When our beaming blond hut warden announced at evening-talk-time; ‘You can call me Katie, Kat or my favourite Katie-pai.’ I half expected her to slap her khaki thighs, stamp her rubber toe-shoes and break into a haka.
‘How did you find the walk today?’ she shouted.
‘Good,’ mumbled a few weary trampers.
‘I couldn’t hear that,’ boomed Katie. ‘How did we find the walk today?’ she repeated, and tried to orchestrate a shout, or possibly a Mexican wave with both arms.
Talk about excited. Crikey, it was like discovering our very own Steve Irwin beavering away undiscovered on the Milford Track. What a legend. Katie-pai could have tackled a moa with her enthusiasm, had they not been wiped out by hungry immigrants 600 years earlier. But at the end of a five hour tramp, her over-exuberant enthusiasm was not instantly contagious. I sat amongst, Kiwi-Team-15 and oozed a little cultural cringe. The audiences deadpan response would have been any stand-up comics worst nightmare, but it fell off Katie-Pai like a Milford waterfall.
‘I’ve been a guide at this this hut for 12 years. I’m so excited about the place,’ she continued unfazed. ‘I talk a lot and I talk fast. Can everyone understand me?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ we all said.
‘Can you do the bird growl?’ shouted the youngest member of Team-15.
Katie-Pai had her spiel and she was sticking to it. Ross had given us his nature talk the night before, complete with taxidermied rodents and male bird calls. He’d talked up Katie’s female kiwi sound; vouched for its authenticity. I checked my pack-sore shoulders for abrasions and fidgeted, along with 39 other trampers. Katie-pai was just warming up.
‘I’m so excited,’ said Katie-pai. ‘I’m excited about rain. The annual rainfall on the Milford track is around 7 meters.’ I started getting excited about then, my raincoat had leaked after about an hour, in what you’d probably term drizzle in Fiordland.
‘But there’s nothing you can do about the weather. And the forecast is actually good for tomorrow. Perfect for your walk over the Mackinnon Pass, where the views are SPECTACULAR!!! We’ve also just put in a new hut for you. The last one blew away. Oh and the toilet. We’ve made that special too. We’ve put a window in so you can look at the view while you’re doing your business. There’s a rope on the inside which you need to hang on to if you don’t want anyone to walk in on you. Are there any questions?’
‘I’ve got a question,’ said the kiwi-scottish member of Team-15, a little too politely. ‘If you’re holding the rope…how do you wipe your bum?’
Katie-pai had had hecklers before, she played it cool. When the laughter died down, our youngest member asked again, ‘Can you do the kiwi bird growl now.’
Katie-Pai pretended not to hear and carried on. ‘It’s going to rain on day 4 when you’re walking from the Dumpling Hut through to Sandfly point. As I said, us hut wardens love the rain. It makes the bush sparkle. The greens are brighter, the mosses and ferns come alive. The waterfalls are bigger.’
Stuff the raincoat. I’ve got merino. I’ll be damp but warm. Katie-pai’s job satisfaction was finally soaking through. I was loving the bush already, but if it was better in REAL rain? Bring it on!
Next we got the fire safety drill, then finally, some wildlife. Two pairs of brown kiwi lived near the hut. Cool!
‘They’re big, they come up to here on me,’ informed Katie-pai holding her knee. ‘The male’s call is like a short sharp whistle. They come out at night or you can get up at 5am to see them.’ Then she went almost quiet, her voice lost its boom, her Steve Irwin-ness disappeared. ‘Okay, like Ross said, I can do the female kiwi call. But you may not be able to think about me in the same way afterwards.’ Fat chance. She even looked nervous as she placed her hands back on her thighs and braced herself. She took a deep breath. We gripped our seats. The sound that came out, three times, in a row, was more like a hoik (minus the spit) and a grunt. We all clapped enthusiastically. Junior member stamped his feet. Ross told us she was good. Kei te pai Katie-pai.
It was 8.20pm; most of us crawled happily into our sleeping bags. At the five the next morning, a male brown kiwi whistled, 4-5 short sharp shrills right outside the hut, then repeated himself. I waited for his female, but sadly she didn’t reply.
Katie-pai was already on the job when we departed after breakfast. She was possibly doing track maintenance or shoveling a summer avalanche with her long handled spade. It didn’t rain for the remainder of our tramp. A pity, because for the first time in my life I wanted to experience the bush in a downpour.
Good on ya Katie-pai.