The moonlight filled the tiny windows of the hut as I slept. The first morning I’m not flying out of bed. We have a shorter – yet harder – day ahead.
Things don’t start well for me. I am afraid of the river crossings ahead and Alex and Tom are a bit unclear about whether they’ll wait for me at the hard parts. The Austrian couple leaves together and Žaneta is with Sergio. I begin to feel old and unwanted, not enough of a babe for anyone to look after.
Walking towards the pass, I can’t stop crying. Am I just a joke trying to do this thing? It feels too hard, too big.
The sun begins to lighten the forest, one of the richest in ecological diversity in Canterbury of silver, red and mountain beech plus all kinds of birds like yellowhead, and one I sang with yesterday, the cuckoo. I feel the forest embracing me, even as I waddle over roots and mud and more mud, up and down, sometimes really steep, washed out sections. It’s a workout and my eyes are nearly always on my feet.
And the bush, my beautiful, beloved New Zealand bush that has entered my soul, goes on and on.
The sound of rushing water is constant from the Hurunui but also from the countless streams feeding it. As the trail veers down for me to cross and I hear it crash loudly before I see it, I wonder if this one ahead will be the one that stops me in my tracks. But its ‘bark is worse than its bite’ and I’m able to cross them all, dozens and dozens of them.
I reach the Hurunui River which needs to be crossed and the bridge here is just three wires – one for walking and two for the hands. Well, this middle aged hiker may feel sad this morning but she isn’t afraid of a challenge. I step up to test it. Whoa, doggie! This is slippery, bouncy and I absolutely cannot make one misstep or I’m down in those rapids. I fold up my sticks and put them in my pack so both hands are free and test my balance a second time.
Yes, I can do this. My feet are splayed in second position as I inch forward, foot-hand-foot-hand. The key is to focus on the moves and not the consequences of a fall. I control my breathing and channel hot yoga and all those balance poses I learned to hold in intense heat.
And soon I’m across.
I let out a yell of joy, feeling powerful and strong just as Alex and Tom come over one at a time. They pass by and Alex asks if I’m ok. I am and I’m touched he asks. The trail continues on following the river up and up to Harper Pass. It is a messy, sloppy trail with more mud, roots, windfall as it wends its way up and down ravines of rocky streams. I slip, but catch my fall.
Near the pass is a bright orange bivy with one window and one door marked ‘fire exit.’ The boys wait for me here to cross the headwaters. This is no Lake Itasca, the river is narrow and a bit more shallow, but still rushing.
I’m touched they’re here helping me locate the best spot. I balance on rocks with water pouring over them, but it’s easy and I’m across.
Alex says the North Island you get dirty and the south you wash. I never stay dry as we are directed by orange poles to cross right back over and a few meters more to cross a third time. Was this necessary? No ones knows on the TA.
I can see the pass from here, but it’s bush bashing all the way on wet trail finally opening to a reasonably nice view of the Southern Alps, the tops hidden in mist.
All downhill from here. Well, in a fashion. After maybe 300 meters of easy walking, the trail becomes a steep downhill nightmare of land slips, flash flood tailings, erosion and rock fall. In fact, the trail is a riverbed and might be the most dangerous hiking yet on the TA.
I cross a rushing stream with trees stripped of their bark in its path, large boulders resting in high limbs. The trail disappears except for a loose edge of small stones. Below me are the Austrians, one bandaging the other after she wiped out here.
And that makes me walk very carefully, thinking it’s not just me struggling on this terrible path.
In a moment I pass Žaneta. It changes my perspective. It’s not just me going slowly and I’m not really alone out here. I feel a bit more confident as I eventually reach Locke Stream Hut and have lunch with the guys.
The others arrive and we all agree how hard the trail feels for such little reward. Is it a proper trail if built on a spillway? There’s nothing in place to keep it from washing away, there are no zigzags. It’s dangerous. Although once it’s behind me, I feel stoked I completed it.
Sergio only stays a moment before leaving, not waiting for Žaneta, perhaps assuming she’ll make the next big crossing with us. Things are not what they seem. She takes it in stride, and I’m impressed, but also chastened that my assumptions that everyone is taken care of but me is not entirely factual.
We walk down the river to the orange triangles indicating where to cross. Alex plunges in first with water mid-thigh. Tom and Žaneka go in without hesitating and so do I. The Austrians link arms and carefully walk crablike before following us onto the grassy river terrace, our reward after the last section.
High fives all around as we head down, sometimes on hard-to-walk-on dry, rocky riverbed, sometimes back in the forest, sometimes skirting washouts – where I rolled a boulder painfully onto my shin – and crossing side channels of the Taramakau hundreds of times before arriving at the tumbledown Kiwi hut. We could camp closer to our hard river walk, but everyone is tired and life is easier in a hut.
I make dinner at 4 pm and cuddle in as the guys and Žaneta play a game with dice. The sun is still shining, millions of tiny Beech tree leaves glowing out the window, blue mountains in the distance. We believe we have at least one more day without rain and the river will be doable.
Everyone organizes their gear and their attitude for tomorrow, including me. Žaneta tells me I walk really well. I do. And I need to remember that – and trust that help really is there when I need it.