Day 42: Heading back in to the trail at Cass

After an extremely lazy week off, I headed back to the trail with a much-improved knee. A friend of mine, Reuben, was planning on joining me for a few days on the track, so traveling back to the trail with him made sense. I didn’t go back to Tekapo, but back in from Cass, a little more than 100km to the north. If I hadn’t arranged to meet people further on in the trail, I would have begun where I’d left off.

Reuben and I didn’t arrive at the beginning of the Cass Lagoon track until around 5pm, so we moved fairly swiftly up the river valley to Cass Saddle Hut, arriving just before dark and shaving an hour off the suggested time.

The hut was cosy, but quite old, and while I made dinner I tried not to shine my bright torch light in any of the corners for fear of discovering what else was taking shelter inside.

Installed in 1953!

After a quick dinner, and with food bags hanging from various hooks and wires around the hut, we went to sleep, with Reuben amused at his 9pm bedtime.

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Days 33 & 34: Tekapo to… Christchurch

Well, after a very hobbly morning, I made the decision. I’m heading out of the trail life for ten days in the hopes that this knee will right itself, and heading back in a little north, at Lake Coleridge, and continuing from there.

Having passed so many southbounders and hearing about their various injuries and enforced time off (or seeing their persistent injuries, encouraged by no time off), I figured it was a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.

I’m a little frustrated, I have to say, since the section I’ll be missing includes Stag Saddle, the highest point on the trail. It was photographed a few weeks ago under a foot of snow, dumped there by Cyclone Gita, and it looked beautiful! It’s safe to say I’ll be returning to walk the section as soon as possible. Just – maybe not in the winter.

It seems the northbounders are dwindling, with me in Christchurch, Michael taking time off forĀ his knee in Auckland, and James finally giving up on his leaky tent and mattress and calling the trip off this season. I ran into Timo and Lisa earlier, suddenly the only survivors of our little bubble, and told them of my plans in the hopes that we would meet up again on the trail north of Lake Coleridge. There are some tricky parts coming up in the next few weeks, namely the Waiau Pass and the Richmond Ranges, and travelling in a small group for these parts would be ideal.

For now though, all I have to do is not walk for a week. Here’s hoping my hard-earned fitness doesn’t go straight out the window!

Day 33: Twizel to Tekapo

This section of the trail follows the Alps to Ocean cycle trail north to Lake Pukaki, around the Eastern side of the lake, and then along the Tekapo Canal. Funnily enough, there is no tenting allowed between Lake Pukaki and Tekapo, leaving an incredibly long 43km stint to try and fit into one day. For this reason, lots of TAers opt to hitch hike this section, and more and more are hiring bikes and cycling the section, which is exactly what I did.

After a wonderful cooked breakfast, the fam and I naturally went out in search of coffee and more to eat, and I picked up my bike for the day, apprehensively entrusting the staff with my pack. After another photo shoot we said our goodbyes and I set off, complete with some of Anne’s delicious homemade rocky road slice gladwrapped and stowed in the pannier bag.

Cycling gave my knee some relief from the repetitive impact and huge weight it was used to bearing, and I didn’t notice it too much throughout the day.

The view was breathtaking arriving at Lake Pukaki, and I took a long break there, giggling at the people trying to aim their phones just right to make it look like their friend was holding up Aorangi. I continued to take lots of breaks heading up the shore of the lake, feeling relaxed with time on my side.

Lake Pukaki, with Aorangi at the end.

The trail after the lake was mostly gravel and mostly flat, except for a few beautiful paved sections and a few steep inclines that I got off and pushed for (biking uphill is one of my pet hates).

I arrived in Tekapo before my bag did, and I parked myself in a cafe and ate nachos while I checked in with friends and ordered late census forms.

Later after I’d checked into the lodge and visited the supermarket, I sat with a bag of frozen peas on my knee while my easily-entertained Japanese roommates took turns trying on my pack and taking photos of themselves with my hiking poles. One of them nonchalantly showed me his phone, on which he’d written ‘She birthday yesterday and we now surprise’, so I was able to break into a sudden loud rendition of Happy Birthday with the rest of them when the signal was given.

Tomorrow will be a day off, and I’ll spend it deciding whether or not to carry on at this point or to take some time off in hopes that the knee will heal. It hasn’t felt any better after a day of cycling, but then again it hasn’t had a proper rest yet so that’s not entirely surprising. Tomorrow will tell!

Day 32: Lake Ohau to Twizel

Today’s walk consisted of a 30km hobble down a gravel road in the rain.

The thing that kept me going was knowing I’d see my family in Twizel later in the afternoon. I listened to audiobooks and just kept going, and shortly after I took the turn off into Twizel’s town centre a car pulled to a stop beside me and I saw the smiling faces of my Dad, Uncle Tone, Aunty Anne, and my cousin Lydia. They piled out of the car and we had hugs and a roadside photo shoot! Apparently I have a lot more freckles than I started with.

We arrived at our accommodation and I quickly got laundry and food shopping out of the way, and we all went out to dinner. At dinner I was all caught up on the current events of the real world, informed that the census had been and gone, and also that several more people had donated to my Givealittle page, which was a happy surprise!

Back at the house we sat in the lounge and I iced my knee, apprehensively going over alternative plans if it should continue to hurt. I was the first to bed – no surprises there.

Day 31: Ahuriri River to Lake Ohau

It was the most freezing morning yet, camped deep in a valley, with alarms going off at 6.30 in the dark. The three of us were slow moving, given the temperature, but we managed to get fed, clothed, and packed by 7.45 and were off.

We had gathered from various versions of trail notes and southbounder stories that it would be a long day, so we wanted to get a bit of a jump start. The trail led us up the valley, through many small, ice-cold tributaries to the river, and the sunlight didn’t descend the valley to reach us until around 10am. When it did, the walk instantly turned from a mentally challenging slog into a pleasant stroll. The three of us gradually moved apart with our varied walking speeds, and I had the second half of the morning to myself.

Gotta love that sidling.

As the track climbed slowly but steadily with the river, it got rockier and harder to negotiate. A new evil, spiky plant also started to appear. My legs were quite shocking to look at by lunchtime, covered in small dribbles of blood where the plant had struck. It was also while trying to avoid one of these that I made a careless step onto a loose rock and twisted my already painful knee. It made me a little anxious, as I’d already accepted some strong painkillers from Michael in the morning to deal with it, and now I wasn’t sure that I’d know the full extent of the twist’s damage.

My new worst enemy.

After reaching the saddle, the track turned down the next valley and descended into some bush before reaching Lake Ohau.

The first glimpse of Lake Ohau.

There were a few flat kilometres along the road before I reached the campsite to find Michael already there nursing his sore knee. A while later, James showed up with apples for all of us, and we went for a refreshing dip in the lake! It was a hot, sunny, and all round great afternoon.

After a shared dinner at a picnic table and a quick spot of pushing someone’s camper van out of the mud, we retired at 7.30 ready for a good sleep.

It amazes me just how tired I still am at the end of every day, even after a month of walking. I’m definitely fitter, and thinner, but stronger. My appetite grew a little in the first week but has stayed the same since, and I can easily fall asleep at 8pm each night no matter the difficulty or length of the trail that day.

I’m excited to get out even earlier if possible tomorrow morning, since I will be meeting the whanau in town in the afternoon, after a 30km jaunt – one of the longer days so far.

Day 30: Top Timaru Hut to the Ahuriri River

After a rare night of almost uninterrupted sleep, I still felt ready for a day off! This morning I hobbled around the hut like it was still my first week of the trail. My left knee is unhappy about a particular mudslide that happened yesterday, where my right foot went shooting forward down the bank and my left foot caught underneath me, jarring my knee. It wasn’t bad at the time, but I’ve felt it today.

I left the hut today with my two buddies, Michael and James, and they quickly pushed ahead of me up the climb to Martha’s Saddle. They were there waiting for me at the top, though, and graciously lied that it had only been a few minutes.

A misty rainbow at the saddle.

We stuck together today because we knew we had the largest unbridged river crossing of the journey coming up. After a descent from the saddle and 15km of pleasant, flat, open country walking, we reached the river.

Putting our river crossing skills into action, we loosened our pack straps and threaded our arms in between each others backs and packs, grabbing on to the hip belts on the other side. In a row, we slowly moved together across the river. It was braided in two sections. The first was relatively easy, and we reached the island within a few minutes, and walked along it to find the best place to cross the second half, which was wider and more powerful. We eventually picked a spot that looked a bit shallower, and began again. This crossing was much more difficult and for few minutes in the middle all we could do was inch forward, one called-out step at a time, and the water powered past us at hip-height. We were steady though, and eventually we made it to the other side, a little tired but with a huge sense of accomplishment.

The Ahuriri River: no match for a trio of kiwis with river crossing skills!

I’m grateful that I walked in a group today. If I had been alone, there would have been no way to cross the river and I would have had to make the 10km detour to a bridge downstream.

We continued walking for a few kilometres after crossing the river and pitched our tents near a small stream. Coming up tomorrow is another long day – more sidling next to another river, and another big climb. This has been a tough week, and it’s only the middle!

Our valley village.

Day 29: Stodys Hut to Top Timaru Hut

Well, that was an interesting night. I fell asleep around 8pm last night after a hard day’s climbing, and I woke up a few hours later when the midnight circus came out to play!

There were clowning possums, weightlifting rats, and even an acrobatic pig/deer/grizzly bear. The first sound that woke me up was a big crash from the hut involving the big tupperware box I had put my food in. I lay, snapped awake, trying to figure out whether it was really possible that something could have pushed it off the bench, or managed to get the lid off. Probably not, I thought, given the extra rocks I had placed on the lid, but after sever more crashes I decided it was time to investigate.

I turned on my torch, gathered my wits, and left the tent. When I got to the hit some of the rocks on the lid had in fact moved, but I discovered the crashes had most likely come from things on the shelf above it being knocked down onto the box. I placed several more large rocks onto the lid and went back to the tent.

Shortly after I got comfortable again, the screaming began. I don’t know what was wrong with those possums, but the sounds they were making chilled me to the bone. I slowly became comfortable with it, when it was clear they weren’t going to bother me, they were just going to scream at each other all night.

I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep, I think, before the next event: the pig deer bear. There was something hanging around, and it woke me up making very low growly grunty noises. I had no idea what it was. It didn’t hang around long, because something must have spooked it and it suddenly bolted, crashing heavily through the forest.

Finally, the encore arrived. I still don’t know what on earth it was. I awoke to something that sounded like a lot of pressure being let out of something, again and again, like a giant was sitting on a lilo and repeatedly pulling out and pushing in the plug. It slowly died down in force and eventually stopped for about thirty seconds, and then the gurgling began. The giant was now attempting to unblock a drain. This was alarming. It was incredibly loud and sounded like it was only a few metres away from my tent. It stopped, and I was left in the dark silence with my heart beating so fast and loud I was sure the unidentified gurgling object would be able to hear it.

Eventually, after no more from the gurgler, I calmed down and managed to get back to sleep. I woke at 7.30, had the speediest morning on the trail so far, and had left by 8.

After a steep descent down to the river, I began what are commonly known as The Worst Ten Kilometres of the TA. Going into it knowing it would be awful helped, and I really didn’t find it that bad. The track followed a river, crossing it several times and climbing steeply up and downhill beside it. It was raining, and I went for more than one accidental mudslide. Lots of swearing and sighing happened, but I kept myself together and got on with it.

One such ‘up’ from the many ups and downs.

Dinner! Just kidding.

At the hut I ran into Michael and James, who have since met and have walked together for a while since I saw them last in Wanaka and Queenstown. They opted for a rest day today, the hut being a lot cosier than outside, and the three of us look set to walk to Twizel together for the rest of the week.

Day 28: Lake Hawea to Stodys Hut

What a monumental day!

After an easy stroll around the lake I reached the Breast Hill track. The sign at the start said: 4km, 4-5 hours. Uh oh.

Lake Hawea on a chilly overcast morning.

After a steep switchback track, I met an impossibly steep ridge line, and the markers suggested that I climb it. I looked at the track, about a foot directly in front of my face, took a deep breath, and began to search for handholds.

One of the flatter sections, leading up into the clouds!

I spent the next few hours repeating “Just look down at the track, don’t look anywhere else” to myself, every now and then finding somewhere flat enough to stop for a rest and a tentative look at the view. And when I did look out at the view, my breath was taken away every time. It was a stunning, sunny day, and I could see out over Lake Hawea, the mountains behind, and further on Lake Wanaka was shimmering in the distance.

After 5 hours, like the sign said, I reached Pakituhi Hut for lunch. The hut was nestled in a saddle, and it was a safe, flat, welcome spot to relax. I got going again fairly quickly as I knew I still needed to climb to the Breast Hill Summit, before descending the 12km to Stodys Hut.

The going was easier to the summit. The track still climbed, but I no longer needed my hands to help me along! I approached the summit just in time to witness a couple of southbound ears arrive and see the view for the first time. I had seen it the whole time I was climbing, but they had come from the other side of the range and this was their first time seeing Hawea and Wanaka. Their reaction made my day.

Made it!

I spent about ten minutes at the summit soaking in the view and generally feeling pretty good about life.

The next 12km down to Stodys Hut were relatively easy going and although I was incredibly tired after the climb, I still had daylight left and was taking it at a leisurely pace.

Stodys Hut has a reputation amongst TAers for being the worst hut on the trail, and when I arrived I understood. Squeezing through the short open door frame, I landed on an earth floor scattered with discarded tins and newspapers. I looked around at the decaying antlers hanging over the fireplace and the Bill Clinton quotes scribbled on the ceiling. A quick peek into the hut book alerted me to the presence of a large plastic box that people had been storing their food in to keep it safe from the ‘angry’ family of rats holding residence in the hut.

Not too bad from the outside…

I swiftly set my tent up I’m a clearing about 30m from the hut, and after dinner I placed all of my food and cooking equipment in the plastic box in the hut, and placed several large rocks on top of it. I figure if animals are going to try and get into my food, I’d rather they be doing it unsuccessfully in the hut instead of nibbling holes in my tent to get at the food inside.

I’m a little anxious camping at this hut alone as it has a distinctly spooky feel to it, but after such a demanding day I’m hoping to sleep well. We’ll see!

Day 27: Wanaka to Lake Hawea

Not much to report today. After a luxuriously long coffee at the waterfront, and a quick dip into an outdoors store to replace the sternum strap on my bag, I set off.

I followed easy walking trails and cycle trails from Wanaka to Hawea, and the easy terrain allowed me to get lost in my thoughts and in my audiobooks for most of the time. Part of the trail followed the picturesque Clutha River, and I watched paddle boarders skim past negotiating the currents and rapids.

Following the lazy trail along the Clutha.

I arrived in Hawea with not much fuss and checked myself into a lodge, quickly taking advantage of the $12 dinner special available to dorm guests! While I was eating, Timo and Lisa arrived, and we caught up about the trail since I had seen them a few days before Wanaka. They plan to take it easier than I do over the next week, so it may be a while before I see them again. No doubt I will somewhere, though! It’s always the way.

Arriving at Lake Hawea after a relaxing day.

Days 25 & 26: Fern Burn Hut to Wanaka

It was a short (ish) walk out to the road end in the morning. Shortly after I woke up at the hut I noticed my phone wasn’t working – I could tell it was doing something, but the screen was blank. I hoped that it perhaps just go a little wet somehow and it would come right. While I was sitting down at the car park having morning tea, two women who had overnighted at the hut came out of the trail and asked me if I wanted a ride into Wanaka. I wasn’t tired, but my phone still wasn’t working, so I accepted and got into town early.

I picked up some food and gear from the post office and checked into a backpackers, pottered around for a few hours, and eventually dragged myself into the Vodafone shop around 4pm to browse the phones for sale. I was very grumpy by this stage, because I really liked the phone I had, and I had bought it new before starting the walk, and it had been expensive. I took a massive downgrade at the store, paying extra to have the new phone unlocked from the Vodafone network. The rest of the evening was spent bitterly re-downloading apps and setting them up.

The next day I eagerly went to meet my friend Ebony from home who was in town for a wedding. It was amazing to see her, and her friends fed me a cooked breakfast, making me a very happy lady. I followed them around a frisbee golf course for a little while, before doing my grocery shopping and eventually returning to their place to eat lunch, too. They went off to the wedding all glammed up, and I spent the evening getting ready for the week ahead.

Highly recommended Red Star Burgers… I absolutely inhaled this one, much to the astonishment of the staff who were wary of selling me the biggest one on the menu after sizing my skinny self up.

I was a little nervous about the coming week as there were several hard days in a row to come, and I was on a schedule – I was going to meet Dad, Tone, and my Aunt Anne in Twizel on Friday, so there was no wiggle room. That being said, I was also very excited to see them, and knew it would be a great motivator during the tough bits ahead!