Being alone is, we know, the best chance you have to be yourself, which is in turn the seed of integrity and of any possible originality.
My little lair in the beech forest was so dark overnight, bright stars shone through the tops of the thick canopy. It was slow start, but eventually things begin to glow as I pack up for my day’s walk.
The trees gives way to tussock right away, but the trail is well defined – completely different to what I’m used to on the TA. The morning is absolutely silent but for wind through the grass and numerous babbling creeks feeding the east branch of the Ahuriri River, the main section of which I’ll cross today, causing me to feel a bit jittery as I’m now walking alone.
But that’s still many k away, and the ‘new me’ on this trail is taking her time, checking in with her emotions and remembering to breathe and get centered.
This section is stark, desolate and wildly beautiful reminding me of the Drakensberg Traverse in South Africa and Lesotho. Nothing feels steep or difficult up to a massive saddle, flat and expansive, surrounded by brooding peaks that somehow make me feel totally relaxed and at home. I decide not to walk fast, but rather saunter and enjoy having this place all to myself.
Most of the way, I’m in shade and happy to stay cool. The river valley dips into a sloping V, its steep sides like a shuffled deck of cards, taking turns peeking out. My walk is so relaxed, because I am, but also because the path is obvious, beaten down by many walkers. On the few moments when I can’t find my way and look for an orange pole, it appears either too distant or placed in a completely useless position. The DOC worker responsible for acquiring orange poles checked the short box instead of tall as these are all hidden in the grass, a surprise when I stumble on one.
But for the most part, the trail is straight forward and I am grateful, though I still have squishy bog and rushing streams to cross, and I sink to my knees in quicksand right before I notice two hikers coming my way. They squint and look hot and I am grateful to be going south, with the sun nearly always at my back.
I ask them about the crossing ahead and they say it’s doable, about hip high. Another NOBO approaches and gives me more detail on exactly where to cross with critical information that I will feel a big current right when I enter which will lessen as I cross.
I mention I crossed the Rangatiri and he laughs saying then I’ll be fine. Two women tell me to face upstream and I tell them Kiwis say to face downstream and use the current. I wonder why they teach the complete opposite to us, though I’ll stick with what works for now, I think, feeling a bit less anxious with so many successful crossers approaching.
Still more NOBO’s come by me – nine in all – and I finally say I need to push ahead and get this over with, a bit overwhelmed by the number of thru-hikers in this group.
The trail goes on and on across grassy fields, finally turning towards the main channel. For just a spell, I slosh through marsh and lose any sense of trail, but it doesn’t last long and I’m on hard ground again, the track worn smooth. This ancient wide riverbed was likely carved by glaciers but sees little water now and is, thankfully, free of hard-to-walk-on rock detritus like the Rangitata and other rivers I’ve walked through. I can just fly on this path, past a pine tree farm, all in neat rows, whisper-rustling in the wind.
I sing calming music to myself as I get closer, like Satie’s Gymnopedie as well as powerful music like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – and I also ask for guidance and protection as I cross, and to make smart decisions.
The river cuts a giant channel about 50 or so feet below the path. I meet yet another NOBO who points at the exact spot he crossed, oddly having removed his shoes. He’ll break that habit in the coming sections when the river becomes the trail.
I climb down to the rocky bank and find a spot just where the calm ends and the rapids begin. Indeed the water is deepest here and the current pushing hard, so I take my time placing my feet one at a time, and also poles one at a time.
Things feel familiar – and I feel strong – as I move across to the little rock island. The current lightens up in the shallower water and I snap a picture before easily crossing the next little section.
It’s a short walk on rocks to a trail scrambling up the steep eroded cliff to the top again with spectacular views down the valley.
I have lunch in the grass, seagulls circling above complaining. Rain clouds develop over the biggest, glacier-laden peaks and the wind picks up.
Full and happy having taken on the TA’s biggest (official) river crossing, as the Rangitata is considered a ‘hazard zone,’ I set off up the grassy slope towards a road crossing and onwards to a little hut I hope to sleep in tonight.
A few cars are parked ahead, one with a tarp flapping in the breeze. I say hello as I come closer and the couple asks if I’d like to sit down.
“Of course, thank you! And might you have a coke I could buy?”
Better yet, these two are trail angels parked here to meet us hikers and give us a coke – and juice, bubbly water, crackers, cheese, avocados, chutney, and cookies, of which I have a huge helping, even though I just had lunch.
Keitha and Warwick are from Dunedin and hiked the Te Araroa a few years ago. They love this countryside, their trail and helping us fellow trampers feel good. They tell me they’re surprised not more people do what they do and I told them I have been absolutely showered with care from Kiwis all along the trail.
Warwick asks me to forgive his personal question, pointing out I’m not a teenager, so why am I here. Keitha softens the edges telling me I look great and have lovely features. I laugh and say I love to hike and wanted to try a big one and see if I have what it takes to do it. Coming somewhere totally new excited me and I’m so glad I chose this trail, even if it’s been difficult.
They ask if I think the trail is hard and I say yes, mostly because a lot of it is rough and hard to follow. They say that’s what Kiwis are used to – likely because the population is so small, trails besides the Great Walks are minimally maintained. We speak about the couple at Crooked Spur hut and how unpleasant it felt to be with trampers who resented us. Warwick said they read about them on Facebook and feel bad about the incident, saying hiking is becoming more popular and people will need to accommodate that fact.
I eat way too much, share my blog address and SymphonyCast site before saying a huge thank you for such a generous act – and for a super time sitting in the shade enjoying the view of this stupendous valley. Warwick fills my water bottle and takes my garbage before they send me on my way, highlighting all their favorite places coming up. Their joy is genuine and it fills my spirit to share our love of this place. I leave full in my stomach and in my heart, proud to be a TA walker.
I wave goodbye and continue up the track meeting even more NOBO’s and telling them a big surprise awaits – and now it’s my turn to share beta on the river crossing. The trail comes into sheep country with sweeping mountain vistas and long snaking river valleys. I join an easy track and get completely lost in my thoughts planning a variety of projects I’ll take up upon my return home in April. At first, I’m on a trail next to the river, where a clever hiker uses sheep bones to write 500 k. It faces south and is a milestone for NOBO’s but means I am whittling away the kilometers, closing in on the end.
I feel in no hurry as I stroll from trail to a 4×4 track, which confuses me in my reverie and sends me off course. It’s not wildly far, so rather than backtrack, I triangulate, discovering it’s reasonably easy on this shorter grass as long as I avoid gullies.
I eventually find the right track and come to an historic muster’s hut, paneled in tin with a beautiful wooden door. It’s empty and I wonder if I’ll have a second night all alone. I wash up, make dinner and pull a comfy armchair onto the lawn to eat and enjoy the view, completely covered head-to-toe as the sandflies come out.
It’s dark now, but cloudy so only a few stars poke through. The wind is up rattling the tin as my stream sings a soft lullaby.
I have loved this day alone – not entirely since many hikers calmed my nerves and trail angels reminded me why I’m here – but it was all up to me when to start, how fast to go, where to take breaks, whether it was safe to cross the river alone and where I’d end my day. Nothing today had the physical challenge of what I’ve walked in the past month, but my nerves were rattled by all I’d taken on. I was burning out, for sure, but also in a kind of daze wondering how I’d managed to do all that – was it just luck?
What I needed was a day like today where I took time to act deliberately and to savor everything, to feel empowered by each decision and find my footing again, as it were.
It’s pure magic that I’m crawling into my sleeping bag in this old hut all by myself and can hold this day close as I close my eyes, resting up for whatever tomorrow brings.