Te Araroa: The Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers

Paula makes a sign. It reads “Arthur’s Pass.” We have to hitch into the village to collect our resupply boxes. My last one. It’s a 24km round trip. Part of me says walk but I know that defeats the point of a rest day. I stand between Paula and Quentin and try to look like a nice, approachable guy who you’d want to pick up. Quentin explains the most important thing is attitude. Believe someone is going to stop. Know that you will get a ride. Stay positive. It all makes sense after the first 16 cars go past. Some drivers wave. We wave back. Keep smiling. Lucky number 17. A father and son who’ve driven to Christchurch to pick up a tent for a camping trip later in the week pick us up and drop us off outside the petrol station. We grab our boxes and some extras, cheese, a sandwich, a milkshake. Leaving is harder. There’s more traffic but less interest in stopping. A young couple, Simon and Lisa rearrange the back of their ute in order to make room for us. “where are you headed?” asked Simon. Thankfully the way they’re going.

Paula advises me on repairing the blown crotch in my shorts. I need to get better at fixing instead of replacing. Who knows how long my stitching will last. I’m not as organised as I could be. I manage to get my food sorted. I’m even confident enough to leave some behind. I’ve been carrying too much for weeks. I still am. My gear is still exploded across the dorm room. I took too much time out to beat Quentin at a game of President, again. Always one more round. In the morning I’m fortunate that the restaurant doesn’t start serving breakfast until 8am. Unfortunately that guarantees a late start on the trail. Kris with a K stops in for a morning coffee on another one of her marathon days. After breakfast I’m still packing. Here comes 9am, and there it goes. It’s close to 10am when I hit the literal road.

Roads are good for a short burst. A quick start. Knocking out the first 4.5km in under an hour. Quentin, who was just ahead of me disappears. I assume a burst of pace, blasting off up hill. He comes up from behind, somehow he missed the big orange triangle on the car park gate. He pauses just inside the bush on the climb up the side of Mount Bruce. I watch the abundance of piwakawaka flit among the branches. I hear Quentin talking, is he flirting with the birds? Looking up at a branch above him he’s saying “don’t you shit on me, go and shit on Chris instead.” The little puff of birds takes no notices, squeaking merrily away. The day after a rest is like the first day back at school. New weight in old packs. Sweat rivers down the side of my face. The trail passes through a band of pines. A monoculture wasteland. A stark contrast to the unrelenting life of the beech forest. After most of the uphill is done, I stop again. Streams reduce to trickles. I build a support from stones and prop a bottle beneath a dribble. When it falls over I decide it’s probably full enough. Out of the trees the view rips wide open down Arthur’s Pass and up the Waimakariri Valley, all the way to the snow. For as long as the views last, they are truly epic.

The trail turns South, as it must. The view changes again. Distant mountains topped with sands of silver shining like snow in the sun. On the approach to the Lagoon Saddle Shelter I decide it’s time for lunch. “There she is,” I declare, as I catch up with Paula. Quentin is already on the floor, smoking a cigarette. The shelter is an A-frame, indicating the depth of the snow in these parts in winter. If I ever come back, it will be to experience the South Island in the long dark season. I set off after Paula, I catch the first Noboer of the day. The woman in yellow. We chat about the cost and quality of the food at the Bealey Hotel. Shortly after I meet another, easily the most miserable woman on the trail. “People said I would enjoy it. Well I’m doing it and I’m not enjoying it.” I don’t say it but I do wonder why she’s still going. There’s no obligation to do this. When the fun stops, stop. I move on as soon as I can to avoid having the life sucked out of me. The streams begin to broaded, forming the Harper River. A grey ravine cutting through the green beech. Rock soft as chalk on the valley walls, hard as nails under foot. The track becomes wider too, easy enough to move quickly and comfortably. I almost get lost at an unofficial campsite, trying to stick with the river when I have to climb a hill. Quentin and I roll into Hamilton Hut after crossing two arbitrary swing bridges. Bryan is already drifting across the wide gravel creek bed looking for somewhere to wash. Seemingly miles away he’s naked, and possibly singing. It isn’t that hard to have a good time out here.

The following morning we’re in for an easy day. A long walk down the Harper River to where it flows in to Lake Coleridge. I set out late and decide to check out the Mirror Tarn, a 20 minute return trip up hill. The tarn is reflective but it’s nothing special. The views over one of the slips, up a creek bed is more impressive. Then I pick up my pack and set off after the others I follow deep impressions in the mud. Boot prints in the sand. Some days feel like adventures. Some days feel like passing through. Today is one of those, getting out the distance. Moving closer towards the goal. “What took you do long?” Quentin asks. “Paula thinks you were having some special Chris alone time,” Lisa quips in “Bryan was less discreet. He said you were violently masturbating?” I make a mental note to ask him what makes it violent? I don’t have the opportunity to honestly explain myself. “How did you find the river crossings?” Quentin asked me. He’s a look in his eye that makes me turn to Lisa. “Fine,” I say. “What about you guys?” She’s already laughing. “I fell in,” she says. “Quentin had to rescue me.” I miss all the drama. They set off before I’ve finished my break. The Harper valley is coated in dusty yellows, greys and greens. Colours sliding downhill like mounds of melting ice cream. The landscape slowly shifts with each passing kilometre. Somewhere down the track Bryan celebrates his 1500km. Somebody finally reaches half way. Black and yellow is Quentin. Black with a white hat is Lisa. Black with an orange top is a trail marker. Specks in the distance. Aptly named to distinguish them from the other four sets of Pinnacles in New Zealand, the Pinnacles appear as an amphitheatre of grey sheet ghosts.

At the Trustpower campground we steal the picnic table. Our need is obviously greater than the family with their pop up caravan. While unpacking my tent I have this horrible feeling something is missing. Did I take the pegs out and put them down already? They’re not in my pocket. I last had the tent out at Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre. I washed the pegs and had then out to dry. Even now I remember being all over the shop that day. I’m sure I picked them up from outside. I’m sure I packed them but now I’ve no pegs. I try pitching the tent without them but the wind threatens to carry it away. I’m so fortunate to be with the trail gang. Paula has a few spares. Lisa, Quentin and Brian all chip in, and there’s one bent one from the ground. I manage to get the tent upright and anchored. Just as I was starting to feel like I had my shit together as well. All those last minute idiot checks are only any good if it isn’t the idiot doing the check. Presumably to make me feel better Lisa lights her stove inside her tent. Like in the inner. The rest of us have built rock walls on the table or outside our tents. “Are you insane?” I challenge. Everyone else is equally disturbed. She carries on as if everything is fine. Within seconds she’s managed to knock the pot over. The water isn’t boiling fortunately. She comes outside and uses my rock wall. While I’m soaking my lentils she managed to knock over the second attempt. “Take the time that needs to be taken,” is my advice.

The car is so hot I think I might die. Bryan puts on the air conditioning which saves my life. Rain spits on the windscreen. I buy the heaviest tent pegs in the world, down two pints and get some fish and chips. Kris with a K is in town again and joins us for a bit. On the way back to the campsite the clouds burst. Rain falls relentlessly. I catch Paula and Bryan going down the wrong street. “Are you guys lost?” Bryan has already tried to walk out of town once. We walk-jog back to shelter. Then it’s washing, shower, plan for the resupply. Light slips around the edge of the curtain inu cabin for one. Have I overslept? No. Civilisation is fun. You don’t have to take your own toilet paper in a plastic bag to the toilet, although you should always check before you commit. There’s light enough in the morning to restitch the hole in my shorts again, this time with dental floss. I know I need to find some new ones soon. I make an early run on the local Four Square. The man behind the counter even offers to give me a ride back to the campground. I definitely don’t have enough stuff to justify a lift. We take breakfast in the Topp Country Cafe where the hash browns make the stop more than worthwhile. The last repack includes several final checks. There is definitely nothing left in the cabin.

We’re shuttled back to the trail head, now safely on the southern shores of the Rakaia River. The overnight downpour in Methven hasn’t touched the high country. The first leg of the track crosses through private farm land. The owner clearly taking zero pride in having New Zealand’s national trail pass through. I’m squeezed between a wire fence, a cliff edge, wading through head high grass and I’m supposed to feel privileged? The fence crossing in to the Hakatere Conservation Area allows for a much nicer tramping experience. Low tussock, wide spaced matagouri shrubs, huge views over the Rakaia, up the Wilberforce Valley and into the snowcaps. I decide I don’t need to carry my lunch all the way up to the top of Turtons Saddle and drop my things before the final ascent. Paula’s fluro green pack disappears up the trail. Quentin comes in behind me, he pauses, cheeks blowing then pushes on. Bryan’s stop is only slightly longer. “I might regret this,” he says, heading up. Lisa stops and stays as I ready to go again. I hear strange noises, small rocks wobble. My first alpine skink skitters away under a boulder. The switchbacks up the saddle try and break me. I’m light headed. Why? Too hot? Too late in the day? I have to stop every 10 paces to catch my breath, let my vision stabilise. Whatever is wrong is gone by the time I reach the top. I push beyond Bryan and Quentin towards the rolling folds of crumbled velvet tussock. I chase down Paula across the dusty yellows and browns. Highlights in grass green reveal the creeks that flow down to the stream. A flock of oyster catchers, miles from home, poke around in the thick mud. Shake the mountain kaleidescope again, see what has changed. In the distance, new forming Pinnacles slowly emerge from the mountain side. The lines look like the teeth marks of some great beast that’s taken a bite out of the land. At another A-frame shelter I take a break in the limited shade. Paula, then Bryan take over. I stay as Quentin comes in. “You know how in the Bible people were always washing Jesus’s feet.” I’ve no idea where this is going. “I get it now,” he says. I laugh. Lisa turns up to talk about the geology. “It was like Mount Rushmore but different.” she says. I can’t help myself. “So different in fact that it was nothing like Mount Rushmore?” The three of us stick together for the walk in to Comyns Hut. I enjoy myself in a playful mood I haven’t experienced since the mud pools of the Tararuas. I fling my poles all over the place. I dance down hill. I threaten to overtake Quentin just so I can stop in front of him, but I don’t. I’m not that annoying, not yet. Comyns Hut appears as a large metal barn in the middle of a deep brown valley. It’s perfect. I claim my bunk and set about eating too much food.

Before bed my stomach cramps. Not again. Not like this. My guts of steel are being melted down. I run through the changes for an obvious suspect. Could it be the beef jerky? The instant mashed potato mixed into a cup of tomato soup seems a more likely culprit. I crawl into bed in the hope my body simply deals with it. I gurgle and churn through the night. In the morning I’m still not 100% and it’s obvious as I struggle through breakfast. If we weren’t on a schedule I’d consider taking a zero. Give myself time to recover. The next shuttle around the Rangitata River is tomorrow. I intend to be on it. Once I get started I’ll feel better. I correct Lisa’s course as she starts to set off the wrong way. Once Quentin is gone I get dressed and slowly make my way up the North Ashburton River. Notes on the Far Out app suggest this section will be hard, which makes me wonder if anyone has hiked in New Zealand before. “No markers,” they complain, ignoring the unmissable river. Try following what’s in front of you.

Watermark on rock. Crater in sand. Quentin and Lisa cheer as I round a boulder and find them taking a break on the river bank. I’m glad to have made it this far and a little fanfare helps. The trail family getting me through a rough patch. I stop at the next confluence. Quentin pushes on to the next saddle with Lisa not far behind. Here I learn I was wrong. The helicopter is not the worst sound you can hear in the bush is. A scream is. I grab my pack and poles and set off. Someone is still screaming. “I’m coming,” I shout. It has to be Lisa. Quentin is already way up towards the next saddle. There she is, half off the narrow track. Her foot is still in the boot, bones still in the leg. “I heard my ankle crunch, I can’t put weight on it.” She tells me. “Time to trigger the PLB?” It isn’t really a question. She hits the button. I shoot up track a way to see if I can see anyone. They’re too far ahead. Nothing to do but sit and await rescue. I fetch various things from Lisa’s pack; painkillers, sunscreen, a rain jacket to shelter beneath. Then I just sit and talk. Quentin comes back, he throws a thumbs up from upstream. I send him two down back. He comes on down. We agree he’ll head on, let Paula and Bryan know what’s happened. I’ll stay with Lisa until help arrives and I’ll catch up later. Occasionally we hear what sounds like a helicopter but it’s the water, or the wind. When it does come, it’s unmistakable. The entire rescue operation takes less than two hours from point of impact. The chopper lands, the crew start dealing with Lisa. I feel a lot less guilty when the pilot stops to take a photo. Now they’ve established her injury isn’t life threatening they become more jolly. They send me up trail, winch Lisa in to the hovering heli and carry her off to Christchurch.

I carry on my day in a haze, barely registering the landscape. Lisa was the most invested in the trail of any of us. She’s read all the books, been to talks, is friends with the social media influencers. I’m gutted for her, but probably not as much as she is. All it takes is one miss-step. An accident can happen to any one of us, at any time. By the time I reach the next saddle I’ve settled down. I’m delighted to see the cut of a formed track across the scree slope and through the tussocked hills. Only in the final drop do I find the nightmare of needles. Speargrass to the left, matagauri to the right. Here I am bleeding from both legs in the middle of nowhere.The vast flat of the valley trips me out. I get severe Patagonia flashbacks. Snow sits over mountains like a teatowel over a tray of objects. When the cover is lifted what secrets will they reveal? A fierce headwind slows me down. I break several of my own rules. I open Spotify on my phone and start listening to Billy Talent’s eponymous debut. Something strong to carry me in to Manuka Hut. The team are waiting for my nothing news. Lisa was ok when she left, in a lot of pain but she’ll be alright. She is gone. Not the way anyone should go. Neither ahead, nor behind. Off the trail. Later than night, after someone accidentally locks the door there’s a knocking. Our young friend Luke from Boyle has been chasing again. He plans to stick around. We are the leading pack, possibly the only group of solo Soboers.

I awake in the night to find moonlight illuminating the valley, drowning out the stars. I go back to bed and sleep through. We’ve a ride to catch today. Paula and Bryan set off eager and early. The rest of us with a more relaxed attitude to getting there. Quentin is a black shadow in the tussock and then he’s gone. Is he accelerating or has he fallen? He’ll be in the shade somewhere up ahead, rolling a cigarette, asking what took me so long. Luke is just behind me, then he’s gone too. Do I hear shouts for help or am I being paranoid? I haven’t walked with him before. I don’t know his routine. It’s probably that sheep on the hill. I tell myself to keep going. Everything will be alright. I spot Quentin’s shade up ahead but he’s not on it. Not one but two figures come striding down the road. Relief washes over me. “So you can’t read a map or read signs?” I ask Quentin. “Please can we not tell anyone about this?” He begs. It won’t help. Luke only stopped to put sunscreen on. The three of us stick together for the rest of the steady day out to the Rakaia. Quentin complains about the lack of markers when there’s a well defined track in front of him. “Do you need a marker if there’s a track? Oh yeah that’s right you need more signposts.” I jibe. “Or what about like an app that tells you where you are on the map?” adds Luke. We get the finger for our efforts. A thick band of matagauri indicates the first stream in ages. We stop in the only shade provided. A pocket in the shrub. Luke and I discuss the merits of a can of cold Sprite. The tiny little bubbles on our tongues. The crisp, cold, sharp and refreshing taste. How good would that be? The problem being by the time we’ve returned to town we’ll have cooled down. Quentin and I half race to the end of today’s trail. Our shuttle driver Wayne offers either a beer or a sparkling passion fruit drink. For the first time in my life I turn down a free beer. It isn’t a Sprite but it does exactly the same thing.

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