My flight out of Queenstown yesterday was canceled and rescheduled for this afternoon. Some operational issue or something. Anyways they shuttled us back to town last night, covered the cost of a four star hotel, and gave us food vouchers, so I pretty much stayed in NZ for a complimentary night. Lucky I scheduled my departure a few days ahead of my visa waiver expiring, otherwise I would've violated the conditions and might have had trouble trying to come back for another visit. Wouldn't have mattered that the delay wasn't my fault. Better safe than sorry, I always say. Spent the night in my complimentary bath robe watching New Zealand win the Commonwealth Games gold medals for both men's and women's Rugby 7's. There're worse things.
My original plan had been to explore Fiordland on my way through Te Anau a few weeks ago, but the weather wasn't cooperating and I was having too much fun with my friends, so I continued on Te Araroa instead. I always planned to come back before departing Queenstown, and I hoped that the fall weather would be more stable. I should've known better. As if the wet summer were an early winter warning, a major weather system developed across New Zealand earlier this week, dumping rain all over and snow as low as 300 meters elevation. I wouldn't expect more than a dusting in early October back home, but the high country here got a foot or more of snow. Uncharacteristic; frustrating at times and stunning at others.
April 7, 2018
Gnarly weather forecasted starting tomorrow and going through to the middle of next week. Total bummer since I was hoping to do the Kepler Track, Gertrude Saddle, and Milford Sound during that period. I’d planned to hitch out to Te Anau yesterday and use today, maybe the last beautiful day before I need to head to Queenstown, to walk the 60 kilometer Kepler Track. But unfortunately the weather was nasty in Invercargill all of yesterday, so I couldn’t bring myself to hitch the two hours. It was quarter to four by the time I thought to check the bus schedule, and I found that it had departed just 20 minutes prior. I cursed myself for not thinking of it sooner. The rain subsided around 1800, and I briefly considered beginning the hitch. It seemed silly to leave so late, and instead I went back to the SoCo Backpacker where McKenzie was staying another night. I was lucky to get the last bed and happy to have some extra time before splitting off from her.
Checked out around 0800 and got coffee with McKenzie this morning. Picked up a small resupply and an extra layer in anticipation of braving some of the weather, then headed for the edge of town to start hitching. Took about half an hour to get the first ride, which got me about three more kilometers out of town. Then I waited about five minutes each on the next two legs to Te Anau. Very little traffic heading that way, especially so on the final leg. Took five minutes for the first car to come along; thankfully they picked me up. Who knows how long I might’ve waited for the second or third cars.
From Te Anau, I had to decide which trip to prioritize. The Kepler requires an entire day, and tomorrow doesn’t look good. Rather than waste time waiting, I wanted to get set up for something that I might be able to do before the worst of the weather comes. I decided on Milford Sound. By that time, it was 1600 and there was very little traffic going that way so late in the day. Milford Sound is the end of the road- one way in, one way out, and nothing between it and Te Anau. I knew it was a long shot, but I got lucky. A couple of Finnish guys scooped me up and got me about halfway. They pulled into a campground for the night, and I stuck my thumb out again. It was after 1700, and I was way skeptical, but after just a few minutes, a Kiwi couple in an RV scooped me up. I didn’t make it in time for sunset/twilight, but I’m hoping for nice early light tomorrow. C’mon, weather, hold off for me!
April 8, 2018
I dirt bag camped near the cruise terminal last night. The rain started falling around 0500 and seemed to fall steadily forever, pretty much as forecasted. I couldn’t bring myself to pay for a sailing into the sound when I wouldn’t be able to see very much, though I’m sure the waterfalls were unreal this morning. I’m a mountain kinda guy, so I really wanted to see the towering peaks that confine the sound. I would’ve been over the moon to see the sound in all her glory: clear for a time in the morning, then wet in the afternoon.
I was frustrated to have come all this way to miss the clear day, but I knew the forecast when I left. And it was way cool to see the hillsides teeming with countless waterfalls on all slopes in all directions. I mean, literally thousands all up and down the Milford Road, especially on the Milford side of the Homer Tunnel. Anyways it’s like this all over the region, so it’s not like I’m missing out on better conditions anywhere else I’d wanna go. Pretty poor luck having this storm roll in right at the end of my trip, and poor planning not taking the bus out on Friday to enjoy the gorgeous day yesterday. Might have to ultimately miss some of the really cool stuff that I’d already had to skip due to weather the first time through. Ah well, c’est New Zealand.
Made an effort to see Gertrude Saddle this afternoon, and planned to stay at a private alpine hut until conditions allowed a summit bid, but I couldn’t justify paying the $35 fee for an overnight stay that might not even yield a clear morning. Instead I’m dirt bagging it at The Divide. It’s cold and wet, but it’ll due. If the weather sucks tomorrow, then I think I’ll just skip Gertrude and head down to Te Anau to see if there might be a window to walk the Kepler before I head back to Queenstown. If not, I’ll probably just head to Queenstown early and call the trip done.
It’s important to remind myself that I’ve seen some pretty incredible things during my time here, and unfortunate timing/conditions are a part of international travel. And that’s especially true when relying on public transit or hitch hiking, because one is rigid and the other is unreliable. Being able to commit to trips on the fly in the states - and change plans at the drop of a hat - is one of my favorite advantages to regional domestic travel. If the conditions are on, then I go. If not, then I stay. Or go elsewhere. Easy peasy.
April 9, 2018
With the high patchy clouds, I counted it a good morning, or at least as good as I could expect. I hitched back up to Gertrude Valley and headed up the blazed trail to scout the conditions. I half expected the evening’s snow would render the slabs too sketchy to climb, but I was surprised by the relatively dry, safe route. I cruised the quick 4.5 k’s to the saddle and was rewarded with beautiful views of snow dusted peaks in all directions. I would’ve liked to climb higher along the adjacent ridges, but the slabs were steep, icy, and unprotected, so I enjoyed a snack and headed down satisfied with my experience. Hardly epic, but neither was it disappointing.
One quick hitch later, and I was back in Te Anau. Grateful to have little conveniences like WiFi and a reasonably priced cafe. Planning to stay here for a few days to see if the weather will clear for a day to allow me to walk the Kepler. Crossing my fingers!
April 10, 2018
Spent the day taking shelter in town and enjoying the public library wifi. It rained and rained with snow forecasted for the high country along the Kepler. Tomorrow is supposed to be a relatively nice day, and I'm hoping to take advantage by walking the full length of the Kepler, but that will depend greatly on how much snow accumulates. The track crosses some significant avalanche zones, so if it's more than a few inches, I may have to turn around at Luxmore Hut. Either way, I'm shooting to get up high for a look tomorrow morning. Should be some cool photos regardless.
April 11, 2018
It rained the latter half of yesterday and continued until the early hours of the morning today. I'd only begun the five kilometer walk to the trailhead last night when a kind woman stopped and offered me a ride part of the way. I wasn't hitching, because I imagined it was hopeless being nearly 2030, dark and raining. I had resigned myself to arrive at the shelter soaked to the bone, but instead she dropped me right at the doorstep. All of my assumptions were wrong tonight. I was so grateful for the unexpected kindness, a relatively small gesture that made all the difference in the world to me. It's a testament to our individual capacity to affect each other. Never underestimate the impact that your actions, good or otherwise, have on others.
I slept beneath the protection of the trailhead shelter and listened to the rain fall steadily all night. My alarm buzzed at 0630, and I diligently got up to prepare for the day. I was skeptical that so much rain down low wouldn't mean significant snow up high, but I set myself up for the full walk anyways. Just in case. Pulled only the necessary gear from my kit, and stashed my pack in the trees behind the shelter. I was looking to go fast and light.
The walking was easy to start, a flat six kilometers that follow the Lake Te Anau shore. After that the trail climbs steadily up switchbacks(!), maybe the first I've seen in my New Zealand travels. The thick, green forest is a reminder that the last twelve hours of rainfall are the norm and not the exception for this area. The snow I encountered up high, though, that was more akin to a July rather than an April scene. As I climbed higher, I got the sense that I was climbing into Narnia. First it was just a dusting of snow on the trail. Then it was inches of snow underfoot and snowmelt falling from the trees like rain due to the mid-morning sun. Then it was an all-out corridor of endless snow. I'd arrived: Narnia.
The scene amplified as I emerged from the bush to find large windblown drifts along the trail corridor. Over a foot of powder had fallen up high, and another foot had been blown in. I was postholing up to my hip at times. It was unreal. There was a trio ahead of me breaking trail, but I passed them after about a hundred meters and broke trail myself for a few hundred more before the crowds began descending from the Luxmore Hut. Before long, the trail was packed down nicely and made for easy walking. There was no way to traverse the mountains safely in those conditions, so I decided to walk the rest of the way to the Luxmore, then turn around.
The clouds were dramatic and ominous. I was taking photos every few steps. I kept saying to myself "Amazing, this is amazing. It's amazing!" I was saying hello to everyone I passed, wearing a big goofy grin and giggling to myself as I went. I was so happy. I've loved chasing summer these last three months, but it was way fun to get a quick dose of winter. You'll never convince me that what I saw today wasn't cooler than walking the full alpine crossing on a clear, crisp autumn day.
I’ve been told that I could write the following and call this post complete: ”Stewart Island. Up up up, down down down, mud mud mud, FAFBAB barfed. The end.” And while that wouldn’t be inaccurate, it also wouldn’t be the whole story. Like, we never saw a Kiwi. And there were beaches and crashing waves and the warm sun shone brightly sometimes. And some fishermen gave us fresh cod and abalone. And some hunters gave us single malt scotch. And the strait was so violently tumultuous that all ferries were cancelled yesterday and we had to spend an unplanned night on the island. And I nearly puked on the gnarly crossing back to Bluff. The fleeting moments that made the trip what it was might be lost if I don’t take the time and put in the effort to commit those moments to paper. So for your enjoyment, and even more so for my own future satisfaction, I’ve composed a proper update below.
Stewart Island’s Rakiura Northwest Circuit, a 6-day anticlockwise Te Araroa victory lap.
March 30, 2018
START: Halfmoon Bay @ 1330
FINISH: Bungaree Hut @ 1810
DISTANCE: 18 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,729 km
We spent the evening at a backpacker in Invercargill, the five of us, all together for one last night. While it is possible that we may reunite at some distant time and place, it is far more likely that the five of us will never again sit in the same room. So what do we do? We clean out the bottle store, watch Pitch Perfect 3, and have a dance party late into the evening in our private three bunk room. It was far less raucous than our hoorah in Bluff last night, but an evening befitting our silly, giggly nature all the same. (I can’t believe we haven’t been kicked out of a backpacker yet for disturbing the peace.)
McKenzie and I split off this morning for Stewart Island. Kirsten is heading back to Piha soon, and Rob and Elizabeth are going to walk the NWC with Rob’s dad and sister next week. We’re hoping to see them again in Bluff as we’re getting back and they’re departing. The five of us shared a sappy group hug and a mini dance party in the entry way of the backpacker. The song, you ask? Tay Sway: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Seemed appropriate.
FAFBAB and I rolled out of the hostel around 0900, thinking the hitch to Bluff would be easy peasy. Got to the edge of town and found very little traffic going our way. It didn’t take long for a little anxiety to build in my chest. Our ferry was scheduled to depart at 1100, and it was already after 0930. Of course, I just reminded myself that I’m a millennial and that nothing bad will ever happen to me. Then a car pulled over and snatched us up. Too easy. Naturally our ferry was then delayed for over an hour. Then I got motion sickness during the hour long crossing. Had to stand outside against the luggage bins with my head buried in my crossed arms. You know, because the Universe balances itself out. A little sweet, a little bitter, then all is right in the world.
The walk today was pretty easy, or it would’ve been if I hadn’t spent the whole thing choking back the urge to vomit. Woof, y’all. Started with a road walk to the start of the Rakiura Great Walk, which we followed for the first section before splitting off at the Port William Hut to pick up the Northwest Circuit. From there, we walked six kilometers through dense forest to the Bungaree Hut, which is beautifully situated above a beach overlooking a bay.
The quality of the track quickly deteriorated when we left the great walk, which I expected. Almost as soon as we split off of the Rakiura, the ankle deep mud started and continued uninterrupted for a few kilometers. It was everything we’d been told to expect: lots of little steep ups and downs, relatively few trail improvement efforts, mostly forest walking with some short beach sections, and hardly another soul on the trail. Until we got to the hut, anyways. We arrived to find a half dozen hunters/fishermen and a few trampers. Pretty full house, but the hut is big enough to accommodate all of us. The hunters/fishermen were cooking up some dinner and shared their battered and fried blue cod and their abalone. I’d never had the latter and found it quite good, though I wouldn’t want to make a meal of it. The blue cod I could eat all day long. It was all so fresh. They’d literally caught it right out front of the hut.
Though we were surprised, and a little disappointed, to see so many others at the hut, we were also grateful for the company tonight. Curious what we’ll encounter the next few days as we get further into the bush.
March 31, 2018
START: Bungaree Hut @ 0845
FINISH: Yankee River Hut @ 1740
DISTANCE: 23.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,752.5 km
We didn’t exactly race outta Bungaree Hut this morning, but I’m not as concerned about our itin as some other TA hikers seemed to be. They’d just walked the NWC clockwise in like 10 days. We’re skipping every other hut and shooting for five days. I’m expecting that doing 20-30 k days here will be a little tougher than the TA equivalent, but not prohibitively so. And if today’s walk was any indication, then we’re gonna be just fine.
We made pretty good time this morning despite stopping over for a quick break at a non-DOC hunters hut. Made it to the Christmas Village Hut in time for lunch and just as a proper downpour began. Though I could nearly see the hut when the rain started, I got completely soaked in the few minutes it took me to cover the distance. The hut is situated similarly to Bungaree- above a beach overlooking a small bay. But the layout is more open, which I really like. It has the so-called orgy bunks on one wall and a big, open common area with no walls separating the two. Bungaree is a small common room with two separate bunk rooms that are walled off. The former just feels bigger and more inviting. Hope to see more like it on the circuit. McKenzie arrived a few minutes later, and we ate lunch as the storm blew through.
The wind and intermittent rain today made for some choppy breaks along the beach walks. In places, the route closely follows the water’s edge. We hit Lucky Beach around high tide, which meant there were a few pinch points to work around, but nothing too sketchy. I rather enjoyed being right on the water listening to the fist-sized rocks roll beneath the power of the surging ocean. It’s a deeper thud sound than the higher pitch made by the drag of small pebbles in the ocean’s waves.
It rained intermittently, sometimes hard, throughout the day. But I actually really enjoyed it. The thick forest canopy absorbed some of the action, and the rain always stopped for a time between downpours. The sun was often shining while the rain fell. It was stunning to stand at the edge of the forest and watch the pebbles of rain shimmer in the sunlight as they fell. It was a scene that I didn’t know how to capture, but one that I hope will live in my mind’s eye.
We raced the last 11 k to the Yankee River Hut, covering the distance in three and a half hours. Neither of us wanted to walk all afternoon in the rain. Lovely hut very similar to Bungaree last night, except we have this one to ourselves. I got going right away on making a fire for McKenzie who arrived maybe 20 minutes later. It’s cozy in here right now as we listen to the fire crackle and watch her flames dance through the little window of the wood burning stove. So grateful for the dry wood scraps after a wet day. We‘re both exhausted, but not really sure why. The walking wasn’t that terribly difficult, and the day wasn’t that terribly long. Regardless, we got going on our evening routine and have knocked out early. Bed by 2030 tonight.
April 1, 2018
START: Yankee River Hut @ 0835
FINISH: East Ruggedy Hut @ 1625
DISTANCE: 18 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,770.5 km
Another short day today, and pretty easy. Fair bit of ups and downs through woods and mud, but also a few nice beach walks. And the weather was increasingly fine. I wasn’t exactly cruising, but I rarely do on short days where I’m not going to town. What’s the rush, eh?
Loved watching the ocean waves break during the two beach walks today. Hit the latter, noted on the map as a difficult crossing at high tide, right at high tide. And it was, indeed, a difficult crossing. But way fun. And man, it was awesome watching the big waves roll in and crash against the coastline as we bush bashed over low cliffs above the beach. As we neared the end of the beach, I nearly stepped on what I believe was a dying sea lion. He barely moved, though I wasn’t even a meter away. It looked like he was crying, large tears periodically falling from his eyes as he gazed at me, our eyes locked. I just stood there, crying gently with him. Nature is beautiful, and brutal. I wanted so badly to ease the suffering that I perceived, and also understood that I couldn’t. Petty as it felt, I recited aloud the poem “Invictus,” a favorite of mine. And as I turned to leave, my heart sank, anchored by guilt. I wanted to at least offer meaningful comfort. Was it enough to stop and bear witness, to share an unbroken gaze which I can only hope conveyed the compassion that I felt? I dunno, but it seemed all I could do.
We arrived a few hours later at Ruggedy to find it near-full. Fortunately, McKenzie and I were able to snag a few bunks before the remaining members of a large 8-person party arrived. We literally arrived just in time. Love this hut setup. It’s an open floor plan with orgy-style bunks split into two three wide by two high segments, a large common space, and a wood burning stove. This hut is tucked in the trees, so it’s not my favorite location, but it’ll do. Long Harry Hut, where we stopped for lunch earlier this afternoon, was my favorite location so far. It sits on a high cliff overlooking the beach and coast below, expansive views in either direction. Absolutely gorgeous.
April 2, 2018
START: East Ruggedy Hut @ 0735
FINISH: Mason Bay Hut @ 1815
DISTANCE: 30.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,801 km
Today was a long haul through some pretty challenging terrain, which is to say the same terrain we’ve battled since splitting off of the Rakiura Great Walk. (Apparently the Northwest Circuit is way more beautiful and badass, which I believe, so let’s say it’s worth the extra effort.) Long forest walks filled with muddy bits followed by relatively short lengths of gorgeous beach walking- typical. The mud has been a staple of our experience, though it’s generally quite firm, a testament to their dry summer months. There are occasionally deep, wet sections of mud, and those often take me by surprise, so I end up calf deep in the stuff, but even that isn’t so bad. There were bits of TA that found me up to my mid-thigh.
The climbs tend to be steep to the point that exposed roots make staircases for the slippery inclines. There are endless slide marks showing where others have slipped, and in attempts to avoid those spots, I often slip and slide, making my own track marks. The descents are more of the same. I often feel like I’m on the verge of tumbling down the steep slopes. And almost anywhere it’s flat, the mud is prevalent. There are dozens of footsteps in the mud patches, and they all look quite fresh, as if there are hikers just ahead, but we know they’re not. There are very few of us out here.
Arrived at Big Hellfire Hut for lunch today and was tempted to stay. It was a sweet hut with a nice porch and a view through the trees. But mostly I was just done-zo. I dunno why I’ve felt so weak recently. I’m just exhausted all the time, and I’ve really noticed it the last few days. I’m dragging some serious butt on the climbs. It’s taking all of my mental fortitude to will myself into taking another step up, then another, and another. I feel totally spent even as I lay in my bunk composing this post. Thirty kilometers on Stewart Island’s Northwest Circuit is formidable, but I’ve felt much better following many of the far more difficult days I’ve walked over the last few months. I’m confused about what’s changed. I don’t remember feeling this way toward the end of my PCT thru hike, but maybe I did. After a short mental battle, I stood up and carried on. The kilometers aren’t gonna walk themselves.
Little Hellfire Beach earned its name today. The ocean was wreaking havoc in the bay, waves coming in fast, stacking up one after the other, breaking at seemingly random intervals. The wind was strong, blowing the white caps off the break. It was cool chaos! The climb up and over the headland that separates Little Hellfire from Mason Bay was a chore, though. I actually hated it; I just wanted to be at the hut and really hated that there was another big climb standing in the way. And this one wasn’t even necessary. They could’ve had the trail climb some, then contour around the end of the headland. But no, straight up and over the high point. The up and down never ends. Ugh.
My frustration waned when we descended to Mason Bay. The beach walks are my favorite, and I think the long walk along Mason Bay was the best of the best. The sun hung low in the sky and the wind roared. It was fun. We saw hundreds of itty bitty jellyfish washed up on the beach, which - more than the cold, I think - deterred McKenzie from taking a quick dip before we reached the hut.
We haven’t done any actual kiwi hunting, so we’re gonna go out later tonight and have a look around. This is supposed to be one of the best areas to spot them. Time for a power nap.
April 3, 2018
START: Mason Bay Hut @ 1050
FINISH: Freshwater Hut @ 1430
DISTANCE: 15.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,816.5 km
Rats, no luck on the Kiwis. I skipped the walk last night, because I was totally out as soon as my head hit the mat. But I went out early this morning for about half an hour. Nothing. Didn’t even hear ‘em. I’m thinking Kiwis are mythical creatures like griffins and unicorns.
We had originally planned to race out to Oban today, which would’ve been nearly 40 k’s. Instead, we decided to do a short day to Freshwater Hut where we can spend the night for free, then race out tomorrow and catch the late ferry back to Bluff. Figured we’d get in too late tonight to get accommodation, and there is supposed to be a storm coming. Don’t wanna camp in the rain, of course. We might melt. As a result of this decision, which we came to this morning while we laid in bed looking for excuses to be lazy, we had no reason to rush. It was almost 1100 before we put on our packs and started walking.
The rain came and went, but never lasted very long despite the forecast which calls for storms today and tomorrow. The trail was cruiser, smooth and fast along an old, overgrown, grassy road. We got to Freshwater by late afternoon to find 8 hunters and about as many hikers. If the hikers weren’t taking the water taxi out, we would’ve been outta luck. The hut has sixteen bunks, but the common space is very small, so there would’ve been very little room for us to squeeze into. But the hikers left, so we were all set.
I was surprised to see Foxy get off the water taxi to start her circuit with her Kiwi friend, Baggins. She was one of the first hikers I met on the trail. Haven’t seen her since the start of the Richmonds, so it was cool to catch her by chance.
McKenzie and I had fun staying up and talking with the hunters. A few of them were older guys, and they were happy to share all sorts of stories and history with us. We’d heard tales of hunters spoiling hikers with venison stew and other ambrosia, so we got excited when we saw two of the younger guys return with deer kills earlier this evening. No venison dinner tonight, unfortunately. But they did offer us some real mashed potatoes and peas, which I was stoked to accept. And a night cap of single malt whiskey, which I was equally excited to accept. The wind howled outside while we sat around the table enjoying the company of our new friends and the warmth of the wood burning stove. Anxious about the weather tomorrow, and so grateful to be inside tonight.
April 4, 2018
START: Freshwater Hut @ 0715
FINISH: Halfmoon Bay @ 1520
DISTANCE: 23 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,839.5 km
Woohoo, finally heard a Kiwi call first thing this morning! It was the enchanting sound of a male Kiwi that echoed through the forest as we left the hut. One of the DOC crew played the calls for us from her phone a few days ago. The male is a nice whistle and chirp. The female sounds more akin to a prehistoric velociraptor, so I’m grateful we heard a boy. Actually the forest was alive with all matter of birdsong today. Just the second time this trip that I’ve really noticed the chorus. It seems the forests have often been rather quiet.
We’d heard rumors of folks getting sick at Freshwater Landing but chose to stay the night anyways, thinking it would be fine. Unfortunately McKenzie was sick this morning, which made for a rough day getting out to town. She puked first thing (ending a thirteen year streak without doing so), then battled nausea and fatigue the rest of the day. What a trooper. If she were a millennial, then nothing bad would ever happen to her- like me. Unfortunately she’s a Gen-Xer, so...
The track from Freshwater Landing to North Arm was the most rugged of the whole NWC, I thought. The mud was wetter, deeper, and generally more difficult to avoid, though that could’ve been a by-product of the intermittent downpours we experienced today. Hard sayin’ not knowin’. We started with a stout climb, our last big climb of the circuit. Then there was a creek crossing during the descent. There was a warning sign at Freshwater that the bridge had been taken out and that the crossing could be dangerous in inclement weather. Fortunately, it was just a rock hop for us. I waited there for McKenzie who was trailing more than usual due to her illness. I wanted to make sure that we were checking in during the day to adjust our strategy as needed. She was still trucking along, so we agreed to meet again at North Arm Hut.
It took me a little under four and a half hours to cover the 11 k’s to North Arm, which would’ve been a better spot to spend last night were it not a great walk hut. (Didn’t wanna spend the extra money when we could stay at Freshwater for free with our hut passes.) Shortly after McKenzie arrived, a proper downpour started and we watched for about 40 minutes from the comfort of the common room before deciding that it didn’t really matter. We set out amidst the storm, which only lasted another ten minutes before subsiding. Shredded the last 12 k’s to Oban.
Our plan was to catch the last ferry back to Bluff this evening. We arrived with a few hours to spare, but all ferries were cancelled today. The strait is apparently far too tumultuous for a crossing, so we reserved two spots for the first crossing tomorrow morning, then headed over to the backpacker where we got a few beds for the night. Not what we’d hoped, but heaps better than having to camp tonight. And the backpacker is really nice, so we’re not complaining. The food situation was a bit frustrating tonight. First, we wanted grilled cheese and tomato soup from the local supermarket, but they had no bread. Then we wanted takeaway from the restaurant across the street, but they don’t do takeaway. Then we went to the local takeaway cart, but they’re closed on Wednesdays. Then, annoyed, we returned to the market and got torts to make quesadillas and tomato soup. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say.
March 21, 2018
START: Te Anau @ 1425
FINISH: Lower Princhester Hut @ 1520
DISTANCE: 6 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,482.5 km
Russell, the owner of the hotel where we crashed last night, gave us a ride to the trail this morning. He took McKenzie, Elizabeth, and Rob up Lower Princhester Road. I asked to get out at the intersection with the highway, and I think he was confused because I didn't want a ride all the way up with the others. He pulled off and let me out anyways. I probably would've slack packed the quick six kilometers, but Russell assured me that the road didn't go all the way to the hut, so I grabbed my pack out of the trunk and started walking.
I walked the road for an hour...right to the front door of the hut. Haha, ah well. The rain started falling steadily when I was a few hundred meters from the hut, which was all good. I'd already stowed my camera and other sensitive valuables. I felt a little anxious when I saw a vehicle parked out front. There are only six bunks in this hut, so it wouldn't have been a big stretch for all of them to be full upon my arrival. Sure enough, there were six people inside, including my crew. Luckily, the other three were only dropping by. They had all completed TA a week or so ago and just wanted to stop in on their way through Te Anau. Good deal for me. They left, and I claimed my bed.
The rain continued to fall all afternoon and into the evening. I'm so grateful to be inside. We capped off the night with a movie and a cuddle puddle on our makeshift bunk sofa. The last 36 hours or so are just the experiences that make the trail so special. And I love hiking alone, because it creates so many opportunities to meet new people and fall into new groups. I sometimes struggle with loneliness early on, but somehow I always find a clique. Solo-ing is my favorite.
March 22, 2018
START: Lower Princhester Hut @ 0910
FINISH: Lower Wairaki Hut @ 1730
DISTANCE: 29.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,512 km
It rained most of the night and was still raining this morning when my alarm buzzed. I just turned my alarm off altogether and rolled over. I'm a bit of a princess and don't like walking in the rain, so I was no hurry to get out there this morning. And I knew we were starting the Southland forests today, which meant mud, mud, and more mud.
Finally willed myself out of the hut with the others around 0900, and it didn't take an hour for me to mis-step. I'd been hopping around daintily avoiding mud pits as I went, then suddenly I was knee deep in it. I was both annoyed and relieved. At least I could finally stop working so hard to keep my feet dry and clean. From there forward, I just powered through right up the guts, as they say. Apparently this sort of thing is far more common on the North Island, another reason I chose to skip it altogether. I'm pretty happy being "half a thru hiker".
The day was hardly cruiser, but once I gave up on keeping my feet dry, I started flying. The forest sections were peppered with stretches of meadows where high, thick tussock grass poked me in the face and eyes, obscuring the path at my feet. More than once I stumbled into thigh-deep puddles of clear water. While not as annoying as mud, it was always a shock. I think I slipped/tripped/fell over half a dozen times and had countless saves. It's exhausting walking in those conditions. I can't believe I didn't get hurt today.
I met Cosmo a few kilometers before the Aparima Hut. We've been tracking her comments in the hut books, so it was cool to put a face with the name. We walked together for a while. Turns out she's done some really rad stuff over the last year. She walked the circumference of both Iceland and Tasmania despite never having done any long distance walks before that. So cool! We all had lunch together at the Aparima Hut, and I think Cosmo was a bit overwhelmed by our energy. It's obvious to me that she's missing her own people who are a few days ahead. She seems lonely and sad that she won't be able to catch them before Bluff, which isn't even 150 kilometers away. Can't blame her. I'm feeling pretty attached to my people too.
I basically inhaled my lunch and continued on. It's been overcast all day, and I really wanted to beat the rain to the hut, especially because there is a river ford just before it. And New Zealand's rivers have demonstrated time and time again that they're no trifle in inclement weather. With that in mind, I totally shredded the second half of the day. The trail was a less intense version of the mud and thick tussock that characterized the first half of the day. The k's seemed to pass more easily, and I was at the hut in no time. Just over three hours to cover the 14 k's, a far cry from the relative snail's pace this morning. The river, when I crossed it, was actually an ankle-deep trifle.
Today was an early one by my standards. The rain started shortly after I arrived, and I was happy to get a fire going for the others. The princess in me was satisfied as I sat next to the fire watching the rain fall through the dirty window. This hut is sweet. It's old, vintage- and it has a classic feel to it. With just two bunk beds and a small table, it's a cozy space fit for friends. The others arrived about 30 minutes after I did, and Cosmo joined us later on. Fortunately, she prefers to camp. I think she also wanted her own space. I totally understand how lonely it can feel when you're one person coming into a group that has already formed. Really empathizing with her tonight.
March 23, 2018
START: Lower Wairaki Hut @ 0755
FINISH: Martin's Hut @ 0520
DISTANCE: 90.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,602.5 km
There is one final backcountry hut on TA, and it's over 90 k's from Lower Wairaki. Over that 90 k, we'll traverse two large private land segments. They're spaced at about 30 k intervals, and locals provide accommodation at either end for a fee. (There is no freedom camping on the private lands.) I prefer not to spend money on camping, so I decided to make today my challenge hike. I set out with the intention of making Martin's Hut in under 24 hours. I fully expected it to be especially difficult with the Southland forests that fill the gaps where private framlands end. Mud, roots, difficult route-finding, etc. All the makings of a sweet challenge.
I really loved the first part of the walk today. For me, today marks the last day where I'll have any significant climbs. The first climb, the final time TA where we reach an elevation in excess of a thousand meters, began at the hut. I sailed up to the ridgeline admiring the snow on distance peaks as I went. The sun was shining and blue sky abounded. Beautiful. I'm never in too big of a hurry to snap a few captures. After all, I'll never be here again- never be in this space at this time in these conditions with these people. These perfect, fleeting moments are far too easy to miss.
The views out toward the coast were on point as I descended toward the Mt. Linton Station, our first private land crossing. I loved the first part of the crossing. It was a graded 4x4 road walk, which was fine by me after the challenging forest walks. The rolling green hills that extended for kilometers and kilometers were something out of a painting. Impossible to capture. After a few hours, I came to the working farm and began traversing fields of crops and paddocks of livestock. I crossed into the final paddock and was greeted by two beautiful mares. They were gentle and curious, following me as I walked along the fence to the opposite stile. I stopped to woo them, and the elder approached to let me rub her muzzle and forehead. I love horses.
The first three quarters of my hike today were pretty much awesome. I was still loving life up until about kilometer 70 when the Longwood Forest started. I'd been cruising right along and was on pace to finish in sub-20 hours, which would've been sick! It would've been difficult, but not impossible, to maintain that pace for the final 20 k had the conditions not deteriorated so quickly. My pace plummeted as mud and route-finding became significant issues over the last half dozen hours. Longwood was a major mudfest, and it totally sucked. When I got above treeline en route to Bald Hill, the path became little more than a game trail. It was narrow and obscure, sometimes disappearing entirely. Not especially concerning in and of itself, but I also climbed right into a thick, wet cloud. My torch beam was nearly useless, and I could hardly see the ground at my feet, nevermind the next trail marker. I had to rely heavily on my phone for navigation, otherwise I'd have had to stop and make camp. I was walking blind, relying totally on technology for significant stretches during those last 20 k's. Slow going.
There was a graded dirt road that led off of the Bald Hill summit, so I was grateful for the four kilometers of relief before re-entering the forest for the final 11. The mud was endless, and almost every step was ankle deep with the occasional knee deep step. You know, just to keep things interesting. I had to climb up and over Longwood Trig before arriving at the hut. Unfortunately, Longwood Trig is a broad saddle where I faced the same navigation challenges that I had on Bald Hill just a few hours earlier. I was wandering around nearly blind as the GPS track rarely lined up with the worn path of least resistence, so I was just staring at my phone and bushwhacking aimlessly - and painfully through thick brush - for hundreds of meters at a time. And all of this when the hut felt so close, and so impossibly far at the same time. A descent that should've taken 45 minutes took twice that. I was tired, mildly dehydrated, and my headlamp batteries were failing. I couldn't be bothered to stop and fix any of those issues, not when I saw so close. I powered through, slipping and tripping more often than was necessary. I was just barreling through thick woods when the hut magically appeared in a tiny clearing. It was after 0500.
I'd done it: 90.5 in 21:25. The struggle was every bit worth the accomplishment, as it always seems to be in the end. Seeing the hut, everything I'd endured since leaving Lower Wairaki faded. My lower legs and ankles are shredded from punching through thick undergrowth; my knees are throbbing from pounding climbs and descents; I've somehow managed to pull a muscle or something in my lower chest; my shoes are full of mud and torn so badly that they're literally falling off of my feet; one of my trekking poles is bent so badly that it's basically useless; and I'm overwhelmed with exhaustion because I haven't sat down since I left Wairaki. But nevermind all of that- I'm here. And no matter what happens in my life, nothing will ever undo what I've done today. Bliss and satisfaction.
March 24, 2018
START: Martin's Hut
FINISH: Martin's Hut
DISTANCE: 0 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,602.5 km
I cowboy camped outside last night, because it was an ungodly hour when I arrived, and I saw at least three sets of trekking poles leaning against the hut. Didn't even have a look inside. No sense disturbing anyone. I got up around 1000 this morning and found the hut empty, so I moved in.
Thinking about yesterday, I'm sad that I missed the views from Bald Hill. Apparently they're pretty cool. I'm also wicked-stoked that the clouds broke for about 10 minutes while I traversed along Longwood Trig, and I could see the coast alive with dancing lights from Riverton to Invercargill and beyond to Bluff. It was a stunning sight that I imagine few hikers see. Can't win 'em all, but I'm feeling grateful for the things I've seen and experienced throughout my time in New Zealand. And for the people with whom I've shared so many of those experiences.
Today was for cleaning, eating, and resting. I knew that once my head hit the mat, I'd be down until dinner, so I began by cleaning my shoes and socks, which were completely caked in thick, nasty mud. When that was done, I had a big feed in a feeble attempt to close yesterday's calorie gap. When I'd eaten all I could, I finally laid down. It was sometime around noon, and I slept until 1700 when some other hikers arrived for the night.
I reluctantly got up and dove into my evening routine. Tom and Dan are a lively pair with more energy than I was ready to handle. A few other hikers came and went before Sunshine arrived. I really like her, and I'm glad she chose to stay the night with us. Her mellow, welcoming energy was a nice compliment to my groggy, satisfied energy. The four of us are all planning to get up early tomorrow and cruise the 40+ k's into Riverton. I'm debating whether I'll push hard the day after to finish the final 68 k's into Bluff, or if I'll wait for my clique. Leaning toward the former, because I can hitch back and finish again with them. We'll see how I feel tomorrow.
March 25, 2018
START: Martin's Hut @ 0740
FINISH: Riverton Holiday Park @ 1810
DISTANCE: 41.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,644 km
Started the morning off right by woo-ing and singing Sunshine outta bed. She's not known for being an early riser, but she'd expressed last night that she'd need an early start to make it all the way to Riverton, so we supported her as friends do. I walked with her for a bit this morning, and it was fun getting to spend some quality time. Turns out she's interested in Wilderness Therapy, which always gets me talking. The only thing I love more than my job is talking with others about how much I love it.
To my surprise, I actually really enjoyed the nearly 25 k forest walk this morning and afternoon. It was beautiful. And it didn't hurt that the grade was mellow, the mud was manageable, and the weather was cool and dry. AND- the carpark had a long drop toilet, which I hit right on time. (I've only had to dig mabye four catholes along the whole length of TA.) All the wins. I basically raced all the way down to Colac Bay, had a big seafood platter and a beer at the local tavern, then headed on toward the Riverton Holiday Park.
I was hopeful that the beach walk from Colac Bay would be sandy and mellow. Instead, it was stony. So much for walking barefoot. To the contrary, I had to stop every few hundred meters to empty the painful pebbles from my shoes. Part of me wants to just break down and buy new shoes, but the other part of me is really attached to finishing on these rags. I've walked all this way, and now I just wanna reach Stirling Point before I throw 'em out. But God, they're shredded. I may as well be walking in flips, because they have no rigidity left and so many gaping holes that they're actually useless. Literally the entire front mesh has separated from the sole. They could be talking puppets.
And if all of that wasn't enough, the beaches were peppered with farmland track, some of which was quite muddy. I thought we were done with the mud, but I got a rude awakening when I stepped through some brush and found myself - once more - knee deep in mud. Ugh, c'mon! Gotta admit, TA sure has a sense of humor. I wonder whether folks were chuckling to themselves when they marked the route along the coast.
I was psyched to arrive at the road and cruise the last couple kilometers to the holiday park. For just $10, I got a campsite, unlimited hot showers, unlimited wifi, and use of the common room complete with table tennis, billiards, darts, and a TV. I don't like paying to sleep outside, but this place is worth every penny. Town is actually a further 1.5 k's, so I decided to make due with my hiker food leftovers. I'll get my fill of town food tomorrow whether I carry onto Bluff or layover here to wait for my clique. Looks like rain the next few days, so I'm thinking the walking will be far more enjoyable if I share it with some of my favorite folks.
March 26, 2018
START: Riverton Holiday Park
FINISH: Riverton Holiday Park
DISTANCE: 0 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,644 km
Decided to wait here for my people knowing that they should roll in tonight or tomorrow morning en route to Invercargill. Really like the accommodations here at the holiday park. For $10, I get unlimited hot showers, unlimited wifi, and all day access to a common area with table tennis, billiards, darts, and a TV. Not gonna get a better deal in Invercargill.
Finally got word this afternoon that they were gonna press on to get here tonight. I was psyched! Hit the Supervalue in town to grab dinner and wine for all of us, then headed back to the holiday park. An hour later, McKenzie was calling my name from the common room doorway, and I turned to see her standing there with 50-k Kirsten! She’d gone ahead of us when she skipped the Routeburn, but apparently she got sick afterwards and had to layover a few days in Birchwood. Now she’s here! My heart is so full knowing that the five of us are going to finish together. Couldn’t imagine today getting any better. I’m both excited and sad that this trip is nearly over. Soaking up every minute with these amazing people, because I know that after Bluff, the five of us will likely never sit in the same room again.
I made pasta, cheese bread, and salad for dinner while everyone else set up camp, showered, and started laundry. It was very domestic of me. It’s like I don’t even know who I am anymore. Is this love?
Cafe pit stop in Riverton tomorrow morning, then a long beach walk into Invercargill. You might expect that I’m dreading the walk, but I repaired my shoes tonight with about half a roll of duct tape, so they’re good as gold. (My southern upbringing is showing.) Now bring on the beaches!
March 27, 2018
START: Riverton Holiday Park @ 0800
FINISH: Invercargill @ 1615
DISTANCE: 33 + 1 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,678 km
The sunrise this morning from the holiday park was epic. The distant skyline lit up in brilliant pinks and oranges and reds, the shades changing subtilely as the sun rose behind the thick veil of clouds that characteristically enveloped the Southland coast. The vibrant show reflected in campervan and building windows all around the park. It was wicked. I was captivated as I packed up, grateful for the wake up call, yes. And for the fact that all of my gear was dry, which was a pleasant surprise. The sunrise faded to a grey overcast as the five of us walked the short road into Riverton where we hit a local cafe before heading to the beach. Coffee and scones to carry us to Invercargill, our last stop before Bluff.
Despite “repairing” my shoes, I woke up today skeptical that the repair would hold up against a long, likely rainy, beach walk. If it was stony, maybe. But if it was sandy, I figured I might get five kilometers before they peeled apart. It was fine, loose sand at first, but some early rain showers - which I hated - ultimately passed leaving a compacted, firm beach walk for the majority. (My flashy red duct tape lasted about 90 minutes before slipping off both shoes, which was actually fine because I’d wrapped them way too tightly and they were cutting off circulation in my toes.)
Following the beach, there was a flat road walk into Invercargill, so I switched into my flip flops and we carried on. Pretty dang cruiser day overall, which is perfect for my shredded trail runners. I don’t think they have another muddy climb or rocky descent left in ‘em. At this point, I’m so close that I just wanna finish in them to say I did. There is no actual advantage beyond my personal satisfaction. Quite the contrary, it’s been a lot of work the last few weeks to avoid tossing them. They’d had it way back in Twizel, but I’m a stubborn SOB sometimes, so when Rob’s dad ribbed me about them, I teased back that they’d make it to Bluff. At the time, I had no intention of wearing them all that way. That would be crazy, I thought. Then at some point, I decided it’d be fun. And it (sorta) has been. Gonna buy new (cheap as) runners here in Invercargill before we leave tomorrow. I’ll carry them to Bluff just so I can throw my trail runners out in the nearest rubbish bin after we reach the monument. Don’t wanna walk a single step more than I have to.
I spent the entire day walking with McKenzie, and I loved getting to know her better. We connected a lot and had a great time on what might have otherwise been a boring beach and road walk, something to just endure rather than savor. We’re planning to walk the Rakiura Northwest Circuit on Stewart Island together after we finish TA. it would’ve been cool to walk it with Rob and Elizabeth who are going next week, but the timing doesn’t really work for me, so I’m happy McKenzie is gonna do it early too.
We arrived in Invercargill pretty early and walked all over town trying to find the SoCo Backpacker where we’d all agreed to stay. Neither McKenzie nor I have a cell plan, so we went to an iSite to get directions and have them call ahead. Unfortunately, no one made reservations and they didn’t have enough space. We backtracked to the Tuatara Lodge and managed to score a 6-bunk dorm room all to ourselves for the price of 5 bunks. What a deal! Since we’d had to alter the plan on the fly, Kirsten got accommodation at SoCo before Kenz and I got the word out, so we’re split up for the night. I think that’ll work out fine, since Kirsten really wants to finish on her own tomorrow. She’ll finish then wait for us at the local bar and we’ll rally at the monument.
March 28, 2018
START: Invercargill @ 0940
FINISH: Stirling Point @ 1525
DISTANCE: 1 + 32 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,711 km
What a day! Got my flashy new kicks for $40 and hit the road. the vast majority of the walking today was along Hwy 1, but we made the most of it by waving at all the cars and trying to get honks from all of the big rigs. Actually a really fun time, and we were holding a great pace. We giggled ourselves the last 25 k’s into Bluff where we stopped to pick up a few bottles of bubbly before cruising on to Stirling Point.
As planned, the four of us approached the monument as Kirsten came racing out of the bar that overlooks the point. The five of us locked arms and skipped the last dozen meters to the sign marker. It was magic; I love these people. Photos on photos and bubbly on bubbly as confused onlookers watched. I hung from the sign like a monkey, then laid down on the ground and took photos of my shredded shoes at the finish marker. They made it an unprecedented 1,700 kilometers and were basically falling off of my feet by the end. I laid them to rest in the rubbish bin right there at the monument. Thank you, and g’bye.
The five of us are together tonight in a private room at the Bluff Lodge. So happy. We’ve definitely been having too much fun with our alcohol and 90’s hip hop playlist. The neighbors came over around 2a and asked us to keep it down. Reasonable request, I think. Time for bed.