My alarm goes off at 5:30 playing Billy McGlaughlin’s Finger Dance on full volume, but it’s still dark. I can hear the river churning, like my stomach with stress. It’s a long day ahead and once I enter the Deception River, I have to see it through.
Though I have an out because in 13 km of rocky terrace, we’ll reach a bridge to the highway. The Austrians headed there last night for an advantage on the river bed – which is coming up and is 14 km more of hard walking – but I slept very well in the hut, so maybe it was worth stopping here.
The cuckoo is singing all morning. A slightly off-key song than I’m used to, like a wind up toy wound too tightly.
The sunrise is spectacular from our tiny six-bunk hut, the mist hanging low on the mountaintops. I eat extra bars for energy and take an ibuprofen. It’s been a lot of days in a row walking hard and I’m ready for a break, but I’m glad I have the energy to push hard because I’ve caught the weather perfectly. If it stays clear today, the rivers should be reasonable to cross.
It’s hard on the feet walking on the river terrace of boulders and stones, uneven with streams rushing through. We cross the wide Taramakau as the Otehake reaches it. It’s strong at mid-hip height as I crab walk across – then cross two more times. My feet feel like ice blocks on the confusing trail-less march. It’s a massive riverbed like a geology lab, the mountains taken apart boulder by boulder in front of our eyes, though many of the stones have laid here for ages covered in bright red lichen and moss. I can’t imagine what this place looks like in flood; does water reach from edge to edge?
I set my mind to walking in this alternating terrain of rock-mud-flood-sand, keeping pace with Alex and Tom. We pass Žaneta and Sergio and I skip along, maybe more lurching using my poles to take long strides.
My feet never dry entirely before we step back into water and suddenly there’s a grassy section, like a foot massage. Alex tells us it’s just 10 km to the bridge, but I don’t trust this bliss to last.
And it most certainly doesn’t.
A sign appears offering a choice of trails – one is direct to a road followed by the bridge. The other is the official TA trail, but also a ‘flood route.’ The guys want to take it and I’m unsure because these types of routes usually cut way high above the river.
I’m right and we soon enter a forest of fallen logs and poorly maintained trail shooting up, then down, and up and down on repeat. These trails are not zig zags or gradual, but dangerously straight up and straight down. The concept, I assume, is to take the walker past land slips or fallen logs, but it goes on seemingly endlessly and completely unpleasantly.
I am strong when it comes to going up, but more fearful of slipping on the wet mud and roots going down. This god-awful trail is either the worst or one of the top ten worst of the TA to date. It’s precisely what makes this long walk so terrible – poorly planned, badly executed, unmaintained trails through rubbishy forest with no view or interest. Is it better than road walking? Nope, just as dreadful. It sapped my energy and just made me angry.
By the time we were spit out on a grassy plain packed thick with scratchy gorse, I thought we’d give up and hitch to Arthur’s Pass. But it was still early and I’m very strong and very determined.
So after an early lunch we set off to climb up the Deception-Mingha track. This is essentially a climb to a high pass in a river. Now I see why it was so important that we had no rain for three days. It can be catastrophic in flood conditions, which is obvious in the first kilometer as I walk in muddy sand, bushes and trees ripped out by the roots splayed in death throes along the trail.
The first crossing is a test. I feel reasonably confident with the depth, the current pushing hard against my knees and shins. Several trail runners pass doing time trials for the Coast-to-Coast race. I feel my confidence build even more with others on the trail.
At first, we push through forest and to the side of the roiling river. The gorge narrows, and we sidle close to the edge, then have to cross again, looking for the shallowest part and the least damaging fall zone. This is not a rock-hopping river. I plunge in – shoes and all – face up the river and slowly check my footing. Sure, the trail runners go much faster, but they aren’t carrying 20 pounds on their back.
Once I slip and sit right down. I’m not swept away, but Alex offers me a hand and I’m out quickly. A female runner offers advice on a crossing, admiring my using trekking poles. She’s very kind, but it must be obvious I am a novice in rapids.
We cross, rock hop, look for orange triangles and/or poles, negotiate a side stream and all the fallen boulders in its wake, rinse and repeat. The sun shines brightly and the clouds clear. This very challenging trail makes up for the awfulness preceding it.
There are big boulders to climb and I’m happy I have rock climbing moves in my arsenal. The guys tell me to put away my poles, which I do for about ten minutes before pulling them right back out. I am very adept at switching from poles to hands, passing them to one hand when necessary, and throwing them aside for a particular move, but I climb – and descend – much better with poles. I use them boulder hopping and in the water, even if one is bent.
A couple of places feel very dicey. There’s a narrowing in the river with several waterfalls. The only way across is a jump. Tom extends a hand so I don’t fly off the other side, but it’s 1-2-3 jump! with no room for error.
I don’t weigh much now, so the water is particularly heavy. In one spot I needed the guys to hold me steady on the cross.
That being said, after we reach Upper Deception hut and have an hour of steep climbing, I just turn on and power up the mountain. Alex tells me this time I hike like a teenager. It is my strong suit, rejuvenated with the spectacular beauty and music of this mountain river.
The pass comes into view as we turn away from the Deception to a side stream coming down in stair steps of mini waterfalls. This is our trail and I realize I have never done anything quite like this in my life, walked up a river just splashing in when necessary and trusting the rocks which are not at all slippery with all that cold water pouring over them.
It’s one of the most spectacular moments of the entire trail – beautiful, challenging and filling my soul to the point I never want it to end.
The hut appears in a bench above the stream and it’s time to claim a bunk, make dinner and crawl under my quilt for dreams of really pushing my comfort zone and doing it with friends, because yes, I did walk all those steps myself, but I couldn’t have gotten up that wild river without their generous help.
I am truly blessed.