Alessio and I close up the bach, pack up and head to the road by 7 to hitch rides – me back to where I left off two days ago as Arthur’s Pass is not on the trail, and Alex to Christchurch.
What fun sharing the space. He has a great mix of music we played through the evening while I read and he made his hitchhiking sign, accidentally leaving off the ‘H’ so he cut an extra piece of cardboard for one letter. I suggest he’ll get picked up by someone who enjoys a good sense of humor.
My ride is one of those massive two cargo trucks driven by Tom of the missing front teeth. He explains that the road was only recently rebuilt. It used to be one lane and truckers needed to radio ahead. Some would forget and then they’d come face to face with another truck and one would have to back up on these narrow, windy roads.
Still, most bridges are one lane and require taking turns. The ride is short, but smooth. When I thank Tom, he gives the usual Kiwi, “That’s alright.” An even more laid back form of ‘no worries.’
I’m alone again walking on the road to begin the next section, one fairly short and reasonably straight forward, the river crossings on this side of the divide will be numerous, but likely not flooded and scary.
The mountains come into view behind me, so I turn around every so often seeing them grow, capped with glaciers. I realize today is January 29 and the beginning of my fourth month walking. I feel an urgency to finish and a nagging insecurity that I can’t keep going. I’m tired and my feet are complaining. I know I need to rest more but have settled for walking fewer kilometers per day. It’s an odd place for me because I want to ‘get there’ but once I do, it’s over. Am I really ready for this to end?
A man with binoculars is parked on the side of the road and I ask him if he’ll take my picture. He obliges and tells me he’s finding rare endemic birds, a tern and black tipped gull I see soaring on the river terrace.
I turn up a country lane that takes me to a track and past Bealey Hut where Marjelain and Floris are packing up. I hoot a hi and they wonder why I’m hiking so early. The trail goes up and up in the forest – native mixed with exotic, dark and cool – it’s steep, but again, reasonably so compared to what I’ve done so far. Finally, I’m on the tussocky top where the view opens right up, huge mountains down to the sprawling river bed. Below my feet are tight-to-the-ground plants in deep reds – apparently this color helps them manage the harsh cold. Also, yellow and faded violet flowers along with sand-colored mini mushrooms.
I meet three friendly Kiwis on this saddle who move on quickly while I linger with my mountains before reentering the forest. I stop often, taking in more food and orange drink before reaching a cute A-frame shelter. I could simply sleep right here on this tiny shelf, but I move on hoping my feet hold up.
I cross the river over and over and then a massive land slip, dirt and rock pouring into the forest and stream. It’s very careful stepping here as I dislodge rocks that crash below me. At a tiny shelter, I see that Amelia from day 1 dislocated her shoulder and was evacuated. But she is already back on the trail a day ahead of me.
Eventually a bridge takes me across to the ‘Hamilton Hilton’ a lovely, sprawling hut where I arrive in time for a first story bunk. The ambience is super relaxed – the Kiwis, two Dutch and an Englishman plus Jill from the other night and a German who calls himself the ‘cheese man.’
I cook a late lunch and we talk about the state of the trail, English Adam saying he prefers the tough challenge to maintained trail. For me it’s a matter of degree. Challenge is great, but poorly designed trail is another. Would Amelia have taken such a fall on a US trail? I’d love to know the statistics. We leave it unresolved as I take a short side trip up to Mirror Tarn.
From here, the view is superb down the valley and I sit for a long time above the Harper river, the bridge far below at the bottom right edge of a ‘C’ of land pushing out like a snout from the mountain. Likely it’s an ancient slip now covered with trees and forcing the river to bend to its will and around it. The river floor is gray braids, though only one stream comes through, with evidence of others so impatient to be first, they dug their own channels last spring. Now only an indentation remains. I turn my head and the fizzy roar changes timbre. Stones give way to tawny meadow, a few tree pioneers staking their lonely claim. Except for draped sheets of faded grass on the slopes, the mountains look like enormous piles of gravel exfoliating in V-shaped sifts, stained black and red. Mirror tarn is an algae rich pond, but lovely in its stillness, seemingly pondering what towers above her. The sky is gray except for a strip of baby blue, the trail here is steep and also eroding, sand and rocks washed away. One false step and I’ll tumble hundreds of feet.
The others have made the hut their home, working on a puzzle now, young Jack playing a merlin, all too tired to come up to my perch. I love that we’re together here, even if heaps of sandflies find their way inside.
A hiker shows up coming from a side trail. She is limping and asks if we speak French. My goodness, her legs are badly lacerated and bruised and she looks very shaken up. There was a strange note we found earlier asking for help, but we never saw who needed help.
I bring her inside and take her pack. The others set off their SOS and call for a rescue, while I get her on a mattress and immediately wash her legs and feet, to which she is grateful through her tears. It just seems natural to get off the dirt and grime and show love and care to this scared young woman. She does not have a head or spine injury and nothing appears broken, though her knee is an angry purple and very swollen.
Marjelain and I comfort her, help her change clothes, give her a pillow and cover her up to protect her from the sandflies. Her name is Lorraine and she’s traveling with a friend, but came on this hike alone, in fact no one knows she’s here, always a bad idea. She fell yesterday and kept hiking looking for cell service, eventually sleeping in the woods. She must have had no idea that people come to huts, but not until later in the day, or maybe she wasn’t sure if she could come inside. Odd.
The helicopter comes quickly, first landing below near the river, then maneuvering up next to the hut so she doesn’t have far to go. What a shame this happened, but she was in good hands with our caring little team. She gives me her phone and email and I’ll check up on her the next time I have service.
After they go, the blades whipping the air like a tornado, we settle into the evening. I like the relaxed nature of this crowd, so different from the previous days. Floris tells me they hardly plan each day, so miss the weather windows whereas I’ll push hard to get them. He’s more sanguine than I, telling me those that go fast just get it over with faster.
There’s a good point for these coming weeks, to take time and enjoy because before I know it, I’ll finish. And I’m not quite ready to yet – and most definitely, I’m not willing to go so fast I fall.