeting in Christchurch, so I'll drop you off on the way," he said as if it was obvious.
Until recently I had a pretty bad fear of flying. In my mind, wings were always attached to fuselages with rusty bolts. Fellow passengers were always deranged psychos planning to pop the emergency exit. Pilots were always drunk, aging playboys with heart conditions.
A trip to Europe with a bottle of Valium and two sleeping pills cured me.
The Valium got me in the air. The sleeping pill got me over Afghanistan without a ground to air missile attack.
After that...cured. I can now fly in anything with anyone. It's good.
We both felt like we were in safe hands as the little Cessna hurtled towards the fence at the end of the runway...then we were up.
The sun was just rising over the hills and lit up the river's veins below.
We swooped around, then over the braided river. The pilot was a bit worried he'd get sunstrike as he landed at the farm airfield on the other side so we circled some more before we landed.
He pointed out some Lord of the Rings sets that may or may not have made the final cut then we dropped.
"I'll try to miss that ditch", he said calmly as we came in to land.
"There's a few black faces left in his mob", he noted as we hit the ground.
"It's good to see what the neighbours are up to sometimes."
This last statement should have been a warning for us. We nodded innocently.
As our packs were extruded from the cargo bay at the back of the plane a young goat ran across the next field, jumped through the fence and bounded up to us.
Fiona asked Malcolm how the recent Tenure Review had worked out for him and his sheep station.
"Between Aunty Helen and heiracium, the high country's buggered", was his eventual summation of the question.
Mesopotamia had gone from 75,000 acres down to 15,000 acres when the Proutings' lease had come up for renegotiation almost ten years ago.
It was a similar story for high country station owners all over the South.
He'd been compensated by the government for the loss of land but felt that the economics weren't right anymore.
"You'll see a lot of farms round here intensifying. The place'll be green like the MacKenzie Country soon."
It was already happening. A couple of paddocks away, a huge irrigator sucked water from the river and sprayed it on the thirsty field.
As Malcolm told us about the end of a chapter in his family's life the young goat nuzzled and butted us like a pet cat.
We'd just stayed in the musterers' huts that once played a big part in the Proutings' and the country's history.
We now owned them too. The Tenure Review has meant a huge part of the country has been retired from farming and in effect given back to us as a play ground.
"We were always happy for people to go wandering in our hills...but they were New Zealanders. It's good to see people like you guys here...but I'm not sure about all those Germans bringing Giardia into the place..." he said.
At this point I must confess. Fiona had started the conversation so he didn't really know he was being interviewed. I kind of listened while I played with my new pet goat.
I'm taking a bit of a gamble here.
A: That Malcolm won't read this.
B: That he's very happy to be quoted.
Malcolm seems to be a man of strong opinions...as long as I've reported them right, here's hoping he's happy...if you have a problem Malc, look me up next time you fly into Palmy and I'll shout you a coffee and savory scone at Joseph Street Kitchen...we'll sort it out then.
The thing about hikers is that they don't spend much money. Replacing sheep in the high country with stingey backpackers doesn't make much economical sense to Malcolm.
And DoC? They've got it all wrong too. You want to save the Kiwis? Get some scientists onto it. It's easy to breed birds and the sooner we get Kiwi into KFC burgers the better. We need to make money out of conservation not lock it all away.
Looking back on the conversation there are a couple of things I would've liked to have found out from Malcolm, but forgot to ask.
Did he know Helen Clark had been staying in the old family mustering huts over Christmas on his land that she'd helped to nationalise...and what did he think of that?
Mesopotamia still runs thousands of Merino Sheep. As Whiona and I stood there with him we were both wearing or carrying incredibly expensive Ice Breaker Merino socks. Many of the German, French and American through-hikers wear Ice Breaker and other Merino gear too. Is the new backpacker economy really that bad?
I reckon New Zealand's backcountry history has just moved on. From an economy that used to think grazing one sheep to every seven and a half acres was a good way to use our land, to the current one, where we sell well-managed wool for a premium to foreigners with the money and time to care.
Meanwhile the ravaged high country is getting a chance to recover. As we've walked through the high dry lands behind Messie we've seen the improvement.
We've seen the devastation on the southern pastures as we've walked up the South Island from Invercargill.
The damage rabbits do is horrendous. The heiracium invasion is appalling. But take the sheep out of the mix and it seems some sort of recovery is possible.
Looking across valleys to the farms that have undergone the goverment's Tenure Review, the contrast is obvious. In the drought ravaged highlands there is a line of green above all of the farms that have lost their high country tops. It looks like someone has been fertilizing up there.
Tussock, Matagori, mountain daisies and other flowers are booming above the Tenure Review line. We are sure the rest will follow.
Less erosion. More birds. Perhaps even a return to beech and totara forest in places.
Thanks Aunty Helen. We and those cashed-up Germans are enjoying it. Perhaps one day the farmers' children will forgive you.
Malcolm gets our latest Te Araroa Nice Guy Award. Good conversation and the pane ride was awesome.
Enough of the politics!
Do you feel dirty now?
As Malcolm prepared to fly off he told us to mind the goat.
"Otherwise I'll chop it up," was the last thing he said to us before he flew off.
That's when things got very weird...again.
A ute came up the road towards us and stopped.
A tense looking guy rolled down his window and ignoring my hello, asked:
"Is that you that just landed in my field?"
This wasn't right. He looked angry.
Being the playground coward that I am I realised there was only one thing to do...blame someone else.
"Malcolm from Mesopotamia dropped us off. We're a bit lost. Can you tell us how to get to the road? "
Without acknowledging that he knew Malcom from Mesopotamia at all, he said...
"I don't care where you're going. It's rude to use other people's airstrips without asking. All you have to do is phone."
He then drove off in a cloud of dust.
As we searched for the road, my new pet goat followed.
I could take it home. Feed it grass. What was I going to call it?
Whiona likes to think that she's not sucked in by cute animals but as the goatlet followed us along the road it took a bit of a shining to her. I could feel her coldness breaking.
Then the ute roared up the road towards us again.
It stopped and the farmer got out.
Without looking either of us in the eye or saying anything to us he picked up our new friend, plonked it in the passenger seat, hung a u-turn, then disappeared in his second cloud of dust for the day.
Note to TeA: one of the trickiest and potentially most dangerous river crossings on the trail has just become trickier. The two farmers on opposite sides of the river have got some communication issues and us through-hikers may end up stuck in the middle of it...literally.
Please everyone...treat them and their place with respect. They're working and living here...we're just passing through. You may need them to save your bacon one day.
What had become our most interesting day was about to become our hardest.
Historical Note: I am editing this on a day off in nearby Methvyn. Pania, our support crew has a great book about the history of the high country. In the chapter on the Tenure Review it points out the the Crown Pastoral Lands Act, that started the Tenure Review process, was passed in 2008 - the last year of the Bolger/Shipley National Government. Thanks Uncle Jim and Aunty Jenny. I love the new improved highlands.
Before we left the road we met someone we'd been expecting to meet for a while now.
We first heard of Rory in Queenstown. He was a bit surprised he was famous but would look Kelby up. (You're going to have to read our Queenstown to Arrowtown blog for that reference.)
He had camped out on the river bank with Jörg and Matt the night before. They'd walked 30 plus ks the previous day to get there. This wasn't on our plan. Too far. Too hot.
We passed Andrew and Peter packing up their tents before making our way up into the heat of the day.
We planned to walk about 20 kilometres then pitch our tent.
We walked through more beautiful regenerating high country - an ancient glacial valley where mountain plants are making a comeback and Peter Jackson must've sent his set scouts.
Then it got ugly. The drought ravaged farm land returned. We'd done just over 20ks and needed to find a campsite.
The first spot we checked out was exposed, had been sprayed with weed killer and had dead ferrets rotting about the place. The only good ferret is a dead one but they spoiled the "ambience" somewhat that afternoon.
We decided to walk eight kilometres on to Lake Emily. More farmland, dusty roads and heat. The lake was more than disappointing. Barren and windswept, it had dead birds floating in it and smelt.
We only had one other option. To walk five more ks to Manuka Hut - a hut that doesn't feature in the official Te Araroa book, but that we found to be a life saver.
By the time we got there we were shattered. It wasn't our longest day, but I reckon it was our hardest. The drought has taken its toll on the region and nearly killed us.
At least we were now amongst friends.
Eight walkers sheltered in a valley on the edge of Manuka Range that night.