The bucktooth summit of Aoraki rises beyond the lip of the Ben Ohau range. Lake Ohau shimmers sky blue. Whisps of cloud streak Hugh above. Luke’s enthusiasm for everything is an intense addition to the pack. He gets a vegetarian breakfast, hyped for the cheese. “Have you had halloumi before?” He asks Quentin. “Dude, I’m 42. I’ve tried everything.” sends a crackle of laughter around the table. After a couple more of rounds of breakfast at the Lake Ohau Lodge we ready to leave. Our pack of solo Soboers start together, the cast has changed again. Quentin, Jack and Bryan are the regulars. Luke and Marty are in to support. I’m surprised they’ve waited for me. They don’t normally. The bunch settle in to their own stride, the gaps between us increase until we collapse again at the first stop. Back on the official Te Araroa trail. We enter beech forest for the first time in over a week and start to climb alongside Freehold Creek. The tree cover is glorious. The sound of the water mesmerising. I’ve missed it. I don’t want to leave. The bush doesn’t last long, giving way to tussock and rock. Someone’s left the tap running in another beautiful mountain basin. The fresh water out of Freehold Creek is so cold I get brain freeze.
The saddle is the longest on tour so far. Bryan and I both mention how we’ve been waiting for the top so we can take a break. It rides for ages before finally dropping into the Ahuriri River East Branch. We follow the valley all afternoon. Catching up with the rest of the gang where they’ve stopped for lunch. The valley is open, brown and barren. Waterfalls drop out of scree, only to disappear into mounds of stone. A handful of skinks scurry away into caverns beneath boulders. Everywhere we’ve been the mountains are slowly coming down. The land widens, flattens. Around, mountains rise again, high enough to still hold patches of ice. The Ahuriri River is hidden within a wide chasm. Silver cliffs of loose rubble and slow forming pinnacles rise on either side. A tent is already pitched on the far bank. We make to join it. We’ve been blessed with the lack of rain. Rivers are low, fordable. Bryan leads, followed by Jack and Quentin. Laughing and joking, making an absolute mockery of the entire thing. Marty is less confident but they all make it across dry. I’m ahead of Luke, who has stopped to take off his boots, to roll up his shorts. A trail name is coming. I can’t help but laugh at how far he will go to avoid getting his boots wet. We all survived the comfortable crossing. There are limited spots to pitch a tent. Four of us stick closer to the water. Quentin and Bryan seek out a grassy meadow further up the trail. I sit with Luke and Jack as we make dinner. The South Island holds the day longer. Light remains late.
The sky is bright, still a chill in the air. No sign of anyone else moving. I’ve packed everything in the tent. Water boiling for breakfast. I’m still the last one trail. Chasing the pack from the start. I can see some of the boys heading up the 4WD track up the river cliffs. The markers suggest the trail goes straight up, which seems impossible. I get my head down and stretch the pace. Up top I think they’re off trail. Can I catch them if I follow the markers? I close the gap. On the other side of Birdwood Road there’s a stream. The trail runs one side, through a matagauri swamp. The other, a 4 Wheel Drive track that runs the whole length. The gang are in the bush. I cross over and hit the track. Grinding out the distance, disturbing the live stock, gaining every step. By the time the trails converge, I’m ahead. “Who’s that up there?”, “It’s Chris.” “Hello,” I wave back down. The track wasn’t a knee deep cow shit hell fest as the comments on Far Out suggest but the 4WD track is obviously faster. Time for second breakfast.
From here on its 4WD all the way. Our line extends. Marty out in front, Jack and Luke, Bryan, Quentin and I at the rear. 30 days since we started walking together now. In three more his time is up, real life calling him back. Another of the trail family soon to be gone. I stop to use the facilities at Tin Hut. There’s no door, the privy not so private. Bryan waves on his way past. Moving on leads to the slow and steady progression up towards the tops, Martha Saddle the gateway to the next river valley. Jack and Luke burn through the climb. The gradient, the quality is just right. I begin to accelerate. At the top is the usual cheering and whooping. I made it, you made it, we all made it.
The wind blasts over the saddle. There’s still no cloud. The wizard’s hat of Mount Aspiring is visible on the horizon. What a view! We’ve skimmed the edge of the Southern Alps for a long way. I settle in for lunch. The rest of our bubble breaks apart on the descent. Jack and Quentin have decided they can go beyond Top Timaru Hut. Luke joins them. There’s time enough in the day to do more, but I’ve no real incentive to push. The afternoon is stinking hot. We’ll still all arrive in Wanaka on the same day. I watch the boys push on, 5, 6, 700 meters ahead. I don’t think I could have kept up. Top Timaru Hut is far enough. I can wash the heat off in the stream. I can read my book in the bunk. Steadily the hut fills and I’m glad we’re no longer travelling as a 6.
In the morning I flip flop over which way to go. Straight down the river? Andy and Bev, names from the book now falling behind, suggest the first 20 minutes on the trail are easy. The trail? I get a message from Jack telling me to walk the river the whole way. The river then. For the first five minutes I try to keep my feet dry. A completely pointless exercise. The valley narrows to a gorge and I’m at least ankle deep in the grey water. I plunge from shore to shore, hopping across boulders, wading over shingle banks. I start following wet stains on rocks, the dark marks already fading. In sandy hollows the ground is a mess of boot prints in both directions. I overtake Andy and Bev early, then I spot the lumbering frame of the big man, Bryan. Sometimes I follow his lead, sometimes I don’t. When we hit the next narrow gorge I’m pleased to have his company. The comments on Far Out describe the section as “dangerous.” I think they mean “challenging”, or “my personal experience of this was bad.” It is challenging but also a lot of fun. The entire course of Timaru Creek is exactly that. After cushy bushy, rocky river is my favourite terrain. Bryan and I stop to clean the gravel and sand out of our shoes and boots, then rejoin the trail. A great idea until we find we still have to cross the river twice more. Nobo Nomates for the day doesn’t take his headphones out to talk to me, he doesn’t answer any of my questions. He does tell me the water up the hill is no good. Nothing like adding an extra 2kg to the pack before an hour and a half slog straight up the valley wall.
I swear every time the orange markers point up. At least they’re nailed to trunks. Tree cover is back but not for long. I stop at Stody’s Hut for lunch and then get straight back on the climb. I must no wait long enough after eating. I’m light headed. Or maybe dehydrated? It passes, always does but there’s a short stretch where I seriously consider sitting down again. I’m glad I don’t. I hit the ridge and lose my tiny little mind over the scale of view. The Southern Alps again, with Mount Aspiring and all his smaller massive friends. A tiny slice of deep blue Lake Hawea. All I’m doing for the next 10km is getting closer, all the view does is grow. The bulldozed track to Martha Saddle visible as a thin white line on grey. Blue range after blue range ahead. I fly across the ridge, crash landing on every climb. Especially the last one. The summit of Breast Hill. The effort of course is always worthwhile. I’m floored again by the knockout view. Blue skies, desert hills, green fields in the valley. Hawea, then Albert Town, further still Wanaka. The pit stops for tomorrow. I stop long enough to remember I’ve run out of water. Tongue velcroed to the roof of my mouth. I follow the broken ridge to Pakituhi Hut. Marty already settled. I rehydrate then pot wash. Still amazed at how one pan of hot water after a cold wash can make you feel like a million dollars.
Marty asks the question. “What are you going to do when you go home?” My instinctive response to this question has been “cry”. More recently it’s been “I’ll worry about it when I get there.” The conversation keeps going. “Do you miss it?” Before I started Te Araroa I was missing it. I was ready to go home I longed for the connections, the community, the shared history. The trail provides. While I do still miss friends and friends, I’ve hardly thought about home in these past few weeks. What am I going to do? The same thing I do every time. Start again. We set off early in the morning, catching sunrise spreading dawn light across Otago. The mountains keep me in shade and even though I’m going down hill I find I’m sweating from work rather than weather. The descent goes and goes, sometimes I wonder how. I’m lead up seemingly dead end bluffs to find another one below. Eventually I start switchbacking down to the edge of Lake Hawea.White pebbles, emerald ripples. The water so inviting, but not so inviting as the cafe with its promise of eggs, coffee, and a smoothie. For the first time ever, Bryan can’t finish what he’s ordered. In his defence his slice of carrot cake to start was close to a quarter of a cake.
Clouds rise, bubble, burn away. The heat steadily increasing. The footpaths of civilisation allowing for rapid travel through the valley flats. I find Bryan edging his way along a fence over a stream. I’d come down the trail, he’d tried to cut the corner. Not all shortcuts work out. I come to discover staying down wind of Bryan and Marty is a poor choice. Gasbags the pair of them. We follow the pumping Hawea River to Albertown where it joins the Clutha. We’re too early for the pub but not so early it’s not worth waiting for them to open. We sneak in to the garden and spread out our gear, slip out of our shoes. The food wasn’t worth hanging around for but we’ve eaten, smashed a tiny little beer and are ready for the final stroll in to Wanaka. I pause to buy more drinks in the 4Square, to reapply sunscreen. The lads are gone. I’m convinced I’ll catch them. I’m stopped by cyclists “Are you walking the trail?” Obvious really. I talk highs, lows, the heavy impact of the relentless walking on all gear. Then I go again, tempted at every beach to swim but I’m in predator mode. If I stop I’ll never catch Bryan and Marty. At one beach I’m stopped again to talk the trail. “Why not pull up a towel and take a swim?” the woman offers. I’m so close to the end. It’s now or never. The catch that is. It doesn’t happen. I arrive at the Bothy to start checking in. Then Bryan and Marty stumble in behind me. What? How? They went to the wrong Bothy.
Quentin finishes his final day on the trail. He’s already on the spirits with Jack when Bryan and I catch up. Things do not improve. “Let’s have one more?” A question repeated late in to the night. We move from outside Kai Whakapai to inside, then to Cork. Quentin shouts the beers, completely disrespectful as he’s the one heading home, back to work. Another man in the second bar buys our beers there. I find myself next to a woman with the crossword out, only she’s doing the codebreaker and not the cryptic. Being completely smashed by this stage I am of no help. By morning I’m of even less use. I wake up still drunk. I go back to bed. I wake up sick. I manage to get as far as the waterfront to find Quentin before I have to find a toilet to evacuate the contents of my stomach. That one more beer not the wisest. Everyone else seems to be holding it together far better than me. I spend the rest of the morning in bed, getting absolutely nothing done. Come lunch time I’m finally ready to eat something. My stomach holding on to whatever I put in. Never again, never again, until next time.