Day 53: Hope Kiwi Lodge to Windy Point

Dad hates huts. I’m starting to clearly dislike them, too. Curiously enough, it wasn’t the wine drinkers that kept us awake all night but the hunters, who tossed and turned every ten minutes on the dot. They had all doubled up on their mattresses using spare ones and I couldn’t help but wonder in the early hours of the morning if they wouldn’t have been comfier with just the one.

Dad and I were surprised with the lack of pain in this morning’s movements about the hut given the rough day yesterday. The sun was still coming up when we left, and I think both of us were grateful for a relatively short day, ending with us being picked up at 1pm.

The trek into Mordor begins!

We began by going rogue, following a four wheel drive track instead of the tramping track, and that way cutting off a section known to be full of windfall and hard going. Following this four wheel drive track meant we had to ford a river at some point, which we did with ease, and found ourselves back on the tramping track on the other side within minutes. The track was a dream compared with yesterday’s, and we made good time.

After a couple of hours walking on river flats and in beech forest, we came across Hope Halfway Hut, complete with a freshly cleaned stag’s skull and antlers laying by the door. The two hunters inside had shot it the previous night, and described how they would have to carry out 30kg of meat between them, on top of already heavy bags, which Dad and I just couldn’t wrap our heads around.

The rest of the track took us an easy couple of hours through the beech forest, accompanied by what sounded like hundreds of bellbirds. Bellbirds are my favourite, so I was ecstatic to actually see a handful, for the first time on this trip. Unfortunately they didn’t stick around long enough for me to get a photo.

A small clearing allowed us to look down on the Hope River, which we had crossed at the beginning of the day and had been following ever since.

Arriving at the Windy Point carpark on the Lewis Pass Highway an hour early for our pick up, we sat and had a coffee, wondering out loud whether my boyfriend would dare to be late to get us, after I had offended him on the phone by suggesting he might be. He was, and his first words when he hopped out of the car were “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”.

Day 52: Lake Taylor to Hope Kiwi Lodge

At 6am Dad and I had left Christchurch and were on the road, heading towards Lake Sumner Forest Park. We eventually found the beginning of the track in the morning fog and set out, through farmland and scrub, along the Hurunui River.

Dad braves the first swingbridge of the trip.

After two hours we came to the run down Gabriel Hut, had a quick break, and pushed on to find Lake Sumner, completely still and beautiful.

Skipping stones.

Quickly, though, we realised that the track was the lakefront, which was a mixture of loose gravel and boulders. Our spirits still high, we set off without complaining too much. After a hard slog around the shore, we were grateful to see a marker at the edge of the bush, and the trail heading up into it. Soon, though, we would be wishing to return to the gravel. The bush track was overgrown and riddled with slips, and made for excruciatingly slow going.

The following hours were a mixture of trudging over gravel, picking our way through rocks, and navigating the steep and difficult bush tracks. We stopped for lunch, exhausted, and looking forward to linking up with the official Te Araroa route, which would be much easier and well-worn.

Lake Marion, just north of Lake Sumner.

Once we did link back up, the going was easy, although we were dog tired, and after every section I heard “That was never 2k!”, or “That was never 4k!”. We emerged from the bush onto a grassy valley and spotted Hope Kiwi Lodge a couple of kilometers up. It never seemed to grow as we trudged towards it, but we somehow made it there and found some bunks, collapsing for a pre-dinner snooze.

The hut is home tonight to several groups of trampers, and six hunters, all of whom have had no luck but seem to keep popping in for ten minutes before heading out yet again. One group of women arrived not long after we did and immediately smashed a bottled of wine on the bedroom floor, winning condescending looks from the other trampers. It was OK, though, because they had four more. I wonder if we’ll get any sleep tonight.

Day 50: Avalanche Peak and back out to Christchurch

It’s a bright, sunny day today. Half of me is frustrated I’m not on my way down the Harper Pass but at least I got up a mountain in the morning!

Avalanche Peak was an incredibly tough three hour climb up, and a tricky two hour descent.

I was stumped until I spotted the small orange trail marker on the tree at the very top.

At times the track had me scaling large boulders, walking alongside a sheer drop, or clambering over a gravelly ridge.

The grass verge on the left of the track was the cliff edge… eek.

The trail nearing the summit!

At the peak I found a collection of other hikers sitting in the silence, gazing at the surroundings. It was completely still and sunny at the top, eerie in the contrast to the last week.

A view from the top, looking north-west.

This has been the tallest climb to date, and today I could properly tell that I’ve become much fitter during this adventure, completing the climb in two less hours than suggested, and feeling no worse for wear afterwards. That is, apart from some aching muscles in my shoulders from all that rockclimbing!

Day 49: Arthur’s Pass… Still!!

It looks like the whole building has been put into a carwash, the rain is so heavy.

The next section of the trail is the Harper Pass, and it’s an old pounamu trading route that runs West to East between the Arthur’s Pass and Lewis Pass Highways. Since I’ve planned to meet Dad at the end of the Harper Pass in three day’s time, and I have no more days up my sleeve to use in case of rain, I would have had to leave today to begin. The first day and a half of the track is in the river, and according to DOC the rivers in the area become incrossable after about 50mm of rain. Today we’re getting 150mm!

So that’s that, then. The new plan is to stick around till tomorrow, and try and get up Avalanche Peak in the morning, which is a popular 1100m climb from Arthur’s Pass Village. In the afternoon I’ll head out to Christchurch, again.

Day 48: Goat Pass Hut to the Otira River… and back to Arthur’s Pass

Wow! Today was a big one. My comfort zone was a mere speck on the horizon for the entire day.

It was misty and windy in the morning. From the hut, I could see the clouds travelling up the Deception Valley, past the hut and then whipping across the pass about 50 metres above me. In the absence of rain, though, I decided that it was time to attempt the notorious Deception River track. Well, the notorious Deception River.

Blue sky, even!

Katie and I said goodbye to Josh and left the hut, after some procrastination in putting our freezing cold and wet shoes on, and began the climb down a rock stream that led to the Deception River. It was slow going, technically challenging, and ice-cold. I lost feeling in my feet within minutes. Katie turned to me and said “It’s cool there’s a warm-up, huh?”. Yikes.

Within half an hour we reached the river and graduated from stone-clambering to big, slippery, rapid-covered boulder hopping. We were in and out of the river, navigating over rockfall and between rapids, and it was terrifying! In the intense concentration I lost sense of time. After a while, I heard a cry from Katie and looked up to see her grinning wildly, next to a tree that read ‘HUT’. It was a glorious moment.

Woohoo!!

We took a quick break inside, so as to not cool down too much, and then we were back at it. Now, the route was a mixture of the intense river navigation from before, and comparitively easy forest tracks running alongside it.

As soon as the track moved out of the river, I was able to snap a photo of it. It was raining again by this point so it was a hurried, inexpert photograph taken with my nose, as my phone wouldn’t recognise my gloved fingers!

For the next six hours we continued to follow, cross, and walk in the river. It had begun to rain steadily since we left the hut, and it was a fairly cold and miserable afternoon until the last couple of hours, when the rain ceased and the sun threatened to appear.

The adventures were not over yet, though. As we had been following the river down to its confluence with the Otira, more and more sidestreams had joined it, and the river had grown from a narrow rocky one into a wide and powerful one. I could tell it was high looking at the odd submerged flax bush.

As the track emerged onto some grassy river flats, I was at once excited to see the road in the distance, and dismayed to see a trail marker sticking up from the grass… over the other side of the river. Katie and I looked at the impassable river and agreed to follow it for a while to look for a cross point. After a few minutes I turned to see Katie behind me, in the middle of the rapids, up to her waist and struggling. My heart sped up as I watched her slip and very nearly be swept away. I got my beacon out, ready to call SAR if need be, and anxiously watched her inch her way towards the other side. As soon as she made it, I was furious with her.

We walked further downstream, one of us on either side of the river, and I found a place to cross. Though it was the best place to cross, and technically achievable, it was still difficult and I was at my river-crossing limit in terms of depth and current.

I had decided I would try and get a ride back to Arthur’s Pass just to spend the night, so I could warm up and dry my gear out. I knew the backpacker’s reception closed at 7pm, and by the time I had practically jogged out to the highway it was already 6.15. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and in quite a grumpy mood by this point. It was an all-consuming relief when the second car to drive round the corner stopped to pick us up. The woman driving was a little taken aback by my enthusiastic thank-yous.

I stumbled into the backpackers at 6.50, only to see Josh sitting at the table enjoying his second, or maybe third, dinner. He told me the first thing he’d done when he’d got into town was go to the DOC office and ask if there had been any rescues that day! Then, he informed me of the severe weather warning in place for the area for the following 24 hours. My heart sank as I realised the next section of the trail would be impossible, but I was also grateful I had indeed managed to come into town. If I had been forced to camp along the trail I would have no doubt wandered on and found myself stuck between rivers, cold and wet. I’d had enough of that.

Day 47: Goat Pass Hut

Not much to report today! For the entire day the three of us ate, played cards, and tried to stay warm. The rain poured past us horizontally and we discussed the implications of carrying on north tomorrow or turning back instead at length, our conversation eventually following a distinctly circular pattern.

It was finally decided that Katie was going to continue north tomorrow no matter what. She was determined and had a loose schedule, so if she only made it to the hut 2km down the trail, that was alright. I, given my dodgy knee and anxieties about the Deception River, would only continue north if the rain stopped, and had stopped for most of the night, before we set out in the morning. If it was still raining, I would turn back, down the track I knew to be safe in that weather. If I turned back, Josh would turn back himself and go north with Katie. He’d come up the Deception River in the rain, and felt he could navigate it and help to keep Katie safe should she press on in undesirable conditions.

I was grateful to Josh for offering to go with Katie should I decide to turn around. The more time I spend with her the more I realise her drive to complete every inch of the trail overrides her logical contemplation of the weather conditions. If I knew Katie would be alone going down the Deception unless I went with her, my decision would have been swayed and I would have been far more likely to do something that went against my instincts: precisely the wrong thing to do in this context.

Day 46: Arthur’s Pass to Goat Pass Hut

Katie and I spent the morning in the cosy cafe reading dated Wilderness magazines. One amusing article from a 2003 edition told the story of Geoff Chapple, who had just completed a journey on foot running the length of New Zealand, linking up popular and scenic tramping tracks where possible. He called his pioneered route Te Araroa and hoped to make the track official in the coming years.

As I sat there, rain pounding down outside, I wondered if Geoff had ever had any second thoughts along the way. This section in particular seems incredibly sensitive to weather, with large, powerful rivers to ford at every step. I certainly feel small in regard to the forces of nature here.

Deciding that a night at a hut was better than a night camping in the rain, Katie and I decided to begin around lunchtime and complete the short four hour stint up to Goat Pass this afternoon, and have a day off at the hut, waiting out the rain under a sturdy shelter, at least. That’s exactly what we did, and it worked out to be a fun, albeit wet, afternoon. The trail worked its way up the Mingha Valley, crossing a few small rivers, and up to Goat Pass. The track was boarded over the top of the pass, something that felt luxuriously out of place after so much time spent sloshing through bogs.

Looking back down the Mingha Valley. Part of the boarded track is seen as a small light-coloured line around a quarter of the way from the bottom, in the centre.

Just as we reached the pass, Goat Pass Hut came into view, and we hurriedly got inside and tried to get dry as quick as possible, knowing that we would cool down quickly at this altitude and in the absence of a fireplace.

Home!

A few minutes after we arrived, a kiwi southbounder called Josh walked through the door. The three of us milled around making dinner wearing all of our clothes, and sleeping bags. We swapped various trail stories and gave the usual advice and warnings about things coming up, and then settled in for an evening playing cards, with Josh hopping over to the bench in his sleeping bag to cook himself another dinner every hour or so.

Tomorrow looks to be a chilly one, but I’m still glad we didn’t try to camp at the start of the track tonight!

Day 45: Day off at Arthur’s Pass

After a visit to the DOC office in the morning, I settled in for the day, deciding against beginning the Deception Route in the rain. It is forecast to rain heavily today and tomorrow, clearing on Monday. The second day of the Deception Route has me walking in the river for most of the day, and is a notoriously dangerous stretch, one that would be impossible directly following heavy rain.

I met a fellow TAer here this morning, Katie, who had been travelling the other way up this stretch yesterday. In order to navigate down to some boulders from a ledge, she had taken off her pack to lower it down before climbing down herself. Unfortunately, her pack was swept into the Deception River and traveled downstream before catching on some rocks. She was able to retrieve the pack, but realising that all of her gear was wet, and being wet and very cold herself, activated her locator beacon and was helicoptered out to Arthur’s Pass.

Katie was unusually nonchalant as she recounted this story to me, which only served to increase my anxiety about this upcoming section. A Ta purist, Katie has resigned to walk every metre of the trail from head to toe, and was excited when she learned that I was northbound and destined to walk the Deception Route in the next few days. She asked if she could come along, that way covering the parts of the trail she had missed, and creating a slightly safer situation, walking with company, for the difficult day. I gladly agreed.

Day 44: Hamilton Hut to Arthur’s Pass

No one got a good night’s sleep last night. A few inconsiderate hut-mates had me in a near rage in the early hours of the morning, having spent the last couple of hours repeatedly blinded by their headtorches shining in my direction, and now wondering what on earth they were banging around the kitchen for at 4am. I think I got an hour’s sleep before one of their phone alarms rang at 6, and the owner was unable to locate it to turn it off for a good couple of minutes.

The morning was spent getting ready quickly with a grumpy expression, and handing the offenders item after item they had left in the bedroom. After quick review of plans and a goodbye, I headed north along the river solo, my sour mood slowly improving over the first hour.

Another ‘historic’ hut, West Harper. Today’s morning tea stop.

After following the river for a few hours I arrived at the Lagoon Saddle Shelter, a cute A-frame with no bunks but two mattresses. I had lunch, and since I had arrived two hours earlier than I had predicted, it was time for a nap. When I woke up, my feet were frozen and I could see my breath in front of me. Unable to get warm, I made a second lunch of instant mashed potato and packet gravy , a meal that turned my day around and changed my life overall.

On the trail again, I climbed to the saddle and was immediately greeted by expansive views of Arthur’s Pass and the Waimakariri River.

The following hour was spent trudging through knee deep mud to reach a pine forest, and then quickly descending to Bealey Hut where Reuben was waiting for me.

Mud country.

A quick drive down the road, and I checked into a backpackers at Arthur’s Pass. Even though it had only been three days since I had been in civilisation, the warm and dry backpackers was heavenly!

Finally got those census forms sent!

Day 43: Cass Saddle Hut to Hamilton Hut

After a luxurious sleep-in, Reuben and I left the hut late in the morning and began the shallow climb up to the saddle. The weather forecast had told me the rain would start around 1pm, so we planned only to walk the 2.5 hours to Hamilton Hut today and spend the afternoon playing cards, cosy inside.

Along the way to the saddle, signs repeatedly warned us of avalanches, and looking at the steep scree mountains on either side of us, it was easy to understand why the track wouldn’t be a good idea in winter.

Avalanche country.

We arrived at the hut just as the rain began, and settled in for a lazy afternoon. The hut, referred to by some as the Hamilton Hilton, was large and in good condition, with two sleeping areas and – gasp – an inside sink WITH a tap!

As we watched the rain outside become steadily heavier we played countless games of cards and drank tea. Other trampers showed up at regular intervals, and I dutifully swapped notes and warnings about the trail ahead with some southbound TAers.

Making the next day’s lunch, Reuben and I discussed the logistics of him walking back down the valley to the carpark to look for his missing wallet, while I would continue north to Bealey Hut. We agreed to do just that, and meet up at Bealey Hut tomorrow evening, since it marked the other end of the track and was accessible by the road.