Update: Managing PTSD (Post-Trail Stress and Depression)

I was warned about how bad you could feel post-trail, but didn’t really take it seriously. But it hit me hard, the Post-Trail Stress and Depression. The intense feelings of let-down, lostness, lack of integration and inability to re-imagine an indoor, office-based worklife, that can come on once you finish a through-hike.

I started out managing it with distraction and on-going physical activity. The first few days back home were a whirlwind of chores – washing, shopping, cooking, putting things away, trying to get the mould out of our sleeping mats. After more than five months of wearing only two sets of clothing, I was struck by the abundance in my wardrobe, much of which had to be superfluous. I filled a large rubbish bag with items for the second hand shop. I chucked out my pottles of nail polish. I mean, really. I’m missing a toenail and no amount of paint is going to rectify that.

I set myself a challenge – to walk the equivalent of a marathon, 42.2k. On the Saturday after we returned home, I traversed the coastline of Wellington, under calm blue skies and a soft sun. I did it, but my feet were so sore that I had to ask Tony to run me a bath – I couldn’t bear to put weight on them by having a shower. I started running again and doing online yoga classes (shout out to Yoga with Adriene and Yoga with Candace; you ladies are great).

But the creeping empty feeling continued. It wasn’t helped by attending two funerals in the first week back home. Funerals always make you reassess priorities, and conclude that although we put so much energy into work, what really matters in the end is living according to our values and the quality of our relationships.

The next strategy I’m going to try to recover from this PTSD is to get back to work. I’m starting with a short term stint of teaching at the university then a six month contract in the public sector. I couldn’t commit to any more than that. I need to know there is an end date. After five and a half months of being outside, moving, breathing fresh air, feeling the elements on my skin, I’m not sure how I’ll adjust to indoor, computer-based confinement, especially coupled with an open-plan hot-desking office environment. I’m not sure how the transition back to ‘real’ work will go but it has to be done – the fridge and pantry don’t self-replenish, sadly.

And I’m remembering to be grateful, and to take notice of the small pleasures and privileges we take for granted. I’m grateful for hot showers and that I’m not hungry all the time. I’m grateful for my pillow. I’m grateful for plumbing.

I’m also grateful for being able to have a full and varied life even with migraine. I’ve written a post about living with migraine, which reflects on my Te Araroa experience, for Migraine Down Under, a blog and website aiming to raise awareness and increase community support for those living with migraine in New Zealand (check out my contribution here).

I’m sure once life settles back into a steady routine, these feelings of disruption will calm down – but if they don’t in six months time, there are plenty more trails my boots have never walked on!

Queen Charlotte track – Part 2

Day 153 (Wed 21 April): Punga Cove to Resolution Bay

Started 9.05am, finished 3.45pm, 22k.

Pain in the head status: Pain-free today and very relieved about it.

Basic bush accommodation

Word of the day: Careen, to heave a ship down one side in order to expose the other side to clean off barnacles or make repairs.

Peachy the pig mascot makes a final appearance

Our goal today was to have lunch at Furneaux Lodge, which was about 12k from where we were staying but the kitchen didn’t open until 12pm. So we slept in, had a slow breakfast in our room (the $26 breakfast buffet was a bit too much excess luxury) and dawdled along the path to Endeavour Inlet, where Furneaux Lodge was located.

Furneaux lodge

The track was solid orange-yellow clay, as slippery as ball bearings after the rain overnight and I was keen to see how the mountain bikers slid past on its treacherous surface. But the only mountain bikers that day was a group on ebikes, who hummed cheerfully by barely breaking a sweat. There were dozens of walkers though, of all ages and descriptions.

Rata

Furneaux Lodge was quite busy and we had a slightly hungry wait for our burgers and fries but they were a major step up from wraps and cheese. Well fueled, we charged on to our final accommodation – Resolution Bay cabins. There was  more pristine bush on this section, with lots of flowering rata and some large rata trees.

Our cottage

The cabins at Resolution Bay included old school bach-like houses and trampers huts but we elected to stay at the cottage by the sea, which had a gas cooker and hot shower. We prepared our last meal  (pasta), ate our last squares of chocolate and joined the owner of the cabins as she fed the fish lurking off the end of the jetty, including lots of gulping blue cod. Later in the evening, we wandered back to the wharf and spotted sparkles of phosphorescence in the water. Then it was time for our last sleep on the trail. Tomorrow we head to Ship Cove/Meretoto, famous for being the bay Captain Cook visited multiple times in the 1770s, in his exploration of Aotearoa, careening his ships in the shallow water.

Number of laughs today: More than five but much less than 300. Spent some time on the trail trying to invent jokes but was unsuccessful.

The final dinner

Day 154 (Thurs 22 April): Resolution Bay to Ship Cove (and home to Wellington)

Started 7.25am, finished 9.05pm, 7k.

Pain in the head status: No pain.

Word of the day: Travail, painful or laborious effort.

The final day. The end of our travails on Te Araroa. I was excited as we set off but when we arrived at Ship Cove/Meretoto, it was anticlimactic. Instead of being happy or relieved or proud, it was more like deflated and a bit sad.

Captain Cook memorial

We pottered around the bay, checking out the information boards and the tacky memorial to Cook’s visits, until the mail boat catamaran turned up to take us into Picton, via a tiki tour of the Sounds, including places we’d already visited (Furneaux Lodge, Punga Cove, Portage at Torea Bay). It was a maritime traverse of where we had been in the last couple of days in a couple of hours. We got to see the bag transfer from lodge to lodge in action –  a laborious process with the large amount of luggage being loaded on and off. Lesson from this – don’t put anything in your bag transfer that you don’t want being squashed.

Spot the dolphin

Wildlife sightings: Hectors dolphins, seals, shearwaters.

In Picton, we had one final ice cream indulgence then it was on a plane back to Wellington (it was cheaper to fly than take the ferry, maybe because of school holidays). Back to normal life, whatever that is.

I started on this journey not being 100% sure whether I could finish it agnd with a lot of concern that the migraines that afflict me would make it difficult and unpleasant. But I also wondered whether the migraines might abate, if I was away from the stresses of work and every day life. As it happened, neither of these things came to pass. I still got a fair few migraines but they mostly didn’t impede the journey. I still haven’t discovered why they come but I have increased confidence in my ability to live life as I want to, despite having migraines. I ended up stopping the prophylactic  medicines I was taking that were supposed to prevent the migraines and it turned out they were making no difference  –  whatever hoped for benefit I thought I was getting from them was only a placebo effect. There is still so much more to be known about how the brain works and why some of us have strange and unexplained neurological issues, like migraines or epilepsy or degenerative, progressive diseases. If you would like to support research into understanding these more, please consider donating to the Neurological foundation here:

https://discover.neurological.org.nz/fundraisers/fionaimlach

That’s all from me on walking Te Araroa but I’m sure I’ll do more tramping with migraine in the future. I’ll keep you posted.

Queen Charlotte track – Part 1

Day 151 (Mon 19 April): Anakiwa to Portage bay

Started 8.20am, finished 1.50pm, 20k.

Pain in the head status: I thought the migraine might be moving on today but it turned out it was just moving position and settling in to the other side of my head. It was an uncomfortable travelling companion but I was grateful for the easy track, the cool bush and the beautiful weather, which meant this unwanted hanger-on was more bearable.

Word of the day: Anfractuous, winding or circuitous.

We set off once again under calm blue skies and commenced the final stage of our journey, the Queen Charlotte track, which we planned to do in four days, leaving time to catch a water taxi to Picton and fly home to Wellington on the fourth day. The track was undulating, as we would expect from a coastal walk in Aotearoa, and also anfractuous, winding around the limbs of land that jutted out into the sea. Apparently, the Marlborough Sounds is the only place in Aotearoa that is sinking into the ocean rather than being ground upwards by tectonic plate movement and was once a system of river valleys.

After a couple of hours, we began to pass walkers and cyclists going the other way – the ‘normal’ way to walk this track – the way you go if you want to have your packs ferried from place to place so you can have a leisurely stroll with a day pack. We were definitely the freaks going against the flow and lugging all our gear, but even so, a lot of the people we passed were slower and sweatier than I was, even with a migraine. This is definitely a walk marketed as an ‘easier’ tramping track that might catch some people by surprise if they were not used to hill walking.

The beauty of the walk was being able to peer down at the many bays along the coast and watch the boats circle around, even sighting the ferry to Picton. There were more picnic tables and seats  than on the entire Te Araroa trail.

We reached Portage Bay in good time and checked in to Portage Lodge, as part of our commitment to finishing the trail in style, luxury and hygiene. I hand washed my underwear for the last time and they dried out on the balcony of our room, which had views over the bay. We finished off the day with a meal at the lodge restaurant that was plentiful in fresh vegetables. That made up for the potato wedges and ice cream we’d had earlier.

Portage bay lodge

Day 152 (Tues 20 April): Portage bay to Punga Cove

Started 8.20am, finished 2.45pm, 24k.

Pain in the head status: The migraine continued to be a painful nuisance all day. It seemed almost fitting to end this tramping experience with a migraine, almost as if my head wanted to reintegrate me back into the reality of recurrent, resistant and unpredictable pain, which I’ve had a hiatus from. But it finally lifted in the night, after a snooze before dinner and a good sleep after.

Word of the day: Ephemereal, transitory/lasting only a few days.

The ephemeral sunshine was replaced by clouds today but it was still a very benign temperature with no wind. I have to admit I spent most of the day in a state of zoned out mindlessness, not paying a great deal of attention to my surroundings. My excuse was the migraine and that I’ve walked this track before although my memory of it was imperfect.

I did notice plenty more sightings of sparkling bays below us, as we were mostly high up on a ridge, walking through exotic pine trees and seeing lots of dead trees in the regenerating native forest where the wilding pines have been sprayed. Hat off to the local community who are leading the charge against the wilding pines and doing their best to support the native trees but it will be generations if not centuries before this bush looks anything like it was before it was burnt off in the 1800s. We also spotted some of the mussel farms that export those thousands of green lipped mussels around the world.

We ate our final lunchtime wraps (with cheese) while listening to a vigorous family dispute about whether ‘undulating’ was an adjective used to describe a track or whether it could be applied as a verb to a person’s actions (e.g. ‘let’s go and do some undulating’). The dispute was unresolved by the time they packed up and pushed their bikes up the undulating trail but undoubtedly provided conversation for several kilometres.

Punga Cove lodge

We continued down the undulating trail to Punga Cove to continue luxuriating in creature comforts such as pillows, sheets and hot water at the lodge there.

I was thinking during the day that pain not only negatively affects one’s cognitive faculties but also severely saps one’s sense of humour. Then a podcast arrived in my ear buds about humour, with the shocking revelation that the average four year old laughs 300 times a day but it takes the average 40 year old over two months to laugh that much. Our levity takes a nose dive around our mid-20s, according to the researcher being interviewed. I resolved to watch some comedy as soon as we got back to Wellington.

Pelorus bridge to Anakiwa

Day 149 (Sat 17 April): Pelorus bridge to Havelock

Started 8.20am, finished 2.05pm, 21k.

Pain in the head status: I woke in the night with a migraine, which turned out to be the most troublesome one I’ve had for a while, needing a second migraine tablet to knock it back and recurring again later in the day. It’s as unexplained and random as usual.

Word of the day: Analeptic, a restorative medicine.

Sadly, the cafe at Pelorus bridge didn’t open until 9am on the weekend so we missed out on a post-breakfast treat. We crossed back over the bridge, looking down to the Pelorus river and trying to remember the barrel scene from The Hobbit that was filmed here.

After a short walk through a lovely piece of mixed podocarp forest that had escaped being milled by European settlers, we ended up on a special track, the Dalton track, created especially for TA walkers, to keep us away from the highway. It involved walking through endless paddocks of long wet grass, scented generously with l’eau de cowpat, being reminded at every other stile to keep to the route and not venture onto the adjacent farm road (or else the privilege of walking through cowpats might be revoked).

Again, it was a relief to reach a road and finish off the day on gravel, with a bit of tarseal verge. It was even more of a relief to reach Havelock and find a cafe that served analeptic fresh fruit ice cream. I was still feeling tired and slow and finding it hard to get a spring in my step. Maybe a sleep on a pillow rather than my rolled-up puffer jacket will make a difference. Or maybe I’m tired because it’s nearly time to stop.

The township of Havelock prides itself in its green-lipped mussels (they export 22,000 tonnes of them annually) so we had dinner at the Mussel Pot so Tony could try some. Each to their own. I stuck to vegetables.

Gross thing of the day: The dead toenail on my right foot started to lift off, still attached only at the nail bed. It could qualify as a zombie toenail.

Day 150 (Sun 18 April): Havelock to Anakiwa

Started 9.50am, finished 2.45pm, 17k.

Pain in the head status: Yesterday’s migraine persisted but I didn’t bother trying to treat it as these persistent or rebound ones don’t respond to medication. There’s an unpleasant raw edge to them but I was tired enough to sleep through it, even though it woke me up occasionally. I haven’t walked all day with a migraine for a long time – but I’ve become more chilled out because it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the walk. It might have even made me more conscious and appreciative of the beauty of the surroundings.

Word of the day: Pelagic, pertaining to oceans.

Havelock

We took a leaf from the tramping approach of the millennials and started late, after a leisurely coffee and scone at a cafe in Havelock. The weather was perfect – clear skies and a mild temperature ideal for walking.

Most of the walk was on a new track, the Link track, that joins up Havelock to Anakiwa and ultimately Picton. This was quite a delightful walk – the path was easy, it was often through gently shaded bush and had lovely vistas down to the branching arms of the Marlborough Sounds. It had been a while since we had pelagic views and plenty of water birds to try and identify.

The sound-side settlement of Anakiwa was a sea-lover’s paradise – people were out on boats, jumping off the jetty into what must have been chilly water (I wasn’t game enough to check) and taking selfies on the beach. We stayed at a gorgeous apartment with sea views right at the start – or the end, for most people – of the Queen Charlotte track. We were perfectly set up for launching into the final section tomorrow.

Anakiwa

Fruity bonus of the day: At Linkwater, there was a wee stall with free produce donated from people’s gardens. We had an apple and tomatoes for the road and stocked up on feijoas for breakfast. Thank you, kind Linkwater community. We take the disposal of free food very seriously.

View from Anakiwa 401

Pelorus track

Day 146 (Wed 14 April): Nelson to Rocks hut

Started 9.50am, finished 5.05pm, 20k.

Pain in the head status: The head didn’t feel quite right today but no migraine eventuated.

Word of the day: Plangent, loud and resonant with a mournful tone.

Back on trail today, we discovered the track in to Hacket hut was closed due to the slip we’d crossed over on Monday. That didn’t seem to be an appropriate deterrent so we went back over it and it was easier this time as someone had dug the track out a bit to widen the ledge.

From Hacket hut, it wasn’t far to the next hut, Browning, where we had lunch, which was a filo pastry from last night’s dinner, a muesli bar and a mandarin. It was so nice to have a change from peanut butter and wraps- I think I’ve reached my yearly limit of peanut butter consumption.

Browning hut

After Browning hut, we chugged up towards Dun Mountain mostly through forest but with a bit of open tussock and some rocky outcrops. It was a dreadfully slow rooty muddy rutted track. Along the top for several kilometers the trees had been smashed and flattened as if by a massive giant’s hand – apparently as a result of a fierce and unusual easterly storm some years back. I was impressed at DOC’s tenacity in making this route passable – it must have taken months to clear the enormous amounts of windfall.

Devastated trees

During this part of the walk to Rocks hut, I hit the wall emotionally and physically. Maybe it was the shock of being back on a difficult trail after nearly two days of being fed and looked after but my body was not interested in walking any more. My left knee started seizing up with pain, especially going downhill, until I felt like I was an awkward toddler stumbling along with an ungainly gait that might topple me over any instant. I was so tired I had to force myself to keep moving and not sit down on the side of the track and doze off. If any of the walking dead had appeared I could have joined their ranks undetected.

Blurry black fantail – in constant motion

The ubiquitous inquisitive fantails and the robins with their  plangent calls did their best to keep my spirits up. Eventually I heard lots of shouting in the distance and had a few minutes of horror imagining a large noisy group at Rocks hut, just when I was craving some rest and quiet, but it was only two loquacious mountain bikers cutting up scraps of wood for the fire. They did talk incessantly but luckily were more interested in talking to each other than to us. I didn’t feel like talking especially after I became irritated when they mentioned they had to be up early to get home and ‘babysit’, as if taking care of one’s own children is not an intrinsic part of fatherhood.

We had a delicious antipasto risoni for dinner, thanks to Sarah’s donation of home-dehydrated meals. If I did this again, I would add some variety to our dinners – but I don’t know why I am even theoretically contemplating doing this again…

Day 147 (Thurs 15 April): Rocks hut to Captains Creek hut

Started 8.20am, finished 12.35pm, 10k.

Pain in the head status: No pain.

Word of the day: Hummock, a small hill, hillock or knoll. Bonus word: Rutilant, glowing or glittering with red or golden light.

Mammoth mushrooms

Thanks to a couple of doses of Nurofen, my knee felt better today and I could mostly walk like a functional adult again,  but I was still hanging out for a nap, even after a full night’s sleep. But it was only a short day and I promised myself an afternoon kip at Captains Creek hut, which would be the last DOC hut we stayed at on the trail.

Rock garden

But first we had to meander down to the Pelorus river and past Middy hut. This wasn’t a very exciting walk but that could have been influenced by my weary state of mind. Rocks, trees, little streams; more trees, more mushrooms, a rock garden on a hummock. We saw lots of wasps, but most looked as weary as I felt, crawling over the black-crusted bark of honeydew beech trees, and falling to the ground in a state of depletion and weakness. The precious drops of honeydew had all been sucked away.

Middy hut

The Pelorus river was pretty, sweeping through white-rock gorges in a crystal blue-green surge. Several long swing bridges took us over it safe and dry, if a little wobbly-legged.

Captains Creek hut was right beside the river, and after our anti-peanut butter lunch of Sarah’s seed crackers and tomato pesto (with a side of panforte), I got my promised nap. It was everything I desired.

Last experiences on Te Araroa: This was the last DOC hut we  slept in; the last evening spent illuminated by rutilant candlelight; the last splash in a river to wash at the end of the day; the last night without phone service; the last setting of the mouse trap. Civilisation is nigh.

Captains Creek hut

Day 148 (Fri 16 April): Captains Creek hut to Pelorus bridge

Started 7.55am, finished 2.15pm, 23k.

Pain in the head status: No pain still, having another unexplained migraine hiatus.

Word of the day: Troglodyte, member of a primitive cave dwelling people.

After all my sleeping yesterday, I should have been leaping out of the hut door onto the track, but I was still a bit slow and lethargic. I’d definitely moved out of the zombie walking zone, however.

It was more undulating forest track, with stretches beside the Pelorus river, until we hit the end of the Pelorus track (can tick that off the tramping to do list now). Then it was 14k on a road to get to Pelorus bridge campsite. I had actually been looking forward to some road walking, where I could walk relatively mindlessly, not worrying about an ankle turning on a twisted root or the uneven stones jarring my knee. I plugged in my headphones, started up the podcast app, and the time slipped away.

We passed through farmland and at one point I got into a staring competition with some livestock, and had a moment of utter disorientation when I couldn’t remember where I was, not even which island I was on. I could have been anywhere, looking at any Jersey cow or generic woolly sheep that I still can’t identify the breed of.

At Pelorus bridge, the campsite registration was conveniently located next to a cafe so we could have scones and ice cream and pay for the camping all at once. We opted for the cheap $8 per person campsite instead of the $20 per person which included a hot shower. The woman selling us the camp docket looked at us as if we were smelly, incomprehensible troglodytes when we declined the shower – but really, what’s one more showerless day. From tomorrow, we can have as many showers as we like. But maybe we have turned into troglodytes. Apart from the brief respite in Nelson, it seems a long time since we’ve had any sustained time in ‘normal’ life.

Campsite

One more week to go.

Richmond range – Part 3

Day 143 (Sun 11 April): Old Man hut to Starveall hut

Started 8.05am, finished 2.25pm, 15.5k.

Pain in the head status: Troubled by a migraine overnight but it resolved with a migraine tablet and was gone by morning.

Word of the day: Obnubilate, to darken, dim or obscure something.

At some point in the night, the rain ceased but was replaced by gusts of wind that hit the hut like thunder. A tree crashed to the earth not far away. The weka squawked in protest.

I was thinking we might have a rough time on the tops but the wind had almost entirely died away by the time we set out, although we were beset with a firm and chilly breeze at times. Once we had hauled ourselves back up to the ridge line from Old Man hut, the track was mostly in the open, occasionally ducking back into the forest.

The low clouds obnubilated our views but every now and then a window would open down to the plains or across the mountain ranges. The Rintouls, however, stubbornly hid their faces from us.

The undulations of the track took us over Old Man Peak, across a long green grassy area called Ada Flat, and up and around the side of Slaty Peak, with lots of the eponymous slaty slidey rock. There we stopped for lunch at Slaty hut, which faced into a wooded mountain face spewing waterfalls, then carried on up towards Mt Starveall, not quite going over its peak.

Slaty hut

Around its side and down the ridge we could look down towards the west and see the long straight road that led to Hope, a satellite village near Richmond. It’s always encouraging to have Hope at the end of the road.

Down further, just before the treeline, was Starveall hut. It was a place I felt starved in, the hiker’s hunger having got its teeth into me, despite yesterday’s rest and having eaten almost all of our extra food. It was somewhat appeased after we had our final home-dehydrated dinner – a double dose of lentils, veges and rice. Tony needs food more than I do – he’s starting to look a bit like a dehydrated bean.

Starveall hut

Wildlife experiences: We saw lots of goats – black, tan, white and variegated. We smelt even more. I don’t know if I can ever eat goat’s cheese again – the rank stink of goat makes me retch.

Tony throwing rocks at an unimpressed goat

Day 144 (Mon 12 April): Starveall hut to Nelson via Hacket picnic area

Started 7.30am, finished 11.45am, 13k.

Pain in the head status: No pain today.

Word of the day: Ambrosial, (food of the Gods), extremely pleasing to taste or smell, fragrant, delicious.

To be honest, today’s walk was overshadowed by the excitement of knowing that our friend from Nelson, Sarah, was picking us up at the Hacket picnic area at lunchtime. We left early to make sure we’d be there in plenty of time. It was a 900m descent from Starveall hut down to the Hacket river and Hacket hut, through some pretty forest, past a big rocky outcrop (Pyramid rock) and across the river eight times (unavoidable wet feet).

Hacket river

There was a small slip on the easy trail from Hacket hut to the road end, where there was a carpark and picnic area. The slip had reduced a bit of track from a wide, bikeable gravel path to a ledge the width of a boot, crossable by hugging close to the bank and avoiding looking at the swirling river a few metres below. There were warnings of washouts on this track but it was almost comical as the washout alternative tracks were in better condition than the majority of Te Araroa tracks.

At the Hacket picnic area, we’d just changed out of our boots and were stuffing a muesli bar into our starving faces when Sarah arrived, and pulled out a goodie bag that would fill the heart of any hungry through hiker with an extremity of joy and gratitude. She’d brought us fresh fruit, a selection of sodas, chocolate Easter bunnies, home-made friands and two types of panforte, since we’d missed out on Christmas cake and Easter. The pit in my stomach diminished to a small dent.

Chatty tomtit

Sarah took us to the top Nelson accommodation that was her house, where we met her husband, cleaned ourselves up and continued feasting. Sarah’s kitchen is the source of ambrosial products, which we were the fortunate recipients of.

Dessert time

It was a good day to come out of the mountains as it started to rain in the evening. It was good to know we had no river crossings the next day and we could sleep easy.

Day 145 (Tues 13 April): Nelson (rest day)

Our rest day felt well deserved and well timed, as the rain continued for most of the day. We continued our concentrated effort to eat as much nourishing food as possible in the space of a day, and had even more nourishing company, with lots of discussion about tramping, life and other mysteries. We went on a quest into Nelson for an inflatable pillow, visiting four outdoor shops without success. We abandoned that quest and embarked on a new one, to find Penguino’s, an ice cream parlour that I’ve never been to before, inexplicably given the many times I’ve visited Nelson. This mission ended successfully in the consumption of a double cone.

More food delights

Richmond range – Part 2

Day 140 (Thurs 8 April): Top Wairoa hut to Tarn hut

Started 7am, finished 2.35pm, 13.5k.

Pain in the head status: No pain again.

Word of the day: Apothegm, terse, witty instructional saying.

Apothegm on the side of the track (inspired by AC/DC song ‘It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock’n’roll’)

There were two parts to today’s walk – down the Wairoa river to Mid Wairoa hut, then, as in this environment what goes down must come up, a steep climb from the river onto the ridge line that will lead us over the high point of the Richmond range, Mt Rintoul.

The first section is widely reviled due to the eight or so river crossings, which can be impassable after rain, and multiple sidles across precipitous slopes, which can be narrow, slippery and scrambly. The online TA notes state: ‘Some trampers will find this section challenging.’

Yeah, nah. I was expecting more, from the expressions of horror and dismay in the Top Wairoa hut book and on Guthook, the community TA trail app. It was just another day at the office. I could see how the track and the river crossings could be difficult in poor weather, but for us, the conditions were perfect and I just needed to keep focused and take care where I placed my feet and positioned my poles.

Mid Wairoa hut

After a self-congratulatory morning tea at Mid Wairoa hut, we wrung out our boots and moved onto the second section, climbing up through forest to Tarn hut. It was a bit like climbing up to the Travers saddle, but shorter, and the worst of it was over before I had to start a pep talk to keep going. I much prefer a steady solid up to an undulating/verticating track; is less tiring and more predictable.

Tarn at Tarn hut

The final part of the walk to Tarn hut was plagued by wasps – we hurried through as fast as possible to avoid annoying them and getting stung. Stinky goats were eating out the vegetation on the tops and were hardly bothered by our presence. It was a relief to reach the hut and close the door against any stinging or biting insects.

Tarn hut

Injury anomalies: I gathered two small abrasions today – a scrape on the inner elbow from sliding down a rock and a grazed knee that I didn’t even notice until I saw blood oozing out of it. It was completely painless despite the bleeding whereas the superficial elbow scrape throbbed like a burn, hurting out of all proportion to the nature of the injury. Pain truly is a unpredictable and inexplicable entity.

Curious robin

Day 141 (Fri 9 April): Tarn hut to Old Man hut

Started 6.45am, finished 1.55pm, 12.5k.

Pain in the head status: No pain in the head; knees are suffering instead.

Word of the day: Brume, mist or fog. Bonus word: Dingle, a deep wooded valley.

We started as early as possible today because the weather forecast predicted rain in the afternoon and we were about to tackle the most difficult section of the Richmond Alpine track – over the raggedy scree and boulder strewn tops of Mt Rintoul (1739m) and Little Rintoul (1643m).

But first we climbed over Purple Top, so named because of the mauve coloured rock around its crown. It was cold and wreathed in brume but once we reached Rintoul hut, we had grey views over to Motueka and Tasman Bay and glimpses of Mt Rintoul behind the hut.

The climb up to Mt Rintoul was steep and the soft fine scree was difficult to get purchase on but we could usually find some more solid bouldery tracts to wedge our feet into. I kept low over my poles to reduce the chance of sliding backwards. At the top, we could see bits of mountain sliding in and out of view amongst the mist but as we descended down to the saddle between Mt Rintoul and Little Rintoul, the clouds unexpectedly lifted, revealing rows of mountains and the sheer unstable faces of the Rintouls.

The climb up Little Rintoul was more severe and scrambly but the past months have honed our mountain goat skills to a fine point. All in all, the Rintouls provided outstanding examples of verticating.

We spotted our accommodation far below in a dingle on the eastern side of Little Rintoul – Old Man hut. As we did so, an old man edged up the slope towards us. He was heading to Rintoul hut, skipping Old Man hut, maybe to avoid the jokes that were bound to follow.

Old man hut (sans old man)

My knees did not appreciate the sharp drop down to the hut but were grateful that we arrived before the rain. A fine drizzle started less than an hour after we had disgorged the contents of our packs onto the heavenly soft new blue mattresses. The peaks clagged in and the rain started in earnest not long after. But we has made it – dry, warm in the hut with a fire going, the hardest part of the Richmond track firmly behind us. If we had anything to celebrate with, we would have – an extra muesli bar had to suffice.

Day 142 (Sat 10 April): Old Man Hut day

Word of the day: Ennui, weariness and dissatisfaction resulting from inactivity or lack of interest; boredom.

Puddles forming outside the hut from the torrents of rain

We had planned a rest day at Old Man hut as there was heavy rain predicted – and it duly arrived in the night and continued relentlessly all day. Emily from Nelson had shared the hut with us last night but departed on a different trail than ours, leaving us a candle and an apple, as she had packed too much food.

The day passed slowly from one food break to the next. I finished the fantasy novel started at West Sabine hut; Tony relieved his ennui by breaking into the Wasjig someone had left in the hut, perhaps as a cruel joke as critical pieces seemed to be lost or missing their picture. The tiny potbelly fireplace kept us toasty. The clearing around the hut filled up with mini lakes and the weka under the floor boomed out disapproval.

Richmond range – Part 1

Day 138 (Tues 6 April): St Arnaud to Porters Creek hut

Started 8.10am, finished 4.35pm, 29k.

Pain in the head status: No pain today until bedtime when I started getting sharp migrainous pains in the neck. I tried to just sleep it off but ended up taking a migraine pill- was all fine in the morning.

Word of the day: Redolent, reminiscent/suggestive of/ evocative; also strongly scented/fragrant.

Today we launched our mission into the Richmond range, which is consistently rated as the most arduous and heartbreaking section of the trail, with long days in alpine terrain, and all the features we have come to expect from Te Araroa – multiple stream crossings, grunty ascents and gruntier descents, tricky boulder fields, exposed ridges, eroded paths and treacherous tussock.

Red Hills hut

However, we started with a spot of road walking, which was quite enjoyable as we could power along at a fast pace and not have to watch for roots and rocks lying in wait to trip us up.

Back in the bush, we walked up to Red Hills hut on a dual mountain bike path which was therefore nicely graded and maintained. This was where Te Araroa used to go, but it has recently been diverted up another track to avoid a few kilometers on the road. We looked at the new route on the topo map and decided we’d stick to the old way, which would save a couple of hours of walking and a whole lot of pain.

Red hills

From Red Hills hut, we started the walk across Richmond National Park and could see why this part was named Red Hills. The rocks and earth were coloured russet, due to the iron and mineral content of the ultramafic rock, which was unusual in having originated from below the earth’s crust. The scenery was redolent of Australia, complete with scrappy tea trees and blue skies.

The trail was undulating, which seems too gentle and rolling a word to capture the sheer drops down to river beds and gullies and the vertical climbs over ridges and bluffs. A better description would be ‘verticating’, derived from the vertical directions we were traversing, and the catatonic state this induced in the quad and gluteal muscles. Under the mild autumn sun, we sweated more than we had for weeks. But one advantage of the fine weather was that we could joyously boulder-hop over the rivers in our path, saving our feet from a wetting.

When we arrived at Porters Creek hut, it was still so warm that we could sit outside with our pre-dinner cup of tea and listen to the frogs in the surrounding wetlands. We were also unmolested by sandflies which was a distinct novelty. But nightfall came quickly and we had dinner by candlelight after watching the red light of the sunset fire up the Red Hills.

Day 139 (Wed 7 April): Porters Creek hut to Top Wairoa hut

Started 7.05am, finished 3.20pm, 19.5k.

Pain in the head status: No pain today.

Word of the day: Opprobrium, harsh criticism or scorn, public disgrace arising from shameful conduct.

After consuming a day’s worth of food, my pack felt slightly lighter, but still too heavy to swing up onto my back. Instead, I had to do the tramping clean-and-jerk manoeuvre – pack onto knee then pushed up onto the hips. My knees and I were very glad that this is the last time on this trip that the pack was fully loaded with nine day’s of rations. Although we weren’t planning to be in the wilderness for nine days (we had an escape to Nelson planned), the weather can be temperamental here and we wanted to be prepared.

Hunter hut

Today brought a lot more verticating and more just straight up but the bluebird weather meant we had fantastic views, even over towards Nelson at one point. We could also see miles away the forestry plantation where many wilding pines were seeding from. The harsh environment and mineral soils mean that not many plants can grow in this area – but exotic pines seem to have no difficulty. There might be another plantation here in 20 year’s time.

We passed another DOC hut in the morning, Hunter hut, which had replaced an older hut nearer the river that was washed away in a flash flood in 1995, along with two DOC workers who were inside. From its elevation, it seems unlikely that this hut would be washed out by the river, but destruction by earthquake, hurricane or lightning strike couldn’t be ruled out.

Remains of the previous DOC hut

Perhaps the hardest part of the day was the last 3k, after we had grunted up a ridge and could see down the other side to the Wairoa river and a bright orange dot that was Top Wairoa hut, our destination. We should have been there in no time but instead it took an hour and a half, painstakingly picking a way through flesh-threatening jagged boulders, down knee-wrenching drops and across ankle-rolling stones. This is the heartbreak of the Richmond range.

Top Wairoa hut was not as inviting as Porters Creek, mostly due to the abundance of wasps and the lack of an open space with a view, but the river offered a selection of bathing options and it was wonderful, if overly refreshing, to wash the sweat and grime and sunscreen from our skin. We had the hut to ourselves for the second night running – unlike Nelson Lakes, this park was deserted.

Gear update: The boot strap on my other gaiter came off so now they are both strapless. I suppose now they match but my opprobrium continues at a heightened state. My inflatable pillow has also catastrophically failed, having both losing its ability to remain inflated and its baffles, so when it does inflate it’s like trying to sleep on a soccer ball. To be honest, I’ve been waiting for an excuse to ditch this pillow for months but it could have held itself together for just a few more days, until I got to Nelson.

Nelson Lakes National Park – Part 2

Day 136 (Sun 4 April): John Tait hut to St Arnaud

Started 7.20am (adjusted for the end of daylight savings), finished 2.05pm, 24k.

Pain in the head status: Not entirely nil due to a disturbed night but powered through.

Word of the day: Parthian shot, any hostile gesture or remark made in leaving; Parthian cavalrymen usually shot at the enemy while retreating or pretending to retreat.

The end of daylight savings meant that we could get up with the dawn and hit the trail early, without having to fumble around in the dark with torches hoping I’d packed everything. The partying and stay-up-late trampers were still abed when we left. The hut was strewn with their mess – unwashed dishes including a pot still laden with some indescribable dinner leftovers, an empty whisky bottle, opened food packets, a scattered pack of cards. My tidy soul was distressed and I almost wished this hut had rodents that had ravaged their supplies overnight. My Parthian shot to them was to stomp as loudly as I could over the deck as we exited – unfortunately this was not very loud, barely enough to disturb a hangover, so it was a weak revenge for the rowdy night.

It was another busy day in the park, with dozens more people passing by in a blur of large packs and pumping thighs. At least, that was until we reached Lakehead hut, where water taxis were dropping off day walkers to saunter along the track beside Lake Rotoiti back into St Arnaud. At this point, I could almost smell the food in St Arnaud. I hadn’t had an ice cream since Methven. I hadn’t had a shower since Boyle. The race was on, meaning we started overtaking walkers who had far less motivation to charge towards the comforts of civilisation.

Lake Rotoiti

We were still nature-minded enough to stop for lake and mountain views, and the odd mushroom. But once at St Arnaud, the first stop was the gas station/general store for hot chips and ice cream. Then we checked into the Alpine Lodge where we collected our very last food box. It started to sink in that we were nearing the end of our journey.

DOC should have more signs like this

Day 137 (Mon 5 April): St Arnaud

Zero day. Washing, eating, looking at what lies ahead in the Richmond ranges. Small pleasures, like finding a tube of body balm in the lodge room, drinking tea with milk, not having feet in boots, hot cross buns.

Nelson Lakes National Park – Part 1

Day 134 (Fri 2 April/Good Friday): Blue Lake hut to West Sabine hut

Started 8.50am, finished 12.10pm, 7k.

Pain in the head status: I woke up with a headache and pain in the front of my neck – I was expecting this as a consequence of slipping over on scree yesterday and wrenching my neck, a bit like a whiplash. This ended up triggering a migraine. It seems like all head pains lead to destination migraine.

Word of the day: Garboil, state of commotion or noise.

Helpful sign

We had decided to have a short day walking down from Blue Lake hut to West Sabine hut, taking our time to enjoy the scenery. Once again the weather was kind to us – it was overcast but we escaped being rained on. The scenery was worth taking time over – huge crusty peaks that had disgorged sheets of stone and boulders the size of trucks towards the white-frothed river, more waterfalls, a sky full of creepy streaks of moving grey cloud.

The track was much worse than I remembered from our last visit – variously blasted away by avalanches and swept away by river flooding. I started to long for a clear path that didn’t involve scrambling and watching every step for a firm footing. We passed another TA walking bus going south – at Blue Lake, this would be a bus of at least ten people. It might also be called a walking school bus, as it included three children, one only six years old.

Looking up towards Moss Pass

We knew that the huts in Nelson Lakes would explode with people over Easter but the crowd that had amassed at West Sabine by evening exceeded our dreaded expectations. The 30 bunk hut filled with trampers streaming up from Lake Rotoroa along the Sabine river – the easy route in bus water taxi. A few more intrepid souls trudged over Travers saddle. The fire was lit, wet gear was strewn everywhere and the hut resembled a sauna crossed with a secondhand shop, with a bar in one corner and a card den in another. After associating mostly with other TA hikers, it was odd to be in a hut with people wearing makeup, nail polish and deodorant and to see towels hanging up to dry that were not microfiber.

Crossing over to West Sabine

We retreated to our bunks – it was too many people to deal with and too much garboil. Three people ended up sleeping on the floor and half a dozen tents mushroomed around the hut like a travelling circus. I found a fantasy novel on the kindle app on my phone and transported myself to another place. The first time I’ve read fiction on the trail – it was quite absorbing. I had to remind myself at 9pm that it was a big day ahead and I needed to go to sleep.

Day 135 (Sat 3 April): West Sabine hut to John Tait hut

Started 7.35am, finished 2.45pm, 14k.

Pain in the head status: No pain today and neck muscles loosening up. It was the first day since Boyle Village that I’ve felt pretty much normal. And hungry.

Word of the day: Yutz, foolish incompetent person.

Despite the crowded hut conditions, it wasn’t too noisy until people’s alarms started going off from around 6am. Even though no one stirred, we took that as licence to get moving. We had 1200m to climb and 1000m to descend before the day was out.

At Travers saddle, Mt Travers behind

This was another track I had done before but in the opposite direction. As testament to our improved fitness, we cruised up Travers saddle without an excess of sweating or puffing. We had excellent weather too – it was fine with minimal wind. The clouds clagged in on the Sabine valley as we passed over the saddle but on the Travers side, the sun was strong.

Trail highlights included non-swinging bridges over streams (so lovely to have dry feet for two whole days), a brief taste of red carpet walking, on a spongy soft trail cushioned deeply with beech leaves, and the most colourful tramping outfit I’ve seen so far. This was on a young lady at Upper Travers hut, where we stopped for lunch. She waltzed up in loud, orange-themed leopard print leggings with a matching sports bra, stopping to check her reflection in the large hut windows. (Belly piercings still present? Check. Midriff still exposed?  Check. Hair still carefully tousled? Check. Preening complete.)

We had never seen so many people on the trail – courtesy of Easter, fine weather and the popularity of the area. At least two dozen people on the way over Travers Saddle; another two dozen from Upper Travers hut down the Travers valley to John Tait hut. There was a large school group not far from the saddle that had no tents or sleeping mattresses – I couldn’t help unkindly thinking that whoever organised that trip was a yutz.

Upper Travers hut

Just when we thought we might have John Tait hut to ourselves, a sole hiker turned up at 6.30pm, then half a dozen young ones from Wellington then another half a dozen from an Auckland tramping club. The Wellingtonians had a birthday party, with cake and candles and singing, and maybe a small rave if the random flashing of head torches and thumping of the floor boards was anything to go by. I had retreated to my bunk by that stage, the most comfortable option in this critical mass of hut fullness. But if that weren’t enough to have me cowering in my sleeping bag, the tramping club then stayed up late to play introductory games to get to know each other. Even the silly fantasy novel was an insufficient distraction – it was podcasts at full volume to drown out the noise.

John Tait hut

Gaiter update: My disillusion with my new gaiters reached new heights today when I snagged one of them against a tree root and tore a hole in it. I can’t express my disappointment and disdain. My old gaiters had taken years of abusive tree roots, in infinitely more difficult conditions, and had never ripped. My opinion is confirmed – these gaiters belong in the trash.

Broken heart rock