Lake Hawea to Top Timaru hut

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.

Lichens in shades of green

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.

Wanaka to Lake Hawea

Day 101 (Sun 28 Feb): Wanaka

Today I said goodbye to my dearly beloved Mountain Design gaiters, that have been my faithful tramping companions for many many years, protecting my legs from malicious undergrowth, my feet from sticks and stones and my boots from rain and sodden grass. I’ve been searching for another pair for a long time as they are coming apart at the front seam, the buttons are broken and the waterproofing has long since delaminated away. The independent tramping shop in Queenstown had a pair that looked similar enough to pass as a replacement, but I had to test them out in the field before I could part with my old faithfuls. The new ones turned out to be altogether adequate, performing well during river walking and against the scratchy high country plants (although nothing protects against the piercing tips of Spaniard grass, except maybe metal greaves). But I still think my old gaiters, my first ever gaiters, despite being ripped and battered, are the most perfect of all gaiters, the epitome of everything a gaiter should be. No other pair will ever compare. I’m not usually sentimental about material things, but I couldn’t bear to just throw them away; it would have been like tossing away my old friends. So I posted them back home to myself, to put off the difficult decision on how to end our relationship. Maybe my appreciation for my new gaiters will grow over the next few months, and I will be able to move on from the old. I’m open to this new relationship, but love can take time.

Day 102 (Mon 1 March): Wanaka to Lake Hawea

Started 7.45am, finished 2.20pm, 26k.

Pain in the head status: No headache today; sore feet instead.

Word of the day: Intemperance, lack of moderation, excess, gluttony.

We left Wanaka YHA in a light drizzle but this soon retreated, leaving overcast skies and intermittent sunshine by the afternoon. Overall, a lovely walk mostly on bike trails and gravel roads but my feet got a hammering. Our packs are full of food for the next section and my soles don’t like the extra weight.

The alternative Wanaka Instagram tree

The trail firstly took us along the Lake Wanaka shoreline, with its excess of rabbit holes, rabbit poop and mountainous views.

Then we reached the outlet of the Clutha River, that flows from Mt Aspiring glaciers through Lake Wanaka. The glacial sediments give it gorgeous shades of jade and its translucency meant we could easily spot trout cruising lazily above the river weed. Sleek black scaup and shags dove into its depths. The river is the second longest in Aotearoa but the largest by volume and it flows at a fair clip – 15k/hr, faster than my legs ever take me. I wondered what it would have looked like before Europeans arrived to plant poplars and willows along its banks.

We stopped at Albertown for morning tea, at the Pemberton Patisserie, renowned amongst TA walkers for sweet treats. In my intemperance, I ordered a cream donut and a cinnamon scroll, and did not regret it. The cinnamon scroll was divine, being a perfect combination of crunch and softness, with a dollop of vanilla custard on top, lathered with cinnamon sugar. I’m hoping all these carbs in my system will power me up tomorrow’s hill.

The highlight of the walk along Hawea river into Lake Hawea was watching some surfers on the river, trying their luck on an artificial standing wave. It looked cold and like you’d have to be a strong swimmer to pull yourself back to shore against the fierce current, but kind of fun.

We stayed at the hostel section of Lake Hawea hotel, which had grand views of the mountains surrounding the lake and supercharged showers which also served as head and neck massages. I liked the serenity of Lake Hawea but it is probably way too quiet for the hospitality sector. The recent lockdowns in Auckland have knocked the local tourism back apparently. We’re still doing our bit.

Advice to jokers: If you see a tramper wearing boots and a large backpack walking through an urban area with their hiking poles, don’t yell out at them, ‘Where’s the snow?’ They will look at you blankly and think you are an idiot.

Te Araroa Book Review

The pants of perspective, by Anna McNuff.

This book recounts the adventures of a British lass who ran the TA in 2015 from Bluff to Cape Reinga, taking considerably longer than Kiwi nurse Brooke Thomas, who completed the trail this year in 57 days and 10 hours. To be fair, Brooke was ‘supported’ (family and friends helped out with food and logistics) and on a mission to set a record and raise money for Heart Kids NZ; Anna was also fundraising but didn’t have dedicated support, although she came across many people who went out of their way to help her out, drive her around, feed her and put her up for the night.

I enjoyed reading about how she managed sections we’ve already done and her encounters with our doppelganger tramping couple Anthony and Fiona from Palmerston North, who were doing the South Island at the same time and took her under their collective wing. But her naivete had me hand-smacking-head at frequent intervals (like not taking a GPS and then getting lost in Longwood Forest; forgetting to fill up water bottles; running out of food); her need to hug everyone she met made me cringe; and I got the feeling that if I’d met her in person, I would probably have found her all a bit too much.

I was impressed by her (sometimes excruciating) honesty about the struggles and difficulties she faced on the trail. She was obviously able to cope with a great deal of physical discomfort, running marathon days with a pack weight of up to 20kg (what did she have in there??) and persisting despite some significant injuries. But her biggest challenge was a mental one – pushing through her anxiety and trying to hold on to her confidence and self-belief. I can certainly relate to that. I’m finding the mental challenge of this long distance walking to be far greater than I expected and even greater than the physical challenge.

So I was a little sad and disappointed that after all she’d been through, at the very end she was unable to overcome her anxieties about being alone and surviving in the wilderness. She elected to skip the Northland Forests, which she thought would be too hard, and ran on the roads instead. She listened too much to other people’s negative projections about this section, which fed her fear and meant she missed out on what should have been a highlight of the North Island – the magnificent and threatened kauri forest.

This got me thinking about what makes the trail ‘hard’ and how what each person thinks is hard is so subjective, depending on individual factors like past experience, fitness level, state of your knees (creaky knees don’t like downhills), what kind of terrain you prefer to walk in; and environmental factors such as the weather, the state of the trail, who you’re with (which could make things worse or better). Hard is not necessarily measured by the kilometres walked or the elevation ascended and descended. I think it’s better measured by your own state of mind, your expectations and openness to absorb whatever the trail brings. Hardness is a perception not a reality, in the sense that what one person thinks is hard, another will find straight forward and even for the same person, the same walk can feel hard one day but not the next. I’ve learnt to take what other people say about the trail ahead with a huge lashing of salt. No one else can predict for me how I’ll experience the trail on any particular day or section. You discover and tackle it for yourself. If Anna had learnt this before she finished Te Araroa, she might have found the courage to blast through the forests and discover they weren’t the stuff of nightmare after all, but the stuff of dreams and satisfied memories.

I salute Anna for feeling the pain and doing it anyway; and for facing the fear and doing it most of the time. She reminds me that we can have high aspirations for ourselves but it’s normal not to achieve them all the time. What we learn and how we grow on the journey is really the most important thing.

Roses hut (Motatapu track) to Wanaka

Day 99 (Fri 26 Feb): Roses hut to Fern Burn hut

Started 7.50am, finished 4.20pm, 16k.

Pain in the head status: No pain during the day but woke up around 10pm with a thumper. I’ve found these types of headache usually respond best to a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, but it was a long time since dinner and nurofen on an empty stomach for me is a recipe for a day or more of gastric pain. So I rummaged around the food bags for a muesli bar, glad that we were walking out to Wanaka tomorrow and that muesli bar wasn’t essential for getting me through to another hut. Eventually the headache settled down, leaving only the snorer in the top bunk to impede my sleeping.

Word of the day: Virago, woman of extraordinary stature; woman considered loud and overbearing.

After today’s walk along the rest of the Motatapu track, I retracted my anti-tramping declaration. The negative demon that inspired that meltdown was probably migrainous in origin and evaporated in the light of the new dawn.

This was possibly the most physically challenging walk of the trail so far, with three major climbs, and corresponding descents, interspersed with plenty of undulations, but the scenery was so stunning that it was a treat to discover what was opening out around us, when we could take a moment to look up from the thin goat track that would slip you down a steep slope if you mis-stepped. The weather was also close to perfect, with only a bit of low cloud early morning that soon burnt off to blue skies and a whisper of breeze. The terrain was barren and dry, in such contrast to Southland it was almost like being in another country. Mud on this track was rare but almost welcome because at least your boots stuck to it, unlike the dusty stones and sandy, crumbly dirt.

Scuttling skink

We checked out Highland Creek hut, which was beautifully set in a basin surrounded by craggy peaks, then pressed on to Fern Burn hut. Here we found a strange rookie tramper from Auckland who had just started this section of the TA. Everyone we had passed on the track had told (warned?) us about this fellow, Duncan, who had become notorious for his enormous pack, general ignorance about the trail (‘It’s flat after Wanaka’) and excessive amount of underwear. He unintentionally had me in near hysterics when he mentioned how he’d done a lot of tramping in Auckland; I pointed out there weren’t many mountains like the Motatapu track in Auckland, and he retorted, ‘There’s One Tree Hill.’ The hut then filled up with four viragos from Wanaka, which drove him outside, perhaps overwhelmed by their extreme confidence and noise.

North Island TA walker update: We came across the first TA walker from those we’d met in the North Island – the young runner Shay. He was on his fifth pair of running shoes but had had to take two weeks off with a knee injury. He was planning to finish the trail in about a week and complete 100k from Longwood Forest to Bluff in a day. I can’t imagine being fit enough to even contemplate such a feat. It’s taken months for me to be fit enough to do today’s 16k without complaining (not counting expressions of awe bordering on expletive at the sight of an upcoming ascent). But then, Duncan was as much in awe of our walk from Roses hut that day as I was of Shay’s running. I guess we can always find another person who is fitter and stronger and faster than us but it’s how you challenge yourself that matters, not how you compare to anyone else.

Fern Burn hut in the distance

Day 100 (Sat 27 Feb): Fern Burn hut to Wanaka

Started 8am, finished 3pm, 24k.

Pain in the head status: Developed a heavy throbbing headache in the night, not really a migraine, probably a hangover from the heat and sweat loss of the day. Drank some more fluids and took some regular painkillers and tried to sleep it away.

Word of the day: Zephyr, a soft, gentle breeze.

Today was supposed to be an easy day, a simple meander into Wanaka that would be a restful interlude compared to the big climbs of the previous two days. Ha.

The first challenge to this deceptive assumption of ease came immediately after we left the hut, where we launched straight back into the ruthless undulations that had characterized the day before as we followed a stream down a gorge through mixed beech forest. It was very pretty but not really easy.

But then we got onto a flat bit of farmland and road, and jumped across to Glendhu Bay at Lake Wanaka, where a biking/walking track scooted around the lakefront for 16k or so into Wanaka township. This was pretty easy, except that the sun was beating down, the temperature was set to sizzling and I was soon so wet with sweat it was like I’d just stepped out of the shower. An occasional tantalising zephyr was the only cooling feature.

Glendhu Bay

The last few kilometers were torture, as we could see the town just ahead, but it was still so far. All I could do was imagine the flavours of gelato and sorbet at the Black Peak ice cream shop. I ended up with apple pie and boysenberry, plus a litre of gatorade. I don’t think I’ve ever drunk gatorade before and I now know why not. It’s truly disgusting. But just what my sweat-depleted vascular system wanted.

My sweat-encrusted skin was screaming out for a shower so I made up for three showerless days by having the longest possible scrub down at the YHA where we had booked in for two nights. This seemed to be a major TA hangout (met a few other walkers here) but was otherwise noticeably quieter than when we’ve been here before. Still, there were plenty of people lining up to photograph the most Instagrammable tree in the world. I couldn’t be bothered getting the perfect shot – i just wanted my ice cream.

That tree, not at its best angle

Accomplishments: 100 days on the trail; two thirds of the way through the TA; a pair of boot insoles munted; 40 full press ups in a row.

Queenstown to Roses hut (Motatapu track)

Day 97 (Wed 24 Feb): Queenstown to Arrowtown

Started 7.25am, finished 2.20pm, 29k.

Pain in the head status: No pain. It feels like a long time since the last migraine. As usual, I have no idea why or what I’m doing right, that’s different from what I’ve been doing the last few months. I’ll enjoy the reprieve while it lasts.

Word of the day: Seiche, standing wave in an enclosed body of water. From the US National Ocean Service, seiches are typically caused when strong winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure push water from one end of a body of water to the other. When the wind stops, the water rebounds then oscillates back and forth for hours or days.

I learnt about the seiche on Lake Wakatipu at the Boatshed Cafe on the walk from Queenstown to Frankton. I’d never known why there were waves on the lake before. Or that the first person to swim the length of the lake (Ben Campbell-McDonald, a conflicted Scot for sure) took 18 hours and 42 minutes, but his first attempt was scuttled by the wind and seiche, which gave him motion sickness.

The Boatshed Cafe delivered a caffeine shot that propelled us along the shore of the lake, past the airport and through the spanking new Frankton shops. We crossed the lower Shotover river, which is apparently chocka full of gold, through lots of spanking new housing, and on to Lake Hayes. We had lunch by the lake, looking out towards the massive mansions on the other side, wondering how many of them were permanent residences and how many were holiday homes.

Lake Hayes

We finally left behind the heavy, overcast weather that had dogged us from Queenstown and started sweating in our socks as we traversed the opulent Millbrook resort, which comprises two 18 hole golf courses (one open only to members), luxury accommodation, fine dining, exclusive private housing and a super-duper spa. I’m not sure what makes a spa super-duper but $260 for 2 hours must be good. We passed lots of landscaping, maintenance and housekeeping staff doing their duties including a cleaning service called ‘A woman’s touch’ (excuse me while I barf). I was so overwhelmed by it all I almost got run over by a golf cart.

Once past the harrowing reconstructed Chinese miner’s settlement, which documented the hardships and discrimination experienced by the Chinese gold miners in the region, the little township of Arrowtown was unexpectedly delightful. Probably horrendous when heaving with tourists, it was just busy enough to be pleasant. We stayed in the heritage New Orleans hotel, sampled fudge and licorice from the Remarkables Sweet shop, had an ice cream and walked up and down the two short streets that made up the historic part of town, with buildings originating from the gold rush days. Fortunately, this didn’t take long and then I could rest my sore feet for tomorrow’s walk up into the mountains.

Reconstructed Chinese miners huts. Could be a run down Hobbiton
Tony tries for a late entry into the Otago Cavalcade

Sad sight of the day: Walking up to Millbrook, we came across a very distressed sheep pressed up against the fence, frothing at the mouth, hyperventilating, coughing and shaking uncontrollably. It looked terminally sick and I didn’t know what to do. It was horrible to see; but much worse for the sheep I’m sure.

Day 98 (Thurs 25 Feb): Arrowtown to Roses hut

Started 7.20am, finished 4.20pm, 23k.

Pain in the head status: Started the day fine but a migraine descended suddenly just before Macetown. I tried the ginger tablet, along with some Nurofen, and this did keep it at bay for quite a while, but it came back once we reached the hut. I took a migraine tablet, which knocked it back to a tingly throb in the left temple that almost disappeared when I lay down. I had no objection to a lie down at that point.

Word of the day: Apposite, strikingly appropriate.

It was cool and overcast when we set off from Arrowtown, starting off beside a stream that could have been in England, lined with willow, oak and rowan trees. But then we moved on to the appositely named Big Hill track, which passed through some beech forest but mostly brought us up into the bare, open, desert-like slopes that were the feature of the day. The cloud obscured views from the top of Big Hill, but we could look down over Arrowtown and Lake Hayes on our way up.

view from Big Hill

We saw plenty of pest control efforts, from aerial spraying of wilding pines to plentiful traps by the track (and yesterday, workers on the shore of Lake Hayes were feeding crack willow through a chipper, which might keep them busy for a few years, if they’re planning to eradicate all the willow in the area). The rabbits and goats were plentiful, though.

We had lunch at Macetown, which was briefly a booming gold rush settlement, plagued by difficult access, bitter weather and hordes of sandflies. Only a few stone walls, a couple of restored buildings, scattered mining paraphernalia and old English trees remained to mark its existence. The settlers must have planted berries, too, as we came across raspberry bushes laden with yellow berries, which we left considerably less laden.

The cloud finally lifted in the afternoon as we started on the Motatapu track and variously walked up/in/across the Arrow River, which kept our feet cool and cleaned my boots. Then it was a long steep climb up to Roses saddle (1240m), during which I emphatically declared my desire to give up tramping. But that was not immediately actionable, so we continued on and then dropped down to our accommodation for the night, Roses hut. This provided a stark and unavoidable view of the first hill of tomorrow’s walk.
The other trampers at the hut told daunting stories of what was to come – one couple (TA walkers) took 12 hours to reach Roses hut, stumbling in some time after 7pm. The TA notes suggested this section might take 9-10 hours while the DOC times were wildly pessimistic and unhelpfully vague, positing a total time of anything from 11 to 16 hours. But everyone’s different. Another TA walker blasted past us around 4pm, cruising uphill barely breaking a sweat, intending to reach Arrowtown that night. I bet he did, too, and was sucking up beer and burgers while I was fast asleep in my sleeping bag.

Tomorrow’s first climb

Greenstone hut to Queenstown

Day 95 (Mon 22 Feb): Greenstone hut to Queenstown

Started 6.50am, finished 9.55am, 12k.

Pain in the head status: No pain but tired; didn’t sleep well for no identifiable reason. Everything feels harder when you haven’t slept so well.

Word of the day: Elysian, of or like paradise.

We were up early, eating breakfast and packing in the dark, as we had a 10.15am pick-up from the Greenstone car park, and the estimated time to walk out was 3-5 hours. It was only just light enough to walk without a torch through the beech forest, but the track was wide and clear, not like the other forest tracks so far. Whoever made this track had obviously heard about track grading and even made use of switchbacks. Such novelty.

Tony tries out some log lifting

It was a pleasant walk, almost over too quickly, and it certainly didn’t feel like a full day’s work. We got dumped at Glenorchy for over three hours, waiting for a connecting shuttle to Queenstown, something we weren’t told when we made the booking, otherwise we might have taken the afternoon ride and saved ourselves the pre-dawn wake-up. We did at least have a large leisurely lunch and a wander around Glenorchy, which could be described as elysian, being only 13k from Paradise, encircled by majestic mountains and neighbour to some spectacular Lord of the Rings film locations.

The drive to Queenstown along the shores of Lake Wakatipu was also beautiful, almost making me wish there was a track we could walk here to take in the scenery. I checked out the road – virtually no verge and winding in places – not good for walkers (although we saw one brave or foolhardy soul trudging along some miles from town). This section to Queenstown is not deemed to be part of Te Araroa – you are supposed to find some alternative, possibly magic, way to hop from the end of the Greenstone into Queenstown, which is east of the Greenstone at sort-of the same latitude.

I just had enough energy to walk to the supermarket to buy breakfast supplements for tomorrow (fruit and yoghurt to make our porridge ultra delicious), then duck into town for some naan bread and samosas to supplement our dinner (we had extra dehy meals to use up), then it was time to crash. Ah, pillows.

Day 96 (Tues 23 Feb): Queenstown

These days off are supposed to be rest days but we still managed to walk 12,000 steps, according to my phone’s tracker. A better description might be planning, maintenance and food-seeking day.

Today’s food seeking included Ferg’s Gelateria and Patagonia Ice Creamery. Enough said.

TA update: Last TA season there were around 1,200 registered through walkers (unknown number unregistered) with 80% of them international visitors. This season, through walkers are mostly Kiwis – reportedly more than three times as many Kiwis as the previous year. By my calculations, this amounts to over 750 Kiwi through walkers (plus some more international walkers). I thought this was a surprisingly large number for such a trip in such times. No wonder we are meeting so many TA walkers along the way.

Funny story of the day, from the Radiolab podcast: The Swedish military spent over a decade during the Cold War convinced that Russian submarines were invading their waters. They monitored the coast around Sweden and whenever their radar picked up the ‘typical sound’ of a Russian sub, they would dash out with helicopters and drop bombs on the site, hoping that bits of broken sub would bob up to the surface. But that never happened. After years of this, the military finally allowed some civilian scientists to investigate the submarine ‘typical sound’ – and discovered it was nothing to do with nautical trespassing. The noise came from the collective farts of huge schools of herring fish. Fish farts fooled the armed forces.

When not to walk Te Araroa

Warning: You might want to avoid walking Te Araroa in the following circumstances

If you don’t like bugs – crawling on you, biting you, flying into your food, flying into your mouth, riding on your pack or hat or sunglasses; or if you don’t like the feel of walking through spider webs and having sticky threads floating around your face. Most memorable bug experience so far was when a blow fly dive-bombed into my dinner and drowned itself in the sauce. It was lucky I saw its death dive as the dinner was a black bean curry and I could easily have mistaken its corpse for an extra bean.

If you don’t like cows. The TA North Island is a bovine bonanza. It should be avoided if you are afraid of cows staring at you, stalking you, charging at you, charging away from you, licking you, mooing at you or doing any other inscrutable farm animal behaviour.

If you are squeamish about the sight and smell of death. Seeing animal bodies in varying stages of decomposition and eviseration is so common it becomes unremarkable, serving merely as a marker as to what creatures are most abundant in different regions (e.g. rabbits, possums, hedgehogs, finches); or what native species may be doing well enough to get squashed by traffic on roads (e.g. pukeko, frogs) or not doing well and being washed ashore on beaches (e.g. blue penguins).

If you have a grass allergy. I only had one bad day of hayfever in the North Island but a hiker we met had such a bad reaction to an overgrown grass track that his face swelled up and he developed hives all over his body. A supply of antihistamines is a necessity.

If you need a flush toilet for your ablutions. You need a hardy disposition to tackle some of the long drops in the back country- especially those that have not been emptied for a while and have become alarmingly short drops. Also alarming are the flooded long drops that have far too much splash for comfort. The buggy long drops do not encourage lengthy visits, especially when the bugs can bite. In such circumstances, only the bare minimum of exposure is tolerable and you risk having an incomplete and unsatisfactory evacuation of the alimentary tract.

If you can’t sleep with snorers. It’s inevitable – you’ll end up stuck in a hut with someone who spends the night mimicking a freight train. Or even if you’re tenting, you’ll hear the freight train from the tent next door. There’s no point complaining- break out the ear plugs and think about how delightful it is that at least someone (the snorer) is having a beautiful sleep.

If you have a fear of heights or swing bridges – including three-wire bridges. There’s no way to get across some rivers without these; and no way to get over some mountains without navigating scree slopes, precipitous ridges and dizzying descents. Those with vertigo, be warned.

Te Anau to Greenstone hut (Mavora track)

Day 93 (Sat 20 Feb): Te Anau to Boundary hut

Started 10.25am, finished 2.35pm, 16k.

Pain in the head status: No pain as such in the morning but fuzzy headed and dopey. By the afternoon, was dopey and heavy eyed, so took a Nurofen, tried a ginger tablet and had a nap before dinner. That seemed to fix me up.

Word of the day: Taradiddle, small lie, fib.

We were picked up by the backroad bus at 9am and dropped off at North Mavora Lake at 10am, allowing us to skip many kilometers of dusty gravel road and get straight to the good stuff – lakes, streams and mountains. On the way, the bus driver pointed out a small reserve of bog pine, wedged in precariously between the sheep and cattle farms. This bog pine was the indigenous flora of the area until the farmers burnt it off. Apparently the only other place in the world that has this type of vegetation is Siberia. Sad and rather pathetic that this wee slice is all that’s left.

Carey’s hut

But we had to thank the farmers for the great views today, having cleared the trees for grazing so we could see right across Lake Mavora and up the valleys to the mountain peaks above. We stopped at Carey’s hut for lunch, a lovely hut but probably too accessible by boat and vehicle to make it a peaceful Saturday night accommodation. Even Boundary hut, where we ended up, was at the end of a rough 4WD road. Two blokes on motorbikes were there when we arrived but they moved on, leaving us to share the hut with two trampers from the West Coast – Mark, a burly Welshman with a military background, and Hank, a wiry ex-DOC ranger.

Boundary hut

None of us were impressed when three 4WD vehicles turned up in the evening, disgorging a slew of beer-swilling young people in search of a place to have a BBQ. We all emitted strong anti-BBQ vibes, concerned that it was parties like these that had smashed one of the windows in the hut, blocked the long drop and ripped up some of the flooring. After watching them carry on for a while, Mark put on his most intimidating authoritative air and sallied forth to tell them that he was a police officer and drink driving on these roads was an offence. This was a taradiddle as he has been but is not currently a police officer, but it seemed to help them to move quickly on.

Finally, we could enjoy the serenity of the mountains. The moon sailed over the head of one as we ate our dinner. Its jagged ridges looked like the spine of some massive monster, resting with its back to us, its tail trailing into the valley floor and a terrible craggy face pointed to the west. Tomorrow we walk past this monster and beyond, to discover more.

Fun fact of the day (from the podcast Every Little Thing): Wombats poo 100 times a day. Imagine how disruptive that would be in an office job. Even more peculiar, their poo is cubic not cylindrical because of the way the muscles in their bowels are arranged. No one really knows why wombat poop cubes, but it’s a great challenge to dream up some theories.

Disappointment of the day: Opening our lunch wraps to find they were all mouldy. We hadn’t been able to find our usual Farrah’s wraps at the supermarket in Te Anau so had bought a different brand. Never again – from now on, it’s Farrah’s or crackers. The more preservatives the better…

Day 94 (Sun 21 Feb): Boundary hut to Greenstone hut (Greenstone track)

Started 7.50am, finished 3pm, 22k.

Pain in the head status: No pain, feeling good.

Word of the day: Taciturn, silent, reserved.

Trying to get up early is more difficult in the south of the South Island, as the sunrise is much later than in the North. But we did our best to get going so we could avoid walking in the scorching sun that afternoon, which meant we started walking with frozen fingers and toes. But we soon warmed up when the sun peeked over the Thomson ranges in the east.

We left the 4WD track behind and got back into tramping track zone, sloshing through bog, pushing through tussock and trying to escape the acquaintance of New Zealand’s evil plant of thorns, matagouri. From the scratches on my legs, it still got to know me, despite my best efforts at avoidance.

Evil matagouri

The landscape unfolded like an onion of mountains- you peel past one layer to reveal more mountains, then past them are some more, then in the inner layers are snow-capped peaks.

We had lunch at Taipo hut, an unvandalised replica of last night’s Boundary hut, with sweeping views and an empty water tank. From there, it was more walking up the valley, alongside translucent, ice-blue streams, until we popped into a mountain beech forest that gave us shade and shelter from the strong northerly blowing in our faces. Although the groaning and creaking of the branches in the wind made me think the forest wasn’t a place to linger.

We were passed by two solo male taciturn SOBOs, who declined to talk to us, but Greenstone hut was full of regular (non-TA) chatty trampers, desirous of long conversations about dehydrated food, search and rescue operations and how long it would take to drive from Queenstown to Mavora Lakes. I retired early for some quiet time.

Greenstone hut

Wildlife highlights: Striped skinks on the rocks darting away; sand-coloured crickets leaping madly from under our feet, crashing haphazardly beside the path.

Lower Princhester hut to Te Anau

Day 91 (Thurs 18 Feb): Lower Princhester hut to Te Anau

Started 7.05am, finished 8.20am, 6k.

Pain in the head status: No pain and a beautiful sleep. I read an article today about how ginger capsules can work well in treating migraine- I’ve never heard of this or tried them, so bought some from the pharmacy at Te Anau and they are now in my pharmacopoeia (collection of drugs).

Word of the day: Martinet, very strict disciplinarian or stickler for rigid regulations.

I somehow managed to delete my blog post from Colac Bay to Merrivale (apologies to those who commented on it – I do appreciate your comments!) Reinstating it was a bit of a palaver and to prevent such confusions again, Tony has become the blog martinet, only allowing me to download photos for the blog under strict conditions, when they are about to be attached to the text. We’ll see if his rules avert any more blog mishaps.

As for the trail, we had an easy stroll from Lower Princhester hut to the highway leading to Te Anau, where Tracknet transport picked us up around 9am. We were the only passengers on the bus and the driver quizzed us about the Te Araroa and told us that it was only kiwi trampers that were keeping his bus company going; the others who relied on foreign tour groups were struggling, with the number of bus trips dramatically slashed. This is the time to visit Milford sound without the crowds.

We could take everything and the kitchen sink!

We hung out at the best cafe in Te Anau, the Sandfly, until our cabin at the top 10 holiday park was ready. Then it was the usual round of clothes washing, showering, spreading out our gear all over the room, checking out our food supplies, grocery shopping, looking at emails and messages, getting up to date on the news, finding dinner. After all that exhausting activity, it was time for an ice cream then off to bed.

Day 92 (Fri 19 Feb): Te Anau (rest day)

We are doing our best to avoid this Fiordland experience

We had wanted to add on the Routeburn track to our Te Araroa trip, as Tony has only done part of this before- I’ve done it twice but it is one of my favorite walks so I would happily do it again. This isn’t part of the TA as in usual times the Routeburn huts and campsites are booked out months in advance. But in COVID times, it looked like we could snap up a campsite at short notice. However, when we checked the weather, heavy rain was forecast for the exact dates we would be on the Routeburn – and camping. My camping philosophy is that if one can avoid tenting in the rain, then this will make me a happy camper. We put off the Routeburn for another time, sticking to the TA trail proper, which meant we could get out to Queenstown before the rain started. With that plan in place, we booked in transport, since the trail leaves us stranded at the end of the Greenstone track. After all that planning, a chocolate brownie from the Sandfly cafe was in order.

Cafe life

My trail angel moment: On the way to Telford campsite, we passed a SOBO walker who asked me to look out for the white cup she’d left behind at Aparima hut. She seemed very attached to it so I brought it out with me to Te Anau and posted it on to her home address. I’m certain she’ll get home before the cup does though, given past experience with NZ Post. It can take two weeks for a parcel from Wellington to reach Auckland – what about a parcel from Te Anau to Takaka? I’m betting a month….

Tony uses the day off to learn how to make model motorbikes from pull tabs

Telford campsite to Lower Princhester hut (Takitimus)

Day 89 (Tues 16 Feb): Telford campsite to Aparima hut (Takitimu ranges)

Started 7.45am, finished 4.45pm, 21k.

Pain in the head status: The migraine amnesty continues which is amazing. When I have a run of migraine-free days like this, I feel like a different person, full of energy, able to think clearly and focus. Life seems effortless. I wonder if this is how ‘normal’ people feel all the time and whether they fully appreciate what a gift it is.

Word of the day: Tocsin, an alarm bell, warning.

I was a little worried about the amount of rain bouncing down on the tent in the night, but it cleared away by morning. We had an overcast start to the day then blue skies and sun. We started by friskily bounding up 600m up to the Takitimu tops, inspired by expansive views down the valley we had walked up and then across and into the mountains. An excellent track through stunning beech forest down to Lower Wairaki hut lulled us into a false sense of security, that the track onwards would be similarly easy. We wanted to skip a hut and make up for the day lost to bad weather in Colac Bay.

So we walked on and my appreciation of the forest began to wane as the track started to challenge my legs. Questions arose. Why do tracks dive down to every stream and gully then launch straight up the other side with no consideration to gradient? Do track makers moonlight as torturers?

I tried to squash down these negative contemplations by thinking about the extra food we could now eat since we had skipped a hut. To be honest, this was a major motivation to do this long day, so I could eat more. Muesli bars have never been so appealing.

The final kilometers of the track broke out from the bush into a marshy river plain with more inspiring views, that gave me the final burst of power to reach the hut. This was already under occupation by Kiwi inquisitorial duo, Colin and Damon, and a German who had developed a taste for Marmite in New Zealand and put it on his boiled egg for dinner. The Kiwis also originated from Wellington, much like the majority of people we have passed on this section – if there was a contest for which region of NZ had the most TA walkers this year, Wellington would be way in the lead.

Sunday’s cell phone tocsin alerting us to the latest COVID-19 threat got us thinking that our vague plan of hitching out from the end of the track into Te Anau might not be allowable under level 2 restrictions. Tony researched trail pick up options. He had also saved a screenshot of 2 degree phone coverage so knew we could phone out tomorrow near the next hut. What a legend.

Aparima hut(s) – can you see it…

Disease of the week: Birchwood Mosquito Pox. That’s what I’m calling the dozens of bites all over my shoulders, arms, back, legs, even one on my belly. My blood will have bred a new generation of militant mosquitoes ready to ravage any other TA walkers brave or stupid enough to stay at Birchwood station.

Day 90 (Wed 17 Feb): Aparima hut to Lower Princhester hut (Takitimu ranges)

Started 8.15am, finished 4pm, 16k.

Pain in the head status: Was excessively tired when we got up this morning, to the point where I was walking with my eyes half closed wishing I could have a nap. Then I started getting a tingle on the left side of my forehead and it dawned on me that there was more to this tiredness than met the eye – it was part of a migraine prodrome. Sometimes I get this heavy dragging fatigue before or after a migraine that makes you want to instantly go to bed, but if you do, you can’t sleep. It’s like carrying around a lead blanket. I tried to ride out the migraine but it ramped up when we had to pull ourselves up a saddle to exit the Takitimus. The magic migraine pill knocked it back.

Word of the day: Wabbit (Scottish), exhausted or slightly unwell.

I was wabbit today but I enjoyed all of the walk until the last couple of hours, where the track deteriorated into a nasty slog up through twisty forest. But before that, it was quite an easy and beautiful walk alternating through tussock plains and beech forest. It started out very cold, with our first frost of the trail, and we needed our wet weather gear to stave off water from the drenched grass, but this dried off quickly once the sun rose over the mountains.

It turned out to be a glorious day, the best Southland has put on for us so far. We took it slowly to soak up the views, and had protracted breaks in the sun to work on my gaiter tan line, an attractive browning of the leg from mid-calf to above the knee. Tony attentively waited for me when I lagged (which was all the time), especially when the tussock became more than armpit height or obscured holes and bog on the track. But I’m sure I turn my ankles more on farmland than on mountains. All you do on farms is curse the cows – either for rutting up the paddocks so you tumble around in hoof holes or for not being in the paddocks so the grass is so long you trip and can’t see your feet. Either way, the cows can’t win. We finished the day at Lower Princhester hut, not far from SH94, where we will be picked up tomorrow morning and taken to Te Anau, for resting and feasting. Nice hut by a stream and we had it all to ourselves so were not disturbed by snoring, rustling or farting trampers – except us.

What’s wrong with this sign? Is DOC unable to do arithmetic?