Dawn in Pleasant Gully. The Te Moana River chatters in its bed of stones. A bellbird drops limpid notes from the cover of a broadleaf tree. Wisps of fog hang in the bushy ravines and tussocky basins beneath the summit of Fiery Peak, which stands like a sentinel overlooking the valley. The rising sun paints its bluffs and screes crimson and gold.
I sit on the step of the Pleasant Gully Hut drinking coffee and watching the day arrive. I can see the steep track I will climb today. It zig-zags up a long spur and disappears over Fiery Pass, notched into the ridgeline of the Four Peaks Range. The sky is deep blue; this December day promises to be hot. I finish my coffee, close the hut door and set off uphill.
Four Peaks Station occupies the southern end of the Four Peaks Range, west of Geraldine in South Canterbury. The station encompasses the twin summits of Devil's Peak and Fiery Peak which fall away into vast faces of snow tussock. Streams of pure snow-melt cascade from the tops, spilling over hidden waterfalls and joining to form the Te Moana River.
Four Peaks is a working sheep station and wiry half-bred sheep, cattle and wild deer run on the hills. But as well as traditional farming, the owners of Four Peaks have developed a three-night walk which introduces visitors to the pleasures of staying in historic shepherds' huts along the way.
The previous day I had set off from the Four Peaks Station homestead on the far side of the range. Following farm 4WD tracks I had ascended a low saddle then sidled around the southern end of the range and down into Pleasant Gully.
As I walked I hummed the old Exponents song Why Does Love Do This To Me? The line "Jackie came, she went away; deep in the valley I kissed her that day" was supposedly written about Pleasant Gully.
At midday, after a long hot slog up the track, I reach Fiery Pass. To the east, the Canterbury Plains stretch out in a hazy patchwork to the edge of the ocean. To the west lies the Two Thumb Range and, beyond, the Southern Alps. The track descends a sunny face scored with deep gullies of running shingle, then winds along the edge of the Mobray Stream to Sutherland's Hut.
Built in 1866, Sutherland's is the oldest hut on the walk and possibly the oldest surviving back-country hut still in use in New Zealand. Its stone walls and steep corrugated iron roof have weathered countless snowstorms and gales, yet the hut is still as sound as the day it was built.
In the 1980s I spent several summers working as a shepherd on Four Peaks.
During the autumn muster we would spend a week camped at Sutherland's Hut. We bathed in the creek and lived on fried chops and boiled spuds. We were young and fit.
It was a great life.
A shepherd's life is a solitary one and my constant companions in those days were my sheepdogs: Bess, Jill, Mick, Bounce, Spook and Quarter. Now, 30 years later, as I wander alone in these same hills, I find every ridge and valley is imprinted in my memory. I remember great runs with my dogs as we mustered the country, and drunken nights in Sutherland's Hut, drinking beer and whiskey and telling tall stories.
I dawdle around the hut next morning, reading an old western novel and watching merino wethers mooching about on Blue Mountain Station on the other side of the stream. At midday I set off up the steep track which zig-zags across the face of Mt Mobray to the Jumpover Saddle. From the saddle, I climb to the top of the range.
It is early evening by the time I reach the summit of Devil's Peak. The eastern plains lie beneath a fluffy counterpane of white cloud. Westward, the Two Thumb Range crouches in a steely blue nor'west haze. I have five bars of phone coverage. I update my social media and call my wife.
Row upon row of mountains, each range a slightly lighter shade of pale blue, stretch away into the setting sun. The high basins still hold the last of the winter snows. Out on the Ashwick Flat, the waters of Lake Opuha shine like a sheet of pewter on a beige background of dryland farms.
Alone in this vast space of mountains and sky I am surrounded by nature. A nanny thar flees at my approach, vaulting sure-footedly into the Jumpover Bluffs with a clatter of falling stones. A pair of chucker partridge take flight from under my feet and somewhere overhead a skylark twitters.
I descend the scree-slopes and tussock faces back to the Jumpover Saddle. It is nearly dark by the time I reach Devil's Creek Hut.
It's amazing how a hot shower can re-invigorate a tired body. All of the huts on the Four Peaks walk are equipped with gas showers (plus log burners and solar-powered lighting) but the one at Devil's Creek is especially good. I cook tea then sit outside with a coffee listening to the creek chattering in its bed of stones beside the hut.
Tomorrow, I will have to return to the city. But tonight, I can rest here alone in my high country home and remember the long-ago days when I was a shepherd in these hills.
A sheep bleats from up on the side of Devil's Peak and a magpie gargles in the branches of the big macrocarpa tree across the creek. The western sky fades from purple and mauve to black. One by one the stars come out.
When to Go: The Four Peaks High County Track is open from November to April.
Information: Visit www.walkfourpeaks.co.nz for information about the track.
Getting There: The walk begins at the Four Peaks homestead on Clayton Rd, near Fairlie. Detailed directions are available on its website.
Cost: The walk costs $345-$375 depending on which walking option you choose. The cost includes transport of your pack between huts each day.