The morning begins with the Kiwi couple talking, rustling in their plastic food bags and letting the door bang shut – over and over. Is it just an oversight, as the sun is not yet up and the four of us TA hikers are still sound asleep.
Alan and Carol from Dunedin – the gal even coming to Saint Paul to run the Twin Cities Marathon – it seems, resent us.
Alan gives himself away asking how many more of us are coming and that he’d never seen so many hiking the trail. He takes extra delight in warning us of rain tomorrow just as we’ll cross Stag Saddle, the TA’s highest point with views for miles of New Zealand’s highest peaks.
What makes people become so ugly they’d disturb our desperately needed sleep to prove a point – that the hut belongs to them? I was friendly and polite last night and engaged them in conversation. It makes no sense.
After they leave, Ryan shows me an entry in the intentions book that singles out TA hikers for rubbish left in the fireplace. Not this hiker and I doubt many others as most backpackers are steeped in ‘leave no trace.’ It’s just poor form to use this important book, one designed for statistical purposes and to trace lost hikers, to lodge an accusation at a class of trampers with no proof whatsoever. Alan and Carol of Dunedin may not have written it, but their bad manners this morning are totally out of line.
I am as quiet a church mouse making tea while the rest still sleep. When I pack, I can’t find my tent. I fear having left it at the car park and begin to cry in frustration.
It simply fell behind the bunk and all is well. I say I’m strong physically, not so much emotionally and Tina wakes up and laughs. Ryan has lived here a long time and says it’s only old, cranky people who tramp anymore. But the two Kiwis are my age and I certainly hope I don’t behave like that. If they don’t like us TA hikers, then please tramp on other ‘trails.’
Tom and I set off straight up from the hut first on a good track of stubby grass and then up scree, 500 meters in only two kilometers as I lead up, controlling my breathing and dislodging my hurt and frustration with each step. I’m thrilled with my strength and that my body allows me to do this one thing that I do so well – go up.
At the saddle, we grab a drink and survey what’s beyond which is more of these desolate mountains rolling out before us in two-tones of dusty, dry yellow and chalky, exfoliating gray.
What goes up must come down and in New Zealand, it’s usually the shortest distance between two points. But this time, it’s on awesome scree – only for a few hundred meters, mind you, but absolute heaven jumping in piles of rock as I descend. This leads to a firm track on grass and I get my hopes up I can carry on this way to the saddle.
But those hopes are soon dashed as I come upon tussock as high as me. Any trail disappears, as do most poles. I thrash through it using my sticks to determine if there’s a hole under the fronds – I fall in one on a steep ascent – I slip on one and smashing into a rock – I stub the left big toe on one and my mood refuses to lift. It’s agonizingly slow progress up and over small saddles and right back down again to a stream, then rinse and repeat.
The sun is relentless, cooking me and my sucking at my energy. I finally come over a last hump before I see Stone hut ahead over a little bridge. It’s such a perfect little spot in a bend in the river. I purify water in the babbling stream and sit in the soft, dry grass with a light breeze at my back, not one sandfly in the vicinity. Absolute bliss.
I start to walk up the stream and immediately lose the orange poles, crossing the river multiple times, up and down steep banks. That’s when I hit my wall. I tell Tom I can’t go any further – at least no further than the next hut. He is actually pleased, knowing we can go for the saddle if we wanted to, but just not really wanting to. It’s hot – blue sky with not a single cloud nor a single tree for shade – and my body is screaming to rest.
But honestly, it’s my heart and will that needs a rest. Everything I’ve accomplished so far is like a giant blur. I can’t remember anymore why I’m doing this thing called the Te Araroa. My bliss just empties out, like the air in my thermarest when I open the valve.
The trail eases up, even within the tussocky maze, and I slow way down, stopping at a stream to eat the rest of my salami and a few dried apricots – and have a good cry. I miss Richard and my home, my family and my music. I want a proper meal and my big bed. I want to enjoy my steps, not just press forward to ‘get there.’ I feel, frankly, done in and hopeless.
As I cry alone in that lonely spot, I notice a waterfall on the dry mountainside. I can’t see the water as much as hear it, but what I do see is what I might call a flower fall, bright yellow against gray. Yellow is such a joyous color, I smile, suddenly feeling better and knowing I am a very fortunate middle aged woman – fortunate to have the money, the time and the opportunity to take on this challenge, fortunate to be married to a guy who supports my crazy ideas completely and with love and care, fortunate to still be walking strongly after so many days and so many k’s, and fortunate my young friend Tom also wants to stop early and risk the weather not being as stellar, but willing to do so to feel better tomorrow.
It’s only another half hour before I reach the hut set in a wide valley with forbidding mountains looking on. I grab a first floor bunk and head to the stream to submerge myself in its icy contents. I drink another couple of liters of water in soup, tea and electrolyte ‘pink drink,’ and hang in the shade with Tina, who arrives and offers me gummy candies, cookies, a hunk of chocolate and a bit of fresh avocado. I start to feel fully revived, though a long nap seals the deal – my mouth open, Tina points out, like a vampire.
Ryan arrives and we are a small, happy group in this stunning place as the shadows get long and I submerge in the stream yet again. At 8:00, the sun dips behind a jagged peak and I begin to let go of today and look forward to tomorrow.