This morning I wake up on the edge of Mount Richmond Forest Park and say goodbye to this glorious – but very challenging – track. My pack is ripped, my hat rim busted and I’m worked over, but happy as can be, especially that I went all out last night to get this far with super cool people. Not all that many k’s but of course, not all kilometers are created equal.
It’s cloudy and cooler with rain expected tomorrow, but all I can think about is right now in this moment. My feet feel better, but they were a warty, water logged mess last night. I’ll need to dry my socks and shoes as much as possible in the coming weeks of river crossing upon river crossing. No, you do not stop to remove your shoes in New Zealand. You’d never get anywhere if you did.
I have no blisters but I am swollen from sandfly bites. We all shuffled about at night, Rob’s feet whacking my head and mine whacking Justin’s, but maybe I was the worst of the bunch, scratching my feet all night until I drew blood. Vicious little monsters.
I take off early on the final piece, tired but by no means wrecked. The Maitland is an ‘expert’ bike track for 12 km – still heaps of up and down, but on reasonably nice trail. I think of American Justin telling me he got to Red Hills hut from Bluff in 36 days. Wow! I think, until I remember he skips huge portions like any and all roads – “I don’t walk on asphalt.” – and even this section I’m on now in favor of a shortcut.
I try not to judge, and instead calculate the real timing to Bluff for a thru-hiker as I walk into a ghostly forest of moss and manuka. At a view, the wind picks up and I hold out my arms like a cormorant to dry my ‘wings.’
Charley catches me as I break for a bar and I startle him sitting off to the side. I thank him again for saving me a lower bunk and he heads off. The trail goes up again, then way down and way up, fog below with huge snow capped mountains peaking out.
I’m breathing hard as I finally reach a saddle and head down a very steep track. I meet Charley again and he walks towards the road with me where we see a handmade poster announcing a missing hiker, off for nine days in the Richmond Range we’re just leaving. I can’t imagine what the family must be feeling. None of us has seen him, but the weather has been good and the trail very well marked. It’s sad and frightening.
Charley walks the eight km on road to St. Arnaud (French for Arnold, the minister of war during Crimea. I just had to know) and he shares about his work as a guide and how he’s training for certification in the very rigorous English mountaineering course. He’s also run several ultra-marathons including a seven-day race in the Atacama desert. An interesting young man who inspires me to do and see more. He’ll be miles ahead in a day’s time, but I’m glad to share the pavement as it makes the walk quick and easy.
We talk about our walking styles, how we both like to seize the morning hours and dislike knowing exactly how many more k’s to go or how much more uphill to go. We also share how we feel haunted by the very small parts we skipped on the TA as we want to do it all, bristling a bit when called ‘purist.’
Both of us are a bit worried our resupply boxes don’t make it or there’s nowhere to stay, we find everything works out just fine, share a couple of pizzas and beers, chuck in the laundry and both head off to organize for tomorrow’s new section.
And there’s the hitch. The weather forecast predicts severe gale force winds in exposed areas for the coming days. And the upcoming traverse is one big exposed area. Rain is predicted too, and this is rocky terrain, slippery when wet. I put out a call for advice on the TA facebook page – where one smart aleck posts a link to the weather forecast. Gee, thanks.
But useful advice pours in from people familiar with the terrain and I decide to wait out this one. Charley is headed up, and has enough food to wait in a hut. But he has a kindle with him so will be just fine. Suddenly, out of the blue, Tom writes and says let’s walk it together when the storm passes. I thought he was far ahead! But turns out he got sick and has been off trail several days.
So I’ve decided to hitch to Steve and Maggie’s and come back with Tom when things settle. I have a good amount of cushion in my planning, so I should be ok to finish, and this section is some of the most spectacular scenery worth waiting for – plus, it’s a place two TA walkers went missing with one eventually found injured, the other never found. I’d say I’m making the right choice.
So, on that note – and in honor of my Dutch pal willing to share the route with me – slaap lekker!