I drifted down the West Coast. I pulled over in Hokitika because the fuel has to be cheaper here than it was in Greymouth. And it is. This is the last major hub I can fill up for a reasonable price. Every destination from here to Wanaka only exists because of one tourist attraction or another. I debate whether I should do anything else with my day. The heavy rain of yesterday has pushed all the rivers to flood. Hokitika Gorge is on my list, but I have my doubts as to whether the water will be flowing glacier melt blue. I’ve got nothing else to do. The drive is fairly easy, I pass big motorhomes and small rental cars. The summer holidays in full swing. There is still plenty of space in the car park. Whatever busy looks like to me, isn’t what busy usually looks like here. I step on to the gravel path, another sure sign this would be pulling a crowd in any normal year. From the swing bridge I can see the river is a milky green, filled with the rock flour washed out in the recent rains. The bush surrounding the track is spectacular. Dense, thick, filled with life. Green everywhere. How am I still not bored of this? The mountains are so different on this side. Still covered in forest. I can’t decide if it makes them softer or more menacing. The ridges are jagged and irregular with trunks and branches. Their colouring so much darker than the bright greens of grass. I love the remaining sense of wilderness, a coast left largely untamed. I drive down to a car park by the beach to spend the night. There isn’t a hint of blue in the sky. High grey clouds cover the distance of space. Thin grey whisps wrap around the still frozen summits of the West Coast. The black sand stretches for miles but really doesn’t. At the highest tide line a driftwood barricade rises above the sand. I still can’t see the sea. At the second tide line I’m closer to the water. The ocean has none of the glamour of the East Coast. The waves reflect the grey skies above. The surf tinged brown. The view from just beyond the car park isn’t in any guidebooks and it won’t be. There isn’t anything special here but I have the place to myself, and that has to count for something. I realise I am, and have been for some time at peace. My freedom continues. My good fortune carrying through to this new year. Being out here, even in isolation is a privilege. One I am trying not to take lightly.
The West Coast rain puts an end to any serious plans of going outside to play. I have ground to cover so I set to driving instead. Lucky really, that I’ve been to Franz Josef before so seeing that particular glacier again would have been a bonus. All I hope is the rain clears by tomorrow with enough time for rivers to drop. I’ve made a booking for Brewster Hut and step one of the journey is “cross the river if safe”. I stop at the Franz Josef car park with the misplaced hope the weather will change. It doesn’t. I sit, thinking about whether or not I want to get wet. The force of the downpour increases. I think not. I drive on to Fox Glacier to see if things are any better there. They aren’t. So I guess this is another day of sitting somewhere in the back of the van, drinking tea, reading a book. At least the drive still had the decency to be scenic. Words disappear under the front of the van. One. Lane. Bridge. Up in the valley, tree lined ridges flush with crimson fade to green to black, to grey and then disappear altogether. The road is often one long straight stretch of wet black asphalt between a canyon of trees. Ahead always seems to be a wall of wood and leaves. The mountains rising like loaves of bread. Thick and square. There is a car park, tucked behind a cafe where I can sleep for free. It doesn’t seem to matter that I arrive at 2pm. The intermittent rain and occasional breeze keeps me sandfly free. I stretch out walks to the toilet and back, knowing I am going nowhere, doing nothing.
By night I’m confident I haven’t picked up any stowaways. I remain convinced sandflies don’t know what windows are and haven’t yet established the intelligence to find the openings above them. In the dark, to the sound of the buzzing flight, I discover mosquitoes are far more advanced than sandflies. Rain continued long through the night. I did not get as much sleep as I would have liked. In the morning I find an entire squadron at ease on one of my curtains. There are, it seems, few things quite at distracting as bug biting your ankles while you drive. I pull in at Knights Point Lookout in a total white out. Sea mist? Rain clouds? Who knows. I don’t bother getting out of the van to investigate further. I continue on towards the Haast township. Incredible cyclists are powering around the sweeping corners, up the rising hills. The road bridges streams called Solitude No. 2 and Trickle No. 1 which tickle my sense of humour. I stop again before Haast at Ship Creek. There are two walks, one to a dune lake and the other into the swamp. The sky here, and seemingly only here is clear. The walk to the lake drags up half memories of being on the pebble beach, of watching Hector’s Dolphins cruise the surf. The sky was infinite and blue on that day. The sea, loud and green. Today the sky is grey and the surf not much brighter. I have no memory of the swamp. The forest is humid and green. Black water runs over the footpath into the creek. I drive on, through Haast and along the river. Here, the water has returned to electric blue. The thick brown waters of heavy rain have passed. This is good news. Blue sky separates fluffy white cumulus clouds. I pull into the Fantail Falls carpark. I have accepted if there is a car park for a waterfall, the waterfall probably isn’t going to be up to much. While I load my pack the car park around me fills with visitors to the falls. Nobody else has put on a pack to take on the climb.
I leave my boots and gaiters off. I start off in my Chaco sandals to ford the river. The water flows fast and cold but not deep. I come out wet up to my shorts, which is fine. I strap my sandals to my pack, pull on my boots and look up at the wall of forest I’m going to be climbing through. Beneath the first big orange arrow is a huge step. I’m not sure I’m going haul myself up on to the trail. Downstream a small orange arrow is tucked away, marking a much smaller step out of the river bed and on to the trail. Things don’t get much easier from here. The mountain side punches almost straight up. The tree covered slope offers roots to haul and pull. I grunt and sweat. The sunscreen on my forehead ends up in my eyes. I then wipe what gets in around my whole eye. This wasn’t the solution. A lot of heavy blinking helps. Maybe a good cry would get rid of the rest. I’m wearing my cap, so maybe from now on I skip the sunscreen on the forehead. Seeing what I’m doing is probably more useful. What might be half way but might easily be no way at all the sweating stops. At least the intense, wet sweat of being out in the heat stops. I suspect my clothes are still soaking up the other, dryer sweat that comes from hard work. Above me something moves. The sweeping flame in the canopy is a Kea. The parrot stops in a tree to scream its own name. I must be getting close to the bush line.
The high canopy provided good cover from the sun. Now I’m exposed in the tussock grass and alpine shrubs. There are no roots to help pull myself up, only loose stone and high mud steps. Leaving the trees isn’t ideal. I find myself again grateful for the poles. As I was told on the Rees-Dart, four legs are better than two and I’m starting to believe it. This is the first climb I’ve done up anything that doesn’t lead to a ridge. There is no recovery. The ascent is relentless. Only when I see the brown box of a toilet do I realise I am finally, at last, almost there. The bright red of Brewster Hut sits on a plateau beneath the summit of Mount Armstrong. Behind the hut, a thundering waterfall plunges into the ravine cut by Pyke Creek. Rising above the creek is the open faced, almost pyramid summit of Top Heavy. Tucked around the corner, almost out of sight is the Brewster Glacier, and above this the ice and stone of Mount Brewster. Stunning. Closer to home for the night, a boy runs along the deck of the hut. Brilliant. A child got up here and has energy to spare. I push open the heavy, winter-proof door and step into the hut. The bunk room makes no sense. There are top bunks set up, a lot of lower bunks with mattresses down but no stuff. I pop into the main room to ask the man in there how many people are here. He thinks there are five, he and his two boys are up top. That leaves at least four bottom bunks. I’m having one. I fill up my water and set to replacing the fluids I lost on the way up. The two boys collect the yellow, green, and brown crickets chirping in the tussock grass. They fill an empty Pringles tube wit holes pierced in the plastic lid. They empty the tin on to the deck and cheers on the crickets, which do not comply. They do not dash. There is no race for freedom. This is disappointing for all of us. One of the others, Alex, comes down from Mount Armstrong. He didn’t get to the summit, far enough for a better view of the glacier was enough. I decide I’d better go and check for myself. Another hiker comes down as I go up, she didn’t get to the summit either. Too much scrambling. I’m not prepared to go all the way. I get up on to a ridge, around a corner, maybe as far as Alex. I can see Brewster Glacier, which makes up for missing out on those further up the coast. I can see the seriousness of the route reaching around the head of Pyke’s Creek to get terminus. Not for me. Looking up, there doesn’t appear to be a clear route to the summit of Armstrong, maybe I’ll try in the morning. I am reaching the edge of my limits. Up here the world stops being walkable.
Back in the hut I find Alex is from the UK. I guess his accent as being Anglian, maybe Cambridge? He’s from Norwich. I’m getting better at this. He’s been living in Queenstown and is finally making his escape, the first great road trip up towards Nelson via the West Coast. He asks if I’ve done the Copland Track. I regret to inform him, I haven’t. The weather was pants. This was another trail head I drove past. One that will remain on the “if only there was more time” list. He’s disappointed. He’s heading there next and hasn’t met anyone who’s done it and wants to pick some brains. We move to my plans. The Gillespie Pass, then the Routeburn-Caples, then the Milford and then I really have to get a job. Alex has done the Caples, which means I get to do some brain picking. I grill him about distances, difficulty and decent places to camp. There’ll be a climb at the start, getting from track to track. The trail itself sounds well graded, mostly along the valley floor. The Mid-Caples hut is a long way down but if I really needed to I could get there in a day. We exhaust our route knowledge. Other hikers have come in, loaded with beers and food for a few nights yet they assure us they’re only here for one. Time for bed. The boys up top are already asleep. I open the lid pocket in my pack to find I’ve forgotten essentials. Earplugs and eye-mask. This is going to be a challenging night.
The double bedroom sleeping 10 is oven roasting hot. I feel like I’ve been basted in oil. My own sweat mixed with sunscreen. I slowly cook in the dark. Someone hisses like a snake all night. I don’t sleep. In the end I wake up, which is a surprise. Only now does someone point out the window was closed all night. We all failed in our responsibility to look out for each other. I stumble out into the cold mountain air, which fees better than waking up. The Haast valley is full of clouds. Everywhere is full of clouds. Mountain summits sit like islands in a white ocean. I sit in front of the window to eat breakfast and watch the clouds slide past Top Heavy and Mount Brewster. Sometimes there mountains are there. Sometimes they aren’t. Mount Armstrong remains hidden. The question is whether to go up again this morning or not? I decide I’ll head up for a bit, even if I only make it as far as yesterday. The cloud inversion lifts, which then sits around the summits. The visibility drops to zero. I keep moving and the cloud keeps lifting. Down in the valley there’s another lake of whipped to stiff peaks of cloud building. They rise up once more, settling on the tops. There’s no point in trying to go on. I won’t enjoy myself and I won’t be able to see anything. I turn back to the hut. Some of the others have come up, they ask if I made it to the glacier. I’m not convinced they’ve registered quite how far away the glacier actually is. Or maybe they have, maybe this is comfortable territory for them and what is too much for me is nothing for them. I’ll never know. I get back to the hut, pick up my pack, tie laces, strap gaiters, clip waist band, lengthen poles.
The tussock disappears quickly. The forest rises up. Yesterday’s Kea stands guard at the bush line. I can see the parrot, between a gap in the leaves. There’s no interest in coming to say hello. I move slowly down hill. I try not to think about it. The destination doesn’t matter. The van isn’t going anywhere. I don’t have to be anywhere later. I’ll be surprised if I do anything beyond drive to somewhere I can lie down. People pass going up, loaded up to spend the night. One man passes me by wearing sandals. He’s got to be insane. I can’t even convince myself we live in different experiences. There’s no way that’s a sensible decision. I do try. Is any of this gear actually helping? Do boots make it easier? I think so but I own soft feet. The poles have definitely helped. I remain largely unconvinced by the gaiters, but they contribute to the appearance. I look like a serious tramper now. The road in Haast Pass grows louder. The track weaves towards Fantail Creek and away again. I recognise places I stopped on the way up to catch my breath, to wipe sunscreen further into my eyes. Not that any of this helps with the descent, I pick one way that feels easy for a second and I’m lead to a few long, hard drops. Grey pebbles appear between the green leaves. The river bed coming up fast. I am almost there. I change out of my boots into my sandals. I cross the river. The cold water washing off the sweat, the sunscreen, the fatigue. I drop my pack, and rinse as much as I can in the shallows. That’ll help keep me awake for at least 10 more minutes. I look around but there’s no obvious plunge pools. No stretch deep enough to properly sit down or sink beneath the surface. I take in Fantail Falls, which as I expected barely moves me. I have seen them.
I decide to stop at the Blue Pools. They’re just here. The weather is good. I may not get another chance. Part of me says what’s the point? The weekend crowd is here, and besides you’ve seen plenty of incredibly coloured water. What’s one more? I bet most of these people have never seen the snow melt rivers you’ve seen. There’s frustration in the mind. I am tired. I walk the not long but long enough gravel path down to the swing bridge. Over the Makarora River my mind starts to change. Actually, ok fair enough. The water here is unreal. Deep pools of dark blue, shallows of turquoise, and various shades of green. I stop on the bridge over the Blue Stream and watch. I am too tired. I need to get somewhere I don’t need to move on from. I walk back. Ignoring the option to swim properly, as many do in the river below. The waters of Lake Wananka are a big blue mirror of the sky. I ride along the shore, through the Neck and along Lake Hawea for more of the same. I don’t appreciate it. I pull up in a massive gravel car park in full sun. I don’t care. I open all the doors, all the windows and I lie down. I am relieved when the sun disappears behind a hill. The air begins to cool. I can think about eating, and then think about some more, deep delicious sleep.
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