Paula hasn’t changed. She doesn’t want a rest day. She wants to come with us. Back on the team, which means an early alarm and a higher chance of an early start. Quentin bought croissants in Hamner Springs which makes for an excellent second breakfast. Then I head outside to feed the sandflies. Paula is out first. The rabbit for me to chase. Lisa and I set off together while Quentin tries to squeeze enough food into his backpack. High clouds wobble above heat haze. Lisa and I lose the trail markers, we end up following some white bin liners tied to tree branches. Quentin catches us as we cross the Boyle River. As the three of us chase down Paula, Quentin decides it’s time we had trail names. We start with Paula as she isn’t here to defend herself. When she has to put her pack on from the floor she looks likes a turtle. With her green pack on, she looks like she’s got a shell. We can’t just call her turtle though. One of the ninja turtles? No. Quentin suggests Squirtle. After all, gotta catch ’em all. Coming up with names for the rest of us takes longer. Lisa always falls over, especially if someone else is watching. And in every stream. And most rivers. Stumbles. I am always eating. If I’m not, I’m talking about food. Or asking other people about what they’re eating. What are those things horses eat out of? Feedbags. We’re still working on Quentin’s.
Voices up ahead suggest Paula’s run into someone. Closing the gap. Quentin stops in the middle of the track, at a stream to fill his bottle. That’s inconsiderate. I step down a few levels in maturity and stomp through above him, splashing him and his bottle with the mud from my boots. Not long after we meet a Noboer, and old mate Jack’s dad who dropped in to join him for a couple of days. How good it must be to do something like this where your family and friends can step in to support you. We catch the news. Bryan is still a day ahead of us. We catch Paula at the bush edge. She doesn’t stop as long as we do and leads the chase again. Now deeper in to the Hope Valley the beech trees turn it on. Tall wide trunks, widely spaced. Leaves falling like snow. Out of nowhere old mate Harang appears. Topless, no shoes, and a tiny backpack and seemingly excited to see us. The total opposite of when we first met him. He warns of tree fall and disappears again. Quentin pauses in a tree filled hollow, a wide, well formed track beneath his feet. Arms spread, “now this is a trail,” he declares.
I pause to take a photo of Lisa coming through the trees. She comes around the trunk I’m waiting for and trips over a root. “I’m not laughing, it’s not funny.” I say, trying not to cry. I only wish I was filming. So close to the capture of a perfect stumble from Stumbles. The trail remains fantastic, fast and wide. There were plans long ago to make this route a Great Walk but it never reached became as popular as the current circuit. We munch through the distance, stopping for lunch at Hope Halfway Shelter. We meet Kris with a K for the first time. Then we roll out across the blazing hot river flats. Stopping in the shade. Looking for a good spot to swim. Paula gets in the river first and as I’m standing, getting comfortable in the cold, she starts a splash battle. I decide she lost because she got out of the river first. Squirtle used splash. It has no effect. The meadow grass moves like a sea in the wind. Clouds have been building all day. The sky begins to climb a little lower. Grey puffs nestle over the surrounding tops. I worry about the coming days if rain falls and rivers rise. We come in to Hope Kiwi Lodge, a lovely building of lockwood, with a lot of people inside. One of the Noboers comes over and asks me “is that a second dinner?” Yes, yes it is.
“Oh Quentin, you’re still alive,” says Paula. “I thought you passed away in the night.” At which point everyone begins identifying the rest of the snorers, the heavy breathers, the fast breathers. Ceilings of cloud hang low. I visit the long drop which turns out to be a lion’s den. Only the lions are the size of pin heads, and there’s a million of them. No place to hang around. I tried this thing called being organised. It helped to get me on trail before 7am. Moisture drifts in the air. I’m convinced we’ll get wet today. We don’t. The valley flats remind me of English parklands. Beeches on the edge of the bush rounded like oaks. Soft green grasses. Ok the streams are clear as opposed to brown but you get where I’m going. The sky interlocks with the towering ridge lines. Through the beech forest the sun begins to spill through the canopy. Black trunks, grey trunks, green leaves. Songbirds whistle. The sky clears. I push on up Kiwi Saddle. Sweat forming on my forehead, dripping down my face. I stop for water. “Are you taking a break?” Quentin challenges me. “Nah mate, we’ve only been going for about an hour.” “Good,” he says. 5 minutes later our packs are off and we head up to the no view lookout over Lake Sumner. When I get down, Quentin is resting against a tree, rolling a cigarette. “Break time is it?” I question. The trail gang gathers. Kris with a K blasts through. We move on to the shores of the not very inviting Lake Sumner. I try to follow the track around the lake which is definitely not the right way. While taking a photo I spot a marker back in the trees. “Don’t you want children?” Shouts Quentin as I confidently stride over the possibly electric fence. Not sure if it’s a shock or poor foot placement on the other side. We’re making great time and stop again. Paula doesn’t usually do breaks. “This is great,” she agrees.
I begin to feel tired. I can’t follow the trail. I keep coming off. I let out an almighty “Fuck!” as I end up shin deep in bog. Take a second. Think about what you’re doing. The next hut is 2km away. Get there. Have lunch. Have a break. Go again. Over another arbitrary swing bridge I bump into Helen off of Helen and Ramona from the Richmond Ranges. Flip-flopping still. She’s just finished up talking with Quentin. I want to chat but I also want to stop and eat. She’s gonna run into Lisa and then Paula in the next half an hour. A slow kilometre. She does say the hot pool is worth the stop, which is in stark contrast to everything else I’ve heard. I’ll see how I feel when I get there. Hot water on a hot day doesn’t sound like a good idea. Hurunui Hut provides the welcome break I need. Talk of the trail is the family of hunters who have seemingly moved in for the week. I don’t bother them, they don’t bother me.
Northern Gent James and his mate David crash in. James is a timely reminder that there will always be someone faster than you. We do walk together to the surprisingly good hot pool tucked up on the hillside. I can smell the sulphur in a stream trickling down. We scramble up to find Quentin redressing. James and I get in. Two bros sitting in a hot pool not quite five feet apart because it’s not actually very big. It isn’t free either. The army of darkness descends on my hands and feet, draining a pint of blood. The walk in to Hurunui N°3 Hut takes its time. A four wheel drive track allows me to stretch the pace and catch Quentin. Old mate Jack had taken a zero. Kris with a K and James are there. So are a father, Andrew and his daughter, Evie, who are in for a treat with a gang of 8 Southbounders coming through.
The hut is hot. Sandflies wait at the door. I step outside once in the night. I half remember the light of the stars. One day soon I’ll see this night sky for the last time. Not tonight. There are still plenty more nights to come. I lie awake in my bunk for far too long. Struggling with sleep. Walking on regardless. I get up as everyone else does. Chatting away to anyone. Evie is on her first 5 day tramp at 15, which strikes me as a lot more sensible than a 7 year old walking the length of a country. Andrew is very forthcoming with river crossing info for the coming days. I continue to pray to the clouds. Do not form. Do not drop. Do not rain. Blue creeps in and melts away the clouds. Everyone gets the jump on me. Flat. Not motivated. I don’t want to be left behind. I will catch them. I will. I pass over the three cable bridge. Mostly as a challenge. I’ve never done one before. It’s a bit scary but then I find it’s less annoying than a swing bridge. Reaching Camerons Hut without catching anyone knocks me down. Am I going too slow? Off the pace. Out of the zone. But then I catch Lisa, the Paula. Then I lose the trail at a washout. And then my mind. I start to scramble up a vertical stream bed, crumbling down around me. This would be a stupid way to die. I go back and see the switchback I’d missed. I wait at the top of the slip to make sure Paula doesn’t miss the turn. Paula doesn’t come. Lisa does. “Have you passed Paula?” “No, have you?” She’s gone through while I was fucking around. I give Lisa terrible instructions not to make the same mistake as me. I’m frustrated. I’m tired. What am I even doing out here? I stop at the Harper Pass Biv. I’m not walking my own walk. I’ve gotten caught up in the chase.
Getting over the pass takes a further toll. I think I hear a kea. Surely not. Then I hear it again. Three kea fly over Harper Pass and my mood lifts with their wings. I catch Paula again who tells me she’s smashing it, having a storming day. I crash down the steep trail and find Quentin struggling. His knee has gone. I know the pain. Every day I give thanks to mine for holding it together. “Use your poles?” I suggest. Unable to do anything more useful than get out of the way. I stop at the next swing bridge. I count in the team. Quentin, Paula, Lisa. Paula is on fire. And she knows it. “I’m awesome bro,” she tells us. The rest of us aren’t feeling so pumped. After our break we decide to stop again at Locke Stream Hut for lunch. We don’t have time to spread out. A slip has knocked out the trail. Then a wash out has taken down even more. We end up in the river bed. I spot two ladies walking up the trail. “You won’t get far up there,” I say. Our serendipitous timing allows them to come down and show us the easiest way back on track. Lunch, as all meals have become, is a treat. Tomato paste, cheese, and salami in a wrap. Lisa even brews up some instant coffee. Our Nobo no mates for the day is Isabel who stops for the day while we’re lunching. I grill her for river crossing info. No more than thigh deep. She thinks the trail notes are trustworthy. “Which way am I going?” asks Paula, her new daily joke. Isabel looks horrified. “Southbound Paula, Southbound.” is my standard reply.
The last run down the Taramakau River reinvigorates me. I ignore the trail. “What are you doing?” Quentin asks. “Going that way,” I point yonder with my pole. What I don’t think about is other people following me as I wade thigh deep downstream. We reach Kiwi Hut to find just enough bunks for us. Jack is already settled. As is walker Ross. More and more people roll in. Three women decide to sleep on the floor. Tents go up outside. The quiet time I need isn’t going to happen. Fatigue is catching up. I get short and shitty and immediately sorry. I’m ready for a day off but there are still two more days to go. I pop a drowsy antihistamine and two ibuprofen and cross my toes for a good night sleep. Everyone gets up to use the toilet at 4:30am to use the toilet. I don’t. I still have half an hour. The red light of Paula’s headlamp wakes me up again. We set off together, not quite holding hands, not quite skipping down the Taramakau. Clouds glow in the morning sun. The sky blue-white. Not yet warm. The gravel beds of the braided river make for mostly easy travel. “What do you reckon?” says Quentin. His phone in his hand following the GPS line. I’m following tyre tracks. Lisa has to choose. They disappear into the gorse. My competitive streak kicks in. Arrogance compels me to check behind when they could easily be in front. I’m only moderately smug when I see them a few hundred metres back. Follow your nose. The river crossing is rarely above knee height. We have been so unreasonably lucky with the weather across three sections now. How far can we go?
Together again we set off down the four wheel drive track. Paula settles in to her pace and slips behind. I never worry about Paula. Even if it takes her all day, I know she’ll get there. We head out to the highway, having been advised to skip the flood track. The road allows us to smash out an easy 3km. We break at the Morrison Footbridge. For the first time Paula doesn’t catch up. She might have taken the flood track. She is a purist after all. I set out first, followed by Quentin, then Lisa. Heat shimmers. A young trout splashes in a side pool cut off from the main flow. Trail runners pass. The Mingha-Deception Route forms part of the Coast 2 Coast. One of New Zealand’s supposedly iconic multidisciplinary athletic events. And here we are walking it. The rocky riverbed of the Deception River is the main route through the valley. The first crossing of the frigid, crystal blue waters is simple. Then I lose the trail. “Have you got a marker?” I ask Quentin. I’ve needed to clean my glasses for days. He seems to know where he’s going. He points ahead. I still have nothing. I let him lead and lose him. His knee giving him no trouble. Every time I see him I’m convinced he’s on the wrong side of the river. I stop to see where Lisa is. Sometimes just behind me, sometimes I wait. Slow and steady progression. One runner carries a message from a lady supposedly miles back. Paula. She’s on her way.
At the second crossing I find I’m knee deep in the Deception, which would make for a good book title. Low in the valley I smell sulphur. I dip fingers in the early streams seeking out warmth. I find none. I pass an Olympic sized swimming hole. I can’t resist stopping for a dip. Lisa catches me and does the exact same thing. Around the next corner I find Quentin. Then he’s gone again, striding over boulders. I’ve no idea where I’m going. I’m up, I’m down. Heat waves and water ripples. On the wrong side of the river. In the river through glacial blue pools, under ice white cascades. I start to feel sick. I stop for a second lunch before going again. Push, pull, push. Get to Upper Deception Hut. Slam down some sour gummy worms. Two hours to go.
There’s something not quite right with my leg. A thread from my shorts is tickling my thigh. Another massive crotch blow out. Nothing lasts for long on the trail. The valley narrows. The boulders grow. The track is amazing. I feel incredible. I’m doing this. Jackie Boy left a note in the hut “best section so far,” at first I was like really? But now I’m on board. Closer to Goat Pass deep fissures and ravines mark where the water comes down. I spot the radio antenna on the hut. Finally! I’m almost there. Which is precisely when things go wrong. My left foot doesn’t make full contact with the rock. Life doesn’t flash before my eyes. Only boulders, then trees, then sky. I wait for the crack that doesn’t come. I bounce off my pack. I’m upside down looking at the clouds. Well this is nice. Particularly the bit where I’m not dead. I stay stuck for a moment. Head spinning. Shock reducing. This has been a time. A blend of pleasure and hardship. Demanding focus, forcing presence. I unclip my pack and crawl out. Load up again and keep climbing. I pull into the hut. A vocal scream of “YES!” Out comes Jack, then Quentin. Well done, high fives and back slaps. Then comes the real treat. Bryan is in the house. Kris with a K is here too. By the end of the day the whole trail family comes together. Lisa and Paula coming in together. We made it! The excited chatter fills the hut, sharing the shared experience. Connected to each other through Te Araroa. After another tough day, settling in with the gang is the perfect antidote. More than ever, the trail provides.
One more day and then we can have a rest. I’m last to leave, feeling somewhat broken by the last 12 days. A slow cup of tea and I’m ready. Once over Goat Pass boardwalks make short work of the early descent in to the Mingha Valley. Actual track. A stretch of the legs. A burst of pace.
I follow the wet tracks of the southbound pack. No intention to catch, just to be. I find them anyway. Paula, Lisa, then Bryan. We stop on Dudley Knob, looking back as the clouds drift over Mount Oates. Rubble and slips tumble down the sides. If these mountains were in Europe there would be scaffolding around them. They’re not finished yet. Trail runners begin to come through. Day walkers and thru-hikers come up. “What’s the track like on the other side?” “Not as good as this,” I tell them “but it is a lot of fun.” The railway line comes in to view. I walk in with Bryan to Klondyke Corner. The track becomes a mess. There are options. The road? The railway line? What about the power lines that cut a diagonal line acorss the confluence of the Bealey and the Waimakariki? Bryan and I pick up a four wheel drive track that makes short work of the final few kilometres. The wires above us sing in the wind. We’re surrounded by mountains on all sides. The final river crossing is never more than thigh deep. A little bush bashing leads us to celebrating the rise of grass on the hill behind the Bealey Hotel. Another section is done. Real food, a couple of beers and a much needed rest awaits.