Te Araroa: The Waiau Pass

I struggle when everyone sets off for the morning. I want to go too, but I also know I need a day off. At least Quentin is still here. I had this vision of Macpac merino underwear being on sale in the Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre. I don’t know why, I must have seen them somewhere similar. They don’t have them. My old pair have blown out in the crotch. A sequence of holes spreading into a third leg. They’ve got to go. Now I’m down to one pair, until maybe Wanaka, several weeks ahead. I hope I don’t ruin my 25 year run of not shitting myself before I get there. I head outside to stretch my legs along the shore of Lake Rotoiti. Tiny beads of honey dew hang from strings emerging from the black fungus on beech trees. The forest smells like a dessert. I catch a tiny drop in my finger, careful not to damage the string. The anal tube of a beech scale insect. A tiny serving of sugar. The most delicious poo in the world.

I text Quentin to tell him I’m going to get some lunch. We head to the petrol station cafe and grab some fries and a milkshake. In the cafe, Lisa is sitting in the window, reading my blog. She’s taking a late start but will be ahead of us still. How good to have caught up with everyone? I even get a text from Paula saying she’s coming in today. I make final preparations for the Waiau Pass Route. We dine again in the Alpine Lodge. Local beers from around the Nelson-Tasman area. High quality produce. Delicious food. Easy to blow the budget. I enjoy hanging out with Quentin, he’s cynical, passive aggressive and a total bitch. Paula rolls in after we’ve eaten and orders two desserts. I am so pleased to see her. We breakfast together, Quentin and I leaving Paula to a day of rest. She seems to think we’ll never see each other again, I’m not so sure. Who knows what the trail will bring in?

I pull the weight of my pack on. Settle in to my new boots and set off in to familiar territory. Whiff of honey, buzz of wasp. Water dripping through the canopy. I pass a few day walkers. “Nice day for it,” one says, presumably refering to the cloud, the damp. Another tramper comes out of the hills. Busy water taxis run to the end of the lake, saving short distance walkers a short distance. The refilled pack weight sinks in to my legs. The aches I’d had have dispersed now I’ve started walking again. Jog it off, son. As I arrive at Lakehead Hut the sky falls. Jackie comes out of the toilet. “What are you doing here?” I ask. “Taking it easy,” she says. I decide I’ll join them. Quentin comes in just behind me. I didn’t notice that Jackie is black and blue. She took a fall on the scree slope on Mount Rintou. Confidence there is low. It sounds like they’re not going to go over the pass. I can’t imagine it being any harder than the Richmond Ranges. I wish I knew what to say, what to do to convince them to come with us. “I’m proud of you guys,” I say. And I am. I’m proud of all of us. More, wetter people arrive. Too close to the road end. I wonder if pushing on might have been better. At least I’m dry. At least I have a bunk. The students have cards. They invite us to join them for a game of President. They bow to my reign of terror until I choose benevolence, or I’m dealt bad cards, and am toppled. Everyone seems to have a turn at the top and at the bottom. A good game. The busier hut makes it easier to pass the time. A short day feels soft. We’re thru-hikers. We should be knocking out big ones for fun. I remind myself there are no rules and turn my focus inside where Quentin appears to have never cooked instant noodles before and requires assistance. At least he’s eating something.

I put earplugs in for the first time in weeks. I sleep all the way through. It’s close to 6am when I wake up. Late. Time to move. The weight turns out to be, obviously, too much. I have to eat more food, or consider leaving it somewhere. Eating more is the only real option. Squeeze another meal. Quentin sneezes in the kitchen. I shush him. “You can talk,” he whispers, doing a fully choreographed display of me packing my bag into the plastic bag liner. Morning had broken, so I broke the silence. Cloud waits in the hanging valleys. No rain. Not yet. The wet grass wafts around my head. I hold my poles high. “Do you think you’re in Vietnam?” Quentin shouts from behind. We keep up our game of leapfrog. The swing bridge is the first landmark. The Travers River high but not in flood. Rubber dinghy rapids pulse by. I’m thankful for the bridge. When I completed the Travers-Sabine circuit I’m sure I kept my feet dry. Bridges are missing, boardwalks are gone. One bridge is totally obliterated. Metal twisted, full of debris. I stop to flirt with toutouwai, tomtits and piwakawaka. The birdsong strong in the Nelson Lakes.

The ascent is gradual. A lurch up to the impressive Travers Falls. I’d pictured a swim here but now drowning looks more likely. There’s a last climb to Upper Travers Hut. Across the valley a cobweb of water spills down. Mount Travers rises up, jagged tops puncturing the clouds. Ahead Quentin is flagging. “Push man push,” I tell him as I pass. Then I stop. Blown out by the last hill. “Get moving,” he quips back as he takes over again. There it is. Upper Travers Hut, just as the rain starts again. Lisa’s there, she comes out. “Did you guys pass a man on your way up? There’s some ladies in here who have lost one.” I don’t remember seeing anyone on their own. A couple of couples. Missing Man stopped to fill his water at a stream and nobody has seen him since. Old mate Jack was here earlier, he’s going over the saddle. If he finds the missing man, he’ll message down. The good news comes quickly, Missing Man pushed on. If only he’d filled out the intentions book. Nobody would have worried. Later we hear news of another hiker having rolled their ankle. The worst sound you can hear on the trail is the spin of helicopter blades. Friends are ahead, friends are behind. You hope that everyone is safe and well. I clean my teeth on the hut deck, looking up in awe at the rock terraces surrounding the high summit of Mount Travers. The deep valley surrounded by giants makes me feel small, insignificant and extremely content.

I am like a puppy in the morning. In the mountains, the weather clearing, about to set off towards some of the best views in the Nelson Lakes. Forget Old Trafford. The Travers Saddle is the theatre of dreams. I’d spent some time telling people getting up here isn’t hard so I’m relieved to get up quick and easy. The sun just emerging over the St Arnaud Range. Clouds drift across the range. White outs come and white outs go. For a moment you can see everything, and then nothing. The wind herds the clouds in to the high passes. Quentin, Lisa and I take a few photos before the wind chill starts to creep in. Rain jackets go on for the descent. Windows open in the sky to reveal black rock and white ice. The mountains are there and then all that is certain is the next pole. The tree line comes, with it the knee crunching descent in to the Sabine Valley.

The constant roar of water. Both branches of the Sabine. The East branch disappearing in to a narrow gorge. White threads leap from the kilometre high valley walls. Leaves drift to the floor like gold flakes. The beech forest as good as any I’ve seen. According to Quentin it’s like a mother fucking fairy land. He’s not wrong. “I’m not laughing,” he says, “it’s not funny.” In on the floor. I stopped walking to look around. The ground seemed to give away beneath my feet. I fall in slow motion. The stretch in to West Sabine Hut is surprisingly easy. Soft and wide. Even while stopped for lunch the hut begins to fill. A popular track, in the summer holidays. A handful of people everywhere. I set off up to Blue Lake Hut. Moving slowly at first, warming up again. The track is as I remember, a mess. The valley a victim of rain, wind and snow. The Sabine flows like sheets of blue ice, smashing into a white churn beyond every drop. Potential swimming holes have turned in to washing machines. I pause to watch riflemen pong off trees, seemingly squeaking with glee. Towards the valley head views open up. Cathedrals of rock. Organ pipes of stone. Unnamed peaks in the Mahanga Range. Mount Cupola to the North. Waterfalls cascading down. The white noise roar of the Sabine River. Quentin catches me. At the final climb in to the Constance basin he glares at me like this last hill is somehow my fault. An American couple pass. “You guys are like three to five minutes from the hut.” Little air punches. The hut is already at half capacity. The tent sites too. A junction of several routes. A popular day trip. I’ll be glad to return to the lesser travelled trails

Stoves sputter in the cold morning. I take an age to leave Blue Lake Hut. I slept through the late arriving party who were talk of the hut. I notice the North Face logo on their trousers is unused white. They left civilisation late, split the group at West Sabine. Pushed on through the dark, unprepared for the slow travelling terrain. Somebody doesn’t want to walk out. Somebody else wants the DOC warden to arrange a helicopter. I hope they say no. Prime examples of all the gear, no idea. They do offer me a distraction from my own apprehensions. Today is the day. We’re going over Waiau Pass. I’ve heard the descent is gnarly. No track, just rock. I think of my knees. I think of my discomfort in alpine regions. It can’t be that bad. Get into it. Get moving up on to the moraine wall. The sun not yet high enough to sparkle through Blue Lake. The water a mirror for the sky. I trigger birds like car alarms. Quentin is moving across the first scree slope. Lisa is beginning the ascent. Sidling along the edge of Lake Constance is stunning. Sun rising over the high peaks. Blue waters shimmering green and white. The trail rises high above the shore and drops back down again. Trail markers come and go. Stick to the shore or climb the next ridge? Another pole sits above the lakeside. The water is sacred. Surely the trail doesn’t go through the lake. Obviously it doesn’t. Sandflies mass on the rocks. Keep moving, they can’t or won’t settle. Heat shimmers in the valley. I pause to look for the trail. Lisa disappears in to the tall yellow grass. The way through isn’t obvious. Everything looks too high, impassable. Yet, there is a line. The black dot moving along possibly Quentin. With the Richmond Ranges in my legs, in my head I tell myself it will look better closer. It will look better closer. I pause at the bottom for a pep talk with myself. I’m change the words to Mclusky song. “I’m fearful I’m fearful I’m fearful of dying but dying is fearful of me.” Break it down. Pole by pole. Step by step. This isn’t hard. It’s long. A long way up. I squeeze past Lisa. Pass a Noboer who tells me I’m half an hour from the top. Even then my legs get used to the relentless climb. I spot Quentin again, scrambling across scree.

Lake Constance shrinks to a puddle. Mountains rise all around. Flecks of ice in the shadows. Waiau Pass is home to the wind. A reminder. I am here. This is my domain. You may cross. This time. More mountains drop beyond the low sweep of the pass. Rock carved by ice and thaw. And then comes the descent. Easy at first, a steady track across the stone that would be at home at any elevation. Then comes the drop. A sheer cliff face down. Only, not really. There’s sort of a way, several even. I fold down my poles. Slide down on my butt, turn around and look between my legs. I’m no rock climber but I know to hold on, to rely on my legs. Slow and steady. Slow and steady. I easy myself down the giant steps of stone. It isn’t so bad. Options to choose from, time to decide. Room to move. It’s also over quickly. The trail returns. Not that it helps me. I stop and suddenly find myself sitting down in a stream. I spot Quentin far below, striding along the river side. Someone’s legs are coming in. It takes me a long time to get down. The trail never quite becoming easy. The upper reaches of the Waiau River are gorgeous. Blue plunge pools beneath white falls. I take another hour to walk the next kilometre. Too slow. I’m never going to get to Waiau Hut. Time to refresh. The next stream isn’t deep enough to swim. When is it? There’s a deep looking pool next to the crossing. I head over, drop my pack, take my phone out of my pocket and sit down. Fully clothed, in the refreshing cold waters. I crash through the unofficial campsite at the Waiau Forks. Passing straight by where Quentin has stopped for a break. He catches up and we boulder hop down the river. Looking for a stack of rocks in a pile of rocks is as good as any cliché. We pass through patches of easy walking trail in the bush edge, through wildflower meadows. The high mountains surround us. “This could be Montana.” Quentin says. I have no idea. After a lot longer walking than I was ready for Waiau Hut comes in to view. What. A. Day. Some five minutes after we arrive Quentin calls me outside. “Are those real?” He asks. Four horses are led up to the hut. “How ya going?” The man says before heading upstream. I turn to Quentin, “are we in Montana?”

We passed some of Lisa’s friends on the way in. They’re excited to possibly camp with her. At Waiaua Hut, Quentin and I make half bets. Will she keep walking to us? “She’ll be here after 7 but before 8.” Quentin decides. Later on he says “there’s a person coming.” I can’t see anything, I put my glasses on and still can’t see. “Lisa!” Quentin shouts, waving through the window. Bang on 7pm. Shes not last in either. A figure lumbers towards the hut. Pack on the front, pack on the back. The man comes in and kills the vibe. “Hello, where have you come from?” Nothing. But once he’s had something to eat it’s like he’s seen us for the first time. He chats away to me about Battlestar Galactica until I decide it’s time for me to go to bed. I wake up in the night to torch light flashing across my face. I pull my ear plugs out to try and better understand what’s going on. I look over and Quentin is frontlit by his torch. He’s cycling through the settings. Then I hear why. Someone is cutting wood. I’m awake, it isn’t me. Oh my god. It’s Lisa. Quentin is doing everything he can with his torch to disrupt the chainsaw breathing. In the morning Harang says “I thought it was Chris.” Rude. Lisa takes a verbal beating. “I didn’t know a human could make that noise,” “AND sleep through it.”

The dawn light climbs down the valley wall faster than I ever could. The air in the valley has a chill to it. The sun doesn’t reach the floor until gone 8am, when the heat begins to rise. Rapidly. The Waiaua Valley is wide and flat. Blue braids in the river grind away at the trail’s edge. Dead branches rise out of the boulder fields. Once upon a time there were trees here too. Giant sandcastles crumbling in the tide of time. Water, the unstoppable force. Dragging down the mountains, washing away the land. Quentin has committed to a marathon day. He’s off, he’s gone, never to be seen again. Lisa takes his place, leapfrogging me when I stop for second breakfast. The meadow flats along the Waiau river are pretty but I hate them. All that grass, all that pollen. I’m losing more fluids through sneezing than through sweat. I pop two antihistamines and hope I’ll get by. Nameless Northbounders pause for a chat. We exchange notes on the next hut, the trail heading away. Who’s coming, who’s going. I catch up with Lisa while she’s doing the same. We walk towards the Ada Homestead, where we turn toward the river. The cool waters of the Waiau refresh us for the afternoon.

I prophesize stream crossings based on my boots nearly being dry. There’s got to be one coming. Little sprats dart in the creek. Lisa gets one in her boot somehow. Hares bound through the tall grass. This really could be anywhere in the world. The valley walls look painted on, like a backdrop to a play. If ever you got close enough, I’m sure you could push them over. Short day. Easy day. No rush. We plug on through the grassy meadows. We turn in to the Henry Valley and join the St James Walkway, as if today could get any cruisier. The swing bridge over the Henry River keeps our feet dry, the wooded stair case down to the flats ends in a knee deep bog. What’s the point? It would have been better to cross the river. I tell the next two walkers we pass to do just that. Anne Hut comes in to view, a window wide open. “Do you think Quentin will be there?” Lisa asks. “In the nicest way, I hope not. I want him to have done the big day he’s dreaming of.” Those are his shoes on the deck though. “What are you doing here?” I yell through the door. The heat, the hayfever. He’s blown out. His afternoon legs not quite on side. “I’ll try again tomorrow,” he says.

The walk down to the river from Anne Hut is the hardest thing I’ve done in two days. Steep, crumbling soil. I regret not putting my boots on, bringing my poles, my PLB. The swim is worth the work. A hole behind a boulder, big enough for a few strokes. The current strong enough to hold me steady. Full sun. Near total privacy. By the time I get back to the hut I need another swim, or at least to wash my feet. There’s a supporting cast in the hut of St James walkers. Peter and Tamsin, Marsha and, for ease, another Lisa. They’ll be with us out to Boyle Village now. We sit in the hut and chat away. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What are we eating? Where do we get our food. Outside, Lisa says “I like your socks, are they airs tick?” “What is that, some kind of knock off Nike?” “No you know the South American culture.” “Oh, you mean Aztec.” All of Lisa’s vowels make the wrong sound. Authentically kiwi. I repeat words back to her. “Bid” I say. She supposedly said “bed.” Half my consonants go missing. “Derry,” she says. I definitely said “dirty,” We may as well be speaking different languages. She gets up in the night to go to the toilet. I remember to also get up, to go outside. Appreciate the ridiculous points of light. Billions and billions of stars burning away in the dark.

Quentin has tried again. Almost out of food. Unwilling to rely on the generosity of others. This time I’m convinced we won’t see him again. At least not until I decide to start pushing out bigger days again. A short day is a strange thing. 16km not even in the range of what some people would call short. Less time on the trail than a day spent at work. Lisa and I get to know each other a bit more. “Any siblings?”, “How did your parents meet?” She tells me this beautiful story of how her mother placed an add in a newspaper, she accepted two replies. One her future husband. They exchanged letters over a number of years. Conversations flows easily. We’ve a similar approach to the trail. No time constraints. Enough money. We run down the St James walkers without even trying. Both of us either side of 1000km. I’m impressed. How far I’ve already come. How far these lucky legs have carried me. Further now than the entire length of the South West Coast Path. How will that feel after this? Achievable. Anne Saddle comes and goes, a minor bump in the trail. The anywhere from waist to head high grass is the biggest challenge. Get the deer in, goats, anything. Plant some trees. Get rid of the damn grass. I’m grateful for Lisa’s company. The distance disappears. Boyle Flat Hut comes up in time for lunch. The trouble now being the heat of the hut or the sandflies. A dip in the river to rinse off the sweat, the sunscreen. By the time I’m back at the hut I’m dry. By the time I’m changed I’m sweating again. I start to think I’ll have to go in again later. Catching a crayfish in my water bottle is the highlight of the day.

The lightest day. The end of a section. My rubbish bag weighs more than the food I have left. Lisa leaves first. Like a greyhound after a rabbit I’m on the chase. A wet footprint on the rocks after a stream tells me I’m close. Not close enough. The intentions book at the end of the trail reads “how far behind me are you?” 15 minutes. All I needed was another 2km. I meet a man by the swimming hole who offers me a coffee at his campervan, and then gives me some fresh pawpaw, a banana, and a tomato. He drinks two glasses of red wine while I’m with him. It’s not long gone 10:30am. I take off, cross the road and enter the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre. “This is Quentin’s room,” the girl showing me around says. “WHAT?” He’s gone in to Hamner Springs for the day. Lisa tells me to text him if I want anything and he comes back with salami, cheese and tuna. Unrequested but most welcome are the fruits, the crisps, the beers. What a magical day. “Are you Chris?” Some youth asks me. “I am,” “oh awesome, I’ve been chasing you since the Queen Charlotte.” The chaser becomes the chased. The book only speaks to those behind you. He has more news. Paula is on her way.

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