Top Timaru hut to Lake Ohau

Day 105 (Thurs 4 March): Top Timaru hut to East Ahuriri hut

Started 7.50am, finished 6.25pm, 34k.

Pain in the head status: No pain. Unreal.

Word of the day: Rhapsodic, enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling.

All the trampers we saw today had a singular focus – getting across the Ahuriri River, the largest unbridged river on Te Araroa – although there is a bridge downstream but that adds 10k onto the walk. A southerly front with a heap of rain was forecast for tomorrow so everyone was trying to get across today before it became impassable.

But before the River, we had a solid steady climb up to Martha saddle, zig zagging across a huge stony mountain face, on a wide easy track that had been bulldozed up and over the saddle back in the farming days.

On the other side of the saddle, we had lunch at Tin hut, a private hut with a classic open air toilet and a resident mouse population, one of which had met its demise in a trap by the door. Then it was another 10k or so down to the river, which ended up being crossable without wetting the underwear (for any reason).

After this, we had to decide whether to camp out in the lower East Ahuriri valley or push on for another couple of hours to East Ahuriri hut, which was described by DOC as ‘derelict’ but by other accounts was a basic but comfortable accommodation. It was nearly 4pm and to get to the hut would be another two and a half hours of walking. I consulted my legs – they were not happy, but my mind overruled them. I really wanted to visit this hut, and this would mean we’d be sheltered from any rain in the night, and could possibly get over the next saddle and out of the valley tomorrow before the worst of the wintry blast hit us.

The dreaded Ahuriri River – turned out to be a kitten not a tiger

So this was how we ended the day – trudging up the Easy Ahuriri through tussock and matagouri, skipping over deep narrow water channels hidden in the grass. As much as the ups and downs of the terrain, it was a day of emotional rollercoasting for me. I’m usually on a fairly even keel but today I started on a low, struggling to find the energy to plod up Martha’s saddle. For the first time, I plugged in some music – which I’d been holding back for a desperate occasion. Music is like a superpower – it induced a rhapsodic state that got me charging up the hill, singing out the lyrics whenever I had breath. The magic wore off when I twisted my ankle on some rocks downhill, but I was grateful for my poles that meant I could hobble on until the pain subsided. Then my mood crashed after lunch, probably coinciding with a sugar low, and despite my sincere desire to knock out 34k, I has to mainline Werther’s cream candies to get me through the last 6k.

East Ahuriri hut

I was hugely grateful to get to the hut, which was built in the 1890s but has had some TLC since then, with a tiled floor and the construction of bunks from raw tree branches. The bunks were strung with wire mesh to create a type of hammock, with mattresses on top. I got the best hammock, which was surprisingly comfortable, but Tony was squashed up in his and didn’t have the best night. Still, we were out of the wind, which woke us up occasionally as it rattled through the tin walls, and the mice didn’t bother us, even though I almost trod on one in a nightly visit to the tussock toilet.

Legends of the day: At around 7.30pm, a French couple appeared at East Ahuriri hut. They had walked all the way from Twizel, over 50k away, and still looked chipper and cheerful. They decided to press on towards the river. Unbelievable. I decided it was all in the legs – they were wearing tiny shorts that barely covered their bottoms so I could see they both had thighs like barrels, unlike mine which are still squidgy and flaccid. I can’t seem to stop myself from routinely checking out the legs of trampers we come across. I look at the tree-trunk, overtly muscular legs with envy and longing. If I had legs like that, I might do 50k in a day as well. But I don’t. And won’t. No 50k days for me.

Day 106 (Fri 5 March): East Ahuriri hut to Lake Ohau

Started 8.05am, finished 2.15pm, 17k.

Pain in the head status: No pain still. I thought I was getting a night time headache but it turned out that my buff, which I’d been using as a buffer against the terrifying stench of our wet socks and boots, had crunched up where my head pressed against the pillow. Once that was rectified, I was back to blissful snoring, ignorant of the earthquakes and tsunami warnings shaking up the rest of Aotearoa.

Speargrass, tramper’s bane

Word of the day: Cavalcade, a company of riders, a trail ride usually more than one day long.

We left Otago at the edge of the Ahuriri river and are now tramping in Canterbury. Along the trail from Top Timaru hut, we noticed the occasional horse hoof print and horse poop, and at East Ahuriri hut, we discovered the reason. A 27-large group of riders had passed through yesterday, as part of the annual Otago Goldfields Cavalcade. This event has taken place since 1991 and traces routes and explores the history of the Otago gold rushes. This year is the first time they have ventured into Canterbury, ending up in Twizel. As well as horse riders, there are walking and mountain biking options and the opportunity to ride in horse-drawn wagons and buggies. For anyone who loves horses, history and human company, this would be a dream adventure.

But back to Te Araroa adventure. We were up in time to see the sunrise stain the clouds pink, gold and peach and light the tops of the western mountains with an orange glow. The forecast rain had yet to eventuate but as we motored up the valley as fast as we could, the clouds foamed and darkened in the west. For most part, it was a kind track up to the long flat saddle that took us out from East Ahuriri to Lake Ohau, with shallow stream crossings and a firm path, but it was surprisingly easy to lose the foot trail, bash through grasses or stumble over rocks, then find it again looking so incredibly obvious and innocent that you wondered how you lost it.

The fragility of the mountains created the main obstacles – huge boulder fields and sheets of gravelly scree from slips that cast stones and rock from the tops to the valley floor. We scooted past all this and over the saddle, down through a patch of beech forest, with only an occasional fierce gust of wind pelting us with raindrops, and then tear-shaped mountain beech leaves. We got half-way to Lake Ohau Lodge along the Alps to Ocean cycle way, before the bad weather finally caught us. The deluge sorely tested the adequacy of our wet weather gear, but it was only for an hour or less, and was much better than what we’d been anticipating, which was foul weather all day.

At the lodge we judiciously elected to take a budget room rather than camp and made good use of the drying room. The rain only worsened and the wind was bitterly cold – I  was overwhelmingly glad to be safe and warm in the lodge with its fire-lit lounge. At 4pm, the kitchen started serving nachos, and we were the first to order. It was $15 for a two-person serve. So many TAers had talked about these nachos, once again showing how different people have different perceptions of the same phenomenon. Unlike others, we did not find the plate so huge we couldn’t finish it (not at all), it was definitely vegetarian (one couple we talked to was convinced it was meat, proving the vagaries of memory and how easy it is to be inattentive to one’s meal) and it was very average, not worth a rave, unless you crave a mass of corn chips with a modest scoop of beans, melted cheese on the bottom of the plate and a mound of jalapeno peppers.

Disaster tourism experience: We walked through the aftermath of the large wildfire that torched over 5000 hectares around Lake Ohau in October 2020. We passed black tree skeletons and carbonised matagouri but the pestilent rose bushes survived, sporting bright green new leaves and oval orange and red rosehips. These rose bushes have been a laceration hazard since Arrowtown and look set to take over the world.

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