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.
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.
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.
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.
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.