Wanaka is alive before me. Paddle boarders and rowers already on the water. Dog walkers on the foreshore. Bryan already some half an hour down the trail. Jack and Quentin waiting for respective rides. Jack to Raspberry Flat where he plans to head over the Cascade Saddle. Quentin to Queenstown, to catch his flight to Auckland. Our bubble now truly burst. I’m drained, unsure as to whether it’s the lingering effects of one more beer, or the slow break up of our trail family. Likely it’s both. I follow footprints in the dust. Bryan’s big Hoka prints are obvious. There’s another set with a Keen logo stamped in the middle. Someone else is on the trail, of course someone else is on the trail. “Number three!” A woman tells me as she passes. It takes me a second. “A young fella and an older fella?” I ask. “I didn’t think he was old,” she says. Bryan had a hair cut, cleaned up his beard. He’s looking sharp. I find him sitting on a bench with Luke, who is still with us. Two becomes three. We share the bench, looking out across Lake Wanaka to the ice fields of Mount Aspiring National Park. They set off first and I follow. The track into Glendhu Bay is a good, easy walk. We make good time into the local campground. A huge operation, people everywhere. The lake humming with jetskis and speedboats. Not my kind of campground but the onsite shop offers a cream soda thick shake so it’s not all bad. We take a long break in what is a relatively short day. 24km is short now, especially without any hills.
The trail continues through the campground but perhaps it shouldn’t. We reach the end of the site instead of hitting the road. The Te Araroa marker is on a signpost on the other side of a locked gate. Luke tosses his poles and rolls over the top bar. Bryan climbs over one end. I climb over the other. As I drop on to the far side something catches my pack and draws out one of my water bottles. It falls, and rolls, straight under the gate and down a small slope. I have to make a return trip to fetch it. The gravel road connection us to the Motatapu Track shimmers in the heat. Beyond the carpark and on the trail proper, I spot something wonderful. The tall, dark greens of beech trees. The promise of shade. The three of us are quiet near a little stream and listen. A little birdsong, the gurgle of water, the silent fall of leaves. Luke claims it’s only another 3.5km to Fern Burn Hut. That sounds good until the track begins blasting up hill, away from the creek, beyond the shelter of trees. The heat rises. The track pushes on. It’s a long 3.5km in to Fern Burn Hut. A busy hut too. Three teenagers who are adequately entertained by Luke. Not Really Nobo Tobi, who’s just cruising. Using the trail to take him to side trips he’d seen when he came southbound last year. There’s a school teacher and her son. After us someone else arrives. The sound of greetings on the deck. It isn’t even hard to believe that Kris has caught us again. Three becomes 4. The growing crowd and increasing noise inside sends a few of us on to the deck. Kris cooks her dinner outside, she’s got hard-boiled eggs. I keep missing this trick because it’s another job on top of all the others I’m not doing. She generously offered me one to add to my own pot. The hut reaches capacity when another Southbounder, Izzy, arrived with her sister Cilla. I don’t put earplugs in that night. I’d fallen into the trap of thinking young ladies don’t snore, forgetting our Waiau experience with Lisa. It doesn’t stop me sleeping. In fact, when I wake up in the morning I’m ready to hike. Let’s get into it!
Despite my enthusiasm I’m the last to leave, not that this really matters to me anymore. I’m only 15 minutes behind the leaders despite an extremely relaxed cup of tea. I’ll get there when I get there and today I’m on fire. I overtake Izzy and Cilla on the climb up to Jack’s Saddle. Our new friends have had some time off the trail, their legs having lost a few kilometres. I meet Bryan on the top. Tiny beads of moisture land on my face. I believe they call this rain. Never amounts to much. I can see Kris ahead but I never catch her, I meet her with Luke at Highland Creek Hut. I take a longer first break, emptying the feedbags, fueling the tank, lightening the load.
The mountain die has been cast again. Hard crags, rock that looks like it might last. A hint of Scotland, essence of Wales. A brief taste of home. The cool wind, the light rain. I am truly in my element. The trail a corkscrew short of a rollercoaster. Cranking slowly up the second saddle, a tougher climb. I look up Knuckle Peak. Surely I can’t be going over the top? I can’t see any other way the trail would go. I’m going straight up aren’t I? No, thank goodness. The poles sweeping off to one side before dropping once more. Across the far side I can see the bright yellow of Luke’s foam mattress steadily ascending. In the valley there’s a slither of beech forest by a clear stream. A good spot for a break. One more high point to go. The track turns to spaghetti. Poles going up, routes cutting away in every direction. Fuck it. I’m going straight up, following the fence. Ride another ridge. Then something awful happens. I catch sight of Roses Hut some 3km distant. I can see it the whole way down again. I may as well throw my hands up and scream. I take a controlled fall approach to the descent, half running, half sliding. Then I crunch up the last, small climb to Roses Hut. Kris is on the deck with her pack on. Of course she’s pushing on to Macetown. I call it a day. My knees can’t handle another climb.
Not long after Kris leaves a woman comes the other way. She asks if the timings are right. The signs suggest an 11 hour day. We’ve done it in around 7. I caveat with our truth, we’ve nearly finished. Our legs are in, we are trail fit. This is only the beginning for those going North. Luke and I sit on the deck, using mattresses as armchairs. We peer out at the ridge, looking for Bryan. He’s halfway down before we spot him. Eventually he joins us. “Day 71 on Te Araroa,” I announce. “92 days on the trail,” says Bryan. “When do you think you’ll reach 100?” Asks Luke. I start laughing before Bryan even says “about 8 days time.” “Where, I meant where. Stop laughing at me!” Two black figures appear on the hill. Izzy and Cilla have kept the pace. Izzy asks us about her old trail family. Every name is followed by “did you meet them?” She was 10 days ahead of us. Most of the names so far ahead I’ve not paid them attention in the book. We’ve never met any of them. They’re someone else’s story, somewhere ahead on the trail. More people arrive from the South, another busy night. The more huts you sleep in, the more you realise there’s more than one good bunk. Optimal is always bottom bunk, furthest from the door. If they’re platforms, next to the wall too. Top bunk next to the window might be second place. Too hot? Open the window a little more. Too cold? Close it. In this way I secure another good night’s sleep in the Motatapu Ranges.
In the morning Izzy and Cilla have pulled on jumpsuits with sequinned cuffs and whatever the leg equivalent of a cuff is. Izzy explains she’s been carrying them the whole way, they’ve come out on special occasions like Christmas, and New Year, and today, Cilla’s last day walking with her. Then she tells us they’ve owned the sparkly suits since they were 5. There’s an equal amount of shock and surprise they still fit. I’m last to leave again in the morning but never last to summit the first saddle. I suspect things may be different if Izzy was alone. I don’t have to wait long for them at the top, taking a photo for them so there’s evidence of the sequins at work. “I’m so proud of you,” Izzy says to Cilla as I leave the saddle. Fair play to her, she’s kept up with us nearly fully seasoned thru-hikers. I drop off the saddle like a stone. The low water route is the river. An easy choice. Sheets of glass, cold as ice flow down the Arrow River. I pass banks of sand soft as silk, cross slabs of schist. Polished boulders of rose quartz dazzle below the water. After a while my feet disappear. I can’t feel them, only the gravel entering my boots. I start to find wet sand printed on rock, others close ahead. I sniff out the trails along the banks, cutting meandering corners. Matagauri thorns snag and tear, but I still move faster through air than water. Up ahead Bryan and Luke are moving through the river together.
My boots drain quickly and when I leave the water. They’ve now perforated lines of holes running either side. They’ll get me to Queenstownz which will be far enough. We arrive in to Macetown, or what remains of Macetown. The old gold mining community now long gone. Only renovated ruins and old stone walls remain among the exotic trees. I’m amazed when Izzy and Cilla catch up before we set off, they’re still keeping up with us. I suspect Izzy now keen to join a new group for the next section. Bryan sets off first, I walk with Luke towards the start of the final climb. I stop at the base to empty my boots of river stones and sand. Once I’m moving again I find I’m disorientated. A big white sign with hand write words point me up Big Hill to Arrowtown but it feels wrong. I walk along the 4WD track a way further but there are no footprints. Nobody has come this way. I spot Luke climbing above me. That must be the way. It’s not until someone else coming down the hill tells me that’s the right way that I truly accept it. It’s hot out and the climb is a sweaty one. I scrape myself on to the top to find Bryan and Luke. I make my bougie wrap of salami, cheese, cherry tomatoes and olives. A real class above peanut butter and Nutella. Arrowtown isn’t below us but around another corner. A sidling, slowly dropping track takes us off the hills and into town. Before us lies the promised lands of fridge chilled cans of Fanta. A quiet room in the holiday park. A good meal at one of them local bars.
Bryan’s up and gone before Luke makes it out of bed. He’s not far behind. I’m not really rushing. Today should be easy, should be fast. Queenstown now less than 30km away. The last convenient stop before finishing the South Island. I leave Arrowtown with phone in hand. There are never enough trail markers and too many opportunities to get lost in towns. On the surrounding hill sides lie the red scars of poisoned pines. Community led projects seem to be the best source of conservation. Bird life increases in the bush nearest to homes. Sealed footpaths that allows for 10 minute kilometres. I keep half an eye on the map through the human warren of Millbrook Park. Private roads and residences scattered across a golf course. A chain of golf carts passed me by. I wave at the first and smile at the elderly golfers in the rest. I pass Lake Hayes and come down to rest on the river. Emeralds turn to sapphire where the Kawarau River hits deep channels. Bryan tells me he’s in Frankton, getting his covid booster, looking for lunch. He’s unaware I’m this far behind. Luke is with him, having managed to skip Lake Hayes and follow a different trail.
I continue on to the old Shotover Bridge. A woman stops me to tell me I’m off trail. Not according to my Blue Dot of Destiny, dead on the Red Line of Fate. “Go back down there,” she says. I’m not going back anywhere. Those steps are done. I pass through the delightful sewage plant, the industrial estate and arrive at the biggest Pak N Save I’ve seen in months. My empty pack becomes full. I slow all the way down under the half way day increase. I target Frankton Beach for lunch. Another golf course? If the public ever let me have a turn at being in charge they’ll be the first to be rewilded. Then the retail parks. Then the cities. I’m caught off guard when Luke comes up behind me. “Are you lost bro?” I ask. He’d stopped in Frankton to sort his own resupply. On our final approach to Queenstown we’re accosted. Aaron and Rain come running down the hill and ask “Are you guys walking Te Araroa?” We are. “Come and have a beer with us!” Luke had a shuttle to catch. From here he’ll be a day ahead of me. Another, probably final goodbye. I’m not going to turn down another free beer. I sit with the guys, their other friends. We talk of the trail. The highs, the views, the people. The lows, the loss of the trail family, the relentless roads in the North. I thank my single serving friends for their hospitality and set off to find my accomodation. I pass over soft sponge near a play are so sweet underfoot. People are everywhere on the still quiet for Queenston streets. On arrival at the Jucy Snooze, Bryan waves from his balcony.
Bryan and I head to Fergburger for as big as your head burgers. We head across the road to Smith’s for a beer. We’re still in our scuzzy hiking gear when Kris comes in to join us. She’s wearing a blue dress, she’s got make up on. Boy do we feel under dressed. Her partner Mike joins us for a beer too. It’s goodbye Bryan. He’s taking no more rest days. Feet to the floor to Bluff from here. By the time I get there he’ll be on his way North to finish the top. The next time I’ll likely see him is when I pass through Hamilton, if he’s home. I’m taking a rest day. I need new shoes. I want to replace the heaviest tent pegs in the world with something lighter. I want to spend several hours lying down. Sad as I am to see him go, it’s not so bad, Paula’s coming in tomorrow.