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.

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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)

Two Thumbs Track

Once I get myself orientated in Geraldine, I find that Jenny has been running interference on the logistics for getting back up to trail on the South side of the Rangitata.

A shuttle is leaving at 7:30am tomorrow, which leaves me with precious little time to get a load of laundry through and get to the supermarket to top up on food. In this little maelstrom, I neglect to text my Mum with notifications of my in-and-out town movements.

Tobias is here in Geraldine as well, and we are sharing a room at the hostel.

We pile into the vehicle early the next morning, along with a couple called Gail and Alistair, and two Germans called (respectively) Karima and David. The weather is kind of indifferent and the first few km’s of track today will be along a river, so we are all paying very close attention to the rainfall.

Wayne, our driver, assures us that the river levels are still pretty low, but gives us the option of another drop-off point at an alternative route that will bypass Bush Stream. With all of us together, we feel confident we can safely negotiate the official route.

We all set off up the rocky riverbed, spreading out gradually. We hit the first crossing, which is swift and hip-deep, and the party coalesces again as we make sure everyone makes it through. As I do my crossing, I look up to see David come back in for me and he hooks my arm as I approach the bank. Gail and Alistair come over last; they are both experienced long-distance hikers, having completed the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails in the USA, but they thank us for waiting nonetheless.

We continue on like this for a good hour. At some point, Gail comments that I’m a ‘good river-crosser’ which is nice because it objectively reinforces my assumed competence with the rivers. The final crossing is the most robust, and I arrive to see Karima and Jenny doing it in tandem. I’ve brushed off all previous offers of assistance, but I decide to do this one with Tobias.

I push my arm between his back and pack and grasp his far shoulder-strap, and we wade into the current together. We both fight for control over the lead and stumble around and it’s shades of the Whanganui River all over again as I start giggling uselessly and yell out; “Urgh, there’s river in my vagina!”

We make it up onto the opposite bank after what we both agree is about the worst team river crossing ever executed. But also no-one got swept away and drowned, so… no harm, no foul?

The party splits again, and I keep following the river up until I eventually get gorged out and can’t see a way to continue. Checking my GPS I can see I’ve missed a turn that takes me up and over a spur. I’ve also done a bonus three river crossings, apparently just for fun.

I zig-zag back down, find the path upwards and begin the long slow slog to Crooked Spur Hut.

The setting of the hut is just glorious, just below a pass we have to cross the next morning. Peaks spring up on one side, and a small stream drops away down to the river far below on the other. David and Tobias lie out in the tussock in front of the hut, basking in the sunshine. Gail and Alistair soon arrive and Alistair dispenses with his shirt and spreads their tent out to dry. Jenny and Karima have hiked on to the next hut.

We wake up to grey clouds, and we are soon enveloped in mist at the pass.

Rain sets in as I start down the other side, and then I’m back into tussock country. I have my goretex rainpants on and they are soon slick and dripping in the wet. The ground underfoot is springy and boggy – it’s not unlike walking on half-cooked cake batter. I trip and slip often, continually pinning the ends of long tussock fronds under one foot and then catching the other under it.

As I arrive at Stone Hut, a French couple are departing. They assure me that it’s ‘easy walking’ from here, and I quickly duck inside to have lunch.

Jenny and Karima are still ensconced. Jenny is making hot tea and Karima is wrapped up in her sleeping bag and they both look so dry and toasty-warm. The rain sounds twice as heavy as it falls onto the corrugated iron roof of the hut, and I eat as quickly as I can, knowing if I stop for too long I just won’t get moving again. The girls try to talk me into having something hot, or even putting on something dry and having a nap. Ha ha.

I depart again, and start laughing for real when I realise I immediately have to jump in a river. Easy walking, indeed. It’s three crossings and then a quick bolt into Royal Hut, the end spot for the day.

Tobias and David are already here, as is a Danish girl called Vivian who has decided to delay a day due to the weather. We are all trying to get warm and dry, making hot drinks and hanging our wets up from nails in the walls. Alistair and Gail arrive as well and we enjoy a long, dark afternoon together talking.

The next day we are scheduled to go over the highest point on Te Araroa, Stag Saddle. The morning dawns clear, with some low cloud burning off.

Vivian and I are last to leave and naturally fall into pace with each other. I’m planning to ring my parents from the Saddle, where I know I’ll get service. We stop to have morning tea with Gail and Alistair before making the last bit of the climb up. Oddly, it feels less high up here than it did on the Tongariro Crossing or Little Rintoul or Waiau Pass – less exposed, maybe.

Tobias is already on the Saddle as I arrive, and the first words out of his mouth are; “Kirsten, call your Mum.”

When I registered my PLB, I attached the phone numbers of Mum and the unhusband to it as my emergency contacts. If I ever set it off, they’ll get the calls from SARS asking for information on my whereabouts, on what gear I have with me, how prepared I am, how long I might be able to wait out a rescue. I’ve been reliably habitual about messaging them both when I arrive in town, when I leave town, how long I think I’ll be out of service range, when I expect to check in safe off a section. I goofed in Geraldine, and missed messaging my Mum.

There is some gentle teasing here from the hiking group about her going FULL MUM, but really she has done everything right. She has registered a concern with NZ Police, put out messages for anyone I might be hiking with, and been in touch with Te Araroa Trust. In the sunshine here with half a dozen other people it’s easy to see the worry as overkill. But if something had happened… Wheels were in motion to find me if it all went tits-up. I feel safe on the trail, but as a solo hiker my safety plan is in place and it’s good to know it works. But I shouldn’t have been sloppy and fucked up.

Cloud that has been hovering all morning starts to drift in. We’ve all been planning to take an unofficial and unmarked walk down a ridgeline to our right, rather than go down the valley on the other side. Jenny arrives while I’m on the phone, and she and Vivian sit down behind a rock windbreak and start brewing tea and coffee while we wait for Karima.

Gail takes the descent back into the valley and Tobias and Alistair head off to the ridge together, trying to get a run on ahead of the mist. The path we could easily see to it before is rapidly disappearing in the encroaching cloud.

Karima arrives and all the ladies make the shift to start again as a group. Visibility has dropped so we are navigating off GPS and guesswork. We make a long ascending sidle over the rock and scree, getting hopelessly off course as we climb too fast. Eventually there are shouts above us and we see Alistair and Tobias, waving us on up.

We make our way down the long sloping spur together as gradually we punch back below the cloud. The view ahead to Lake Tekapo reveals itself and we are on a broad sweeping ridge-run all the way down. The water is an opaque turquoise, apparently due to high quartz content in the rock there. We are laughing and taking photos for one another, I can feel tears prick at the back of my eyes and this expanse, this incredible expanse of high country and lake and tussock. I could crack wide open.

We reach Camp Stream Hut in the first chill of the evening, and cram inside. The structure is tiny, barely enough room for the top row of bunks under the sloped roof. Alistair and Gail decide to tent instead. We all rotate in and out, getting hot food cooked.

We slowly get up in the cold the next morning. Condensation has settled on the patch of uninsulated ceiling over my head.

Once again, Vivian and I drop into pace with each other as we leave the hut. We chat as we walk, and rapidly find common ground. I am like this, I don’t make a lot of friends and don’t think of myself as being widely likeable – but when I click with someone it’s immediate and easy and there is that crackle and spark of chemistry that most times settles to something solid and lasting. (If we are friends now, then I knew it right away.) We won’t hike together for very long, but over the next week or so I will start to consider Vivian my TA soulmate.

We talk in the sunshine as we head over the hill. It is a clear day, Lake Tekapo growing ever larger as we move towards it, the Southern Alps sparkling on our right.

We have good trail magic together, us two ladies, and we get an immediate hitch into town. I connect to wifi outside a cafe and start looking for a bunk for us both for the night. Meanwhile, we’ve both been talking about out shared enthusiasm for the idea of a side trip to Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Vivian checked the hut bookings while she had service at Stag Saddle and there were no spaces for the next few weeks, but here she decides to call the visitor centre on the off chance. And like magic (again) there are two bunks available, on the back of a last-minute cancellation, for tomorrow night.

We have a sidequest.

Between Two Rivers

The section between the Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers has special significance for me.

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, my family lived on one of the huge historic sheep stations up in the Rakaia Gorge. My Dad was teaching at the now-defunct Double Hill School and the accommodation that was provided for him (and my Mum and brother and me, as it would follow) was the old shepherds’ quarters on Glenfalloch Station. I was about three years old when we lived there, and my first formed memories are of that very remote place. We had radio telephones and heavy snow in winter and kea playing on the roof, and groceries had to be ordered and brought in on truck. Mail still only gets delivered once a week up there.

I arrive in Methven with little information about getting in to the trailhead, but knowing that a lot of people are skipping the whole section this season due to the logistics of getting in and out. Ex-Cyclone Gita has wreaked some havoc here as well and there are major washouts halfway up the access road, leaving it closed to the public and with 20km left to supposedly walk up to begin the section at Glenrock Stream.

I am not leaving NZ without standing on that ground again.

I rattle around Methven and visit the school district transport service, who tell me I can catch the early morning school bus on its collection run halfway up to trail head on Double Hill Run Road, as far as the washout.

In the meantime, a young Frenchwoman called Jennifer shows up in my hostel dorm room. I met Jennifer back in Kerikeri, so close to the start, and this is the first time I’ve seen her since then. She is shorter than me and a strong quick hiker and one of the most robustly exuberant people I have ever met.

We share a lot of food, and wine, as we take a zero day in Methven and then get up early to catch the school bus together.

I am full of hustle and charm as I talk to Chris the bus driver on the way up, explaining my connection to the area and collecting gossip about the people I can vaguely remember.

We arrive at the washout to meet a woman dropping her young son off. Prue is an attractive brunette with a petite nose and a sharp, delicate jawline and she has married into one of the big farming families up here. Chris explains to her that I lived at Glenfalloch as a child which is even further up the road from where she lives at Glenaan.

“Right,” she says. “Right then. Jump on in and I’ll give you a lift up.”

She steers her huge dusty jeep up and over paddocks and a large gully to cut around the eroded road. She chats easily about how the last few weeks without vehicles coming up has meant hikers have come more into their orbit on the station and a few stranded Northbounders have ended up camping on the homestead, much to her son’s fascination. He must be about seven, I think, and he has now started going ‘tramping.’ Apparently this means he carefully lines up all his things on the floor and solemnly packs them into his school bag, and Prue then has to give him a sandwich and drop him off out the back of a paddock somewhere and let him walk home.

This is so fucking adorable, I just can’t. I hope that kid walks Te Araroa one day.

Prue drops Jennifer at Glenrock Stream and drives me a bit further up to the last turn-off for Glenfalloch and takes a few photos of me sitting on the gate.

Eventually I’m back at the trailhead again and it’s time to start the actual hiking.

I follow the stream up and over Turton’s Saddle, looking back to the Rakaia as I make the climb. I can see rain coming in from the Northwest and creeping down into the flats of the river valley and this evokes such a strong sense-memory for me, of standing at the kitchen window of that old shepherds’ hut way back when and watching the same weather system.

I get over the ridge to A-Frame Hut and take lunch there, spotting the pencilled roll-calls on the door from musters of years ago, recognising the names… Ensors and Todhunters and Hutchisons.

My end goal for today is Comyns Hut, which is an historic corrugated iron beauty with a dirt floor and a tiny window that barely lets in any light. Thin insulation peels away from the walls and ceiling and hangs like so many drifting cinders through the chicken wire that holds it in place.

Trail scuttlebutt this season is that a Northbounder sat up here in Comyns Hut on Christmas Day and did a bunch of acid, then wigged out so badly she ended up activating her emergency beacon and triggering a helicopter evac. Te Araroa Trust and SARS have been extremely discreet about the entire episode.

Looking around, I don’t think I can imagine a worse possible place to be fucked up on acid.

It rains a little in the afternoon but not too much, which is good because we have a river track tomorrow that will involve about fifty crossings.

We head up West Branch Ashburton River and then into Round Hill Creek. Criss-cross and criss-cross and criss-cross, around sheer outcrops and up and down on rough scrubby riverbanks, in and out of the icy cold water.

After a couple of hours I hit the tussocky climb up to Clent Hill Saddle. Tussocks hide a lot of deep holes and it takes a lot of exploratory pole work to avoid plunging knee deep into mud and filthy rain run-off.

On top of the saddle are two rickety deckchairs, anchored in with slabs of rock. I settle myself into one and hook into lunch, looking down into the huge glacial valleys ahead of me. The plains are totally flat, hills springing up so perfectly abruptly that they look like they’ve been flipped straight out of cake moulds.

I could sit here forever if it weren’t for the wind… Eventually I have to get moving again and head along the saddle to take the big scree traverses across the slope and eventually down a long spur to the valley floor.

Spot the human…

I path-find between huge stands of matagouri and Spaniard grass, and really I take back every bad thing I said about gorse on the North Island because oh the matagouri is so much worse. The Spaniard grass lurks under tussock much of the time, camouflaging well enough that one can’t see it until it pokes you in the calves. The mature bushes shoot out massive spiny seed pods that look like a fucked-up medieval weapon of torture.

Meanwhile, dozens upon dozens of lizards ripple away from underfoot as I descend.

I come around Lake Heron and onto a 4WD track as I head into Manuka Hut, and over in the next valley I can see huge white thunderheads piled up into the sky, their black underbellies dumping rain. There is the occasional quiet rumble of distant thunder, but this little storm cell stays trapped right where it is while our side stays clear.

Manuka Hut is another tin shed, but at least is set on a concrete slab to form the floor. I hang out and cook and eat dinner with Jenny before turning in.

When I get up early in the morning to pee, I am struck by the full moon setting in the half-light, how crazy beautiful this all is.

I walk out to Lake Clearwater, back on 4WD track. It’s a perfectly sunny day, I don’t have to look at my feet all the time, I can have my head up and take it all in. The country here is so big and so open that it’s hard to grasp how it can be contained in such a small nation. I could be in Alberta or Montana, or even the lands of the horselords… Location filming for Rohan in Lord of the Rings was done here.

Clearwater Village is on the North bank of the Rangitata and I am able to pick up a hitch to other side and the village of Geraldine with a man and his adult daughter on their way back from a horsepacking trip. They give me an apple, and buy me an ice cream.

Digressions

I don’t have much to say about this last section. To be honest, it’s felt like filler hiking – a bit of trail that has to be done to get from one point to another. We had amazing hiking immediately before in Nelson Lakes and I know there’s some cracking hiking to come and I just want to get to it.

I’ve booked my flight home. My time out here now has an end-date and I’m conscious of the finiteness of it. I’m wrestling with how I want to make the most of it, and despite the strength of the friendships I’ve formed here I have a strong desire to largely go it alone now until the end. I think back to how green and in need of external validation I was at the start, of how I looked so much to the decisions of others instead of trusting in my own; of how differently I feel now. There’s been a lot of traffic on this recent section and the high level of activity and interaction has me feeling… cloudy. Like I’m losing some of my internal purpose.

I don’t want it to end; I want it to end. I am ready to resume a version of my life that contains more than two pairs of underpants. I wondered if living out here so basically and with so little for such an extended period would make me feel as if I was above consumerist pursuits and possessions. It hasn’t. I want to buy some nice new facial serums from Deciem and wear my outfits and feel cute again. On the flipside I feel almost irrationally attached to the few items that have travelled with me all this way. I will do a gear review at some point.

What will my life look like when I return home? I think about this a lot. Ideally I’d like to try and transition out of hospitality but I don’t have the faintest idea of how to begin, given that I don’t really have any other skills. I’d like to resume my old volunteer role, which will be easy enough and I’m excited about that because I feel like I did some of my most valuable work there and learnt a lot but it won’t pay my rent. In the end hospitality is what I know and where I have contacts and the reality is I have to engage in some kind of income-generating labour and for the most part I enjoy the work and I like the flexibility it offers and I have an aptitude for wrangling humans. I want to try and balance the work-life juggle better, to make more time for hiking even if it is just weekend overnights. I want to volunteer for the Oxfam Trailwalker event this year, to participate on the other side of the track so to speak. I have some goals there at least, to kick on with.

More generally, I want to have more time for friends. I’d like, the next time our lease comes up for renewal, to look for someplace cheaper to rent. I want to hang out in bookshops more. I want a better sense of routine and productivity in my life. I want a lot; I don’t want much.

Life on trail is very simple. Get up, and go for a long walk. Eat. Walk some more. Chat with the people around you. Read a little. Sleep. Repeat.

I have rediscovered my enjoyment of reading, out here. I have books loaded onto my phone and reading is my preferred downtime activity. I wasn’t reading much for a long while because I found it hard to get into the type of books that were being recommended to me. Left to my own devices I’ve been reading according to my own interests which are often decidedly low-brow. I like a good historically inaccurate bodice-ripper, I like the Southern Gothic vampire stylings of Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris, I like Young Adult fiction… I read to relax and be entertained, and I’m ok with that. For what it’s worth I’ve most recently been reading ‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay which is reading to be challenged, for sure. And it’s been a relief to find that a brilliant scholar like Gay also has feelings of being inadequate in the face of the complexities of feminism, of disagreeing with its methodology sometimes, of not always being the proper fit. I feel reassured that actually, I can stop being so fucking scared and defensive about the various ways I always seem to fall short, and make my own fit.

I listen to podcasts a lot as I walk because sometimes hiking for ten hours a day gets boring. My favourite so far has probably been ‘Witch, Please’ which is a close reading of the Harry Potter series, both the books and the movies. The hosts, Hannah and Marcelle, discuss gender and social politics as seen in the Potterverse, the roles women are allowed to play and norms they must conform to in order to take part in or have power in the story, the treatment of marginalised bodies, the parallels between Slytherin and Nazis, the intellectual control that JK Rowling wields over her creation still, casting choices in the movies, representations of patriarchy and the illusions of meritocracy as depicted via characters like Dumbledore and Gilderoy Lockhart… It’s all stuff that’s right up my back alley and also tremendously fun and funny to listen to.

My attention span seems to have lengthened with this regular practice of long-reading and long-listening, and I like it. Too much scrolling on social media has had me reduced to soundbites so much, and the enforced abstinence of backcountry stretches with no service has been refreshing. I get nervy about not being in touch with the unhusband for a week at a time, but apart from that I find that I don’t miss much or miss out on much.

I have frequently focussed on all the things I am fearful of. Heights and pain and the not knowings.

I have not always acknowledged the things I am brave about, out here. That I am surprised to find myself brave about. I thumb for rides and leap into the cars of strangers and make them my friends for ten minutes, for two hours, for a whole afternoon. I go into the homes of people I meet at the pub. I ask for the things I need, and I tell people that it is fine for them to tell me no, but usually everyone is polite and curious and happy to help whether they are like me or are not like me. I get lost and muddled on the trail and never freak out. I love it when the weather turns wild. I plunge thigh-deep into frigid raging rivers without hesitation. A lot of people are nervous about the rivers where I am not. I am socially the most assertive I have been in years. I make the right decisions for myself, and rarely second-guess. I sleep alone in my tent in the bush. I sleep in rat-infested huts.

I am delighted by the magic and the codes held in maps. I have become good at matching the topography depicted in maps and the topography of the land I see around me. The delineation of a landscape in this way has a symbology that resonates with me in the way that tarot decks do. They both anchor me; they both give clarity; they both point a way.

I’m going to get my sword now, I know it. I promised myself way back when that if I made it to Bluff I would treat myself to a frivolity I have always desperately wanted. I want the officially licensed replica (from the Lord of the Rings movies) of Anduril, reforged from the shards of Narsil – the blade that was broken that has been remade. It will come up to my chin, and will serve no purpose but to be the thing I fucking earnt for journeying the length of Middle-Earth. I will hang it on my wall and make my lover and my friends address me as the True King of Gondor. It’s trite, but some days it’s been the thing that has kept me on trail. Gotta keep going and finish, girl, or you don’t get your sword.

I want a lot; I don’t want much.

My appetites have grown voracious. I thrill to rivers and mountains now; I will not force myself to be content with streams and foothills again. I am finding fragments of myself in these places and I am becoming whole in a way I have never known.

This is the best thing I have ever done.

Nelson Lakes and Waiau Pass

We set out from St Arnaud late, with an easy walk to Lakehead Hut at the far end of Lake Rotoiti. I haven’t slept very well at the hostel in town and I am stiff and clumsy from a day and a half of not walking. It takes me the better part of the three hour hike to warm up and I arrive at the hut with Simon and Hannah a bit after lunch. We annex a corner of bunk space and spend the afternoon lazing around as a few other people arrive, including two women guiding a group of tourists on a multi-day tramping experience to Lake Angelus. They have had fresh groceries delivered here by boat and lay out cheese and crackers and cook up a chicken and veggie and noodle stirfry while we sit in our corner seething with resentment. I am doing another eight-day food carry for this section so again I’m on a diet of dry crackers and porridge sachets and freeze-dried food. Fuck you and your fancy cheese and fresh vegetables.

Our friend Ella also shows up. She has been crossing paths with us for the last couple of sections and we last saw her at Starveall Hut. She had her way through the Richmonds blocked by bad weather at a couple of turns, and after waiting two days to try and get over Rintoul she turned back and bounced out at Hackett Junction, passing us on her return. She’s been having trouble with her knees during the many pounding descents along the TA and currently appears to be held together with duct tape. Girl, I know how it feels.

As we fix breakfast the next morning, the two guides offload a smoked chicken breast on us which we seize on with glee. It’s a fine morning and perfect conditions for hiking as we head up the valley next to the Travers River.

Along this first stretch of the day I pass the 2000km mark which feels both good and odd. Since I haven’t done a full thruhike these milestones carry less significance than they otherwise might. I lie down by the marker and take a selfie anyway.

After a stop at John Tait Hut for lunch I continue on for the afternoon to Upper Travers Hut. At the last I splash up a stream bed and emerge into a massive amphitheatre of surrounding peaks, the hut tiny but centre stage in a suspended valley.

I hurry on up and leave my wet things on the deck and cook dinner, then retreat back outside afterwards to watch the sun shifting across the mountainside above us.

We have caught up with Justin again, who moved ahead of us the day before with an earlier start, but who took a short day before attempting the crossing of Travers Saddle. He and I set out within minutes of each other in the morning and I let him pass, knowing it takes me a while to loosen up and I don’t like to be rushed before I’m ready to hit pace.

It is one of the coldest mornings I’ve had so far, and I’m still in shadow here as I cross the last reaches of the valley. I repeatedly and alternately stuff my hands between my thighs and into my armpits to try and warm them but my fingers are still numb on my hiking poles and I just push to climb up beyond the line where I see the sun fall.

I come up over the saddle and I can see pockets of glacial snow up in shaded crevices. The vertical granite mountains remind me of pictures I’ve seen of the Dolomites in Northern Italy. I get over the ridge and down into the treeline relatively easily and into West Sabine Hut for lunch.

I leave at about 2:30pm and follow the river up to Blue Lake. When I bust out of the treeline again I am in another semi-circular valley with a waterfall streaming down above me and I feel the suckerpunch of awe that I’m here in this place and I’m not a religious woman but I feel like I’m standing in one of the great cathedrals here.

When I get to the hut I don’t even drop my pack before I walk straight down to the shores of the lake. This remote, jewel-like body of water holds some of the clearest water in the world, as optically pure as it is possible for water to be in a wild place. It filters down from Lake Constance above through the rock, sifting out all of the particulate as it comes. I fish my crystals out of my hipbelt pocket and clean them in the lake margins.

The next day is the big one, for this section. We need to get over the Waiau Pass, the second highest point on Te Araroa at 1870 metres.

First we must circumnavigate Lake Constance, climbing up and over moraine bluffs. I think of this as ‘Death Terrain’ as it’s an area where people have died, wandering too close to the cliffs to get photos and losing their footing in the wet tussock and high winds. I take my time here, working slowly slowly around, Lake Constance like a great blue egg yolk being separated in the jagged shells of the surrounding alpine peaks.

I’m around the end of the shores of the Lake and looking straight up at the Pass, then. A vague poled route is visible above me and disappears high high above. There is nothing for it but to go.

Waiau Pass with the scree crossing marked

There is a straight line to start with leading up a path in the low scrub, enabling me to grab onto handfuls of vegetation as I climb. I stop frequently to look back and take more photos of Lake Constance as the view broadens. Then I hit the big wide scar of scree with a vague but sharply ascending line cutting across it. I try to relax and stand and adjust to the fact that the ground is going to move beneath me but eventually just flail on my hands and knees. I’m talking to myself again, just a bit further, you’re nearly there, it’s ok, you can do it, reciting the names of all the women I can think of in this and past seasons who have done the Pass already.

Finally, thankfully, I am off the worst of the scree and it’s a straight shot up to the saddle and after I steady a couple of times against the bigger wind gusts I’m over. I’ve been looking back frequently to try and see Simon and Hannah but they are far enough back that I don’t and in a way I’m glad to have done the Pass alone. Like I can actually do the hard stuff independently, like I deserve to be here.

The drop back down the other side involves a few climby shuffles but the rock is nice and grippy and I’m able to come at it with a minimum of my usual fear. After doing the majority of the North Island all fucked up from injury I am terribly risk averse at this point, and I really take my time through the entire descent. When I eventually strike the Waiau River down in the valley and stop for a late lunch it is well into the afternoon and I am wrestling with whether to camp up a little further down or try to push to the hut about 9km away.

In the end I decide to go for the hut. Having made the call I know I have to hike hard from here on out. When the terrain eases out I try to make bank while the going is good, but I get bound up a bunch of times in large boulder fields on the riverbank. The river crossings slow me enough that sandflies land on my skin and I slap them away, surely from a distance looking like I am playing some game of ‘why are you hitting yourself’ with an invisible person.

I get into Waiau Hut a touch after 7pm and cook up and scoff food right away. After having a tummy upset on the Queen Charlotte and then the physical stress of the Richmond Range and having disrupted eating patterns my hikers’ appetite is kicking back in with a vengeance. While I am consuming enough food to never be really hungry, I am also never quite full either.

Hannah and Simon arrive nearly an hour after I do and with Justin and two others who have come in here on horseback we have a full hut for the night. The horsepackers let us know of a shortcut out that Hannah and Simon decide to take. Simon hasn’t fully bounced back since he got sick in Havelock and is just low on energy and has visibly lost a chunk of weight, and he wants to see a doctor (spoiler – he will be given a giardia diagnosis and a round of anti-parasitic medication). He and Hannah also need a bit of psychological space to make some decisions about the rest of their time in NZ. The group dynamic of the trail can create a lot of static and it’s easy to feel like you’re being swept along like so much flotsam without being fully engaged with it. I’ve given them some tips on a couple of sidetrips they might be keen to look into to break things up.

I am keen to finish this section though, as it feeds into the St James Walkway which was one of the last tramps my stepfather did with his three best tramping buddies. But when we wake up in the morning it’s to high wind and vigorous rain and none of us are going anywhere.

The horsepackers ride out and the four of us retreat to various corners of the tiny six-bunk hut and read and watch offline movies and play Catan and in my case write. At about 11am we hear some noise up on the deck and see two men out there with rifles with suppressors on. In these remote backcountry parts of the South Island we are crossing paths more often with hunters.

Recreational hunting culture is something I have exactly zero contact with back home in Sydney where I am sheltered in my inner-city latte-sipping Greens-volunteering hipster-wanker lifestyle ghetto. I would actually consciously go out of my way to avoid it because I don’t know bogans and toxic masculinity and blah blah blah and my own class snobbery is showing here. (NB I’m not a fan of slapping the ‘toxic masculinity’ label on anything a man does that annoys me. I reserve the right to be bored or irritated by someone’s company without it being about a societal pathology. But hunting?)

But then… All of the dudes I’ve met out here who are out hunting are *super nice guys* and totally without affectation and I really enjoy chatting to them, and Stephen and Sean are no exceptions. They obviously have a solid and easy friendship, and Stephen in particular seems to take pride in this act of subsistence living, in owning the fact of knowing where his meat comes from and what it involves, to the point he hates buying meat in the supermarket and would prefer to eat vegetarian if that’s what it comes to. Deer and goat and pig are introduced to NZ and are aggressive environmental pests, and DOC actually encourages the hunting of them. Sean shares a packet of shortbread with us and then they decide to sleep for a few hours while it’s still raining heavily.

When they awaken they decide to cook a hot meal before they head out for the dusk hours. On their way into the hut they’d shot a goose (with a 308, dear lord) and now they fry up two enormous chunks of lean breast with onions and jalapenos and savoury rice. And then. They share it with us. It’s chewy and gamey but it’s the only real food I’ve had in almost a week and damn it’s delicious (quick note – it’s a Canada goose and they are also an introduced pest and fair game).

Late in the day three other hikers pass through, all having had quite the ordeal coming over Waiau Pass. Stunningly, the weather on the Lake Constance side was *a bit grey* but nothing like the torrential rain we’ve had all day on our side. The two girls, McKenzie and Elizabeth, had a worse time of it and got stuck above one of the rivers and couldn’t do anything but get their tent up and get into dry clothes and sleeping bags and brew tea and just try to get and stay warm.

The next morning brings another abrupt shift in the weather and the blue sky is clear as a bell. McKenzie and Elizabeth have tented here overnight and McKenzie has been having pain in both her knees but only has one knee brace. I have a roll of stretchy physio tape that I periodically use on my ankle and I strap her other knee for her and act like I know what I’m doing but honestly it’s just my best guess and a bit of a crapshoot. After she leaves I joke; “Well I sure did a shithouse job of that.”

(When I catch up with her in town, she will tell me that it made a massive difference to her comfort and was actually better than the brace and she’s going to buy a roll of tape of her own at the first opportunity, so yay for women helping women I guess?)

It is perfect and easy walking on mostly 4WD track to Anne Hut. The landscape is entirely Cantabrian with its long flowing grasses and shale-scarred brown hillsides, and there is only one serious crossing at the Ada River.

At Anne Hut we get some weather intel from a family group. Justin and I were intending to go the next hut at Boyle Flats tomorrow, then walk out to Lewis Pass Road and hitch to town the day after.

“Weather’s going to pack it in tomorrow. Tuesday’s meant to be bloody terrible.”

Justin and I eye each other across the table.

“What do you reckon? Early start? 30km day? Smash it out and get to town before it breaks?”

We roll out of our sleeping bags in the dark to some drizzle that signals the advancing fringe of ex-Cyclone Gita that will hit the country hard.

It’s not a day for scenery, it’s a day for pushing. We pound it out and by the last 6km we are both bitching and hurting, desperate for even track that will just let us *hike.* Stream beds with deep banks and boggy mud-holes keep impeding us until I throw a raging tantrum at a blowdown, hitting it in fury with one hiking pole as I yell and swear at it.

We can hear the road well before we see it and bolt for the highway and stick our thumbs out. Obviously our hitching mojo is dialled right up to maximum because the first car that passes us pulls over and drives us all the way to Hanmer Springs. We will spend the next two days locked down here as Gita tears through, bringing flooding and power outages to the middle of the country.

Out of the Richmond Ranges

I wake up with scabs soldified on my lip and nose and my face feels bruised. Battle scars. Trophies.

We cross over Purple Top, then head down to Mid Wairoa Hut for the night. Hikers have a tendency to get jammed here in bad weather as the next section tracks up the Wairoa River with multiple crossings and can’t be done in heavy rain.

The weather is still holding for us, though. There has been complaint about this section being badly eroded with nettles everywhere but it’s not so bad. Mostly there are a lot of wasps and I’m conscious of not putting a hand on one as I edge past on the steep banks. The water of the Wairoa River is that crystalline blue-green that heralds frigid cold but at one crossing point beneath a deep pool I can’t resist a dip. I strip down and plunge in briefly, my whole body prickling with pins and needles from the shock of it.

After lunch at Top Wairoa Hut, it appears to be a straight shot over Mt Ellis to Hunters Hut, where we will stay for the night. It turns out to be a real bitch of a section, though. We do a hard ascent under the scouring alpine sun, over tussock and boulder fields. We are in Red Hills country now, and the rock is weathered to red-brown with magnesium and iron ore. It is ignaeous metamorphic rock, exposed to the Earth’s surface by an ancient shift in the tectonic plates far below us, that has created the Nelson Mineral Belt on which we now stand.

Once over Mt Ellis there is a drop down into the East branch of the Wairoa River and one final climb up to Hunters Hut for the night. It’s been a punishing day and everyone is kind of flat and more or less just ready to be out of this section and back into town. Talk turns to cravings of soft drinks and burgers and beer.

I don’t like getting into this negative rut, to end sections on a down note. I drag my heels on departure the next morning, deliberately wanting to seek my own mental space for the final full day of hiking. It’s satisfying for me to end a section in reflection, to quietly contemplate what I’ve come through, to ‘take my moment’ the way I did at the end of Ninety Mile Beach and while finishing the Northland Forests.

I ruminate as I walk. I think about Women and Women Hikers* and how interesting it has been out here to watch the lack of gender advantage. It backs up my observation from doing Oxfam Trailwalker two years running that age or being a dude or lady play less of a role in success in these ultra distance endeavours than one might think. If it was purely a physical challenge then a lot of us (including me) would be out. This is a ‘sport’ (if you want to call it that) where women can easily match the men.

I’m enjoying hiking with Hannah who maintains she is ‘slow’ on the uphills but is so much stronger than she gives herself credit for. She is sixteen years younger than me but is a match for me in all of the basic life sense stuff and in some ways she is more than my match. God, I just love watching the girls out here in motion and action and all their three-dimensional complexity being competent and kicking butt. It’s so refreshing when a lot of what we are used to in how we view women is in a fixed static image, a reduction that just loses all of the glorious living breathing vital essence of a person.

It’s not a reach to say that societally we fetishize women’s pain and fragility and it grosses me out and ugh I am tired of it. I refused, bloody-mindedly, to participate in the #metoo mess because just… Look, there’s a lot of reasons but I am resistant to the idea that as a woman I’m suddenly only interesting or worth paying attention to as a victim. If you care about me or any woman in your life you should be engaged with me/us in our multitudinous aspects all the damned time and not as just as an occasional object of pity for you to have some pointless too-little-too-late crywank over. Because fuck you. It makes me think about how I might be a better friend in my various relationships and I resolve to make a more concerted effort, after this, to show up for my friends’ successes. I want to be there to high-five and hug them for their graduations and finish lines and speaking engagements and high distinctions and creation of new humans and just generally for babes feeling good about themselves. There’s a ‘joke’ that goes around that goes something like ‘woman announces final submission of PhD by saying ‘so I wrote a thing” and it rings very true for me because I have an awful habit of downplaying and minimising my achievements. The second time I did Trailwalker I was really embarrassed about inviting people to show up for the finish because it was on the ‘wrong’ side of town and it would go late and I was sure to emphasise that I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone or monopolise their Saturday night and hey it’s not like it was my first event so no honestly it’s fine it really is no big deal… But you know what? It was a big deal! And it sucks that I made myself smaller, made myself not take up space in a good and strong moment and just kind of made it and myself disappear. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to give support for my friends’ various vulnerabilities but I want to be sure to be there for them and witness them being amazing too. I don’t want to let their amazingness be invisible or something they have to downplay – like it’s an inconvenience. I don’t want to see women make themselves smaller. It’s so easy to see someone doing well and kicking goals and assume everything there is fine and they don’t need me or whatever but I’m realising that plenty of people and women especially are likely to have the same trash-talking internal monologue that I do. And making a person’s good moments matter goes a long way to shoring them up to deal with life’s shittier moments.

We are running ahead of the rain today and showers nudge at our heels as we push through the last of the river crossings. Horrendous sidles on fine gravel above cliffs take forever. It’s like walking on bloody ball bearings and with the path no wider than a cat-scratch it could easily be fatal to slip here.

When I know I’m close to the end I stop on the climb out of the Motueka River Gorge, looking back up the valley for glimpses of the mountain range I’ve come out of. My funk of wanting it over with has gone, and I’m sorely tempted to just sit up here in the last hut for a day of solo time in the backcountry doing nothing but read and write and nap.

When we wake up in the rain, this feeling solidifies. The windows of Red Hills Hut look down a tussock-strewn valley and I think how nice it would be to watch the weather sweep in and out. I’m on the fence for a long while but in the end people are expecting me to check out of this section today and I’m ready for a hot shower and a goddamned clean pair of undies.

I don my weatherproofs and drop out via a 4WD track which has turned to a stream in the heavy rain. At the bottom I have to cross a creek that is brown and swollen with flood and rushing past and I plunge through it thigh-deep with gravel pounding my shins, my rainpants now rendered useless. When I make it out to the highway I put my thumb out for the hitch, bedraggled and pathetic. When a car finally stops for me they have an esky full of beers on the backseat and they give me one.

*I have enough trans and enby folks in my life that I know some will read this. And I don’t for a moment want to be a gender absolutist or ignore the fact that they will have experiences of this world that are much more hostile and complicated than mine. I don’t want to let that go un-mentioned. But I can only speak for myself and I won’t speak for others who are very eloquent and capable of speaking for themselves so just wanna give a little wave here and say ‘yo, I see you.’ I won’t coopt your stories in order to make a point in my own, but I will make it my responsibility to listen to you when you tell them.

Pelorus River Track and Richmond Ranges

We stop in Havelock for a couple of days. Rain and wind howl through, and Simon and Hannah are struck down with a mystery poop-illness of their own.

I am unproductive and antsy, waiting here. It seems like all we’ve been hearing about since we set out on Te Araroa is this forthcoming section. Richmond Range Richmond Range Richmond Range. I am so anxious the night before we set out again that I can barely eat dinner.

I drag Justin along with me on departure, and we take the hitch out to Pelorus Bridge. There is a long gravel road walk from here up to the trail head and we strike out along it, leapfrogging as we go. Justin has the advantage of youth and height and testosterone on his side with regards to pace but my condition is slightly better, so by the time Hannah and Simon reach us in a ride they’ve managed to yogi all the way to the road-end, I’m ahead.

We all cram in, like a clown car, then spill out again at the start of the track. It’s a river bank sidle leading up the Pelorus River but the track is mostly decently benched and easy to negotiate. A few technical drops see me slip on my backside more than once, but we have fun with it going over swingbridges and clocking waterfalls on the far bank and tromping through contributory streams.

I am on pace and feeling good, and when we reach our planned stop at Captain’s Creek Hut I am ready to suggest hitting an extra 5km but Hannah and Simon are already setting their tent up. There are a lot of wasps around here, to the point that someone has written a little ditty about it in the hut intentions book. “The wasps they bring all their boys to the loo,” it goes. “Damn right; they sting when you poo.” Because I am apparently a fucking child, I find this disproportionately funny.

The air is thick with sandflies and although my legs are covered in repellent I quickly cover up with long pants and thick socks. A Dutch couple arrive with huge canvas backpacks and in heavy leather boots, and… You see a lot of different hiking styles and gear choices out here and people will do what works for them but I’m not entirely sure they know what they’re in for. They talk about the track today having been rough and difficult, and walk around in shorts and sandals when their feet are already inflamed and bleeding from sandfly welts. They wash all of their hiking clothes in the river and then express surprise when nothing is dry by morning. I notice that the girl is wearing thong underwear which strikes me as a one-way ticket on a fast train to Yeast-town out here on these long waterless mountain passes. The guy’s pack weighs 35kg. They will either learn quickly or suffer badly.

I am keen to hit a 20km day next and head to Browning Hut. Finally pain-free, I’m all full of pep and enthusiasm again and I make everyone wake up at 6:30am and we have coffee and breakfast and then I belt off out the door before the rest of the crew.

There is low cloud and drenching mist everywhere but in the cover of the bush I don’t get so wet. It’s another push up the river to Middy Creek Hut before I hit the climb to Rocks Hut. I sweat and puff and eventually put my headphones in for the last 2km and crank it out, enjoying the exertion. I break at Rocks for nearly an hour, sheltered here in the warmth and eating lunch.

The others all arrive as I am winding it up to leave again and I check that everyone is agreed on continuing to the next hut.

The 10km to Browning takes me down through forest and through massive patches of giant felled trees, eerie in the mist. I clamber over mossy great trunks, scraping up my thighs and then finally bust out of the treeline into tussock and my first glimpses of the green-clad range ahead of me. The endorphin rush is on and I have that feeling of not wanting this day to end, that oh my god I actually can hike after all and please please don’t let this go away.

I head back down into the treeline and take the drop into Browning Hut. For once, for once I have not been passed by every other person out here today and I am actually first into camp. I peg a spot to sleep in the 8-bunk hut and change into warm clothes and cook up some dinner as everyone else rolls in.

I set a target of Slaty Hut for the next day and again I’m first out the door. Simon is flat and sluggish from sickness and it’s obvious that he and Hannah will take some time to get moving.

It’s a river walk for the first part of the day, criss-crossing Hackett Creek multiple times as I work up it. Trail markers lead me up the riverbank here and there and eventually I hit a dead end on one of these. I am forced to bush bash my way back down, repeatedly casting my poles down ahead of me and lowering myself by tree trunks and branches, legs windmilling uselessly in the air until my feet strike purchase again.

I follow the river from then on until I hit the junction that sees me into the brutal 900 metre ascent to Starveall Hut. It grinds on and on and on, the last kilometre neverending and almost ruining me. I finally pop out of the trees to see the hut framed by the beginnings of the vast rocky mountain range above it. A broad scree slope spills away behind and I run around and take photos and message people to let them know where I am.

Looking at the time, I realise that unless Simon and Hannah are right on my heels then we are out of day to bag Slaty and we will need to pull the pin here. They arrive over an hour after me and we are all happy to stop.

Wind kicks up in the night and it is grey and cold as we decide to make the climb up onto Starveall Peak. Everyone has their shells and hats and gloves on. There are a few exposed rock scrambles where we are buffeted by the wind coming across and cling to the outcrops as we head upwards.

Then we are up and over the tops as it all opens up before us. The sky is clearing and the wind is dropping and ridgeline after ridgeline after ridgeline forever and ever stack up towards the horizon and it’s like the lighting of the beacons scene in ‘Return of the King’ and I feel like my face will split in two. I thought I was gone at that initial view of Starveall Hut but somehow that was like a kind of pre-cum and only now am I being lifted up on the peaks of that long delicious ‘ah ah aaaaaahhhh.’

We stop at Slaty Hut for lunch and are joined by a couple of guys coming from the other direction and their gorgeous hound who hovers at the door and fixes us with her big brown eyes, desperate to come inside and mooch food and pats.

Sorry Georgie, no dogs allowed

Then it’s off again and we are on the ridge-run through to Old Man Hut. I take a tonne of photos and drop back to hike with Justin as Hannah and Simon pull well ahead. There are a few exposed scrambles around rocky outcrops but being with someone more obviously nervous than me is good for my head game and I take the lead and find the lines.

The climb up old Old Man is a butt-kicker and big swathes of cloud are pouring into our left. They will miss us entirely though as we continue past the junction for Lake Chalice and go on to the drop off the ridgeline for our hut.

Old Man Hut is jam-packed for the night. We are joined by Tee (who has dropped a stack of weight since I last saw him and is hiking like a demon), other Kirsten (who I last saw before Dome Forest), a Frenchie called Anne-Cecile, and Tobias who has caught us up after crushing a massive day from Browning Hut. Tee and I lend our fancy high-end sleep mats to Kirsten and Anne-Cecile to sleep on the floor, and Tobias camps. There’s lots of laughs and catch-ups to be had here.

There’s low cloud around in the morning and we wait, we wait for it to lift. Nobody wants to negotiate this next stretch in the wet. Eventually Tee decides to make a break for it, and Kirsten and Anne-Cecile follow shortly after.

So much of Te Araroa comes down to this day, for me. I vacillated for so long over whether I would even do this stretch at all; if the food carry would be too much for me, if I’d be fit enough to do it, if I could keep my head right for the exposed climbs. I have warned everyone that it could take a lot to get me over Little Rintoul and Rintoul.

With the weather clearing, we decide to take our run at midday and climb back up onto the ridge. As we make the approach to Little Rintoul I catch a foot in a twine-thin root looping out of the ground. I am flying mid-stride and go down hard and fast enough that I don’t even get my hands under me to break the fall onto schist. I take it all on my face, cutting my lip and grazing up my nose – only the thin woollen hat I have pulled down low prevents me from slicing my brow as well. Hannah lifts my pack off me as I spit gravel, and there are quiet moments as Simon hands me a damp gauze pad to wash the blood and dirt away and Neosporin to dress the chunks out of my lip.

I am wrestling with the choking panic over the fact I just tripped and smashed up my face while walking on perfectly flat ground and I’m about to do one of the most technical and dangerous sections on the TA and I am terrified I may actually die up there and I want nothing so much as to just beg to be allowed to turn around and go back.

“You can do this,” I think. “You can do this, and you will never need to be afraid of anything ever again if you can just make it over.”

I put my pack on and walk away silently, slowly leading up out of the treeline and onto the lower slopes of Little Rintoul. Tobias and Simon eventually pick up the lead and we crank it up and up, reaching the first of a few rock clambers. I am doing okay so far, and eventually we come to the last section – a tightrope-thin sidle up and around a cliff face and onto the summit itself. The drop-off is horrifying and I talk to myself aloud; “Don’t look keep moving, don’t look keep moving…” I tuck in hard against the rock and then I am clear and on top. The earlier cloud has burned away and there isn’t a breath of wind and we stop and take in the 360 degree views.

The path to the summit – can you pick it?
Yup, there it is
And it’s a long damned way down…

I’m over. I’ve done the worst bit, I can do the rest.

We take a slow and fiddly descent down off Little Rintoul and I am forced to butt slide for some of it (my pants!). A hairpin sidle around a deep slip degenerates into out and out rockclimbing and I move through it steadily. Tobias is behind me and I hear him say in all his laconic glory; “Fark, that’s sketchy.”

We loop through the bottom of the saddle and then start the big grind up the ‘puffer’ to the summit of Mt Rintoul. Large chunks of rock are underfoot and occasionally shift as I step across them. I keep putting my hands down to steady myself as I ascend, despite it being perfectly possible to just walk upright like the homo erectus I’m purported to be. I am rigid with nerves and tired, a whole day of continually screwing my courage to the sticking place (to shamelessly plagiarise Shakey, but damn it is such an apt phrase) beginning to take its toll.

The trail in the distance leading to the summit of Mt Rintoul
I’m in the mid-ground there, walking up to the summit

I message Mum and the unhusband from the summit, standing on the rooftop of the Richmond Range. It is so clear and so calm up here, conditions have been perfect to thread through the needlepoint crux of Rintoul. We truly have played a blinder with our timing. This is a moment of deep satisfaction, to have come through fear and to be on this peak, after all my self-doubt.

There is one more rocky descent to get down, where I get jammed and lose my temper, just yelling “FUCK!” repeatedly until finally I twist around into my comfort zone of facing the rock, sinking into it and downclimbing. Then there is the drop via a scree field, step-sliding down down down into another treeline and Rintoul Hut.

There is just enough service here for me to make a patchy phone call to the unhusband, exhausted and elated. He knows how incredibly fearful I have been of this day and to hear him tell me how proud he is of me just hammers it in. I want to hold this feeling, of knowing that if I could keep a handle on this then I can blow my petty anxieties to hell. I am so grateful to have done this with others, to recognise that my reliance on others when I needed it made me stronger and not lesser.

Simon is packing tequila again and we pass it around and self-congratulate and just bask in the evening sun and the sensation of feeling like friggin’ champions.