The Warp and Weft of the Sands, Day 111

2-19-18

Today’s beach was a tapestry of painted sands.

I hit trail early on this penultimate morning of my Te Araroa walk. The tide was out or I wouldn’t have been able to walk the beach line along the little Riverton harbor. It was overcast and cool, a somber start over a beach littered in pieces of shells, millions of shells, a fraction of the life this estuary supports, itself a fraction of all life. Coming to the end of such a long endeavor brings my mind to those kinds of musings. The tide had left the sand woven in water patterns. Just how small are we in the warp of life. A tapestry in which all humanity will follow these shells to the shore.

The little Riverton harbor.

Tiny broken shells littered the strand.

Riverton estuary.

When I rounded the spit, a beach line curved farther than the mists of morning would allow me to see, to a pin prick, a point on the horizon. I knew I had fourteen miles of sand to walk today and wondered if that point in the distance was the full length, or if there was more. Fourteen miles is a long way on sand. The beach was so flat that the waves left a sheet of water, a mirror reflecting a sky of clouds on the grey surface. Still the weft lines of wave on sand left patterns that became almost alive as I moved across them. I walked fast, flowing with the patterns underfoot. It became quite hypnotic over the miles, and I was glad to be alone on this near finish day.

The distances always seem insurmountable when you can see to the horizon. But in a few hours I was well beyond that horizon.

Several streams crossed the beach at intervals but I hardly slowed my pace, hop, skipping across the shallows and splashing through the deeper places. The pace and rhythm had me in thrall and I followed without hesitation. It felt good. I love walking like this. A quiet settling around my movement, which becomes absolutely calm in its ferocity. I feel one with my exertion and quiet in it expression, a meditation at speed, my horse nature out, and felt to it’s fullest. On all my walks, my favorite animals by far have been the herds of wild horses galloping across the Western landscapes. They move me more than the picturesque elk or antelope, and I think it is that I feel a kinship to those majestic beings, galloping across a landscape. I felt it across this beach today.

A wind picked up as the morning drew toward noon, and by the time I had reached our exit from the beach, it was howling. I followed a vehicle access road and dodged behind the first sand dune I came to, it’s top of tussocky beach grass giving me some protection, and waited for Matt and Anton who were not far behind. We hoofed it to a little picnic spot with a table and benches for lunch. Now Matt needs a bit of a warm drink at noon each day, but it was still much too windy to fire up his stove without more protection, so in typical thru hiker fashion he went into the nearby outhouse and proceeded to cook on the floor in it, quite nicely out of the wind. Anton and I were deep in our own lunches and too preoccupied with keeping them from blowing away to notice that a car had driven up. A guy quickly got out and dashed to the outhouse door, which he opened only to be confronted by a person cooking his meal inside. Poor guy. Poor Matt. They were both a bit embarrassed. But Matt cooked away and the guy politely waited his turn at the room. Oh, what we do in times of extremis. Matt was going to have that hot cuppa with his lunch! We all laughed above the howl of the wind. There’s nothing like the camaraderie of long trail friends.

It was a short couple of miles into the town of Invercargill, our last night on trail. We stayed in the Tuatara Lodge, an old hotel, now a Backpackers hostel. Thomas the Tank Engine was also there having finished at Bluff earlier today. We all planned a celebratory dinner the following evening.

Back to the Beaches, Day 110

2-18-18

We left our little 1905 hut long before daylight. We had a long day ahead of us and the first few miles meant getting over the mud holes by the light of our headlights. The reflective surface of water made it possible to find the non reflective sticks and logs to step on. As the day began to illumine the forest I could see that I’d gone from the goblin forest of yesterday to the tree fern, supple jack forest of near sea level. It was like coming home. We’d spent so much time in these kind of forests on the North Island, that it was familiar and friendly now.

The Longwood is the last of the lovely, muddy, rooty forests we’ll be hiking on this trail. We passed old gold mining machinery. This is part of a stamping mill.

The trail followed Port’s Race, a long canal that at one time diverted streams all across the face of Longwood Forest to the gold mines that were active here from the 1850s to the 1950s. The millrace was always on our right and we walked what would have been the levee side. It was quite an engineering feat. At times underground and at others, soaring above stream canyons in sluices, it is just one of several that were active on this mountain. Given the state of dilapidation of the entire operation however, the path was still quite difficult. There were lots of huge blowdowns to get over, under or around, and every stream canyon needed to be scrambled into and out of.

Remains of an old aqueduct that transported the water in the millrace over a small stream canyon.

As much as I’ll miss the forests, the first chance we got, Anton and I bailed out and across pasture land so as to cut off several miles of roadwalking on a State Highway.

Out across dairy land.

Anton and I bailed out at the Mathieson Exit, which cut off a few miles of the forest, and a longer stretch on the state highway, trading these for pasture and farm track dirt roads. It got us to the little beach town of Colac Bay, where we had fish and chips for lunch at the pub. Then we began a long beach walk that began with lots of surfers, and surfer watchers, but became a solitary walk on a pebble beach, with views of Stewart Island far offshore. It’s the third largest island comprising New Zealand, and it’s quite imposing in its distant significance.

The beaches and rocky coastline were as beautiful as ever.

At the far end of the beach we were treated to a scramble up and down a rocky coastline and finally through a manuka and tree fern forest to a beautiful overlook and then down to the little town of Rivertown, where we’re staying at a Backpackers hostel.

View of the coastline from our lookout vantage point above Riverton and Stewart Island in the distance.

Mudfest in the Longwood Forest, Day 109

2-17-18

Another glorious morning on the Te Araroa.

Think back to when you were six or seven and it had rained all night and it was nothing but puddles on the way to school. I’d splash all the way in my yellow rubber boots and be so happy and so soaked! Well, we had a bit of that joy returned to us today on an 18 mile tramp through the Longwood Forest.

Foggy morning after a heavy rain all night.

It had rained all night, quite heavily at times, but it tapered off toward dawn and we were able to hike all day under clearing skies. After 5 miles of gravel road we turned onto the Longwood Track and began to climb, our last good climb before the end of the hike at Bluff in a few days. The trail was a typical TA nightmare of roots and ruts and at this point in the summer, was just wonderful. As hard as these tracks are to walk, I’ve come to really like the wildness of them. After a short ways, however, we got the added treat of some of the best mud holes we’ve encountered in months, and all this in a serious goblin forest like we haven’t seen since the North Island’s Tararua Range.

I

The tracks always start out so innocently. Only after a few miles do they turn to total crap! But today’s bad Trail was tons of fun.

During a break on a second gravel road which had been cut into a rocky hillside, it seemed as though the whole earth was draining itself of the tremendous amount of water that had pooled on it during the deluge overnight. Small waterfalls cascaded down the embankment from all corners. Everything was wet.

Yes, that trail is a bit of a river. But the water was warm in the sun.

Back onto a trail and now the mud holes became pools of water. I was so muddy I just splashed through each of them, cleaning off some of the muck, only to have it pile on again at the next mud hole. I found myself smiling and happy with each splash. It’s nice to be simple sometimes. We’re adults for such a long time, for such a large portion of our lives, that it’s such a gift to be transported back to our 5 and 6 year old selves once in a while, and today I was. I haven’t been so happily mucky in years!

Now that is some mucky trail!

I was ahead of Matt and Anton for much of the day, so I didn’t get to see the best mud action, but I saw the results. At one spot, Anton jumped off of a log onto what he thought was solid ground, only to sink up to mid thigh in soft, squishy mud, his forward motion causing him to bend forward from the waist, adding a face plant to the indignity. When I saw him, he still had mud lines mid thigh. Matt, who witnessed this great feat of mudloving mania burst out laughing. He said it was all he could do, it was so funny. Extricating himself was a slow and delicate maneuver so as not to leave his shoes behind. It was just one of those wonderful Kiwi trail events.

As the goblin forest gave way to sunny highlands made up mostly of stunted flax bushes, the little pools of water were actually warm and the splashing was even more delightful. At first we were wrapped in a light mist, thin enough to peer through and see farmland far below, but as it cleared a long stretch of beach appeared and at the far, far end of it was a hump of a hill, Bluff, our final destination, only 65 trail miles away.

Part of the joy of the day was the fun of the trail, and part was how wonderful I’m feeling right now, busting out miles. I’ve got my trail legs and I just feel good out there.

The 113 year old Martin’s Hut. We loved it as our last DOC hut on the TA.

After a steep and muddy downhill we came to our night’s lodging, the last DOC hut on the TA, Martins Hut. Matt Googled it’s history and it’s an old one. Dating to 1905, it is one of only 3 gold mine water race huts left. From the 1850s to the 1950s, this whole area experienced a gold rush. Early strikes didn’t pay out, and by the 1870s, the area was being mined by Chinese miners who made it pay, and this hut dates to those miners and the water they needed to sluice the gold. This hut was built for those who worked Martin’s Race, like a mill race for a water wheel in Europe, and tomorrow we’ll leave the Longwood Forest on a path that follows Port’s Race. It should be quite level as it’s basically a water channel around a mountain and that had to have a very gradual grade to it. Great history here.

Just outside of Martin’s Hut, we were visited by a wood pigeon, or kereru, a large and beautifully colored bird, the biggest pigeon I’ve ever seen.

Anton, Matt and I spent the evening talking trail and long distance hiking, kind of summing up the season’s experience. Both of them have been profoundly affected by their summer on trail. Matt knows he wants to hike more long trails and will be leaving for Stewart Island as soon as he’s finished with the TA, Anton is thinking of spreading the word about ultra light gear to more Kiwis so he can get more of them on trail by lecturing and working with gear companies, and I’m finishing up another wonderful long distance adventure in another part of this wonderful world.

Merrivale Hut Zero, Days 107 and 108

2-15-18

The Sunrise was stunning.

This morning’s sunrise was gorgeous. As I stepped out of the old Birchwood Lodge I’d stayed in overnight, I was greeted by a sky of pink and yellow and deep orange, great start to an 18 mile day to the Merrivale Hut. I went through some more private pasture, and again it was difficult to follow the markers over this section and I found that even the Guthook app was wrong for a few miles. Then the trail led over one lovely old piece of forest, the Woodlaw Track, for most of the hike and eventually out onto paved and dirt roads and to a family farm of sheep, cattle, horses and most importantly, chickens. The owners of the farm and the Merrivale Hut, keep the hut stocked with fresh, free range eggs. I’ve never tasted such delicious eggs, with a yoke of gold. They’ve got a little cabinet they keep stocked with other food and the daily fresh eggs. There’s a price list, very reasonable, and an Honesty Box, to put your payment in for the hut and any food you may happen to use.

The warning sign as we enter the Woodlaw Track, is to let us know that poison and traps are being used, as they are all over the country, for introduced predators such as possums, stoats, weasels and many others, which have brought much of the island’s original species to extinction.

The Woodlaw Track.

I finished my 18 miles by 12:20pm and after gorging on soft boiled eggs for lunch, I checked the weather and discovered another weather bomb was scheduled to hit the next day. At this point, having been flying down trail with Matt and Anton, I was way ahead of schedule and decided to slow down and take a zero during the rain at this lovely little hut. I could use the break, and slowing down toward the end of the hike just sounded good.

We passed nerds of deer. New Zealand is one of the worlds top venison producers.

It was a five bed hut, and as the afternoon wore on, I was joined by a couple, he from Belgium and she from Spain. They were hitching into town for a resupply and graciously offered to buy fresh fruit and veggies for me while they were at it. The two things I miss most on trail are fresh fruit and veggies, just what I needed to enjoy my day off tomorrow.

On the porch of the Merrivale Hut

After they had left for their hitch, Jeremy “Gem” from New York, and his wife Kate from Boston, made it in and we proceeded to have one of the best connections I’ve ever had this quickly on trail with new acquaintances. What lovely people. When they told me this was their honeymoon, “but we’re only doing the South Island.” I responded in no uncertain terms that there is no “just” involved in hiking the South Island. This has been some of the toughest trail I’ve ever hiked and for them to have made it this far gave them tremendous Trail Cred! They are bad ass hikers, with no “just” to diminish their accomplishment.

Gem is a banjo player back home, but carries a ukulele on trail and the two of us knocked out a number of duets that evening. He holds a lead perfectly, which gives me the solid note I need to throw a harmony, and it was some of the nicest singing I’ve done in New Zealand. So much fun!

2-16-8

I was zeroing today, so I slept in and didn’t get out of the sack till the others were ready to leave. Then I simply enjoyed being alone, taking a slow day watching it rain and eating those wonderful eggs.

In the early afternoon I was joined by James, a young northbounder, and we had a great talk about what hiking means to ya both. Then Matt, Eagle Eye, walked in, who I hadn’t seen since the day we dropped into Wanaka during the hurricane. He’d stayed with relatives for two days and ended up waterskiing, and had an experience of the old tyrannosaurus effect. We use our legs so intensely over a summer of long distance hiking, that our arms kind of shrink up as the body cannibalizes itself to keep feeding those piston legs, great big powerful thighs and calves, but itty bitty arms. He could water ski just fine, but couldn’t lift himself back into the boat when he was done skiing. We’re all bound for the gym when we get home.

Then a bit later Anton showed up. He’d actually run a fever during the zero day he’d taken at the Lower Princhester Hut a few days ago, but was now feeling fine. We all need the rest when we need it. And finally Thomas the Tank Engine appeared and we had a great evening catching up. He’d taken a zero day in Te Anau, where Anton and I had merely resupplied and gotten out quick.

These are good guys and it’s really been fun leapfrogging with them the past few weeks. They kick my hiking butt, which is just what I needed at this point in the hike.

I Lost My Crackers! Day 105

2-13-18

I lost my crackers! At noon today I discovered that my two boxes of whole grain crackers I expected to lunch on for the next 5 or 6 days are just not here. It had been a really tough trail all morning, 10 miles to the Aparima Huts, that was like being back in the Raetaea forest we started with months ago, tree swinging, root grabbing, shoe sucking mud. Add to that some of the tallest tussock grass sections so far, and it was hard! At several points the trail markers were completely lost in the tussocks that were taller than me. I pushed through, stepped in mud holes and small invisible streams and fell down several times. You can’t hike fast through the tussocks or you’ll break a leg stepping into stuff you can’t see. So it was slow going.

Daniel in the forest.

But it was actually nice to be back in a thick forest with all its rooty impediments. It’s fun and a challenge and I’ve grown fond of them. They’re quite beautiful in spite of all their difficulties, nostalgia for the start of the trail, 3 1/2 months ago. It seems a lot longer than that.

Super tall tussocks. My feet are invisible in the pictures

I made it to the Aparima hut by noon and that’s when I discovered that my planned for lunches were not going to work. But I inventoried my goodies and found enough for light lunches and I just hoped I could keep up the grueling pace I needed for these tough trails. I didn’t want to bonk while scaling a cliff or something equally crazy, and you just don’t know what the TA is going to throw at you next.

Daniel from Hungary has been hiking with Anton and me today and he and Anton made it to the hut just as I was getting ready to hit trail again. Anton had been conscientious enough to start later so that he could call a Lodge we’ll need to stay in tomorrow as we’ll be hiking for 30 to 40 miles through private land with no camping allowed. You can’t just free camp the TA, the way you do on the long trails in the US.

A bit of muddy trail.

I took off in great shape and with more energy than I’ve had in a long time. In spite of a false start, I headed off on the wrong trail for about a 1/2 mile before I realized I was wrong, I was just flying. The whole afternoon was in dense beech forest with some significant climbs and descents, but I was feeling so good I did a lot of trail running with my seriously heavy, 6 days of provisions, pack.

A bit more mud.

The forest was mossy, it was ferny, it was steep, and it was muddy, and at times I had to scramble on all fours; and I just loved it. My shoes were covered and filled with mud, but as I neared the end of the day I came to a stream that had to be waded, just in time. I splashed and sloshed my shoes and legs and watched the mud float away. By the time I reached the Lower Wairaki Hut, I was drenched in sweat and exhausted. But man I felt good. I’d done a 6 to 8 hour stretch, according to the DOC signs, in just over 3 hours! My trail fitness is finally here.

Only the finest mud will do. Yes, that is the Trail.

No one was at the hut and I just stripped off my shorts and shirt and washed myself and my clothes. Then I started dinner and Anton made it in. He’s one hell of a fast walker and I’ve never beat him to any hut so far, so this was of geezer significance. It just does the old bones proud when they work like they did today. Daniel, who is much younger than either of us arrived several hours later.

At dinner I mentioned my missing crackers and Anton offered me his surplus of crackers. He couldn’t figure out how he’d gotten so many extra boxes of crackers on his resupply. When we looked at the two boxes of identical crackers, in identical bags, we realized he’d picked up my bag by accident while we were waiting for the shuttle yesterday, and had been carrying them for a day and a half. No wonder he was slower than me today. I think I’ll slip them back into his pack when he’s not looking so I’ll have a chance of keeping up with him tomorrow. It’s really been nice hiking with him the past few weeks as he’s into healthy eating and shares quite a few of the ideas of Michael Pollen, about food and the planet.

A light rain has started to fall, but this old full on fireplace hut is cosy and warm. The huts in NZ are really terrific. 19 mile day at speed!

Mavora Lakes and Te Anau, Day 104

2-12-18

North Mavora Lake

I had the hut all to myself last night so I slept in till 6:20. What a treat! After breakfast I was on trail by 7 and found myself on an easy old four wheel track along the Mararoa River and later along North and South Mavora Lakes. The official trail branches away at the south end of the first lake, but as the trail notes indicated that some of the track was unhikeable, and if you stayed over there, you would have to come back across the river without a bridge later on, I just stayed with the dirt track and enjoyed not having to struggle with the roots and ruts.

Mavora River led to the lakes.

The trail consisted of a lovely walk through a beech forest and the actual shoreline of the long glacial lake. A large and very dispersed campground is at the far end and it will be one of the places I come back to with Katie in March. It was just beautiful and I’m sure the swimming is wonderful. I didn’t want to stop today as I had a potentially long walk to the highway before a hitch into the town of Te Anau, a jumping off place for all kinds of Fiordland fun. Yesterday I hiked over the border from Otago to Southland.

North Mavora Lake.

It was just under 10 miles from the Boundary Hut to the campground; and then I walked approximately 10 miles beyond that when a car finally approached from the right direction and I stuck out my thumb. They stopped and I hopped in. Within a short distance I saw Anton on the road and told the driver he was a friend. He pulled over and Anton jumped in. They took us to the main road and we had a second hitch from there to Te Anau, where I had lunch and then resupplied at the local supermarket.

More of North Mavora Lake and the beech forest on its shoreline.

We couldn’t find lodging, so we paid $20 for a shuttle back to the trailhead. In the late afternoon we hiked the 4 miles to the Lower Princhester Hut, a very old 4 bunk hut, where we met Daniel and Balazs, both from Hungary. Both had hiked the trail from the start, but Balazs was injured and planned to zero at the hut the next day.

Princhester Hut and Balazs pondering his injury.

It was a 24 mile hike today with more miles hitched and shuttled and we resupplied, so this was at least 2 days in 1. It felt great and bedtime was not long in coming.

Boundary Hut Nero, Day 103

2-11-18

Sunset

I got up at my usual pre dawn time and began packing up, only to hear the first drops of rain on the roof of Taipo Hut, where I’d spent the night. The young Scottish couple had opted to tent, so the hut was quiet except for the soft sounds of the rain. Rather than hike in the weather, I unpacked my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep again.

Morning hike in the rain.

I woke up a second time and the rain had stopped, so I had breakfast and packed up for real, heading out at 8:45, one of my really late starts. My hope for a dry hike however ended about a half hour later when it started to rain again. I popped my umbrella and marched on through bog and field, hillside and of course tussocks. These were tussocks with a difference however as they were laced with beautiful, sparkling drops of rain. As much as I’d beat them with my hiking poles, I still got a thorough sprinkler effect from both sides as I walked through.

Mushrooms were fruiting all throughout a long meadow, and I got out a bag and began collecting agaricus campestrus, the common meadow mushroom, nearly identical to the common button mushroom we buy in the store. I’d have mushroom soup for lunch and mushrooms in my dehydrated backpacker’s dinner.

It was a short and easy 7 miles to the Boundary Hut, where I found Julie from Seattle, waiting out the rain. We had a great lunch and early afternoon and talked and shared trail stories, and when the rain finally stopped, she set out to get one hut further today. This left me again with a hut all to myself, such a treat. I napped and repaired a torn pack pocket and just took it slow. If the weather stays nice, I’ll knock out miles tomorrow. I only have about 170 miles to go and I’m not in too much of a hurry at this stage. I’m anticipating the end and am a bit sad for it. The good part is that Katie will be joining me in March and I get to have a whole new adventure with her.

Boundary Hut in the middle of nowhere, just where you want it.

About 5pm, a young German couple stopped by to get water and we had a nice connection, but they were headed off to the next hut, three miles down track, which had a wood stove. I’ve heard it also has lots of mice and is usually full of people because of the stove. As it’s not cold in the least, I’ll just stay here and enjoy my one person hut as long as it lasts.

A nero by the way is a near zero day, a short hike.

Sunset was gorgeous!