The Pee Rag podcast ❤︎ Unfiltered Adventures of the Blissful Hiker
In a series of self-effacing essays, accompanied by her own original flute playing, the Blissful Hiker shares a journey of self-discovery as a middle-aged, female, long distance backpacker…
episode 46 show notes ‘n transcript
Blissful Hiker learns a new skill crossing rivers in cold and dangerous rapids and falls in the South Island of New Zealand.
In this episode:
- Blissful is on day 89 of the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s “long pathway” developing a new skill of crossing dangerous rivers, but with a little help from friends, Alessio and Tomaš.
- Her first challenge out of Hurunui Hut No. 3 is to cross the small side stream called Cameron on a 3-wire bridge, not offering any room for error.
- Up an over Harper Pass, the trail crosses over the divide in the Southern Alps and descends on an eroded landslip or flash flood tailings.
- This is followed by a cross in the deep rushing Upper Taramakau to Kiwi Hut.
- It’s a long day walking on uneven river bed with numerous crossings, then an awful “flood route” sidling of the river through bush in typical New Zealand style of steep ups and downs without any switchbacks.
- The day ends with a wild walk straight up the Deception River on the Mingha-Deception Track to Goat Pass in rapids, waterfalls and awkward crossings, some of the most exhilarating tramping of the entire trail.
MUSIC: Introduccion y Allegro by Carlos Guastavino andPastorale Calchaqui by Hector Gallac as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
The Minga-Deception Track is ahead of us, a walk up rushing rapids and waterfalls to an alpine pass. We’re tired, though. It’s been a long day already, after a long week of walking on what Kiwis call “track.” Maybe that’s a better description than trail, since a lot of it is pick your own way through sharp, loose rocks in massive riverbeds, muddy, rooty sidling in deep bush and one up-to-your-thighs river crossing after another.
Alessio and Tomas and I eat lunch near a sign pointing to Goat’s Pass and a long list of potential dangers concluding with the haunting line – “If in doubt, do not continue.” I snap a picture in front of the sign making goat horns with their fingers and laughing. No way are we not continuing. The weather is clear and we haven’t had rain in days. I cast a look towards the footbridge that could take us to a carpark and then quickly to Arthurs Pass.
You’re right, guys. We’ve so got this! I turn away from the exit and move onto the track, at first a clearly marked path of orange triangles through spindly manuka. Within seconds though I see what the sign is talking about. Rain causes the water to rise fast and furious, causing catastrophic flooding 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. Suddenly trail runners appear splashing fast through the roiling river. It turns out they’re doing time trials for the Coast-to-Coast race. Well, if they’re doing this, so can I.
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.
And then I slip and sit right down, the water pouring over me, vibrating against my body. I’m not swept away, and Alex offers me a hand to pull me up. A female runner offers advice on a crossing to face down and let the go with the river admiring my using trekking poles. She’s very kind, but it must be obvious I am a complete novice in rapids.
The moonlight fills the tiny windows of the hut as I sleep. The first morning I’m not flying out of bed. We have a shorter – yet harder – day ahead. I say “we” because I am walking now with Alessio and Tomas, two single hiker much younger than me, but for some reason willing to stay close in this land of fast moving rivers that all have to be crossed multiple times. I am told by a Kiwi that people die in these rivers, making poor calculations of their depth and strength, not studying the fall line and entering after a storm, when the water rises fast and furious and can trap a tramper for days.
I’m on day 89 of a thru-hike of New Zealand, the Te Araroa or long pathway. I entered Canterbury only a few days ago and know my feet will never get fully dry on this section. Two Austrians race ahead and the Czech woman Žaneta marches on with Sergio. Tom and Alex move so fast, they linger over breakfast and I’m on my own feeling fearful of what’s ahead and if I have what it takes to make it.
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 the yellowhead, and one I sing with now, the cuckoo. I feel the forest embracing me, even as I waddle over roots and mud and more mud, up and down, sometimes on 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 River next to me, 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 each one all, dozens and dozens of them.
At Cameron Stream – a “chalkua” rush of grayish-blue, I see a bridge made up of just three wires – one for walking and two for the hands. Well, this middle aged hiker may feel scared 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 saying it was easy, and ask if I’m ok. Yup.
The trail continues on following the river up and up to Harper Pass. It’s a messy, sloppy trail with more mud, roots, and 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 on the North Island you get dirty and the south you wash. Ain’t that the truth as we are directed by orange poles to cross right back over then 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 Žaneta go in without hesitating and so do I, carefully holding myself in place with my poles as the water presses hard at my thighs. The Austrians link arms and follow us onto the grassy river terrace, our reward after the last section.
It’s 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.
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’re spit out on a grassy plain packed thick with scratchy gorse, I think we’ll give up and hitch to Arthur’s Pass. But it’s still early and I’m very strong and very determined.
We cross the splashing rapids that push hard against our legs, rock hop, look for orange triangles and/or poles to give some indication of the best route whether left or right bank, negotiate a side stream and all the fallen boulders in its wake, and then rinse and repeat. The sun shines brightly and the clouds clear.
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 to 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 need the guys to hold me steady on the cross.
That being said, after we reach Upper Deception hut with an hour still to go 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. 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. But the day does at a hut where the Austrians meet us again – though Zaneta and Sergio must have given up and headed straight into Arthur’s Pass skipping this amazing walk up the river.
Could I have done all of that myself? Maybe. I would have had to. But I was lucky that the two men stuck close, not walking with me really, but looking out for me. I have a theory about that on other hikes like in France when a man named Serge from Wales walked a full week with me. His knees hurt and he didn’t want to go fast, so he stayed close to “help me” when maybe it was good excuse to slow their own pace.
Under my quilt now, the rain comes finally lets loose and lashes at the windows. I have no idea why the boys stuck close, but I’m glad they did as the last two days were hard. I also realize, we made it and just in time.
episode 45 shownotes ‘n transcript
Blissful Hiker finds she is like a river, following a path and forging a new way. It may be hard work, but it’s in her nature
In this episode:
- Blissful walks out of Nelson Lakes National Park on the Te Araroa stopping in Boyle Village to pick up her resupply, staying only long enough for a snack since the rain is coming and it’s better to move on before the rivers rise and become impassable.
- Alessio and Tomaš join her as she enters Canterbury and heads to Hope Halfway Shelter right before the rain comes, along with ten wet trampers sharing the small space in a boisterous evening.
- The plan is to go further the next day to avoid the crowd and get in place to cross the harder rivers before the rain comes.
- After river walking and countless stream crossings, Blissful bathes in a hot springs then arrives at Hurunui No. 3 Hut, far ahead of the crowd where Alessio tells her, “You look like you’re between 50 and 60, but you hike a 25 year old.”
MUSIC: Introduccion y Allegro by Carlos Guastavino andPastorale Calchaqui by Hector Gallac as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
It seems we made it to this odd little spot for the night just in the nick of time as the rain starts pounding down sideways. It was another long day, and I went much further than I’d planned mainly because I stayed with the two young men knowing the next section would be one river crossing after another and I really needed both moral and physical support.
But now I’m ready to kick back and rest up for tomorrow’s adventure. I’ve claimed a lower level bunk in Hope Halfway Shelter and am already curled into my quilt, eating in bed and writing in my diary. Tomas – or Tom – claimed a spot on the other side of this giant floor. From the outside, the place looked more like a shed, but it’s oddly large.
Alessio – or Alex – cooks his food at a counter fashioned from a piece of wood held up by a few angled bits of iron. He looks at the rain spattering the window and says, “looks like we have company.”
“Haha, in this weather!” I reply languidly. “You must be joking.”
No joke. Here they come – two – no four…wait, make that nine?
At this I stand up and sure enough, trampers, their rain gear glued to the skin and dripping in a puddle cram through the door like the Marx Brothers in a kind of traffic pile up –
One gives a sort of Tarzan yell for the remaining splashing through the puddles, heads down, eyes slits nearly running to the door.
“ok, ok, there’s room for everyone! C’mon in” I say directing them to leave their pile of wetness near the door. So maybe this giant floor wasn’t all for naught as each strips down and finds a few square inches to set up their mattresses and bags, pull out individual stoves and begin pounding the nutella, cookies and candy as an appetizer.
That’s just how it goes I guess in the hut culture of New Zealand. Just when you think you have the place to your mellowing out selves, a loud crowd arrives and takes over. Ah, they’re all pretty nice – but I’m sure glad I have earplugs.
At this point on the Te Araroa, New Zealand’s long pathway, I am just leaving Nelson Lakes National Park and about to enter the region of Canterbury, and an historic crossing of the Southern Alps at Harper Pass, so named for the first European, only 20 years old, who crossed over to the West Coast back in 1857. Of course, Maori used it for centuries as a route to collect pounamu or greenstone, but alternative routes have been created and it was only recently that this track was reinvigorated with new huts.
Warnings are posted everywhere that a tramper will need to cross big rivers that should be passable if said tramper possesses river crossing skills – but rain can cause the rivers to rise rapidly, making them dangerous and deadly. I would be happy to have friends to navigate this next section with. But who? Kačka and Kuba are stopping at Boyle Village and hitching to the ski town of Hanmer Springs, but Tom and Alex just might go on.
Well, gotta see how the day unfolds. And that starts by getting up – after rain all night. That can’t be good.
It wasn’t easy to get comfortable overnight, my legs were tight for many hours as I tossed and turned. Fortunately, Alex shuffled as well but says he slept deeply.
My dreams were filled with sorrow, all about saying very painful goodbyes. Before I closed my eyes, the Czechs and Alessio spoke about all the people hiking fast and that they are impressed with them. It turned me right off because it feels so shallow – and maybe also because I can’t possibly compete, even if I’m doing some very long days. The Czechs barely said hello to me when I walked in last night, but I sense tension there and I don’t think it has anything to do with me exactly. Kuba says he wants to move faster and has complained Kačka takes too many breaks.
The sky lightens to a pink glow, so perhaps the rain is over for today. And I must admit I am grateful that some of the Czech attitude rubbed off on me to get going when the going’s good – You have to have decent weather, it needs to be still early and and you of course have gotta have energy, but moving on can have the benefit of putting myself in position for the next bit, and that might be critical with big river crossings.
I leave first as is usual, in full rain gear. It’s showering, but more squally then pouring as I cross the bouncy swing bridge only wide enough for one. The trail sidles the river deep into a canyon. There’s a reason for all this vivid green moss – moisture. But the sun still comes in and out of cloud and a rainbow appears. I feel good wending my way deep into this forested section, which eventually opens up to a wide valley of flaxen grasses, a stream snaking towards me.
I cross the river on two more bridges, crunchy-clangy under my feet then through more fairy forests. And like that I’m at the ‘metropolis’ of Boyle Village, essentially a parking lot and a DOC campground. The Boyle River Outdoor Adventure Center caters to TA hikers by holding resupply boxes, selling resupply goods and offering accommodation.
Part of why I pushed yesterday was to avoid staying in a dorm here for $40 per night and eating overpriced frozen food. It’s early in the day and I catch Alex and Tom eating one of those overpriced frozen pizzas and drinking a coke while unpacking and repacking their resupply.
The very businesslike – but humorless – Ange gives me my resupply box and informs me it costs $2 per person for trash. What? We already paid $10 to hold our box and now you want to add another $2? I mean, it’s not like I’m cheap, it’s just why not tell us from the start? That’s when I wonder if maybe moving on with the two men is the best option afterall.
Sealing the deal is the weather. Rain, and a lot of it, is expected. As a tourist tells me in the car park, “You can’t change it, so you might as well be ready for it.” Even less than pleasant Ange advises us to get moving before the rain comes and the rivers fill.
Just like before Nelson Lakes, I decide to go while the going’s good figuring I have just enough food to make it to Arthur’s Pass – assuming we’re not stopped for too long by the rain. The men promise to stick with me, so I send a note to Richard through iffy cell service and we’re off.
It’s so odd to be back on road again after two wild alpine crossings in wind and squalls on the Travers Saddle and Waiau Pass. We take a path through the tall grass down to the Boyle River. Our first crossing, and it’s absolutely boiling rapids – and deep. We walk clumsily along the rocks trying to find a safe spot, but it’s impossible. The option is two hours on road to the bridge, and we wisely take it. Alex hates the road and chatters on about finding another spot to cross – “We shouldn’t have bought cokes, we need a canoe!” – while Tom calmly walks on, finding plum trees along the way, succulent and full of health.
Eventually we come to a bridge across a narrow gorge. It’s fenced with a sign saying ‘no access’ but we go anyway, meeting the trail in a matter of minutes and saves at least an hour or so more of road.
Here, we split up at the Hope Kiwi track because I can’t keep their pace. The path winds through another enchanted sun-dappled hobbit forest of tall beech, this variety with a black trunk oozing with a kind of nectar that attracts the wasps. The wind is in the treetops, creaking and groaning. I hope a limb doesn’t decide to break off as I walk by, stepping into stream after stream. After 20, I lose count.
I reach the river and see the tiny shelter ahead – not flash enough to be called a hut. If we had it in us to go further, there’s promise of a large, modern hut, but staying in this rustic spot ensures we have it to ourselves. It’s clean with new plastic mattresses, tidy, and only a few sandflies to murder.
I apologize I’m so slow, but they tell me they’ve only been here ten minutes – and besides that, they’re tired and have no intention of going on. I guess I’m not all that slow.
Each of us unpacks our huge resupply – big mistake to buy so many heavy nuts – we clean up, purify water from a tiny stream running across the path and make dinner before the rain buckets down. I guess it was worth stopping here – and in the nick of time.
But will we make it to Arthur’s Pass and be able to cross all those rivers and streams? No one knows, but at least we’re dry and safe in this shelter and the biggest river is two days away. Nothing to do now but rest.
But no rest possible. Nine – ten? – people – loud and obnoxious people arrive. They do not possess inside voices, or manners it would seem. One tom-boy with shaved head except for one long, thin braid, an elaborate sleeve of tattoos and pierced lip, gives a Tarzan yell out the door as her friends arrived. A prissy man struggles in front of all of us to get his chubby self into tight long long-johns.
Another young man looking like he’d rather model outdoor gear than be in the outdoors, complains his feet hurt and asks how he might get himself out of doing the hard bits ahead. All this I observe from my bunk since they gather in a circle on the floor, propane stoves fired up – is that even safe indoors?
It seems most of them are from The Netherlands and the American woman, Naomi, speaks Dutch and naturally has become their de facto leader. She’s built like Mary McCarthy and speaks like a bossy Sunday School teacher – “And what were your names again?”
Not an unkind person and I don’t take their boisterousness personally, it’s just not my vibe so I convince the men to make another long day tomorrow and shoot for a hut just ahead of this massive group’s planned stopping point.
The morning begins cloudy, chilly, but with no rain. I am up first, packed and ready to leave this over-stuffed hut. We plan another long day to make some space from these characters that arrived and took over late yesterday evening in the pouring rain. Sure, it’s all ‘part of fabric’ of a thru-hike, but gee whiz, they were loud! Nine – or was it ten? – drenched backpackers storming the shelter just as we were quieting down to sleep.
The next town is Arthur’s Pass – or as Alex says it, “Harters Puss.” We have a lot of walking ahead plus scary river crossing. Fingers crossed the rain stops for a few days to let us through.
It’s all grassy river terraces now where skittish cows graze, dashing away when I get close and hiding behind thorn trees, their white faces peeking out. Moo’s echo across the valley.
I work my way up on a bank thick with manuka and beech to cross a wildly rushing stream on a swing bridge before arriving at another modern hut, spacious with separate sleeping quarters.
The pen is out of ink, so I press hard and leave an impression in the intentions book that I was here, writing under the ‘conditions’ section, that it’s sunny. There is one small patch of blue, so here’s hoping.
The walk is mostly ‘cruisy’ on grass and through forest, until I have to bank down steeply to cross a stream. I’m wet all day, but my trail shoes dry quickly before the next stretch of bog, mud or full-on stream.
I have spent so much of this hike trying to understand group dynamics, where I fit in and why I haven’t landed on a hiking ‘buddy.’ I’ve longed for companionship and found it when I badly needed it – for safety – crossing Waiau Pass.
But after last night, I’m not sure that I need to be part of a big group. For one thing, big groups tend to move and make decisions too slowly. They can’t be nimble. It’s not their nature. But more important, I’m simply too independent and value my time alone. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m (mostly) on my own.
The trail stays in forest a long time, Sumner Lake barely seen through the thickness. I detour to the lookout, but it’s too overgrown. It’s not until I leave the lake that I come down to it and look back at its massiveness under massive mountains.
The forest goes on and on, a yeasty smell in the air from the beech trees oozing nectar. I come back onto the river terrace and bright sunshine. A large black and white striped dragonfly lands in front of me on a blade of grass.
Another swing bridge takes me to another hut overlooking the milky aqua river roiling in the sun. I have a snack and study my surroundings. On the counter is a big bag of cookies, a dozen eggs, and a bottle of wine. Who carried this here? Surely not TA hikers.
The intentions book has signatures from Gipsy Woman, Wind Chime and Foxy Lady with no hut pass number filled in. Am I being too school marm to let this annoy me? The point of the book is to track our whereabouts and last place known to have been. It does that by tracking our hut pass numbers. Writing in a trail name smacks of self-absorption and conceit, and no number means these gals did what a lot of TA hikers are doing and not paying the $92 for a hut pass. Pretty uncool. I think in the end that breaks down to $3 a night to be out of the elements and in a safe space.
I know my hut pass number – AK5769 – and writ in next to my name and my intention of staying at the next hut. It’s mostly a hobbit forest high above the river valley, I spot two bright purple pouch fungus in their favorite habitat of mountain beech detritus. I come to a hot pool with a sign warning not to submerge your head due to amoeba meningitis. But I guess placing my body in is ok. I strip down and about a thousand sandflies are on me at once.
It feels spectacular, just the right temperature and filled with bubbly circulation, the hotness pouring in from a waterfall. I feel slippery to the touch and a bit lightheaded when I battle the flies to put my clothes back on and continue sidling the wooded banks of the river, thousands of waterfalls coming down the moss covered cliffside and meeting larger creeks I cross one after another.
Hurunui No. 3 Hut is tiny and nearly full, the bunks three-stories high, but there is one spot for me.
Young adult novelist Kekla Magoon wrote, “The river moves, but it follows a path. When it tires of one journey, it rubs through some rock to forge a new way. Hard work, but that’s its nature.”
As Alex and Tom and I gather at the common table for dinner, Alex tells me he’d place my age between 50 and 60. Ouch! You should always lie to women-of-a-certain-age. He then adds, “But you hike like a 25 year old.” Like all those waterfalls and streams and rivers crossed these past two days and the abundance of rain feeding them, I too am on a journey, forging my way, hard work in my nature.
I don’t keep their pace, but I am holding up well and so glad I convinced them to shoot for this hut, to move beyond the loud crowd and perhaps set ourselves up to make those river crossings before the rain fills them too high to pass.
The crowd her has a good energy, talking in low voices and planning tomorrow. We all knock at out about 8:00.
episode 44 shownotes ‘n transcript
Blissful Hiker discovers the difference between loneliness and solitude, appreciating the camaraderie crossing a difficult mountain pass.
In this episode:
- Blissful joins six determined friends to cross Waiua Pass in high winds and squalls on the Te Araroa.
- It’s not so bad up and down around Lake Constance then up again on loose scree over the pass with a tricky downclimb on a crumbling cliff into a wonderland of mountains and waterfalls in Nelson Lakes National Park, the view coming in and out of swirling mist.
- Blissful faces her first tricky river crossings and breaks down in tears, and one friend tells her, “Remember, no one walked this for you.”
- Along Waiau River, a cowboy tells her to hide in the thorn trees until wild horses stampede by.
- She’s surprised by another hiker’s asking her if she’s ok and what her plans are, the first time any hiker had asked in nearly three months.
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasala as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
The rain lets up a bit as we cross the pass and head into a wonderland of jumbled rock, tawny grasses flattened by the wind and mist rising to reveal a huge V in the mountains ahead, a waterfall – loud even from here – wending its way down into the valley we will soon cross.
I take so many pictures and selfies that I fall behind the group, brightly colored pack covers turning from side to side as each tramper picks their way down the eroded path. Though, to be honest, there really is no path exactly, more of a suggestion marked by tall poles jammed into the rock, orange tips able to picked out marching down the side.
I catch up at a cliff edge, the only way down it would seem, to down-climb, a technique in rock climbing where you face the rock and reverse the order of what you would do going up. Of course, you would usually be roped when rock climbing – and you likely wouldn’t be carrying a pack and walking sticks.
The others are already down below and so I know it’s doable, but the rock is slippery and my hands are cold even in gloves. I hesitate, knowing one slip and this trip is over – or I might even be over. “C’mon, don’t be such a girl!” Russell yells.
Um, I am a girl and I’m assessing the situation. I throw down my sticks below to a stunned reaction. “What did you do that for?” “So I can use my hands!” And then I flip my around, find the hand and foothlds and work my way down like a ladder.
I have been sharing my walk of New Zealand’s Te Araroa on The Pee Rag – I am on day 84 and well into the South Island. This section is called Nelson Lakes National Park and takes me over three days from St. Arnaud to Boyle Village. Starting was a bit of a drama when the weather forecasted rain squalls and severe gale, but I was encouraged by the experts at the DOC to keep moving, because rather than a real “storm” with heavy downpours or snow, this was actually manageable – at least in theory.
I climbed easily over Travers Saddle, but was practically blown over by the wind then wiped out on mud coming down and bent my trekking pole, which seems so far to still be useable. Sunny skies yesterday are now gray and rain spatters the windows as we all begin to stir at Blue Lake Hut. I look outside and the mountains are hidden in mist, though wind seems to have stilled. That could be just because we’re tucked into a hollow.
I walk over to Russell still nestled in his upper bunk. “Why are you shaking your head? We’re going!” he says. But I’m skeptical, telling him I’ll head to the long drop (or outhouse) and check the weather on the gps.
It’s wet, but not as bad as it looks. The forecast gives no report on wind – odd with 110 kilometers per hour expected – and shows rain chances decreasing throughout the day. I wonder if the forecast is for the mountain or the valley.
We’re all up by now making breakfast and packing, one strange couple of an American and a South African place themselves right by my bunk in such a way I can’t pack. They talk about the pass and camping near it, but seem pretty flaky. I just want to get over it, no need to stay up there.
Our group is definitely not flaky. Rain, wind, no matter, they are determined. Russell is already dressed, including his wool cap and tramping boots. I suggest we consider not just going for the sake of going, but to actually see the views. To which Russell points out it’s clearing. A little. Ish.
We all sit around the long table with benches – Kačka, Kuba, Tomaš, Alessio, Russell, Will and me – talking nervously before finally deciding to leave at 8:30. And once the decision is made and I cram in more calories and water and chuck on even more layers, it’s starts to bucket down rain.
Not the most helpful sign but the momentum is moving forward. Russell agrees to have us all stick together and watch out for one another. He makes Will ‘trip leader’ even though Will is still waffling on whether to come with us.
But he’s also swept into the momentum, seven trampers in full rain gear heading uphill on the dam below Lake Constance. Ad just like, the rain stops for us and the views open right up. Stunning, huge, like a painting, and actually even more beautiful under swirling mist.
There’s maybe 100 meters of cruising before we hit a wall of scree, an orange pole marker far away at the top. So up we go, ignoring the fact that this climb gains us no altitude as we’ll have to come right back down slippery, ball-bearing, trip-hazard pebbles to a rocky beach. The only other choice would be to swim – or maybe a boat.
The wind pushes me sideways, gusting around my ears. I can hardly breath from the climb or the wind pressing at my mouth. Lake Constance is aqua with sharp cliffs holding it in place, light green and pale, eroding avalanche trails of scree. Tiny bit of snow hold fast on seams and I cant imagine staying longer than to take a picture or two. The path is steep back down the other side of the moraine but up ahead I see the river’s source and the tiny pass slightly higher than where we’re standing.
We reach the headwaters fed by dozens of waterfalls and walk through thick and wet grass, jumping from rock-to-rock over rapids, back a few steps up the valley for seemingly no reason, then finally hanging a left and cracking straight up. It’s not always on rocks, thankfully, but on dirt ‘steps’ carved out by thousands of boots. Alessio and Tom fly up, but I’m right behind them – up is definitely my forte, I have “mountain goat” in my genes. Of course, the wind picks up and it begins to drizzle as we hunker behind a rock for a few sips of water before the final push.
I begin to shiver and need to move, and Tom joins with me for the last push. That lovely tall Czech athlete hangs back, and lets me go first. Does that ever feel good getting to the tiny pass and looking down the other side to more glorious mountains.
We stay just a moment in the wind for a few pictures of triumph then head down an easy-ish trail at first, that turns to slanty rock and scrambling. I take far too many selfies, so lag a bit behind and everyone is under the mini rock climb. Kačka goes front first, not bothered by her sticks or backpack pushing her forward.
But I climb down like a ladder, unwieldy with my pack, but eventually arriving at more tricky footwork over rock, scree, mud, bush-hidden holes and bubbling streams and waterfalls. The Waiau Uwha river takes a sharp turn into the valley, cutting a jagged canyon with huge, rushing waterfalls into crystal clear water.
The group breaks up now as we get closer to the hut, but there are still a few avalanche fields and river crossings. Alessio and Will jump them but I don’t trust my footing, so plunge in the water. It’s cold and fast moving and I feel nervous for what’s next.
At the next crossing, Will takes a risky jump – makes it – and Alessio falls in. I start crying. Scared, overwhelmed, needing help and not wanting to be a burden. I’m sure it’s all the tension of the day and its risks piling up which cause me to blubber. But finally the trail eases onto grassy floodplain meadows.
Waiau hut is not too far down this glorious meadow, leading down a V of mountains, the sun shining far on a far distant range. Eight of us sleeping on bunks, benches and the floor share the space, swatting thousands of sand flies until we discover a gap in the door that we tape shut with duct tape.
Will tells me it’s ok to need help – its ok to cry but remember, he tells me, no one walked this for you.
Kuba’s alarm wakes us in the morning. Usually just the sunrise gets me up, but last night there was a full moon that shined brightly once it cleared the mountains. I even slipped out of my bunk to see its light illuminate this stunning valley of straw-colored grass and towering peaks.
I pack and go as usual with a quick goodbye. I’ll miss Will who won’t walk as far as me today and Russell – a retired ‘sparker from Palmie’ – translation: electrician from Palmerston North. He does tease relentlessly, quick with the cutting remarks. I have to admit, it is a bit much, but he also hands out compliments mentioning that yesterday will take an entire chapter in the book he’s writing for his grandchildren. It was a great day.
Last night he tells me that everyone was scared on that one tricky downclimb on the cliff, they just don’t talk about it all that much. He admits even he was petrified of saying that he wished he’d thrown his sticks down like I did.
I’m always surprised others feel like I do – afraid, nervous, insecure, vulnerable. I think I’m far too hard on myself sometimes, and I’m a loud mouth and let everyone know how I feel.
Will and I spoke about friendship and the competing needs to be alone and to be together. I came alone to hike, but the theme running through this entire adventure is the need to fit in, to belong and to be cared for. What amazes me is how people come in and out of the story, they appear just when they’re needed.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see Will again as he’ll head back to Australia. Russell is purposely slowing down so he can meet his wife, so we likely won’t walk together on this trail, but they both touched me deeply – and helped me too.
But just as I feel warm and fuzzy, Russell mimic my singing ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning!’ changing the last line to ‘Alison is going away!’
The trail does a small jog through forest before cruising on the wide meadow next to the river. Grasses in vermillion and saffron dance in the gusts; purple, pink, white and yellow flowers dot the fields. The sky is clear with clouds resting on the peaks.
On the north island, I had an intimate relationship with mud. On the south, it’s water with streams and rivers up to my knees crossed all day. There’s just no way to stay dry. Right around the time the sun peaks over the mountains, I cross 2,000 kilometers walked.
A man approaches on horseback telling me they’re are bringing wild horses up the valley, preparing to sell them. So we’ll need to hide in the bush as they pass, bush which consists of thorny trees way off the trail.
As I hunker down, I eat some meat, then nuts, sip some water but after about 45 minutes I grow impatient and start walking, thinking I can simply leap into the bush should they come stampeding around the corner.
Not so simple, as the ground is lumpy with rocks, hidden holes and spiky plants. Just then, the horses come – twenty-one beautiful chestnut animals, black manes flying as they run in a pack – but far, far away, on the other side of the river.
All clear to hike it would seem and I march on in this lovely valley, a few small side channels leading to snow capped mountains. The others catch up – Kuba finding the gloves I left behind, a better bet than the pink dishwashing gloves they use in rain.
Will is far behind having asked to walk alone. He shares a book he’s reading that explores the idea of being called to adventure. Certainly true for me, this need to get out of my life briefly and see if I have it in me to walk a long trail. He tells me that we need to make decisions with compassion, for ourselves but also for others that we may hurt when needing to take care of ourselves. I ponder this on the long walk to the first hut, how I do what’s right for me and still act with grace and compassion. I have been called ‘selfish’ by many people and ‘uncompromising.’ I wonder if understanding why people would say that while holding on to my convictions is possible?
At Anne hut, the group assembles for lunch with a spectacular view. We laugh about the annoying dread-locked Canadian heading north who joined us last night and acted like he owned the hut. Russell says he’s a man used to getting his way. I begin to realize that Russell might not like assertive people.
I move on to the next hut and Alessio asks if I’ll be ok. He’s sincere and asks twice. You know, that’s the fist time anyone has asked how I’m doing on this entire walk.
The trail wanders up a new valley with land folding over itself against the river. It reminds me of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite as the wind gusts and a few sprinkles hit me from a sun shower. The ever-present beech – this time a varietal with a white-gray trunk, fanning branches, and tiny, waxy leaves – seem to be sculpted by a Bonsai master, each arm gently holding up its greenery like a tray of delicacies.
I cross the gentle saddle and plunge down into a new valley with the Boyle River to my right. Here, I take a wrong turn onto the horse path and wade through North Island-esque mud, a too-clean hiker pointing out my mistake at the junction.
May Sarton wrote “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” These past two days combined both, being alone and feeling full but also needing to be together to feel safe. Long distance thru-hikes are a funny thing for me. I crave alone time, a need it and have been learning to trust myself. But I want to fit in and I want to be wanted and cared about too.
I drop into more meadows and tree covered dams before finally reaching a swing bridge over to a large hut. There’s just enough daylight and energy for dinner, and washing up as fast as possible to avoid nasty bites by the swarming sandflies. Alessio again asks me how I am and what my plans are. I’m surprised he seems truly interested and I’m glad because tomorrow the trail takes us into Canterbury, famous for its river crossings that can be extremely dangerous. Perhaps I won’t have to try it on my own.
It’s getting darker each day as we approach the end of January, so I tuck into my bag on the upper bunk, Alessio sleeping nearby and already snoring.
episode 43 shownotes ‘n transcript
Blissful Hiker learns what she plans to do with her one wild and precious life by heading into the mountains when weather moves in.
In this episode:
- Blissful is told by the experts at DOC to keep moving up into the mountains since the bad weather is not a storm but more “squally showers” and very big wind.
- She gets a late start as she heads into Nelson Lakes National Park around Lake Rotoiti thinking of poet Mary Oliver who died the day before and asked in her most famous poem, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
- On Travers Saddleshe braves the wild gale-force wind to cross over.
- On the descent, she wipes out on mud and tumbles down, hardly hurting herself but bending her trekking pole, but finding it’s still useable.
- Walking over avalanche zones, waterfalls, root-filled trails and up steep climbs, she meets a ranger who calculates because of her age, she can’t handle Waiau Pass the next day.
- But at the hut at Blue Lake/Rotomairewhenua, her friends convince her to continue to the pass the next day, if they all go together.
MUSIC: Suite Argentina by Horacio Salgán as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
Just as the trail leveled off coming out of the bush and into tussock, the rain really started lashing down. I almost hadn’t put on my jacket as I sweating most of the way up and knowing I was getting close to the hut. And there it is! Perfect timing Upper Travers squatting in a clump of beech trees at the base of the massive climb I’ll do tomorrow.
My friend Charley, his lime green pack cover bouncing along, disappears in the high, soft and tawny grass. We hurry inside only to be told that water has to be collected at the stream, so stay bundled up and fill up before heading into a huge, beautiful and new hut. We’re greeted by Kačka, Kuba and a Kiwi named Russell. He’s a grandfather of seven and a hiking novice walking the entire Te Araroa and writing about all he’s learned to share with his young ones. Things like – to get where I need to go, starts with one step.
The wind smacks the hut and it shivers, as I do asking if maybe someone wants to make a fire. A German volunteer hut warden named Toby shows up and adds more color to the group. He checks our hut passes then reads the weather – rain eases in morning, gale with severe gale in exposed areas, nice spells in afternoon before rain returns in evening.
Russell scoffs that it’s meaningless. What is meant by morning, for instance, or ‘nice spells?’ He tells us the weather service has been exaggerating ever since they got in trouble when some young people were caught out in a storm.
Kačka is a bit more nervous, like me, but we see the wisdom in his relaxed manner. Put on the rain gear, have warm layers at the ready and just take your time.
“These are just squally showers,” he tells us. “What I’ll do is look outside and then go out in it.”
Sleep did not come easily at the hotel in St. Arnaud. After seeing the frightening weather report, I got on Facebook to ask for advice on whether to wait or move on. Big mistake. It was at fever pitch – one helpful hiker even sending me a copy of the weather report as if to underscore the same weather report I was asking about. My friend Tom is still in Golden Bay recovering from giardia and offered to start again with me in a few days. But something just doesn’t sit right with this decision.
Now it’s way past my usual wake time of dawn, it’s 8:00 when the DOC office opens, the Department of Conservation. Perhaps they can tell me what to do. I dial and a woman answers, totally relaxed. “The weather is so changeable in New Zealand,” she says. “If it were me, I’d just keep walking.”
And I suddenly realize why things didn’t sit well. What’s going on in the mountains isn’t a storm with a beginning and an end. It’s more just the kind of activity that happens in the mountains – especially ones smack dab in the center of a long thin island. If I try to ‘wait it out’ it could be weeks. It’s just not that severe.
So I write Richard and Tom to tell them I’ve changed my plans, change into my tramping outfit and head to the trail.
The trail’s easy in Nelson Lakes National Park about a sixth the way down the South Island running on a wide path of crunchy leaves and exposed roots along beautiful Lake Rotoiti, a long mitten of a lake nestled into huge mountains.
I’m committed and move fast along superb track, nagged whether moving into the teeth of a gale is the best idea. I tell myself to live with my choice and ‘lean in’ for lack of a better phrase. Just go with it and enjoy what comes.
I think of poet Mary Oliver who I learn has just died. I remember being so deeply inspired reading her question of what I will do with my one wild and precious life. I know sitting out adventure is not on my list. Living fully – and maybe a bit wild – is. Besides, what mountains don’t have a bit of drama?
The Lakehead track is a super highway with roots and rocks and huge spillways of detritus from the peaks now and again. It’s popular with families hoping to stay in a hut but not have to work too hard. Several pass me as I whizz by, managing very small children.
Once I reach the hut, I use the long drop housed in a metal building like an extra large Pez dispenser. When I come out, one person remains at the hut. It’s Charley! Such joy to run into him. I had only just asked the trail goddess for a little sign that all was well with my hiking up here today. His presence takes all my tension away. We talk a bit then walk at our own pace quietly. It’s not as though he’s looking out for me, but knowing he’s giving it a go, takes away the edge.
The trail takes a new name – Upper Travers Valley as we wind in and out of beech forest, golden grasses and more boulder fields. There are a few stream crossings, but I stay dry as the sun peaks out and the clouds part revealing blue sky.
Across a one-person-only swing bridge, three backpacking Kiwis lounge with lunch, all smiles and relaxed. I am definitely not alone in this valley as three teenagers lope past me and I overtake a lone tramper.
John Tait hut is huge and filled with all sorts of people – some old, some young – no one at all concerned with the weather. I sign the intentions book and write in the box for ‘conditions,’ partly sunny. Certainly my wish, as we grab more water, eat food and push on toward the saddle.
Along here I notice signs for avalanche paths. Only active May – November, these are areas where hikers mustn’t dawdle and are told to carry a beacon. I see some evidence of a slip – boulders and tree trunks in a massive path all the way down the mountain – but all is calm now, the bush lit up like a magic lantern.
Met Service – New Zealand’s weather channel – got one thing right: rain started like clockwork at 4, but it’s light drizzle and I don’t bother putting on my raincoat. The trail is a bit steeper climbing up waterfalls and rapids, but nothing as dramatic as the Richmond Range.
So we move fast and I know a DOC estimate of 3 1/2 hours is going to take us two. Charley stops to put on his raincoat as things get a bit wetter and I tell him we’re close. Just as we top the rise, we see the hut.
Charley’s alarm wakes me around 5. He has plans to cross both passes today – and I’m sure he’ll do it. I hope to make it over just one, the Travers Saddle. Will the mountains let me?
I take a look outside the window and I can’t believe it – clear skies turning pink from the sunrise. The long grass golden, the peaks just getting hit by light. I roll out of my bunk immediately, throw on clothes, grab a few bars and go. Clear, cold and wildly windy.
It’s rocky and moderately steep at first as I work my way up towards Travers Saddle. It’s obvious now why people use huts rather than tents, the ground uneven, damp and the wind howling.
I enter a giant bowl where I can see down the narrow valley I walked yesterday straight to the hut. I have a huge smile on my face, so happy I am on the move. Charley is long gone and Russell’s bright orange pack cover bobs in an out of low shrubs ahead of me.
I feel a bit unwieldy – more so than yesterday. The trail is marked by orange poles and is sometimes a scramble, sometimes a rock hop across huge fanning avalanche paths named for people – that were killed? That gave money for the sign? I have no idea. The wind gusts, flattening the grass and taking my breath away.
A waterfall splashes in a meadow filled with flowers, including one spiny plant that scratches me through my trousers. Mount Travers in a perfect triangle looms above. I finally reach the saddle, and for a moment the wind stops entirely, the sun burns down and I consider taking off my coat. But within moments, I pass whatever acted as a wind block and wild gusts slam into me, powerful and freezing cold.
I take pictures, selfies, video, video selfies and then move on. This is no place to stop for breakfast.
Hut warden Toby told us last night that people complain about the steepness of the next section, beautiful, open and steep and littered with bright yellow and erect speargrass. I go slow and measure each step, my knees very strong indeed. But they don’t stop a wipeout, an interesting wipe out. I slip on something wet – dirt, root – and go down backwards then kind of forwards, rolling over and over into the sharp points of the spears. I skin my knee and bruise my ego but basically all is well – except one trekking pole. It’s not broken, but it’s bent – actually sort of curved. I’m glad I have aluminum because it seems to still have its strength, if a bit off balance.
I take good care going forward as spectacular mountains seem to rise as I move down very steep terrain and back into mossy forest.
The Sabine River is loud for a long time before I get to it, rushing and boiling in transparent blue. Rivulets come onto the trail, muddy but with several logs placed to keep the feet dry. Small streams race furiously to join the river and I leap rocks over them. A tiny bridge crosses a deep chasm, the water disappears below, its sound hollowed out.
The trail turns sharply away towards its west fork and brings me to a hut, hot and abandoned except for drying clothes. Heaps of sandflies greet me so I head upriver towards Blue Lake and take lunch on a cool, moss-covered stump instead.
I walk over three astounding avalanche zones, giant boulders coming all the way across the river. Waterfalls crash down from the mountains as the trail gets steeper.
Just then, I meet Bruce, the hut warden. A plump fellow and older than Toby, his gray hair shoots out in clumps from his cap and his pants are cut just below his knees exposing short puttees or gaitors tied to his boots and loads of cuts on his exposed ankles.
He tells me to expect heavy rain and winds of 110 kph tomorrow – about 70 mph – yup, that would be a sever gale, or worse. He then says it’s no go for Waiau pass tomorrow. I make quick calculations and decide I have plenty of food to wait it out and the next day should improve. He then adds that I’m lucky because there are only five people at the hut and that I should be happy because they’re older. When I look at him quizzically he says, “No offense!”
None taken, but I’m not sure why he points out my age. I am walking the Te Araroa alone. So I blow it off and head straight uphill to the hut meeting Russell and several older TA hikers. They decide to give the pass – a pass altogether. It’s sunny and warm here the wind blocked by the trees and the hut. So we sit on the front stairs sharing tea and stories. And in comes Alessio, Charley’s friend from Italy and the tall Czech named Tomaš. Jovial and friendly, he tells us he also met Bruce, the hut warden who assured him he’d be just fine going over the pass. What now? In a few moments, Kuba and Kačka arrive and say the same thing.
OK, so I guess for us old folks, we can’t handle the pass, even if we just crossed one in big wind. So I clear my head and walk over to Blue Huts’s namesake. Rotomairewhenua, the lake of peaceful lands. Aqua and fluorescent green, it’s the clearest known fresh water in the world because the lake above feeds in through hidden caves that filter the water. It’s an astounding jewel nestled in these mountains.
The wind picks up and builds white caps in seconds, so I look for a sunny place to hunker down and enjoy the spectacular view.
When I return to the hut, the table is full, everyone sharing stories and commenting on the sameness of their meals, mostly ramen – ramen with beef, ramen with chicken and ramen with “sauce.”
The conversation veers to tomorrow and everyone’s eagerness to press on – whether up or down. Russell suggests we all stay together and names a lone Australian section hiker named Will as leader. But Will’s car is parked below on a different trail head – and the four hikers wanting to head down have no transportation to the rest of the trail.
This is when Will comes up with an ingenious plan – He decides to hike with us over the pass, hands his car keys to the four going down and asks them to meet him on the other side in three days. A little low on food, we all pitch in from our overstuffed packs and the plan is set.
Sally Koch said, “Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day.” I think about Charley appearing at the first hut when I set out late and nervous yesterday to climb these mountains when the weather looked poor. He wasn’t guiding me, but he made me feel safer just being there. And here, our gang of friends, Kačka, Kuba, Alessio, Tomaš, Russell, Will – all plan to give the pass a try but do it as a gang. No one carrying anyone else, but each of us feels just that much stronger and braver because of our numbers.
By 8:00 we’re all stuffed into our sleeping bags on loud plastic mattresses. The wind shakes the hut and voices lowly murmuring about how they feel, what to eat, how to strategize. I have no one to talk to so just breath deeply feeling resolved that not only do I need to get myself over, but have a responsibility to everyone – and especially Will, who need to meet his car.
episode 42 shownotes ‘n transcript
Blissful Hiker discovers that if you have the energy, the daylight and the weather is good, you should always try to get some distance while the getting’s good.
In this episode:
- Blissful is up before dawn and has Purple Top in the Richmond Range of the Te Araroa all to herself.
- Then she dives back into a deep valley to walk up the Wairoa River, sidling its steep, crumbly banks and using the water itself as a trail.
- The next day is in a transformed environment of the Red Hills, magnesium rich desert-like landscape still filled with dozens of rushing streams to cross.
- Her friends catch up and convince her to push hard and continue to Red Hills Hut while the weather is good and there’s still time.
- It’s good she moved forward as the weather begins to turn just as she arrives in St. Arnaud to pick up a resupply.
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasala as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
It’s hot and dry today as I pick my way over brightly colored rock in reds and greens. That’s why it’s called the Red Hills, magnesium-rich stones thrust up from the innards of the earth and causing the soil to be too depleted for trees. Here in this Southern portion of the Richmond Range, I feel like I’ve been dropped into a western – one of those movies where the heroine is completely lost.
But I’m not lost and it’s only the air and ground that’s dry. There are dozens of streams with cold, clean water emptying the snowfields above to drink from, and to fill my hat and dump it over my head. As a southbound hiker or SOBO on the Te Araroa, I at least have the advantage that the sun is at my back.
My eye lashes stay damp and matted for many steps before drying. My drinking water is already hot. As I descend, I see on my map that I’ve crossed the 1900 kilometer mark, just 1100 to go to Bluff, the end of the earth it would seem on the Foveaux Strait. I feel so good, I forget about speed, I forget about ‘getting there’ and just enjoy the ride.
And then this lost heroine hears voices. It’s the Czechs, Kačka and Kuba walking fast towards Porters Creek Hut, an orange speck in the distance.
At 4:00 I have every intention of calling it a day, but they have other ideas. It’s only 6 and half miles to the next hut – yet hard miles, with an estimate of five hours to get there.
Kuba tells me that if we go to the next hut, we’re better set up to get to St. Arnaud, the next town, at a reasonable hour. Sure, ok, I guess that makes sense. And then Kačka adds another point. “You know,” she says, “If you have the energy, the daylight and the weather is good, you should always try to get some distance while the getting’s good.”
It’s pretty hot here and I’d have companionship – fast and motivated companionship, but companionship none-the-less. So off I go, Kačka leading and Kuba pulling up the rear, the heroine no longer lost.
Like just about every morning, I am up before everyone else and out the door. I grab two bars and shove them in my pocket, then throw on Olive Oyl and head up to Purple Top before the sunrise. A family of goats meets me as I come out of the trees, and low cloud like a bubble bath filled the valleys.
The actual top is off trail, so I leave my pack below on a quest for views. The sun heats the valley, burning the cloud cover to small cottony drifters. I feel so energized after last night. Nice, interesting people. We laugh and share and commiserate. It is what I needed. I can see the hut from here and the long scree slog. Soon I’ll go down into the river valley and say goodbye to views for the rest of today, so I stay here for an hour or so and just drink it in.
Which isn’t entirely true as tantalizing openings show the mountain I just crossed and the red hills I hope to reach tomorrow. Wasps are everywhere on the way to Tarn hut, one tangles in my hair buzzing noisily by my ear.
I meet three heavily-laden NOBO’s (northbounders) and share beta. They have no interest in the north island and I am flabbergasted since I loved it so much. I carry on and cross over blow downs reminding me that maybe I didn’t love it all that much.
The trail goes up, down and ‘sidles’ mountaintops before dropping 1500 feet on badly eroded trail to the Wairoa river. I’m back to emerald green pools clear to the bottom and the river is my trail. Rippled light bounces on the white rock above. On this section, the trail is sometimes very thin high above the water. I use roots and rock for handholds and step carefully. Though I accidentally grab a handful of stinging nettles, the pain firing all over my left hand.
The rushing rapids are a constant companion and I’ll cross it eight times, but I’m in no hurry. The hut will be hot until the sun sets, so it’s best to saunter through this last part. I wonder who will follow me tonight.
I sing different songs for each crossing to correspond to its number. Right now, I’m on Take Five with water just below my knees.
I cross on mossy rock above a triple waterfall, boiling white pauses to green-brown then over the smoothed edge. Falls mean steep climbing. The hut is out of the trees below a high mountain and I’ll climb its shoulder in the morning.
But right now, I’m working my way over boulders and sand next to a torrent. This is not the place to be after a long period of rain or during snow melt, obviously. Finally the eighth crossing takes me straight up dirt and scree to a flat spot and I’m greeted by the privy staked to the ground with guy-wires and painted a bright orange. The hut too is bright orange with ‘513’ painted on its side. It’s all about being seen by a helicopter if there’s an emergency and it suddenly makes me realize how lucky I am to have such calm weather over all those exposed places.
The hut is empty, so I set up on my favorite bunk sideways to the door and across the room. Access to the water is steep, but doable so I fill up and rinse my hair and face. Absolute bliss.
My routine begins with soup – like tomato or chicken – then another soup where I mix noodles, tuna, cashews, olives, LSA and yeast flakes. It replaces liquids and gives me protein. I’m hungry all the time and now I’m munching on chocolate. I love having the hut all to myself, but then, in come the Czechs.
I thought I’d pushed hard to get here – and so I did, since these two young ones also push hard and fast.
I do sometimes get wrapped up in ‘getting there’ which makes me keep going for maybe too many hours a day. I skipped swimming hole mainly because because the sandflies were feasting. But I regret not going in, though the crossings and my mini hair ‘wash’ just now made up for it. Tomorrow, I tell myself, I’ll choose not to go quite as far and take more time to enjoy it.
I awake with a jolt from nightmares. I’d gone home trying to explain what I’m doing and then had one of those dreams where your house has extra rooms you didn’t know about. Those are always a challenge for me as though I’m not tapping into my resources fully.
The Czechs – who carry my same pack so call us the ‘Granite Gear Gang’ – are up early though taking time to cook and eat breakfast. They tell me they’re impressed I just throw on my clothes, pack Olive Oyl and head out. It’s not a particularly honed skill, just how I am, preferring to get going while the light is good.
And boy is it. I’m now in the red hills and it’s a world transformed from verdant to desert. In the morning light, the color is more an orange gold. I go straight up from the hut to start, rock hopping on a massive boulder slide. The rock is grippy shaped like layers of baby fat or as though sharpened by hundreds of dull knives.
Up and up I go as the sun bakes hotter and hotter. I sidle Mt. Ellis, the street Richard grew up on and the name of his publishing company, then drop down and down into a deep river canyon.
My friend Alison told me that it took her a few days, on a recent backpack trip in Colorado, to find her rhythm. That’s true for thru-hiking too. The days in Nelson and Abel Tasman were exquisite, but returning to the trail had me wondering if all the kilometers I’d walked before had simply been some sort of lucky streak and maybe I don’t really know what I’m doing.
I loved all my days on this range, but it’s taken me time to feel like I do today – relaxed, going with the flow, taking as many breaks as I want and studying all that’s around me, from impressive views to the rocks at my feet. It helps to have fantastic weather, but I love finding my groove, especially on this moonscape of scree followed by humps of thick grass.
It’s dry, but there’s water everywhere including this gorgeous stream of faded aqua on brown stone. I cross it, then walk up and down along it, then cross again and crack straight uphill to a beautiful hut. “Hunters hut” that replaced one destroyed in a flash flood, and honors the two hunters who died on that terrible night.
The hut is built with a porch that shades the sun and I stay for nearly an hour eating and enjoying the spectacular view. But soon I have to go, and move on to the next hut where I plan to stay, though I know it’s not nearly as lovely.
The trail shoots steeply down before going right back up again, eventually taking me past streams, streams-as-trail, and mud-as-trail before opening onto a mysterious saddle of burnt ochre and sparkly green seams.
The look is so reminiscent of the desert, I expect snakes, pests thankfully never introduced to this island. I mince step on very slippery scree made of tiny stones eroding over steep precipices. The manuka trees have one living branch in full bloom next to dried, gray dead branches reaching to the sky.
I see the hut in the distance, an orange speck that would be easily seen from the air. At the hut, Kačka leads and Kuba fill their water bottles and eat and I make them promise they’ll stay with me if I go ahead with them. They do and we don’t waste time, first heading down on extra slippery small rocks to a massive river bed of boulders. A tiny trickle now compared to what created this canyon snakes around and around and we cross it over and over, rock hopping before a big climb in forest.
I keep up with these kids, flying up high to a spectacular new valley, back to mountains covered in green bush, soft folds upon folds. It starts out a balcony walk that shows us where we’re headed, the path clear high above the river below. But there’s no way to continue like this with side valleys bringing water to the river, so it’s down steeply on disintegrating cliffs to cross boulder filled side creeks, followed by enormous climbs up and out.
We get wet, muddy, out of breath, exhausted, but finally come to a beautiful new hut in an extraordinary setting after only four hours. It’s still light and there are exactly three bunks waiting just for us.
Rob turns up again from Captain Creek so many days ago. An American named Justin is heading north and Charley walks nearly 30 km per day, so this is the first I’ve seen him. I make dinner and scarf it down. Everyone is already cuddled into their spaces, and mine awaits my very tired – but very happy – body, pleased I pushed hard.
I’m about to say goodbye to this glorious – but very challenging – Richmond Range. My pack is ripped, my hat rim busted, my feet are a pruny distaster from all the river corssings. No, you do not stop to remove your shoes before walking through a river in New Zealand. You’d never get anywhere if you did. I spend most of the night scratching my sandfly bites until they bleed. Vicious little monsters.
I take off early on the final piece, the Maitland Track, an ‘expert’ bike path for 12 km – still heaps of up and down, but on reasonably nice trail. I think of American Justin telling me he got to Red Hills hut from Bluff in 36 days. Wow! I think, until I realize he skips huge portions of the trail – “My feet don’t walk on asphalt,” he tells me. He even skipped this lovely section I’m on now in favor of a shortcut.
I try not to judge, and instead calculate the real timing to Bluff for a thru-hiker as I walk into a ghostly forest of moss and manuka. At a view, the wind picks up and I hold out my arms like a cormorant to dry my ‘wings.’ The trail goes up again, then way down and way up, fog below with huge snow capped mountains peaking out.
I catch up with Charley and we walk together towards the road where we see a handmade poster announcing a missing hiker, off for nine days in the Richmond Range. I can’t imagine what the family must be feeling. None of us has seen him, but the weather has been good and the trail very well marked. It’s sad and frightening.
Charley is training for certification in the very rigorous English mountaineering course. He’s also run several ultra-marathons including a seven-day race in the Atacama desert in Chile. An interesting young man who inspires me to do and see more. He’ll be miles ahead in a day’s time, but I’m glad to share the pavement as it makes the walk quick and easy.
We talk about our walking styles, how we both like to seize the morning hours and dislike knowing exactly how many more k’s to go or how much more uphill to go. We also share how we feel haunted by the very small parts we skipped on the Te Araroa since we want to do it all, bristling a bit when we’re called ‘purists.’
Walking it all means heading onto a new section tomorrow. We both worry our resupply boxes of food won’t show up, or there won’t be anywhere to stay and looking at the weather, we see bad news in gale force winds, squally showers and freezing temperatures. And then I think of the saying, “Action is worry’s worst enemy.”
There’s a place to stay, our boxes are waiting for us, and the restaurant is fully stocked with pizza and beer. I pushed hard to walk the trail while the walking and the weather was good, not leaving myself exposed to dangerous river crossings or eroding cliffs in the rain and wind. The next section will take care of itself, right now the action I need to take is to relax.