(Photo credit:  marker pole)

146 days into this journey and I realise I’ve come a long way.  And I’m not just talking about the 2800km of trail behind me.

In the last week I tramped alone along the Mavora Walkway, a stunning route through vast open valleys flanked by huge mountains.  Wandering for hours through trail-less tussock it dawned on me how things have changed.  Being without a trail or the next marker pole in sight no longer fills me with a mild panic like it might once have.  I feel comfortable knowing if and where I can cross a river.  My GPS and I now have a comfortable relationship – I know it won’t always tell me the truth about where the TA route is but it will tell me my exact co-ordinates from which I can work out where to go.  I feel comfortable being alone in the wilderness.  And this feels a significant step after having walked with new friends for much of the way.

On the second day of this section I tramped through the valley with rainclouds chasing up behind me.  Round balls of tussock grass shook and rustled from side to side in the wind like cheerleader’s pom poms as I picked my way through to Boundary Hut where I ended up having my first night alone in a mountain hut.

 Boundary Hut nestled in the valley 

And being out in the middle of nowhere on your own opens up a whole world of possibilities.  With no one around to hear me, I got the Ipod out and sang at the top of my voice.  In fact maybe I went outside and had a bit of a dance too with all that open space to run around in!  Singing and dancing to the mountains felt quite surreal and I almost felt drunk though there wasn’t a drop of alcohol within miles.  It was purely the other-worldly freedom of being out there without a care.  The contrast between this and the anxious and stressed pre-hike Laura from the city couldn’t be greater.   The simplicity of life, the fresh air, and the lack of schedules or demands other than to walk.  This country and this tramp has cleansed me.

There is around 200km left to go and within two weeks I will finish this epic journey.  And it will be ‘Mission Successful’ on all accounts.



Hurry up Laura, winter is approaching…

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!


It’s Business Time…

“…There’s a river crossing on a rock chute just above a 4m waterfall.  The water is flowing fast down the chute and if you lose footing you go over the waterfall… Some trampers may find this section challenging”.

Hmmm…should trail notes really read like this?  Luckily for us we were blessed with hot and dry conditions which made the many river crossings very manageable, although I can imagine that in different weather the Richmond Ranges would be a totally different beast.

Our five day tramp through this section of the Te Araroa Trail has been building up in our minds for some time as a remote and high region (consistently over 1500m) that would likely test us on a number of fronts.  There were many long days with very challenging terrain involving ‘undulating trail’ (terrain rising and falling so steeply that its often hard not to slide back down the slope), ‘steep and exposed sections’ (no joke), and ‘lots of sidling, at times on steep terrain’ (one slip and it would be….bad).

more ‘sidling’, high above the Wairoa River…

Popping a few ‘Harden up’ pills from my first aid kit (thanks for the recommendation Lance) I tackled the trail with the single-minded goal of placing every footfall and pole-plant in a safe and secure place.  I learn quickly that there are actually not too many of these to be found.   Walking down steep scree slopes I try to use large rocks to brace against with my boots only to find that they regularly give way and slide down the slope with me.  On other slopes, boulder hopping from one large rock to another, I discover seemingly large and well locked in boulders shift and tilt with my weight.  Nothing is secure here and no surface can be trusted.  One step at a time, slowly and deliberately… don’t look down, don’t consider ‘what if’… just focus.

Numerous times I scour the terrain for the trail ahead only to scoff inwardly “Seriously…are you kidding me?!” when my eyes finally lock onto the route.

The trail curves around to our right, 100m or so below the jagged ridge top

The Richmond Ranges are huge and beautiful with a vast variety of terrain.  Rocky mountain ridges, scree slopes, beech forest, boulder filled river crossings, and rocky red and grey moonscapes.  During our visit it also felt a very quiet place.  With no wind during our tramp, and no distant sounds of civilisation or other people, the silence is at times deafening.  Only the song of a bird in the trees or the croak of frogs around a glacial lake at night broke the silence.

For future trampers to this region, the ranges are to be respected but not feared.


Hats off to the Queen

“Has anyone told you about the weka?” the ranger greeted us as we walked into camp.
No, what do I need to know about the weka?  “Be careful with your belongings. They have been known to steal things from your tent, even from under the flysheet.”

Suitably informed we wandered down to a small patch of forest right on the beachfront to put up our tents.  I open a zip on my pack and pull out the last of a chocolate block to munch on whilst I assemble the tent poles.  Suddenly there is a flash of movement and out of the corner of my eye I see the pink and gold wrapper of my chocolate bar disappearing off into the bush carried by two furiously running little brown legs. “Noooooooo!”  The weka had struck already.

From the moment I begin my three day Queen Charlotte Track section it is evident that this region is rich with wildlife.  The boat trip through the Marlborough Sounds to reach our starting point is shadowed by a pod of dolphins.  Stepping foot onto the jetty at Ship Cove we are greeted with the buzz and hum of bird and cicada calls, and the lush green ferns and blue skies instantly make us feel as though we have landed in the tropics.

The trail itself too is ‘friendly’ with well graded paths that are a real treat after some of the more ‘indistinct’ and steeper routes we have done so far.  Weka, flightless birds the size of a small chicken, loiter around every picnic table en route hoping to scrounge a bit of food.  Ridge top paths give amazing views into hidden blue coves where the odd white yacht is moored.

Have you seen this weka?

At the end of our first day we reach a cove with a bar right on the jetty and whilst enjoying a sundowner glass of Sauvignon Blanc we spy the unmistakable huge dorsal fins of a pod of killer whales cruise past in the bay.  The barman rushes down and cranks up the engine on a rubber inflatable and looks at me.  “Want to come?” he asks quickly.  I look at the hot chips that have tantalisingly just arrived at our table.  “Can I take the chips?” I fire back.  “No”.  I jump in the boat anyway and bid the seagulls a happy snack.  As we cruise closer we see the shiny black backs of these amazing creatures, and the puff of air bursting through the water as they come up to breathe.  Magic.

Could this place get any better I wonder?  Yes.  As we stumble the few hundred metres back to our tents in the dark we see glow worms lining the path.  A perfect end to a perfect day.

The Queen Charlotte Track is an easy and beautiful trail with abundant options for treating yourself to a proper bed or meal if you so desire, and made an easy introduction to the South Island for us.  From here on I suspect the going will get tougher!


The Getting of Wisdom in the Tararua Ranges

Whilst Wellington is reasonably well known as ‘the Windy City’, it’s probably lesser known that the nearby Tararua Ranges are also renowned for the wind and rain they attract, thanks to their proximity to the Cook Strait which acts as a funnel.

Our trail included four days in the Tararuas and during this time we were able to sample some of the strength of these weather systems.  The trail notes encourage you to sit it out in a hut if the weather is not conducive however how does one know when its ‘normal Tararuas windy’ and ‘dangerous windy’?  By the time we’d made the assessment that it was possibly the latter it was too late to turn back.

On the second day we found ourselves high up on a ridge, staggering with legs and poles spread wide for maximum stability.   Standing fast when the gusts were high, and staggering forward a few more paces when they eased off a bit, we moved from one semi sheltered patch to another.  As we moved from the knife ridge to a slightly wider section the wind went to a whole new level and I actually got pushed over a few times from the force (luckily only from a low crouched position to my backside).  The force was incredible, flapping hard against my waterproofs like I was skydiving, and forcing the high top of my jacket into my mouth like some vacuum sealed packet.  The wind screamed in my ears and my eyes streamed with water rendering me with low vision.  I just stood there, hanging on, feeling slightly surreal and knowing that we were probably on the limits of what we could handle.  I still had ‘sitting down’ to go as a last defence against being blown off the mountain so that made me feel a little bit better!

 Johanna hangs on against the wind

In any event it would have done us no good to turn at back at this point as it was a shorter distance to move forward and get down into the trees.

Thankfully day three dawned clear and bright and whilst the wind still whistled around the hut it was far better than the day before and we enjoyed an amazing walk along the Main Ridge with views across the vast Tararuas and out to sea in the distance.

The descents off this huge range, even though sheltered in the trees, were not much easier and I took several decent falls on the way down.  The first was unimpressive but painful – slipping on a mossy rock and landing on my backside on another rock with the full weight of my body and pack.  The second was way more impressive but less painful. My feet slipped out from underneath me and when I crouched down and leaned forward to correct it I found myself falling face first down the steep slope thinking ‘hmmm…this isn’t the way you’re supposed to go’.  I’m not entirely sure what happened next but there was a lot of flying dirt, walking poles and sunglasses and eventually I found myself sliding to a halt  about 4-5 metres down the slope.  Another couple just ahead of me on the track would later tell me they heard someone sliding for ‘a while’ before the call, “I’m okay!”.

Important lessons learned for the South Island though.  Take it slow and don’t push things!


And now for something completely different…

The night before departure sees me crouched in a shipping container on the rivers edge, cooking noodles and nervously listening to the thundering rain outside.  It’s so loud we can hardly hear each other speak.  Manu had decided to ‘test out’ his chosen boat in a huge lake forming on the grass in front of us, and my mind wonders at what this extra deluge of water will do to the river.  Raise the rapids by a grade or two?  Throw in a few extra logs too perhaps?

I needn’t have worried.  Our 234km paddle on the Whanganui River from Taumaranui to Whanganui turns out to be an amazing and exciting journey, and one of the highlights of my ‘walk’ so far.  Over six days we shoot around 200 rapids – some gentle bubblers, others requiring some aggressive paddling to get on the right line and stay there.  A couple of rapids have me digging deep with the paddle to stay upright as the bow plows through big troughs and peaks, and I can feel the weight of the water slamming into my chest.  Woohooo!…

The rapids are interspersed with plenty of quieter sections where you gently float with the current through steep sided gorges, covered in deep green moss and dripping with ferns.  Countless waterfalls burst through the foliage and rain down into the river.  Some are hidden from sight and its only the thundering noise of rushing water escaping from a lush crack in the rock that give away their presence.  Lumps of pumice floating in the water and black sand beaches give a hint to the volcanic past of this region.

The length of the journey and its remoteness gives you plenty of time to totally immerse yourself in nature and enjoy your surroundings.  
Add this one to your Bucket List people! 
 (Like Soultrekkers on Facebook to see more photos)

"Steep, hilly and arduous"…

These are not the words you necessarily want to read over breakfast as you peruse the trail notes for the day ahead.  The description however seems to have been the order of the day lately as we walked south from Auckland to Waitomo. 

The last 11 days have seen us tramp through many dense and mountainous forests which makes for a beautiful but exhausting challenge.

For days the trail has been a medley of steep forested ridges, thigh busting ascents and knee jarring descents, kilometres of muddy bog forcing you cling onto rotting trees whilst you hoist yourself around from one grass tussock to the next, trails so overgrown with head high ferns that you dont see the trail so much as sense there should be one there (and all the while hoping you dont trip over a hidden log or fall down a step), trees snagging your hair and pack, vines looping themselves around your ankles as you try to walk forward, slippery tree roots where you put all of your energy into pushing up to the next rock only to find that your lower foot slides futilely over the roots below leaving you no further forward but exhausted from the effort.

I’m not bad at an endurance challenge.  When we got lost in the Hunua Ranges for a tramping marathon that saw us escape the forest 13 hours later at 9pm with no water left between us, one of my French hiking buddies commended me on my calm and steady pace and attitude – “Always fresh.  You always look like you’ve just started out for the day”.

Whilst hiking for two days over the Pirongia Traverse, a seemingly never ending rollercoaster through dense and tree-rooted forest I crouched and crawled under a peaty log, sending a shower of dirt down the back of my neck, mixing with sweat and sticking to skin to rub under my pack’s shoulder harness.  I gritted my teeth and tried to summon something philosophical like ‘this too shall pass’…

But yesterday’s 11 hour traipse through the Mahoe Forest nearly broke me.  Once more I found myself bashing trough vines and overgrown tracks, one arm bloodied from the prickly gorse I pushed through.  Vines with tiny spikes latched onto my skin and ferns caught on my hair.  In places the narrow off-camber track, barely wide enough for one boot’s width, was overgrown and often required you to climb over fallen trees – a huge energy sap.  As I was slapped in the face by a tree for the umpteenth time, and slid and fell over onto rocks and roots I have to admit to a few tears of frustration and utter exhaustion.

Maybe its the forest, maybe its because I hadn’t had a day off in 11 days, maybe its my limited hiker diet not providing sufficient fuel, but it was a challenging day and I could have kissed the road when we finally reached it!

Today is a much needed rest day in Waitomo and tomorrow we head further south again, edging closer to the volcanic desert of Tongariro and Mt Ruapehu.

The ups and downs of the trail, both metaphorical and actual, continue…