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

Waiau Pass track

Day 132 (Wed 31 March): Anne hut to Waiau hut 

Started 8.20am, finished 2.45pm, 26k.

Pain in the head status: No head pain. Also sleeping exceptionally well – the insomnia disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.

Word of the day: Dubeity, doubtfulness.

There was definitely some improvement on the gastric front this morning with no aches and pains overnight, although I still needed to take anti-nausea tablets. At least I was able to think about food without revulsion. Fortunately it was another easy hike, mostly flat and following a 4WD track for two thirds of the way.

We soon diverged from the St James walkway onto a virgin track again, the Waiau Pass track. This way our boots have never trod, these vistas we’ve never seen, these sandflies we’ve never fed, this grass we’ve never watered. It was stunning, a fitting introduction to the beauties of Nelson Lakes National Park.

Where did that rock come from?

Once again, the weather we experienced cast dubeity onto the forecast, as it was supposed to rain but we had to crack open the sunscreen at lunchtime. We did get a shower just before dinner but by then we were safely ensconced in the 6-bunk very new (officially opened 2018) Waiau hut, undertaking an eradication of the sandflies inside so we could eat unharrassed.

Waiau hut

I have to say that although the sandflies are annoying, I do seem to have become partially immune to them. When they bite, it might itch and burn for 10 minutes or so (or it might not bother me much at all) but then it fades away. I might be left with a small red dot on the skin but more often no mark at all. At the beginning of the trip, I would develop welty lumps after being bitten which would itch for days. I kind of thought sandfly immunity was a myth but I’m losing my scepticism. That doesn’t stop me squashing them at every opportunity though. There aren’t enough native birds to keep them in check so I have to do my part.

A few of the thousands of geese around here

Note on Waiau hut: This was built due to a donation from retired Timaru farmer Robert Birks, who wanted to give something back after years of excellent hiking experiences in these parts. It cost $155,000 which seems like a bargain given its stellar location and million dollar views. I suppose the river crossings to get here might put some people off. And the sandflies. And the long drop. And the lack of Wi-Fi. No Netflix, no internet, only the hut book and an Ernest Hemingway novel to read. It’s awesome.

Day 133 (Thurs 1 April): Waiau hut to Blue Lake hut

Started 8.25am, finished 4.30pm, 15k.

Pain in the head status: Woke up around 6.30am with a stabbing pain in the neck. I thought it might be pillow related but then I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to take my hormone replacement pill last night- the pill that I take to prevent hormonal migraines. After kicking myself, I took the hormone pill then took a migraine pill, after twigging that the neck pain was a migraine. I’m not sure how this habit I’ve been keeping for months (taking a pill in the evening) suddenly drops out of mind one night. But fortunately, the pain disappeared by the time we started walking and the rest of the day was pain-free.

Word of the day: Pusillanimous, timid, cowardly or irresolute.

Where we would have stayed without the new Waiau hut – thanks Mr Birks!

It was misty and overcast in the morning, but not raining, not windy and not too cold so we set off to tackle Waiau Pass (1870m). Waiau Pass has the reputation of being one of the hardest days of the trail – for us, 1000m up with rock scrambling and climbing to get to the top, then a steep drop down scree and boulders to Lake Constance. The weather forecast predicted the clouds would clear so we hoped this would hold true and not turn out to be an April fool day joke.

Happily, the forecast was spot on. We walked up the noisy boisterous Waiau river, wetting our feet in it far too many times, until we reached the upper forks of the river. This trip has severely diminished any pusillanimous attitudes towards river crossings.

We sidled up beside a waterfall and had lunch before tackling the steep climb. As we climbed, the clouds lifted and the sun appeared, fully illuminating the rugged toothy peaks in all directions. Waterfalls gushed off the slopes wherever we looked. The worst part of the climb was having feet frozen from the icy river crossings, so I couldn’t feel my toes. Otherwise, the rock climbing was kind of fun.

On the other side of the pass, we looked down on the green-blue jewel of Lake Constance, in a bowl of spectacular mountains. Then past this, the crystal clear Blue Lake, embraced by mountain beech forest. Blue Lake has some of the clearest water in the world, transparent to a depth of 70-80m, as if it had been distilled. The challenge is to keep it from being tainted by hikers who pretend to be unable to understand the signs asking people not to wash themselves or anything else in the water.

Lake Constance

Blue Lake hut was quieter and pleasanter than the last time we had visited on a trip over Moss Pass. At that time, it had been raining and the hut was full to capacity, mostly with annoying ultralight SOBO TA walkers who were waiting at Blue Lake hut for the weather to improve, not having any wet weather gear to go over Waiau Pass because of their ultralight ethos. There were only three other hikers this time – two Kiwi TA section walkers and a French through hiker, none of them annoying or ultralight, happily. The hut warden that was supposed to be patrolling the hut apparently got airlifted out by a rescue helicopter this morning with her child so we had no new weather update. But we know what’s ahead- we’re back on a track we’ve done before so it feels safe and known.

Blue lake/Rotomairewhenua

Astronomical highlight: The night sky was so clear that before the moon rose i could see hundreds of stars. The last thing I saw before closing my eyes was Orion’s belt from the window beside my bunk. Priceless.

Blue lake hut

Boyle River and St James walkway

Day 128 (Sat 27 March) and day 129 (Sun 28 March): Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre

After consulting three different weather forecasts, we concluded that the best days to get over Waiau Pass and Travers Saddle, the two main obstacles in the section ahead, were Thursday and Saturday. We adjusted our itinerary accordingly, checked our food rations and booked in another two nights at Boyle, as there was no accommodation available at Hanmer Springs, the nearest township (apparently there was a festival on) and reckoning it would be nicer to stay at the outdoor centre than sit out an extra day at a hut. We could do washing, charge the battery pack, use flushing toilets and become acquainted with the bean bags.

We also had some more unexpected food bonuses. We got to raid an abandoned TA food box, which supplied us with noodles, flavoured couscous, nuts, peanut butter and oats. I did some creative cooking, making a kind of banana fritter pudding from the remaining very ripe bananas, flapjacks from the oats and satay noodles for dinner.

Flapjacks and cooked apple

There was also a group of adventurous women staying for the weekend, climbing high ropes, jumping off a waterfall, camping out and abseiling. One of them generously shared her delicious baking with us and another left us salad, avocado, cheese and a corn cob for lunch. We ate very well, taking our role as reducers of food waste and consumers of anything unwanted very seriously.

Before our Wi-Fi allowance expired, I found a photo of us on Instagram. I’m pretty sure this is the only such photo in existence, not being an Instagram aficionado. Check it out here:

Trauma of the night: We were just getting ready for bed when we heard a series of bangs from the direction of SH7 outside. Peering out the windows into the rain, and seeing the traffic slow to a standstill, there was clearly some kind of incident. Tony used the emergency phone in the kitchen to call 111 given there was no cell phone service around this area. I have to confess that I then fell so deeply asleep that I didn’t hear the rescue helicopter come and go, nor someone come knocking to find a place for people to shelter, nor anyone leaving before we got up. In the morning, we could see an incapacitated car on the side of the road in the distance, dented on the side and roof as if it had rolled.

Day 130 (Mon 29 March): Boyle Village to Boyle Flat hut (St James Walkway)

Started 8.30am, finished 1.20pm, 15k plus 2k detour.

Pain in the head status: No head pain.

Word of the day: Flocculent, having or resembling tufts of wool.

I woke up in the night with some bad stomach cramps and in the morning felt achy all over like I had a virus. But I had no fever and although was nauseated, I didn’t feel like vomiting so we carried on along the St James Walkway, for an easy wander along the Boyle river to Boyle Flat hut. We had previously walked the St James, although from the other direction, so I knew the next two days would be straightforward.

The walkway predated Te Araroa so had swingbridges instead of dropping us in the river which was delightful. We took a short side trip to visit Magdalen hut, which was a compact but sweet hut with great views up the valley.

Magdalen hut

The beech forest was in noticeably better condition than the forest around Lake Sumner, which was denuded and devastated by deer browsing. This forest had a healthy undergrowth of young saplings, moss on the ground and flocculent lichen on tree branches.

To distract myself from feeling sick, I undertook a photographic documentation of fungi on the track. Most of them looked very unappetizing but then I was not at all interested in food. It was the first day I had to force myself to eat, knowing that I had to, rather than counting down to the next meal break.

It was a relief to reach Boyle Flat hut where I had a nap until another TA hiker turned up – Jana from the Czech republic. We had met her briefly on the Deception river, doing the Goat Pass as a day walk. She brought news of Duncan, the hiker from Auckland we had left behind at Hope Kiwi Lodge. He had booked a bus from Hanmer Springs to Christchurch and had ended his TA journey (for now). We had tried to persuade him to keep going but maybe after taking our advice to walk 29k in a day, he no longer trusted our judgement.

Boyle flat hut

I had another nap before dinner and was settling into a final  post-dinner/pre-bedtime nap when a couple of DOC workers turned up. One of them was in the DOC group that left food in Hamilton hut so she was very pleased to know we had devoured it with gratitude. We were also able to express our approval of the new comfy blue mattresses in Boyle Flat hut, by far the best mattresses ever found in a backcountry hut, and in a fair number of urban dwellings I’ve stayed at.  

Very rare signage – rarer than a blue duck

Day 131 (Tues 30 March): Boyle Flat hut to Anne hut (St James Walkway)

Started 8.10am, finished 1.50pm, 15k.

Pain in the head status: No head pain.

Word of the day: Borborgymi, stomach rumblings.

I was still not feeling well in the morning but a little better, although I continued to produce long, resonant burps that sounded like elephant borborgymi. I checked my bodily fat stores – I’ve lost quite a lot of weight but still have special reserves on the upper arms and thighs. I figured these could get me to St Arnaud even if my digestive system failed to function effectively.

It was a cold morning but turned fine and sunny, the forecast afternoon rain never manifesting. After spying a stag from the hut window last night, it was no surprise to find deer poos on the track, but also an enormous amount of geese poo; with a fair share of pig, possum and horse (from horse trekking). It was like being in some kind of open air zoo, almost as bad as walking through farm paddocks.

After trekking through grassy flats, a bit of beech forest, over a small saddle and across some bridges, I was happy to reach Anne hut and relax in the sun. This was a large, newish hut, built in 2011 to replace the previous hut that had burnt down due to someone’s careless placement of wood ash from the fire. Some hikers we know have told us about how they arrived at the old Anne hut to find a smouldering ruin and were forced to shelter in the woodshed. There was no need for a fire tonight – it was ridiculously cosy inside.

Anne hut

Harper Pass – Part 2

Day 126 (Thurs 25 March): Hurunui No 3 hut to Hope Kiwi lodge

Started 7.30am, finished 4.10pm, 29k.

Pain in the head status: For no good reason, I had the worst  insomnia I can remember on this trip last night. I caught up on a lot of podcasts, including a fascinating investigation into how the UN were responsible for an horrendous cholera outbreak in Haiti not long after the devastating earthquake there, and an in-depth analysis of a UK COVID-19 case study, which suggested how the virus might mutate and new variants arise in immunosuppressed patients. But the insomnia took a toll – I had a thumper of a headache for most of the morning, worse when walking uphill, of which there was an annoying amount. Meds to the rescue. I was much better in the afternoon. If I don’t sleep tonight after all that exercise, there is something seriously wrong.

Lake Sumner with geese

Word of the day: Spruik, to promote a thing or idea to another.

The morning started with a flock of Canadian geese and a herd of Hereford cows having a contest to be the loudest mammal in Hurunui. The cows won, but not by much. I’ve heard it said that nowhere in Aotearoa is more than 100k from the coast; I would not be surprised if nowhere is more than 50k from a cow.

Hot springs. The green slime was a nice outdoorsy touch. I blame the steam for the blurry photo

The highlight of the day was finding the geothermal mineral hot spring pool, about halfway between Hurunui No 3 hut and the confusing similarly named Hurunui hut 5. Tony stripped off for a soak but I just put my feet in. A hot bath not long after breakfast didn’t seem right. I only have hot baths when I’m sick.

A helpful swingbridge took us over the Hurunui river, saving our boots from a drenching, so this was a damp foot day rather than a wet foot day. We then circled around the top of Lake Sumner and up over Kiwi saddle. At some point here we heard a stag roar and I suffered a bout of over-imaginative paranoid thinking, wondering where the hunters were and whether they would accidentally shoot one of us; what would I do if one of us got shot; I really should have bought a  high-vis pack cover; it would be such a bummer to get shot this close to finishing Te Araroa. Fortunately, we stopped for afternoon tea, which distracted me from my dismal ruminations.

As it happened, Hope Kiwi Lodge (aka Sandfly Blood-letting Station), our accommodation for the night, had two deer hunters in residence; two more later turned up and they told us of pig hunters down in Hope Valley. So my paranoid fantasies were not unfounded. One of the hunters even said, ‘It’s a dangerous time to be in the bush.’ Incidentally, none of the hunters were suitable husband material.

Hope Kiwi Lodge – more like a house

Just before 7pm, Duncan staggered triumphantly in, having done his first 11 hour, (nearly) 30k day. We had spruiked the walk to Hope Kiwi lodge as a way of avoiding the rain forecast for Saturday, so it was strangely gratifying to see he actually did it. We were all in bed before 8pm; the hunters were out sitting on hills watching for bucks – the two older ones had shot as much meat as they could carry out but were now after a well endowed head.

Challenge of the day: I set myself the goal of squashing 50 sandflies before I could eat dessert (a generous eight squares of Whittakers almond chocolate). 50 was too low a target – I easily got to 100.

Day 127 (Fri 26 March): Hope Kiwi Lodge to Boyle Village 

Started 7.15am, finished 2.05pm, 26k.

Pain in the head status: I woke up around 3am and after an hour or more I finally accepted that the pain in my head was a migraine and I wasn’t going to get back to sleep unless I treated it. It’s funny how it takes so much longer to figure these things out in the bleary dark hours. I lay awake for a while longer until the meds started to work, feeling sorry for myself – another emotion that gets exaggerated at night. Just because I have a bad night doesn’t mean I get to have an easy day. In fact, this was going to be a full-on day as we had 26k to walk to reach Boyle Outdoor Education Centre before 3pm, which was when the office closed on Fridays. We had a food parcel there, and had booked accommodation and if that wasn’t motivation enough had pre-paid for a pizza for dinner. A pizza each. There was no way we were missing that.

Word of the day: Canorous, richly melodious.

We were up before dawn to make sure we met our pizza date that night. We were up so early we had to wait for the light to brighten enough for us to walk in. We got to admire a densely starry sky and Mars winking redly on the horizon.

For some reason, probably because of the inadequate track description in the trail notes, I was expecting a flat and fast  walk down the Hope River, maybe with some bog and river stones to skip over, but nothing strenuous. What a fool I was. Te Araroa doesn’t do a flat trail when it can take you up and over a hill. We spent more time climbing and looking down on the Hope River than strolling alongside it.

We had some special and new sounds to accompany us. In the morning, it was gunshots ricocheting around the valley. As protection, Tony wore his high-viz buff on his head and I tied my bright red raincoat to my backpack. In the beech forest, the hum of wasps pulsated in the background like a sinister tinnitus. But we also were serenaded by canorous bellbirds, singing choruses in small flocks.

Hope Halfway hut where you hope you’re halfway but you hope in vain

We had a brief break at Hope Halfway Hut, which wasn’t halfway to anything I could distinguish and where we mostly walked around in circles doing high kicks while scoffing a muesli bar to escape the sandflies.

Random twisty tree

Finally, we could see the end of the track at Windy Point carpark, which was actually a very windy point so more aptly named than the Halfway Hut. We crossed a swingbridge over a beautiful gorge to get there in time for lunch.

The big decision at this point was whether to try and hitch a ride to Boyle Village (another poorly named location as there is no village and no one named Boyle) or walk 10k on the road (SH7) to get there. This is where our personalities are revealed. I might have taken a gamble on hitching if I was on my own, as single women usually get picked up quickly, even unwashed disheveled older women like me. But for two of us, it would take longer to get a lift. If we walked, we were certain to get to the outdoor centre before 3pm. If we hitched, we might get there a lot earlier but there was a chance we might not get there at all. We took the hard but certain option. We’re not gamblers, obviously.

249k to Nelson

Tony set a gruelling road pace and I occasionally had to go for a jog to catch up but we reached the centre in record time and just in time to take our pick of leftover food from a group that had departed. We scored half a loaf of bread, hummus, a packet of home made vegetable stew, a pot of sour cream, milk, gala apples and bananas. And half a dozen iceberg lettuces, but I passed on those. Hungry through hikers will eat almost anything – but lettuce doesn’t have enough calories to bother digesting.

Roadside mushrooms. Fortunately we had pizza to look forward to

I didn’t know what to expect at the outdoor centre but we had a small bunkroom to ourselves, run of the large kitchen and lounge area, stacks of Wilderness magazines to read, Wi-Fi (but no phone service), and a much needed hot shower. And the anticipated pizza. What more could we want.

Harper Pass track – part 1

Day 124 (Tues 23 March): Morrison footbridge to Locke Stream hut

Started 8.30am, finished 4.10pm, 23k.

Pain in the head status: The migraine hiatus seems to have ended as I woke up feeling headachey and nauseous. I tried out a new anti-nausea pill (not ‘new’ as in a recent invention; an old one I haven’t used before) along with my standard anti-headache artillery and it worked – migraine resolved and migraine pill avoided. Migraine is like the rat problem we have in Aotearoa, you pull out all the stops to eradicate them but they just come back, more determined than ever to make their home with you.

Word of the day: Stipule, outgrowth on the base of a leaf stalk characteristic of coprosma.

In summary, today I was tired. Tired of river crossings and squelching along in wet boots, tired of rocks tripping me up and slipping underfoot, tired of unmarked routes and washed out tracks. The braided rivers in Aotearoa may be unique and special but they are a plague on trampers who just want a nice clear path that doesn’t change every time a storm comes through.

But after a rough morning, the track did improve, to an actual path along grassy flats, only occasionally throwing us back into the river or across a spit of gravel. The morning mist cleared and we could see mountains. I passed a plant and a botanical thought came to me – those leaves have domatia and the leaf stems have stipules, so it must be a coprosma. That’s as far as my plant identification went, but I was pleased to remember something from the plant books I lugged around the North Island.

As well as tired, I was sore. My shoulders ached – the front of the shoulder where the bicep tendon runs over the ball of the joint. It was discombobulating and almost funny how a new and unexplained pain could take up all my attention, diminishing the old familiar pains. Why had this suddenly developed? What did it mean? When would it go away? What should I do about it? How would I sleep tonight with two painful shoulders?

It was a relief to get to our home for the night, Locke Stream hut, rather pungent inside from a recent successful rat poisoning mission, but large and warm and of historic significance, built in 1940 from hand-hewn timber. It was almost a relief to find that something smelled worse than our boots, even if this was a mixture of dead rat and old rat’s nest. We were reunited with Duncan from Auckland, who had skipped the section between the Rangitata and Rakaia rivers and had caught up with us. He had stories to tell – buying a walking pole and losing it down a river, falling into another river, losing toenails, spending two extra days at Top Timaru hut because of bad weather. He was having a great time.

Passing by Kiwi hut

Disappointment of the day: The boot sole strap on one of my new gaiters broke, rendering it useless. My old gaiters never let me down like this. Now, not only is one tender leg exposed to the hazards of gorse and hook grass, my gaiter tan line will be more pronounced on one side than the other, looking doubly ridiculous.

Day 125 (Wed 24 March): Locke Stream hut to Hurunui No 3 hut

Started 8.30am, finished 3.15pm, 15k.

Pain in the head status: The first full-blown migraine I’ve had for a long time came on in the night. A migraine tablet was needed and again in the morning. But the tablets worked and by the time we were on the trail, the pain was mostly gone, leaving me a bit dopey and weak for an hour or so. Maybe yesterday’s tiredness was partly a migraine prodrome.

Word of the day: Piffle, talk, writing or action regarded as inconsequential or nonsensical.

Yesterday’s crises were passing fancies today – my shoulders felt inexplicably better and Tony, ever practical, suggested a remedy for my broken gaiter – remove the boot strap entirely. This worked so well I wondered why there was a boot strap at all.

View from Harper Pass

We climbed over the Harper Pass/Taramakau saddle this morning. This route was upgraded and huts built along it in the 1930s, when it was proposed to be a popular hike in the vein of the Milford Track. It never succeeded, which is hardly surprising since it ends (or begins, depending on which way you walk it) on a river on the West Coast which is frequently impassable.

This western side of the track was a little rough – no namby pamby bulldozed ex-farm track or boardwalk to this saddle. It was in true TA style – a couple of slips, overgrown, a bit of windfall. But once on the other side, past the tiny but tidy Harper Pass Bivouac, the track improved significantly, mostly an easy stroll through forest and grass flats near the river.

Harper Pass Bivouac

There have been so many rivers in the last few days, I was having difficulty remembering which one I’m walking in, or beside, or over. Yesterday, we crossed the Otira to walk up the valley of the Taramakau river (and went through that one many times). This morning we passed over the headwaters of the Taramakau and picked up the Hurunui river on the other side. This afternoon, we slid across Cameron stream on our first three-wire bridge of the trip. So much fun.

We trod through some dried up cow pats and horse poo and I started thinking about all the research activities I could have done if I’d thought of them at the beginning of the trip. A bovine scatological survey could have been interesting, noting all the different textures, fluidity and content of cow pats throughout the country – I could have done an observational study of the sun safety habits of walkers. I have been horrified by the number of people with beet red burnt faces walking under a blazing sun with no hat on. But I’ve only now realised what an opportunity I’ve missed in not interviewing all the men we’ve come across to see if any would be a suitable husband for a friend in Wellington. All this piffle about me and my migraines when I could have been doing something useful for someone else. There’ll be slim pickings over the next few weeks – the number of walkers is declining.

Cameron hut

False hope of the day: When I took my boots and gaiters off, I thought I saw calf muscle definition in my lower leg. I was just about to crow excitedly about it to Tony when I realised it was just the line left from the elastic in my sock, which I’d pulled up higher than usual today. So disappointing.

Hurunui No 3 hut

Mingha Deception track

Day 122 (Sun 21 March): Klondyke corner to Goat Pass hut

Started 8.20am, finished 1.50pm, 12k.

Pain in the head status: Not quite 100% today. Left side of head sore when I woke up and had that dragging migrainous tiredness. I took some simple analgesia with breakfast (and the possibly-placebo-but-no-harm-done ginger tablet) and slowly improved during the day. Successfully avoided taking a migraine tablet – love that. If I had been using them as frequently as I did in the North Island, I would have had to get a repeat prescription by now, but I still have oodles in reserve.

Word of the day: Pertinacious, stubbornly or perversely persistent.

A cold misty morning was not enough to deter the pertinacious sandflies at Klondyke corner so it was a relief to get moving and pick a way along the Bealey river, which sort-of-but-not-really had a track to take us to a bridge where the Bealey joined the Mingha river. Not a bridge for us though – we had to cross the river, the first of many crossings, and the start of another wet feet day.

We were on the route of the annual 2 day multisport Coast to Coast race; the mountain run section which takes participants up the Deception river, over the Goat Pass and down the Mingha river. We were doing it in reverse, up the Mingha and down Deception, and over two days. The fastest Coast to Coast runners do it in three hours. Although, they aren’t carrying eight day’s food (plus extra muesli bars – Tony’s food bag is bulging) and their homes on their backs. Some TAers do walk or run this in a day, leaving their packs at Arthur’s pass (blue haired Tasha did this, no sweat for her after the 100k in 24 hour challenge she did in the North Island – walking from Whanganui to Palmerston North). We did consider it, but it was too much trouble to organise. And we had an excess of food so needed to take it slowly in order to eat it all.

Mingha bivouac

And it turned out to be a glorious day to go over the pass. In the morning, the low cloud lent a mysterious, cloaked atmosphere to the river and forest, but by lunchtime at Mingha bivouac, the sun was winning.

Approaching the pass, the Alps revealed themselves – if Aoraki is the heart of the Southern Alps/Tiritiri o te Moana, then these mountains of Arthur’s pass must be a solid piece of intestines. It felt like we were deep in the bowels of the ranges.

We’d heard lots of complaints about this track, how it was difficult and slow with too many river crossings, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it was just a regular backcountry track. I kept having visions of the Coast to Coast runners bounding over river boulders, skipping across tree roots, skating down gravelly flats and pounding down the board walks. Yes, board walks. The sign of a high quality tramping track. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a board walk I became overexcited and took far too many board walk photos.

It was early in the day when we reached Goat Pass hut, but we stopped anyway, so we could start lightening our packs by eating. There could be worse places than this to spend a lazy afternoon.

Goat pass hut

The blog that could have been: Getting out in the wilderness brings one back to the essentials of life – eating, sleeping, pooping. Get these things sorted and your body is happy. This blog has focused on how tramping affected my migraines, and vice versa, but it could have been called tramping with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is another issue I have – part of the ‘irritable body’ cluster of conditions that includes migraine. I could have provided a daily update on my gastrointestinal state (frequency, consistency etc), but I’m guessing most people wouldn’t want to read about that. Let me provide a potted summary of my tramping with IBS experience – out in the wilderness, with a strictly controlled and un-triggering diet, the bowel runs smooth and regular. Out in towns, eating anything, everything and then some, trouble occurs. The pattern is consistent; the moral is clear. Towns are bad for bowels.

View from Goat Pass hut

Day 123 (Mon 22 March): Goat Pass hut to Morrison footbridge

Started 8.20am, finished 3.30pm, 15k.

Pain in the head status: No headache today; woke up refreshed after a sound sleep, eager to start.

Word of the day: Moxie, nerve, determination, courage, verve, spirit.

After today, I can kind of understand why this track attracts so much hate from some TA walkers – there was a lot of very slow boulder scrambling, stream crossings and those going uphill would have to add a lot of huffing and puffing on the steep sections  – but all downhill for us.

But although it was tiring and hard (and not recommended for people with dodgy knees or ankles, or dodgy anything), I enjoyed it. The Deception river was mostly bluster and froth and wasn’t difficult to cross – only one rushing channel before a small cascade made me temporarily lose my moxie. The steep bouldery bits could be navigated in a variety of ways depending on the gradient, slipperiness and assessment of risk of smashing something if you fell off – the usual two-pole approach, or poles in one hand and other hand used to brace on a rock closer to the ground, and finally, the bum slide. Or front slide, as another variant. These were quite fun. It was a bit like rock climbing- using four points of contact and balance/counter balance to shimmy down the side of the river. The smooth solid stones were comforting to touch.

The flora and fauna were also distracting. Such a diversity – Dracophyllum, olearia and ribbonwood still flowering. Bellbirds, kea and kereru. On the flats before the road, podocarps, kanuka, horopito, red beech. I’ve forgotten the last time I saw a totara.

And some way down the river, there was a pungent sulphurous smell that for once wasn’t due to Tony’s intestines reacting to a muesli bar. A thermal hot spring was marked on the map. We kept checking for hot water but didn’t find it.

Finally, we reached the Morrison footbridge by SH73, where we set up camp for the night. The wet feet could be dried off – but very quickly, as the sandflies latched onto any exposed bit of flesh like locusts on a corn field. We watched the trains chug by – one of them hauling 30 coal carriages. Before we went to sleep, we heard a kereru crash through the trees then coo contentedly when it found a roost, heard ruru hooting and lots of kiwi calling out to each other – I’m awake; here I am; where are you?

First graffiti of the trip: At Upper Deception hut, a small hut an hour and a half from Goat Pass hut, people had scrawled quotes from the Lord of the Rings movies on the wall. There were none from my favourite character, so that had to be rectified.

Are you frightened? Not frightened enough! (Strider/Aragorn)

Bellbird checking out my whistling

Methven to Arthur’s Pass

Day 119 (Thurs 18 March): Methven

Pain in the head status: Woke up with a slightly stabbing headache after a long luscious sleep but it came right with breakfast and a dose of ginger and Nurofen. There might be something in these ginger tablets after all.

Word of the day: Edacious, having to do with eating or fond of eating.

Our stay in Methven was primarily taken up with edacious pursuits and checking the weather- all looking good for the next week or so. We ate hot cross buns and Lindt chocolate bunnies so we don’t miss out on Easter treats. Eating a bunny felt both juvenile and vengeful against all the rabbits we’ve seen running riot on conservation land.

Day 120 (Fri 19 March): Methven to Hamilton hut (via Lake Coleridge and Harper Village)

Started 11.15am, finished 4.15pm, 18k.

Pain in the head status: Head feeling good.

Word of the day: Peripeteia, sudden reversal of fortune.

From Methven, we had to find a way over the Rakaia river to Lake Coleridge, where the trail started again. Transport options were limited but the accommodation owner kindly dropped us at the start of the road to Lake Coleridge, besides a fancy golf course. Here we stood and waited for an hour or so, trying to hitch a ride, getting despondent as the cars rolled past us.

View from the other side of the Rakaia river

Our peripeteia came in the form of Andrea, who was on a mission to detoxify from electromagnetic energy by spending the day at Lake Coleridge. She checked us out, decided we looked trustworthy, and offered us a lift to the far end of the lake, at Harper Village, which meant we could skip a day of walking on gravel dusty road and hop straight onto the Harper river track. This was an unexpected and delightful bonus. We told Andrea stories about Te Araroa and she shared her knowledge of the area and maybe the satisfaction of helping out a couple of strangers will have enhanced her detox experience.

Harper River

To add to our good fortune, it was a stunning cloudless day, just the weather to be walking up a valley with a multitude of river crossings. The trail was mostly following a 4WD track so was pretty easy although my legs grumbled as they always seem to do after a day off. It was a pleasant change to see some different vegetation- toi toi, mountain beech, ferns – alongside the ubiquitous briar rose and matagouri. And see more birds- black shag, fantail, robin, grey warbler, tomtit.


Our hut for the night was Hamilton hut, which was palatial and luxurious compared to the musterer’s huts we’d been staying at. A new wide deck, wood panel floor, sandfly-proof door, an inside water tap and sink, 20 bunks. And only one other person to share it with – blue-haired TA walker Tasha.

Joy of the day: Some DOC workers had been doing hut maintenance (they passed us going out in two 4WD vehicles early afternoon) and wrote in the hut book that hungry TA walkers could help themselves to the food they’d left behind. We definitely qualified so immediately consumed the half loaf of Burgen bread with blackcurrant jam, transformed our dinner with the fresh tomatoes, added the muesli to tomorrow’s breakfast ration and squirrelled away the box of crackers. I feel sure there will be a day in our near future where these will be exactly what is needed.

Hamilton hut

Day 121 (Sat 20 March): Hamilton hut to Arthur’s pass (Klondyke corner)

Started 8.20am, finished 5pm, 23k.

Pain in the head status: Migraine remission continues.

Word of the day: Montane, of inhabiting or growing in mountain areas.

The morning was misty and a little drizzly but we were mostly walking in montane beech forest so protected from the damp. We were on the Cass Lagoon circuit today (although only doing the Lagoon half of it), quite a popular weekend tramp with locals so it was fortuitous we missed being at Hamilton hut on this Saturday night.

It was an excellent day of hut bagging, if we ever wanted to make a goal of visiting all 900 or so backcountry huts in NZ. On our way up to Lagoon Saddle, we had morning tea at West Harper hut, with canvas bunks and canvas looped over the ceiling, suggesting a leaky roof; we had lunch at Lagoon Saddle shelter, another A-frame hut but not as warm as the one in Hakatere conservation park; then checked out the unnamed hut over the creek, that DOC recommended staying at, but it was even colder and not as attractive as the A-frame one.

There wasn’t a great view from Lagoon Saddle, with the clouds drooping over Arthur’s pass, but we bagged one more hut on the way down to the road (Bealey hut). Then, by the time we got to Bealey hotel (a few kilometres from the track end on SH73) the sun was finally making an appearance. We had a food parcel at the hotel, which filled our packs to capacity, but there was no room at the inn (except overpriced backpacker rooms that had a 2 night minimum charge – utter rort) so we elected to keep walking SH73 to Klondyke corner campsite.

Sprinting across the Bealey bridge with a full pack was a jarring experience but meant I could take a nice photo of the Waimakariri river at the passing bay in the middle of the bridge, where we stopped for a breather.

Unique road side trash of Arthur’s pass:  Wet wipes, scattered generously over the kerbside vegetation. Strangest trash was the leg of a Barbie doll and a large grey faux mink blanket.

Double hut to Rakaia river and Methven

Day 117 (Tues 16 March): Double hut to Comyns hut

Started 8.25am, finished 3pm, 16k.

Pain in the head status: No pain.

Word of the day: Epigore, inferior imitation.

The day dawned fine and clear, the wind and rain having disappeared in the night. It was a steady climb for three hours, climbing up and over folds in the earth, with the usual thrashing about in tussock, ripping our way through matagouri and scanning the land for the next marker pole. The dead speargrass flowers sometimes fooled me – sticking straight up like a waratah, but a misleading epigore.

After crossing three easy scree slopes, we reached Clent Hills saddle (1480m). We could look back across to where we had come from and marvel at how long it takes to walk this country. Looking down to where we were headed, we could see the earth creating clouds – vats of steam rising from the river valleys, being sucked up into the air to form huge wafts of cumulus.

The cicadas were clacking loudly, as if applauding the sun, and the crickets were leaping wildly, celebrating the warmth. We sat in the sun on the saddle, until a chill wind drove us down the other side, to the Round hill creek, then the north branch of the Ashburton river. I’d read that there were over 40 river crossings in this section, with wet feet guaranteed. Our boot-gaiter defences kept our feet dry until the Ashburton river, then it was gumboot-slosh time, but the crossings were easy and it was a sweet beautiful wander down a gorge, sheer rocky outcrops fringed with greenery, mountain peaks peeking out through the clouds.

We arrived at Comyns hut, a tin can of a shelter, to find it already occupied by Dennis, a TA section walker from Auckland, who had the latest results from the America Cup, that neither of us cared about. We set about wringing out socks and boots and gaiters, ready to get wet again tomorrow.

27 river crossings to go

Reflection of the day was on the marvel of skin; how it is completely waterproof, unlike my wet weather gear, how every time a scratch or bruise heals is a small miracle, how it quietly spits out thorns from under its surface. I also pondered why the skin on my legs was as dry and scaly as a shedding lizard whereas Tony’s legs were perfectly smooth as if he’s been following some secret moisturizing routine.

Comyns hut

Day 118 (Wed 17 March): Comyns hut to Glenrock Stream carpark (Rakaia river) and Methven

Started 8.25am, finished 2.55pm, 16k.

Pain in the head status: No pain again.

Word of the day: Oneiric, of or pertaining to dreams.

A light frost on the ground this morning explained why it was so cold in the tin can overnight. It was the first time I’ve walked with my down jacket on for the first half hour or so, until my fingers and toes regained some feeling. We felt sorry for Dennis, starting out the day with 40+ frigid stream crossings, with no sun until at least 10am, then wet feet all day. This section is better walked NOBO – we only had wet feet for an hour yesterday. Points to us.

Once we warmed up, we had another nice rambly slow day, with lots of sitting down to enjoy our last muesli bars, wraps and plastic cheese. At A-Frame hut, we sat in the sun and read the hut book; at Turtons saddle, we watched the karearea soar across the hills, one of them sweeping down to eyeball us, so close we could see the flecked pattern of its feathers. The view down to the plaits of the milky pale blue Rakaia river and the alps was spectacular.

A huge pack of day walkers passed by, willing to give us a lift to Methven, but we had booked a pick up on the school bus at 4pm at the Glenrock stream carpark – hence the lazy  approach to the day. One of them even told us where she lived in case we needed a place to stay. People can be very generous.

Just before the car park, we passed another TA walking bus – seven SOBOs, five of whom we’d met in the North Island. After much mutual congratulations and discussion of the trail ahead, they began their trudge up the saddle and we ended our saunter down in the car park, where the wind was so fierce we huddled behind the DOC track sign, as the only shelter. It was pretty exciting to see some native trees though – kowhai and ti kouka/cabbage trees – the first native trees we’ve seen for days.

It was 4.30pm before the school bus disgorged its load of children and picked us up, and an hour to Methven, during which I dreamed of a hot shower and undehydrated food. The last few nights, my oneiric sleep has been dominated by random images of food – Boston buns with pink icing, slabs of chocolate, platters of cheese, lamb shanks (ew). As soon as we were clean, we beelined for the Indian restaurant for dinner (guaranteed to be highly calorific) and then the Four Square for breakfast supplies.  

Tramping lesson from this section: Water from streams with didymo taste disgusting, like dirt, even after filtering. Boo to didymo. I hope my insides don’t grow brown snot like these south island waterways.

Mt Potts carpark to Double hut

Day 115 (Sun 14 March): Mt Potts campsite to Paddle hill creek camp

Started 9.05am, finished 2.50pm, 15k.

Pain in the head status: No pain today. Had over an hour of lying awake from about 1.30am, but caught up on some podcasts and eventually drifted back to sleep. The poor sleep did make me lethargic and fuzzy in the head by the afternoon, but it didn’t amount to anything.

Word of the day: Peregrination, travel/wanderings from place to place.

Spot Edoras -the little lump above the line of trees

In our peregrinations, we have passed near several locations in the The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. This morning, the sun shone down on Mt Sunday a few kilometres from our campsite – the setting for Edoras in The Two Towers. It looked much smaller and less significant than in the movie, making me appreciate Peter Jackson’s vision as a director to see how this little pimple on the landscape could transform into Rohan’s seat of power.

Love seeing those cows in the river

We were doing this next section to the Rakaia river slowly over four days so there was no need to get up early or rush. The first point of interest was a sign at the start of the track, aimed at the SOBOs coming towards the Rangitata river. This warned they would be trespassing if they attempted to cross the river and, in fine New Zealand hunting tradition, which is known to disregard the mandate to ‘identify your target’ in cases of inebriation, inexperience or over-excitement, they may be inadvertently shot.

Pleased to have escaped both being trespassed and hunted, we set out to enjoy a leisurely day, taking lots of long breaks to sit and admire the views. We were close to Lake Clearwater, which had an unexpectedly large settlement, predominantly holiday homes, all off grid – but no cafe, sadly. The sky was pale blue and cloudless and lots of people were out day walking, hiking, cycling, even running; flying kites on the lake edge.

Then that was behind us and we were on an old farm track from the times when this area was Hakatere station. It has been conservation land since 2007 and the tussock is starting to regenerate – more so than on the Clearwater side, where our shuttle driver Wayne pointed out land that had had no stock on it for ten years but still looked like a barren brown desert.

Lake Clearwater

We found a lovely campsite by a burbling creek, tucking the tent into a flat spot fenced by spiky matagouri. We spotted a hawk overhead, scouting for prey, and silvereyes diving through the matagouri. It was remarkably free of sandflies (although they discovered us the next morning).

Musical interlude: Across the Motatapu track, which was created by Shania Twain and her husband as a condition of their land purchase, I avoided an ear worm of That don’t impress me much or Man I feel like a woman; past Royal hut, I did not think about Lorde, but here, in the sweeping expanse of tussock surrounded by craggy wild peaks, it seemed fitting to plug in to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings. The haunting melodies combined with the awesome scenery made my throat ache.

Day 116 (Mon 15 March): Paddle hill creek camp to Double hut

Started 8.15am, finished 1.50pm, 24k.

Pain in the head status: A bit headachey overnight thanks to a disturbed sleep from the wind whipping around the tent, but feeling fine by morning.

Word of the day: Mount weasel, false geographic feature on a map to prevent copyright infringements.

We woke to a glorious sunrise, with the clouds and hills painted bright orange, rose and gold. It was the best background to my morning toileting ever.

We were motivated to walk quickly today due to the weather forecast of heavy rain from the afternoon and 90k/h winds at 1000m (we ended up around 900m). Fortunately, it was a fast easy track, mostly on old farm tracks or back roads, but the wind did its best to slow us down. It whipped into our faces so I was almost bent double, pushing forward on my poles, then blasted us from the side, so I would stagger around like a drunk.

One Tree Ridge

At Maori/Ashburton lakes, a notice board informed us that this used to be a place for harvesting tuna (eels), kaka, kereru and other birds. Today, there is nothing for the birds – nothing to eat, nowhere to shelter, no native tree in sight, just a barren wasteland (except where irrigation has allowed some fields to grow stock feed). I would love to see how this area looked before it was burnt off for farming.

Maori lakes

We had lunch at Manuka hut, a welcome respite from the wind and another cute ex-musterer’s lodging, then pressed on for another hour and a half to Double hut. This is notable for a bit of graffiti on the wall that may or may not be from New Zealand’s most famous mountaineer – clearly also a man of few words if this is all he could be bothered to write.

The most unpleasant aspect of the hut was that it had a mirror, which was a horrible shock. I really didn’t want to know what my hair looked like after so many days without a wash or a brush.

The promised rain arrived later in the afternoon, along with two other TA walkers, Mark and Tim, two hardy southern men who entertained us with Canterbury tales. In the interest of helping Mark to lighten his pack, we ate two of his BIG gingernuts, which made the Griffins version we’d picked up in Mt Somers as an afternoon tea treat look like baby biscuits.

Puzzle of the day: The Te Araroa online trail notes only occasionally offer advice about water sources but there was a special bullet pointed note for SOBOs that the next reliable water source from Manuka hut was 17.3k away (at the creek we camped beside). This caused me much bemusement. In between the campsite and Manuka hut, we crossed over a major river on Buicks bridge, a minor stream on another bridge, walked alongside another stream lined with willows and passed by several lakes. It was hard to fathom how none of these could be reliable water sources. The only explanation I could muster was that this nonsense piece of advice was like a mount weasel of the trail notes, but the reason why eluded me.