It rained all night. I am dry and warm in the alicoop, but I don’t think I can hike an alpine trail of 32 kilometers in pouring rain. For the first time on this odyssey, I’m stuck.
I try to be practical and think through every possibility as I remain snug and fat raindrops hit the tarp with a splat. I could wait in my tent until it stops or pack up and try to hitch back to Glenorchy, then return when it stops and continue. But when will it stop, I wonder. I just don’t think I’ve got what it takes to hike it.
This actually would be the first time in my hiking ‘career’ I’d take a zero in my tent due to rain if I decide to stay. There’s a shelter, long drop and water. I have food and I doubt anyone would find me in this little forest nest. It might be an experience worth having. How will I feel alone all day without walking or much stimulus?
Eventually I have to come out of this oh, so comfortable space and heed nature’s call. It’s wet out here, everything is wet, but somehow it all seems so familiar and I realize I just can’t stay in the alicoop. Perhaps I can pay for a bunk at one of the huts. That’s another point I consider as I’m deciding how to manage the day – there are four huts spread over 32 kilometers. I’m not venturing into the wilderness.
So, in a flash, I decide to pack up and move on and let the day unfold as it will. As I roll up my mattress, I see that rain got under the tent too, likely because I was sleeping on moss. I never felt wet, but a full day might have been uncomfortable.
It’s a very late start for me up a beautiful, wide path. The first shock is my lovely swimming-pool-blue river where I collected rocks to hold the alicoop in place is now a chalky-green raging torrent. There are bridges all the way, but it’s terrifying seeing the speed at which these rivers flood.
I walk strong and fast up a mossy forest, no one in sight, feeling absolute delight I decided to go – and also that this trail is so beautifully maintained. Water is squeezing out everywhere in mini-falls spraying down the sides of cliffs above me and in streamlets suddenly rushing towards the trail. No wonder ferns are so abundant here.
I cross Sappers pass where a loo has been placed with a fabulous view as I work my way up a gorge literally engorged with water. It takes me to a hanging canyon lined with ridges, ribbons of white pouring down to the hungry Routeburn.
Here I begin to see people – a lot of people rain gear head-to-toe coming down from their walk. One man has a pack on his back and front as his light-footed wife leads the way. Another wears boots taped and tied together.
I stop at the first hut to make tea and I’m met by some crotchety women. The view is spectacular from a covered outdoor cooking area where they finally warmup when I explain I am walking the Te Araroa. The weather warns of heavy rain and flooding in Fjordland, my destination, with possible clearing tomorrow. Wouldn’t it be nice to sleep here one night, I think.
But I head up to the next hut, closer to the pass to see what’s possible, a view out of Lord of the Rings opening up of a perfectly conical-shaped mountain with the river encircling it in braids.
A tall man with an orange vest looking very official comes my way and indeed, he is the ranger. Ranger Alex is his name and I throw myself on his mercy. He tells me they’re full up, but he could put a mattress on the floor, but would need to charge me $135 for the night plus a fine of $50. Hmmmm.
I respond maybe I don’t want it that badly. He says they love TA’ers but need to discourage drop ins to ‘give everybody a fair chance.’ It’s ok to walk the trail, I just can’t stay unless I want to pay a lot.
I say I’m afraid I’ll get hypothermia, and he says fear is good, keeps you paying attention, but he points out my gear is good and I’m not slurring my speech, I should be out in seven hours, so get moving.
Maybe I just needed Ranger Alex to push me a little, like the DOC person at St. Arnaud when I was unsure about the weather. In addition to four huts, there are also a lot of people on the trail. They have to reserve months in advance so it’s always a bit of a crapshoot what the weather will be. I am safe here and keep heading up towards Harris Saddle.
But first, it’s the massive ‘hut’ – hardly a hut, more like a hotel complex with electricity and heat. It sleep 54 and they’re all marching up here in the rain. I miss Tin Hut and Manuka Hut and Stodys Hut and so many other sweet, old places with character and issues, but ones that bonded us. This place is sprawling and modern, something a musterer could only dream of.
I don’t stop now as I get on a roll, moving fast and strong on surprisingly grippy rock. Three months of thru-hiking has made me strong, especially on more straightforward trails.
The exposed rock brings me into a giant bowl with even more cascading falls and rushing rapids. The wind picks up mightily as the land gets wilder.
I pick my way up and up to a narrow rock ledge looking out over an alpine lake surrounded by massive mountains, and, of course, even more waterfalls. It’s astoundingly beautiful and I take it in as much as I can in the wind and mist, the rain seemingly taking a pause.
Over the pass is a shelter and then it’s down and I begin to feel cold. It’s comforting the sheer mass of people coming up, but it’s a long stretch of sidling above a deep valley, the mountains on the other side now shrouded in cloud. I tell myself I’ll be ok and to keep walking, but a small panic sets in that I won’t get dry or get down. The wind lashes and threatens to push me off my feet, the rain begins again and I press forward.
It helps to sing, so I do. A song from Graceland when I was so warm I wore a sleeveless summer dress. Once I get the rhythm in time with my steps, I begin to calm. Richard once said to me, “What do you need right now?” I play a variation on this listing what’s going right – I’m moving well, I’m not shivering, I’m going down, there are loads of friendly people surrounding me, I’m not hungry or thirsty – and then I can focus on this beautiful place of looming monster mountains and countless waterfalls and streams.
I begin to turn a corner – both physically and mentally – which brings me above an aquamarine lake, the hut nestled in. It’s a huge descent staring at peaks as I head down, running into a French family that’s dressed their little girls in garbage bag rain coats. The middle girl in red reminds me of myself at that age, going on ahead and testing her strength. I talk to her a little in French and she answers in English, then I take her picture in the goblin forest.
We reach the hut first, visit les toilettes and I have a snack before heading to the final hut. “Au revoir, mon amie!” Her parents wave and she gives me the biggest smile. I realize just then, she and her family walked all I did when I was scared, and she was wearing a bag. I am bowled over she told me “Ça va trés bien.”
My mood gets a bit stirred up when I start the next section and have to go uphill. I’m tired and whiny, but somehow find the gears. Several people pass asking how much further. A man offers to take my picture with a view opening up of glaciers and I see they are being guided. Her name-tag says Rachel and she promises I have only 2-3 hours to my destination.
I get a second wind as I approach a massive falls, Earland, which offers a flood route, but I go right into its wildness, blowing everywhere like a hurricane dumping water on me as I scurry for the tiny bridge over its spilling river. I can hardly hold the camera as more water dumps on me. I feel so alive.
The trail soon begins to descend towards a lake and a final hut, where I eat a snack amongst pre-teens in shorts laughing about how cold the summer is.
My trail is flat for a few hours towards a hut outside the park. For a moment I consider camping, but I am so wet – my gear is so wet – I need to be inside. I love walking here with wind blowing in the tops of the beech trees covered in thick moss. I memorize how I feel now, tired but so connected to myself. I never want to forget this moment.
I was told that the hut I decide to stay in is always packed and I get the last bunk just as the rain really starts to dump. There’s covered space outside where I change into dry clothes and organize before going into a common area for dinner, sitting with two Minnesotans. There’s a good vibe amongst these people, even those who miss their Milford Track tramp due to flooding. I see no TAers but will be back on the trail tomorrow.
I’m cuddled in a top bunk, the rain loud and ferocious. Tomorrow is expected to clear for a day before it starts up again. I feel sleepy and thrilled I just went for it today. Sure, perhaps the views will be a bit better tomorrow, but who knows, it could be misty or cloudy or too crowded. Today was my day and it was perfect.