A branch on the vine

John 15 is one of those chapters I come back to again and again.  Each time I read it something fresh and new appears that I hadn’t noticed before.  Most of us are familiar with the passage.  Jesus takes an example of everyday life: a vine with its branches, leaves and fruit and uses it to teach his disciples the importance of remaining or abiding in him.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:1–5, CSB)

We need to stay closely connected to Jesus.  That’s the point.  We need the life of Jesus, pulsating in and through us, just as the life of the vine pulsates through the branches, to enable us to bear fruit and be the people God intended us to be.  If we don’t, we will fail again and again.

The Christian life is not me doing my best for Jesus.  It is Jesus doing his best in and through me.  Apart from him I can do nothing.

So far so good.  I get that.  Then comes the next part.  The Father, says Jesus, is the gardener (or vinedresser).  His role is to prune the vine.  Notice however, which branches he prunes.  It’s not the barren ones.  It’s the ones that are producing fruit.

That was something I hadn’t really noticed before.  And it got me thinking… hard.  If I’m on the vine – if I truly belong to Jesus, then I’m going to be pruned – regularly.  And if I’m not pruned regularly, something is wrong.

So, let’s think about how this works.  I’m no expert in the area of viticulture, in fact, the joke in our house is I’m a real nog when it comes to anything to do with gardening.  I have two gardening instruments in my tool-shed, a chainsaw and a big pair of loppers and I’m dangerous whenever I get hold of either of them.  My wife tells people we make a great gardening team – I destroy things and she rebuilds.

OK, so I’m no gardener but I did some reading on this.  There are actually several stages when it comes to pruning a grapevine:

  • There is what’s called pinching – that’s when you remove the little tips at the end of the branch so it won’t grow too rapidly
  • Then there’s topping, when a foot or two of new growth is removed to prevent the loss of an entire shoot
  • Then there is thinning where you remove entire grape clusters so the rest of the branch can bear more fruit as well as better quality fruit
  • And then there is cutting away of suckers to give more nourishment to the whole plant

And all of this pruning doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages.  Now I’ve watched someone prune a grapevine we had once, and I tell you, I got a real shock.  It was brutal.  He didn’t just snip off a little leaf here and there.  He chopped off entire branches.  But he knew what he was doing.  He knew what was necessary in order for my plant to grow healthy, juicy fruit.

The same is true for the Christian life.  God knows what is best for us.  He knows what to cut away.  Sometimes God prunes because there is sin in our lives.  Sometimes there is a relationship that needs restoring that we have been ignoring.  Sometimes it might be because there is fruit in our lives, but God wants us to bear more.  So, he picks up the knife and he begins cutting.

Now I think I can speak personally here.  I don’t mind sharing something of God’s work in this area in my life.  The most recent “pruning” I have experienced would be my son’s motorcycle accident.  But that’s still going on.  I have no idea of what God wanted to accomplish with all that.  I know I have a lot more understanding of what it’s like for people to go through trauma or loss.  I don’t know what the Father is up to, but he does.

Sometimes it’s only by looking back, years afterwards that we see what he was doing – like my first year of marriage.  When Francelle and I got engaged, we were the postcard couple.  The day we announced it at church a bunch of our friends made this huge placard and held it up and hooted and whistled and made a huge scene.  How I passed any papers at Seminary that semester I have no idea; I walked around half the time in a daze.  We were both utterly smitten.  We got back from the honeymoon and the whole thing crashed.  It was like, this is not the same person I married?  Someone has done a dirty and made a swap.  I was expecting lovely evenings gazing at each other across the table and instead I got plates thrown at me.  NOBODY told me about that in the premarital counselling!

What we had there was two very determined, headstrong, independent people trying to forge out a new life together.  There was pride and stubbornness and pig-headedness (more on my side than hers) that needed to be named, exposed and repented of.  Fruits of love and patience and kindness needed to grow in its place.  

 Snip, snip, snip.  The Father was very carefully, wisely and lovingly tending to his vine.

Perhaps you are experiencing a season of pruning in your life right now.  It might be relational conflict like it was with me in my first year of marriage.  Or you’re experiencing financial difficulty – you’re finding it hard to make ends meet week to week.  Or you are having to watch someone you love suffer.  That is almost as hard as going through it yourself.  It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.  It doesn’t mean you’re being punished or that you’re not performing in your Christian life to the extent God wants you to.  You’re being pruned – that’s all.  You’re part of the vine and God’s vine gets regularly pruned.

During a very difficult season in my life I was handed a little hard-covered book called Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman.  Inspired by her experience as a missionary to Japan and China, it is filled with spiritual riches of God’s provision and purpose for our lives, particularly during seasons of suffering.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from February 19:

A CHILD of God was dazed by the variety of afflictions which seemed to make her their target. Walking past a vineyard in the rich autumnal glow she noticed the untrimmed appearance and the luxuriant wealth of leaves on the vines, that the ground was given over to a tangle of weeds and grass, and that the whole place looked utterly uncared for; and as she pondered, the Heavenly Gardener whispered so precious a message that she would fain pass it on:

“My dear child, are you wondering at the sequence of trials in your life? Behold that vineyard and learn of it. The gardener ceases to prune, to trim, to harrow, or to pluck the ripe fruit only when he expects nothing more from the vine during that season. It is left to itself, because the season of fruit is past and further effort for the present would yield no profit. Comparative uselessness is the condition of freedom from suffering. Do you then wish me to cease pruning your life? Shall I leave you alone?”

The comforted heart cried, “No!”

It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife,
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life.

Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.

O thou whose life of joy seems reft,
Of beauty shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,

Rejoice, tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine

That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.

—Annie Johnson Flint.[1]

[1] Cowman, L. B. (1925). Streams in the Desert (pp. 56–57). Los Angeles, CA: The Oriental Missionary Society.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The True Vine.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

Two years on

Today is August 1st, the second anniversary of our son’s motorcycle accident, where he lost control at a corner and collided with a steel road barrier, severing off his left leg and badly mutilating the other.  It was the day when our world was turned completely upside down.  The weeks following were an absolute nightmare.  Looking back, we wonder how we ever got through it.  If it wasn’t for God’s sustaining grace and the faithful prayers of his people, the outcome may have been quite different.

Even so, the whole episode has affected us more than we both realized (perhaps I was the slower to admit it), and it is only now, two years on, that we feel that life has retained a measure of stability.  It has made me think quite differently about those who go through some kind of trauma.  It can leave even the strongest of us feeling weak, battered and a little frail about the edges for months – perhaps even years afterwards.

Francelle put some of her thoughts down on paper (it is the first time she has been able to do so since the accident).  I asked her if I could include in this blog.  She graciously agreed.  So here it is.

As I’ve been reflecting over the past two years, I’d thought I’d share three things that God has taught me in the midst of our new normal.

God’s grace is sufficient. It seems like a cliché, until you really experience it.  I can still remember the awful terror rushing towards me like a speeding freight train when we first got the news.  I covered my ears, not wanting to know if Mark was dead or alive.  But in that place, God met me and sustained me.  He really does walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  I remember filling my heart with the truth of God’s word and calling out and asking Him to with me—and He was.

God’s love is shown through His children. In those early days, Peter and I were surrounded by love and tangible support from our brothers and sisters in Christ.  One couple laid everything aside and drove over 14 hours to be with us during those early days in the hospital, sharing with us in our sorrow as we dealt with the repetition of telling Mark he had lost a leg, experiencing the grief time and again.  But not only friends and family helped-the people of God surrounded us with help and love in so many tangible ways.  I knew God loved us because God’s people were caring for us.

God calls us to walk the life of faith. Hebrew 11:1 tells us Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The walk of faith calls us to dwell in the realm of the unseen. When tragedy strikes, it purifies the heart.  Do I really believe that God works all things out for the good of those who love Him? 

Not every story has a happy ending.  While Mark survived in a miraculous way, he will live with the damage done to his body all his life.  And as yet, he has not chosen to follow the God who saved his life.  But I do know that God is faithful and all of His promises are Yes and Amen (2 Cor 1:20).  However, I recognise that I may not live to see all that God would do because of this tragedy, just as the saints of old did not receive what was promised.  But while I wait, I can continue to fix my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Heb 12:2).

Letting Go

Last week we had all four kids at home with us, for one night.  They live busy lives and it’s hard to coordinate their plans so that they are all here at the same time. There was plenty of laughs and banter – the kind of raucous you’d expect for the Somervell household.  I got them all to sit on the couch so I could take a picture, which was a bit of a mission because they wouldn’t keep still (hence the slightly blurred effect). “They haven’t changed much,” I thought to myself.  How did we manage to raise such an unruly lot? I can’t even take a picture without some level of chaos!”  

But as I stood there with the camera, watching them horsing around, a deep sense of fondness and affection for them welled up within me.  Despite all the pain, heartache and loss of sleep they have caused over the years, I really did love each of them deeply.  It’s not that I ever doubted this.  But something happens when your kids grow up into adults.  The relationship changes.  You are still their parent, but it’s in a different sense.  They are no longer living in your shadow.  They are their own individuals.  They now make their own choices in life – for better or for worse.  Some of those choices you are happy with; others you are not so happy with.  But you still love them all the same.

You may have heard of a phrase parents often use called “letting go.”  Well, it’s a lot easier said than done (in my experience).  And it’s not just a one-time deal.  I find myself having to continually “let go.”  After all, when you consider my wife and I have invested 23 of our 25 years of marriage raising, nurturing, teaching, training and caring for each of these precious individuals, you can understand why letting them go is a daunting task.  They are not ordinary people.  They are very special.  They are part of us.  They are a product of our love and commitment to each other and to God.

I can’t speak for my wife, but the most difficult part of the “letting go” has been with my two sons.  That might surprise you.  You’d think it would be with my daughters.  Fathers can be very protective of their daughters and find it hard when they leave home.  I have no problem with my daughters leaving home.  I know whose hands they are in.  They are both strong believers in Jesus and have surrendered their lives to his Lordship and loving care.  Whatever choices they make will be, for the most part, wise ones.

My sons however have not chosen to follow Jesus.  They made that decision in their late teens.  They both have their own reasons for that, which I respect.  But I personally find it very difficult.  In fact, rarely is there an hour in the day when I’m not thinking about it (and praying for them).  And it’s not because I’m a controlling father (at least, I hope not).  Nor is it because I’m disappointed that my own sons are not following in my footsteps.  It’s because heaven and hell are serious realities for me.  The Bible isn’t a collection of fairy stories and fables.  It is divine truth, which affects the eternal destiny of every human being, including my four children.

No loving, responsible parent, who holds these beliefs can overlook that.  It’s just not possible.  So yes, I’m still having a heck of a time letting my sons go (in the spiritual sense).  In fact, until they come to Jesus I don’t think I ever will.  I will continue to wrestle for their souls before my Heavenly Father, begging that He will reveal Himself to them in such a clear and profound way that they believe.

In the meantime, I will work on loving each one of them equally, without showing favouritism, supporting them in where I can and praying for them daily.  This is my God-given duty, privilege and joy.

 

 

 

Mark

Something has happened with our son.  We are not sure exactly what has caused it, but it is quite evident that he’s turned a corner, or is turning a corner in his recovery.

Since returning to New Zealand after his accident he has been living in a portable cabin on our property, which gives him – and us, some space.  The time he spends in there has caused us concern.  He rarely comes over, except for dinner, but doesn’t stay around long to talk and then disappears back into his little enclosure.  He’s been working a couple of days a week for one of the guys in our church who owns a tree nursery, which has been a saving grace, as it gets him out and about for at least part of the week.  But he hasn’t really been progressing in life.  There has been little improvement in anything.

A few weeks ago, things began to change.  He’s been more lively, more talkative and more social.  He stays longer after dinner, just to talk.  He’s been asking what our day has been like and taking a genuine interest in what we are doing.  He’s become bored with gaming and got himself a guitar.  Instead of loud shouting and railings (at his online opponents) hours on end, we hear soft strumming and singing.  And he’s tidied his room.  Mark never (or very rarely) tidies his room.  Something must be going on.

Perhaps the most significant change is he now talking about the future.  Now you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal about that?  I talk about the future all the time.”  That’s right – you do, because your future is in the realm of hopes and dreams and possibilities.  Mark’s future, up until this point, has been in the realm of fears and uncertainties.  Try to think about your present life with one leg, and possibly (because the uncertain future of his right leg) no legs.  Everything changes – your work, your leisure, your social life, your home life, your holidays – even taking a shower and making your bed.  Things you once loved doing you can no longer do.   And there are no longer any guarantees.

Watching all of this close up hasn’t been that easy.  It’s all new territory for Francelle and I.  We’ve never had to care for someone who has suffered major physical and psychological trauma.  We are trying to understand Mark and putting ourselves in his shoes (or shoe – it’s  a new family pun).  We are learning when to be tough and when to be tender; when to push hard and when to go easy, and when to speak and when to just listen.  We want the best for Mark, but sometimes that wanting morphs into urging and insisting and we wind up driving him away instead of drawing him in.  It’s a waiting game.  As someone with a little more wisdom than we have said to us lately, “Just be patient – give him time.”  So I’m asking God to help me do just that.

So you might imagine – all this (“this” being the positive changes above) has come as a breath of fresh air.  He came in last night, cheery and talkative.  It was a wet and drizzly day so he wasn’t able to work at the nursery, which was a bit frustrating – not being able to get out.  He asked me how my day was.  We chatted together and he told me how he’s been building his upper body strength.  “Watch this,” he said.  He put a stool close to the edge of the kitchen bench, positioned himself in between them both and then lifted up both of his legs in a horizontal position and proceeded to do push ups.  I watched all this with fascination.  It suddenly dawned on me how far he had come.  He asked me to have a go.  It can’t be that hard, I thought.  I do push-ups most days, after I finish my run.  I couldn’t even get my legs off the floor.

We both laughed.  His was a friendly, hearty laugh.  And there was a twinkle in his eye.  He could do something that I couldn’t do.  Sometimes, in the difficulties and disappointments in life, winning the war on the inside is the most challenging battle of all.

 

 

 

 

 

Emma

Meet Emma, our youngest daughter.  She’s in her final year at Waimea College.  Next year she’ll be heading off to study Health Science at Otago University.  That means she’ll be with us only a few more months.  How quickly the past seventeen years have slipped by!    And yet what a wonderful outcome.  This fun-loving, lively little girl of mine has matured into a beautiful young woman who is thoughtful, intelligent and wise; caring, gentle and conscientious – yet at the same time adventurous, spirited and full of life.  Emma is highly respected in her school, her youth ministry and by her peers.  She’s the kind of daughter that makes her parents swell with pride.

Last Sunday Emma was baptized at our church.  She gave a wonderful testimony about how she came to see her need for Jesus and make the life-changing decision of putting him first in her life.  People often assume that if you grow up in a Christian home where God and his Word are a regular part of everyday life and conversation, committing to follow Jesus is an easy thing.  It’s no big deal.  And it certainly doesn’t require as much of God’s power to save you as it does a murderer or a drug-addict.

But that’s simply not true.

The Bible tells me sin is sin, whether it is clothed with nice Christian morals and carries a bible or wears a prostitute’s skirt.  Because of Adam, we all enter the world spiritually dead.  None of us (actually and truly) seeks for God nor are we consistently and inherently good (Romans 3:11-12).  I know that may sound offensive to some who are reading this.  You likely consider yourself to be a good person.  And there are plenty of people you can think of who are a lot worse.  Compared to Hitler you look like a saint.  But compare yourself to a Holy God and I might confuse you with Lord Voldemort.

It took just the same amount of God’s grace to save Emma, who’s been a sweet little girl since birth and has kept out of trouble (for the most part) as it has me, who spent most of his teenage years eagerly looking for it.  Her conversion might have been less dramatic, but it was equally miraculous and spectacular.  The angels rejoiced with the same energy when she repented as when I did.  Jesus bore her sin with the same pain and agony as he did mine.  The ground is level at the foot of the cross

These things became all the more real to me, as I sat there on the front row, listening to her testimony.  I was filled a mixture of emotion – joy, thankfulness, pride, gratitude, wonder (at the power of the gospel) and delight.  Here is the sum and substance of what she said:

I spent much of my childhood reading the bible with my parents, going to Sunday school, and learning more and more about God.  I knew the story of Jesus’ birth and death inside out, but never really understood the importance of it and what it meant for me – that I was a sinner and I needed a saviour.  Instead, I fell for the common belief that simply going to church and reading my bible would cut it.  I thought that I was doing just fine the way I was.  It wasn’t until I got a little older that I began to deeply think about life and death, and the path that I was walking in.  I started to suffer a lot of anxiety, terrified that I would never be good enough for Jesus, and never make it to heaven.  I found it very difficult to place all my fears upon him, to surrender control over my life.  This resulted many months spent in alternating moods of ‘I can do everything myself’ and ‘I will never be good enough and my life is doomed’.  I wanted so badly to be free, but just couldn’t see a way out.  I had no idea if I was a Christian or not because I just couldn’t really believe that asking Christ for forgiveness and surrendering my life to him was all that I had to do – I expected instant changes in myself and was surprised and disappointed when I found myself sinning again and again.

It was during one such period of anxious depression when I was 15 or so that Mum brought me a bible verse that really helped me; In John 10:27, it says, “My sheep listen to voice. I know them, and they follow me. I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, for my father has given them to me and he is more powerful than anything else. No one can snatch them from the Fathers hand”.  This is an incredibly freeing verse and I am so grateful that she enabled me to find it – it is one that I will always treasure in my heart.

From then on things improved; something about that verse was immensely freeing to me.  I’m not saying that I never worried about my faith ever again, because time and time again my anxious nature takes a hold of me, and I still struggle with the idea that I by myself will never be perfect in this world.  But instead of seeing that as another chain, I am learning to see it as a freedom- I can never be perfect, but I don’t have to be, because Jesus lived a perfect life for me, and when I stand before the father, he will see me “wrapped in a robe of righteousness”, instead of covered in my own sin.

It is a wonderful thing that Jesus died on that cross for me, I am standing here before you all to show that I have chosen to follow him for the rest of my life.  I know that I will make countless mistakes, but Jesus has promised to never leave me, to guide me, and to teach me his ways.

Well done Emma.  We’re with you all the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pride

Courtesy of Eric Gieger

I had an experience this week which was a wake-up call for me.  I didn’t see it at the time.  It was only after the fact.

I had a quarrel with my wife – actually, it was three quarrels over the course of a couple of days.  She had asked me not to take photos of her while on our Heaphy Track walk (you may have read my post here).  Her reasons where personal.  Well, being the camera junky that I am, I kept snapping away regardless.  She knew I was doing it but kept her peace.  Then, when it came to writing about the journey and adding pictures, she reiterated her request – “Please don’t put my pictures up.”  I started taking issue with this (for no real reason), not just on one but two or three separate occasions.  It all ended fairly badly with me looking like an idiot.

I knew I was wrong and this had to come before the throne of God.  Jesus would require some explanation.  My wife is given to me to be my close companion.  I am to serve her and lay my life down for her (Eph. 5:25).  I had done everything but that over the past couple of days.  After a good period of confessing my sin and selfishness, I thought it was over.

It wasn’t.

The next day I met with a staff member who was holding me accountable for personal outreach and evangelism.  One of the questions she asked me was, “what is the greatest obstacle for you in reaching out to lost people?”  I paused and said, “fear of rejection.”  I’m a full-blown people pleaser and I know it.  “And what do you think, it is the root cause of your desire to please people?” she asked.  I went quiet.  Then I sensed a voice within me, You know what it is – tell her.  “Pride,” I suddenly said, wondering how it came out of my mouth.  Then the scene of my argument with my wife flashed up in front of me.  I sensed a deep work of conviction by the Spirit of God.  Oh dear, more to do here.

A little later I’m having a Skype session with my personal mentor, Rowland Forman.  I shared with him some of the great things God is doing in our church.  Rowland listened patiently and then read from 2 Corinthians 12:9 where Paul says, “Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.”  Rowland asks me, “So what do you think is your greatest weakness?”  I went silent as stone, and just sat there, looking at Rowland’s face staring at me through the computer screen, waiting for an answer.  God had me well and truly cornered.

Pride is insidious.  It is incredibly deceptive.  It loves to hide behind masks of respectability and accomplishment.  It’s the one thing God hates above all else (Proverbs 8:13; 16:5).  It evidences itself in many ways, but most often via the tongue.  Sooner or later you’ll blow your cover.  And others see it long before you do.  It’s not like you’ll start talking about how great you are.  You’ll just begin to assert yourself and insist you are right and everyone else is wrong.  And you’ll wind up hurting and offending those you love.

The very next day I came across a post by Eric Geiger.  It’s called 10 Signs You Are More Prideful Than You Realize.  He’s speaking specifically to Christian leaders, but many of these apply to all Christians regardless.   A couple of these really spoke home to me – especially no. 9: Caring more about success than sanctification.  God is richly blessing our church at this present time.  It is all too easy to get caught up in that.  Perhaps one or two of these might speak to you.  Here is the post:

10 Signs You Are More Prideful Than You Realize

Though all of us struggle with pride, we often don’t recognize pride in our own lives and leadership. C. S. Lewis called pride the great sin and the sin we see in others much more easily than we see in ourselves. Following are ten signs leaders are more prideful than they realize. I wrote the list directed to the leader, and it is filled with sarcasm. I have seen them all at some point in my 20 years of leading, which means, according to Lewis, that tragically they have certainly existed in my own heart and life at times.

1. You don’t think you struggle with pride.

You know others struggle with pride, and you wonder why they do, because in your mind they do not have much to be prideful about. You do, but you have fought it off better than most have.

2. You feel you are owed.

You have done so very much for the organization that you have put them in debt to you. They owe you more money, more time, more of a lot of things they are not giving you.

3. You overestimate your contributions.

You secretly, and even not so secretly, pontificate on how much better things are because of your influence and contribution.

4. You underestimate your team’s contributions.

If you overestimate your contribution, you are sure to underestimate the team’s. You believe that you are the multiplier to all their work, creativity, thinking, and focus.

5. You rarely say “thank you.”

Ingratitude and pride are close friends. Why would you thank others, after all? They should be thanking you!

5. You think your successor will have it hard following you.

You wonder aloud to others how the whole organization will need to adjust when you leave because no one can fill your shoes. And if the organization does not adjust, and they put another person in your role, you express how you feel sorry for the pressure he/she will have to endure because of your amazing legacy.

7. You think your predecessor was an idiot.

You love to make snarky remarks about the person before you. It is such good news that you are now here to right all those foolish wrongs.

8. You often compare yourself to others.

It is important to find people whom you outpace in work ethic, intensity, learning, and results. After all, you need constant benchmarks to be sure you are dominating.

9. You care more about success than sanctification.

Your sanctification can come later, it is time for success now.

10. You can’t learn from people different than you.

People who are different than you should learn from you. Of course, everyone should. But they don’t have much to offer you because your context and your approach is just so unique

 

 

 

Our Heaphy Track Adventure

Ever since our move to the South Island Francelle and I have been busting to do one of the great walks[1].  This past week we got our chance.  We teamed up with my sister Jane and her husband Rob to take on the Heaphy Track.  It’s not for the faint of heart or weak-kneed.  The 82 km track winds it’s way through the Kahurangi National Park, from the Golden Bay to Karamea on the West Coast.  It can take anywhere from 4 to 6 days, depending on your fitness level and time available.  We did it in four, staying at the Perry-Saddle, James Mackay, and Heaphy huts.

Scenically, it is quite stunning – which is why it attracts people from all over the world.  We passed through forested mountains, native bush, beech forests and alpine tussock.  We saw giant rata trees, limestone caves and cliffs and beautiful nikau palm groves.  The bird life is also amazing – kakas, wekas, tuis, kingfishers, pukekos, and my night-time favourites – the moreporks.  One of our fellow trampers reckons she saw a kiwi outside the hut and there was a mad stampede out the door to find it.  But alas, the bedlam likely scarred the poor thing off!

DAY 1

Our first day, from Brown Hut to Perry-Saddle, was just magic: blue sky, no wind and nice temperature.  One out of the box for tramping.  It was a reasonable climb – 860m, so needless to say we burned up a few calories that day. 

It’s been a few years since I stayed in a DOC (Department of Conservation) hut.  I wasn’t expecting 5 star accommodation.  When we arrived however, I mistook it for a resort.  I walked straight past looking for something more, well – rustic.  Then Rob explained since the Cave-Creek disaster[2] DOC undertook a massive assessment of their tracks, bridges, platforms and huts and began upgrading.  I don’t think the average New Zealander realises the benefits of this, but the tourists sure do!  It makes me want to get out there and enjoy more of what we’ve got.  Combine God’s beautiful creation with kiwi ingenuity with track, bridge and hut building, and you have a recipe for an all-round enjoyable adventure.

Staying at the huts is an adventure in itself.  You learn to improvise with what you’ve got, sometimes eating out of the same thing you cook with.  You also get to meet new and interesting people.  We met Anna from France, Tom from Australia (who supplied me with a bunch of tea bags for the rest of the trip – thanks Tom!), and a couple from Dunedin who were travelling with their 2-year old (there’s no stopping some people).

You also get some ideas on some really cool gear that people have acquired, like soft green and blue LED headlights for making you way around at night (so as not to blind other people or wake them in their sleep), compact aluminium pots and billy’s and eating utensils.  I made a few mental notes for future reference.  As the sun lowered over the hills, the sky darkened and along with it, the inside of the hut.  It was time to turn in for bed.

DAY 2

Our second day began with some light rain, so we donned on our wet-weather gear.  Fortunately, some kind friends from our church lent us their new packs (thanks Glen & Leanne), complete with inner liners and waterproof pack covers.  Well that saved our bacon, because once the rain started, it didn’t stop for the rest of the trip (except for a few hours of blessed relief here and there).  I would add we were passing through one of the highest rainfall areas of the South Island, but even still it was a wetter walk than average.  It’s in those sorts of conditions you have to make the best of it, enjoying what you can see, looking forward to a hot cup of tea and a warm fire at the end and chalking the whole thing up for experience.

It was a long hike from Perry-Saddle to James Mackay – 23 km.  As the rain continued to fall, the track became more difficult to navigate, water began seeping in through our rain coats (I learned that even if you have a waterproof coat, sustained rain makes its way through pressure points) and our boots and shoes became more and more water-logged.  By the time we reached the hut we were over it.  Even though it was a full house, people were helpful and did what they could to make way for four cold and wet trampers.  I tell you – that hot cup of tea and home-made sultana cake sure tasted good!  We make dinner and were all in bed asleep by around 8:30pm.

DAY 3

We awoke on day 3 to more mist and rain and headed off to the Heaphy hut.  No more climbing however; we were heading down.  Even though it was miserably wet, the rain forest through this section was really something.  Now I know where they get some of those West Coast pictures you see on place-mats and calendars.  The only thing not covered by moss was the track we were walking on.  It really was stunning – red and orange coloured leaves scattered along the path, copper-coloured rocks against the backdrop of every shade of green.

We were told look out for the famous West Coast giant snails (or Powelliphanta).  These native carnivorous snails are the largest in the world. They suck up earthworms like spaghetti.  We didn’t see any live ones but we did find some of their shells on the side of the track.  Check out the size!

Shortly before arriving at the Heaphy Hut, the rain stopped, the clouds parted and suddenly there it was – the ocean!  We made it to other side.  It was nice to arrive at a hut not soaked through and have some time to catch up with our other travellers.  We also met some new ones, like Matt from Denmark.  He kindly gave up his bottom bunk for Francelle who was suffering from a sore knee and wasn’t too excited about climbing up and down from a top bunk (fast-moving trampers get the best bunks – something to keep in mind for future reference).  I had some great conversation with Matt over dinner.  His English was good and I asked him why.  He has been working in New Zealand as a tour guide and wants to do it full-time.  He then asked me what I do and well, that was an opening to talk to him about my faith and what, if any beliefs he had.  This led into a great discussion about Christianity.  I encouraged him not to let organized religion (which Denmark has a lot of) put him off faith in God and to focus on the reality and heart of it all, which is the person of Jesus.  I encouraged him to read the New Testament in modern English.  He said he would. 

DAY 4

Day 4: the last 16 km, from Heaphy Hut to Karamea.  This was my favourite part of the journey by far.  Coastal views, with giant boulders, Nikau Palm groves and bush – interspersed with suspension bridges and streams.

 

It was just picturesque, with the sea spray rising up combining with the gentle rain sprinkling down through the tree branches above.  Francelle however, wasn’t enjoying this part so much with her knee-joint starting to give way.  I ended up taking her pack, which I carried on my front.  It wasn’t that bad because now I was balanced back and front.  Needless to say, that last 2km for both of us was a bit of a struggle.  Hot shower and a good meal – here we come!

DAY 5

There are two ways to get back to Nelson from Karamea: a 5-hour drive by shuttle or a 20-minute flight.  We chose the latter.  The idea is you fly directly over where you walked, but we were prevented from doing that by the weather, and had to take the coastal route.  In fact, it was touch and go as to whether they would fly at all.  There was a break in the clouds about mid-morning; we got the call to get to the airfield as quick as we could.  Even with the cloud build up, we saw some great views of the coast, parts of the Heaphy Track, and the top of Farewell Spit before turning for our last leg to the Takaka airfield.  Lewis, our friendly pilot kept us entertained with jokes about plane parts not working and emergency procedures should we “go in the drink.”  His landing was text box though – well done Golden Bay Air.

I took a ride on their shuttle to where we left our car at the beginning of the track.  They were dropping off another load of trampers – a group of 7 ladies from Australia.

“How was the trip?” they asked.
“Great I said – fantastic walk.”
“And the weather?”
“Well, you know New Zealand…”

I heard the crunch of the tires on the gravel road.  We were approaching the start of the track.  Outside the drizzle was turning into steady rain.  A minute later the floodgates of the heavens opened.  They all went quiet.  Oh dear, I thought.  I threw my pack in the back of the car, turned on the windscreen wipers and headed home, thankful for a warm car and dry clothes.

[1] There are 9 Great Walks in New Zealand, 6 of which are in the South Island

[2] The Cave Creek disaster occurred on April 28, 1995 when a viewing platform in Paparoa National Park collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 14 people.