Te Araroa: Havelock to St. Arnaud

The Richmond Ranges are considered one of the most difficult sections of Te Araroa. It reminded me a lot of the Hundred Mile Wilderness with its relentless climbs and descents, and its nearly unbroken path of rocks and roots. It also reminded me of some class II Fourteeners that I’ve climbed back in Colorado with its steep, exposed climbs on loose scree. It was incredibly challenging, and though I managed it in four days, I wouldn’t recommend the same to any but the most fit, masochistic, lightweight trampers. (Mostly the middle qualification, honestly.) Damn, that was killer. #lovedit.

February 12, 2018

START: Havelock @ 0540
FINISH: Middy Creek Hut @ 1905
DISTANCE: 48 km
CUMULATIVE: 342.5 km

Yesterday at the backpacker in Havelock, I met a northbound TA hiker. When I told him I planned four days to traverse the Richmond Ranges, his eyes got big. He said “Oh no, you’ll need at least six. You can’t go that fast here. It’s not like trails in the states; there are steep, exposed climbs and rocks and roots and mud. I’ve talked to long distance hikers from the US, and they’ve all said this is harder.” And on and on like this for like half an hour. I was packing up at the time and just listened patiently, even though I had to actively choke back the following word vomit: “Look, man. I covered 25 miles a day in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, which sounds an awful lot like what you’re describing. And if it’s harder, that sounds like fun to me. I’ve climbed [this] and traversed [that], and I once hiked for 53 hours straight without sleep, and one time I did [this] then [that].” I wanted to give him my adventure resume to prove to him that I’ve done tougher things. Instead, I just listened and validated his points. “Yeah, that sounds really hard and miserable. I like a good challenge, though.”

“Hike your own hike,” I reminded myself. I think it’s great that hikers look out for and support each other, but this encounter didn’t feel supportive. It felt like he was projecting his limitations onto me, and I found it annoying. It was like “Dude. I got it, thanks.” (Wait, did I just get mansplained?) It’s even funnier, because in that moment I was rationing out five days of food which I knew I could stretch to six if need be. I’d read about how demanding the Richmond’s can be, and I always have a backup plan regardless. I was fairly sure I could bust tail and make it in four, but I wanted to have a flex day in case I decided to enjoy the high country more. And if it was just too much for me, or if weather rolled in, I could make it six. Definitely not stressing this section nearly as much as homeboy was stressing it for me.

I didn’t sleep much last night thanks to a heavy snore-er sleeping on the bunk below me. I was only too eager to get out of there when my alarm buzzed at the ungodly hour of 0500. I shot up and dove into my morning routine, then I was out the door and on my way.

The fallout from yesterday’s continuous rain was evident as I made my way out of town and through rural farmland. When I crossed over the swift, swollen Pelorus River via a roadway bridge shortly after leaving Havelock, I was struck by the condition of the river. It was very obviously “in-flood.” It was flowing fast and wide, rough and dark, carrying logs and debris in its current. I’ve crossed some tough rivers, and I’d never dream of trying to ford something like that. I could feel the anxiety in my body. This was an important experience for me, and I stopped to admire the river’s power. I finally understand all of the locals’ anxiety about river crossings in the backcountry. Sure I understood the concern in a logical way, but something shifted in my understanding when I witnessed the Pelorus this morning. I suddenly respected the rivers and their potential in a way that I hadn’t prior.

The mantra around here is “If in doubt, stay out.” They encourage trampers to wait out flooded rivers in nearby huts. They can come up fast and usually don’t go back down quite as quickly. Don’t have to convince me. I’d never get in that water. Seeing the Pelorus this morning has got me thinking about my tentative plan to ford the Rangitata. It’s highly discouraged because of the big catchment upstream. Apparently that’s a river that can come up especially high especially quickly. I’ll have to look more closely at the maps before I leave Metvin in a few weeks.

Saw many more indications of flooding as I hiked along the Maungatapu Road up to the Pelorus River Track. My favorite were the handful of spots where there was a waterfall dropping directly into the road and rushing across and off the downhill side. Pretty nuts. And I heard stories from other hikers about how some of today’s crossings were impassable yesterday.

Also related to all of the rain, I experienced Te Araroa’s epic mud for the first time today while crossing the Dalton Track. One second I’m just cruising along in the wet grass, and the next I’m ankle deep in mud! The grass was flooded, and every few steps my feet would just plunge into the ground and disappear, sometimes up to my mid-calves. Wow, that was no joke. Fortunately it was a short stretch of just a few hundred meters. Not quite like anything I’ve ever experienced, and I imagine I'll see plenty more of it in the coming months.

Cruised along comfortably at 4 k/h during the road and farm walking, and then closer to 3 k/h once I started the Pelorus River Track. The road was actually quite nice and offered some beautiful vistas that the green tunnel of the Pelorus Track choked out. And the sandflies got considerably worse once I was out of farmland and in the bush. They weren’t so much a problem while I was walking because of my pace, but as soon as I’d stop - lunch, filtering water, “beauty breaks,” whatever - they seemed to find me immediately and resume their harassment. I’m told they only get worse the further South I get. Joy.

Today’s track walking reminded me of a less challenging version of the HMW back in Maine. I wonder if the resemblance will be more stark with the big climbs tomorrow. (Pretty cool to have hiked so much that sections here remind me of other trails, which gives me an accurate gauge for my ability and projected progress here.)

Arrived at the Middy Creek Hut to find three other trampers, and we were shortly joined by two more. It’s interesting feeling like an outsider here, because I only just started and these hikers all know each other from the North Island. They’ve been kind and inviting, though it still naturally felt awkward to me at first, like I was forcing my way into their established clique. Definitely not feeling shunned or anything, just my own insecurities. Then I started teasing Baby the same way I tease pretty much everyone. We laughed, and in sharing that laughter, I think the subtle tension evaporated. We all started joking and teasing each other. Laughter truly is the universal language and most direct avenue to connection. I fell asleep with the sense that I’d made my first friends on Te Araroa.

February 13, 2018

START: Middy Creek Hut @ 0710
FINISH: Slaty Hut @ 1930
DISTANCE: 29.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 372 km

Had to get up to pee last night, and when I walked out of the hut, I was greeted by a sky bursting with stars. They were everywhere, and there wasn’t a cloud around. I had the sense that I’d never seen so many stars at once. It was amazing! Wish we coulda had that sky for the Super Blue Blood Moon. (That’s right, still not over it.)

The walk this morning wasn’t too bad. Had a descent climb after leaving Mitty, then dropped back down steeply before arriving at the Browning Hut where I took an hour lunch. I was making good time and figured I could use the extra little break before cruising down to Hackett Creek and starting the stout climb up into the true Richmond Ranges. The first part of the ascent is pretty mellow except that you’re walking right up the Hackett Creek riverbed, which today meant fording almost continuously. The creek is still up and flowing swiftly, but it wasn’t dangerous anymore. The water never came above my mid-thigh, and it was running clearly enough to see the bottom almost the whole way.

Then the climb started. I didn’t think it was so bad, though it’s definitely challenging. Most of it is quite steep and not maintained. There are, however, many short sections where the grade eases. In some cases, the walk was flat for a short while, an amazing break after periods of calf-shredding climbs. I reached the Starveal Hut about two and a half hours after passing the Hackett Hut. From there, I decided I had enough in the tank to get to Slaty Hut. Those last five k’s were ambitious, but I’m glad I’m here. Totally whipped once more.

Arrived here to find a full house, including a few hikers who had already set up camp because there was no room in the hut. Probably eight or ten people. I guess it makes sense. I heard that a number of folks got stuck due to weather, so I think I just caught the bubble. Regardless, it was enough for me to feel a bit overwhelmed. I quietly hiked a little bit beyond the hut, then dropped into the trees and found myself a small flat spot and set up my gear.

Maybe shoulda stayed at the Starveal Hut. Saw some gear hanging up there, but it didn’t look like more than two people, and a third en route who I’d passed on the climb. Ah well, this sets me up for some nice light on Mt. Rintoul in the morning. I’m guessing these folks are the bubble of hikers who got caught up here due to weather. Shouldn’t see too many people ahead now.

February 14, 2018

START: Slaty Hut @ 0630
FINISH: Top Wairoa Hut @ 2105
DISTANCE: 35 km
CUMULATIVE: 407 km

To my delight, I woke at 0530 this morning and found not one drop of moisture on my gear. I’d hoped that being in the trees would help minimize the dew accumulation. Guess it did. Cool thing number two first thing this morning: I was visited by an owl. She swooped around from branch to branch screeching here and there as I packed up. I left early, as I do, then cool thing number three happened. (The good and the bad, they always seem to come in threes.) I got to walk the ridge above treeline right into the rising sun. It was absolutely stunning with the partial cloud cover holding the brilliant pinks and oranges all across the sky.

Definitely some sketchy climbing on the descent off of both Little Rintoul and Rintoul summits today. Felt like some moderate Fourteeners I’ve climbed- steep, loose scree slopes. Nothing too serious, just slow going. As I summitted Mt. Rintoul, it was cool to look back and see the distant silhouettes of hikers behind me topping out on Little Rintoul. Took a little over an hour to get from one to the next, so it seems they’re making good time too. Took me just over five hours to get from Slaty to the Rintoul Summit, and another hour to descend to the Rintoul Hut. Not bad at all, but I’d have to make up some ground if I wanted to finish at Top Wairoa tonight. I knew then that it could be a little later night.

From Rintoul Hut, the “route” section seemed finished for a bit, and the trail picked up again. It followed a rolling spur ridge in and out of the trees until a steep descent to Tarn Hut, then a quick climb and a huge descent to Mid Wairoa Hut. Doesn’t sound like much when I write it. Truth be told, it didn’t look like much as I viewed the approximate path from above. But believe me, it was much. There is nothing about these mountains that isn’t much. The signs say that the Richmond Alpine Route is not formed, but it looked to me like it was built a long time ago and just not maintained but for continuous foot traffic, which has simultaneously prevented vegetation from reclaiming the tread and caused erosion. The latter is quite dramatic on many of the steep side slopes.

Then the Great Tarn Fiasco of 2018, a near-disaster. Before the “quick climb” noted above - that’s the climb that doesn’t look like much on the elevation profile compared to the Rintoul summits, but that looks impossible when you’re looking up at it from the bottom - I came to a trail junction. Rather than begin the climb from there, I had to drop down another maybe 25 meters to get water from a small pond. I was pretty annoyed about this, but I was also out of water with none ahead for a bit, so down I went. I ditched my pack and took my dirty water bottle and filter down the steep side trail, whining in my head as I went. I came back up to filter, but the seam wouldn’t seal. Untreated water was leaking everywhere. As with almost any tight seal, the Sawyer Mini relies on an o-ring, an o-ring that was suddenly gone. I raced all the way back down to the pond, wondering if I’d even be able to find it. I scanned the trail as I went, then walked back out on the rotten long I’d traversed minutes earlier and peered into the murky water. No luck. I was berating myself. How could I have been so careless? I have iodine as a backup water treatment, but I don’t really like it. Just carry it for emergencies, which this almost was. Instead, I spotted the bright white bit of bliss nestled in the leaves as I worked my way back to shore. I climbed back up to my pack, filtered my gross lake water, and carried on none the worse for wear. Crises averted, y’all, but only just.

I walked on. And after what felt like hours of steep descent, I finally heard the rushing waters of the Wairia River still far below. It was some time from there before I could actually see it, and what felt like an unreasonable timeframe from then before I could touch it. It was roaring pretty good, so I was thankful that the first of nine crossings was over a long, rickety swing bridge. No such luck on the next eight crossings between Mid Wairoa and Top Wairia huts. If the water hadn’t been clear, I probably wouldn’t have gone on from Mid Wairoa. But the water was clear, and it was only 1800, so off I went.

I was hiking along happily on the mellow climb when I slipped on a root while hopping over some mud. My foot went right in all the way up to my ankle. Mudded again, y’all. I’d kept my shoes dry all day, and suddenly I couldn’t wait for the upcoming river crossings. The first was tough. Water was clear, but very fast. Not an ideal spot to cross, but I had very few options given the narrow gorge above and whitewater below. Footing felt tenuous for a few steps, but the worst that would’ve happened is that I’d have gotten a little banged up, and my gear woulda been soaked. Not ideal, but not a reason to turn around either. Water levels on subsequent crossings ranged from mid-calf (chill) to mid-thigh (tenuous). The river was running fast, so even though it was clear, it was hard to tell the depth and footing through the turmoil of the flow. Experienced trekkers only.

I’d had enough today when I finally arrived at Top Wairoa just as twilight was fading. So thankful for an empty hut. My biggest concern wasn’t getting in late; it was disturbing other hikers with my evening routine. Ate peanut butter and torts for dinner, then went straight to bed. Seriously considering trying to get to St. Arnaud tomorrow, which would be a freakin’ long, tough haul from here. We’ll see how I feel in the morning. I’m so tired right now, I can’t even keep my eyes open. I’m also satisfied and can feel a subtle grin stretched across my lips. That was tough, but I made it. Freakin’ cool.

February 15, 2018

START: Top Wairoa Hut @ 0645
FINISH: St. Arnaud @ 2220
DISTANCE: 48.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 455.5 km

Didn’t get the start I wanted this morning, and with so much elevation gain and loss, I was preparing myself to stay at Red Hill Hut for the night. Figured I’d just hike on and see how I felt when I got there, knowing that if I continued, it would most certainly be a late night.

The climbs were relentless today, and the descents even more so. Had a ton of elevation to lose between Top Wairoa Hut and St. Arnaud. Straight up, then straight down, then straight up again. Man, it was tough. Hell on the knees! Especially after a sit down break. Takes some time to loosen up my stiff old joints afterward. That was one thing that I really valued on the PCT. It generally has a mellow 6% average grade and a 15% max. Still had some sore knees, but nothing like here and on other trails I’ve hiked. This trail is also generally more rugged than some that I’ve hiked, though I expected that. More a worn footpath than a “trail.”

I saw so much evidence today of the incredible destructive power of water. It’s been eye-opening to come through the Richmonds directly after a big storm. There were dozens of river and stream crossings today, and on each the banks were heavily eroded and undercut, which made accessing the crossings and gaining the trail again afterward quite difficult. Sometimes I could see significant slips where the mountainside had simply fallen into the river. I wonder whether some of those just happened.

Met Paul as I neared the Red Hill Hut. He was having a soak in a pool at the top of the climb. I was startled to come upon him in the nude, now the second Englishmen I’ve seen naked in as many weeks. Must be a culture thing. We chatted briefly and I continued on up toward the hut. I felt strong and excited when I reached Red Hill Hut, but that was probably just adrenaline at the thought of reaching my four day goal. The truth is that part of me wanted to stay. Red Hill is nice, modern, very tempting, but more than being done, I wanted to make St. Arnaud. I could taste it, late night be damned. And my knees are so stiff in the mornings. It’ll be nice to wake up and not have to hike 20 k’s. Paul arrived (clothed) as I was finishing up filtering water, and we started chatting. It was mostly about my long day and his interest in it. He was absolutely taken aback at my distance. And then I told him I was continuing on to St. Arnaud, and he almost fell over in disbelief. “I’m fit,” he said as he also noted that I’m half his age. And then he paused for a moment before saying that he never would’ve tried it at my age either. I told him about my work and extensive experience with challenge hikes and long backpacking trips. I mean, I basically spend like 300+ days a year hiking, so I’m an actual pro. He felt better hearing that. We lifted each other’s packs, and neither of us could believe the other. His was way too heavy for me to even think about tackling the Richmonds- like my pack on my very first long distance attempt in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. And mine is so light that he couldn’t believe I had anything in it at all. I got his email address and plan to send him some suggestions for lightweight gear. Really cool guy; glad I got to connect with him and hope we stay in touch.

Of course I left to pick up TA, which climbed steadily away from the hut, and he hollared after me: “Ugh, you’re going the long way??!” I retorted simply: “It’s the trail!” But actually having taken the trail, I’d recommend the seemingly shorter, seemingly easier, seemingly more scenic route down from Red Hill Hut. There were a few nice views from the tree-covered ridge, but generally not much doing on the longer TA route except steep ups and downs, so if you’re not a purist, I wouldn’t bother. Though I’m generally not a purist myself, I did feel attached to finishing the proper route on this section, because I’d come so far and didn’t wanna shortcut the very last bit.

Finally hit pavement just before 2100. The nicely graded, smooth asphalt was a welcomed change following some tough days in the Richmonds. About halfway through the road walk, I switched into my flip flops. It was total bliss. Generally cruised the last 7.5 k’s into town and finally rolled in at around a quarter after ten. I’m glad I came all the way down, and I think moving forward I’m going to plan on staying in the huts nearest towns. That way I can NERO in and/or NERO out arranging accommodations wherever weather requires. So far backpacker stays have been quite affordable. Beats the $200 fine if caught illegally freedom camping.