Day 103 (Tues 2 March): Lake Hawea to Stody hut (Breast Hill track)
Started 7.15am, finished 3.20pm, 23k.
Pain in the head status: No pain – I thought I might suffer as had a disturbed night’s sleep with the couple in the room next to us at the hostel conducting an opera of snores all night. But woke up at 6am and felt ready to go. Not quite rearing, but ready.
Word of the day: Ne plus ultra, pinnacle.
We were up and gone before anyone else in the hostel had stirred. I’m not sure how I became such a morning lark but I much prefer starting our walk early while it’s cool and finishing with enough warm daylight left to dry my sweaty clothes and towel after a wash.
Anyway, today involved the ne plus ultra of the Otago section of Te Araroa- summiting Breast Hill (1578m). We warmed up our legs for the climb with a 6-7k stretch along Lake Hawea, then it was time to go up. We started moderately, with 24 switchbacks to take us up to a rocky ridgeline, but then the track lost interest in reasonable gradients and just went straight up. I’m not sure how the hill got its name but there was nothing soft or smoothly rounded about this terrain – it was all jagged edges and severe drop offs. If this was a breast, it had some serious metastatic rock cancer.
After a 950m climb, we reached Pakituhi hut, a tidy DOC hut built in 2011, where we had lunch and braced ourselves for the final push to the summit. The weather had been kind up to that point, but the wind picked up as we headed for the top and grey rain clouds across the lake started blowing towards us. The Southern alps were wrapped in mist, so Mt Aspiring and Aoraki were hidden from sight.
As we headed down to the next hut, the rain skirted around us, never quite catching us, and the sun was out when we arrived at Stody hut, an old musterer’s hut with a dirt floor, tin walls and an open fire pit. The water source seeped out of the ground in a patch of green ground cover then trickled down over a couple of stones before disappearing back into the earth a metre or so later. Despite having passed a dozen or so TA walkers in the day, there was no one staying there except us and Duncan, the Aucklander with the massive pack, who had divested himself of some weight in Wanaka and seemed to be better for it.
There was a small clearing at the back of the hut where I sat in the sun and watched the skinks dart in and out of the tussock and bask on the flat stones. One of the skinks scuttled up to my sandal, climbed onto my foot and nibbled at my sock.
Tramping item with largest number of uses: My buff, which I use as a neck scarf, balaclava, nose covering (to dampen smelly tramper stench in huts), hat band (to keep cap from flying off in the wind), sweat band, handkerchief, eye shade, beanie. Sometimes all in one day.
Day 104 (Wed 3 March): Stody hut to Top Timaru hut
Started 8.25am, finished 3.20pm, 14k.
Pain in the head status: No pain. This is a nice trend.
Word of the day: Inimical, hostile, harmful.
The weather took a temperamental turn, raining during the night, then clearing through the morning, only to deliver showers in the afternoon and strong winds by evening. We knew about the morning rain so had a dozy start to the day, heading out while the sun was still trying to chase away the last of the rain clouds from overhead. At one point, the ground was steaming from the sun beating down on it, but also getting spattered with raindrops.
Most of the day was spent following the Timaru River up a valley. We had two track options: walk in the river or take the ‘flood’ track, which was supposed to avoid the river so the trip could still be safely done when water levels were high but ended up including a dozen or so river crossings, which seemed counter to its intent. Walking the river may have been easier but the water was running a milky grey colour and it was impossible to see the riverbed or judge the depth of the flow. It turned out this was due to a slip upstream and none of the crossings we were forced to do went beyond my kneecaps, but this did make for sloshy wet feet. My new insoles slid around inside my boots like fish and my feet looked like big white prunes by the end of the day.
The flood track was as much a mental challenge as a physical one. It was steep, slippery and slow, mostly in beech forest. Not being able to see where we were headed made it seem harder. In the previous days, we had a clear view of the track ahead, which gave me a focus and a purpose. In the forest, I had no idea what was coming – another uphill? A scary sidle across an eroding slope? A dive down a gully to rock hop across a side stream? The unpredictability wore on me as did the obscure reasons for why the trail was so severely undulating. I knew at one point we were skirting a waterfall, and guessed we had to climb over bluffs and slips, but we never saw these obstacles. It was difficult not to fall into a paranoid mindset that whoever put the trail here hated all TA walkers and wanted us to suffer. When we finally reached a wide open track, I was so relieved to see the way ahead I fairly sprinted down it to the hut (also being chased by rain, which inexplicably turned to sun as soon as we arrived).
The other curse of the day was inimical sandflies that latched on and bit me while I was walking, that swarmed us at our lunch break so fiercely that one swat of exposed skin could dispose of three sandflies and I had to shake their corpses from my clothes as we left. This triggered the phantom sandfly bite phenomenon, where you slap yourself because you think you feel a sandfly bite, but there’s nothing there.
We were the first to arrive at Top Timaru hut, but this soon filled to capacity (six people) and then one (Duncan turned up around a quarter to 8, and slept outside in his bivvy, giving us relief from his snores). We celebrated meeting up with Kees and Elice again (our trail companions for a few weeks in the North Island) by opening a packet of Dutch licorice I’d bought in Arrowtown and swapping trail stories. The other NOBO in the hut that night, Ella, was a junior doctor who was taking time out to decide what to do with her life. She sounded a bit like me at her age; she was even contemplating a career in public health.
Wildlife highlight: Lots of titipounamu (rifleman) squeaking around us in the forest and flitting beside the track. Not much other birdsong to be heard though.