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?

Merrivale to Telford campsite

Day 87 (Sun 14 Feb): Merrivale to Birchwood Station

Started 7.45am, finished 3.55pm, 26k.

Pain in the head status: No pain, even after disturbed sleep from Julian’s snoring – the joys of hut living.

Word of the day: Amative, pertaining to love, amorous.

Takitimu ranges in the distance – our ultimate destination

Tramping is not an amative activity, hence Valentine’s day was only celebrated by having half a dozen boiled eggs. I spent the morning in a state of disorientation, as we seemed to walk around in circles, according to my imperfect sense of direction, past curious, smelly then underfed cows along the road, through a forestry block, then farmland. Tony did confirm that we were walking southward at one point.

But then we hit Woodlaw Forest, which was a nice bit of native bush with a track that felt like it was taking us the right way, finally, although via a hill that fully engaged my gluteal muscles. Flocks of brown creepers squeaked and twittered in the tree tops.

We emerged at a high point overlooking Birchwood Station, with spectacular views over the mountains. We sat amongst the granite boulders and dried up rabbit poop to admire them. Then it was a toe-crushing descent down a steep grassy slope and a meander over paddocks to the road that led to the Station buildings, which included an old shearer’s lodging, now converted into TA lodgings. We had watched huge flocks of sheep being herded off the slopes down into holding paddocks by the road, flowing like a wandering white stream, and learnt that 7,000 ewes had been gathered for crutching tomorrow. We had to walk through a few thousand of them to reach the house. This was quickly filled, and over-filled, by a large group of SOBOs, but we had claimed our bunks and even had had a warm shower. Most of this group took the opportunity to take a shuttle to the nearest pub for dinner, so the evening was relatively quiet.

Hazards of trail walking: While we were enjoying the view at the top of Birchwood, we saw Julian emerge from the forest and wander off on the ridge line in the wrong direction. He’d missed the trail markers and to add to the confusion, the route has changed but this has not been updated on the TA or Guthook apps. Just another day on the TA.

Forestry grey scale

Day 88 (Mon 15 Feb): Birchwood Station through Linton Station to Telford campsite

Started 7.35am, finished 4.55pm, 28k.

Pain in the head status: Another delightful day of no headache.

Word of the day: Larceny, theft of personal property.

Walking Mt Linton station in the mist

Somewhere in the night, we regretted staying in the house and not putting up the tent, not because it was overcrowded or noisy (astonishingly there was no snoring) but because of the onslaught of mosquitoes. There may have been no snoring because everyone was kept awake by the mind-bending mosquito whine, coming in waves as the Birchwood Mosquito Army mustered all their troops for attack. It was also stiflingly hot so all we had for protection was our silk liners. It was not conducive for a good night’s sleep.

Sheepies in the mist

In a typical weather transformation, after the hot sunny Sunday, today was cold, drizzly and misty. The whole day was spent walking through one of New Zealand’s largest farms, Mt Linton Station. The owners of this station are notoriously antagonistic to TA walkers and only allow the trail to pass through the farm under great sufferance. There were large trespass warnings at regular intervals. One of the reasons for these was that a private hut on the station was apparently broken into by a TA walker, who also thieved food. As a consequence of this, a substantial track diversion has been instated, taking TAers up and over a ridge for an extra few kilometers, to keep walkers out of sight of the hut. The diversion also meant we had to splash across the Wairaki river and then the Telford burn. At the second crossing, which was just before Telford campsite where we stopped for the night, I was feeling unreasonably grumpy about the whole day, and the anti-social idiot whose larceny meant that I now had to get cold wet feet. But it turned out my bad mood was mostly hunger-related and once I had a the brown lentil vegetable rice mash up that was dinner, I was fully appreciating the beauty of the surroundings, especially as the rain had obligingly stopped just as we wanted to set up the tent. We were on the edge of the Takitimu ranges, getting glimpses of the jagged peaks as the clouds drifted.

We had been warned by a flood of SOBO walkers that the sandflies at Telford campsite were unusually voracious and vicious. Indeed, there were many and they lingered longingly at the entrance of the tent, darting in at the slightest invitation. I personally eliminated 26 from inside the tent when we clambered back in after dinner. But it could have been worse – at a campsite at Mt Owen a few years back, the sandflies were hurling themselves at the tent in such quantities that it sounded like rain.

Julian’s highlight of the day: He caught two fish in the Wairaki river. We watched him reel one in from a distance and thought he would be eating fish for dinner, but he is a true sport fisherman – catch and release only.

Farm highlights of the day: The cow bellowing competition that was underway. The cattle with seriously scary bovine resting bitch face who startled away like timid mice when you talked to them. The sheep sprinting across the paddocks like Olympians, for no apparent reason.

Colac Bay to Merrivale

Day 85 (Fri 12 Feb): Colac Bay to Longwood Forest

Started 7.10am, finished 6.10pm, 29k.

Pain in the head status: I woke with a migraine around 4.30am which caused me some puzzlement. What had triggered this one? Had I eaten too much dairy- not that this usually is an issue but I had had two hot chocolates and pavlova with cream and ice cream – was this excessive? Or too much sugar? The aforementioned was undoubtedly excessive with respect to sugar but not unusual when we were fuelling ourselves for the trail ahead. Maybe it was because I hadn’t done any exercise? I’m not sure what exercise I could have done in yesterday’s weather but maybe my head was objecting to too much rest and relaxation? I don’t know – the migraine foxed me once more. But the good news was that it petered out sometime in the afternoon, and did not recur in the evening.

Word of the day: Flyblown, rundown, foul.

Tony let me sleep in til 6.30am even though we’d planned to get up at 6am, with a long day ahead of us. But he took pity on my dreaming self – that extra half hour made up for a bit of the lost sleep the migraine stole from me. I was feeling surprisingly enthusiastic despite the pain in the head – I was looking forward to this section. Maybe it was because we’d get into the wild-er-NESS for the first time on the South Island. Or maybe I was curious about the mud that all the TA walkers complain so much about.

Mud? What mud?

After an hour or so along SH99 and another road, we reached the entrance to Longwood Forest, which told us about the history of the area. There is gold in them hills – but difficult to extract due to the terrain. The European gold miners mostly gave it up but the Chinese persevered, building water races, dams and establishing a small settlement.

The track through the first part of the forest took us past two ‘heritage’ huts (read ‘derelict’ and ‘flyblown’), Turnbull’s and Martin’s, built in the early 1900s for maintenance workers (working to keep the water races open) by mining companies that followed on from the Chinese. Poor blokes. It must have been cold, wet and lonely work.

But the walk up for us on this day was easy, powered by yesterday’s burgers and pavlova. The bush reminded me of the Tararuas, but with scatterings of pinkish-red rata flower needles on the ground. We saw titipounamu. I was attacked by bush lawyer but made it through. At lunchtime, at Martin’s hut, we decided to push on over the tops, which might take another five hours, but we felt strong and up for the challenge.

I love being in forests and I love being on top of mountains, although this was only a ‘hill’. But we could see out to the coast, towards Invercargill on one side and Tuatapere on the other, and the tops themselves were a beautiful vista, with curly soft tussock, bright green mosses and lichens beaded with red berries and tiny star-like flowers – and mud. Yes, there was mud. It didn’t bother me much though, maybe because I had high expectations for a mud quota, and have a lot of past experience with mud on backcountry tracks, so it wasn’t surprising. Our boots and gaiters kept us mostly protected. The gaiters were another source of excitement for the day – this was the first time we’d worn them on the TA, and they were well and truly mudded.

Up on the tops, we were passed by six TA SOBO walkers, in increasing states of exhaustion and complaint about the mud, and all contemplating how six bodies would fit into the near-uninhabitable four-bunk Martin’s hut. We were glad we had moved on.

Must have been a big storm to get this buoy up the hill

The pavlova power started to fade around 4pm, but then Tony pulled out a secret weapon – a packet of BBQ shapes we’d bought at Colac Bay pub but hadn’t been hungry enough to eat. We were hungry now and the cracker fuel got us down to the end of the track, to an old quarry which was now inhabited by an unidentifiable burnt out car. The miracle that had kept my legs going without pain up to this point failed somewhat as we had to walk a kilometre up a gravel road to find a place to camp (up being the adverb that caused my legs distress). But I was astonished at how well I still felt at the end of the day. I was tired but not shattered. I still had energy to wash, help get dinner ready and put up the tent (although Tony got the task of mattress-inflation). Am I turning into a true seasoned through-walker, who blitzes 29k, 11- hour days without batting an eyelid? I’ve never walked for this length of time in a day before. Am I becoming an Amazon? But only a few days ago, the walk from Bluff to Invercargill rendered me immobile. What does this mean? Time will tell…

Song of the day: The miracle of food, takes my pain away, the miracle of food, helps me walk again.

Modified from the Eurythmics The Miracle of Love. The lyrics of this song are ripe for transformation into a tramping anthem. Second chorus would substitute ‘food’ with ‘sleep’. Love is beautiful and essential, of course,  but it doesn’t take my tramping pains away.

Where cars come to die in Southland

Day 86 (Sat 13 Feb): Longwood Forest to Merrivale (Merriview Hut)

Started 9.05am, finished around 2.30pm, 16k.

Pain in the head status: Head clear and pain free.

Word of the day: Obscurantism, the practice of preventing the facts/full details of something from being known.

After yesterday’s effort, Tony may cease from obscurantism, where he doesn’t reveal to me the actual distance we are walking until after we’ve walked it, so as not to freak me out. For example, I thought the walk from Bluff to Invercargill was 34k, which was awful but the right side of 30, but in fact it was the wrong side- a bit over 37k. It doesn’t sound much, but when a number is closer to 40 than 30 and you have to walk that number, you get anxious. Or I do. I’m hoping by the end of the TA, these anxieties will subside and no obscurantism will be necessary.

But no anxieties today, as it was a relatively short walk so could recover from yesterday’s effort. Although I needed a lolly to get me up to the viewpoint at Baldy Hill, the first destination of the day. If I’d had pavlova and ice cream for dessert last night, no doubt I’d have been flying up the hill.

It was a grand view and we hung out there for a while to admire it, despite the cold wind that had whipped up. The Takitimu range was sharply in focus and the Southern Alps behind, a rugged and pointy spine. The flat tops reminded me of the tablelands and plateaus of Kahurangi National Park; and of Stewart Island, which is also legendary for the depth, suckiness and proportionality of its mud (by suckiness I mean the propensity to suck a boot from your foot but others may have alternative interpretations). We did encounter more mud today, and maybe it was worth writing home about, but more impressive to me was the stunted beech forest, cloaked with mosses, strewn with perfect beech bonsai trees. We encountered two other TA walkers on the trail, a couple from Wellington who were in such contrast to the other recent SOBOs we’d come across it was truly refreshing – they were so relaxed, blasé about the mud, and enjoying the trail rather than rushing headlong to the end of it.

Still, today’s mud gave me more opportunities to hone the advanced tramping athletics I’d practised yesterday – the tree-hugging pirouettes, the mud track side to side step and the tramping pole vault. Not bad for a girl who got C grades for sport at school.

We stayed the night at Merriview hut, which was a tidy 5-bunker provided by a local family in Merrivale, far superior to the heritage huts of yesterday. I am especially grateful for this type of accommodation, set up by private individuals in response to desperate TA walkers having nowhere to stay. We were also able to buy eggs, so we had a protein boost with dinner and some more for tomorrow. I love these unexpected food bonuses.

View from Merriview hut, a very merry view

First NOBO walker we’ve met – Julian, French plumber from Queenstown, shared Merrivale hut with us. He is only doing the section to Queenstown, having already completed most of the TA except this one due to injury. Non-typical additions to his pack: fishing rod, Speights beer and a pipe for smoking…stuff.

Riverton to Colac Bay

Day 83 (Wed 10 Feb): Riverton to Colac Bay

Started 9.25am, finished 1.45pm, 12k.

Pain in the head status: Head gave a few twinges on the left hand side of the scalp, just to remind me the migraine is always lurking. It became a more severe twinge in the evening but was appeased by pub food and nurofen.

Beach babe in Colac Bay. PS I’m not pregnant

Word of the day: Ersatz, a substitute or imitation, usually inferior.

We had a luxurious sleep in, since we had a short day ahead of us, to compensate for the long days just gone. It started to drizzle as we set of, then cleared up, then continued this cycle for the rest of the day until the evening, when an onslaught of heavy rain began. We were snug and dry in our cabin at Colac Bay by that time, full of pizza, wedges and cheesecake from the tavern, reflecting soberly that this would be our last non dehydrated dinner for a week.

Summary photo of my experience of Southland so far: overcast, drizzly, excessively long beach, farms and someone stole the information sign

But to reach this contemplative space, we had to do some walking. We started out at Mores Reserve, a small piece of bush that has undergone restoration by some retirees who got tired of being harassed by magpies on the golf course and decided to eradicate them, which was the conduit into the never ending occupation of pest control. The local kereru were definitely appreciating their efforts.

We popped out from the bush into farmland overlooking a stunning piece of rugged coast. The landscape was reminiscent of Scotland, complete with thistles, stupid sheep and even some ersatz standing stones. I could see why the less imaginative Scots were drawn here, those who could not envisage an alternative life to fishing in frigid, wild seas, living in wind-battered dwellings under dismal grey skies and growing trees that were permanently stunted by the prevailing gales. The Scots who settled in Waipu had more inspiration to try a climate that was a little different.

Pebbly beaches were interspersed with those of silky sand, for no apparent reason, then a few steps on would be a beach of smooth round stones speckled like bird’s eggs. It was more taxing than yesterday’s flat monotonous beach walk, what with clambering over headlands and stiles, but far more interesting. No podcasts were required until we popped back onto the highway, but not for too long. We ended up on a road to Colac Bay that had been partially washed away by the encroaching sea and strewn with beach stones. Although a large sign at the end of the road accused the local council of sabotage. I wasn’t fooled – I can spot a conspiracy theory from a mile after all the podcast exposés I’ve listened to. But the thrashing waves on the sea wall at high tide were pretty self explanatory.

Strange sight of the day: Flocks of white and grey barnyard geese on the wild rocky beach.

Day 84 (Thurs 11 Feb): Colac Bay (zero day)

Pain in the head status: Headache sated by a long sleep, even though disturbed by the lashing of the wind and rain against the building during the night.

View from the cabins

Word of the day: Ineluctable, impossible to avoid or escape.

View from the pub

Turns out yesterday wasn’t the last non dehydrated meal for a week – tonight was. We had the pizza on special last night – today’s special was burgers. We hadn’t planned on staying another day, but after waiting for the worst of the wind and rain to pass it became apparent that this spate of bad weather was ineluctable, at least for the next 24 hours. Neither of us relished the idea of slogging headfirst into the bitter wind and into the piece of forest that had the worst reputation for mud in all of the South Island TA on a day with a heavy rainfall warning. So we booked a cabin for another night and set ourselves in front of the fire at the Colac Bay pub. I had two hot chocolates, read a book and watched a horse race from the Invercargill race ground, which was a novel experience for me, but not one I’ll be hankering to repeat.

We watched the rain clouds envelope the route we would be taking tomorrow, making the trail extra boggy and slippery for us. But at least we weren’t on it today. Chatting to some motorcyclists who bailed out at the pub, our decision was validated – they described being bowled across the road by wind gusts and becoming saturated in minutes once hitting the deluge around Longwood.

Photos from Southland

Despite the winter temperatures, someone had decided that this was the day to put the Rug Doctor to work on the carpets, which was fine in the tavern which had a fire and heaters, but not so great in our cabin, where the heater didn’t work and the  only strategy for drying the carpet was blowing freezing air in through the door.

The skies finally cleared as we were having dinner (a repeat of lunch- the burger special) so we could go out and appreciate the giant surfer statue, which is a bit mouldy and in need of repair, which sums up Colac Bay nicely.

Back on trail tomorrow.

Bluff to Riverton

Day 81 (Mon 8 Feb): Bluff to Invercargill

Started walking 8.50am, finished 5pm, 37k.

Pain in the head status: Perhaps appropriately, I’m starting the South Island trail with an entrenched migraine. This has been on and off for a few days and is now firmly fixated on the right side of my skull, gnawing at my ear and burrowing into my eye socket. It hangs on all day.

Word of the day: Soliloquy, the act of talking to oneself (without a listener).

Back on the trail, after ten days in Wellington exercising the dehydrator (but not much else). We flew to Invercargill on Sunday 7 Feb, which was a beautiful day and we got a sweat on walking from the airport into town, where we were staying at the Quest, previously the Post Office, boasting Invercargill’s first ever elevator. The main attraction for us was its proximity to the trail –  only a kilometre or so off course.

We caught a shuttle to Bluff in the morning and were the only customers, perhaps because it was Waitangi Day holiday or maybe because Bluff is not a prime tourist destination. The shuttle driver disabused us of the notion that yesterday’s weather was at all typical for the region, stating that the sun was so rarely seen that he sometimes forgot what sunshine looked like.

True to form, the day started overcast and ended in showers. We took the obligatory photos at the Bluff ‘end of the earth’ / ‘this far to anywhere else more interesting’ sign and set off on a very nice walk along the coast and up to the top of Bluff Hill. We were slack packing, having left our backpacks at the Invercargill Quest, so charged along lightfootedly, Tony creating some extra exertion for himself by doing bicep presses with his water bottle as he walked.

At Bluff Hill we glimpsed Stewart Island above the rising sea fog and gazed down towards Tiwai Point where the doomed aluminium plant is grinding on, to the busy port and across the long flat miles to Invercargill. Once off the hill and back on the road, the slog began. Despite the public holiday, there were still a lot of heavy trucks but for some of the time at least, we could walk on a partially or completely formed cycle way alongside the highway. That left about 10-12k of walking the verge in the onslaught of the traffic.

The road walking tedium and the shock and pain of suddenly forcing my body to walk 37k after a period of relative indolence required many podcasts for distraction. There may also have been soliloquys, as Tony marched ahead and I lagged behind with only my aching legs and feet to talk to.

Finally we reached the Quest and used the elevator, climbing two flights of stairs being beyond my ability. It was all I could do to limp to the bathroom, but it was worth it for the best hot shower in the world. Tony did some extra kilometers fetching takeaways for dinner while I lay immobile and prostrate on the bed, only stirring to add stomach pain to my other pains by filling it to excess with vegetarian curries, rice, samosa and naan bread.

All that was left of Tony before dinner

Song of the day: No, no more road walks; I want to walk in native bush; No, no more road walks; I want to walk the wild-er-ness! (Emphatically sung, rising to a crescendo, last word shouted)

Modified lyrics to Linkin Park’s No More Sorrow

Day 82 (Tues 9 Feb): Invercargill to Riverton

Started 8.10am, finished 5.20pm, 34k.

Pain in the head status: The migraine hung on grimly for most of the day but some time in the afternoon seemed to give up the ghost, perhaps overwhelmed by my other bodily aches (even my boobs hurt, perhaps proving that even gentle bouncing can be detrimental over time).

So we did see some cool wildlife

Word of the day: Trenchant, vigorous or incisive in expression or style.

Another long day, mixing the worst types of walking – starting with an hour and a half of road walk, then sandwiching in 23k of beach walk, to finish with a bit more road walk. The highlight of the first road walk was passing a Four Square where we could buy lunch. The low point of the first road walk was finding that the Four Square, like the rest of Southland it seems, has yet to discover vegetarian sandwich options. Even the slice we bought for morning tea had beef fat in it, which I noticed after I ate it, to my dismay. This was surprising, given that Southland’s signature dish is the cheese roll, a culinary delight I fail to understand the enthusiasm for, since all it consists of is grated cheese wrapped in white bread.

We reached Oreti Beach after walking down an access road with every imaginable type of sports club – not only the usual golf, rugby, surf lifesaving and clay shooting but also sled dogs. Once on the beach we faced the full force of the famed Southland weather – brutal southwesterlies topped off with rain showers. We couldn’t really see where we were going, or where we had come from, not that it mattered as it all looked the same. We almost reduced a SOBO TA walker to tears by telling him he had another hour of beach walking to go. I could sympathise- when Tony told me some hours later that we still had eight kilometres to go, this triggered  trenchant exclamations of horror from me, but there was nothing for it. The ear buds were reinserted and on we went.

River crossing from a safe distance

The highlight of the beach walk was crossing the Waimatuku Stream, not because this was a pleasant experience but merely because it was a change from the monotony. The crossing can be difficult at high tide, and we were there just after high tide. Hence, my underwear got wet. Fortunately, I’d heeded the description from the horrified SOBO walker, who’d crossed holding his pack over his head, and I’d removed my shorts, saving them from an undesirable washing. This isn’t the first time I’ve crossed a river in my underwear and I doubt it will be my last, but I hope it is the last TA stream crossing on a beach. The stream has eaten away the dunes and swallowed up a 4WD track – maybe one day it will wash away the burnt out upside down car further up on the beach, and the innumerable beer bottles.

Boats of Riverton

The highlight of the final road walk was passing a gas station and finding that it sold ice creams. This was the only food it sold but that was entirely sufficient. We stayed at Riverton campground in the most enormous caravan I’ve ever been in – it was called the Mammoth. Within the Mammoth we prepared the first dehydrated dinner of the South Island. It was delicious.

Podcasts of the day: The podcasts really were the highlight of the journey. I listened to an interview with Sister Helen Preheat, author of the book Dead Man Walking (made into an excellent movie starring Susan Sarandon); a documentary about terrible and dangerous housing conditions in earthquake-prone Bucharest (which was concerning as i have a sister living in Romania); and a dive into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and how one father of a boy murdered in this massacre fought back against the conspiracy theorists who claimed this was a hoax. What a blessing to have such compelling radio to listen to (and for free).

Tony walking the beach on his own

Firm statement of the day: When Tony started speculating on what he’d do differently next time he walked the Te Araroa, I assured him that in any future expedition along Oreti Beach, one thing would definitely be different – I would not be there.

A tramping critique of Harry Potter

JK Rowling’s creation of the world of Harry Potter was wildly imaginative and fantastically captivating, but fundamentally incredible – meaning, unbelievable without extreme credulity. The economics don’t work, the labour market is ridiculous – why on earth would so many wizards end up working 9 to 5 desk jobs at a bureaucratic, soul-destroying Ministerial department? Now that displays a distinct lack of imagination.

But a tramping perspective on the world of Harry Potter really blows it apart. Citing only two items with magical properties is enough to expose the world as unbelievable.

The first is mentioned in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry and the Weasleys attend the World Quidditch Cup and stay in a remarkable accommodation, which looks like a two person pup tent but inside is revealed to be a multi-room fully furnished dwelling that might even be bigger than the Weasleys actual house. Another such tent pops up again in the final book, where Harry and his friends are hiding from their enemies and move around with the tent constantly to avoid detection. Which begs the question why more wizards and witches are not living in movable tents rather than decrepit houses.

No need for run down huts with a magic tent

The application to tramping is obvious. If such a tent were on the market, it would not only revolutionise the campervan industry, it would utterly transform the experience of back country hiking. No longer obliged to make your destination a DOC hut with mouldy mattresses and crowded with smelly, noisy hikers, you could throw this luxury tent up on the smallest of surfaces and walk into a palace with beds, pillows, couches, even a kitchen. But the real market would have to be for housing intensification projects. In this era of extreme housing affordability and substandard housing quality, it beggars belief that the magical community could hold secret such an obvious solution to the housing crisis. Not only unbelievable but actually immoral. And although Harry Potter’s world has rules supposed to separate the magical from the Muggles, these rules are so frequently transgressed in the books that they would serve no real impediment to an entrepreneurial witch/wizard wanting to make a few billion dollars on the Muggle market.

The second transformative magical implement is the bag that Hermione totes in the final book, which can hold a seemingly endless array of items and weighs only as much as a handbag. I want this. Everyone would want this. We could go tramping without dehydrated food. It’s not clear whether Hermione’s bag has a freezer compartment, but it might even mean that ice creams on top of the Tararuas would be a possibility.

No need for heavy packs with a magic Hermione bag

Witches and wizards may be atypical people but it’s hard to believe that none of them ever want to go tramping, in which case the magical bag and magical tent would be necessities. And once these items are glimpsed by the hiking community, demand would be vociferous. Hence, Harry Potter’s world is implausible. The drive towards light weight hiking is intense, competitive and irreversible. These are the holy grails of light weight gear – it would be inevitable that someone from the Muggle world would discover them and put Z pack and Macpac out of business.

Although so much of Potterworld is ridiculous, there’s no doubt that the ideas of science fiction and fantasy writers can sometimes become reality. Space travel and video conferencing were wild propositions only a hundred years ago. So I’m hoping that there is someone out there experimenting with anti-gravity and space-compression technology that one day may bring me the ultimate no-weight tramping pack and home-in-a-tent that could keep me hiking in my 80s.