The wind dies down and the possums come out, climbing the tree above my head and chattering to each other. Neil told me it was a furrier in the 1930s who randomly freed captives, causing an intractable nightmare on New Zealand’s birds. I pull everything inside the alicoop.
It’s cool and the stars are bright. The sun pinkens the mountains on a clear morning. Fog gathers on the river we’ll soon cross. Tom is up early wanting to hitch down the road to a small mountain used in The Lord of the Rings. I eat quickly and pack up before we head down an absolutely dead quiet road.
Our sneakers crunch gravel toward Mount Sunday – or Edoras – its hulk in sight, but many k away. Our ears hope for the sound of a car. Black cows look on curious, steam exiting their nostrils.
Jagged peaks with huge glaciers appear as we close in. It’s still another 1 1/2 kilometer walk from the edge of the road. We cross a fast moving, sparkly clear stream with signs describing the miracle of salmon returning thousands of miles to this very stream from the deep ocean to spawn.
The trail hits a swing bridge then straight up a small mountain named for a local herdsman sharing a weekly meeting-with-a-view.
I breath hard, but head up fast to a stunning views of snaking rivers, mountains and high country, cows mooing all around us in stereo. It’s magical in the morning air and, even though Lord of the Rings is not quite my thing, I’m glad I made the time to come – and share something with Tom who has been looking after me these past days.
We snap pictures and enjoy the solitude, then study a way across the Rangitata, realizing the only way is to return up the road, fingers crossed for a hitch.
The way out feels longer, as now many cars fly down the road towards the mountain, likely from a nearby resort. Our timing was perfect, insofar as we had it all to ourselves.
A truck comes the other way and I stick out my thumb. He speeds past coating me with dust. Ah well, some people are generous and others not. He has to live with himself, I think.
Another truck comes and slows to a stop. The lovely Kiwi, with the sweetest dog, says he’s only going 100 meters, but he gives us some beta on the cross and we feel reassured it should be no big deal as we begin our journey at his fence-line.
The river disappears from site as we walk for many k on a huge flat expanse of rock and low bushes, high enough that I need to take giant steps to bushwhack forward. I can see where we need to go far in the distance just as we come to the truck that passed us and two fisherman.
I don’t like when I get this way, but I can’t stop myself from engaging them.
“Are you Americans?”
“From the UK originally!”
“And you passed us?”
“Thanks a lot.”
I then step into the first of many swift moving streams, water to mid thigh. I should have just let it go, but they ought to know it’s not polite to pass a woman hiker with her thumb out, even if they are all fancied up in their fly fishing gear. The trouble is my irritation doesn’t stop there and it festers. Their not stopping is nothing personal, but I take it personally and allow it to color my day.
Fortunately, the river sucks up all my attention as I steady my footing and move like a crab through the relentless press of millions of gallons of water.
Each braid of river, stream and streamlet is just one chapter of this humongous crossing. There’s rocks, as I’ve mentioned, pushed down by flooding and very hard on the feet. There’s thorny plant material and sand and also quicksand, mushy like a jello mold that will suck you right in. There are also feral rabbits leaving holes everywhere as well as droppings everywhere.
My feet are soaked from multiple crossings, but I have yet to reach a real piece of the Rangitata. That would be a light chalky blue, fast moving section. Here, I can’t see the bottom and my heart begins to beat fast. Neil told me the lighter color means it’s deep. There is something terrifying being all the way out on this vastness with just one band of blue blocking my passage.
Tom and I move up river to look for a suitable crossing and find one braided with rocks on a long v-shaped peninsulas. He steps in, moving like Frankenstein, water to his knees. At the rocky stopping point, he stabs the water and his pole goes down almost to the handle. He finds a small bridge of stones going upstream and changes course moving slowly but reaching the other side easily.
I step in and immediately feel a tug that wants to pull me under. I press forward and aim myself in the direction he finishes. He wades in to give me a hand, but I press on and complete the cross on my own, laughing from an adrenaline rush, thrilled to have mastered the moves I needed.
I ask Tom how he knows where to go and he shrugs, telling me, “It’s just water.” Later explaining he was raised on water and knows when it’s truly dangerous.
Three more silty-blue crossings and we’re through with the river, but by no means the river bed which causes me no end of awkward stepping and exhausted walking. Did I mention it’s scorching hot and surprisingly the water is not cold.
It takes ages to get to the other bank, then work our way south to the trailhead. I am exhausted as we arrive at Bush stream and I can filter water. Tom finds a pool – likely for fish – and dives in. This water is freezing, so I wade in before heating up noodles in the shade.
I walk a jeep track but notice an orange pole right in the middle of the riverbed. I head to it and plunge myself back in rocky purgatory. Tom is ahead and tells me he avoided that ridiculous trail marker. I stay close after that and it’s a river walk of boulders and crossings, this time in a fast moving stream at a much greater incline.
The gal with shaved head, random braids and multiple tattoos catches us. Her name is Tina and she’s a German living in New Zealand. Fortunately she’s on her own without the posse of nine hikers.
We chat as we come to a point where the trail shoots straight up – literally, with barely enough ground to make contact. I am focused, head down, while she takes a better trail and I’m left on a ledge, a nightmare descent on greased ball bearing stones.
The stream is gushing, powerful and musical, but the truth is, it’s low, so we might have skipped that uphill bit and simply walked in the river. Doh!
Which I attempt in the next section, only to come to boulders and multiple mini-waterfalls. Tom goes right in and lends a hand through it. I’m wet to my navel, but loving it.
More rock hopping and route finding before the trail shoots up for 1200 steps – yes, I counted to keep focused and not stop. But truthfully, up is my forte. The view to the Rangitata and the snaky Bush in its gorge is spectacular, as are the spiky mountains ahead.
But this trail is a just a bypass and heads straight back down to the stream, crosses it in rapids then heads straight back up, – and up and up, about the distance and steepness of Huana Picchu, to a saddle, then a meadow and the hut awaiting my tired self.
Peter and Mary give me crackers and salmon which I saved for a little celebration for today’s achievement. American-New Zealander Ryan is here as are two Kiwis, one a runner wearing a Medtronic device and invited to participate in the Twin Cities marathon.
We all sit in the sun at our spectacular perch until he sets, turning the sky pink. Tomorrow promises altitude and views and perhaps a more forgiving heart as well as one filled with pride for all I accomplished today. What an adventure to cross the ‘hazard zone’ and to push through when tired. And also to have the flexibility to say ‘yes’ to checking out something on Tom’s to-do list.
The hut is all tucked in with only soft snoring. It’s time for me to join the chorus.