It’s been an eventful nine days walking from Methven to Tekapo. After saying goodbye to several long term hiking buddies I found myself heading out alone into what was a potentially challenging high country section. The trail notes and other hiker comments revealed I should expect around 60 river crossings, trail-less routes ‘lightly marked’ with poles, chest high tussock grass, the highest point on the Te Araroa Trail (Stag Saddle at 1940m) and a crossing of the Rangitata River, a 10km wide braided river valley considered a hazard zone on the trail.
Setting out in the heat, I climbed up and up through a dry and dusty landscape. Hundreds of tiny cricket-like creatures bounced on the ground as I passed, many of them bouncing off my face and body too or getting caught in my hair, during which time they would make a loud ‘clicking’ noise, deafening me for half a minute in the process.
On the second day of the section I set out in sunshine for a long hike following a river which required around 50 crossings of it as required to make my way up the valley. With wet boots I continued on higher and higher into the mountains, pushing my way through the infamous tussock grass and referring to the GPS often when the marker poles were too far apart to locate visually.
Late in the afternoon I had only 3km to go to reach my intended hut when the wind started to pick up so I stopped to put on my waterproof and windproof jacket. Now on easier terrain I marched on, confident it should only take me just over half an hour to reach the hut. I noticed the air suddenly get markedly cool and in the distance rain clouds moved towards me through the valley. All good, I thought to myself. Jacket on, not far to go to a dry hut…how bad can it get?
The rain reached me and I walked a little quicker. I noticed little balls of ice in the rain. Oh great, I thought to myself, hail. I walked quicker again skipping over the uneven ground, pausing occasionally to search out an orange marker pole in the distance. The wind increased and the cold bit into my exposed hands as I clutched my hiking poles. Damn this is uncomfortable, I thought to myself. After 10 minutes of hail my hands were painfully cold and I tried holding them behind my back to shield them from the wind. I pushed them one at a time in my pockets to give them some hope of warming up but they were so numb I could barely tell if I’d succeeded in getting them in or not. This was starting to get dire. How far to this hut now? I turned my back to the wind to check the GPS, my numb ‘stumps’ stabbing at the buttons clumsily. I couldn’t feel my hands at all and had to direct them by sight to function as I needed. In disbelief I watched as the hail turned to snow, flying towards me in the icy wind and reducing visibility.
The hut I was looking for was, according to the trail notes, ‘tucked away up a sidestream’ just off the main trail. I could not afford to miss it. Finally a sign indicated the hut was close,”500m, 10 minutes”. It was the longest 10 minutes ever and I spoke to myself out loud most of the way, “Come on Laura! Focus…”. My body was painfully cold and getting colder by the second. I could feel the situation slipping. Even with the hut finally in sight I did not feel ‘out of the woods’. With 20 metres to go the hut door opened and the familiar face of Jean Charles greeted me. Once finally safely inside I held out my frozen stumps for him to warm up and within half an hour he had a fire going. I started to feel human again.
It’s often said that the New Zealand weather can change at any time but it was quite sobering to experience such a drastic and quick change first hand.
The following few days brought sunny weather again and JC and I joined forces to climb into the Two Thumb Range. We awoke to snow at Crooked Spur Hut and opted for a sleep in until midday when the sun came out to finally venture out for to the next hut. It snowed and hailed intermittently through the day but was largely manageable until that evening when the wind started roaring outside our hut. And so began two days of being hut-bound, snow and wind flying around us in the high valley. Two days is a long wait when its only 6 degrees indoors and food is diminishing, and we passed the time bundled up in sleeping bags (the warmest place to be) reading National Geographic and Readers Digest magazines from the 1980’s and trying to resist our chocolate rations.
After our third night at Royal Hut we awoke to blue skies and gloriously white snow capped mountains all around. Escaping the hut at last to climb up to Stag Saddle we were rewarded with a view of snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see, including Mt Cook. The best views on the trail so far…
It’s not far to go to Bluff now (well only 700km ish) and thoughts are starting to turn to ‘the end’. I look forward to attempting to ‘stay present’ throughout these last kilometres and enjoying them while I can!