When you go up in the Tararuas, you want a forecast with no wind. The fact that it’s pouring rain as I wake up shouldn’t concern me one little bit.
But I must admit, I’m sick of rain. Although it’s said I’ll have views once I get up there, it is absolutely pouring right now. I pop open the thermarest with a ‘pssssssssss’ and that means game’s on and I pack.
Off I go and indeed things begin to clear. Down the road with major landslips, past a Greek orthodox church and finally, the trailhead with a sign warning to never travel alone. I sign the intentions book with my projected stays and backcountry hut pass number. The first part of the walk soaks my shoes and socks.
I’m along river bringing me deep into the dark forest. Over a bouncy suspension bridge crossing Backwater Stream, then straight uphill heading towards Richard’s Knob. And wouldn’t you know it, directly into epic, soul-destroying mud.
The Te Araroa Facebook marm, Judith, admonishes us for walking around the mud. We all do it rather than get sucked directly in, but it makes the mud pile wider and even less passable. You know what? A few well placed logs would fix that right up.
I meet a Kiwi holed up in a hut over Christmas and coming the other way at a particularly nasty spot. She suggests I plow straight through. I say, “After you.” But that’s not how she does things, she tells me, though scoffs at trail maintenance like it wouldn’t be sporting.
I do notice someone took a saw to all the overgrown tussocky plants at the ridge. What a view in just a light wind. I put on my hat as mist opens and closes like curtains on a rolling carpet of mountains covered in forest.
Then I’m back in the forest. At around 900 meters, it’s a goblin forest, a magic fairyland of moss-covered beech and ferns and decaying logs.
I come to a hut, greeted by a barking, snarling dog. The owner says I just need to say hi and she’ll calm down, but even he can’t get her to stop and I feel a bad vibe. Since I have my eye on another hut anyway – with a mountain in between – I move on.
Immediately I come to huge pools of mud and an overgrown pathway. It’s hard to see my feet, the obstacles or the trail, but the views are out of this world, up here, literally on top of the world.
John, from last night, suggested I plan to keep moving if the weather’s good. Of course to get views in this misty place, but more important he tells me, to walk the ridges before the weather turns – which it’s scheduled to do in two days.
The trail is on the highest part of the dragon’s spine of a ridge and has me walk directly over the mountains. I come to Pukematawai at 1432 meters completely shrouded in cloud, but soon will be going down. None-the-less, I take the one minute spur to its top, simply ‘because it is there.’
Funny how badly I need views to lighten my spirit, so I head out of the cloud as quickly as I can. A sign just above the hut tells me Dracophyllum Knob and its hut are four hours walk. But as I come down this peak, another sign tells me 3-4 hours. I am a bit nervous as it’s already 4, although from here, I can see the route – a long series of humps that I presume I’ll walk over to get there.
Beautiful for the eyes, but murder for the feet. Immediately, I’m in absolute slip-n-slide mud – and all covered by overgrown grasses. This is not just something that reveals a wet surprise each step, it’s also dangerous as the ground is uneven with big drop-offs – and it slows down my progress immeasurably.
But this crest is one of the most magnificent I have ever seen with sweeping views in all directions. Rivers below can be heard thousands of feet above, mountains surround the crest with graceful folds sometimes soft, sometimes grand in the shifting light. I am so lucky to have such spectacular weather and no wind at all.
It takes me a long time to move on this track, however, and I’m concerned I won’t make it before dark at which point I make no effort to avoid stepping in the mud and just plunge through as fast as I can safely go.
When I think I’m at the final rise, it instead reveals a huge plunge back into forest before a giant climb. I’m nervous, but I smile in this stunning grove of moss and lichen, some trunks like giant green teddy bears, even if I lose the trail around fallen logs, feeling a bit panicky.
Of course, I could camp here, but there’s no water until the rain barrel at Dracophyllum and there doesn’t seem to be any really flat ground either, so I simply press on.
Soon enough, I’m rising again out of the forest sure that this is the place. A tiny orange hut appears and when I come around to the door thinking it’s all mine, I’m met by two pairs of muddy trainers. Darn! The hut only sleeps two. I open the door and find two German TA hikers cozied in.
It turns out they came today only from the first hut, but the mud slowed them so much, they just had to stop. Lovely guys, impressed I came so far, offer me a bed and say one of them will sleep on the floor. Just the gesture itself is sweet. I thank them preferring to set the alicoop in the minuscule flat grassy spot next to the hut, actually on the trail itself. I’m pretty sure, though, that I won’t see anyone tonight.
I make soup and eat salami and crackers on the helipad watching the sun set as mist swirls in and out of the mountain tops. The boys are conked out and I have the view to myself, so happy I pressed hard to take all this in while the weather is good. The forecast is the same for tomorrow before it shifts, so I’ll need to get off these ridges tomorrow.
The mist teases but finally envelops the mountains – and me – just as the sun disappears in cloud. It’s cold as I pack up my food and stove. Time to tuck in. I am so happy I had this day and I am so happy I did it myself. It feels just that much more special.