Te Araroa: Southland

The rain falls all through the night. Not enough to give me a dry day. Not enough to convince me to wait. I’m almost late for the bus. The extra half an hour in bed I’d given myself too much of a luxury. I don’t have time for a thorough idiot check. I’m still getting dressed on the bus, pulling on gaiters, lacing up shoes, throwing pack cover over already wet pack. I walk Princhester Road in the rain, grateful there’s no wind. It’s cold enough. The hills of the Takitimu Range are black where the beech forest begins. Grey clouds ghost among the peaks. Pasture of yellow dotted with white sheep spread before me. Heads stop chewing for a second to observe my passing. The gravel road disappears quickly. The end of the farm, start of the bush. Princhester Hut tucked beneath the trees. Inside a family of five make me think twice about an early break. Why are you still here? I wonder. The road is a short distance away. The warmth and comfort of town in touching distance. I pause only long enough to fill in the book, to see the boys also pressed on through the rain.

The Takitimu Forest surprises me with its beauty. Monolithic beech trees painted in camouflage greens. Partial goblins glistening in the damp. The track sidles, climbs. Sidles, sidles, climbs. I am reminded of the Tararuas. I feel at home. Temperate rain forest lush. Quiet aside from the drip drop of water through leaves, the occasional burst of birdsong. The tussock flats beyond quieter still. Only the gurgle of rising water. I was anticipating hardwork, another unpleasant day. From each marker I can see either trail or marker. One always leads to another. I wonder if the tussock being wet helps, the weight of water holding it down. Maybe following the herd, who have already trampled down the track, makes it easier to find. Maybe it’s the 1500km I’ve already walked. The slow build of experience. Nothing is ever as bad as a Northbounder says it is. I proceed, tussock, bush, tussock, bush. “I can’t believe there’s someone else out here on a day like this,” I say to a couple of section walkers coming the other way. My hands are white, old scars blossom purple. I don’t stop for long. Keep moving, keep warm.

Like other wet days, so few that there’s been, I start to focus on the destination. Get to the hut. Get out of the wet. Get in to the dry. The tussock’s true menace remains it’s length. The way the grass keeps secrets. Heavy folds hide hollows and streams. The kind of place you might easily have an accident. You can’t move too quickly. I enjoy a few slip and slides in the mud. Moss beds suck at my feet. I do not enjoy losing my leg up to my knee in cold, dirty water. Almost face down in the wet, I reach out to pull myself upright. I lose my arm to the elbow. Slow down. Take the time that needs to be taken. I woohoo as I reach the hut junction. A short spurt across a low ridge line will carry me home. The summit views stunning in the low clouds. I may never know what these mountains look like. As I come down the hill I can smell woodsmoke. My first thought is yes! Quickly followed by hopes. Please done be busy. Mathias is the only one there. Result. Everyone else has continued on in the rain. Outside: the thunk of axe as Mathias breaks up more wood. Clouds rise like smoke over South Braxton. Inside: the crackle of fire in the stove. The steady breathing of another man, having a snooze. I am outnumbered by Nobos once again. Tonight I am Sobo No Mates, not that it matters. I chat away about the trail ahead, the trail behind, the people along the way.

Over the past two months I’ve gotten used to the idea of getting up and getting on. Putting the distance behind me before the day gets too hot. In Aparima Hut, the four of us aren’t in a rush. The morning is cold. The weather could still go either way. I wait for things to warm up. Mist rises off moss in the morning sun. Twigs crack like gunfire underfoot. One of my water bottles is hanging loose in the rain cover of my pack. The slow growing hole on one of my side pockets has finally become unsustainable. Not enough to warrant a new pack, but another step closer. Around a trunk the air bristles with static. Water. A river. Closer, that static divides. Individual rapids. The hut is close. A day with an appointed lunch stop. Stopping is getting too easy. Starting again requires motivation. Got to keep walking.

There is what is supposedly the final decent climb of the South Island. An unnamed peak at the end of the Takitimu Forest. The view from the top is largely average. The sky remains packed with clouds. Somewhere out there the land ends and the Southern Ocean begins. I can smell the finish. The South Island terminus now less than 200km away. Not that it really means anything. I’m committed now to going back to Stewart Island to walk the Northwest Circuit. Then there’s the remaining 1200km left of the North Island. I’m a long way from finished. I tramp down the hill. Clocking the toilet marking the Telford Campsite a long time before I get there. Campsite is a bit of a stretch for what is essentially a place where there is a toilet. The sandflies make a delayed introduction. Briefly I suspect the complaints are the usual fear mongering, but I’m soon surrounded by a cloud of black. Being the only target doesn’t help. Somebody else is still the best insect repellent. I knew the sandfly needed my blood in order to spawn the next generation. What I didn’t know was how they do that. The female lays eggs beneath rocks around rivers. The eggs hatch into larvae when the river waters rise. Lucky me. The rain has fallen heavily enough over the past few days for the creeks and streams to have risen.thr numbers have exploded I pitch my tent, have an early dinner, wash the mud off my legs. Then comes the trauma. Filtering water. I stand and squeeze my bladder in to each of my bottles for 10 minutes. At least I only have to do it once more in the morning. Having paid my dues to the army of darkness I decide it’s bed time, at around 6pm. Getting in to my tent is a delicate operation. How quickly can I open the zip, get in and seal the door behind me? Not fast enough, a handful of bugs join me. Lying down, listening to the stream I hear footprints. A Noboer. I really can’t be arsed with the where have you come from, how long did it take, how was the track chat. I suggest he goes and finds somewhere for his tent before the sandflies swarm. The black mass lingers outside my tent like youths at an off license. I manage to slip out to the toilet, clean my teeth and push my way back inside before the clouds drop and the rain starts up again.

The sandflies are worse in the morning. Once I start walking they’ll stop. I set about filtering water. I remember why I gave up with my previous Sawyer filter. It won’t be dehydration or giardia that’s responsible for me getting sick but my own impatience. A water bottle drops to the floor. I’m glad I heard it bounce. The pocket truly finished. I slide it beside my other, pack weight completely unbalanced. Some Noboer got lost and ended up pitching inside Linton Station. Lucky not to get caught. Rumour has it you’re escorted back to where you entered and charged with trespassing if you don’t respect the rules. The clouds seemed to be considering splitting up when I set off. Now they’re back, as strong as ever. Heavy grey sits over brown hill. I’m not really interested in getting wet again. Shearing has begun. Sheep flee looking like peeled potatoes on sticks. The sun breaks out after a fine mist spray convinced me to get my waterproofs out. I wish the weather would simply pick one. Wet or dry.

Through another few shit filled fields the wind decides to get involved. A bank of rain is blown over the ridge I’m walking below and I’m forced into another costume change. I accept it’s going to be one of those days. Around a corner and the wind has the weather committed. Rain for the rest of the day? I probably shouldn’t have asked for one. A mix of everything was better. Of course when the sun comes back I decide to keep my plastic wrapper on. I don’t bother with sunscreen. Only later do I realise the error of my ways. Calves of bright pink, stinging in the shower. Birchwood Station is a small haven after several wet days. A hot shower, electricity. An opportunity to dry out. Convinced I was going to be alone again, I’d talked myself out of a trip to the Takitimu Tavern. When I arrived, Phil quickly changed my mind. The small Southland communities are something else. Everyone knows everyone. The pub is blissfully quiet. The portions are huge. On leaving the sky has cleared. A beautiful evening. It lasts through until morning. I wake up to the peach glow in the East. Today I must apply sunscreen.

Phil and I stop at the bottom of Twinlaw Hill. The trail markers go in one direction, the map and the GPS line go another. Phil has a look at the markers, they follow the fence. There is no marked trail on the map in that direction. The farm track to the right looks like it’s the one on the map. It doesn’t look knee smashingly steep. I’m going that way. Phil agrees. From the top it’s an easy cruise along a 4WD track before another twisting bush track down the far side. Cream puff clouds in a sky of infinite blue float over fields of green and gold. Sharp of pine blends with soft of beech. Mirage figure in the dust dry road. Can’t tell if they’re coming or going. They grow in size. Yellow pack. It’s old mate Taiga. Having walked South with him for a few days, he’s the only Noboer I’m likely to trust. We share notes on the trail. “You’ll see Paula tonight,” I tell him. “Tell her to hurry up.” I follow my nose through the tangle of pine trees. Is that a fence? Better, a style. A short road walk delivers me to the private Merriview Hut. First in.

Phil joins me about half an hour later. We’re alone for a long time. “I think it might just be us tonight,” I declare around 5pm. A few hours later the Northbounders start to trickle in. A group of four who’ve been together for at least two days. They’re cheerful, good company. Perhaps because they’re not alone. Still fresh, only 5 days in. Excited for what’s to come. They sleep through Phil and I getting an early start. When I leave they’re only just on the deck having breakfast. And I thought I was slow to get moving. The Takitimu Range floats like an island on an ocean of cloud against a sky of pink. A man on a quad stops to advise me they’re moving deer down the road. “Can you wait before you get to the gates?” “Sure.” The gates are obvious, blocking the whole road. Not long after I stop comes the herd. A moving mass of brown. A small stream of grey dust rising behind. The deer bark at each other, eventually being funneled into pastures new. The gate is opened and I’m waved through. There’s no mention of the road, the immediately forgettable 4WD track that starts the day across Longwood Forest. Only mud. So far, so good.

The road ends and the bush track begins. A last little push up another hill. Somebody, somewhere lied to me. The Takitimu Range wasn’t the end of the ascents. So far the mud hasn’t amounted to much. Certainly nothing to write home about, or post on the internet. I come out of the bush into the tussock and ride a trail to the summit mast. There’s not a cloud in the sky. They’re all on the ground. Islands of black rise above the blanket of white. This then, probably the last view I’ll get of the mountains I’ve walked through. The Takitimus closest. The Fiordland ranges a little further. Then a sprawling mass of teeth disappearing into the edge of the sky. Facing the direction of travel, a slice of blue beneath the clouds. My first sight of the ocean in almost two months. Getting closer every day. There’s more road on the top. The mud must be condensed into a tiny portion of the track. I begin to wonder how bad can it really be. Hill 745 presumably named due to its uncanny resemblance to a hill which happens to be precisely 745 meters above sea level, is where the mud really begins.

Truly we are blessed by having two days of fine weather. There are only a handful of waist deep mud baths, most of which are largely avoidable. The one Noboer we see, late in the day, has given up avoiding the mud, I watch as he wades through. Tree by tree, pulling himself out and along. I never end up more than shin deep. Phil clings to the edges, swinging from trees. I’m not sure he’s got mud above his ankles. The water pooling on the surface has warmed in the sun. The thick gloopy mud below isn’t much cooler. Sinking in is almost a pleasant experience. Certainly not one I’d be keen to repeat in wilder weather. Longwood Forest is like a single track maze. Eyes up, look for the markers. Eyes down, look for where you can place a foot that won’t end in being swallowed up to your waist. I crash in to Martin’s Hut. Kerry is already there, but only just. We read the questionable map that guides us down to the creek, which is too far away and pretty gross, even before I’ve tried to wash the mud off my legs. We have to drink something, the small tank is close to empty, brown and full of content. I sit outside this last hut heading south and filter several litres of water. Phil has this surprisingly un-Bryan like behaviour, because he’s not Bryan. He noticed Kerry was eating, so wandered off a ways to fart. A little later though, when I’m eating he lets one rip. “Oh it’s like that is it?” “Oh sorry I didn’t realise you were still eating!” I actually think he’s serious. He didn’t notice as I spooned more lentils into my mouth. Jen comes in late. She’s excited to find people at the hut, anxious there won’t be any room and she’ll have to put up her tent. She’s in luck. One bunk remains. And that’s it for huts, single serving hut friends, on the South Island. From tomorrow, it’s civilisation all the way to Bluff.

I give up the bottom bunk for Phil. His left foot is a mess. Nobody wants to be climbing a ladder in pain. Once I get up there, I regret this small act of compassion. There’s no roll bar, and despite not having fallen out of bed in several years the fear sets in. I sleep terribly. Pellets of rain thunk off the roof. I toss, turn and sweat. Sticking to everything I touch. A consequence of not having a half decent wash. In the morning, Phil’s motorcycle revving alarm wakes everyone up. How could it not? My GPS fails to launch. The numbers aren’t important but I like to see the time exchange with distance. The uninterrupted line across the South Island snaps at the end. I crunch down the hill, mud still slurping at my shoes. I pass a couple who have clean feet. No more mud. I reach a civilised path, sealed with gravel. Signs to the carpark count down the minutes. 20, 15, 45, excuse me? That last one surely a mistake but I’m sure it takes more than 15 minutes to reach the road.

I spot Phil already halfway through his fish and chips in the Colac Bay Tavern. We have a good feed, a cold pint and hit the trail. The road ahead closed sign is a little inaccurate. The road is gone. A victim of coastal erosion. Or deliberate sabotage by the council if the other sign is to be believed. We walk on to the beach together, slowly driven up the slopes by the incoming tide. We walk across the tops of mountains the size of eggs. Polished by each other, rolled in the sea. Stewart Island sits as a black scrap of cloud above the white. I smell death before I see it. The bloated corpse of what might have once been a cow now washed up in a small cove. At the end of the beach we have to go up one more hill then descend into Riverton. The old buildings already closed up, it’s after 5. I have never given my feet so much attention as I do in the shower at the Riverton Lodge Hotel. I grab a beer at the bar and join Phil. We head back out for dinner, enjoying hiker portions of good food across the river at the Aparima Restaurant.

Phil has to pull out at Riverton. An infection in his toe is making it impossible to walk. He arranges transport to the emergency department at Invercargill and we part ways after breakfast. I’m pleased to have picked up Jack, who’d pulled a zero day. Company on the long beach stretch can only be a good thing. Calm seas rest under blue skies. “What would be perfect,” Jack explains, “is a whale to breach right now.” It doesn’t happen but a short while later we’re joined by a small pod of Hector Dolphins playing beyond the rising waves.
I swim at our lunch spot. Surprised to find the sea warmer than most rivers I’ve been in these last few months. After, Jack does what Jack has always done. Disappears into the horizon. I find him again a few hours later once the beach has become road. We stop in the Four Square for a drink and a snack. “I’m gonna buy a lotto ticket,” he tells me. “What a story that would be! Man wins the lottery at the end of Te Araroa.” I don’t buy one myself. We stride in to town past the rush hour traffic. A single hill rises in the form of a bridge. I throw my hat to the ground. No. Today was supposed to be flat. What choice do I really have? I can’t quit now. I pick up my hat and follow Jack to the Tuatara Backpackers. The boys are all here. Luke and Bryan, South Island complete. Phil, assessed, diagnosed and discharged. Must be time for a beer.

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