Te Araroa: The Mavora Lakes

The Jucy Snooze is a weird place. The dorm rooms are advertised as pods. The bunks are enclosed behind a blind. It’s like being in my tent, only a little bigger. The walls are solid. Did I mention the power points, the lights, and the air conditioning? So nothing like being in my tent. None of my local friends are around, which turns out to be a blessing as it means I actually rest on a rest day. I get up and have a first breakfast and go back to bed. I go out to find tent pegs (tint pigs to the locals). Tent accessories are a capitalist scam. Most people’s tents require 8-10 pegs. Tent manufacturers sell them in packs of 6. I’m fortunate that Small Planet also sell a few individually. I go for a breakfast at the café over the road from the hostel and go back to bed. I go out again to Front Runner to buy new shoes. For the first time in ages I have an excellent customer experience. The man knows his stuff, and I know just enough to sound competent. I come away with a pair of Altras with the expectation of replacing them again in Auckland. I go back to bed. Finally I get up once more to meet Kris, we head out to find Paula and her friend Kerstin for some dinner and a decadent ice cream. And then I go back to bed.

Kerstin is taking Paula around Lake Wakatipu to the Greenstone Carpark to start the finall 300km of the South Island. She’s happy for me to fill a seat in the car, so long as I don’t mind waiting until the afternoon. I get to stay in bed a little longer. I slip out in the morning for breakfast at Vudu cafe. Their fancy as eggs Benedict hits the spot, as does theIr Bloody Mary. Sans vodka. I go back to Jucy Snooze, repack my bag. Set up my shoes. I check out, grab a coffee and sit at the waterfront. I’ve been lazy, relying on others. I haven’t read the trail notes. I haven’t got any idea of what’s coming up. I need a plan. Paula messages me to say they’re in town. We end up back in Vudu again, where I get to sample more of their menu. All delicious. Kris comes in looking a long way from having just walked 30km from Arrowtown. We say goodbye again, for the 5th time. I’m convinced she’ll catch us again. She assures me she’ll be taking it slow now, something she’s been saying since Arthur’s Pass. I’m lucky to be a passenger on the Road to Paradise, taking in all of the views along the shores of Lake Wakatipu. So often now the landscape has appeared impossible. The mountains painted on. The sky too blue to be true. What’s to say it hasn’t all been a dream?

The Greenstone track is cushiest of bush. Basically a great walk, the track is often two meters wide. The rivers are bridged, as are many of the streams. What might be waterfalls in a few days are currently trickles down the valley. I’ve been telling Paula it’s flat all the way to Te Anau. A lie, but like the hills we climb, not a very big one. The surrounding peaks are still giants though. Ice remains in the shadows. Kerstin joins us to the Lake Rere turnoff. She sighs with disappointment. Her brief journey on Te Araroa ends. I walk at Paula’s pace. She’s faster than when we first met but there’s still no way I’d be able to do this all day. I spot a herd of deer down by the river, lazing in the shade. They look extremely relaxed. Later we spook a doe and fawn, they disappear into the twilight. There are already tents erect outside Greenstone Hut. The warden comes out to see us, and it’s old mate Alex. “Shouldn’t you be on the Caples?” I ask. “They’ve changed it,” he tells me. “Is it a full house?” I enquire. “17 inside so there’s room but you might want to pitch your tent.” It is a nice night for camping. In the book there’s a list of names, all on the same schedule one day ahead. One of the other hut guests shows Paula and I the way to a gorgeous swimming hole, waters of green and still warm. Dive in. Outstanding. We make dinner on the deck as light fades. Then dishes. Then teeth. Then bed.

A mattress of grass, a late night, the strange security of sleeping in my own tent. A quiet night, I don’t hear Paula rustling until 6am. She starts to worry I might hit the trail before her. I’m becoming more organised, more efficient in the mornings. When I want to be. What she doesn’t know is I have every intention of sitting on the hut deck and drinking a cup of tea before I go anywhere. Someone else with a tiny pack sets off down the trail before I do. Even with a late start, the tent, I’m on my way before the more casual hut users. The track climbs slowly, steadily through talk trunks of beech. Trees broken by glades of moss and tussock. Light struggles down the mountains before being swallowed by the clouds. The trees fall away beyond the Greenstone Mavora saddle, some 700 meters above the sea. By now hardly feeling like a climb. I catch up with Taiga at a creek. He’s been picking and choosing sections, aware of incoming weather fronts. Once the rain passes he’ll set off on a more official Northbound direction. We set off and I lose him when I stop to speak with a confirmed Northbounder. Those from here South are fresh. Two weeks in. Yet to really climb anything. I’m enthusiastic, encouraging. I’ve no idea what he’s been through but I tell him what I think. “It only gets better from here.” I pass four of them today, moving in packs, starting to outnumber us.

The trail goes through a head high barbed wire fence. Not over a stile. Not through a gate. Through a head high barbed wire fence. At Taipo Hut I hit a real, incredibly personal landmark. 1500km. Halfway there, or there abouts. The hut isn’t the nicest looking, the views spoiled somewhat by increasing cloud. None of this matters. For me, it really is all downhill from here. Apart from when it’s not. The track wobbles all across the hillside. Sometimes I follow the markers, sometimes I follow any old goat track. Neither really seems to work. At least if I’m too high from the actual trail I only have to go down. I pass through head high tussock. High heavy clouds overhead. I cross the swing bridge and complete the ridiculous dogleg out to Boundary Hut. From here the 4WD track starts up. Paula and I scurry for wet weather gear as a warning shower drifts past. I’d watched the hills behind us slowly fade in colour, early notice of the incoming change. I storm towards Carey’s Hut. An old boy offers me a lift for the final 3km. I turn him down, this is a walk after all. He understands and leaves me with a warning. “There’s bad weather coming, you need to get out of here.” “Or stay put,” I counter. I set off ahead of his truck. I keep taking a second to look over my shoulder, is it there? No. I’ll need to get off the narrow trail when he comes. This is the world’s lowest speed pursuit or I’m still knocking out a strong pace. He beats me to the hut in the end but keeps moving forward. Carey’s Hut is roomy. Space enough for Paula and I to hang our tents inside without interfering with Taiga. I stroll down to Northern Mavora Lake and wade in. I fall in for a swim, the drop off deceptively steep. Rain starts to fall as fine spray, I retreat to the dry of the hut.

Rain taps of the roof like fingers on a table top. The beat increasing. Can it all fall overnight? Will streams be impassable in the morning? Can we make it to Kiwi Burn Hut? How wet will we get? Wind rumbles around the chimney, creaking the hut. In the morning I don’t want to know. My sleeping bag is warm and dry. I could stay like this forever. Or three days at least, before I run out of food. Paula is grizzly too. Not only is it wet but 6 weeks have passed since Solstice. The day arriving late, dark still at 6am. I talk myself into walking in the rain. There are no hazards on route. Rivers are bridged. It won’t be any worse than anything I’ve done before. I remind Paula what’s right for me doesn’t apply to her. I’m not deciding anyone on else has to walk in the rain. Paula and Taiga both leave before me. By the time I set out the rain has stopped, the clouds broken up. I put my waterproof away after 10 minutes. Already a kilometer in. One of those days where the trail promotes speed. The views are better already. Rainbows rise and fall across the lake. Rain comes in waves, never amounting to much. I catch Paula as we enter the beech forest. “Somewhere near here they filmed a scene from Lord of the Rings,” she tells me. “The main character is in a boat, one of th dwarf characters swims out and starts to drown.” A close enough description that I know what she means. The Breaking of the Fellowship. I’m often reminded of the Fall of Boromir every time I’m in beech forest on a hillside. That could have happened here too.

I emerge in to the Mavora Lakes campsite to watch Taiga stepping into a campervan. Hitching out before the weather gets worse. If anything, it seems to be improving. Famous last words. Land is lost behind a wall of water. Rain chases me down the side of South Mavora Lake. The weather moves much faster than the truck I’d raced yesterday. The track quality is amazing. I keep my eyes up, following the established line of brown through green. The rain turns out to bark worse than it bites. I never get wet. I approach Kiwi Burn Hut early. Not yet 3pm. Almost so early I should consider pushing on but there’s no need. In the meadow of head high grass, butterflies drift in huge numbers. I have to take care not to breathe in and swallow them. I come in to find windows open. A hoard of Noboers hiding from the weather. In the book I learn Bryan, Jack and Luke pushed out a big day through here. Some 40 plus kilometres. I’m relieved to have been left behind. I make an afternoon cuppa, sit on the deck away from the noise. I look at what I have coming up. I wash in the creek. I enjoy an afternoon of rest.

Paula has promising news from Casey. We’re too far South, too far East to be affected by the explosion of the West coast weather bomb. We’ve escaped, again. The Marora River might be an issue if there’s been any rain but there’s a bridge back upstream. The next day’s walk is controversial. The track is reportedly unformed and poorly marked. The trail needs to be walked, otherwise it will never be formed. The river is low, knee deep at worst. The didymo is the real problem. The boulders are slippery but I make it without issue. Paula is there ahead of me which means she wasn’t swept away. People confess to not doing this track because it’s “overgrown”. For a minute I’m willing to say “yeah ok, that’s not on the private landowner,” until the markers appear inside the fence line and I have to climb over. The track starts off. Not so bad. Not really overgrown. Not much of a track. Not many markers. It’s frustrating, slow travel. Like so much before; not hard, simply long. At one stage I’m on the river, I spot a marker on the fence line I climb up only to find the next marker back on the river. Back down I go. The river hits a bluff. The slopes are overgrown. The fence line out of sight. I haul up through the bush, swimming through the branches of I don’t even care what. In the middle of a dense growth of something I reach the only trail marker I’ve not been pleased to see. Impossible to know it was here without forcing a way through. Why is it here? Why hasn’t a track been cut? Things open up again, still slow but moving. At the end the last creek crossing is fine also. The bush immediately after isn’t. I battle up hill towards the power lines. There’s half a track at times. Maybe someone else has come this way. Maybe not when I hit the barbed wire fence. I check the map. I’ve come over too early. I try to make my way back down, only, I’ve been moving across too. Down now is a steep cliff. This is where I have an accident. About that fence then? On the other side are head high ferns, and beyond, the road. I collapse my poles to police batons and beat down the plants. I crawl through the undergrowth like some disgusting beast, frothing with rage. Fuck the people who walk the road. Fuck the people who hitch the road. Fuck the private land owners. Fuck the Department of Conservation. How have they gotten away with calling this a track? This is a fucking joke. I emerge on to the road. I tell the ferns to fuck off for good measure. There it is then, my subject experience of this was bad and now I’ve posted it on the internet. In seconds I’m calm. I’ve done it, it’s over. 12 km of road to go. Too easy. Things improve dramatically towards the end. A hawk is being chased by something. Something smaller. The hawk floats on. The falcon settles on a telegraph pole. I stand below and look up in awe. The yellow eyes watch me via occasional head tilts. Am I a threat? I pass the test, the karearea hunches down in the mist. Eventually I walk on.

I was going to Princhester Road. I really was. That’s where the track goes. The fact a man pulls over before I get there and offers me a lift is beyond my control. It’s wet, it’s cold. It’s been a long day. I make peace with the 800 meters I skip extremely quickly. The man had already stopped. I do need a lift. I might have had to stand and wait for who knows how long when I get there. Im in Te Anau in no time. For the first few hours in Te Anau I am on it. Resupply done. I walk from town to the holiday park. Making up the missed distance. I’m offered a private room for less than $50. Sold. The shuttle back to the trail head costs me more. Laundry done. I wait for Paula to arrive before heading out for dinner. The pizza paradise she wants to go to is thankfully closed so we end up in the Fat Duck. Her resupply box hasn’t arrived, not due in until tomorrow. She has to wait for it. I’ve already booked the first shuttle back to the trail. For the first time since the Queen Charlotte I will be alone. The boys are still a day ahead. Rain falls hard. I wonder if it will slow any of us down?

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