After waking up in Lake Hawea, I catch the shuttle provided by the resort into Wanaka and go pitch my tent at the holiday park.
I dislike Wanaka. Being back in civilisation, as such, is jarring. There are men with popped collars everywhere, in their shitty cargo shorts and boat shoes and expensive sunglasses. I send a text message to some mates back home saying wryly; “Hey if you were wondering if the Patriarchy ever takes a holiday… It does. And it comes to Wanaka.”
After getting some chores done I find a lakefront bar that has free wifi and set myself up to sip one glass of wine as I communicate with friends and family. Eventually I am interrupted by two middle-aged dudes ostensibly playing pool but obviously also somewhat on the pull, who ascertain that I’m travelling here and then proceed to launch into a bunch of their own stories about how they’ve been heli-packing once and been to fifty-two countries or whatever. I cannot imagine why they have the least interest in talking to me, with my dirty sun-faded clothes and unshaved legs and feral hair. One makes a snide remark about me being ‘one of those people who’s always on your phone’ and then I’ve finally had enough and I leave.
I bump into Happy Jenny again in the street, who is starting to have trouble with her knees as well. I also briefly see Alistair and Gayle.
I’ve been looking forward to the next section. It’s the last big push I plan to do on TA, and I have no need to rush it. I have time to kill here, so I have every intention of going hut to hut and just indulging myself in these days in the Otago wild country.
I hitch out of Wanaka, and get picked up by a young European couple and their baby, who are taking a campervan holiday here. They drop me near the trailhead, and I stop a few hundred metres up the gravel road to spread out my tent to dry after the previous night’s condensation.
I am sitting on the edge of Motatapu Station. This giant sprawling piece of land, that stretches up and over the massive ridges and saddles that stand between here and Arrowtown, and cascades down onto the shores of Lake Wanaka. It is owned by Shania Twain, who has signed a preservation covenant to give access to the land for the public, to not farm any of the land above 1100 MASL. A condition of her purchase was to provide the funds to build one hut – she has put up for three of them.
I’ll be staying in the huts that Shania built.
After sending my various safety messages, I pack up my tent again and start off up the valley towards Fern Burn Hut. I am expecting tussock country, and am surprised and delighted when I am plunged into a bosky forested area that leads up along a stream. The walking is easy and and views are pretty and the ground is dry and springy underfoot.
Eventually the trail drags up and cuts above the bushline and I clamber up and sidle some ridges and arrive at a basic, modern hut. A sweet Australian man with long dark hair a mild lisp called Pas is here, quite settled in. I pick my bunk and spread my tent out again because my things still aren’t quite dry.
I chat with Pas, who lives in Tasmania and visits New Zealand regularly, often volunteering for hut warden duties to keep the costs of his travel and accommodation down. He hasn’t been able to find a room in Wanaka for tonight, so is skulking up here in hills.
While we are talking, a bunch of young boys arrive. The are all maybe twenty-one or twenty-two and roll in like a bunch of labrador puppies, all rambunctious and soft and nice to look at. They are doing a basic in and out to the hut for the night and have brought steaks and wine and weed. They deal me into a game of cards, and I sit at one end of the table with Pas and we talk more amongst ourselves as we play with the wider group.
I am up in my bunk settling in for the night, the boys still in and out of the hut a bit and doing their best to take their talking out of doors to be respectful. Eventually there is a kerfuffle and a young woman arrives, slinging her heavy pack on the floor and sitting on it to remove her boots. This is Danelle, who at seventeen is possibly the youngest walker in the TA class of 2017/18 and nicknamed Baby for this – and also maybe her resemblance to a young Jennifer Grey with trailing wavy blond hair. She and the boys are equally delighted to find the presence of each other here and after some introductions in which she rapidly shows them who’s boss (“Oh, you’re from Nelson? Did you walk all the way from there then, hur hur.” “No, I walked here from Cape Reinga”), they all adjourn outside for stargazing.
I’m not in a rush to get going the next day. It’s a brief walk for me over Jack Hall’s Saddle and into the next hut, it’s a beautiful morning. So I have breakfast and chat some more with Baby and she mentions she’s been hiking on and off with Foxy who I haven’t seen since Taumarunui, and then sure enough Foxy walks through the door. Foxy with her red hair and flinty, clever eyes and an ass you could crack walnuts on. The two other women are heading all the way to Roses Hut today.
We cross a couple of times heading over the saddle, and collect at Highland Creek Hut for lunch and for me to stop for the day. I talk to Foxy about how at the beginning of Te Araroa, the women seemed to be in the minority, and here, close to the end, suddenly women are everywhere, it’s nothing but women. We chat about how physiologically suited women are to long-distance hiking. We hold body-fat better, we’re less likely to quit in ultra-distance events, we match the men over the big distances as their physical advantage starts to drop away and it all becomes more of a psychological challenge.
When I wake up, the weather is not so good. The rain is light, and comes and goes. I have enough food for another day here, to possibly wait for better weather – but the risk of waiting is that at this end of the season in this end of the country, the weather can always be worse. So, rainpants and woollen beanie it is, and back into the long and drenching tussock.
Today has a couple of big, big ups and downs. I climb up long ridges, following fence lines, occasionally having to knee-jam my way up and out of deep ditches and creek beds. I take woollen layers off and put them back on as I climb and descend.
Finally there is the drop down onto the long and thrusting valley flat where Roses Hut is built. From high on the hill above I see a utility vehicle and a trailer pull into it – DOC workers here to do hut maintenance.
God, I hate downhill. I am finally off the descent and start in across the flat towards the hut, climbing over a stile, back into the farmed country of Motatapu. Almost in for the day, I suddenly hear a scuffled splashing and look to my right to see a juvenile sheep down in a deep ditch with two feet of water flowing through from one choked end. Her ears are a little too big for her and her fleece still has that hint of tight soft lamby curl about it. She makes a couple of abortive attempts to jump out on her own, falling back into the water, panicking herself and briefly plunging into a piece of wire fence that has her trapped where she is.
I can see her sides heaving, and there really isn’t anything for it. I unclip my pack and slide down the grassy bank, landing knee-deep in icy cold ditch water, startling the sheep again into a fresh round of scrambling and splashing. She is possibly not a lot lighter than I am, but when she makes a new attempt to get up onto the far bank I quickly move behind her and pin her flanks between my knees, holding her there with her front hooves already up and out of the water. She is frozen in fear now, and I plunge my hands beneath the surface of the water and grab her by the hocks and give a heave upwards. She kicks back towards me, catching me on the thighs as we shove against each other and then she’s up and out and trots off with a round of pitiful bleating. Eventually she looks back at me then puts her head down and starts eating grass, quite as if nothing has happened.
“You stupid thing!” I yell at her oblivious woolly backside, scrambling back out, the front of my shirt saturated and streaks of mud across my pants.
“What an earth happened to you?” one of the DOC workers asks as I arrive at Roses. I explain and they laugh – “all part of the experience!” they say jovially.
I read and write a bit while they work, and we all end up cooking dinner more or less together. They share extra rice with me, and also produce some beers from their truck and give me one. I have copped a bit of stick previously on the trail for ‘always’ getting trail magic, a charge I have protested but look it’s true. I do always get trail magic.
The men tell me that I best get off the track and into town tomorrow, as a severe cold weather front is approaching the day after. This will be a 25km run over Roses Saddle, the high point of the Motatapu, and along the Arrow River itself and through the abandoned mining village of Macetown.
We brew hot beverages at sunrise and sit and sip hot tea and coffee. I’m not feeling so flash – the leaden sensation and tight throat that indicates an oncoming cold. Best to get to town.
The climb out of the valley and over Roses is hard and beautiful. I keep stopping to look back behind me, the rugged etched hills of Otago looking so aggressively defined, almost cubist. I keep thinking of Colin McCahon’s Otago Landscape paintings, that basic and simple capture of the land here. The cold, the exertion, the dull flat sky, the duns and greens of the earth. Everything is so real here, so really real – I have never felt so drowned in complete reality and realness.
I find the Arrow River and spend the late morning following it, in and out of its shallow places and deep pools, veins of marble polished white from the water.
I come to Macetown – ghost town. I stop to read information plaques, and eventually perch on the front step of one of the crumbling stone cottages to eat a late lunch. I look at the two gravel-floored rooms inside, and think, in a pinch, they would be an okay place to sleep in if the weather was bad.
There is one more climb, up and over Big Hill Saddle and then into Arrowtown. Autumn is chasing down the summer and the first russet flush is on the leaves of the trees here, everything gold-toned and soft-lit.
I am staying at my cousin’s house tonight, a night in a real bed and a chance to sit at a set table and drink good chilled chardonnay. The next morning I will wake to temperatures barely above freezing and snow dusting the hills I have just come over. Hannah and Simon and Justin and Tobias were all barely behind me but they will not make it past Fern Burn Hut, the snow creating impassable conditions.