Did you hear that?
Footsteps? Yeah, I hear it too.
I think someone is coming...
That was the conversation we were having just before it happened. Yep, that’s how I’m going to build suspense.
Dirtbagjens and I had set up camp in a cave at the end of Long Beach near Dunedin, on New Zealand’s east coast.
Our brand new copy of Rock Deluxe South had led us to this sleepy beach town. We used this climbing guidebook like most backpackers use Lonely Planet guides. We climbed during the day, then slept at the crags most nights.
Our itinerary was invented on the fly. If we woke up to grey skies, we’d open the guidebook, find a crag with a halfway decent weather forecast, plug the coordinates into the GPS, load up an episode of the Enormocast and drive though farmland and mountain passes in search of the next adventure.
Traveling this way took us to some really amazing places. Lots of quiet spots with great views. It also meant that there were some late nights spent shining head torches at patches of grass trying to find patches of dirt big enough and flat enough for two sleeping mats. The definition of ‘big enough and flat enough’ tended to vary wildly depending on our energy levels. Our first morning in New Zealand began on a very small, very slopey bridge that we’d found halfway along a faint sheep track that lead to a crag called The Cave. Other, more organised wordpress folk have actually made it all the way up there. They took better photos than I did.
On that first night in New Zealand we learned some valuable life lessons:
1. There is literally only one single service station open in all of Christchurch after 11pm on Christmas day.
2. Powerade and Doritos are both delicious, but they’re not quite as filling or nutritious as the pub dinner we’d been hoping for.
3. Relying on a GPS map that pre-dates two significant earthquakes is not recommended.
4. There is a finite number of times that a sane, rational human can have their way blocked by a NO RIGHT TURN sign, before things get desperate. Oh and that one service station that is still open.. it will always be somewhere on your right.
5. If you find a sentence saying “follow the obvious trail for 20 minutes’ in any climbing or hiking guidebook published in Australia, you can generally assume that if you’re relatively fit, you will reach your destination after a 15 minute wander down a nice wide track. If you find the same sentence in a New Zealand guide, expect to find a goat track with any combination of mud/sheep poop/loose scree/hair raising exposure/lung burning steepness… and add an extra 15 minutes to your estimate. Apparently kiwis are professional trail runners who have some kind of anti-gravity device in their packs.
But I should get back to that thing that happened. Back to that cave where we heard the footsteps.
The cave we found ourselves in that night was dusted with chalk. Every little edge, pocket and crack in the dark rock had been painted white by local boulderers. Apparently it’s a popular spot on rainy days.
Dirtbagjens and I had enjoyed some great beachside trad climbing on The Pinnacle earlier that day.
After powering through four of five climbs on the Pinnacle, we had no urge to don our beanies, take our shirts off and hang upside down in the cave. Instead we fired up the stove, made tea and read our books.
Our unexpected visitor arrived while we were both quietly reading our books. We heard the footsteps first. Or something like footsteps. That made me a little nervous. Whenever we camped out, I was always worried that someone would arrive and tell us that we weren’t in a designated camping area. I imagined a conversation where the owner of the footsteps would very politely and very firmly suggest that we pack up and move to a DOC approved site. I really wasn’t looking forward to arguing with a stranger (perhaps I chose the wrong career path?) or repacking all our gear and trekking back down the beach. The idea of getting back into the car and searching for a new campsite was even less appealing. Especially after our night on the bridge near Christchurch. With these thoughts in my head, I sat up and peaked around the corner to face the incoming intruder.
As it turned out, the intruder were pretty unimpressed that we had set up camp in the beachside cave. Instead of launching into a speech about the importance of restricting camping to certain areas, the intruder just roared.
It was loud roar that came from a very big, very angry sea lion that materialised in the middle of our campsite. Dirtbagjens reached for a camera. My first instinct was to sprint out of the cave using my flimsy sleeping mat as some kind of shield. The sea lion waddled through the cave and out a smaller entrance on the other side. Then he turned, looked at us both, and roared one last time before wandering further along the beach.
Once he left we both put on brave faces and decided it might be a nice time for a walk down the beach to watch the sunset. In reality we were both silently determining whether there were more sea lions lying in wait all around the cave, ready to crush us to death in our sleep. Maybe that was just me. We didn’t find any other lions from the sea or the land on our walk, so we settled in for the night. We weren’t scared… Although we did arrange a ring of 20 or so tea light candles around our campsite. The ring of fire would keep us safe… right?
When we walked back to the car the next day, we noticed this sign at the start of the trail. If only we’d paid more attention.