Day 65: Totaranui to Onetahuti

Wow, summer is definitely over! I lay in my tent in the early hours this morning shivering and debating whether or not I really needed to get up to go to the bathroom. In the end I did, and I can’t say I was surprised to find that my tent zip was frozen and crunchy as I tried to get out. It’s definitely the coldest night yet, and I’m apprehensive now about the next few nights camping.

I slept in this morning, only really able to get to sleep properly after the sun came up and warmed things up a bit. I worried a little about having to rush the day’s walk, but I stumbled upon the Onetahuti campsite around lunchtime today, a little baffled. The trail notes said six hours, and it took me three!

I imagine the Abel Tasman trail notes are generous with time estimates, as all sorts of people walk it, but I definitely wasn’t rushing today, either.

My left foot seems to have given up on this adventure entirely, hurting with every step. I don’t know what’s wrong with it (maybe I hurt it during one of my spectacular falls), but it definitely doesn’t like carrying any weight. For this reason, I thought I would probably need the whole six hours to get to Onetahuti today.

The path took me around numerous beautiful bays and coves today, with golden sand and turquoise water. It was different to anywhere else I’ve been in New Zealand. Despite the cold, there were still lots of people on the track and I was a little overwhelmed at just how busy it seemed. Along with the trampers, the track was also bustling with day walkers who had been dropped at one of the many wharves by water taxi. There were also tiny settlements in many of the bays, accessible by road or four wheel drive track. This stood the Abel Tasman in pretty stark contrast to the tracks I have been used to over the past nine weeks, and it unsettled me slightly.

When I arrived at the campsite I pitched my tent in the sand and had a nap, tired from a row of poor night’s sleeps. I imagine tomorrow will be another short walk. I’ve booked each night’s accommodation though, meaning I can’t carry on to the next campsite if I feel like it. I’ll just have to take my time and enjoy myself!

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Day 64: Takaka to Totaranui

After a night spent on the couch in the Takaka hostel seeking refuge from both the storm and the snorer, I left bright and early this morning to catch a ride to the beginning of the Abel Tasman track, excited that I was finally doing something I’d wanted to for a long time. The Kahurangi Ranges were covered in snow as I left town, and they looked beautiful.

The north end of the Abel Tasman track.

The track began around the coast, and at the first junction I turned and climbed up into the hills. The official Abel Tasman track continues around the coast, but Cyclone Gita had damaged part of it and it was closed. Luckily, there was an easy detour which took me up to Gibbs Hill and down to Totaranui on the other side in just four hours.

Climbing up Gibbs Hill I was accompanied by so many fantails, I felt like Snow White getting dressed.

For the first time ever I saw a completely black fantail, and I wondered if it was an anomaly until I saw a few more. I read later that black fantails are rare in north island, and only make up 5% of the south island fantail population.

I arrived at Totaranui with no fuss, and set up my tent, which was visited by many an inquisitive weka over the course of the afternoon! I also managed to finally perfect dinner on the trail: red lentils with instant mashed potatoes, cheese and gravy. I call it Hiker Poutine.

Sure, it doesn’t look entirely appetizing, but it’s amazing!

Day 62: St Arnaud to Takaka

I was immediately transported back six years this morning as I chucked my bag down on the roadside and stuck out my thumb, en route to Golden Bay. I have many happy memories of Golden Bay, especially of discovering a small hidden camp in Takaka one summer and living there for a while, and I was excited to return.

On the road!

Takaka is a small town full of hippies, second hand stores, organic food, and jewellery makers. Six years ago when I showed up there for the first time it was like accidentally stumbling across home. I looked like part of the furniture with my paisley shirts, jeans that were really more a jumble of patches than jeans themselves, and hair that couldn’t decide if it was dreadlocked or not, home to various shells and coloured wool.

Today, I arrived looking entirely different, but feeling much the same. After checking into a hostel, I wandered around town, reacquainting myself, and eventually found myself heading down the old gravel road to the river as if by habit. I reached the river, walked out onto the stones, turned left, and hopped my way round the bend. Campfire smoke came into view, drifting out of the tree line, and I knew the secret camp still existed.

As I got closer, I was overwhelmed to see structures built precariously in the shelter of the trees; semi-permanent structures, built out of supermarket pallets and tarps, driftwood and billboard canvases. The homes spread down the riverside for quite a way, and they were all up on stilts. After passing a handful of these small abodes I reached the old steps up onto the bank that used to lead to the campfire, the central meeting place of the old camp I knew. I fire ring was still there, but it contained rubbish and hadn’t been used in a while. The creepers that used to carpet the ground were mostly gone, and in their place, hard clay dotted with cigarette butts. The place was no longer a happy secret in the trees – it was a grubby and badly looked after homeless camp, and it made me sad. I left and walked back into town in the rain feeling gloomily nostalgic, but better by the time I got back to were I was staying. Sad as it was to see the place I associate with fond memories in such an exploited and disrespected state, it is always useful to be reminded that everything is temporary, and all we can do is be grateful for what we have, or have had.

Day 61: Lakehead Hut to St Arnaud

I practically ran the easy, flat, 10km into town this morning, my mind focussed on the coffee I was going to purchase as soon as I arrived.

A few coffees in, I jittered into the DOC office only to find that the weather forecast brought snow and galeforce winds over the next four days.

The next section of the trail follows the ridges and peaks of the Richmond Ranges for eleven days, and it is the most commonly skipped section of Te Araroa, for precisely that reason; it needs to be completed in a good weather window, or not at all.

After a day of mulling over options, mentally calculating finances, doing laundry, and revisiting the DOC office several more times, I finally landed on a decision. I don’t want a repeat of the Arthur’s Pass saga (I definitely can’t afford it), so instead of hanging around waiting for the weather to clear, I’m going to jet west and walk the Abel Tasman track instead of the ranges. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time, and I figure the opportunity is right in front of me now! It will also be a lot safer being on the coast than in the mountains in the midst of this weird stormy weather that’s forecast.

Tomorrow I’ll begin the journey by road to Takaka, where I will probably wait out the worst storm day, before beginning the Abel Tasman north to south. I’ll do it in four days, head out to Nelson, then into the northern end of the Richmond Ranges and continue on Te Araroa, more or less keeping my original schedule.

Day 60: Upper Travers Hut to Lakehead Hut

After two difficult days conquering two difficult passes, I was glad for a relatively easy trek down to Lake Rotoiti today. I hadn’t decided yet whether to try and get all the way into St Arnaud, 30km away, or stop at the hut on the south end of the lake, 2 hours from town.

Alrighty then!

Shortly after leaving in the morning I spotted a sign pointing to a detour to Travers Falls. Relaxed about the day, I took the detour, and I’m glad I did. Climbing down a mossy bank, using roots for handholds, I arrived on the edge of a pool, at the foot of a tall waterfall, and suddenly I was alone in Fern Gully.

My private slice of rainforest heaven.

I sat there for a while, marvelling at all the life clinging to the plants, thriving on all the water in the air.

I climbed back up to the track and ran into two trampers from Sydney and Auckland, guys in their sixties. Mr Sydney was friendly and asked about my tramping travels, and I said I was walking Te Araroa.

“Sorry?”, he enquired.

“Te Araroa”, I said slowly, “it’s the trail that runs the length of the country. I’m just walking the South Island leg”.

“Oh, right, yeah”, piped in Mr Auckland. “We call it the Tee Ah-row-a”.

“Um… OK…” I muttered, before carrying on with a few more polite exchanges with both of them.

Twenty minutes later, down the track, I was kicking myself. We all have those experiences and conversations we replay in our heads, adding alternative, better endings. Ones where we dramatically cut in with witty, edgy remarks, the timing perfect.

“We call it the Tee Ah-row-a”.

“Why is that?” I should have said.

Why do some New Zealanders refuse to even try and pronounce Māori names and words correctly?

It’s. Plain. Racist.

To those people, is it because you’ve never really thought about it? If so, you really should.

Is it because you’ve thought about it but have decided it doesn’t matter? Wake up.

Is it because you don’t know how? Are you scared you’ll sound silly if you try?

The singular vowel sounds are easy. Remember that song we all learnt in primary school, ‘A, E, I, O, U’?. The double vowel sounds, like ‘au’ or ‘oa’ are a little trickier, but the thing is, they don’t change. They sound the same way in most words. Look them up.

The hardest thing in Māori pronunciation for a lot of people is the ‘r’, because we say the English-pronounced ‘r’ very differently. What some kiwis don’t know, though, is that they use something like the Māori ‘r’ sound on a regular basis. Say ‘butter butter butter’ quickly to yourself. How did you pronounce the ‘tt’ sound in the middle? The sound is pretty close to the Māori ‘r’. You probably could have easily said ‘bara bara bara’ (if there were a ‘b’ in the Māori alphabet). Now try saying ‘Taranaki’ using that same sound. ‘Butter’ and ‘Tara’ rhyme, almost.

Let’s educate ourselves, folks. If you’re privileged enough to not experience racism in this country, you absolutely have a duty to try and lessen it for others, especially since there’s a good chance you are a knowing or unknowing perpetrator. Things don’t change if you don’t change them.

Alright. Rant over.

I did end up staying at Lake head Hut with Caroline and Remy. We were all surprised with just how tired and sore we were after a supposedly easy day, and agreed that it must have been a hangover from the previous days.

Spot the hut!

There hasn’t been another tea-slurping offence quite as bad as the first one, and I’ve very nearly forgiven Remy for that day. At the hut this evening I was chatting away to Caroline when all of a sudden Remy burst through the door with, “Sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt your conversation but just letting you know in the second toilet there are two very angry wasps and just be careful before you sit that they aren’t you know, under you, OK that’s all I wanted to say”.

Day 59: Blue Lake Hut to Upper Travers Hut

I was so concerned with the Waiau Pass yesterday that I really hadn’t spent much time thinking or reading about today’s walk over the Travers Saddle until last night. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘There’s quite a big climb tomorrow, too. At least it won’t be as difficult as the Waiau Pass’. Ha.

The day began chillily, with the hutmembers able to see their breath in front of them as they talked, even after the fire had been burning away overnight. The group was astounded at my choice of tramping attire for the day, shorts, but looking outside at the clear sky I knew I’d be hot soon enough, and I was just too lazy to change into shorts on the trail. I did begin with my gloves on, though.

Caroline and I walked together for the first part of the day, as Remy was taking a little longer to get ready. The track took us down the river for two hours, and being a fairly easy one, it gave us a chance to chat and get to know one another. Caroline is the same age as me and we get along very well, and this morning we discussed all sorts of interesting stuff from industrial design to work exchange programmes, from self driving cars and trucks to loneliness in elderly people, from the place of marriage in modern society to the current morality of having children. It was funny and interesting to find out that, like me, Caroline has begun having regular dreams about being pregnant or giving birth, even though that’s the last thing she wants right now. We chatted about the struggle going on in our bodies, the mind against our biology, and how it was fascinating to so clearly feel both sides of the fight.

We reached West Sabine Hut in two hours, at which time Caroline stopped to wait for Remy and I went on to attack the Saddle track. Today’s climb was an incredible mental challenge, nothing like yesterday’s. It had the same altitude difference, but it wasn’t as steep, which meant it was less of a fun climb and more of a hard walking slog up a hill. That, and the distance covered was much longer. The 1000m climb up to the saddle was 3km long and took me 4 hours. On top of all this, the track was in the bush most of the way – something that makes a climb difficult, I find. In the open, you’re able to look ahead and chart your course easily, set yourself small goals, and see your progress immediately. In the bush, it all looks the same, it’s difficult to gauge how far you’ve come, and the climb just seems endless.

Approaching the saddle, I felt the frustration and exhaustion of the climb melt away and the familiar happy, proud, that-was-all-worth-it feeling came over me, and I sang and boulder-hopped my way down the other side, reaching Upper Travers Hut in an hour.

Travers Saddle.

I chatted to the one inhabitant for a while before Caroline and Remy showed up, with Caroline mouthing obscenities at me through the window, obviously having found the climb to the saddle as thrilling as I had.

I admired the positivity.

Day 58: Waiau Hut to Blue Lake Hut, over the Waiau Pass

After I had gone to bed last night I suddenly heard a loud, ridiculous sound from outside the hut. It took me a while to realise that the hunter who had come in to the hut late was using his magic stag-caller, which I can only assume mimicked the sound of a doe. Caroline and I watched and listened from inside as Remy and the hunter tried to attract a stag over the river with the magic stag-caller. It was really something to witness; every time the hunter blew the caller the stag responded with a roar, one I have come to recognise in the bush over the past week. This time of year is ‘The Roar’, or the deer mating season. Stags begin to roar to attract females, and in doing so, hunters. The stag never came over the river, but it was fascinating hearing it so close.

After a decent sleep in the small hut, I woke to see a dim sunrise in a cloudless sky, and knew that today was the day to attempt the pass. I left first again, but I knew the others would catch me up, going uphill. Ever since I hurt my knee I have been terribly slow going both uphill and downhill.

Perfect weather for some intense physical exertion!

The trail took me first up the river valley for another ten kilometres before reaching the beginning of the pass. I took a big long break, let Caroline and Remy pass me, and began the climb. It wasn’t as tough as I was expecting, and I think Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass had prepared me well. It was a similar gradient and climb in altitude to the Waiau Pass, except this time I was carrying a heavy bag.

Two thirds of the way up, break number twenty-seven.

Near the top the track turned into a rock-climb, and instead of trying not to panic at the sheer drops on either side of me, I really enjoyed the climbing and had a great time! I’m not sure why.

The weather was perfect and I stopped for lunch at the top, enjoying the sun and lack of sandflies for the first time in what seemed like weeks.

Spotting Lake Constance from the top.

Then came the descent. This was unpredictably difficult. It was incredibly steep and tracked through massive sections of scree, through which I slided, terrified. If the side of the mountain weren’t so steep, then sliding down the scree would have almost been fun. The problem with this track was that one uncontrolled slide could end in me tumbling down to my imminent doom. I was really glad my mum wasn’t there to see it.

The first twenty metres of the descent. I couldn’t imagine how people climbed up this way going southbound!

Made it, somehow.

I reached the bottom and skirted round Lake Constance, then steeply up and over another bluff to reach Blue Lake, supposedly containing the clearest water in the world.

The famous Blue Lake.

At the hut I met Remy and Caroline, whose joints were as sore as mine, but whose day had also been as fun and satisfying. Others slowly arrived at the hut and by evening we were a mix of people, all fairly young, and all with interesting stories to tell. Adrian, the hut warden, had been working this year as a paid DOC ranger and had been taking care of all sorts of tramping tracks in the South Island. Duncan was a wilderness therapy guide in America, and he took groups of recovering addicts out hiking as part of their rehabilitation treatment, which I thought was fascinating. Emily was a therapist from Switzerland who had decided to make a brave decision and go on holiday by herself to New Zealand to tramp, and had gotten herself completely out of her comfort zone with our difficult, rough, and overgrown tracks, and she’d loved it.

Our group sat around a candle until the late hour of 8pm solving the world’s problems and covering some usual left-swinging subjects: addiction, polyamory, Trump, psychedelics, corporations, meditation, and preservatives. The conversation slowly devolved into a mixture of muddy conjectures about government conspiracies and alternative universes, and I went to bed.

Day 57: Anne Hut to Waiau Hut

Remy is the loudest tea-slurper I’ve ever met and I really think, for his safety, that we shouldn’t share a hut again. Anyone that knows me well knows that certain sounds, like someone chewing with their mouth open, for example, turn me into an irrational rage machine. I’ll add tea-slurping to the list.

I left the hut first this morning, despite my best efforts to leave last, ensuring I’d have the day to myself. It was nothing personal against Remy and Caroline, but more to do with my general melancholy, created by a mixture of the weather, saying goodbye to the boyfriend yet again, and the fact that I hadn’t brought any coffee with me.

Setting out.

In the end, I did have the day to myself, walking quickly, and the swarms of sandflies ensuring my breaks were as brief a possible. I launched into the unfamiliar world of podcasts today, and found they helped the unremarkable and uncomfortable day go quickly. The trail today is a blur of mud and grass in my memory.

I only started paying attention to my surroundings when at one point I looked up and saw a steep ridge dotted with snow ahead of me at the end of the valley. Hang on, I thought, and pulled out my map to look at as I walked. Waiau Pass at once became a reality in front of me, and the last hour of today’s walk was spent in excited and fearful anticipation. I was anxious that the time had come at last, and grateful that it was finally here and that I could see it, and it was no longer a scary, dangerous, and impossible feat in my mind. Just a scary and dangerous challenge at the end of that valley.

See that distant rocky ridge there? Yikes.

Sitting in Waiau Hut looking up at the mountain as the sun has gone down and the clouds have rolled in, the three of us are wondering if we will actually make it up there tomorrow. The ridgeline is no longer visible, although the DOC office had forecast fine weather tonight and tomorrow when I radioed them last night from Anne Hut. Tomorrow will tell, I suppose. I hope we do get over the pass tomorrow; Blue Lake Hut on the other side has a separate room I can escape to when the tea comes out.

Day 56: Boyle Flat Hut to Anne Hut

I begrudgingly left the hut this morning to begin the trail in sideways rain, after being told the track was exposed for the entire day today. The weather kept me going and I only stopped briefly for lunch. The trail wandered up river flats, at times through tall grass and bogs, and across a few shaky swing bridges. There was a fairly easy climb up to Anne Saddle, which felt like an eternity carrying such a heavy pack, but my lunch break was waiting for me at the top and I made it eventually.

Two short hours later I spotted Anne Hut in the distance, in the middle of a grassy valley. The rain had stopped but the wind had picked up, and I was happy to get inside and start a fire.

Camouflaged!

Anne Hut is a large, new hut, and I delighted in having the place to myself for the afternoon. I washed and dried clothing and cooked several meals on the fire, and repacked and organised for the morning.

‘Anne Hut’, the sign on the door reads, ‘The Most Exposed Hut in New Zealand’.

Just before dark a northbound couple arrived at the hut, Remy from Canada and Caroline from Germany. We spoke a little but everyone was tired and I left to go to sleep soon after they arrived, eager to get started on my long night’s sleep in my own bedroom as soon as possible!

Day 55: Lewis Pass Highway to Boyle Flat Hut

After a lovely couple of days at Maruia Springs being overly lazy and self-indulgent, I was dropped back at the trail pick-up at Boyle Village.

I even had my bag carried for the first kilometre!

I have to say, I wasn’t overly thrilled at the beginning of this section. I’m tired now, physically and mentally, and I’m beginning to understand the attitudes of those southbounders I met right at the start who just wanted to get it done. I also knew going into this section that I would face two tough challenges: the Waiau Pass and the Richmond Ranges.

For now, though, I have two more relatively easy days of flat walking ahead of me, before the Waiau Pass looms into sight.

This afternoon was spent ambling up the St James Walkway to a hut already containing two families who were on their Easter holidays, and were on their last day. The kids plied me for information and tips, explaining they planned to walk the Te Araroa one day, and it was satisfying to know enough about it now to provide some useful insight.