Jake asked the question. “What is the purpose of this walk for you?” I laughed, which bought me enough time to avoid answering the question. His mouth, and perhaps his brain, now three or four topics ahead. His kids, elsewhere. His dog, dead. His pain, obvious. To answer the question I look to my one hand. What if there is no why? What if this is just something that happened. It won’t satisfy anybody. On the other hand, there’s a list. One; it’s better than going to work. Two; walking is the most natural thing in the world. Three; I have an unquenched thirst for adventure. Four; I love it more than anything in the world. Pick one. Jake disappears, goes for a walk. I take the opportunity to fall asleep. When I wake up I move everything in to the communal area. I repack what I have left. Not much. Some cereal bars, an apple, a packet of crisps claiming to have 3.7 servings when the reality is one.
I hit the blissful quiet of State Highway 6 at 7am on a Sunday morning. I hear the occasional roar of a motor long before I see the car. I turn off down Te Hoiere Road. Sun still low, air still cool. In the wetlands around the mouth of the Pelorus River frogs croak. Harriers and heron sweep the sky. I follow the road. Crunch of gravel, clunk of pole. Cows stop chewing to watch me pass. One field follow me down the fence line. “Hello coooooows.” Nothing. I stop in shade for sunscreen and water before the road ends and Dalton’s Track begins. The track is a misnomer. A row of styles along the edge of cattle pasture. Yes, we must respect and thank the farm owners for this privilege of walking across broken ground and through heaps of shit. Beyond a field of turnips the track ends in magnificent podocarp forest. The single grey trunk of a Rimu tree beckons me in. The temperature drops. Cicadas buzz. I cross the bridge over the Rai River. I return to the bank of the Pelorus River. In the nearby cafe I collect my resupply box. When I packed it I was worried I wouldn’t have enough, already I’m thinking it’s too much. Not much more than when I started the Tararuas but a lot more snacks. I head in to the campsite, start pitching my tent and then decide it’s too hot for that.
I take shelter in the kitchen where I meet my first Aucklander in a while, Jack, and then Scott from Christchurch. South Island walkers who have just started. Already they’ve both shaken off gear they’ve been carrying. Too heavy, too much. We talk of the trail, of plans, of past walks. After 5 days of solitude it’s good to have company again. I turn to my journal to write this all down. My pen gives up on being a pen. I walk down to the cafe which is closed. I ring the bell anyway. “Do you have a pen I could have? I can offer you 50 cents?” The woman tests and then hands me a pen. The trail provides but sometimes you have to ask.
The rising chorus of birds tells me it’s time. Tent away, damp with condensation. Jack had already gone. I have breakfast with Scott. We’ve just met but I’ll likely never see him again. A duff knee means he travels at half speed. The weight of my pack lifts when I pick it up because I can pick it up. Busy at the campsite in the morning. People ask me what I’m doing where I’m going. Generally, people are impressed. Especially when I drop my humblest brag of a 42km day. I set off down the Mangatapu Road, sealed first then gravel. A long way off the Pelorus River. The road is quiet. I’m passed once by a truck with 12 kayaks on a trailer. That’s the way to travel a river. I pass them again as they’re putting in. The road ends. The Pelorus River Track begins. Back again in proper tramping country. Loose grey rock, muted moss, black roots, brown leaves. The sea glass green river running below. Close to lunch time I stop at the Emerald Pools, less famous cousin of the Blue Pools. A dreamy spot to stop and swim, the lunch. Something new, wraps. Peanut butter, honey and granola. And cheese. Not as bad as it sounds, for now.
I spend the afternoon up the valley side, out of sight of the river, never out of sound. Wasps busily working around the trees. I pause to drink fridge cold water from mountain streams. Cicada rattle, river rumbles. I sneak glances between trees. Hoping to get close to the water. I drop down to Captain Creek Hut. I walk down to the river beach, just for a look. I’m only looking. The river only has to ask once. “Are you coming in?” Empty pockets. Shirt off. Boots off. Dive right in. Big. Fucking. Grin. In the hut I read the intentions book. The names all friends of mine, a day, or two, or three ahead. Then it’s on again. The last push to Middy Creek Hut. Over swing bridges and spurs. The sign reads 5 minutes. Close. “How good was that?” I say to Jack, sitting outside the hut. “Awesome eh.” He replies. I spread out my tent and get settled. Sun bleached skulls of goat and deer surround the door. There’s plundering to be had inside. A tin of sardines. A significant dose of protein and fat I haven’t had to carry in, although I do have to pack out the empty tin. The trail provides. Shane is inside and he offers up some wine. “I don’t want to have to carry it out tomorrow,” not that I need an excuse. Two ladies turn up and opt to sleep out in their tent. The hut is significantly hot. I need one more swim. The two ladies leave the beach and I head towards the deep green water. I take everything off and dive in. The river embraces me. I feel like I’ve slipped in to silk pyjamas. Is there anything better? Perhaps not. The sandflies are as bad as the message across Far Out suggest. I give them a good feast before pulling on long sleeves and legs and socks.
Jack wakes up, gets up, puts his sleeping bag in his pack and leaves. No caffeine, no breakfast, no faff. That may be the last time I see him. He’s pushing bigger days than I. I’m slacking off. An hour later I cross the first bridge. Eye caught my a moving rock in the river below. A sleek grey trout. I set off up the hill towards Rocks Hut. A 700 meter staircase of root and earth. Straight up? A matter of opinion. A classic undulating trail which makes it longer, more tiring than a straight up grunt would have been. Still, it’s easier than Gable End Ridge. I pause on the way to watch a pair of piwakawaka dance through branches. A flock of tauhou warble, flashing through the trees. The shadow of the canopy shifts in the wind like the reflection of water. Rocks Hut is flash, you can tell because the toilets flush. The sun is out, the wind picks up. I cross the unnamed ridge splitting the regions of Nelson and Marlborough. On the high ridges the beech trees have been flattened. An extreme weather event maybe? Thankfully someone has been through with a chainsaw and cleared a path. Snap of twig, squeak of pack. The views between the broken trunks are pretty special across to Mount Richmond.
Out of the forest I come on to a tussock plateau. Popcorn puffs of cloud. The peaks of the Richmond Range. The sweep of Tasman Bay. Tiny hop farms in the Motueka valley. A home, a long time ago, earlier this year. If I wasn’t still walking, I’d definitely put my name in the hat for another harvest at Kentishman. Further still, the rise of the Kahurangi. Back down below, where the tussock returns to bush, a white hat and a blue hat bounce through. Who’s this then? Pip and Jane. More South Island walkers. I stop to exchange news. They’ve met Paula, and Bryan. Jack has already passed them this morning. I stop and chat for far too long, I should be eating lunch. I wave them off. “We’d better check the blue dot of destiny,” Pip says. Pulling out her phone to check where they are. I blaze in to Browning Hut. Outside I meet a couple. I don’t place their accents until they say they’re from Canada. I was thinking Yorkshire. This is not my game. They’re learning to take breaks, stopping for tea. There’s a hunter packing away inside, he refers to hikers as jokers. Amazed at the size of my pack, which I think is big.
I want to be in the bush for Christmas. Have to take a shorter day somewhere. Why not today? Browning Hut has brand new mattresses which are as comfortable as a real bed. Pip and Jane are coming through and I liked their energy. I call it. The ladies come through, full of stories. Pip’s brand new waterproof isn’t. Jane cut her a bin liner to keep her dry on the Queen Charlotte Track. Jane is responsible for the excellent trail signage out of Pukerua Bay. It is nice to be able to say to someone “thank you,” for the trail admin. We have good gear and food chat. The campers from Middy Creek arrive. I’d forgotten they were following me. They bring their dog Ray inside. Nobody minds until he farts. That brings laughter, as does the hut wide eye mask fashion show. As we climb in to beds, I realise it’s the longest day of the year. How do we celebrate? With an early night.
I move first to beat the traffic, the queue for the toilet. Coffee on. Repack the bag, aiming for better balance. A spine of food packed in with everything softer. I pull duct tape over the holes in my boots, worried now the whole toe box might come away. A new pair awaits in St Arnaud. Pip and Jane are out to Nelson today for a rest. Parting advice from Jane while we talked about the trail is worth passing on. “Do the thing.” It waits for a while, but you might not. Chris, Yvonne and Ray will follow me up to Slaty Hut, some 15km away and 1500 meters up. I set off in the wrong direction. “Where are you going?” Jane asks. “That way,” I say, pointing to where I’m supposed to be. A white flurry of Manuka in the trees in as close as I’m likely to get to a white Christmas. Browning stream displays a history of violence. Shattered tree trunks. Washed out banks. Huge slips. The track down to Hackett Hut is mostly good though, only one slip to negotiate. The long grass around the hut and my reaction to it worse than the black clouds of sandflies. I drop in to Hackett Creek where I begin the climb. Glass table tops of plunge pools invite me in. The cool waters wash the tape bandages off my boot. Four more days. The waterway travel is rewarding, a change from the bush track. Rock hopping is slower but it carries me upstream where I turn out of the creek. The real grind begins. I savour every flat ridge top, enjoying a burst of pace. Eating away a little more distance. Crash of stream, crackle of leaf. I stop paying attention to how much water I’m drinking. I drink from every stream. The height is gained slowly, slowly the stream falls away. The forest opens up. Mustard yellow and copper green rocks mark the change. Then comes Starveall Hut.
The wind is punching. Blasts push me sideways. Poles keep me upright. I fight the wind, the climb. Scrambling up rocks. Tall orange poles take me higher. The top of Mount Starveall offers me shelter. I have a moment to lose my tiny little mind. An explosion of expletives followed by maniacal laughter. Too much view. I can’t handle it. I’m back down another saddle, in low skinny beech. The wind here presumably prevents them from growing any taller, thicker. No goblins here. A drier climate than the Tararuas. The wind slips through the trees to remind me it’s still out there. Waiting, circling. One more climb as my legs begin to creak. I come around the back of Slaty Peak. On the edge of the trees in the tiny grey box of Slaty Hut. Time for a quick wash and a cup of tea before Chris and Yvonne arrive. Ray comes in and immediately dumps a stink bomb. I opt to sit outside. I chat with Chris about the trail. “How do you keep going when it’s tough?” She asks. “Vonne and I can carry each other in but it must be hard.” “You just keep going. One step at a time.” One of the repeated mantras on Te Araroa is every step you take, you never have to take again. There is no alternative. What are you going to do? Stop walking. “It passes,” I tell her. “You have bad moments, you have great moments. It comes and it goes. So long as you’re walking you’re winning.” We drift in to life in general. How to avoid building your own cage. A routine of work, the shop, the gym, the pub. Keep pushing. Make time for what matters. I remember to retape my boots and then head to bed.
There’s a golden glow in the East. Streamers of pink in the sky. A spotlight of moon. I wonder up the trail, looking for that light show on the wave upon wave, upon wave of green fades to blue ridge lines. The view alone is jaw dropping. Pacific Ocean shining. I say goodbye to Chris and Yvonne, and Ray’s stink. I set off along the ridge. Spooking the goats I’d heard in the evening. A small heard of five making short work on the contours and climbs. Show offs. The wind is up, moving like a pack of its own. Running up the valley, leaping across the ridge, slamming straight in to me. The high ground is broad. I’m comfortable in the gusts. Can’t be more than 50km/h. Stick your head out of the car window to relate. The views remain obscene. Someone is going to have to come through after and pick up my teeth. I’m still a long way from th highest point. The Rintouls sit across the valley. From here they look a little big, a little scary. A little bit out of my comfort zone. I’ve got reservoirs of experience to draw upon. I’ll need to open the dam. First I’ve got to get over Old Man. The grind here isn’t so bad. The route remaining in the stunted beech forest. Pastel green lichen grows like cabbage leaves. The views open up a little further, a little higher.
I skip past Old Man Hut, a rise and fall of 400 meters I don’t need today. Further along the ridge is the first serious grunt. Little Rintoul. A slow gain. Each step counts. The orange poles cry out. Climb. Climb. Climb. Reach the next one. Go again. Reach the summit. See what comes next. Little Rintoul crumbles down. Mountains to mountains. Dust to dust. Then the big one. Big Rintoul. Giving up the height I’ve gainedto fight for it back again. Rocks may have layed in place for years. Like copper coin pushers waiting for the right weight to shift. The difference being here you win the jackpot if the ground doesn’t give way beneath you. Take the time that needs to be taken. Careful steps through the boulder field. A lazy foot brings a rock down beind me. It rests on my heel. When I lift my foot it remains. I have no desire to help this mountain tumble down. Lunch returns to my mouth as the rubble below starts to slide. As it goes the rubble above joins. I hold my breath. The mountain pauses. I step forward. The mountain remains. I swallow lunch down again. Crickets leap in colours of gold, silver and bronze. Black butterflies flit over the rocks. Oh to move so easily. I accept now this isn’t an environment in which I enjoy being. Rocks shift like sans, the grains as big as your head. Keep your feet on the top. Don’t stick your hands in any holes. Watch your poles. The saddle between the two peaks is the hardest thing I have done. Some people think the Tararuas are harder. I do not trust those people. Up Big Rintoul is another slog. My knees start to ask “should you be here?” I beg them to keep doing their job. We’ve got this, I assure them. Keep going. On the summit the wind has dropped. I have time to look around, to enjoy this high place overlooking the entire top of the South. Butter spreads of snow lie ahead. Briefly, I feel like victory is mine but I still have to get down. The yellow dust path slides below a ridge, precariously close to the edge of a steep scree field. Relief washes over me when I gain on the drop and the trail is much wider than it looks. On the final fall I can see the toilet of Rintoul Hut in a clearing below.
I ride the slide of yellow scree and arrive at an empty hut. In the book I see two nights ago it was almost full. I’m managing to sit just behind the bottle neck. The main bubble of this trail. I set to my new favourite chore, having a wash. Naked again in the wilderness. Getting comfortable with the idea. At least while nobody’s around. Plus one to feralness. Settled in, setting up for a night alone Quentin crashes down the slope, slumps down and drains bottle after bottle of water. When I ask him “have you done this sort of thing before” he said “no.” And then proceeded to tell me about his time on the Appalachian Trail. So that was actually a yes then. He’s got heaps of tales, and a small pack. Tiny even. He was a hut further behind this morning, with Paula who stopped at Old Man. Everyone carries news. The trail gang grows.
A brush of pink chalk across the morning sky. A loo with a view directly over to Mount Straveal. Rock bound by soil. The earth unmoving. After yesterday’s ordeal the first climb up to Purple Top is a cruise. A pimple of blue on the horizon. Taranaki, even from here. The view doesn’t quit. The trail continues in comfortable fashion. A gentle tramp along a ridge, skirting in and out of beech trees to Tarn Hut. Quentin and I pass and go. One leading, the other following sometimes 10 minutes apart. On from Tarn Hut is the first sound of running water in two days. A steam. I hit a track junction. I’m moving fast. I’m Westlife. I’m flying without wings. I start a slow descent and spot an Aarn pack on the floor ahead. No shit, I think I’ve caught Bryan. I haven’t. It’s Helen and Ramona. Soboers going nobo. They flip flopped to Boyle because of bad weather. Their packs look heavy. Ramona reveals she’s carrying a rock out of Red Hills. Quentin and I think it’s a joke. That’s the sort of thing you do to someone else. A sick prank. She’s done it deliberately, to herself. If you don’t carry it every day, throw it away. They set off and so do we. There’s a steep drop into the Wairoa Valley. I pass Xavier, the first true Noboer of the season. He tells me to take care it’s very steep. While standing still, taking it all in I slip. I fall. I open up new blood lines on my right arm and leg. The descent to Mid Wairoa Hut is steep but it wasn’t so bad, at least I didn’t think so. Even after a touchdown. I hit the swing bridge and find the river to be as beautiful as any other. I’m yelling out. Excited to be back by the water. Quentin drops in not long after. Helen advised a swim, “take the left path.” I find the best swimming grotto so far. I run back up to grab my phone so I can take a picture. Quentin is gone. Not even stopped to eat. I’m not sure I’ve seen him eat.
After a dip I try to eat lunch. The wraps are dry. The peanut butter is dry. The honey is dry. The granola is dry. The cheese isn’t even that sweaty. Each mouthful has me wretch. I have to wash every bite down. Forcing myself to eat. I wish I had crackers, chorizo, olives. Later than I’d like I set off upstream. After the first crossing of the Wairoa River I realise I don’t have my hat. I remember taking it off. I was too hot, I was in the shade. I didn’t need it. Did I put it in my pocket? If I did it’s gone. It’s not in the top pocket of my pack either. Another one down. At least I still have my buff. I’ll have to hope someone is selling hats in St Arnaud. I lose the trail but it’s fine because all I have to do is follow the river and I’ll find the next crossing. Only once do I find one of Quentin’s footprints after a waterfall crossing. A wet mark in the sand. I’m getting tired. The light is fading. The long chat with the girls, the hard to swallow lunch. Time has got away from me. Keep going. One step. Another. Don’t stop. Don’t check where you are. You know where you are. You know where you’re going. I hit a massive fallen tree. Up is too far. Down to dangerous. Straight through? Might squeeze through. One final crossing. Easy as. Fill up on water. Climb 40 meters of scree straight up. The orange box of a toilet. Never been more excited to see one. Enter Top Wairoa Hut. “You made it!” Declares Quentin already in bed. There’s time for a quick dinner. Attempts at rehydration. No wash. To bed. In the morning I leave a note in the intentions book. Lost hat, if found please call. I’ll be in town until the 28th. You never know.
All was quiet, nothing stirred. Except Quentin, who is trying to force down last night’s dinner. “Merry Christmas,” I say. “Oh yeah, merry Christmas!” High cloud and a light breeze might not make for great photos but its prime hiking conditions. Quentin leads off up towards Mount Ellis. The last big climb of the Richmond Ranges. Our route takes us across the Nelson mineral belt. Red rocks, yellow dust. Shimmers of green and purple. I could be lazy and call it otherworldly but there are plenty of places on this planet that look the same. I start to pull away from Quentin. I stop at Hunters Hut for a break. He doesn’t come in before I leave. I make Porters Creek Hut in good time. Lunch is another ordeal. The thought of the wraps makes me dry heave. Each mouthful, every swallow, I wretch. I drink 1.25 litres of electrolytes to add some moisture. Everything is so dry. I can’t wait to see the back of them, three weeks from now when I’m finally through all of my stupid resupply boxes. I don’t know if it’s because breakfast and dinner have the consistency of baby food. Or maybe the impossible to eat lunch wraps really are disagreeing with me. As likely is my life in my hands approach to drinking water from South Island rivers. Whatever it is it’s less than ideal. My guts launch a full rebellion. Iain picked up a poop shovel in Wellington. I told him I didn’t need one, I’m a man of routine. I have my morning appointment and get my business done. There will always be a toilet. An hour and a half from the last hut, who knows how long until the next one. I have to go. I’m lucky that the trail climbs a saddle, beech forest returns. Cover at least, and I can pick a way through the trees off track. Find a rock, remove it, broaded the hole beneath it. Does the Pope shit in the woods? If he has to.
Beyond Porters Creek Hut the trail becomes both easier and harder. I follow a river, 100 meters above the flow before dropping in and crossing. On the far side the trail marker is on top of a cliff. What? How? I check the trail notes. I can’t see it from here but there’s a rock face around the corner that makes it short work of the scramble up. Drizzle sets in. Pack cover comes out. Waterproof goes on. Hood up, hood down, depending on the heat. The mountains return to how I’ve known them best. Dark and smokey. I hit the last climb. The valley levels out, flattens into a tussock bog. Ahead, the grey box of Red Hills Hut. Beyond, the black walls of the Raglan Range. Clouds peeling away from distant ridge lines. Bryan might be there, or he might have made another push to At Arnaud. I close in and find it empty. Christmas alone. I don’t mind. I dig out my tin of chicken, packet of gravy, single serve of butter. A single boil of water gives me instant mash, and peas. Is it good? I can’t tell you. Did I enjoy it? It was the best meal I’ve had since starting this section. I wash up, wipe down and fall in to bed. 13 hours on the trail. Merry Christmas to me.
A shield of cloud over a distant peak is all that remains of the rain. I pull my pack on and set off towards civilisation. On the rising hills I find phone signal. Enough for quick video calls home. A text from Paula, she has my hat. Legend. I’m following a mountain bike track that goes the wrong way. I’m switchbacking down hill and going straight up. That’s not how I want to be doing things I hit the four wheel drive track and begin the descent in to the valley. I start running down the hill because it’s easier on the knees. A big dog slips through the fence to say hello. The owner asks me where I’ve come from. “Good time of year to be doing it.” He says. Good year to be doing it. I hit the highway. Closing in. Road walking is fun for all of about five minutes but at least I can get my pace on. Open up the stride. I send a text to Bryan. They’re outside the lodge. Not yet open. I fall in to find Debbie and Jackie there too. And finally meet Eketahuna John. It’s good to hang out, catch up, debrief. We meet again in the restaurant for dinner where I find Quentin managing to eat a pizza and pull him up a chair. The trail family grows. Talk moves to what comes next. With the Richmond Ranges behind us, we’ll spend the next few days moving towards the second highest point on Te Araroa: Waiaua Pass.