Rain fell all night. I am so happy that I stayed in a hut, tucked into my bunk with my quilt keeping me cozy. Russell is up early getting his rain gear assembled, the sky still dark. Pete ambles out of bed and we all shuffle about preparing for a big day ahead to take on the final ridge of the trail, said to have spectacular views, though they’ll all be in mist today.
I nervously make tea and organize gear, my humming annoying the men. I don’t like wet and cold. I have reasonably decent gear, but my feet will be wet all day and I tend to get chilled. I also don’t know exactly what’s ahead and if I can handle it. I feel safer with the men.
Russell has taught me that this rain is not really considered rain in the New Zealand sense of the word, just ‘showery squalls.’ But it’s cold and everything is damp. He says the trail is not through with me yet. It’s going to smack me around a bit before it says, “You’ve earned it, well done, now go home and hug your family.” My family won’t get here for another few weeks and I need lots of hugs right now. I have about five more days after today and I’ve had about enough of getting smacked around.
It’s not so bad outside once we get started. The forest is dark and spooky, but the trail is clear as it goes deep into the heart of the forest and up right away. Russell tells me to go first and I move fast and steady like a steam engine.
The mist hangs heavy in the trees. No wonder there’s so much moss growing on everything – and so many different kinds, some hanging, some spongy, some like lettuce. I wonder if I sit still too long, will moss start growing on me.
It hasn’t started raining yet when we reach a saddle and a magical forest, seemingly glowing from within. A bit further, through a kind of moist cave and straight up a muddy slope is the ridge. The men get there first, making excited noises about the non-existent view, absolutely solid gray. The alpine plant life fascinates me and I snap a few pictures, but the air chills me to the bone when the wind picks up. I need to move on.
It’s a fair ways on rock down to where the grass begins to pick up again. For a moment, the sun reveals a hilly landscape dotted with chunky beech trees reminding me of Northern California. Wind whips rain in my face and Russell calls it ‘southern hospitality.’
The trail provided for me today as I shiver both from cold and anxiety. I’m not sure I could handle this crossing alone, even so short with a gradual descent.
I ponder this just as a young lone German woman comes up. She shows no fear at all, only wanting to know if there’s a view. I tell Russell I’m humbled by her bravery and he says I’m stronger than I think I am. A kind thing to say. I wonder if there’s any truth in it.
We walk a long way on brown grass until crossing the river, deep and fast-moving but easily done. The trail heads up again, this time on switchbacks as a squall moves over, making me shiver. We stop to catch our breath and I tell the guys I can’t stay still or I’ll get cold. Russell says, “Too bad, we’re stopping.” It’s like a little wake-up call to remind me my feelings, my needs and in fact, my person, are all pretty unimportant to him.
I laugh it off, though and keep hiking to stay warm. They pass me pretty soon and I offer some lollies, but there’s no stopping to accept my offer, just a hand reaching back causing me to run to them for delivery. I suddenly remember how Russell asks over and over where Pete is when he falls behind. That concern is never there for me.
Now I realize I invited myself on their walk, but the feeling chafes. Why not show a little kindness?
We miss a turn and I check my gps for the right way as they have none. When the right direction is established, they both crack ahead to the second river crossing and bang through, not once turning around to see if I also bang through. It must be because they assume I’m tough, or is it because they could care less? I slip for a moment on the didymo algae, but they ignore me.
Russell calls the owners of a private hut ahead to make a reservation, telling me, “Pete and I are all set.” I laugh thinking it’s a joke. Is it? I can’t tell. Am I supposed to call the owners myself? I don’t mind, but his ‘joke’ doesn’t sit well.
I hang back and take in the view of a snaking river in a valley as the squall passes and it clears momentarily. We’ve entered the Linton Station, a gigantic farm that allows trampers to pass, but they get to choose the path. It feels willy-nilly up, down huge hills, and around and around in an indirect path. This is not the hard walking of the Richmond range or Nelson Lakes, but it seems to go on and on and get us nowhere – the lumpy ground begins to hurt my feet. And I’m lonelier than I’ve felt in days when I’ve hiked all by myself.
Black cows in a field line up next to the fence that separates us to watch me walk by, then follow me up a very steep hill. I’m working hard, panting as I use my arms like a wild animal.
Then it begins to hail. The feeling of the wind in my face, the cold seeping into my body, and pellets of ice smacking on my head is overwhelming, like I’m just surviving, especially pushing uphill. But just as soon as it started, it stops and the air is calm. Of course until the next squall moves in.
The trail is a rollercoaster through this farm and I’m tiring out. The views are interesting – mostly of more farmland and mountains in the distance – but this is not exactly a place people would pay money to hike. It’s just a way to get us through. The tussock yesterday was soul destroying. This is soul numbing and a hell of a way to end a four-month tramp.
As I descend toward a road my spirit rises, but then I see that the poles point right back up a huge hill. Up and up and then down for a stream crossing and right back up again. I accidentally stay on the wrong side of the fence so when I come to a stile, I’m trapped and have to drop my bag over – into mud – and climb the fence trying not to get electrocuted.
I’m really starting to feel fed up with this day when the poles point to field filled with fresh cow pies. The cows that presumably left these behind stare at me as I pass, then run uphill. I’m surprised how fast they can run carrying all that bulk while my body is beginning to wilt walking all day.
Cows lead to sheep and a track of sheep urine mixed with mud. It’s a slippy sliding mess, the sun coming out so I can fully appreciate the aroma. It’s at this point I totally lose it. Yes, it was good to have the guys around on the cold, mist-shrouded ridge, but all day, I’ve been left behind, made fun of and now I’m up to my shins in poop. I’ve absolutely had it.
But this ‘trail’ hasn’t had it with me. It goes on in its stunningly dreadful manner over lumpy field after lumpy field hurting my arthritic feet on the hard, churned up surfaces. The poles point in a different direction than the map and then the trail goes up again for seemingly no reason.
When I finally get spit out onto a road, the men are there, see me and walk on. I yell to please wait. I tell them they can forget all about me tomorrow but please show me some kindness now. Russell barrels on but Pete waits and allows me to unload for the one kilometer off trail to the hut.
That was a nice thing to do. He didn’t care for the trail either. When we get to the hut, there are five Kiwis – two hiking NOBO and two supporting with bikes and a fully-stocked caravan, plus one hunter. One support crew member is quite nice giving me a beer and even some shampoo for the fabulous hot shower when I arrive feeling wrecked. Helen is her name. The hunter makes me a Southland delicacy – a cheeseroll. I realize I am famished for food and also for kindness. Russell at first makes a grand statement about leaving me alone. I tell him I’m upset and need care, so he gives me a hug. I needed that badly, but his manner confuses and hurts me.
As the evening progresses – and the hikers/supporters drink wine – things change. I should never have said a word, but one man – in his sixties acting very know-it-all having ‘hiked the TA’ for an incredible five whole days – asks me what I think of the trail. I answer honestly that it has problems. Two of the group in particular become very defensive. They say things to me like “You knew what you were getting into,” and, “Challenging trails keep people – like you – off them,” “You want a conveyer belt rather than a tramp,” and the nastiest one, “If you don’t like the trail, you don’t have to finish.” It went on in this horrible way for some time and I felt cornered in a bullying pile-on. Even Russell entered the fray when I protested to “not spoil their fun.” Helen spoke up telling them to back off as I’d had a hard day. But it did no good. This is the first time in this welcoming country I have felt absolutely desolate.
Let’s be honest, the Te Araroa is a ‘route’ more than a trail. It’s a cobbled together hodge-podge of some established trail, lots of road and a few thrown-together ‘tracks’ in between, tracks that in some cases are horribly planned and inadequately maintained, if at all. You can call it ‘challenging’ if you like, but let’s not pretend that a few poles through a wetland or farmland or forest is some sort of grand thru-hike. This hike is oftentimes just a slog for seemingly no purpose than to allow someone to say I had the physical endurance to make it through it. Entire sections are skipped because they’re absolutely awful. I am called a ‘purist’ because I’m walking every step of the TA and even I skipped one of those notorious spots.
I am about to finish and these past two days have been physically and emotionally exhausting, and only modestly worth the effort. Why end an epic trail this way? New Zealand has some of the most beautiful country in the world and they send us through farm fields rather than, say, their premiere park, the Fjordlands. In the coming days, I will not end in fanfare, but first with deep mud in a forest followed by road walking. No one will finish with me or celebrate with me or share with me in Bluff – and certainly no one in this hut will commiserate with me how challenging it has been to get to this moment.
I suppose these Kiwis don’t care so much for a foreigner – maybe especially American – critiquing their trails. But it was by far the absolute worst day of my time here – the trail, the hiking partners and the pile on tonight. It was so bad for me, I’m not sure I’ll feel the same about New Zealand, even after making such incredible friends and having such incredible experiences. On a deeper level, this encounter hammered home a fear I have that I don’t matter, I’m dispensable, that this walk was a folly and a waste of time. I am sad down to my bones.
I really need help over the finish line and I know one thing for certain, it isn’t coming from any of these people.