Stone hut to Mt Potts car park (Rangitata River)

Day 113 (Fri 12 March): Stone hut to camp by Bush Stream roadend (near Rangitata river)

Started 7.55am, finished 3.50pm, 16k.

Pain in the head status: No headache today.

Word of the day: Blepharospasm, eyelid twitch.

For the first time in ages, I didn’t sleep very well, thanks in large part to a shooting pain in my hip that decided to visit in the night, after being quiescent for months. So I was tired when we got up, which manifested as an intermittent blepharospasm of my left eyelid, usually a sign that my eyes wanted some more time being closed. But the trail notes said we had nine hours of walking ahead of us, so I was unable to oblige them.

When we left the hut, the world was layered in mist, which persisted while we dropped in and out of streams, sought out the infrequent track waratahs to find the wandering track through the tussock and climbed over a 1500m saddle from which we could see still more mist, hiding the 2000m peaks we knew were around us.

Two kea flew over to check us out, screaming wildly, which could have been: ‘Greetings! Welcome to our world!’ or ‘You stink! We can smell you from here!’ and later, we heard them overheard, probably yelling disbelief at how little we had travelled in the intervening hours.

Still, we reached Crooked Spur hut for an early lunch, described in the online TA notes as ‘tired’. It certainly wasn’t as pleasant and spacious as Stone hut. Pipits peeped and clattered over the roof but I was glad to leave as it was cold. The other wildlife sightings were of enormous hares, which bounded away then stopped and stared down their noses at us as if to say, ‘You can’t catch me!’

Rangitata river misted over in the distance

It was a steep drop down to Bush Stream, which was the waterway which marked our route out. The TA notes states the stream ‘crossings are straightforward in normal flows but can be tricky after rain or during spring when the stream is fed by snow melt. Take extreme care at these times.’ It’s difficult to know how any kind of care will get you across a swollen stream. Of all the indecipherable track advice in the online TA notes, this might take the cake.

The first crossing was stronger and more challenging than the Ahuriri River, although that river was bigger and wider, which didn’t bode well. We took a diversion track over a ridge to avoid a gorged section, and met two trampers coming the other way who alerted us to the difficulty of the crossings ahead. We soon understood why their legs were scratched and bleeding as the track marched us through thickets of matagouri and finished blindly at an impenetrable wall of intertwined coprosma.

Bush stream from above

The next two crossings were right at the limit of what was possible for me to pass, with the current so strong it took all my strength and concentration to inch my feet across. At another section, I couldn’t cross and ended up executing an utterly stupid rock climb and dirt crawl above the swirling stream, the sort of idiocy I would scoff at in other people. I did find evidence of other idiots having done a similar climb though, with broken tree branches and scuffed ground, but it took a long sit down, a muesli bar and a cuddle for the hyperventilating to pass.

After this, the crossings were easier, with the stream breaking up as it spread through the gravelly valley. We passed another nine people trying their luck on the stream – and then a tenth, a hunter, who popped up out of nowhere at around 5.30pm, just as I had finished my afternoon stream wash and was changing into my ‘clean’ clothes. It always seems to be that way. You are alone in the wilderness, having not seen a soul for days, but the moment you take your top off, or drop your pants for a wee, some stranger will immediately come around the corner.

Camping out at Bush stream

The sun had pushed through the clouds by the time we got to the stream so once all the crossings were behind us, we camped out on a flat sandy patch among the river rock. It was calm and warm and just what we needed after the afternoon drama. We squeezed the water from our boots and propped them up to dry and ate every bit of chocolate we had left.

Day 114 (Sat 13 March): Bush Stream roadend to Mt Potts car park (Rangitata River diversion)

Almost a zero day, as our only trail walking was from our camp by Bush Stream to the car park, where we were picked up at 10.30am, 3k. Dropped off at Mt Potts carpark and campsite at around 5pm.

The big Rangitata river diversion

Pain in the head status: Slow burning migraine over the course of the day, eventually aborted with a migraine tablet. Just as well we weren’t doing much. Probably a consequence of yesterday’s panic attack. My head doesn’t like emotional stress.

Word of the day: Pecuniary, pertaining to money.

Wayne from alps2ocean shuttled us from the southern to the northern side of the Rangitata river, one of the two large braided river systems in Canterbury that we have to dodge. We drove through Mesopotamia station, so we could remind ourselves what sheep and cows looked like, in case we’d forgotten. We had a few hours in Mt Somers, mostly spent making pecuniary transactions at the general store, first for supplies for the next section, then lunch and ice cream, then afternoon tea.

Wayne told us stories about Bush Stream – how a French hiker had camped in the toilet at the road end for three nights because he didn’t have a tent but was desperate to follow every step of Te Araroa, even through flooded rivers; how Wayne had fished out three packs from the stream and discovered they were from a group that had tried to get up to Crooked Spur a few weeks before but had taken off their packs to cross the stream and the packs had been washed away. He pointed out an alternative route that led up to Stag Saddle – if I would do this again, I’d definitely go that other way.

After Wayne dropped us off at Mt Potts carpark, we set up camp and admired the sun on the mountains, slapping at the occasional sandfly. Mt D’Archiac made a snowy triangle on the horizon, which feeds Godley river that drains into Lake Tekapo. It was sobering to reflect that it had taken three days of walking to get around to the other side of it. In bed by 8.30pm – another Saturday night on the trail.

Potts river looks so clean

Drinking issues: I drank some water from Potts river before I realised there were cattle wandering freely along the banks. I hope the bovine ablutions don’t upset my stomach.

Woohoo- signage!

Roundhill ski area to Stone hut

Day 111 (Wed 10 March): Roundhill ski area camp to Camp Stream hut

Started 8.20am, finished 10.20am, 7k.

Pain in the head status: The hiatus continued- until the afternoon. I had just calculated that it was almost a fortnight since the last migraine and was reflecting that I hadn’t had a break like this since…I don’t remember. Maybe years. Then a weary heaviness came over me and a dull throb began over one side of the forehead. At least I got to try out the ginger tablet- alongside the usual ibuprofen. It did lift after a lay down but the weariness persisted. Hoping for a decent night’s sleep. It was so mild I’d like to discount it, but it should probably still qualify as a migraine of sorts.

Word of the day: Subfusc, subdued colours.

Sadly, the weather forecast was correct and we woke to rain. The clouds made for a subfusc landscape, the bright golds, greens and deep browns of the tussock, flowering grasses and earth muted by the mist.

The rain was light but enough to saturate everything it could get into in the short time it took to reach our refuge for the day, Camp Stream hut. Tony soon cranked up the fireplace and we spread our wet gear over every possible hook and beam to dry out. This was a private hut, built in 1898, but with an excellent supply of firewood, relics of nights warmed by alcohol and a mousetrap. Considering how much wood we burnt, a bargain at $10 each.

A quiet nero day of waiting – for the next meal, for our clothes to dry, for any other trampers to turn up, for the weather to change. The meals came and went, the clothes dried, two other trampers turned up (Mark and Ken) and the weather cleared and brightened by early evening, unexpectedly as a cold front was forecast until; but it closed darkly in again a few hours later. There was nothing to do but wait and see what the morning brought.

Idiot prize of the day: Awarded to me, for burning the sleeve of my down jacket against the flue of the fire. Patched up, I’m really starting to look like a HOBO.

Mouse trap tally: three mice, one finger.

Day 112 (Thurs 11 March): Camp Stream hut to Stone hut (Two Thumb Range)

Started 8.05am, finished 4pm, 20k.

Pain in the head status: No pain today, slept away the remnants of yesterday’s headache.

Word of the day: Bellwether, leader of a movement or activity.

It was worth the wait for the weather. Cold clear skies greeted us as we left the hut, to start the climb to Stag saddle, the highest point of Te Araroa (1925m). There was no rain and no wind and it was easy going apart from one sweaty slog up a rocky peak. We were rewarded with magnificent views across to Aoraki and the Southern Alps and down to Lake Tekapo.

Mark from last night’s hut had told us there was a group of eight or so SOBOs to come – which he disparagingly described as the ‘walking bus’, a collection of individual SOBOs who had spontaneously banded together. We heard them before we saw them, hooting and cooing from the saddle and from the crest of a high point just off the trail.

By this time, we had ascended into cloud which cut off our alpen views and were scooting along a scree slope on a very obvious and fast path. We were surprised to find trampers emerging from the mist above us, where there was no path, picking their way painfully and cautiously over the loose rock. Maybe they had not seen the very clear cut path in the cloud? Maybe they were on a scree sidling challenge? Maybe the bellwether of the group didn’t know where he was going and the rest blindly followed? They passed us by without much comment, concentrating on their footing.

After lunch at the saddle, we dropped down sharply to Bush Stream, which started as a placid gurgle we could step across to a knee deep boot wetting flow. We passed by Royal hut, so named after Prince Charles and Princess Anne flew in for a visit and a cuppa back when they were young things.

On the throne at Royal hut, wearing my buff crown

We ate our afternoon muesli bar inside and were glad to be leaving, with all the scampering about in the ceiling. It was nearly two hours on to our night’s lodging – Stone hut, another old musterer’s hut with a stone side wall and fireplace (but no wood).

Stone hut

The track had been tough going for the end of the day, buried in tussock which hid deep, ankle-twisting holes and sought to trip you up by tangling its long leaves like tentacles around your boots. My legs, surprisingly, had not begun complaining by the time we reached Stone hut, but my mind was fatigued from the constant vigilance in finding a safe place to plant my feet. The dry bristling rustle of brushing past tussock may yet become the sound of nightmares.

We were all alone at the hut tonight. Not even a mouse for company. I liked the quiet and the cute hut, which was first built in 1862. This was destroyed by an avalanche and replaced – rather oddly, in the same place. Oddly, because there were rocks from a landslide just metres from the hut door. I wouldn’t want to be here in winter.

Tahr heads at Stone hut

Scary thigh award goes to the blond deadlocked German who camped out on Stag Saddle overnight so he could watch the sunrise over the Alps. He was so thin he looked like an anorexic model with calves wider than thighs. It was a wonder he was still standing, and so cheerfully.

Lake Tekapo to camp near Roundhill ski area

Day 109 (Mon 8 March): Lake Tekapo

We spent the morning planning how and when to get across the Rangitata and Rakaia rivers, both large braided river systems that Te Araroa does not cross, designating them as ‘hazard zones’ and leaving hikers with the quandary of how bespoke get around them, as the nearest bridges are miles and miles and miles away. Many people do ford the Rangitata, but there was a lot of rain forecast in the headwaters so we decided not to bother trying. We’ll support the local transport operator instead.

We also found an outdoor store in Lake Tekapo, only three weeks old and so new it wasn’t even listed on Google. They had a lovely long sleeved icebreaker to replace the one I left at Lake Ohau – a little heavier and warmer than my old one, which might be a blessing in a few days if the weather forecast is accurate.

Chores done, we enjoyed the almost tourist-free ambience and managed to photograph the Church of the Good Shepherd and the sheepdog statue without any other bodies present. This is definitely the time for a quiet tour of Aotearoa.

Another parting: My feet and my orthotics are no longer able to cohabit within my boots without conflict. My feet swell so much that the orthotics squash my toes and wedge up painfully against my instep. Since my feet are essential, the orthotics were posted back home where hopefully they can still be used in other footwear, when I’m not walking hours each day and getting foot spread.

Day 110 (Tues 9 March): Lake Tekapo to camp near Roundhill ski area

Started 7.55am, finished 3.20pm, 27k.

Pain in the head status: Still no headache. Tried some hiker’s wool under the balls of my feet to try and cushion them against the pounding on the road- it seemed to help. A useful tip from a tramper we met on the Motatapu track.

Word of the day: Sussuration, the indistinct sound of whispering/rustling.

We had a spot of road walking to contend with today, which was quite a novelty. For about three hours we skirted around the eastern side of Lake Tekapo on a walking track, then a tarsealed road, then a gravel road, and got to do some roadkill inspections. We spotted rabbit, hare, hawk and wallaby. It was much more interesting to road walk when there were majestic mountains to look at, rather than craven cows.

The next three hours or so we were back on a proper tramping track, through a desert-like landscape where tiny streams revealed themselves by the clustering of reeds and greenery around their banks. The track was laid out like a farmer puts in a fence – sight a line and cut it straight, regardless of terrain. The sudden transition to vertical uphills was a shock to the legs, which had had three days without being weighted down by a backpack, and this one was heavy with food. It took a while for the tramping legs to kick back into life and get used to the slower pace of walking.

We decided to camp out and leave a few kilometres to walk on to a hut tomorrow, where we were planning to spend the day and wait out some rain and freezing weather. The clouds over the alps layered into pancakes and then coalesced into milky blankness. It was strangely quiet except for the sussuration of the wind through the tent fly. No birdsong, and the softest of watersong (our water source was a small water channel through a piece of wetland) – even the flies that had pestered us during the heat of the day had disappeared.

But we knew other people were out there. A couple we’d met in Auckland were camping only a kilometre or so downstream (I didn’t recognise them – he’d got so hairy and she’d got so skinny). We’d passed two other SOBOs – both of them generic young men with beards. So many of these have passed us, and they all look the same to me- it could actually be the same person walking rings around us and I doubt I’d notice.

Wildlife encounters: Lots of bumblebees today. They would circle, hum around my head, sniff at my arms, decide I did not smell like a flower, and bumble away.

Luxury lunch: For lunch today we had a wrap with cheese (Tekapo Four Square had no peanut butter slugs), boiled egg and cherry tomatoes (we eat these like lollies whenever we’re in a town and had some left over). It was almost like a cafe lunch. Minus the muffin and cappuccino.

Lake Ruataniwha to Lake Tekapo

Day 107 (Sat 6 March): Lake Ohau to Lake Ruataniwha

Started sometime around 9.30am, finished sometime around 1.30pm, 35k (by bike).

Pain in the head status: Nothing – hallelujah!

Word of the day: Bespoke, made to order.

By the time we got going, yesterday’s rain had retreated from Lake Ohau, and the dense clouds lifted to reveal a topping of snow on the mountains. No wonder we had needed the heater on all night to keep warm.

We had elected to cycle the next section on the Alps to Ocean cycle track, from Lake Ohau to Lake Tekapo, which is recommended by Te Araroa trail notes. This saves a couple of very long days of walking. The section from Twizel to Lake Tekapo is particularly gruelling, with no accommodation and no freedom camping allowed, meaning you have to walk 58k in a day. Not something I’m up for trying. We talked to one woman who did it – she said she was in so much pain at the end that she cried, and when she reached her room for the night she was unable to move, even to eat or have a shower.

Snow on the mountains we had come from

We engaged the services of BeSpoke Bike Tours, as they were able to deliver bikes to Lake Ohau Lodge and transport our packs to Lake Tekapo (and the pun is funny). We were going against the tide of the usual biking flow, by cycling towards the Alps and away from the Ocean, and not many bike hire companies would cater for this. But Annie, from BeSpoke, was very accommodating, if rather scarily disorganised.

Fire-damage closed the campground at Lake Middleton

Tony took the bulk of our gear in two panniers, in an attempt to slow him down, but for me it was still like being in the Tour de France futilely chasing the yellow jersey (yellow high viz vest in this case). Once I had mastered the gears on my bike (which Tony couldn’t bear to watch), it was an easy day along roads, gravelled cycle paths and finally alongside the Ohau and Pukaki canals, part of the huge Waitaki hydroelectric power scheme that channels water from the region’s lakes into dams which are remotely controlled from Huntly in the North Island.

The only part I was uncomfortable with was around the shoreline of Lake Ohau, with a narrow and twisting cycle path that looked very one-way to me. When other cyclists came barrelling along in the other direction, I was obliged to stop and crowd up against the matagouri to give them space to pass. Whoever made this trail probably did not anticipate the existence of northbound TA walkers-temporary-cyclists.

Confluence of Ohau and Pukaki canals

Otherwise, it was a fun ride and did much to heal the trauma from the Timber Trail in the North Island. My confidence in riding a bike started to be restored.

Lake Ruataniwha

We stayed the night at Lake Ruataniwha campground (in a cabin so we didn’t have to lug sleeping bags and the tent on the bikes). This was an enormous campground that pretty much needed a bike to traverse. The adjacent rowing facility was closed due to the recent shift to Covid-19 level 2, and ironically was the reason we were staying at the lake and not in Twizel, since at the time we looked (pre-level 2), accommodation was scarce due to the rowing events and the cavalcade. So we had a 4k cycle into Twizel for dinner, against a punishing headwind, but we compensated by eating an enormous amount of food – a second lunch at the bakery, ice cream, then Indian curries and naan bread. In the light of cancelled events, Twizel was scarily quiet, but then it seems like a place where nothing much happens at the best of times. Built to house the dam construction workers, it was slated to be dismantled but the residents mounted a resistance and the town was left to be the star of the Mackenzie district it is today.

Obligated to visit this place

Annoyance of the day: At the campsite I realised I’d left my long sleeved merino top back at Lake Ohau Lodge. And the  outdoor shops in the bustling metropolis of Twizel were only open for limited hours on the weekend. Here’s hoping Lake Tekapo can rustle up a replacement for me.

Day 108 (Sun 7 March): Lake Ruataniwha to Lake Tekapo

Started 8.50am, finished 2.40pm, 58k (by bike).

Pain in the head status: Still nothing. Feels like some kind of celebration is in order.

Word of the day: Cyanic, blue, azure.

Stunning. That summed up today, with the snow-draped alps filling up our eyes as we rode across the arid plains from Twizel to Lake Pukaki, then along the canals with brilliant, almost luminescent cyanic and turquoise water. What with near perfect weather, this was a highlight of the trail so far, and the relative ease and speed of our travel only added to my appreciation.

Although my buttocks suffered some torture from the bike seat, the exclamations of amazement at the scenery were interspersed with sighs of thanks that my feet were being spared the monotonous pounding of the roads. I’ll take a saddle-sore butt over throbbing feet.

There was only one challenging part, where we had to cycle up the road from Lake Pukaki to the canals, which was so steep there was even a warning sign for cars. It did momentarily defeat me, as I had to take a short break half way up, but cyclists speeding down the other way cheered encouragement (or ridicule for us going the wrong way, it can be hard to tell) and then of course we had to keep going or would have felt like lame ducks. Tellingly, there was a wide cycle lane going down the road, but not one going up, because who would be silly enough to use that?

Cars being warned of steep road gradient

On the canals, we were mostly able to cruise along in top gear, except for one or two bumpy gravel sections. Lots of people were trying their luck fishing but we saw more fish leaping out of the water than being reeled in on a rod.

Another dam on the network

On the last few kilometres before Lake Tekapo my thighs went on strike and we had to walk up the final small hill after the Tekapo dam, but then it was a glorious fly down into the town. We exchanged bikes for backpacks again and it was weirdly comfortable to have my Osprey pack strapped on again. The last couple of days I’ve been constantly thinking I’m missing something – and realising it’s my pack.  

Lake Tekapo

We stayed at the new YHA in Lake Tekapo which has outstanding views from its lounge and kitchen, and not many clientele to enjoy them.

Views from the YHA. Five star.

Wildlife encounter of the day: I saw my first ferret, dashing across one of the canal roads to dive down into the canal bank. I stopped briefly, thinking… what – to chase it down? Throw a rock at it? I didn’t even have my walking poles with me. So I carried on and hoped that at least it was eating a lot of rabbits.

Top Timaru hut to Lake Ohau

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

Started 7.50am, finished 6.25pm, 34k.

Pain in the head status: No pain. Unreal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Ahuriri hut

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

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

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

Started 8.05am, finished 2.15pm, 17k.

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

Speargrass, tramper’s bane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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