March 21, 2018
START: Te Anau @ 1425
FINISH: Lower Princhester Hut @ 1520
DISTANCE: 6 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,502.5 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: 1,532 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: 1,622.5 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: 1,622.5 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: 1,664 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: 1,664 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: 1,698 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: 1,731 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.