Day 74 : Ship Cove – Madsen Camp (16.3 km / 10.1 mi – Total: 1750 km / 1087.4 mi)
Day 75 : Madsen Camp – Black Rock campsite (25.3 km / 15.7 mi – Total: 1775.3 km / 1103.1 mi)
Day 76 : Black Rock campsite – Linkwater / Smiths Farm holiday park (28.9 km / 18 mi – Total: 1804.2 km / 1121.1 mi)
Day 77 : Linkwater – Pelorus Bridge campsite (35.1 km / 21.8 mi – Total: 1839.3 km / 1142.9 mi)
Day 78 : Pelorus Bridge campsite – Captain Creek hut (22.2 km / 13.8 mi – Total: 1861.5 km / 1156.7 mi)
Day 79 : Captain Creek hut – Hacket hut (23.6 km / 14.7 mi – Total: 1885.1 km / 1171.3 mi)
Day 80 : Hacket hut – Slaty hut (10.6 km / 6.6 mi – Total: 1895.7 km / 1177.9 mi)
Day 81 : Slaty hut – Rintoul hut (13.2 km / 8.2 mi – Total: 1908.9 km / 1186.1 mi)
Day 82 : Rintoul hut – Mid Wairoa hut (15.3 km / 9.5 mi – Total: 1924.2 km / 1195.6 mi)
Day 83 : Mid Wairoa hut – Hunters hut (17.1 km / 10.6 mi – Total: 1941.3 km / 1206.3 mi)
Day 84 : Hunters hut – Red Hills hut (18.2 km / 11.3 mi – Total: 1959.5 km / 1217.6 mi)
Day 85 : Red Hills hut – St Arnaud (19.9 km / 12.4 mi – Total: 1979.4 km / 1229.9 mi)
Jan 21 – Feb 1
Total days : 12 | Walking days: 12
Section distance : 245.7 km / 152.7 mi
Average distance per day : 20.5 km / 12.7 mi
Total distance : 1979.4 km / 1229.9 mi
I’d just arrived in Picton, the entryway to New Zealand’s south island, and had already located the Beachcomber offices to confirm my water taxi booking to Ship Cove, the start of the Queen Charlotte Track, and with that the continuation of the Te Araroa trail. The small town was touristy and busy and I didn’t think anyone I knew was there, but it didn’t take long to run into Sunshine, who was trying to find a place to charge her phone at the very last minute. She told me that she was also booked on the same water taxi, and so were Nobu and Kei, and several others. I hadn’t expected to see any of them, and I was happy to make my way over with people I knew. The boat ride across was picturesque, but I stayed indoors, happy to wait for it all to start again. It was a tourist cruise to visit several bird islands, so only a few people disembarked at Ship Cove, to start the trail. After arriving, I watched most of the others move on while I filtered water, and Nobu and Kei stayed at the beach, preparing a luxury meal with mussels from the sea.
Queen Charlotte Track
When I started the trail I was alone again. The path was wide and well-maintained, and very different from the tracks the TA usually follows. The Queen Charlotte Track was a popular tourist trail, and it was beautiful with bright green vegetation and views over the bluest sea, resembling a tropical island. But it was also ruthlessly hot, and that first afternoon I got so overheated I could barely continue the hike. I took off as many clothes as I could, but it was so humid that my sweat was literally dripping down, everywhere.
With my late start I walked until it was dark, hoping and failing to find a wild camping spot. I’d passed Sunshine at a picnic table next to the trail which proved to be the last spot to set up a tent. Soon after, houses and lodges appeared along the trail and there was nowhere to camp unnoticed. I passed Endeavour Inlet and Miners Campground, which seemed much too busy for my liking, so I continued in the fading light. By the time I reached Madsen Camp, I was so dark I had to carefully meander down the grassed terraces to find the owner in his house, who was shocked to have someone arrive that late. Madsen Camp was a great little campsite, and it was very quiet. I didn’t get to wild camp, but it was perfect for me.
The following day was very similar. The trail was straight foward. It had its ups and downs, curving around the inlets and rolling over the hills, but it was deceptively difficult because of the high temperatures. I walked slow and every move felt heavy, sapping all my energy. My slow pace made me anxious. The previous night I’d kept on walking because I felt a self-imposed rush to – I’d booked the popular DOC campsite at Pelorus Bridge four days later, so I had only three days to get through the Queen Charlotte Track, and then another day for the connecting road walk to Pelorus Bridge. The distances I’d have to walk were very average, or even below average, and I certainly wouldn’t have walked any less if I hadn’t booked the campsite. But for some reason being stuck to this booking really played at the back of my mind. I didn’t feel free, and I couldn’t relax.
The second night I arrived at a busier campsite. It was a free area with a small shelter and a drop toilet, and spots for camping next to trees. I had just missed out on the best spots, and set up on the edge of an open space, and watched more people arrive and set up their tents. This is where I saw the weka for the first time, a strange bird that’s much like a chicken, who likes to steal your stuff. Some hikers were quite careless with leaving small items lying around – the one thing you shouldn’t do. I was waiting for the weka to appear and suddenly run off with someone’s belongings, but it didn’t. As I withdrew into my tent I heard large groups of young people arrive late at night and set up their tents, and the following days I would pass many more on trail. This route was definitely popular.
As I progressed it got more touristy. Not just with people hiking the trail, but with locals and day walkers, people staying at the lodges that lined the seaside roads. The views were still highly saturated, lush vegetation, a meandering coastline with tiny green islands dotted in the azure sea. The sun was at full strength, adorning the sweet horizons. Despite the marvellous views, it got repetitive as all the inlets looked the same. The trail remained easy, dare I say too easy, and the views didn’t much change. Still I moved much too slow for my liking but I knew it was the heat and the humidity taking its toll. It wasn’t until the last day on the Queen Charlotte Track that I felt lighter and cruised along, passing everyone else and swiftly finishing the track.
With the Queen Charlotte Track behind me, I was still one day from Pelorus Bridge, which was the entry point to the Richmond Range, the first mountain range of the south island, and also the longest food carry along the trail. It was exciting and real. I would get my resupply for the days ahead midway through the day, at a supermarket I would pass in the town of Havelock.
I left the campsite in Linkwater early to get to the supermarket before everyone else, forgetting that most people hitchhiked this section anyways, or had sent a resupply box to Pelorus Bridge. I walked the road and then followed the trail that meandering next to the road, curving along higher up in the hills. It actually reminded me of the Queen Charlotte Track. I thought I’d be road waking all day, which clearly wasn’t the case. By the time I reached the town the heat had once again become quite overwhelming and I was dripping with sweat. I quickly went to the pricey supermarket, grabbing all the remaining tuna packets and grieving the olive packets I’d started to rely on, which they didn’t have. I bought enough food for nine days, which barely fit in my pack. That afternoon was going to be difficult.
And it was, even more difficult than expected. I followed the gravel road out of town, resting in the smallest patches of shade I could find. It took hours to finally reach the stretch of farmland, which turned into the most uneven and frustrating surface so far. It was getting later and later and I was exhausted with heat. I had nothing left in me. I was only a few kilometres away from the campsite, when I realised it was twenty to eight. My booking told me the office closed at eight. I couldn’t be late. At once I was running and running, jumping the stiles and across the bridge, and I surprised myself when I made it on the dot, my face so red and sweaty the man there couldn’t do anything but laugh at me. He told me they didn’t actually close at eight at all, I’d run for nothing. But I was there. Quite a few others had made it too. Emma and Dan were there, who I first met on the north island in that strange pub in Mercer, and who I would end up seeing a lot more. Some others were already in their tents, their resupply boxes sitting in the grass in front. One couple hadn’t received their box yet – they needed to wait for it to arrive before they could continue the trail.
Pelorus River Track
The next day I moved closer to the first real New Zealand mountains. I was happy but I was worried. As always, stories did the rounds that caused some scaremongering. The TA followed the Richmond Alpine Track which should only be attempted in fair weather. There were exposed ridges and many river crossings, and apparently, a troublesome section between Mid and Top Wairoa hut, a riverside sidle with little foothold, with big rocks to one side and steep drops to the other. There had been several slips that caused the trail to have deteriorated more than it already was. I hoped the warnings were aimed to the average day hiking tourist’s capabilities and experience, not the TA thruhiker’s. But there was no way to know. There was an alternative route to get out of the ranges if necessary, but it was the very last resort which I hoped I wouldn’t have to consider. I’d read blogs by other hikers, who told stories of still getting goosebumps just thinking about the sidles on the TA. I figured this must be one of those. I’d done some scary sidles before, short but intimidating, and I wasn’t a fan. The warnings were distressing and even though I tried to ignore my concern, it stayed there, lingering in the background. A constant stress that I thought I’d left behind when I embarked on this trail. But even here fear prevailed.
I started my day at the campsite’s café as it opened, the first customer there. I asked for a coffee, the last one I would have for quite a while, and sat down as I handed them my phone for a last minute top up. The office was the only place with power. I had fully charged my battery pack at the campsite the night before, and wanted my phone fully charged to make it through the next stretch. After the Richmond Range, I’d pass St Arnaud, and I would have to find power there again, to fuel up for the next stretch ahead. I hoped I had enough for the coming days.
This is when I met the Kiwi couple. Out of nowhere a guy appeared and offered a ride to the trailhead, or to take my pack so I could have an easy road walk to the start of the Pelorus Track, some 14 kilometres away. I declined, a little confused and keen to carry my own pack all the way down to Bluff. It took a while to realise the couple was also hiking the TA, as I assumed they were section hikers, they were just so clean. But they weren’t. They were from New Zealand and had just been with family for the holidays. They were the first of a collection of new people I would meet along the Richmond Range.
I left when my phone had charged a little more. It wasn’t fully charged, but I’d gained 25%. Along with my full battery pack, that would do. I soon regretted my somewhat belated start, when the morning clouds parted and the heat quickly intensified. When I reached the start of the track I was covered by the trees, but they still didn’t offer enough shade. The trail was busy at the beginning, tourists moving to and from the scenic Emerald Pool, but after that the trail thinned out and just the few TA hikers were left. The river was a clear green with light boulders, and the track carved into the riverside. It was a great walk with only small obstacles: streams cutting through the track to merge with the river and roots snaking across the trail.
When I sat down for my first quick rest, I watched drops of sweat form on my shoulders. My body was so overheated I wanted to submerge myself in the river, in the water that was usually much too cold for me to bear. When I reached the first hut I decided I had to stay. I’d wanted to make it to the second one, and there was enough time left in the day, but I simply couldn’t continue when the air seemed to be on fire. I found access to the river and sat in the icy water with all my clothes on, slowly cooling down. I set up my tent in the clearing, the only place where I could set up, right in the sun. After some time the Kiwi couple showed up, prepared some food at the picnic table and continued on to the next hut. I could barely fathom how anyone could function in this heat, and keep on walking. It was paralysing.
I was the only person at the hut that night. Emma and Dan never showed, and I sat in my tent which I’d pitched with the inner only, and watched the skies grow dark for the first time. I preferred to camp over staying in the hut, which wasn’t the popular choice. All those strangers, dirty from days of hiking, touching everything, the mattresses, the tables, the drop toilets, and then sharing that small space with everyone else at night, sleeping so close to each other and breathing in the same air, with people often snoring and making noise for all sorts of reasons. Choosing that over the comfort of my own tent, made no sense to me. To me, staying in my tent also made the trail more adventurous – sleeping outside, waking up outside, having the option to set up wherever and whenever. But I was one of only a few who didn’t consistently chose the convenience of the huts.
The next day on the Pelorus River Track continued along the same vein. The sweltering heat was only a fraction less intense than the day before. The trail passed some steeper ups and downs but wasn’t actually difficult. I passed Rocks hut and washed myself in the sink available, rinsing off the lingering salt and sweat from the day. It felt great.
When the bees began to chase me, I knew it was time to leave. I followed the trail through the forest, passing the cut-down trees, and a small section above tree line. I made it to Browning hut which oozed a sinister semblance, and sported some ominous looking cages for hunter’s dogs. I continued on to Hackett, only an hour away, at the very last minute getting my feet wet in river crossings that I’d managed to avoid all day. When I opened the door to the hut to write in the hut book, someone was already there. It confused me for a moment. I’d sort of expected to find a hiker I’d seen in Havelock, even though he was much too fast to still be here. Instead, one of the beds was occupied by a German hiker who introduced himself as BFG – Big Friendly Giant. His name was an accurate description of himself, and he had just continued the trail after having lost some time to picking up a new pair of shoes in Nelson and if I remember correctly, an injury.
Richmond Alpine Track
I camped in the clearing close to the hut. The sandflies were aggressive, even more so than elsewhere else along the trail, and I struggled to keep them out of my tent. I heard the Kiwi couple arrive later, who walked in a more relaxed pace, taking a little longer than average. The following day would be a short one so in the morning I took my time to wake up, leisurely packing my things and starting my day.
I began by meandering through the river, the trail using the waterway as a path, and hopped onto the riverbanks to find the route dancing up and down small slopes, and back into the river again. BFG caught up after a little while, and I watching him just ahead of me, leading the way up a steep slope. I followed, although I felt as though something was off. We moved up the narrow path, pushing through the dense brush. We went higher and higher until suddenly BFG called out that the path had stopped. I realised why I’d felt off, this wasn’t the trail. I remembered the river section was supposed to continue a little longer, and I knew the trail would ultimately continue inland on the other side of the river.
Suddenly, we had to move down the way we’d come. I turned around to find the path had grown invisible, the slight trail absorbed by the jungle around. I pushed through the vegetation, straight down rather than trying to switchback, holding onto trees to lower myself. BFG had quickly disappeared to get down elsewhere and when I reached the bottom, he was nowhere to be found. Where had he gone? I yelled out his name, but got no response. It took a while for him to emerge from between the dense trees, brushing away loose leafs and dirt, looking somewhat bewildered. We continued the river track, and waded into a beautiful light blue swimming hole, with a backdrop of green forest. BFG immediately ditched his pack and began to swim, and I continued into the forest, away from the river, perfectly content to walk on my own again.
The track moved up and into a thick fog. I welcomed the sudden lower temperatures, weaving in and out of the forest and open spaces, the track covered in roots or rock. The terrain was more rugged than before, and it was tiring, but with the weather a little cooler, I felt as though I moved faster than I’d expected. Just before I reached the first hut of the day, Starveall, I ran into two other hikers, WOW and Coyote, who were doing this section northbound due to bad weather earlier on. They were some of the friendliest people I’d met so far, and were also able to put me at ease about the supposed troubling section ahead – those nagging worries I’d tried to push to the very back of my mind, but couldn’t free. They said the oncoming sections were nothing I hadn’t done before, and advised to simply take my time, and not rush it. Finally I was able to let go of my worries. They said the next day would be difficult and long, but there was always the possibility to cut the day in two. Everything would be all right.
As I climbed closer to Starveall hut, the mist had chilled the air further, which made everything easier for me. I had lunch with BFG and the Kiwi couple, and got to know them a little better. We were all relieved to have received the feedback from WOW and Coyote, assured by their accounts and confidence we would have no problems. Even BFG had been considering the alternate route. He had expected the sidles to be too dangerous for his size. Now we were able to stay on trail and not worry anymore.
In the afternoon I continued above tree line, where the fog played with the views, moving around the ridge line of the mountains, clearing and chasing and allowing me peeks onto the widespread views around me. I arrived at Slaty hut in the afternoon, which would be a good starting point for the big ascends the following day. I spent most the the afternoon selecting a good spot for my tent, settling on a clearing in the tussock, just big enough for my tent.
The next morning I rose as early as I could, desperate to leave before the others so I could hike out alone, and not end up in a constant game of leapfrog. I set off just as the sun hit the top of the ridge I was headed to, an orange glow that intensified and grew. I had never started hiking this early, and I had never been in a location this perfect to watch the sun rise, and it was truly a unique experience. I’d never quite understood the draw to sunrises or sunsets, and this was the first time I’d ever seen the layers of mountains colour grey in the distance with the sky lighting up in the back, everything around me blossoming and warm. I bathed in the glow of rising sun, a morning of simple beauty.
The trail followed the mountain ridge in and out of the blue frosty shade, and the orange light of emerging day. I walked along the rocky trail, moving a few hundred meters up and down in altitude. BFG caught up a little later, and I followed him as he moved ahead, disappearing and suddenly reappearing a little ahead, having followed the wrong trail just as he had the day before, missing a turn. We leapfrogged throughout the day, and only one other American hiker showed up from behind, someone who had arrived at Slaty hut when I was already tucked away in my tent, someone who walked fast and who I’d never see again.
This day was one of the few waterless stretches on the TA, and I was carrying a lot of water, weighing me down on top of the long food carry. It was only 13 kilometres to Rintoul hut, but there were two peaks to conquer, Little Rintoul and Mt Rintoul, and they were not to be underestimated. I knew the day was going to be long.
After the sun had risen the trail moved through an extended section below tree line. It was hot now, and the trail was once again littered with tiny steep ups and down, and I felt it. I passed the junction to Old Man hut and sat down to rest. I hadn’t gone very far yet, but my body felt as though it had hiked all day.
Once out of the trees, I scrambled down a rocky field only to move up again. Up and up and up. I definitely could not imagine doing this trail in bad weather. Closer to Little Rintoul the rocks got bigger, and the scrambling got more intense. Trees were far below now, and there was no life. No water, no tussock, nothing. I climbed a peak of solid rock, not sure where to trail went and how to descend on the other side, moving slowly, carefully judging every step. The trail was laborious and challenging, but the views kept amazing me. After a long battle with rocks, I had made it up Little Rintoul, and I stared at the trail ahead.
Mt Rintoul was only two kilometres ahead, and they were the longest two kilometres I would ever hike. The trail didn’t follow the jagged ridge line to Mt Rintoul, which was too rugged and broken to hold a path. Instead, it creased back down the steep side of the rocky mountain, before it moved up again, at last reaching the summit. The route demanded complete concentration. The rocks were dry and loose, tumbling down from underneath my feet. Some of it was small like gravel and other rocks were so big I didn’t know how to get down the other side. I used my trekking poles to anchor myself, but often felt they were in the way, the rocks so encompassing, I often clung to them instead. I was so occupied by deciding where to place every single step, that I hardly noticed it took over an hour to get across. The trail completely absorbed me. While the terrain was some of the most challenging, in good weather it wasn’t dangerous – just incredibly time-consuming.
After a long scramble down, the trail began its ascend toward Mt Rintoul in similar fashion. The way up was tough and slow, until I got closer to the summit and joined the ridge, slowly clambering up to reach the summit at 1731 meters. When I turned around and looked back at Little Rintoul, the views were overwhelming. The mountain of rock contrasted the green woods below, and every other angle offered dramatic sights with dark clouds that would thunder in the background later on that day.
When I finally left the peak behind, I faced the last hurdle before reaching Rintoul hut, my destination for the day. A simple steep slope of loose scree stretched down for an eternity, a tricky slide down thick grind, another constant vigilance to not slip and fall. It if was snowy, it would’ve been a perfect glissade. During the pain-stakingly slow descend, BFG almost ran past me on his way to the hut. He had been low on water all day, and he was so happy to get close to the hut and the water tank, that he sped down as quickly as he could. I arrived a little after him, feeling very fulfilled. It had been a good day.
I found a perfect little spot just inside the forest, and hoped to be away from any mice that might be scurrying around the hut. After mice eating through my tent in the Tararua Range, it was something I was always weary of. The forest got dark though, so dark that I woke up late at night and had to keep my phone screen turned on, to comfort me in its weak glow. The good thing was that the thunder passed overnight and it didn’t rain, so I would be safe to continue down to the river and attempt the required crossing ahead of me, which would be impassable when swollen by the rain.
In the morning I hiked out when the forest was still dim and bleak, but soon wished I had got up earlier, as I realised I’d just missed the orange glow of the very first sun. It was cold when I moved through the gnome-like trees but soon the land opened up again, the trail peaking at Purple Top, with sun rays streaking the skies. I watched over the ranges ahead, clouds covering the lower elevations, like ribbons swimming in a sea. I guessed where the trail would lead me, far down a stretch of tree-covered mountains below, then slowly dipping down where I could no longer see.
The trail moved down into the woods again, an easier trail with steep descends that soon grew a bit boring, and caused my Injinji toe socks to do that awkward thing where the fabric gets pulled up and the toes get squashed by the individual toe pockets, causing continuous stress.
I rested at Tarn hut, which I found impossibly romantic, like an old-fashioned rustic cottage. I was the first to reach Mid Wairoa hut early in the afternoon, and I stopped for the day, exploring the cold river which had the perfect swimming hole, but proved much too cold for me. The clearing around the hut was too hot, so I set up in the forest, and kept the rain fly off.
At night, I kept waking up. Sometime after one, a possum tried to snatch the bin bag I was hiding outside, and I had to chase it off. The animal was entirely unimpressed with my efforts to get rid of it, its eyes glaring at me in the dark. Then, a mouse used the mesh of my inner tent as a playground, running across it like a fun obstacle course, right above my head.
When I woke up I began the day I had dreaded: the river section, which had numerous river crossings and a track with little foothold due to slips, between Mid Wairoa and Top Wairoa hut. I was apprehensive, but soon discovered there was nothing dangerous about it at all. It was everything I hadn’t expected. The trail swept from one side of the river to the next, the cold water refreshing me with every ford, and the track itself dipped up and down the riversides. I managed a quick paced stride despite its winding and rolling.
There were a few spots where I had to be careful and the trail was narrow and angling down now and again, but WOW and Cayote had been right: it was nothing I hadn’t done before. It wasn’t a trail I would do in heavy rain, as it would be too slippery and the rivers would quickly swell to dangerous levels, but in dry conditions it was a perfect trail. I really enjoyed it. The forest was beautiful with moss-covered rocks, and I leapfrogged BFG and the Kiwi couple until I passed the final river, the sun now strong and everything bright and red, and I knew at once that I’d entered something different altogether.
After a quick rest at Top Wairoa hut, I headed off into the Red Hills. The landscape was alien. The trees had disappeared and the river was gone. Everything was open and the heat seared. There was nothing to provide shelter, and the dry and dusty terrain only seemed to fuel the heat more, bestowing it with power. The trail disappeared into piles of huge rocks – infuriating rocks I had to climb over, a step by step process of not trying to slip or fall or sprain something. I keep losing my way – I hated the rocks. That morning when I hiked alongside the river suddenly seemed a lifetime ago.
Once again, I struggled in this desert of heat. The trail ascended slowly, the hills overlooking everything around me but I just couldn’t appreciate these unique, widespread views, too occupied by wanting the rocks to stop, the heat to stop, and to reach the next hut. I barely made it across the last hill, but from there on the trail went down, until I finally reached Hunters hut, sitting proudly on a bare hill, the shelter and water tank a true oasis in this barren land.
I entered the hut to find a few other hikers, Goat and Rocky. Rocky had taken a rest day at the hut and told us the night before the hut was so busy that she decided to stay behind, to not get stuck in a big crowd. I was glad that so far, I had always been in the quiet spots between those pockets of busyness. But it was bound to get a little busier. We were just ahead of bad weather, and some hikers behind us would inadvertently attempt some longer days to finish the range before it would hit. I knew that Bee left Wellington the day after me, and she was a day or two behind, and was looking to get stuck in a hut just before the river section, and would be forced to wait out the swollen rivers for a day. I had luckily passed all the tricky sections, and all I had to do was get out of the hills and reach the town of St Arnaud. I had thought I could finish in one more day, passing Porters Creek hut and Red Hills hut at the end of the range, and then hike into town. But the route was that straight-forward anymore. The previous years the TA followed the main road into St Arnaud after Red Hill hut, whereas this year the trail was diverted onto a mountain bike trail through the hills paralleling the road, which in my mind was a huge anti-climax to this impressive section. It would also add another half day to the trail, and I wasn’t sure I was capable of hiking the remaining stretch in one day.
Goat also had some alarming news. He’d called ahead to all the hostels in town and there was no availability anywhere. This was a problem. I needed to charge my electronics before being able to move onto the next mountain leg. If the hostels were fully booked, I wasn’t sure if the DOC campsite had facilities to charge my devices. I wouldn’t be able to continue without. My best bet would be to arrive in town as early as possible, to get a chance at finding a bed in town.
The next day I toyed with a few different options. While I wanted to hike the entire TA without skipping any sections, my main concern was to keep a continuous line down the country, which for a variety of reasons wasn’t always the official trail. If I had enough energy, I could hike past Red Hills hut and camp somewhere along the mountain bike path, and walk into town early the next day. If not, I could stay at Red Hills hut for the night, and walk the road into St Arnaud in the morning. I knew I had no interest in the mountain bike route, but I still felt guilty about diverting from the official trail. At the same time, I was thoroughly done with this section. I had scaled the mountains, forded the rivers and nearly succumbed to the heat and the rocks. The Richmond Range had been marvellous and diverse, but I was ready to head into town. I was ready for it to be over.
The morning was cloudy, a welcome change to the perpetual heat. The terrain was still rocky but easier to negotiate than the day before, and I quickly reached Porters Creek hut. The progress beyond was a little slower, and I grew tired of the arid landscape. The trail moved up and down sandy slopes, some steep and slow. There were a few steep scrambles when the trail moved down to a wide riverbank, covered in a sea of rocks, then climbed up the side of a mountain which seemed to have disappeared in a landslide. I barely managed to crawl up the loose scree, using the few spaced out trees to haul myself up, bit by bit, and wondered how northbound hikers could possible negotiate down. It seemed like an absolute death trap if you were headed the opposite direction.
When I reached Red Hills hut it was mid afternoon, but the promised bad weather had already caught up with me. The wind picked up, and the skies thickened. I wondered if I should stay or go, heading to the mountain bike trail or stay here. When BFG arrived, he told me he was taking the shortcut into town the following day, and I decided to do the same. I set up my tent, and watched more and more people arrive while the weather turned to rain. Everyone who was a day or half a day behind us had been doing long days to make it out of the ranges in time. Emma and Dan, Nobu and Kei, Isha and a whole load of others arrived, soon crowding the small hut.
Not many took the mountain bike path the next day. I walked out – determined to get into town early, and I walked the roads in the rain, while most hitched along. I went straight to one of the few hostels to reserve a bed, and was told they had lots of space left. As usual, the stories circulating on trail had been wrong, and there had been no need to hurry. Still, I was happy to be in town. I was happy to sit in the general store’s café with everyone else, crowding the small tables and eating scones and drinking coffee, and devouring pizza with everyone else later on in the day, to celebrate BFG’s birthday. I picked up my first resupply box from the DOC office and prepared for the next stretch. I wasn’t planning a rest day so I had a lot to do.
Once we could check in to the hostel we all took turns to take showers and wash our clothes. When I did my wash, everything was so dirty I pre-washed most of it – and luckily so, because the machines offered only appalling twenty minutes cycles, hardly cleaning our clothes at all. I watched as Isha threw in her load and warned her about the short cycle – to which she replied by dislodging an entire ziplock bag of detergent into the machine. I will always remember her amused face, as she tipped the creamy-white powder on top of her clothes. In my mind, something about that moment struck me as odd, a bit like that morning when I followed BFG up that steep riverside trail in the dense bush, before we realised we’d gone completely off trail. Something was off. I knew that powder was just a hint too cream-coloured. I didn’t find out what had happened until I saw her again much later that day, long after she’d completed her load and found her clothes swimming in sodden clumps: she had thrown mashed potato powder in the washing machine.