Beer, Babes, Battlestar Galactica, and Brewster Hut

*Content note… there is body/weight talk in this post. I discuss my own body and changes I experienced after a period of intense physical stress, and some specific numbers are mentioned in terms of weight gain. I will flag the start and end of this section so you can skip that one part if you want.

Back she goes.

It’s been almost two years, since I left Aotearoa, and I’m itching for the return. My backpack still holds the smell of my own body and a country’s worth of exertion, impossible to eradicate even after scrubbing with soap and immersing in a tub of water and anti-fungal disinfectant and airing in the sun.

I land in Queenstown fresh off the back of yet another marathon rewatch of my favourite TV series of all time… The 2004 reboot of space opera sci-fi show ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (BSG). I love it for so much; for the spectacular jumble of a cast featuring hitherto young unknowns Grace Park and Tahmoh Penikett, Jamie Bamber, Tricia Helfer and Katee Sackhoff, as well as stalwart character actors Callum Keith Rennie, Harry Dean Stanton, Edward James Olmos, Kate Vernon and the forever incandescent Mary McDonnell. I love it for how it deals with the subject of othering, of how we are quick to dehumanise those we see as fundamentally different to ourselves, of the justifications we make to excuse the worst of ourselves. I love it for the balance it tries to reach in the depiction of the cause for justice versus the pursuit of vengeance. I love it for the intelligence it assumes of its viewers. I love it for the greyed out, waterless, gritty depiction of a life in Space.

But how I fucking love it most of all for the women.

Ain’t no lie – BSG would be a different show if it was made again today, in a very different social climate. It now seems like a glaring omission that there are apparently no queer people in the future/Space, according to basic character representation (although there are definite and horrific parallels in the treatment of Cylons, and the pejorative language used against trans folks but that’s a whole dissertation-level conversation on its own).

But as it was, women got to be so many things in BSG. Tricia Helfer, former runway model and undeniable bombshell, was dubbed ‘Marilyn MonRobot’ in fandom, but brings stunning complexity to the role of Caprica Six, in a way that perhaps Jeri Ryan paved the way for as Seven of Nine in the Star Trek franchise. Mary McDonnell gets to play the tough and complicated and yet forever competent President of the Twelve Colonies Laura Roslin – she occasionally plays dirty at politics, she makes some flawed decisions, but she still gets to carry herself with gravitas and authority as a leader in ways that usually only the dudes do.

And of course, there is Starbuck. Captain Starbuck was played by the insufferable Dirk Benedict in the dreadful and campy 1979 iteration of the show, but the reboot gender-flipped the role in a stroke of casting genius. Sady Doyle wrote about her thusly;

“She is the primary action hero of the show, she is tough and blunt and doesn’t shower all that often, she throws punches and drinks and smokes all the time, she doesn’t wear dresses or makeup or want babies or feel the need to be a gentle civilizing influence on the folks around her, she takes obvious and obnoxious pride in being stronger and braver than anyone else, and she continually hooks up with dudes because she thinks they’re pretty but is never, ever, ever soft and squishy about it… The second I saw new Starbuck, with her biceps gleaming like salvation, I knew that it was insane and awesome and fabulous that a female character with zero traces of conventional femininity was not only in a television show, but was one of its central characters.”

ILU

Katee Sackhoff brings both exquisite prettiness and hardy good looks to Starbuck, but there is a stripped back-ness to her, and she walks with a broad shouldered backwards-slouch swagger and the costume design doesn’t put her in fucking boob armour, and the directorial choices don’t subject her to the indignity of ass-cam. Starbuck is the best Viper (combat) pilot in the Colonial Fleet, but as a survivor of genocide and an abusive upbringing she is also traumatised, and her exceptionalism as a pilot also makes her profoundly isolated. Starbuck is a crack pilot because she just loves to fly, and all the rest is just the patchwork of who she is as a messy and relatable and weak and fallible and strong and perfectly imperfect human. She gets to be a central part of the BSG story without being idealised, without being obligated to be a moral compass for the men; not being cursed to having to be twice as good in every way to see even half of the action (hi Hermione Granger).

Starbuck models a way of being a woman, and particularly of being a *young* woman, that is largely removed from performance of gender… Equally, we get to see Laura Roslin be openly sexual as a woman in her middle-aged prime, and both examples are remarkable by their rarity. I don’t feel like I’ve seen anything to compare to the all-round excellence and complexity of BSG’s cast of women ever since. Even Captain Marvel is idealised in her appearance and character in ways that were not asked of Starbuck (and look, I loved Captain Marvel too, no shade). When I first watched BSG I felt like it was breaking new ground, but it feels now like that ground has been left to turn fallow.

But I don’t really have to look at the small or big screen these days to find examples of women being competent and tough and excellent at what they do… Because I see those women around me when I go hiking. I see women in tattered, sun-faded shirts, with wild hair and mud-streaked calves, with flushed cheeks and big backpacks, and laughs that run a scale from deep chuckles at bawdy jokes to high squeals at first contact with icy water, and eyes that glitter from both tears of pain and frustration and the wild excitement of just being this alive. I see Starbuck in all their faces, and I see a little bit of myself reflected back.

It happens that my Mum is staying with extended family in Arrowtown when I fly in, and we spend the first long evening (sunset comes late and comes slowly in NZ at this time of year) sitting on the grass with our feet in the stream in a tiny park. We shop for the standard hiking food fare of noodles and instant porridge and salmon sachets and peanut butter, and of course coffee. Ain’t no hiking before coffee.

After 48 hours in town we collect Vivian from the airport. We have not seen each other in nearly two years, she arrives bearing gifts of Danish beer and heavy rye bread. After lunch at a vineyard, Mum drives us down to the shore of Lake Hayes and we both strip to our underwear and walk into the water, and I swim out as deep as I dare.

There aren’t mountains in Sydney, like there are in New Zealand, and the ocean there has become the part of nature that I go to in order to feel immersed in something huge and wild. When I get into the sea these days, I take a certain obnoxious and dare I say Starbuck-esque pride in swimming out further and staying in longer than anyone else. This is a new thing for me. I avoided swimming for years, believing I wasn’t ‘good’ at it and also caught up on various body nonsenses that made me not want to be so visibly naked in front of others.

Body talk for a bit until the paragraph break!!!

I avoid discussing it, because I don’t think it’s a useful conversation coming from me, but my body has undeniably changed since I came home from Te Araroa. Something to do with the natural biorhythmic pushback after being under such physical stress for an extended time and then suddenly not, combined with passing into my forties. But anyway, I gained ten kilos in about eight months (and honestly, half of that I needed to put on but the rest was purely for fun and pastries) and I’m now the heaviest I have ever been. I had to replace most of my pants, my thighs have softened and spread, my jawline has blurred, and I have a cute l’il squishy tummy. My new comfier body is just so much easier to negotiate life and space in – my butt doesn’t hurt after a few minutes of sitting on a hard chair or a rock, I don’t get chilled nearly as easily when I get into cold water, and I barely ever get sick these days. It’s a little bit of a mindfuck, receiving those tacit sneaky messages my whole life that weight gain was something to be reviled and as a woman I should be ever-vigilant against it. And then it happened, and I feel nothing at all. Which, I should add, is easy for me because I’m still thin by every social standard.

Those who skipped a bit you can start reading again here

But I swim in Lake Hayes, in the deep south of New Zealand, and I stay in for a long while. When Vivian and I get back to our hostel for the night, we drink beer and eat pasta because carb loading is important. I find a pair of leggings and a long-sleeved t-shirt in a bin of discards near the laundry, which are set to become my town clothes for this trip.

Vivian and I have decided to hike up to Brewster Hut as our first outing. The track is off the Haast Pass road, and Mum drives us up past Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and through the tiny township of Makarora to drop us at the trailhead.

It’s only 3km into Brewster Hut. But it’s 1000m of elevation gain, which makes it crazy steep and we are both… not very fit. Due to roadworks on the way in, we are also late starting.

The climb is a staircase of tree roots and steamy humidity. It’s a push, and my Forever Line is that I hate hills and therefore just want to get them done and smash that shit out. But also – I love the endorphin thrill of heavy breathing and sweat and ache in the thighs.

(photo credit – Vivian Heinola)

We ascend above the level of sandfly pressure and stop briefly to slice bread and cheese and salami, and then we decide to push onto above the treeline, in a misguided belief that beyond that point the hike will just be easy.

It just fucking isn’t. But we bust above nonetheless, and I remind Vivian that prior to this trip, only one photo of us together exists. And that is a rough selfie of us on a hitch together in a tow-truck on our way between Twizel and the Ahuriri. So we take some new selfies of ourselves with sweat-damp hair and clean faces and pink cheeks and those glittering eyes. For long enough for a photo, we look a bit Starbuck.

I climb through through tussock and trenches and yank myself up by hands and knee-jambs, and a huge alpine canyon plummets away to my left with the silver gashes of waterfalls hurling mist.

And I yell… OH MY GOD GET UP HERE.

And I can’t stand still. I just feel myself opening wider and wider and grin and puff and climb. Mountain daises shine white in the dun-coloured grass.

It is a trick of huts in NZ that often you will catch a glimpse of a roofline or an out building some half an hour before you arrive, before they disappear behind the terrain until you stumble right on top of them. So it is with Brewster, and particularly today as cloud scuds across and in and out of this eyrie. I see the toilet briefly, and then nothing nothing nothing for long minutes and then a quick step up and then we are virtually on the doorstep of a red tin alpine hut on a sheltered plateau.

Inside there are the spread out belongings of one absent early arrival who has obviously headed out for photographic opportunities from further up Mt Armstrong and Brewster Glacier above the hut. Vivian and I set up our sleeping places in the bunk room and write in the hut book, and I head outside and stalk the kea who are frolicking and playing in updrafts, and who watch me with as much delight as I watch them.

We sit in the mist and feel this slow relief of being in a hut again after a long, long absence. And it feels like forever, and yet like we haven’t been gone at all.

I have a few friendships like this in my life. We go for these periods of absence and regular contact doesn’t always happen – but when it’s needed then we are there and it’s like nobody has ever left. So it is with a few folks who know I’m talking about them. And so it is with being out here and just being back and knowing I’m home, but home again in a different place.

Huts have a way of turning and tossing in the night. I fall into a deep sleep at some point but Vivian gets up and steps into the mud-room to encounter a couple arriving in the dark of night. When she says hi and asks if they are ok, they are startled and seem disorientated. She relates this story in the morning after I get up and we have our coffee together in the first grey light; I have night-hiked before and I like it but I cannot imagine crawling my way up here in the black. Apparently this couple hitch-hiked in and it took a long time, and they started walking in the dusk.

I take a scramble up the slopes of Mt Armstrong behind the hut to see the views. There is a spectacular cloud inversion sitting low and I try to take photos but this early light is tricky.

Knowing Mum is coming to pick us up at a set time we leave about 9am, and start the descent. One thousand metres over three kilometres and down is always harder than up. Below the bushline we start groaning like old ladies as our knees and quads feel the stress. Someone has forgotten their sleeping bag at the hut so I am carrying it out as well and my pack is unpleasantly top heavy. At some point I put it down and watch it tip over and gain momentum to bounce and fly off a steep bank and thank goodness I don’t actually lose the whole kit.

(photo credit – Vivian Heinola)

Finally slithering down back to the river, I discover I have lost one of my camp shoes. We sit in the stone bed with Mum and have coffee and a bit of lunch before I make the decision to head back over the water and back up that bastard hill to see if I can find it.

After about 15 mins I see my bright red shoe sitting on the track, collect it and stagger back down. I am in time to find Vivian and Mum chatting to two DoC rangers, who are taking the lost sleeping bag back to the Wanaka office in case someone calls it in, and who are cranky about the story of people hiking in after dark.

It’s not just them at risk, they say. If they don’t make it, it’s everyone else who has to go looking f⁹or them who get their lives risked, too. Accidents happen, but some decisions are just dumb.

A week later, British woman Stephanie Simpson will go up to Brewster Hut, explore the slopes and the glacier above and then return on a line that gets her too low on the wrong side of Pykes Creek. We can’t really know what happened or how, but she will slip on the water crossing and not be able to self-rescue and will fall to her death. It will take nearly a week to find her body. She was strong and competent, and yet luck was not on her side in that moment.

Lest any of us take it for granted. The things we do to make us feel alive take us closest to the edge. Starbuck and Stephanie.

Rest In Power, You Beauty (photo credit Daily Mail)

Rough Guide to the Overland Track

As promised (threatened).A few caveats.I hiked the Overland in mid-February, in summer, the time for the most stable weather conditions in Tasmania. Parks information tells everyone to be prepared for any kind of weather at any time of year, but this is what I’m used to in the NZ South Island and sub-Alpine areas anyway. However, my expectation of benign conditions lead my gear choices. Doing the Overland in winter or shoulder conditions will require different considerations.I am not an ultralight hiker, but I do use lightweight techniques that are not necessarily prevalent in Australia. I am an experienced walker and know my physical limitations and my gear well, but my choices may not necessarily be for everyone – and that’s ok! If you are accustomed to and happy hiking in boots and knee-high eVent gaiters – go off! Prefer a hooded mummy-style sleeping bag to a quilt? That’s up to you! I love nerding out about gear, but I don’t believe in being prescriptive about it. This is just what works for me. Got questions? Drop a comment!I also hiked as part of an organised group, from my bushwalking club. I’m a member of Sydney Bushwalkers, and as much as I love a good solo or duo mission, I also appreciate having access to the support and enormous knowledge base that comes with being a club member.I’d also like to add – as much as we all love to hashtag #outsideisfree on the Gram – hiking the Overland is NOT cheap, even when not signing onto a full-service guided walk. The combination of the $200 track free, transport to and and from the trail heads, flights and accommodation, a parks pass etc can quickly add up, even before you factor in the cost of hiking gear. This excellent and detailed blog post written by Christine Zelezny (who walked the OT in the off-season, independently, and therefore offers a different experiential viewpoint) delves into this in more detail, but a quoted stat that I found interesting and extremely telling is that 60% of OT walkers describe their job as a manager or working professional, and the majority of walkers have a university degree. Upon completing the Overland, I see many people reflecting on the positive effect that connecting with nature and disconnecting from materiality/consumerism had on them – but we ought to acknowledge that most people hiking the Overland are likely to live their everyday lives at the intersections of multiple privileges (as I do). Travel and its costs, the ability to travel and move across borders freely, and the ability to walk 65km+ and carry a self-sufficient pack load create significant barriers to accessibility.I also feel it’s important to mention the often completely omitted fact that when we walk the Overland, we walk on the traditional lands of the Palawa and Pakana peoples in what was once known as Lutriwita. Australia has a complex and violent colonial history, and much of the Indigenous population of Tasmania was wiped out following a period of martial law imposed by white settlers and the ensuing ‘Black War‘ from the 1820’s onwards. Aboriginals in Australia continue to experience significant social and economic disadvantages, as well as reduced life expectancy as a direct result of entrenched colonial attitudes, and from the ongoing effects of racist policies enacted by a paternalistic white government.When we say #outsideisfree, please also take some time to think about who exactly it is free for, and who has the freedom to enjoy it – especially given the history of displacement and incarceration of Aboriginal people in Australia.With that said, let’s go.

Planning – bookings, transport and costs

If you are hiking ‘in season’ as I did, your first step is to book and pay for a track permit from Tasmania Parks, for your chosen departure date. Bookings open on the 1st of July each year, for the season from the 1st of October until the 29th of May. If you hike the track between these dates, you must book, and you must walk the track from North to South. People will tell you to book as soon as possible, but if you are a solo walker you can generally bag a spot at short notice. No, you cannot arrive at the Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre and purchase a permit and depart on the Overland on that same day (a policy that is in place for safety reasons, and that was instituted after the death of a hiker in 2014 who ended up on the track, underprepared, in exactly this fashion – and who perished of exposure before reaching Waterfall Valley).You will also need to pay for a Parks Pass to enter the Cradle Mountain area. This costs $30 for individual walkers and can be bought here. If you are travelling in a group, it is worth looking into options for a group/vehicle pass, via your shuttle service. The good folks at Overland Track Transport (more on them below) were very helpful with advice on this.I flew in and out of Launceston because it was just easier to book return flights from one port. If you are spending extended time in Tasmania, it may suit you better to fly into Launceston and out of Hobart. I was able to get a significant discount on flights by cashing in some frequent flyer points, but generally you can expect to pay around $300 for return flights from other major cities in Australia.I booked shuttles with Overland Track Transport to and from the start of the track. They are happy to coordinate pick-up and drop-off at your accommodation in Launceston or Hobart. Going with the shuttle can seem expensive, but it takes a lot of uncertainty out of the process of getting to and from the Cradle Mountain area, which is very isolated. This company also has some items available for purchase or hire (e.g. I ordered a canister of fuel for my stove from them, since you cannot fly with fuel), and they will also store a small separate bag of your non-hiking items for you while you complete the Track. The price for my return service was $155.There are plenty of accommodation options in Launceston and Hobart to suit a range of budgets. Because I am a tightwad I was quick to hit up some other women in the group and suggest splitting a room to share costs. For what it’s worth I can recommend the Cornwall Boutique Hotel in Launceston for a basic option with tea and coffee making facilities and tv in room, and an ensuite bathroom – it’s only a few bucks more than a backpackers.Our walk leader also asked us to book our final night for the walk at the Lake St Clair Lodge. I opted for a berth in a four-share bunkhouse at a cost of $55, because I knew I’d be keen for a night indoors especially if we had wet weather during the hike. The Lodge also has tent sites available for cheaper, and private rooms for more. Share facility showers are coin-operated.Our experience with booking the Lake St Clair Lodge was messy. I strongly recommend contacting them directly by phone as soon as possible, once you know your itinerary. We were waiting for bookings to open via their website, until one of our party rang them to ask when this would occur, only to be told beds for our intended date were almost completely sold out.There is also bushwalker accommodation available at the Derwent Bridge Hotel, about 5km away from Lake St Clair. Their budget rooms are priced at $45.The final option, which is not particularly well advertised, is that there is a free campsite (tent only) at Lake St Clair available for Overland Track walkers, and free five minute showers are available at the Visitor’s Centre between 10am and 4pm.Costs at this point, assuming you are flying in from mainland Australia and seek out budget accommodation options, will sit around $700-$800. Keep in mind that if you need to hire equipment (it’s strongly recommended to hire a personal locator beacon if you don’t have your own), plan to take out travel insurance, or book the ferry back across Lake St Clair to finish the track rather than walk the last 15km around the lake shore, your necessary hard spend will push out very quickly to over $1000.

Gear

You can see my gear list here, through my Lighterpack.Overland LighterpackI believe this is all pretty self-explanatory, but I will make a few additional comments.I’m a big fan of all of my clothing being layerable. I can pretty much wear everything at once for warmth, and my clothes also form part of my sleep system. I am also a big fan of a good merino garment. Merino is less stinky than synthetic fabrics, and also stays warm if it gets damp. With that in mind I (controversially) use comparatively cheap hard shell/rainwear – yes, I do sometimes get a bit of egress but not to the point it has ever presented any concern (I see a lot of emphatic advice that the climate in Tasmania and NZ necessitates Goretex rainwear, but it’s expensive and heavy and also… I hiked the entire length of NZ using a rain jacket that cost me $60 and I did not die, your mileage may vary etc etc). My approach has always been to ensure I have the means to get warm and dry at the end of the day, rather than staying completely dry in heavy weather. I also run quite hot while walking, and prefer to be slightly too cool than to be overheated. So yes, I fucking well did hike the entire Overland wearing a purple miniskirt (hiking in a skirt is the best, I reckon everyone will be doing it in a few years).Yes, only two pairs of undies. One on, the other washed and drying on the back of my pack. I don’t have an issue with wearing the same pair for a few consecutive days because I am, evidently, disgusting. Same with socks – but I do always carry one pair of fluffy possum fur socks for hut/camp wear only.Do take earplugs. Mine are stashed in with my inflatable pillow – they only weigh a few grams and you’ll get a better night’s sleep for using them, especially if you end up sleeping in the huts.Also a note for the menstruators amongst us – I use a menstrual cup/disc, but I’ll also take a few pads to guard against leaks on heavier days. To dispose of these, I use a snaplock bag with a black teabag in it in my potty kit – the teabag completely disguises odour. Fortunately I didn’t have to deal with my period on this trip, but please keep in mind that pads and tampons cannot be disposed of in the composting toilets on the Overland, and must be packed out.All this gear talk too much? Are you doing the Overland as a one-off challenge to yourself, and don’t see yourself partaking in the outdoors life on a regular basis? Hey – kitting yourself out can get expensive, and it may not make economic sense for you to invest in this stuff if you aren’t likely to get continued use out of it. There are operators who will provide you with a backpack and rental gear and look after the entire experience for you, and this might be worth looking into. For camping based trips, check out Australian Walking Holidays or Tasmanian Expeditions. For a hut-to-hut walk, The Tasmanian Walking Company gets excellent reviews, and will put you up at private huts every night and cook you dinner and you can have a hot shower and a glass of delicious, delicious red wine at the end of your walking day. There are some elitists out there who like to maintain that this isn’t ‘real’ bushwalking, but those people can go and get fucked and you should absolutely not listen to them. As a way of experiencing the outdoors it is not accessible to me because I don’t have a spare $4000 to spend on one week of walking; but it might enable access to the outdoors for other people who have the money but lack the confidence or physical ability to rough it a bit more. Access is different for everyone!

Food

There are a lot of different approaches to nutrition while hiking. Even amongst the group I hiked with, there was a range. Some went with catered packages from outfitters like Strive Food and Three Capes Gear and Gourmet; some stocked up from freeze-dried meals at the camping stores (Backcountry Cuisine, Campers’ Pantry and Outdoor Gourmet brands are all readily available in bricks and mortar stores in Australia, while Absolute Wilderness and Radix can be imported from New Zealand via online outlets); and others did home prepared dehydrated meals.These days, I have a good idea of what food works for my body, and what I won’t get sick of eating. I did a bit of dehydrating at home prior to this trip, to at least prepare dinners. I don’t own a dehydrator – I just spread food very thinly on a baking sheet and put it in the oven on its lowest setting and with the door propped open for a few hours.I have hiked with people who do cold-soak or no-cook methods (hi Spoons!) and it’s just not for me. I’ve had some very wet and miserable days when the only moment of blessed redemption has been the hot meal at the end of it, and dammit but I need a coffee in the morning. However, I’m pretty chill about mostly eating the same thing on a daily basis, and my menu looked like this…

  • Breakfast; overnight oats (rolled oats, LSA, craisins, dried blueberries, shredded coconut, brown sugar, cinnamon and milk powder), a big spoonful of peanut butter, and an instant coffee sachet (I brought some of my favourite Avalanche brand instant mocha back from NZ)
  • Lunch; fruit crackers, Colby cheese, jerky
  • Snacks; Tasti brand peanut butter muesli bars, cashew nuts, dried baby figs
  • Dinner; instant noodle cake with either homemade black bean taco soup mix (topped with cheese Doritos), or homemade red lentil laksa soup mix (topped with peanuts and fried shallots)
  • Dessert; vanilla instant pudding, piece of chocolate, dried nectarine

My general pro-tip is to look for calorie dense foods that contain a minimum of 1600kJ per 100gms. It’s also wise to think about cooking time. Dehydrated soup mixes can be left to soak in cold water in your pot for a bit when you get to camp, and then just reheated at dinner time. Instant noodles and couscous both make good carbohydrate bases for a meal, don’t need a lot of cooking/fuel, and can also be consumed cold.On this trip, I also wanted to think carefully about packaging and single-use plastic (aaargh the snaplock bags are so convenient though!). I used compostable paper sandwich bags to carry noodles, and also put my breakfast oat mix in an empty and washed bag for frozen fruit, and measured out my serve each night for soaking. I also carried peanut butter in a screwtop plastic jar rather than taking slugs or pods. There are some things I’m still trying to figure out with this – instant coffee sachets are convenient, and my favourite brand of muesli bar comes wrapped in individual foil packets. At any rate, my girl Caro Ryan has an excellent piece talking more about ways to cut down your waste while hiking and I strongly suggest giving it a read if you, too, have been giving some thought about bringing a little more nature consciousness into your nature adventures!Being an island, Tasmania does have biosecurity restrictions in place around food that you bring in. Raw fruit and veggies and any kind of shellfish are a big no-no, and you need to be careful about peas and onion-type foods. Please follow the link for more detailed info, and if in doubt either leave items in their commercial packaging for your incoming flight or buy once you arrive.A note here about water… It is recommended to treat all water on the track, and most of my party did, either with tablets or through boiling. Three of us, however, lived our lives on the edge and did not treat at all. All of us have spent a significant amount of time out of doors and know our own tolerances very well, so this was a calculated judgement call. Know your own body, and do what you feel is best. Your health on track is your responsibility.

Tenting on the platforms

I took a freestanding tent on this trip, which made pitching a lot easier, but I did have to get a bit creative with using some extra guyline, some spare linelocks, a few different peg options, and rocks. You should keep in mind, though, that cold air circulating under the platforms can create significant chill coming up beneath you. Make sure you have an insulated sleeping mat.

How Hard Is It, Really?

The Overland in itself is not particularly difficult walking, in summer conditions. The track is maintained, easy to follow, and distances between hut nodes are entirely manageable. However, the walk can definitely be made as hard as you would like it to be, by adding in side trips, and this ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ aspect of the Overland is part of the beauty of it. Cradle Mountain, Barn Bluff, or a foray up the Acropolis from Pine Valley present some decent challenges for the very fit and keen. I enjoyed side trips to the waterfalls, the Labyrinth in Pine Valley, and to the summit of Mt Ossa, as I am only averagely fit and surprisingly quite lazy, and a big old scaredy-cat when it comes to exposure.Should you train for the Overland? If this is your first foray into a multi-day hiking attempt, then yes. You do need to get used to what your pack weight feels like and walking with it on for a good five or six hours. Identify any physical niggles early and consult a physiotherapist if needed. Consider joining your local bushwalking club, and take your gear out for a weekend or three and get to know it. A reasonable standard of fitness will definitely add to your enjoyment of the experience, but also – there isn’t any ‘winning’ at hiking, there is plenty of room on the track and at hut nodes for everyone and not just the fastest who get there first, please don’t think you need to be able to run 20km or deadlift your own bodyweight to be capable of doing the Overland.

Do I Really Need Gaiters?

It depends on the conditions at the time you go. I would say definitely yes in winter, but in summer… Personally, I hike in trail runners* that aren’t waterproof anyway so knee-high gaiters serve no real purpose. Mud on the track was easy enough to step around, and you are walking on maintained trail and not exactly bush-bashing. By all means, if you have gaiters and are used to them and like them then go on and bring them – but don’t feel like you have to go out and purchase another thing. This is a very long-winded way of saying – you do you.*Trail runners are absolutely fine for the Overland, but it very much depends on what footwear you are used to and your pack weight etc. I have hiked thousands of kms in my trail runners (not actually the same pair, natch – but same brand and model) and they feel right for me. If your pack is going to be more than 15kg for most of the trip then boots are probably a better choice. But whatever you decide on – wear them in! Blisters can very quickly turn your trip into a bloody misery.

Any Other Advice?

Take more toilet paper than you think you will need. But also – once you’ve done your preparation, try to let go of the stress of stepping out into the unknown and just relax and let the experience unfold. The Overland is a beautiful track with unique geology. Remember to stop and breathe it all in. Take the photo. Chat to others. Try to camp outside as much as you can. Remember that if you’ve already made the decision to do this, you are probably capable of doing so.

Where To From Here?

I haven’t not been hiking over the last year.

I’ve kept up with weekend forays with a bushwalking club, walking and camping in some less accessible parts of the National Parks surrounding Sydney. I’m grateful to have seen it, enjoying cave camps in Wollemi and the Budawangs, and knocking off the Six Foot Track from Katoomba to Jenolan. Of course, if you’ve been following the news you know that Australia is literally on fucking fire right now. I don’t know that things will look the same in these places once the flames are out. Nature and regeneration are stronger than us though. The country will prevail with or without humans.

This summer, I’m heading back to Aotearoa (only two weeks away now) to meet up with Vivian and really see mountains again. We have about nine days together and have only made the loosest of itineraries, but on the list are…

  • Gillespie Pass Circuit with side trip to Lake Crucible
  • Brewster Hut
  • French Ridge or Liverpool Hut
  • Earnslaw Burn Rock Bivouac
  • Barker Hut in Arthur’s Pass

I guess we’ll just see where the weather and logistics take us.

I’m flying into Queenstown and out of Wellington, and really haven’t booked any connections in between. Once I finish hiking with Vivian I may end up in Arthur’s Pass alone, I may get over to Christchurch to visit another friend, or I may head up to Wellington and the Wairarapa where I’m looking at doing either the Aorangi Crossing, or a bit of hut-bagging in the Tararuas.

I have thought about doing the Te Araroa line of the Tararuas, since I missed that section during my season due to ongoing injury issues (for those who remember, I did the Holdsworth-Jumbo Circuit as an alternate, doing a wild and woolly ridgeline hike on my 40th birthday). Realistically though, I need to allow a good six days to complete it (I’m so not fit for tramping at the moment, ugh) and I’m unlikely to get that time on this trip.

Aotearoa bears so much looking at. I love that it’s so close, and that I regard planning hikes there as easy.

In future, I’d still like to get the Tararuas done, to tick that box. I’d also be keen to revisit Ruapehu Round The Mountain, and finish the entire circuit.

The rest of the wishlist…?

  • Rakiura/Stewart Island
  • Brown Hut
  • Frew/Toaroha Saddles Track
  • Cascade Saddle/Lochnagar Circuit
  • So much in Kahurangi NP, the Pinnacles, the Kaimanawas…

One day, one day.

After I’m done in New Zealand, I head back to Sydney for 36 hours to wash my two pairs of undies, load my pack up again and head to Tasmania, where I’m booked to do the Overland Track.

I’m going as part of a group with my bushwalking club, which presents a different hiking experience to what I’ve been used to.

I’m not sure how I feel, around the anticipation of the Overland. It does hold a special place in the imagination of the Australian public – particularly its non-hiking public. It’s something of the equivalent of one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, with the amount of infrastructure along the trail. Distances between hut/camping nodes are short, private companies offer ‘luxury’ versions in separate lodges with a three-course meal every night, and during the summer months a permit is required to walk the track, with numbers being capped at 60 walkers per day departing. I don’t expect it to be difficult and I feel a bit like I’m doing it to ‘tick a box’ but then again – I never regretted a choice to be hiking, or ever felt like it was a waste of my time and resources. I’ll do my best to post a ‘Rough Guide to the Overland’ when I’m done, I know people love that shit.

I’m looking forward to hiking again, and I’m looking forward to writing again. I guess I could write, when I’m not hiking… but then what would I even write about? Haha.

Later this year I plan to get up to the Northern Hemisphere and do the Isle of Skye Trail, which looks like a cracker. Similar in landscape and climate to parts of New Zealand, and even with some midges to make me not miss the sandflies overly.

Phew, when it comes to hikes I want to do in other countries, I got some big ideas. Time and resources are the ‘only’ barrier. Again – one day, one day.

For now, I’m off to riot in the streets and call for the blood of Australia’s climate-denying government. I mean – not really, but also kinda.

Can’t be at one with the wild beauty of this Earth unless we recognise our responsibility to protect her, too.

Aftermath – I’m Mostly Happy When I’m Dirty

I came home to Australia five days after I finished Te Araroa.

I stepped off the plane to see the long-suffering unhusband holding up a sign for me like a dickhead (it is worth mentioning, maybe, that for ineffable reasons I was upgraded to business class on the Emirates A380 for my flight, and got drunk off my ass on vintage Moet, and flying has probably been ruined for me forever), and stepped right back into life as I’d left it.

I’d been receiving a constant feedback loop for months that told me how AMAZING and INSPIRING and INCREDIBLE I was, and as soon as I blended back into the crowd of a city it seemed I was immediately and constantly bumping up against a world that utterly failed to recognize that something extraordinary had happened to me. I went from being a superhero to just being a fucking person again in the space of a couple of weeks. It was a damn rocky comedown.

In a way, the actual walking part of Te Araroa is only one part of the journey. What happens afterwards is the ongoing, life-altering part. My TA continues long after I arrived in Bluff.

I have changed jobs. I’d worked hospitality for fifteen years by then, doing a lot of weekends and ridiculously early starts that had, in the end, impacted my closest relationship and gradually suffocated my social life. I had been lonely, and by hook or by crook I did not want to be working weekends anymore. The stability of an office job with regular hours and overtime and paid leave – the most beige of life choices for many, but I was desperate for it.

I applied by the dozen to any job I was even vaguely qualified for (and quite a few I wasn’t), and eventually somebody said yes to taking a shot on me and now I have my 9-5 and weekends are mine again.

It took time for the other bits and pieces to fall into place. My knees were in a bad bad way, and rehab on them is ongoing.

I spent the summer after TA hanging out with friends and going for weekend lunches and swimming in the sea. I would love to be able to say that my anxieties were cured by doing a long hike and my life is now one of calm confidence and inner peace. It hasn’t quite happened that way – it seems (as the saying goes) that no matter where I go, there I am. But I work on it.

I’ve started volunteering again, joining a small community group that takes young immigrants (specifically those who have arrived in Australia under refugee status) out camping for a weekend. I’ve finally also joined a bushwalking club to enable more regular weekend adventures around Sydney, to sink in to the discomfort of dirt and sun and sweat, to immerse myself in rivers and waterfalls.

I’m trying to find some equilibrium back here, to chip away at my tendency to live my life at two speeds only. I used to hold back so much in order to put everything into a brief, glittering meteor shower of 100% exhilaration. I’m learning that I’m better when I go a little less hard and fast, a little less all or nothing, to be more engaged in what is happening today and right now and next weekend. Life is all the time and not the exceptions.

I think, mostly, things with me look very much the same to anyone looking on. The shifts are subtle, but they are monumental. I don’t feel called to do another long trail; I won’t write a book; I am committed to my little life such as it is. But I know now and forever that I can do hard things.

Recently I walked the Royal Coast Track again, from Bundeena to Otford with the traditional overnight camp at North Era. Early in 2016, it was the first self-sufficient multi-day hike I had ever done. To revisit it when so much since has happened, so much has changed was like another tiny homecoming. I walked with a group, and after dinner I wandered away from our little cooking circle to go down to the water’s edge. I washed out my pot in saltwater and sand and looked at the light changing over the ocean and felt the hard mineral air on my skin and I thought about my first night on trail at Twilight Beach. And the evening felt like a familiar velvet embrace.

Fin

I hitchhike out to Invercargill.I am a long time on the side of the road thumbing for a lift. Eventually a man in his 80’s pulls over to pick me up. Raymond is driving his car for the first time in six months, in order to return his new mobile phone to his telco because, he says, it doesn’t ring loud enough. I ask him about the volume settings, if he wants me to have a look at it.”What?” he says.He drives half on the shoulder all the way to town, 20km under the speed limit and just replying ‘okay’ to all my efforts at conversation.I will miss hitchhiking.I meet Mum and my brother at a hotel. Mum has brought my regular clothes with her, that I left at her house in December, she offers to launder everything else. I can’t be bothered right now, I am walking again tomorrow, my stuff will get wet and sweaty again, I don’t even bother to shower because I showered yesterday and I haven’t even done anything to get dirty today.We go to the boutique wine store and buy a bottle of pinot and a very good sparkling wine to enjoy at Bluff. Then we head down to Oreti Beach and stand in the winds and chase the seagulls and drink wine out of glass tumblers we have borrowed from the hotel, and then return to the hire car and eat crackers.I am doing the maths on how long it will take to walk the 30+km to Bluff in the morning and I want to be walking by 5:30am.My brother will walk with me, we wake to a day of extreme wind on the highway. At first we are on boardwalk along the beach and then into track through grasslands and it is sheltered – after the first two hours we have our first meeting with Mum as she tracks us in the car. We are about to go onto the road walk, and we plan our next rendezvous.The winds as we walk on the side of the open road are horrendous. I get pulled around a lot, and my brother chooses to walk in front of me for a bit to provide a windbreak. Articulated trucks roar past, and occasionally I need to stop and brace against them. Rain begins, and visibility drops.At the next car stop, I sit in the backseat and wriggle out of my regular pants and put on my waterproofs. There is a safety talk going on. I want to walk it, for the sake of completion, and Mum throws out hypotheticals. If the two of them weren’t here, would I still choose to be walking in today’s weather? I think maybe I would. If I was back in the mountains and on a ridgeline in these conditions, would I walk or would I sit it out in a hut?I think I would wait it out.It really isn’t so safe to be out here on this stretch of road with no shoulder, tiny and difficult to spot in my grey rain jacket against grey asphalt and grey rain-filled air.We drive the rest of the highway to Bluff, and Mum drops us at the top of the hill in town where the winds are at their worst, but there is a track down to the signpost at Stirling Point where I will finish Te Araroa.At times the path is overgrown and hard to spot and it’s possible I took a wrong turn but I’m used to shoving through gorse now and wrong turns always end up leading me onto the right way eventually anyhow. We are back into sheltered bush and then we are out and we are there and it’s the end and and and.We can see the hire car but not Mum. We can only guess that she has gone to the toilet so I’m just kind of there, waiting. I don’t want to touch the pole without her, and this moment is just kind of awkward and funny and so I wait and then finally we’re all together and I still don’t want to touch the pole.When I touch it, it’s over.But it’s done. It was always going to end, like a particularly intense romance that you know has a use-by date on it – it will end eventually because it can’t be forever. It’s an odd tumble of feelings and not feelings. I’m relieved and sad and happy but also none of those things. I can’t get into the skin of what this means entirely – I think that I should be experiencing something cataclysmic internally right now but it’s nothing like that at all, it’s just all the regular feelings I can feel anytime instead of, you know, the day I finished walking the length of a fucking country.I did all this to feel something, or find out something, and I still don’t entirely know what that something was. I feel like it might be something big, but I think I might not know what for a while yet. In the meantime, I worry a little that I might have missed something.Te Araroa – Aotearoa – did I love you enough during that summer we were in love? Could I do more, have been more, have fallen with more abandon? Will I ever be quite enough in any way at all for something so huge?We drink the champagne and take photos with the signs and walk up to the restaurant above the Point and get out of the rain. The staff have finishers’ medals for us walkers. I hand mine straight to Mum – I want her to give it to me, the way she has given me everything all the way. There are oysters and other walkers and there is more champagne and then there is a celebration of sorts and there’s a glimpse of what it might be all about, this shared joy.I think about something Vivian said to me, the second day we walked together as we exited the Two Thumb Range. She spoke about her craving to disconnect that drew her to Te Araroa, and how she discovered that she had it all wrong. It wasn’t disconnection she needed, it was the other thing. The connection was actually the most important, the most desperately necessary.This seems as good a hook to hang the end on as any other. No meaning of life. No clouds split apart and revelations forthcoming.Just food, and people, and then a shower and a sleep, and then tomorrow another day and another thing.

Killing Time

I wake up in Arrowtown, and after a day of washing clothes and eating and replacing my headphones and getting my undercut shaved, decide to head into the Greenstone/Caples Track on the far side of Wakatipu.This is a mess-around. My shuttle around the lake gets cancelled and I miss the calls, and get stuck in one of the mega party hostels in Queenstown for a night. I’m really sick now, and the weather closes in bringing rain and cold and dumps of snow. I meet back up with Shroomer again and his wife Katie who is now here from the US. They are having a caravan holiday together now Shroomer has finished walking. We sit in a small bar and have a glass of wine or two, before saying our goodbyes again.I finally get back out of town and share the shuttle with a young, hippy Frenchman called Vincent. When our driver lifts his pack into the back of her jeep she swears at the weight of it.”What have you got in there?””Oh, flour, almond meal, a bunch of bananas, some vegetables…”Everyone’s approach to food on the trail is different, I guess? Vincent is also heavily into edible plants and bush medicine, and he writes a blog titled ‘Eat the Road.’I meander my way into the Greenstone Hut. Happy Jenny is there, as well as Belgian couple Emily and Marie-Laure. Vincent bakes a banana and chocolate cake in the woodburner and shares it around. I’m snotting and coughing, and need to use my inhaler to not disturb everyone else in the hut.The next day, I decide to just stay put for once. I eat breakfast and move my sleeping bag to a bunk where the sun comes in through the window and read and nap on and off.I’m kind of done with moving around so much, the unpredictability, the itinerantness of it all. I wish I could just sit up here and listen to podcasts and write. I want to be home.The next day I move on to McKellar Hut, walking up the Greenstone Valley. Cold tablets are drying me out and my hands have a shake on from my steroid inhaler. Walking is exhausting. There is low cloud, and rain is threatening.I pass a couple of guided groups on my way up, who are connecting to the Routeburn Track and hiking with a private company. They’ll be staying at the much fancier McKellar Lodge, which is separated from the DOC Hut of the same name by a bank of trees. Despite the promise of hot showers and a bar at the end of their day, none of them seem to be having much fun.I pass a dead cow on the track, still entirely intact but so struck by rigor mortis and bloat that she looks like an upside-down parade balloon.I arrive at the hut and find a bunk and do hut things, and step out to the deck to see a boy in a green shirt and a faded red cap appear out of the treeline.”Ha ha, no WAY!” he yells out and I squint into the low evening light.It’s Tobias again. Paths crossing again. Hardly anyone ever touches each other out here, it’s weird – maybe because with the space we inhabit always changing, a new hut, a new bed, a new campsite, a new town each night, our bodies are the only spaces we inhabit now that are a defendable constant. Maybe it’s just because we’re all disgusting with grime and stench. But at any rate, Tobias is the only one who ever regularly hugs me.Another obvious TA walker arrives. This is Rocky, who I last saw at James’s place after the Ngunguru crossing. This is a reunion of sorts, for the three of us, as Tobias and Rocky came through some sections together back around Breast Hill. We are differentiated now by appearance, our rotted trail runners and sunfaded packs and skinniness marking us out as walkers, rather than trampers. We look mildly homeless. I guess we are mildly homeless.It rains a lot, there are the usual splashing runs along the worn path to the long drop toilets. Rocky and Tobias and I stake out a piece of bunk together for the night, a small oasis of familiarity for each other in a sea of strangers.It’s still raining in the morning and Tobias sets out to head down to Greenstone Hut, swathed in his cuben-fibre poncho.”Look out for the cow,” I say.I spend the morning talking with Rocky and chilling until eventually the wet eases enough for me to walk out to the Routeburn shelter. The track is wide and groomed and springy and the bush is that beautiful wild drenched green. I see bog flats and peaks and there is cloud lifting and dropping constantly.I take the hitch from Routeburn into Te Anau with an older woman who is rattling around here on housesits and doing shorter hikes through the Fiordland area. We stop to look at a waterfall and the Mirror Lake, before she takes me to a holiday park and I get a bunk for the night. The Easter long weekend is approaching quickly and I am mulling over how to spend the time before I am due in Invercargill. Do I go back up to Wanaka for the major airshow, or hike some more?I hitchhike back to Queenstown again in the morning, a journey of nearly three hours of standing on roadsides in the rain (my god but it rains a lot in Fiordland) and climbing in and out of cars, waving a giant block of Whittakers’ chocolate at drivers in a blatant act of bribery to get them to stop and pick me up.I stop with my cousin again, and then decide to book onto the Hump Ridge Track as a final section before the end. This is private track, run by the far South town of Tuatapere with large lodge-like huts to stop at each day, the option of heli-packing, and with beach views to Rakiura (Stewart Island) if we should get a clear day.This is a beautiful finish. There are stretches of walking along beach, another barren and wind-swept piece of dark grey sand with piles of bleached driftwood. It gives the strangest sense of having truly, really walked from one end of the landmass to another. I reflect on how back at the beginning, on a different beach, I thought about the end so much – and here at the end, I am thinking so much about the beginning.The climb to the Okaka Lodge, the first stop on the track is another straight-up slog and I seem to be one of few on this walk opting to carry all my own gear, but I pound up it through cloud and onto the ridgeline with cold and winds so fierce they threaten to push me off the raised boardwalk and into the tussock several feet below. I half run down to the hut, to be greeted at the door by warden Anthony who runs a quick orientation before allowing us indoors. I find a bunk room and then put on my warms and head to the lounge where a wood burner is alight and seeps heat into the room and my rail-thin limbs.The weather outside is as bad as any I’ve encountered, at least since that wild day in the Tararuas on my birthday. There is bar service here at the lodge, and I’m able to enjoy a glass of red wine before bed. There is also an opportunity to have a hot shower, which I have no interest in at this point, I don’t want to take my clothes off in the extreme cold up at the outdoor bathrooms and I just don’t care about being dirty anymore. As I get ready for bed one of the women I am sharing a dorm room with complains about the lack of ducted heating which she claims is ‘normal’ for huts in the NZ backcountry and I don’t know where she has been staying but yes no not so much my experience.The next morning is so clear, I stand out on the deck briefly and look out across the distant ocean below – next stop Antarctica. Kea are circling on the tors above, and after breakfast we all make our way out there and wind our way through the tarns and massive standing stones, before setting out along the Hump Ridge itself. The track rises and falls along the ridge line and I, the girl once so scared of heights, climb up onto the rocky outcrops and stare down below and it’s slowly sinking in that this really is the end, my last days out here.I descend through podocarp forest and stop to eat lunch at an old wooden viaduct, then cut down the valley and up to the other side and it is several kilometres along muddy track to Port Craig Lodge. We are back at sea level here, and I decide to have a nosey look into the public hut before we check in. I find Martha here, a gorgeous girl who I last met at Hurunui No 3 Hut before Harpers Pass. We walkers are always finding each other in the most unlikely of places. The hut is an old schoolhouse and bunks are stacked all the way up to the ceiling and I half wish I was staying here and not at the private lodge. The feeling is just different.Others at the lodge go out and collect paua from the beach and have a huge cook-up of those succulent black molluscs for dinner and share a few pieces with me.The walk out on the third and final day takes us back around rocky coastline and through forest and I am brought up short by a couple standing stock still on the track, their camera gear out.A young kea is sitting on the ground, watching us as carefully as we watch her. At first we are so cautious, not wanting to startle her, wanting everyone to get the chance to watch her up close. Eventually it becomes obvious that this kea is used to people, as far down off the peaks as she is. I sit down and let her approach, and eventually she has a good peck at my feet. She climbs right up onto my foot in order to get some leverage behind her gnaw and finally manages to drive her beak right through the upper mesh on my shoes, and through one gaiter.Eventually we move on and she follows us for a while, periodically flapping and squawking through the trees above us. “Notice me! Pay me attention!”I am back in the town of Tuatapere for a night. I have booked into an airbnb, a folk art gallery run out of an old Masonic lodge. One of the installations is a DOC hut replica that visitors can stay in. I have to wait a while until check in so I wander up to the pub where a sign on the door asks patrons to remove their muddy boots. I divest of my soggy trail runners and leave them beside the collection of cut-off gumboots and walk inside in my socks, and join the small gaggle of barefoot farmers in the bar. I buy a longneck of Speights and chill at a table and a couple of the men take turns to come and chat and ask where I’ve been and where I’m going.I’ve been a long way, and I’m going to the end.

The Motatapu

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.

Top Timaru Track and Cresting the Breast

After our adventure to Mueller Hut, Vivian and I hitch back down to Twizel and take a rest day to do laundry, and we catch up again with Tobias and Hannah and Simon.

Hannah and Simon have missed the trail vibe terribly and have decided to jump back on and finish. Vivian and I head over to the backpackers’ where they are staying and we all hang out and chat and share a cigarette and chips and a couple of beers. We talk loosely about our plans for the next stage, and the three of them are going to do the Ahuriri River Track. Vivian is on a bit of a time crunch before she meets up with some friends from Northland who are visiting the area, so she and I decide to head straight into the Top Timaru River and Breast Hill Track section, which is a couple of days ahead.

I assume that I’ll see Hannah and Simon again. I assume. We drift out of each other’s currents so reliably, they are part of my TA landscape, I don’t think for a moment that this evening will be the last time for us. But (spoiler) it will.

Vivian and I hitch out of town together the next morning to get to our trailhead. Our first ride is in a huge towing lorry, the climb into the cab so high that Vivian has to go first and haul our packs up, stuffing them behind our heads.

We get dropped at the top of a dirt road and start the long walk in to Birchwood Carpark, eventually waving down another vehicle to take us the rest of the way, this time with a Frenchman on his annual visit to NZ to fish the rivers here.

We start walking for real on a river track, another one of those trails that sees us in and out of the water and dodging shit from stock. I check the maps and spot a private mustering hut about 12km away and suggest we head for that. We arrive at about 3pm and spread out our wet gear and sit in the sun and talk and write a little, and Vivian produces chocolate brownies that she bought at the Twizel bakery that morning and smuggled away in her backpack.

The little tin hut has a woodlined interior and five bunks and an armchair in the corner and a longdrop toilet with no door on it.

We are fixing to make dinner when we hear voices outside and Alistair and Gayle arrive. They have been doing river crossings all day and have come over the Ahuriri, and to keep his shorts dry Alistair has been hiking in just his underpants and I guess nobody is going to mention it so we all just continue chatting and reuniting and catching up as if everyone is complying with the regular conventions of society.

Everyone goes to bed when it gets dark. It’s just part of the rhythm now.

We wake to a shitty, windy grey day to head over Martha Saddle. I lie in my sleeping bag while Vivian brews coffee. I often joke that I have the world’s smallest, most mundane but utterly practical superpower and I call it ‘Men Bring Me Coffee in Bed.’ My Dad used to do it when I was little (it was hot cocoa back then), my stepdad took over the same duty and most of my boyfriends did it, and now the unhusband does. I don’t even try to make them, it just happens. When I stopped up in Wellington for a week or so, my brother also brought me coffee in bed each morning.

At any rate, Vivian now uses her spare coffee mug to hand up a cup to me in my bunk-nest, while she drinks out of the bowl she brewed in.

It’s a slow grinding climb up and over the Saddle, and the wind whips over the top and pushes me around as I descend over the South side. Vivian stops and tries to get reception and a weather report, but I have to keep moving. I try to keep listening to a podcast but the sound of the wind in my ears roars over the top of my headphones and makes it impossible to hear. My fingers frozen and clumsy, I drop my them somewhere as I try to shove them back in my hipbelt pocket and of course I don’t realise it for several kms. They’re lost.

We’ve been considering moving past Top Timaru Hut today, to camp along the riverbank further South. But we get to the hut and it is clean and warm and modern and we make hot drinks and climb into bunks and read and go back to sleep. Again, for some reason – or no reason – the toilet has no door on it, providing a long view down the trail away from us.

We have heard bad things about the track along the Top Timaru River… That it is eroded and steep and nasty, with multiple crossings and extra treacherous after rain. But we are lucky and it has mostly been dry for some weeks and the ground underfoot is soft and springy and easy to negotiate as the path draws us up and down the banks. We perch on rocks by the river and Vivian makes coffee again, and we speculate as to whether we might want to try and camp up at Breast Hill for sunrise. Hikers coming the other way tell us it is windy up on the top.

But first comes the climb – almost a kilometre straight up to Stodys Hut.

We set off straight out of the river canyon, straight up the side. I slog up it, taking the lead. Vivian keeps checking our progress on the GPS, telling me; “It can’t be this steep the whole way.”

She starts laughing a few minutes later, as we break into a full scramble. “It’s not that steep the whole way – it actually gets steeper!” Her robust, Scandinavian positivity gives me a little boost as I keep pushing.

We keep telling ourselves it could be worse. It could be raining. I scuttle up the exposed sections, telling Vivian that I just want to get this done, if I stop I’ll spook and find it hard to get moving again. I haven’t really been afraid of the heights since Rintoul, but I know where my limits lie.

I suddenly clear a bushline and the track abruptly evens out, leading to a long traverse around tussock hillside to the old abandoned musterer’s hut that is Stodys.

Wow, what a shithole. Someone has brought in a big plastic storage tub to stash food in, and a plastic tarp has been laid out on the dirt floor. The window is grimy, and the hut log book makes many references to mice.

I brush mouse poo off one of the mattresses on a bunk platform and decide to make the most of it. It’s after 5pm and eventually Gayle and Alistair arrive to take the last two bunk spots. Alistair is back in (and a little bit out of?) his underpants.

As we all turn out our lights to settle into sleep, there is the sudden scuffle and rustle of dozens of rodents streaming out of the dark. Vivian lets out a disgusted groan. We can hear them scampering over and gnawing at our packs. At some point in the night there is a clawing at the door as a possum tries to break in.

I sleep horribly, paranoid about mice in my hair or chewing through my bag.

Eventually it is sun-up, and the only damage done is a few tooth-marks in the lid of Gayle’s pack. Vivian brews coffee again and we eat breakfast and head out for the climb up Breast Hill and over to Lake Hawea.

I’m excited for this view, pegged as one of the highlights of Te Araroa. I’m cold up here again, crossing this wind-blasted tussock country, and move steadily, gradually overtaking everyone else.

I take the peak and climb over the fence and up to the trig, shedding my pack and sitting on the edge of the rocks. I take photos and take in the views up and down the lake below me, waiting for Vivian. There is the haze of rain showers in the distance, and eventually a rainbow appears, arcing over the horizon. Magic, again.

The murky blue of Lake Hawea stretches out below us, and we assess the long, long way down to the village below which is today’s end-point. We eventually cut across the long cliffline to hit another hut for lunch, to eat where we can be sheltered out of the wind.

Vivian makes us both coffee one last time, and I share my Oreo biscuits with her and later with Gayle as she arrives via a detour on a 4WD track.

Then it’s the steep and gnarly hike down off the Breast and into Lake Hawea itself. I despise these long and technical downhills. My knees are not holding up well at this stage, and the tread on my shoes is wearing smooth. I slip a couple of times, and have to apologise to Vivian for my slowness, for being a fucking downhill loser. She is patient with me.

We make it into the village late, hitching the last couple of kms. Vivian wants to try and hitch back up country to Omarama tonight, to connect with friends she made earlier on the trail. I will miss Vivian, this brief easy period of walking with someone I am so in sync with in pace and attitude and mentality.

I check into the motel resort by the lake and pitch my tent on rock hard ground. One of the maintenance staff is kind enough to lend me a hammer to get my tent pegs in, and once I’m set up I head to the dining room to eat a burger with chips, and a couple of glasses of house wine and then I order a slab of cheesecake too, and some house whisky. I’m ravenous, ravenous for proper food.

The wind coming off the lake in the night almost tears my tent down, and then I head onto Wanaka the next day to line up for the Motatapu.

(Photo credits for this post to Vivian Heinola)

Gear Review

I spent a lot of time getting my gear together for this hike. Researching it all became a borderline obsession for a while… Gear lists for thruhikes abound on the interwebs and you can spend hours poring over this stuff.

Now I’m done, I feel like I can pretty confidently pass on some opinions and advice on the whole shamozzle. My main points would be…

1. There is no magic formula or perfect set-up that will make carting all of your shit on your back for 3000km easy. Or at least, it will be easy some days and some days it will be hard. Just make your best choice according to your resources and priorities, and get on with it. I was one of the smallest and weakest hikers on trail in my season, and while my pack wasn’t that heavy it was by no means the lightest one out there. I still found a way to make it work.

2. Other thruhikers can be full of shit. Seriously. There can be a lot of bluster and dick-swinging around what gear choices are the right choices, how to get one’s base weight down by another 200 fucking grams, a lot of people only too happy to tell you the various ways in which you’re Doing It Wrong. I got asked what my base weight was more times than I could count, and to shut down that line of questioning I would simply say that I didn’t know – that I had what I needed to have a safe and comfortable hike and had the lightest gear I could afford. This mostly worked. But remember that this is your hike, not some other person’s hike. For instance, I get chilled quite easily and can find it hard to warm up again, so I needed more layers and heavier rain gear than some other hikers might recommend. Compared with others I had a lot of clothes, but I had no regrets about the things I brought, and they all got used and used well the entire way.

Anyway, here goes.

The Big Ticket Items

Usually I’m a tarp girl, but I bought a tent new for this trip and went with a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo. It was one of my favourite pieces of kit – it’s cheaper than a lot of better known brands, weighs well under 1kg, has loads of room inside and held up really well in crappy weather. It didn’t come with a footprint, but I just used a piece of tyvek as a groundsheet (this also came in handy for sitting on, writing on for hitch-hiking signs, and putting down on dirty floors occasionally when sleeping on them). I pitched it using one of my hiking poles, and had MSR groundhog mini tent stakes.

My sleeping bag was a 30F degree down hybrid quilt from Zpacks. I already had this, from when I was able to pick it up from the bargain bin section of their website – it’s in the older style with horizontal baffles. It was warm enough for NZ and is super light and suited my purposes just fine. Given the amount of condensation in NZ though, I may have chosen a synthetic or Downtek quilt if I could a) have my time again and b) have unlimited funds for buying single purpose items!

I also used a sleeping bag liner, even though plenty of people were happy to tell me it wasn’t necessary. My liner is a Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor and it’s made out of soft t-shirt type material and it’s the warmest coziest fabric to sleep in. At one point when I had to do massive food carries for long stretches between resupply in the South Island I took it out of my pack to get some weight down, and posted it ahead. I was very, very happy to get it back. It might have been a luxury item, but it was nice to have.

I found a good deal online on a Thermarest Neoair XLite sleeping mat – pretty much the gold standard in ultralight. It was super comfy to sleep on, just like a mattress (except narrower and crinklier) and another piece of kit I was extremely happy with.

My pack was a ULA Circuit which I mostly bought because I could order it with a child sized harness. No joke. Was it the best possible choice? I have no idea. It wasn’t always as comfortable as I might have liked but on the whole it fitted everything I needed and held up to some pretty rough use. I used a pack liner (the heavy duty yellow plastic kind you can buy from DOC offices and outdoor supply stores in NZ) rather than a pack cover.

Clothing and Footwear

I had two shirts – one short and one long-sleeve. Both were merino, from Icebreaker. They both got holes in them, which is a regular criticism with Icebreaker stuff, but nothing that rendered them unwearable. I also had a woollen buff, a small woollen beanie and a pair of basic woollen gloves from the same brand. My socks (2 pairs) were also Icebreaker (multisport minis) and I loved them. They held up perfectly and apart from Ninety Mile Beach I never got blisters.

I started out with a pair of polyprop leggings but swapped them out pretty quickly for a merino pair that I got on sale at Macpac. The polyprops were heavy and smelt bad really fast. I usually wore my leggings as pyjama bottoms.

I had a pair of shorts and a pair of long hiking pants. The shorts were just a thrifted pair of basic Under Armours and I wore them most of the time. I wore my long pants (Marmot Lobos) less but I was very grateful for them when I was hiking in exposed conditions at altitude, and when I was on schist. I fall down a lot and long pants prevented me from ripping myself to shreds.

My rainwear was a pair of Marmot Minimalist Goretex pants, and a Helly Hansen Loke jacket. I carried the pants for a loooooong time before I needed them, but when that time came I REALLY needed them. Apart from wearing them in rain and high winds in the Tararuas, I also found them fantastic for walking in long wet grass and tussock in colder conditions in the South Island. My jacket was just a cheapie that I got on sale. It would leak a bit after being in rain all day but so will anything in those conditions. It was light, it had pit zips and decent sized pockets and a drawcord around the hood, which was really all I wanted.

I was able to pick up a Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket as a second-hand buy on eBay which was well worth it. I had some cold evenings and mornings in huts and I really appreciated the extra warm layer.

For undies, I took two pairs of ExOfficio briefs. Did exactly what they say on the box. I started out with a bra as well but ditched it after Ninety Mile Beach when I developed some nasty sweat chafing, and free-boobed it through the rest of the country.

For sun protection I had a UPF fabric buff, and my favourite peaked cap which is nothing special (it’s a souvenir cap from the Military Aviation Museum in the unhusband’s home town and I always hike in it).

I used La Sportiva shoes. I stocked up before coming to NZ because sports shoes are outrageously expensive there. I was able to buy a bunch through an eBay store (Shoomerang, it’s called) that flips very lightly used shoes and just bought as they came up in my size. I started out with Ultra Raptors, then switched to Bushidos halfway through the North Island, and went back to a second pair of Ultra Raptors for the South. I preferred the Raptors as they had a better structure to them and gave me more arch support, and were a bit cushier. You cross such a range of terrain in New Zealand from tarmac roads to rivers to muddy forests to exposed rocky ridges it’s hard to find the perfect footwear for all conditions, but the Raptors were definitely a solid all-rounder. I paired them with Dirty Girl gaiters.

I had camp socks and shoes as well… I have a pair of possum fur socks – easily available in NZ (where the only good possum is a dead possum) which are soft and toasty warm. My camp shoes are a minimalist water shoe from Vivobarefoot.

Hiking poles… Yep, I took them. I used Black Diamond aluminium poles that are pretty much their basic women’s model. They were chunky and on the heavy side but I saw plenty of other types break and bend on the trail, and mine are still intact and good for use. And that’s after two seasons of training for and completing the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker event, as well as one whole TA.

Cooking and Eating

I used a 360 Furno gas burner that attaches to threaded gas canisters. I started off with the pot set it comes with but soon swapped it out to a 700mL Toaks titanium pot which was lighter and a more appropriate size. After my plastic spork snapped, I bought an anodized Sea to Summit long-handled spork. I used a sil-nylon dry bag as a food sack.

For water treatment I had a Sawyer Squeeze mini. I used two 1L plastic bottles for carrying treated water and a 2L platypus soft water bottle for use as a dirty water bag. After a while I got dangerously casual about filtering, and I do have a pretty solid gastric constitution but also I was lucky. I found it telling that DOC workers who run maintenance on the huts try to avoid drinking water from the tanks. If in doubt – treat your water.

Finally, I had a classic Swiss Army Knife that I used for slicing cheese, cutting athletic tape, and opening cans, beers and occasionally wine. It was heavy, but it was the one thing belonging to the unhusband that I took with me – so it was a connection to home and sometimes that’s just worth more than saving grams.

Electronics and Safety

I used my Samsung Galaxy S7 in a Lifeproof Case for literally everything. It was my camera, my entertainment centre via podcast and ebook apps, I used the WordPress app to blog/diary on trail (my writing process was really good for mental focus through my hike, and at this point I’m happy to have this blog as a record of my experience), and it was my navigation tool. (The Guthook app isn’t perfect, but I do recommend it highly. The GPS was accurate and it’s very intuitive to use.)

Because I used my phone for so much, I carried a BIG powerbank… an Anker 20100maH which never, ever saw me run out of charge, but damn I hated that thing. Size for weight, it was the heaviest item in my pack. Seriously, it feels like it’s made out of fucking dark matter.

I just carried a small charger plug and one cable, a pair of cheap sport earphones, and a Black Diamond headlamp… Black Diamond Spot? Storm? I can’t remember the exact model.

I took a PLB because a) common sense and b) I made a promise to my family and the unhusband that I wouldn’t go without one. I had an ACR ResQlink beacon which is a reasonable price, compact, and is also the standard issue PLB that DOC rents out.

Health and Hygiene

The usual. Toothbrush and comb cut in half. When I could get them, I carried Lush toothpaste tablets which were compact and light and which last for aaaaaaages. Sunscreen – hugely necessary in NZ. Tweezers. Hand sanitizer. Multivitamins. Ibuprofen. So, so much ibuprofen. A few Imodium tablets and a few sachets of hydrolyte. Bandaids. My Mum also gave me a dozen or so heavy duty codeine tablets, which did come in useful a couple of times. If everything goes to shit in terms of illness or injury, they are very good to take the edge off and I recommend having them to hand.

For that lady stuff – a Lunette menstrual cup. Cups are excellent in many ways, but the first two days of my period are reliably bloodier than the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, and my cup could be reliably guaranteed to runneth over at the worst possible moment. When you’re on an exposed piece of track going over a pass with hands so cold you can’t fold the damned thing to re-insert it, your bare arse going pink and mottled purple from contact with the sleet and the whole scene looking like you’ve amputated a limb in a field hospital… Well, there are times I felt like tampons would have been easier.

I used an MSR snowstake as a poo shovel, and I also had a large size GoToob for a post-poop bidet. Just fill with water and give your bumhole a good squirt. Worked a treat to cut down on use of toilet paper, and was otherwise also good for long showerless stretches to give the general area a pleasant freshen up (I call it the ‘crack and flaps wash’).

I variously carried castile soap or wilderness wash for any and all cleaning purposes.

I have appalling eyesight and carried daily disposable contact lenses and my eyeglasses. I could and would leave my lenses in for two or three days at a time, which oft-times seemed safer for ocular health than poking around in my eye with grubby fingers.

After I injured my ankle I started carrying a roll of stretchy physio tape, as well.

I didn’t bother carrying either a razor or deodorant and let me tell you, I thoroughly enjoyed just completely letting myself go for six months. I started stroking my long leg hair like it was a cute fluffy pet by the end. Mmmmm, furry.

Repair and Miscellaneous

Not much. A tiny tube of Gorilla Glue, a piece of Tenacious Tape, repair patches for my Thermarest, darning needle and dental floss, a length of nylon cord. Probably the deadest weight I carried. I used the needle to dig some gorse spines out of my hand, once, and never needed the rest. I’m just one of those people who is easy on my things, I guess.

I also carried a small notebook, a pen, a Sharpie marker, my passport, and a tiny zip-top wallet containing cash, my hut pass, my travel money card and one spare credit card.

Because I’m a superstitious hippy asshole, I also carried good luck charms in the form of my friend B’s lucky coin, and a pouch of chakra crystals given to me by my friend A.

And… there you go. That was literally everything I owned for the entirety of my TA adventure. Take from it what you will, keeping in mind that I was content to do shorter days and spend more time in camp hanging out and shooting the shit with the many lovely people I met along the way. My gear kept me safe, it kept me relatively comfortable and it kept me happy.

SIDEQUEST – Mueller Hut

Vivian and I cook dinner together in Tekapo, and share a bottle of wine.

The next day, we stock up on supplies. Since we only have to take food for one night, we decide to spoil ourselves and take crackers and dip and fancy cheese and banana cake and fresh herbs and lemon to have on our dinner of instant rice and tinned salmon.

We hitch over to Aoraki NP easily enough. Being two women together, we’re a non-threatening pick-up. We are aware that the weather at Mueller is a bit indifferent, with cloud in the forecast for our walk up, and more cloud for the morning.

I don’t care. I’ve been frothing on the dream of getting to Mueller Hut for a good couple of years, and I’m just happy to get a shot at it, and happy to be able to share it with Vivian who is every bit as keen as me.

We check in and get our hut tickets at the Visitor Centre, and are told that the weather outlook is, in fact, improving – and we may have clear views tomorrow.

We do a quick rearrange of our packs, ditching some of our stuff at the Visitor Centre. It’s a 1000 metre climb to get up to the hut and there is no sense in dragging up the extra weight of our tents and sleeping mats when we have bunks booked for the night.

There is a twenty minute walk up into the Hooker Valley before we divert to the left and start the long climb up. The first half of it takes us up flights and flights and flights of stairs and we repeatedly look back down at the ever-widening view of the Hooker Glacier below us. We are heading straight up the side of Mt Ollivier and there is nothing to impede the scenery here, and we stop a view times to pose on the rock ledges with the huge prehistoric valley beyond us and joking about being a pair of damned Insta-wankers.

After we pass the Sealy Tarns, we start to ascend into that cloud cover we were expecting. Other hikers on their way down start to pass us, many of them somewhat grumpy that nothing was visible from the top. The path and steps are gone now and we are into a lot of rock scramble, cutting through the mist and searching for the familiar waypoints of orange markers. Every now and again, one of us will stand stationary as the other makes an exploratory foray forward to ensure the right direction.

The path eventually levels out and we push on forward. There’s the next marker, and now the next one, and then… That boulder looks rather unnaturally rectangular. “Is that… the toilet?” Vivian asks, squinting ahead. It is. And suddenly looming out at us from merely metres away is Mueller Hut itself. Being an alpine hut, it’s raised on huge meccano-like scaffolding to keep it above the snow that comes in Winter, and the doors are like those one might find on a big commercial walk-in freezer with levered rubber seals.

Vivian and I are early to arrive, with only another four or five people in the hut so far. A young woman who passed us on the way up, one of those strong blond Teutonic hiker-types, has only just arrived. She had been walking around this rocky plateau with her GPS out, totally unable to find the hut because of the extreme low visibility. It’s thick out there.

Vivian and I sit with our dip and cheese and crackers and chat between ourselves and with Mary the hut warden. Mary is good value, and explains that Mueller Hut is often sardonically referred to as ‘the highest altitude backpackers’ in New Zealand.’ Images of it are kind of Insta-famous which tends to attract a younger crowd who may well make this their only experience of a hut stay while travelling here. And… there really is nothing wrong with this! It’s really cool and refreshing to see groups of young people get themselves organised to experience something new and different and adventurous, and so what if they learnt about it online? In my time in New Zealand I have noticed a certain amount of gatekeeping, I guess, about who can be the most authentic outdoorsperson or whatever. And I think many subcultures that contain a hardcore contingent whose identities hinge on such a thing are guilty of doing the same. But when I hear it, a lot of what it comes down to just sounds like; “Oh, those young people are enjoying the outdoors in the WRONG WAY.”

Just no. We’re all out here trying to connect to something bigger than ourselves. We are all out here, and we’re all real.

We finish up cooking dinner and head to bed.

Our bunks are near a window, and in the early hours the next morning I roll over and dust the sleep from my eyes and look out to see the sparkle of stars against a black sky. I wriggle out of my nest and pull on layers, and creep out to the deck. An entire landscape has appeared in the night. Pockets of glacial snow sit on the basin of the Sealy Ranges around us.

I go back into the bunkroom and wake up Vivian.

“Vivian,” I say. ‘The sun’s about to come up and it’s going to be AMAZING.”

I have tried to be stealthy, to not disturb others, but suddenly there is the rustling of nylon and taffeta sleeping bags and heads are raised, and then we are all up and hauling on every piece of clothing we own and heading out into the still-dark, headlamps bobbing in the low light.

Vivian and I ascend together onto the ridge behind the hut as the sky starts to bleed into shades of blue, and then soft gold. It is exposed up here, the alpine wind dropping the air temperature to near freezing. We take photos and sit and watch as Aoraki appears. We are perched above a still silvery lake of cloud that is sitting thickly in the Hooker Valley.

The translation of Aoraki is ‘Cloud Piercer.’

We have brought mini bottles of champagne up with us, and dig them out of our jacket pockets. I sit and sip and my face is scrunched up and pink in the cold and I am happy, so happy. I am forever trying to hold moments here in New Zealand, just trying to cling on forever to these perfect moments that I know will only ever be transient. I am just so fortunate to sit here and have this experience for a little while, knowing I can’t ever own it – not really. I am only a guest here, a visitor.

It’s enough. To see New Zealand this wide and high. This is wicked magic.

Eventually I am too cold to remain there and I climb back down, leaving Vivian to sit for a little longer. Given the privacy she rings her partner, to tell him what she sees and that she is having champagne (he tells her – ‘I think you have found the right hiking partner’).

When she comes back to the hut she brews coffee for the both of us, and it is a broad and shining morning now, the sky that burning blue. As we eventually get packed up and walk back down we hear the occasional rumble of tiny avalanches as snow breaks away from the glaciers, see the dust of snow peeling away into the air.

Well that was just a fucking dream come true.

(Photo credit to Vivian Heinola for a bunch of these pics)