New Zealand: The St. James Walkway

Misty rain drifts over the van. A four beer fuzz lines my mouth. My eyes are open but I’m not sure they want to be. I go through the motions of getting ready to leave. Oats. Coffee. More coffee. A shower. I drag myself into the front of the van and let the coast road carry me into Greymouth. I go to the supermarket to buy food to get me through a couple of wet days in the back of the van. I was supposed to go and get my front tyres replaced but instead I head straight for the freedom camping area and have a nap. Rob and Dave had decided to spend another night in Punakaiki, letting the rain pass while playing board games. Sticking around may have been the better plan. On what feels like day 10 of rain I wonder if there can be much left to fall. Overnight the shift from pitter-patter to hammer-hammer suggests there is.

At some point it stops raining and I drive up to the Point Elizabeth Walkway. I set out in flip flops and my waterproof in some kind of half-full but also half-empty optimism. There was no way the trail was going to be dry but I had read it was well formed of gravel and I figured I might be alright. I had labelled the walkway as easy. A gentle stretch back into weightless wandering. I was almost right. There was no struggle, no up hill battles. There was wet, squelching mud that oozed up around the soles of my flipflops and between my toes. I reached the viewpoint, could see nothing but grey cloud and rain and turned around. On turning the rain started to fall, gently like flakes of snow. My timing, almost good. I got back to the van and returned to Greymouth. At least I’d got outside today. I had done something. I put the kettle on for a cup of tea. The damp rising off me blends with the steam coming out of the spout. Condensation clings to the ceiling around the back door. No matter what the weather does tomorrow I’m going to need to get the doors open. Get some air circulation. A serious attempt at a clean up wouldn’t go amiss either. Seeing as I shouldn’t really go far now until Monday, when the tyre garages open again I don’t really have an excuse.

The rain comes down again overnight. A never ending pounding on the roof. I must have slept at some point, I have the lingering memories of things that aren’t real, of places that don’t exist. A wet Sunday with nothing to do, no place to be. The rain is eventually replaced by a cold, gusty wind. In these parts it’s known as The Barber, presumably because it’s like getting a haircut only the scissors are freezing and they cut to the bone. So much for getting the doors open. The wind at least drives the clouds away. The Southern Alps stretch down the coast. Ridges overlap up the Grey River valley. Spots of blue appear in the sky. I decide to layer up and go for a walk, remaining in flip flops but this time opting for my down jacket and beanie. Aside from the queue of people on the platform waiting for the Transalpine Express, Greymouth is a ghost town. An industrial wasteland built on foundations of coal and timber. The work here dried up long before the recent border closure. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of tourist activity. Greymouth is between places, somewhere you might stop on the way to anywhere else. I head out to the breakwaters at the river mouth. Barreling waves explode over the rocks. The boom of the break roars down the coast. The wind racing down the valley catches the white water, pushing the waves back and up. They break in half, a white mist blasting up into the air, what’s left crashes down. I start to taste the salt on my lips. The long black figure of a surfer catches the edge of a curling wave before being obliterated by the falling water. In the gap between the clouds and the ocean the sun breaks free for the first time in weeks. The light is painted across every surface. The clouds shift through yellow to pink. The black strip of mountains topped with white snow, topped again with mountains of grey cloud topped once more with the last pink light of the day.

I have this dawning realisation. There isn’t enough time. I can’t do all of the multi-day tramps I’ve been recommended. Half the problem is having had to book the Great Walks in advance. I’ve got places to be at certain times. The loss of flexibility makes things more challenging. There’s going to be more doubling back, attempts to squeeze more in. Has there already been too many wasted days? Could I have plotted my route better, differently, more efficiently? The broken laptop forcing me inland sooner than I hoped isn’t helping. At least there’s one trek in the Lewis Pass I can tackle on my way to Christchurch; the St James Walkway. This means getting up and going. There was no wind, no rain. I slept like a bear through winter which helps. First, get the tyres replaced. The man says bring it in, so I drive the van straight into the hangar. He finishes doing something to a tyre. Another man appears from nowhere and they both do a front wheel each. Less than 20 minutes and I’m ready to go. “You’ll need to get them wheels aligned,” they tyre man says. “Let me call the guy,”. The guy can’t do anything for two days and I’m not prepared to wait, having already lost the weekend because of a slight hangover and New Zealand’s insistence on letting almost everyone have Saturdays and Sundays off. “Get it done in Christchurch,” he says. “It’ll be cheaper.” Which leaves me to wonder if maybe I should have waited to get the tyres done in Christchurch as well. Next up, hiking food. A quick shop.

The mega industrial holiday complex that is the Greymouth Seaside Top 10 pains me. The most expensive paid site I’ve visited so far and it doesn’t even have a heated swimming pool. Unsure what I’m paying an additional $8 for I decide to rinse all available facilities. Pay for a dryer? Not when there’s half a washing line available in this wind and full sun. Already had a shower? Go for a run, earn another one. At least I have the opportunity to try and pack properly, to clean up my, well everything really. But again I find an afternoon isn’t enough time. The day slips away with the chore list only reduced of the essentials: clean boots, pack bag, boil eggs. The nice to do will have to wait until next time, again. I go to take that second shower to find my towel missing. Not missing, folded neatly on the floor. So I’ve only lost three pegs. I’ll make that half an hour in the shower.

I’m on the road long before checkout. It’s a two hour drive to the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre where I’ll be leaving the van. I depart from the bright blue skies of the coast, entering the beech forests of mountain country. The air in the van cools. Clouds hang over the snow dusted mountain tops. Rain drops splatter over the windscreen. Because of course there’s still rain in the sky. I get to experience being a passenger in my own van for the first time, getting to enjoy the view for once. The sky is still dripping when I get out at the trail head. I’d started the day in shorts and t-shirt, it won’t end like that. I put on my waterproof, cover my pack but I insist on the shorts. The weather seems to accept this compromise. The rain rarely falling thicker than drizzle.

The St James Walkway is a good reminder of how well maintained, and really just how easy the Great Walks have been so far. I’m back to climbing up and down tree roots. Completely submerged sections, including what once we’re strategically placed boardwalks that may never dry out. I find a hole in one of my boots, or more accurately the water finds the hole. I take a while to get used to the extra weight. Mattress in case the bunks are fill. Gas and stove. I’m glad I didn’t pack the tent as well but I feel like I’ve forgotten something. A fart later and I remember. Toilet paper. I thought about it at one point but never got around to actually bagging it. I’ll have to hope the toilets are supplied, or there are generous people at the hut. I spend the first day in beech forest through Cannibal Gorge. This particular valley got the name thanks to all the human remains found in the area. Left overs from old victory feasts. I come up on an open field of grass pretending to be solid ground but actually hiding masses of water beneath. At the forest edge is a postcard view of Cannibal Gorge Hut flanked by broken knuckle peaks. Too soon to stop for long. I carry on into avalanche country. The cloud is fairly high, I’m delighted to be able to see any of the mountains at all. Signs everywhere warn not to stop in winter. It isn’t winter anymore. I don’t mean to stop myself but I slip on the lubricated surface of a rock in the creek. Hands plant, legs spread. I’m not in the water at least and I don’t appear to have even broken skin. A lucky escape. Please, pay attention. The serpent trail weaves through the moss, the scales on its back the silver of stone, the brown of beech. Where creeks cross the trail, the brown gives way to the silvers and greys of the river rock.

I arrive late into Ada Pass Hut. No smoke billowing from the chimney, it’s empty. Looking over the intentions book I appear to be a day behind the crowd. Last night was full. I have a small cabin in the mountains all to myself. Is this paradise? White streaks tumble down ravines carrying snow melt from the peaks to the river below. It might be, you know. A lone, presumably lost Canadian Goose honks in the clearing. Maybe not. There are, thankfully, instructions on how to use the multi-fuel burner with coal. Now I know which way the handles have to be to let the smoke out but keep the heat in. I put those teenage years spent setting things on fire to good use. The hut warms up, my socks dry out. In the kindling bucket is a half used book, which I pocket as emergency toilet paper for if, but more likely when.

Between the chirping of birds and the gurgle of the stream I hear human voices. Nobody arrives. There was nobody there at all. My brain playing tricks. Do I want company or simply expect it? The solitude is wonderful but if I spend four days alone I’m going to feel awfully sorry for the first person I meet who gets a faceful of explosive verbal dioreah. The Canadian Goose honk isn’t a bad weka impression first thing in the morning. The morning cloud I expect to lift doesn’t. I sweep the hut. Wipe down the benches. There’s plenty of wood and a bucket of coal for the next person. Nothing else left to do but get out there and get on with it. As I strap in, the clouds open above the Spenser Mountains. The snow white peaks emerge. The rest of the mountain still hidden for now but the vast areas of open blue sky are looking promising.

I head back into the trees. The brown skirt of a falcon’s tail circles above the canopy. Another birds somewhere cries out a warning. I break into another sodden clearing. The wet ground slowly forms steams which flow into a glass clear creek. The beginning of the Ada River. Kea cry out from the trees. One, then two fly across the valley. The geese, who I now assume must live here honk out their appreciation. Still in avalanche country but thankfully out of season I can stop, deliberately, to admire the surrounding snow topped walls of rock. The grey, scree lined gullies show where the mountains give way to gravity, wiping out everything on the way down. In the forest again I encounter a huge tree fall. Huge in volume of trees. The trail disappears under fallen branches. Finding the floor becomes a challenge. There’s no way to know if the wood underfoot is coming out sideways or straight out of the ground until it’s too late. Orange arrows are upside down under trunks. The trail is well walked enough to be easily found where the trees remain upright. Today I am slower. The good weather encouraging me to stop, to look around, to drink it all in. I vainly search for dry routes across the bogs, streams and creeks. My boots are wet, my feet are wet but the sun at least is shining. They dry out between each ankle deep crossing.

I break for lunch at Christopher Hut, feeling wet with sweat for a change. Halfway through the day in terms of time and distance. In the intentions book I find I might have company tonight. I decided to push on through to Anne Hut to get a 25km plus day with the pack in my legs. To see how I do. Most of the crowd I’m behind have done the same. One couple stayed here last night, they might be at Anne Hut when I get there. The second half of the day is harder. The valley bottoms are exposed to the sun, by the afternoon I’m hot. The walkway clings to the steep edges of the Waiau River bank. I pass through barren grasslands pocketed with thorn trees I’ve never seen before. Sweat trickles down my face. Mountains rise up all around me. Some stop at the treeline, some keep climbing to top out with crags lined with snow. I spot what I think is the first stoat I think I’ve ever seen in the wild. A long flat fox bounds over rocks disappearing into a thicket. This is the first track I’ve walked I don’t remember seeing a single trap. The track continues on, joining up with Te Araroa. You can’t miss it when it’s everywhere. I close in on Anne Hut, my stop for the night. All I’ve got left is the motion. One foot in front of the other and the hope it isn’t much further. A swing bridge crosses what is now the Henry, or maybe the Anne River. One final time for today at least. The bridge ends on a narrow edge in the cliff face. A staircase delivers me into another ankle deep bog and I have to wonder if I might have been better off simply walking across the river itself. There’s another milk white creek to cross. I can see the hut in the middle of the open valley ahead. I can’t see the bottom of the creek, or any rocks below the surface. I decide to jump and hope I don’t die. I land in the muddy bog of the opposite bank, on my feet at least but now with mud sprayed up my legs and inside my shorts.

Anne Hut is newer than the others I’ve passed. A carbon copy of those on the Paparoa Track, it almost feels like home. I’m glad to be at the end of a long day. I leave my socks and boots on the deck in the sun and head inside. Empty again. The couple have carried on, planning to camp somewhere further along. There’s almost no wood for the fire and I have neither the confidence nor the strength to start swinging an axe about. I figure if the air is still this warm now, I can probably go without tonight. Getting into bed when it’s still light out feels wrong, not as wrong as it feels still being light at 8:30pm in November. I am one very tired man. My legs stopped hurting. The necrotic flesh of my feet returned to life. My eyelids became unreasonably heavy.

I wake up again with the conviction others arrived in the night. I get up to find I’m still alone. The real benefit of being alone comes in the morning, clattering about not worrying about waking anyone else up. Light clips the top of ridgelines and begins to descend through the trees to the valley floor. I wait for the sun to appear over the back range. There is evidence of pigs, the track chewed to bits. There was a gun rack back in the hut. People had noted spottings of deer. This is wild country. Already warm in the sun, I keep my fleece and beanie on for another couple of hours. The snow capped mountains disappear behind me, the river narrows. Breaking through the first silk threads of spiderwebs strung across the trail. Hiding in the shadows of a deep valley the temperature drops again. I hear voices up ahead, real, human getting louder voices. Barry and Judie stopped at the top of the Anne Pass to dry out their tent. There was a frost where they camped last night, everything is damp. We chat for a while, agreeing to catch up later. We’re all heading to Boyle Flat. It may just be the three of us. Coming down the other side of the pass I realise how little climbing I’ve done on the St James Walkway. The trail had been mostly flat, mostly underwater. This small section through the beech forest, the drainage is good. The ground is dry. The walking remarkably easy. I move faster through the trees. There are fewer opportunities to gawk at the surroundings. Although the forest itself warrants a few stops to look around. To listen to the bird song, the singing of the Boyle River in the next valley below. Another man comes from the other direction, fully loaded including a tent and fishing line he appears fully equppined for a few nights in the wild.

Over the saddle, out of the forest the world is much the same. A deep, fast blue river. A grass covered valley bottom. Climbing walls of beech trees. Tops of rock and snow. It’s like listening to your favourite song on repeat. I find myself stopping periodically to sneak peeks back at the landscape. To make sure you’re not bored of it. I suspect if I was bored of it, I wouldn’t be stopping to look at it. Once more won’t hurt.

In the rising heat of the afternoon the waters of the Boyle River look inviting. The blue current rushes towards the next snowy mountain rising from the valley floor. I can hear streams before I see them, stepping into grass covered pools and bogs before I reach the stream proper. There is water everywhere, always under foot, often in my boots. The Canadian Geese move in herds, honking in packs. Taking flight if my route passes too close. I stop for lunch at Rokeby Hut. A small, basic hut with only three bunks. There is a fireplace here. In fact I think it’s rather cute, not in a puppy dog eyes way, but in a back country efficient way. Appealing but no toilet and no tap. Running water is essential to comfort. I sit in the sun on a fallen tree with a bench cut into the trunk. This remains the peak of my culinary hiking skills. The basic ploughman’s platter coming together in a bite of Edam, a cracker, a couple of olives, a slice of that delicious, tingling spice, how can it be so good cheap supermarket brand chorizo.

I spot the swing bridge crossing the Boyle River up ahead. Close now to the end of my day. I cross over, spotting a perfect looking pool to rinse off a few days of sweat. I climb the last small hill to Boyle Flat Hut. There’s no tap connected to either sink. A note says to see the white bucket. I see the white bucket. The white bucket has no further instructions but does appear to have water in. As I sign the intentions book the top of the page details further instructions. Fill the bucket from the creek beyond the woodshed. Off I go, into the woods to get my water from the stream. This is important as I can now do the most important job when arriving at a hut, put the kettle on.

As I sit, cup of tea in hand I watch two runners move along the trail. Wow, I think, people really will run anything. Good for them. I’m less impressed when they come up the hill and are aged somewhere between 5 and 15. “Are there any top bunks left?” they ask. “Heaps,” I reply as they crash through the door. I won’t be freaking out in the morning about whether people turned up or not. On the far side of the river the rest of the family plod along. As they arrive, so to do Barry and Judie. Almost a full house tonight.

I move back to the river, to have a full body experience of the ice cold snow melt. As I strip off so I realise my mistake. The river is now in the shade. Mosquitoes and sandflies engage in acts of aggression faster than I submerge. I don’t stay in or undressed for long. Covering up with long sleeves and long legs. My feet remain exposed and I learn that whatever this brand of repellent is, isn’t very good. The opening and closing of the doors as 10 people come and go, drying out gear, refilling the bucket, being easily excited by all the outside offers the bugs slip inside. We’re fortunate that for the most part, once they’re in they are most keen to get back out. I take a seat by the window covered in black dots with wings. This is apparently another invitation. The kids pile on with 100 questions a minute. Where do you live? What have you seen? Where have you been? What colour is your van? Do you have puppies in your van? Have you ever kidnapped anyone? This apparently the way to trick a kidnapper into revealing themselves. I presumably pass their test and they disappear outside to follow Barry who’s gone off downstream with his fishing rod.

As dinner approaches, the family spreads out over all the worktops. Out comes the wine, a serving bowl, a pineapple. “How long are you here for?” I ask. “One night,” one of the mums replies. “Back to the cars tomorrow,” which I guess explains the pineapple. Although I think this is a good joke. See if you can sneak a pineapple into your mates bag and get them to carry what may be the heaviest fresh fruit in. As dinner is served and the mob pile in the rest of us escape outside which is no better. We’re mobbed by sandflies. The kids are allowed to light a fire outside, somewhere to toast marshmallows. I talk to the dads about hunting and possums. The kids apparently keen to kill any possums they see, they’ve carried a slingshot in. Over the course of the conversation I slowly realise the weaving, black skid marks on most of the roads are where people have deliberately swerved to try and hit a possum. “The only good possum is a dead possum,” I’m told. I head to bed, the sun already set. As I put my earplugs in I hear a scream followed by “Mum, you put sunscreen on my toothbrush!” A sentence that contains the pros and cons of being an adult, responsible for everything.

In the morning I stick to my get up and go routine. Today it’s back to the van, then on to Hanmer Springs. The steep, rock banks of the gorge are lovely dry walking. The forest floor is ankle deep mud but I don’t know this until I’m up to my ankles in it. The backdrop of blue transforms the landscape from something dark and ominous to light and inviting. The milky blue braids of the river. The peaks stacked on peaks. The steady approach towards the very big, snow still in the summer peaks of the Southern Alps. Having spent the last Great Walk in permanent cloud, hiking in fine weather has been an absolute treat. I can smell the sweet butter of gorse flowers. Impossible not to see the highlights in yellow along the banks of the Boyle River. People are moving in both directions. The last hut, another small one, the Magdalen Hut was crowded last night. Some people had seen the family and been put off, others were keen for a shorter day. Crowds march in. Today is a public holiday in Canterbury, making for a long weekend. On the one hand, I’m glad to be on my way out. On the other, there’s likely to be crowds everywhere.

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