When it comes to raising a family, the challenge of keeping pre-teens grounded to the world around them rather than immersed in life on the screen is something many parents are familiar with. Taupō-based Chris Bain has an age-old way of helping re-establish ground zero for their two pre-teen boys. He shares his most recent expedition with his son Hunter.
It’s fair to say that I’ve been accused of being a little highly strung once or twice in my 38 years. Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending on your perspective), our nine-year-old son Hunter, appears to have been handed down that trait.
So, when recently we could see that Hunter was growing a little more tense and a little less appreciative of the life my wife and I have created for him, we decided the only way to pull him back in line was to ground him. Ground in the physical and spiritual sense; not the locked in a room and throw away the key sense.
With the announcement made that he and I were heading off for some ‘grounded’ time, with all devices left at home, I made my way to Hunter’s room for an early morning start of 4.30am, fully expecting the need to drag him from his bed to wake him up. To my surprise, his eyes popped open to the gentlest of nudges and the excited words ‘is it time?’ filled the darkness.
A rushed breakfast was followed by a great amount of care ensuring all the correct clothing layers were applied, and that boots were tied without blister-inducing lumps and bumps in his socks.
Still in early morning darkness, we set off in the four-wheel drive for a place I’d been wanting to share with Hunter for some time: the Kaimanawa Forest Park via Poronui Estate.
Poronui is a well-known trout fishing, hunting lodge, and dry stock station located just out of Taupō. The owners graciously allow walk in access to the Kaimanawa via this beautiful piece of New Zealand countryside.
It’s a long hike to our campsite, a smidge over 16.5km. With a 20kg pack and carrying a rifle, it’s enough to remind me that I spend far too much time in a small room staring at a computer screen. For a nine-year-old carrying his own pack, I knew this would give Hunter exactly what he needed to get him back on track – an opportunity to test himself and empty the (bad) energy tank completely. I also knew that with every stride Hunter took further away from civilisation, the closer he would want to be to his mother and brother at home.
The hike starts out easy, on beautifully maintained gravel roads that wind through the entrance to Poronui and past the main lodge. Entering the property, hundreds of ringneck pheasants were spotted and already our pace was slowing as both of us got caught up in the sight of these stunning birds and what the surroundings had to offer.
A few more kilometres up the track and the first deer were spotted, although, quickly disappearing through the pines as they made a quick retreat from the sound of Hunter’s dragging boots on the gravel road. A gentle reminder to lift his feet and walk quietly was acknowledged. After all, it was the roar, a time when Red and Sika deer in this area are vocalising and fighting for mating rights.
The almost guarantee of seeing these animals on the walk through Poronui adds an extra element of excitement and anticipation, and for kids, it adds a feeling of success if the real hunt doesn’t go to plan. Halfway through the walk, our pace continued to slow, not through depleting energy levels but because there are just so many beautiful river views, interesting little creeks to jump over, and an assortment of game animals to watch and discuss why and what they were doing.
We stopped and chatted to a nice chap, at a guess in his 70s, who had been in hunting for several days. Hunter commented that he thought it was pretty cool that the ‘old man’ was out doing that by himself.
After several hours, we reached the bush edge. At this point, Hunter’s legs were burning and even though I’d taken over the duty of carrying his pack, his mind was starting to fight him, willing him to give up.
We stopped for a moment, while I explained that I was struggling to carry the two packs as well as my rifle, and I was in pain, too. Right now, I needed him to change his mindset and start talking positive because we were too far into this to turn around and we needed to be here for each other.
Not surprisingly, he took this on board and complaints of sore legs and how far we still had to go changed to positive affirmations of ‘good job dad’ and ‘we got this’. This was one of those neat dad moments that will never be forgotten, and I can’t think of another scenario that would have given me this opportunity to give him this little life lesson.
We carried on and the promise of a cheese cracker, salami, and Mars Bar lunch at the top of the next hill was enough to get us up the steep climb. The cool shaded soil and half-decayed leaf matter carpeting the forest floor gave a nice bit of relief to our aching legs as we sat listening and watching the river bubbling away far below us.
The next several kilometres were sheltered under the canopy of natives, with creek crossings breaking up the rhythm of the hike. Hunter was quiet now, just focusing on getting to our campsite. The usually chatty nine-year-old had learned that it was a bit too much to ask of his lungs to question everything in life, as well as hike uphill with his pack, which had now been returned to his back.
One creek crossing, in particular, offered up another opportunity for Hunter to test himself out. This one consisted of a large tree that had fallen across a deep and steadily flowing creek. In the still icy cool air of the morning, its well-worn trunk was slick to touch, and the old tree’s broken branches created a slalom of sorts to weave body and packs awkwardly through. Proudly, there was no need to be firm and assure him he doesn’t need me to get him across. He stepped up and sternly declared his ability to do this himself, which he did without mishap.
It wasn’t long until Oamaru hut was in view, perched up on the hill. As we continued along the river flats, we talked about how many people might be staying at the hut at the moment and guessed their success at chasing the elusive Sika deer.
Walking through shin height grass, Hunter set the pace and we counted as helicopter after helicopter shuttled hunters into deeper reaches of the ranges above us. One day, we agreed, we would get Mum and Axle, Hunter’s six-year-old brother, out here and take the easy way in with Heli Sika.
One final hour later and we were back in the native timber and arriving at our campsite. Flat moss-covered ground offered comfortable bedding under our two-man hiking tent, and the creek less than 10 metres away gave us easy access to water, which we both now desperately craved.
We chose large smooth river rocks from the creek bed and arranged them into a rough fire ring near our tent. Hunter tasked himself with finding any wood lucky enough to have been sheltered from the constant dampness of the lush green forest.
The evening saw our first hunt (search really, not actual hunt). Our walk took us past several beautiful waterfalls cascading down rock faces and we spent plenty of time pointing out the huge Crown Ferns along the way that both Hunter and I agreed Mum would love in her garden at home.
With a few deer heard in the distance but none spotted, we made our way back to camp in fading light. We warmed a meal each of Back Country Spaghetti Bolognese followed by a dessert of chocolate brownie with berries, which Hunter turned his nose up at. With a little gentle encouragement from Dad’s lecture about replacing burnt calories, Hunter managed a few mouthfuls of this rich saucy mixture. Cruel, aren’t I?
The next morning, after a quick breakfast, I walked down the bank to join Hunter brushing his teeth, halfway through the exercise I noticed tears streaming down his cheeks. I asked him what the matter was, and through sobs, he explained he missed his mum and Axle. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t bring a tear to my own eye, partly because I knew exactly what he was feeling and partly in relief. This is what I hoped this place would give him, as it has for me many times over the last few years.
Needless to say, we cut our trip a little short and we started our walk back that afternoon. With Hunter’s increasing desperation to get home, we managed to make good time and set camp on the river flats that evening. As we dried our boots over a fire, a rainbow grew from behind a native-covered hill. Watching Hunter stare at it, with the sound of the river bubbling in the background, I had a moment of absolute calm, something I’ve rarely been able to achieve lately with the stress of work, home duties, and family illness taking their toll.
The walk out the next day offered more of the same adventures, stunning sights, and discomfort we experienced on the walk in. In total, we walked 37km, Hunter doing much of that with a 5kg pack on his back. The looks of surprise from spraying contractors working on the station as they asked how far we had come was satisfying to Hunter; this added a little more energy (and pride) back into his strides as we neared the car park.
While we were dressed in camo, and I carried a rifle all that way, this wasn’t really a hunting trip. This was a way I could share a place that’s special to me, a place I knew would let my son just breathe and reset, far away from the modern-day pressures of being a kid.
It doesn’t last forever but it’s the best medicine I’ve found for myself, and now, I think my eldest son.
The next time you or a loved one finds themselves a little lost, take a walk through Poronui and into the bush – it’s a magical part of our country. Go on, get grounded.