My return to Bluff from Oban is in complete contrast to my arrival. Cloudless blue sky rests above sparkling blue sea. The hills of Stewart Island, blue in the distant light. The first shores of the South Island, also blue. A single puff of popcorn white cloud rests above the curve of Longwood. The ferry glides across a calm straight. People around me doze as the boat gently rolls towards Bluff. A white pilllar pops on to the horizon, one of the many lighthouses lining the Catlins coast. I’m the only one on the shuttle, the driver asks if I mind if we take his car so he doesn’t have to come back. I don’t mind. I get in the front seat and his dog Joey immediately makes himself at home on my lap. I return to the Tuatara Backpackers. It’s much quieter than last time. The room that was once full of Te Araroa walkers is now home to the night for me alone. I take a leisurely breakfast in the cafe beneath the hostel. In the small print of my bus booking to Queenstown I notice the bus can arrive up to half an hour before, or 45 minutes after the stated time. I probably could have gone Oban to Wanaka in a day if I’d made more of an effort. My pick up is close 10am and I begin to roll back the distance it took me two weeks to walk in a matter of hours.
A low block of grey cloud holds the sun at bay. Rain falls as spit on the windscreen. The bus stops in Lumsden. Self contained vans lined up next to the old railway station. How much easier this journey would be if I could simply drive myself? The outermost folds of the Takitimu Range pass by. Goodbye forever, for one last time. I’m staying off trail for a few more days. One last venture in to Mount Aspiring National Park. The final nail in the coffin of my old belief that you should never go back. A heaped tablespoon of cloud sits above the lower reaches of the Southern Alps. A weather window promises to open tomorrow, if only for a few days. Long enough. The steel grey waters of Lake Wakatipu come into view. The hard edges of the surrounding mountains softened with cloud. Another, longer pitstop in Queenstown. I get my third Covid jab. I convince the man who sold me my shoes to contact Altra to see if they’ll do anything about the fact they’ve come apart. He keeps my expectations low, but he does swap my socks without question. I wander the quiet street until my next ride arrives. Iain and Charlotte have flown in from Wellington. We drive the Cadrona road in to Wanaka. I head for the Bothy where I’m sure I know the girl but can’t place her. It’s her voice. She’s done Te Araroa YouTubes.
Anything that goes wrong today is ascribed to the Covid booster. Claustrophobic nightmares? You’ve been jabbed. Headache? You’ve been jabbed. Lower back pains? You’ve been jabbed. I rejoin Iain and Charlotte at the Department of Conservation visitor centre. Somewhere I really don’t want to be, somewhere I really wish Iain wouldn’t bring Charlotte. I miss any safety briefing and fear mongering. All I catch is Iain asking if we need a personal locator beacon each or if one per group is enough. It tells me he still doesn’t have one. It probably tells the Department of Conservation woman we shouldn’t be going outside. There’s a discussion over breakfast about what time to leave. It’s an hour’s drive, followed by a two hour walk. I’m surprised to learn Charlotte is going to join us in to Aspiring Hut before running back to the car. Now is as good a time as any. We hit the road to Raspberry Flat. ‘Ere really do be dragons. All those bold lines and jaunty angles. Waterfalls cascading from the clouds. Stone disappearing into the skies. It’s not entirely beyond my imagination to place castles in those high crags. Looking up at those stone terraces I recognise this for what it is, a good idea. For Iain we’re closing the loop. Finishing where we started. I’m glad to be able to answer the call of the Southern Alps, one last time.
I claim to be somewhat acclimatized to New Zealand now. The mountains are big but they’re not oh my god big. Waterfalls were the first casualty. Oh look, water doing precisely what you would expect given the circumstances. Oh, another one doing the same thing. I’m glad to only have 9km on the flat ahead of us. Another rest day. Everything aches. I’m lethargic and largely disinterested in doing anything. You’ve been jabbed. The Matukituki River remains electric blue. Yellow grasses give way to green beech forest that disappear into low grey clouds. I point out to the others every opening window of blue sky. The cool mountain air warming up as the sun breaks free. It’s beginning to look like we’re going to get lucky, again. Aspiring Hut is further away than I’d like it to be and exactly where it is. It’s quiet, lunchtime is an early arrival. Under normal circumstances I’d suggest pushing on but there’s no need. Iain walks Charlotte back to the last fence line. She picks up speed, rapidly disappearing the way we came. He tells me it doesn’t feel right. First he delivered the dogs to a new kennel. Normally, someone would collect them. Normally, he’d be the one leaving Charlotte behind. This time he feels like he’s been left. I settle in to an afternoon of watching the clouds lift. Green of beech now turns to brown of grass. Grey of stone, blue of ice, white of snow, blue of sky. The world opens up. There are significantly worse places to while away an afternoon. Kea giggle through the valley. A karearea hunts the bush edge. A lone tomtit stalks bugs around the camp shelter
Mist has conquered the valley. The chuckle of kea lay distant still. A lone star burns in the rising dawn. For the first time, possibly ever, I’m ready before Iain. One of the many benefits of having been on trail for almost 100 days, or my stronger get up and go response having woken up in a tent. Either way we’re on trail by 8:30am. Just like old times. The couple who camped near us have left already. I could catch them but I have to remember that Iain hasn’t got almost 2000km in his legs. He’s not hill fit, although he assures me has done some training. I remain unconvinced some rowing on a machine is going to get him on to Cascade Saddle any easier. I know I have to be patient. There’s no rush. Instead of taking my time, I’ll need to take Iain’s time. Not that he makes it particularly easy, ending statements such as “this is a bit hard,” with “isn’t it?” For me, it isn’t. We started our climb in the beech trees. The Matukituki Valley spreads below us. Clouds gently rising in the warming morning. I’m left thinking this isn’t so bad. Not after everything that’s come before. We’ve been climbing for two hours when we reach the bushline. The campsite old mate Jack told me about is there. We might have squeezed two tents in. When the trees stop, the mountains open up. The top of the ridge looks like it might be forever away. Step by step, pole by pole, we close the distance. The ridge comes close. “What’s the betting that’s a false summit?” Iain asks as a final pole stands out against the sky. “Always,” I reply. We have indeed reached the top. Over to the left, first glance of the Dart Glacier. Below us, a vast alpine bowl with a toilet. The infamous Cascade Saddle campsite where supposedly 17 tents have been destroyed by Kea this season alone. We drop in to the valley and cross a river that barely registers above my shoe. I laugh every time I look up from the trail. The mountains are there, are everywhere. Iain says “I think we’d have been disappointed if we got up here last time.” I have to stop him there because it’s clear he’s lost his mind. Then, and now, the Dart valley remains the my favourite, my most recommended part of New Zealand. At no point do I allow him to elaborate, or explain what he might have actually meant. When we arrive at the saddle, I say “Come here boy.” He warns me not to be too insufferable. I simply gesture that he look down upon the view we didn’t get well over a year ago now.
The Matukituki sprawl before us. The snow covered shoulders of Mount Aspiring rise higher, another kilometer or more above where we stand. Behind us, the God of Ice, the Dart Glacier, blue, white, and black, sweeps down into its own valley. Everything is huge. Massifs of stone. Slabs of ice. Endless threads of white water dropping into the valleys from on high. We begin our descent through familiar territory. The scree slope we both remember as being more challenging. We cross quickly. Perhaps time has allowed the loose rock to settle. The deep cut creek gorge is as I remember. A steep, crumbling drop to the water. Not quite a scramble up the other side. We’ve made ground on the couple ahead of us. They’re stopping more frequently for little breaks. “That seems like a good idea to me,” Iain says. I tell him to pick a spot to stop soon, otherwise we’ll be so close to Dart Hut I’ll want to push on. “Maybe there’ll be some shade.” There’s no tree cover, the best we do is in behind an erratic boulder. The sun slipped beyond us as we chased the moon across the sky. I thought we might pick up speed on the valley flat but Iain is tiring. We are nearly there. “Just over this next ridge,” I tell him. “Around this corner.” No matter that the ridge is a kilometre away, or the corner goes on for three. We cross the swing bridge and arrive in to Dart Hut. I hoped for some serendipitous meeting with a newly adventurous individual. Someone I could hand Iain over too. He needs a new buddy to replace me as after this, I’ll be gone. It doesn’t happen. There are a couple of quiet lads, an actual couple, and one fella who doesn’t talk to us. Warden Gareth comes in to check our passes and tell us stories, to learn a little about his overnight charges. We mostly listen as he and a woman discuss the route, or lack thereof, up to another glacier. In this way I don’t have to excuse myself when I slip off to bed.
Things get off to a bad start. I throw my first coffee in the sink. The Aeropress makes a nicer brew, but instant is instant. Warden Gareth is in already, chatting happily away. A raucous bunch of Kea pay the hut a visit. One prowls the edge of the deck, knocking over the small rock cairns people have stacked there. A cackle of laughter follows. Ke-a, ke-a, ke-a. When the parrot frees a cloth from under a stone, the cloth knows no peach. A beak and talons shred the fabric in seconds. I can see how they would make short work of a tent in the night. The entertainment slows our leaving, not that it matters much today. The DOC sign says 4-6 hours to Shelter Rock Hut. A half day for me, a high chance of an afternoon’s rest for Iain. My GPS plays up again and I tell Iain to go and I’ll catch up. He does this faux-offended look and I’m like what? I will catch you. Things pick up and I set off. “What are you doing up there?” I ask Iain as he comes back down a stream. “I missed that,” he points to the pole I’m crossing the water to reach. He’s got no nose for a trail. He admits too, he hasn’t studied the map, which surprises me. I’ve watched him count contour lines, talk off the number of ascents, the mapped streams. “I thought I could remember.” His assumptions are letting him down. “Who left you in charge eh?” I challenge, knowing full well it was me who said it’s your adventure, you plan it. Snowy Creek is still in shade, we climb up alongside. The big, steep steps I remember crashing down are further up and don’t last half as long. Has someone fixed the track or have I gotten used to much worse?
We reach the Rees-Saddle after two hours. This is one of those days when it really is all downhil from here. I trot up a nearby, considerably small summit. This is it then, the last of the big views in the South Island. Snowy Creek disappearing behind me, the Rees Valley unfolding ahead of me. The steep drop down from the saddle is over in seconds. I tell the woman I pass at the bottom it isn’t as bad as it looks. We stroll down the valley. A short walk but still longer than I’d like. I have so little motivation left for days under 20km. What’s the point? It’s not like you’re going anywhere. I declare we’re close. “My hut sense is tingling,” “how far?” Iain asks. “500 meters,” I state with the confidence of a man who truly believes in his made up superpower. The swing bridge is visible within that distance, maybe. It was probably closer to a kilometer. I insist my powers work despite the evidence to the contrary. “Was it close or not?” I ask Iain. He laughs me off. Shelter Rock Hut sits at some lowly 900 meters above the sea. The dragon scale valley wall rises to a ridge line of fierce teeth a further kilometer up. Mount Aspiring National Park is vast in both height and depth. A damp tent hangs in the empty hut. There is so much day left. I go for a wash and soak my clothes too. They go on the line to dry, and to attract bumblebees that still haven’t realised I am not a flower.
I drag a mattress into the sun and read while Iain naps. There is something in these half days. You don’t often get to sit in the mountains for an afternoon, soaking up the sun and the views. People begin to spill in. Pairs of men. A group of 6. Tequila comes out from the 50 to 60 year old lads lads lads. They are dangerously comfortable in each others company. One of them leads off on a story. “I was doing the Kepler in winter. Someone has left the windows open in the bedroom. It’s freezing cold. There’s these two sisters from Melbourne there. They’re nurses. ‘where are you sleeping’ they asked me. Over there. ‘Come sleep between us,” they said.” “Oh come on,” one of his mates jumps in. “We’ve all heard the nurse twin stories before, make it interesting at least!”. Later one talks about how beer is good for you because it kills your brain cells. “Obviously it has to kill the weakest ones first,” I am certain there must be some logic in there. Iain squeals like a possum in the night. The other man in the room is startled awake. “What the hell was that?” he mumbles. I genuinely thought it was a possum. Awake as I am now, I realise there’s no light in the room. No moon. The starscape outside is endless. Dots of light on a backdrop of dots of light. Another last for the South Island. The morning alarm is a kea. There are more of them than I remember. A promising sign. Iain tells me he’s got water on for coffee, then uses it for his breakfast. I admire his insistence on trying to be helpful at all times but sometimes I do wonder if he’d be more help by staying out of the way. He recognises I’ve got a process that works and sits down. The walk out is littered with half remembered moments of our first walk in anywhere together. The boulder field we had lunch at is too big, the boulders are too small. The vegetation has grown up. A slip here, a waterfall there. The park boundary comes up fast. We follow the four wheel drive track through the Rees. That first time a group of hunters advised us to take the river. We declined. Back then I’d crossed maybe no rivers. Now I was in and out of the Rees 5 or 6 times, each crossing comfortable, easy.
On our way out Iain addresses an issue he’s been having. Since the visitor centre, since I told him if you need to ask about personal locator beacons they’re going to assume you shouldn’t be outside, he’s been irked. The only time Iain has carried one was the time we met, ever other time he’s relied on my having one. “We’re a team,” he says. “Right, but when you wonder off for a wash and then decide to take a bit of a walk and end up off a cliff who’s gonna know?” Our experiences have been different since the first time. I carry my beacon everywhere, at all times. Even when I go to the river to wash at the end of the day. You can plan as much as you like, but when you put your foot through the trail and you break an ankle you have no control. “Worse even,” I tell him. “If I go off a cliff what are you gonna do?” Even worse, I know he didn’t bring any emergency food. I tell him after the Tararua experience I’m surprised by this. We had to stay an extra night. Other people weren’t prepared either. And this is what I like about hiking with Iain. What I’ve enjoyed about Iain’s company. He’s up front. If something bothers him he says so out loud. Better still, he’s willing to have the conversation, to get through the challenge. We come the other side both better off because he was willing to engage. Another trip, debriefed. We hit the main road, muddy creek car park after 5 hours. Well below the DOC time. We’ve a long wait for the ride. I laugh because he asked me what time. I would have gone earlier but I stuck firm. “It’s your trip Iain, you organise it.” I regret not taking a little bit of control. Fortunately our shuttle arrives an hour early and we can get out. The first thing our driver tells us is that Russia have invaded Ukraine. Sometimes I do wish I could stay offline, out of touch forever. My biggest worry until now was a two week isolation after contracting covid. World War Three wasn’t anywhere near the list of things to have an anxiety attack about. Iain and I pause for half a pint in Glenorchy’s emaining pub. Charlotte picks us up and we enjoy a burger in Queenstown. They set off to spend the rest of their holiday together. I’ve got to get organised, or even motivated to rejoin the trail. This is only part of an ending. No more adventures with Iain. The next time I see him will be when I pick up my stuff and ask nicely for a lift to the aiport. No more adventures on the South Island. Te Araroa calls me back.