Te Araroa: Stag Saddle

Geraldine is a town, not a very big town I’ll admit but still a town of people. Enough people it would seem to justify a pub being open until 2am. The thumping bass of We Will Rock You. The chants of revellers. The worst night’s sleep I’ve had since Friday nights in Melbourne living across the alley from Hidden Forest night club. Come morning I’m barely awake, not functioning. Quentin is no louder than usual but I still ask him to use his indoor voice. “This is my indoor voice,” he bellows. Paula and Bryan come knocking, “time to eat.” We wander down the ghost town high street to the Running Duck cafe. The sign is still flipped to closed but the door is open. Jack is outside. His West Coast adventure completed faster than anticipated. He managed to cross the Rakaia River closer to it’s headwaters. He admits even there it’s dangerous and perhaps he shouldn’t have.

We pile around the big table, place orders for coffee, for breakfasts. I place my head on my arms on the table. Paula gives me a hug. Jack squeezes a shoulder. Everyone checks in on me across the day. I am lucky to be here, at this time, with these people. The bowl of baked beans, a couple of slices of fried pork belly and a fried egg lift me somewhat. I go back to the counter. The coffee is good, the food is good. The woman serving me is beautiful, even behind a mask. Every thing will be ok. When Wayne arrives to drive us to the southern shore of the Rangitata River I make sure to get a seat in the middle. I doze on the drive. Stealing seconds of sleep. Anything to get me through the day.

It’s only 9km I tell myself. I only have to do this for four hours. Our current pack of 7 ramble up Bush Stream Track towards the water. I keep up in the river bed. Crossing thigh deep, pumping rivers. The most challenging yet. I interrupt conversation to point out the crescent wings of a karearea as it slices over the heads of Jack and Bryan. Otherwise I’m silent, keeping to myself, saving energy. Listening to the chatter of others. We stick together, making sure everyone gets across the deep, fast channels. I know I’m a liability. Fatigued before we’ve begun. Still feeling the effects of some kind of stomach upset. Maybe I should have stayed in Geraldine and recovered. Maybe I’m more than capable of doing this in my current state. We reach the base of the first hill climb. A deep plunge pool beckons. All of us dive in at least once, allowing the current to wash us downstream. I go in a second, third time. The cold waters cleanse me. I feel awake for the first time. I feel better. It won’t last. The hill is high. The sun hot. I know once I reach the top I have to drop to the stream again only to climb once more, only higher. I hold on to my hard times mantra. Take the time that needs to be taken. At the base of the second hill I stop. “I need a break,” I tell Paula before she sets off. These things are rarely hard, simply long. I climb, pause, climb. Closing the gap again. I reach Paula just before the hut. Swallows nest in the roof of Crooked Spur Hut. Kea complete fly overs in a gang of three, four then five. I thank my friends for taking the time to look out for me, for pulling me through another hard shift. Holes in the steel roof look like stars. I fall asleep to the sound of everyone chatting away.

When I wake up, I’ve slept. My stomach no longer cramping. Things are looking up. I’m back, baby. There’s another short day ahead. The older members of the party; Bryan and Paula, as well as new charges Marty and Old Jack, get up and leave early. I suspect they’re on the hunt for bottom bunks at Royal Hut. I find we’re still carrying Lisa with us. Marty asked what happened. I retell the story. Someone else might remember a joke shared. A story she told, or Quentin and I, just taking the piss. By now she’s home. The trail she’s walking the one to recovery. Jack, Quentin and I are hardly late too start. We’re on the tussock climb towards an unnamed saddle before 7:30am. Jack shrinks to the size of an ant. Quentin stops as frequently as I do, sweat already pouring down our faces. Once we reach the top the rest of the day is all downhill, apart from when it’s not. The desert brown tussock drops into oases of crystal blue streams, foaming white into ankle deep pools. Quentin and I have a brief discussion about the location of Bush Stream. “It’s this one,” he says as we drop again. “No, it’s between those mountains,” I claim. “Not possible,” he retorts. It doesn’t actually matter but I was right. We follow Bush Stream for most of the day, breaking as often as every 2km. No rush after all. A couple of Noboers pass. A pair of hunters rove acorss another spur.

We come into Stone Hut as Bryan leaves. Paula just finishing up. We’re left with the third of the hunting party, another Wayne. He tells us about his farm in the Far North. His famouse architect neighbour who I’ve never heard of, though I am aware of the toilets he designed. He tells tales of Maori raids and battles, against the British and each other. I could listen all day, so I finish up my lunch and get back to the trail. Jack and Quentin catch me as I step out of a refreshing pool. I flex my non-existent arm muscles in response to their catcalls and whistles. We roll into Royal Hut to find the grown ups occupying the bottom bunks. We join the queue for the stream wash. Damp clothes hang around the hut like Tibetan prayer flags. Bryan considers pushing on to camp on the saddle. “How do you guys feel about a 4am start?” Jack, Quentin and I had already committed to 5am. What’s an extra hour? We’re in. Bryan stays with us. An early push to the highest point on Te Araroa; Stag Saddle. If the timing is good, the sun will rise behind us as we climb. We’ve arrived in to Royal Hut early enough for plenty of rest and recovery. No reason not to crack out a big day. I’m hyped for it. I haven’t attempted a sunrise summit since the Pinnacles. Before that, Torres del Paine. If only I had a Tobelerone. And my Aeropress.

“Hey Chris is it 4am bro?” Asks Jack. “Yep.” I’m already busy stuffing away my sleeping bag. “You should wait until the alarm goes off,” mutters Quentin from the other top bunk. “It has gone off,” I tell him. “You should wait until I’ve heard the alarm go off,” he replies. I flash my torch in his face. They’re both still ready and out the door before me. White beams of torch flare across the valley. Still spots of light show the reflective tops of the marker poles. I lose the trail. “Don’t follow me,” I tell Bryan. “I don’t know where I’m going.” He takes the lead. Paula coming through behind. Black skies begin to shimmer purple and blue. The golden glow of dawn ripples over the mountain tops. Can I make it before then sun comes up? The top of Stag Saddle is only 4.5km from Royal Hut but it’s a long way. From the first high plateau I can see the trail stretching out. Two torches still waving ahead. Keep moving. Each meter gained in distance, in elevation, is a meter closer to coffee, to breakfast.

Jack and Quentin already have cigarettes hanging from their mouths, mugs of coffee in their hands when I make the final ascent. There’s the usual whoops and cheers, and I’m smiling as I crack the saddle. Lake Tekapo spills like silver in the distant valley. Behind me the sun has already begun to highlight the Canterbury Highlands in yellows and gold. I set to getting my stove out for breakfast and coffee. Bryan comes up next, he runs the final few meters like an Olympic sprinter only with hiking poles held up high. We all savour the spreading light. “Come on Paula,” we say to the sky, “make it before the sun.” She does, just. We chill with out hot drinks and warm breakfasts at over 1900 meters above the sea. I still can’t quite believe I’ve walked this far from Whanganui. We don’t take the nude photo Bryan and Jack had been excited about. Nobody even mentions it. Marty comes up as we’re ready to leave. “I’m not sure how you did that in the dark,” he says. It’s like anything else, one foot in front of the other. We move off the saddle, off the trail and climb a little higher on to the nearest ridge line. A little bolder hopping has us on a scree field, a well walked track has us on the ridge top. The views get even bigger. Sheets of snow draped over mountains of furniture. The square top of Aoraki in the next valley. Along the entire length of the ridge is a wide and wonderful track. Quentin still hasn’t come up, struggling somewhere in the guts. “What are you doing down there?” Jack bellows. He still manages to pop up on the track way ahead of me. Camp Stream Hut comes fast. Marty comes out of the “marked” trail below the ridge to advise there isn’t one and to definitely not go that way. Lucky for us none of us did.

Jack and Quentin have decided to hit the road and hitch in to Tekapo. Bryan is thinking about walking all the way. Our bubble threatening to burst. I’m content to camp at the bottom of the road. Our Nobo no mates comes in before I hit the trail again. I actually take the time to tell her, “all you have to do is take an extra rest day, whoever is chasing you will catch you.” “Who is chasing me?” She asks. Obviously I have no idea, but we keep seeing one a day, all lonely, all after the person in front. Obviously there’s someone chasing her too. The trail drops into Camp Stream, which is really wonderful and lovely until the trail changes course and bursts straight up on to a broad plateau. Marty follows Paula and I up, he decides to take the ski field down to the slightly more main road along the shore of Lake Tekapo. He doesn’t do roads. I have to stop for the fifth time to apply sunscreen. A kamikaze bee is crushed in my elbow, leaving behind its sting.

Avalanches of cloud roll over the Southern Alps. Whites shift to grey above the Two Thumb Range. A change is coming, but not yet. It’s still baking hot. I drink from every stream crossing. Stop again to apply sunscreen. Finally the trail turns towards Lake Tekapo and I begin to go downhill. I start looking for campsites, and Bryan, who may have changed his mind. A few places look good but there’s no water. Boundary Stream is on the other side of the fence. I keep going to the road. The 4WD track down to the lake looks less appealing than any potential spots I’d already passed. I wait for Paula, she’s not far behind. She’s obviously seen the total lack of potential. “We can’t camp here,” she says “let’s go to Tekapo.” I check my inReach, already a 32km day. What’s another 14km? Its only 5pm, there’s plenty of daylight left. I ping a message off to Quentin to see if he can secure us some accommodation. We’ll be coming late. We walk together at a turtle’s pace. A steady turtle. A turtle that consistently hits 4km an hour. The gravel road tumbles away. Around the 40km mark my legs start asking questions like can we stop? And what the fuck? We wobble into Tekapo, pass the statue of a dog, the church. We hit the high street which is also the State Highway. “There’s Bryan,” Paula says. I can’t see anyone. The I see him, he leads us up to the Tailor Made Hostel where we’ve got a room to share.

It’s fortunate for Paula that we end up sharing a room. For whatever reason she can’t open the door from the inside. She clunks away, twisting and turning until I wake up and open it for her. The fatigue is brutal. I feel like I’ve been at a festival for three days, having had Foster’s for breakfast but I haven’t. I take naps, I drink tea, I get little chores done here and there. To my surprise there’s an outdoor store, so I finally replace my shorts. Kris comes in with time for dinner. We talk about how nice it is to be with people who get it. The group cheers you on, celebrates every milestone, respects your overcomings, shares your battles. That might be the reason why we chase. Not just for the thrill, but the company. The change in weather shrouds the end of the Lake Tekapo in black cloud. Stag Saddle hidden from view. A fresh dusting of midsummer snow on the surrounding foothills. A winter chill in the air. After days of steadily rising temperatures, the change is a welcome one. I book a room of my own at the Lake Ohau Lodge. I also book a bike for one day to get me there. I suspect I could walk the almost 60km to Twizel in a day, but the 90km bike ride strikes me as a more interesting way to challenge myself.

I always claim it’s been 10 years since I was last on a bike. Now it’s almost true. Paula sets off first. “This is a walk so I’m going to walk,” every last inch if she can. We share another this might be the last time goodbye. She’ll only be a day behind, she’s made that up before. Kris, who definitely wasn’t going to do any more big days, is going to follow her. They are relentless, unstoppable. Our tortoise and hare. I pack my things and leave. Our biker gang consists of Bryan, Jack, Quentin and I. We trade packs for bikes. There is no safety briefing, or I missed it. No adjustments. Take your wheels and leave. We all stop before exiting Tekapo to move saddles, tuck in laces, adjust helmet straps. In our high vis yellow jackets we take off for the canal roads. I have two aims for today, get there and ideally get there without falling off.

Down the first hill I’m pumping the breaks. Too fast. Unconfident. While it’s true, I generally haven’t forgotten how to ride a bike I don’t really remember specific things like when to change gear. I enjoy the sealed roads. I might be the last one in to our first break but I’ve not been left behind. The gravel roads are harder, but I follow the others as they seek out the smoothest line. We speed down the hill to Lake Pukaki. The others race along the shore to the visitor centre. Even I’m motoring. I buy smoked salmon in the store as is tradition. The ride in to Twizel is over soon after. Over halfway there. We take an early lunch at the Musterer’s Hut Cafe. Pie, chips, the most delicious coconut and passion fruit smoothie. A ginger beer to wash it down. The cost of civilisation increasing. We lose the Alps 2 Ocean cycleway markers. No matter, we can follow Te Araroa. Keeping it real, and harder than necessary. It’s more boulder than gravel road. I fall further and further behind. I’ll get there when I get there. At the first hill I throw myself to the ground in protest. Not enough power? Did I try to change too many gears at once? I push the bike to the top. One objective remains. Get there. The boulder road ends in a cycle track along the shore of Lake Ohau. Then a road. The 6km to go sign is a bit much, four would have been nicer. I realise if I just keep pedaling I can make the lodge within 8 hours. I’d expected to take 10. There’s one more hill up ahead and I really hope I don’t have to go up it. I don’t, but the driveway to the lodge is hardly any better. I head straight to the bar to find the others getting a telling off for helping themselves. Maybe have someone attend the bar? Our packs arrive after beers and we all jump in the spa pool before dinner.

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