Te Araroa (Part 14) : Not What I Was Expecting… The Long Slog to Rakaia River, day 93-100

Day 93 : Boyle Village – before Hope Halfway hut (16.2 km / 10.1 mi – Total: 2111.4 km / 1312 mi)
Day 94 : before Hope Halfway hut – Hurunui hut (26.7 km / 16.6 mi – Total: 2138.1 km / 1328.6 mi)
Day 95 : Zero day
Day 96 : Hurunui hut – before Kiwi hut (29.3 km / 18.2 mi – Total: 2167.4 km / 1346.8 mi)
Day 97 : before Kiwi hut – Bealey Valley Track (official alternate route) (34 km / 21.1 mi – Total: n/a)
Day 98 : Bealey Valley Track – Lagoon Saddle A Frame hut (25 km / 15.5 mi – Total: 2223.3 km / 1381.5 mi)
Day 99 : Lagoon Saddle A Frame hut – Harper Road (27.6 km / 17.1 mi – Total: 2250.9 km / 1398.6 mi)
Day 100 : Harper Road – Lake Coleridge (28.8 km / 17.9 mi – Total: 2279.7 km / 1416.5 mi)

Feb 9 – Feb 16
Total days : 8 | Walking days: 7
Section distance : 184.5 km / 114.6 mi (official trail miles only)
Average distance per day : 26.4 km / 16.4 mi (official trail miles only)
Total distance : 2279.7 km / 1416.5 mi

This is what I was expecting: exposed, weather-beaten peaks and diverse mountainscapes. Remote ranges that required effort to reach and sharp elevations that were worth the scramble to get the views. I was expecting another Richmond Range or Waiau Pass, something similar but entirely different at the same time. I had no idea that the next stretch would be nothing like that, that no stretch would ever be anything like those behind me again, and that out of the entire TA, the leg between Boyle Village and Arthur’s Pass would become the section I resented the most.

The heat had returned. I left Boyle Village as it incinerated my skin and everything solid and non-solid around me. I’d stayed at the outdoor centre’s accommodation until noon, trying to use the WiFi to upload as many pictures as I could, and set off just after Nobu and Kei, and Emma and Dan. My pack was heavy with leftover food from the last stretch, and new food from my resupply box, and I hunched under its weight, simmering and uncomfortable. I’d lost my cap somewhere during the previous section – somewhere around Waiau Pass, and it was uncomfortable to do without my only shelter from the sun.

I quickly found the trail and followed Tui Track as it ran alongside Boyle River and the highway. I instantly knew this stretch was different. It wasn’t a forest track leading into the mountains, but a barely marked route that skewed across a valley used as farmland, and immediately the track disappeared into swampy ponds stretching the entire way. The ground was uneven from the roaming cows and their dung, and there was nothing much scenic about the whole thing.

It wasn’t long before I fell upon the first hurdles – crossing Boyle River, and shortly after Doubtful River at its confluence with Boyle. They were both deep and stronger than I liked, and I made the mistake of poorly picking my crossing point through Doubtful River. I fought with the current to get through without getting washed away. It was an ominous start. My excitement to continue the trail quickly waned. All I could think about was being somewhere else, doing another trail, and having a lighter pack. I called it a day as soon as I could – a few kilometres before the very first hut, and I set up in a hidden little spot under the trees. I hadn’t felt such relief at being holed up in my tent for a while, and I cherished being out of the swamps, warm and dry, until late at night something large burst through the trees and halted in my little clearing. Then it called out, the most alien noise I have ever heard, something so strange that it made me visualise the noise into a corporeal shape: something voluminous, a bulging head and mouth like a thick horizontal trunk, burly and terrifying. I was afraid it would barge through my tent, shredding it to pieces while I was inside, but then it ran off, and it was gone.

The next day was largely unremarkable. The trail was partly forested and partly followed the open fields next to the river, where odd cows loomed and frightened me much more than they should. Of course, the day wouldn’t be a day on the TA without a streak of absolute madness, and at some point I found myself barricaded by the remnants of a recent storm. It was like a battlefield: hundreds of trees fallen as if massacred, both big and small, all the trunks and branches entangled into one another. I found myself climbing over the first ones, but soon I was trapped by so many trees and an immeasurable amount of leaves that I was unable to find a way out. I climbed on top of the giant trunks when there was no floor left to stand on and finally attempted to retreat, circle around the entire disaster, only to get stuck right in the midst of it once again. I felt so defeated all I could do was scream out loud.

When I’d finally disentangled myself, I ran into a northbound couple who mentioned another section filled with fallen trees, just a little before I’d reach the final bridge of the day. They advised to go around the entire thing, so the moment I hit it, I turned a sharp left, bushwacked to the edge of the forest, and walked through the valley instead, searing with pent up upset and anger. Unfortunately, fallen trees and river crossings would prevail during this section, making the whole thing quite loathsome and unnecessarily laborious.

Attempting to capture the fallen tree mayhem
Standing on top of the trees, trying to find a way out

I stopped at Hurunui hut that night, where the boiling hot days were quickly exchanged for a solemn wet one – a storm raged elsewhere and left us with a dull, steady rain that continued the next day. Nobu and Kei had stayed at the same hut but weathered the rain and moved on to the next, but I stayed in my tent, waiting for it to pass. I saw no reason to spend a day getting soaking wet.

After a day of waiting, I moved on. Everyone I knew was ahead of me now. Nobu and Kei, Emma and Dan and even Sunshine had passed me in the rain the previous day, while I was hiding in my tent. I knew many river crossings were coming up, the most worrying the Deception-Mingha Track right at the end, which was a fair weather route and supposedly included many crossing and sections in the water, and even some scrambling up rocks in the middle of the river. I was loathe to do it alone. I hoped to catch up to the others, who were now half a day ahead of me, according to their scribbles in the hut books. I reasoned that if I pulled a log day, I might be able to catch them that night at Kiwi hut, the last hut that was about half a day before the start of the Deception-Mingha Track.

Camping in front of Hurunui hut

A very narrow bridge made of just three ropes

The day began surprisingly pleasant. I followed the trail as it wound in and out of the tree line, where the forest met the valley, until it began to climb up steeply, the river disappearing into nothing. I was approaching the sole pass of this section, Harper Pass, which was awash in green, and the vegetation reminded me of Tasmania, healthy, vivid plants and wrinkly, strong bushes. From the top I looked down on the trees below, the view as pretty as they were forgettable.

Walking a riverbed of rock – the worst trail possible

Harpers Pass

The way down proved steeper than the way up. It was a tricky path, and quite relentless with its sharp drops. At times the trail appeared washed out, but it was often just steep, really steep. I kept my eye on the trail and followed the footprints marking the dirt. They belonged to my friends ahead, and I wished I could judge how far they were, how long ago they had walked through, but there was no way I could tell. The footsteps gave me peace of mind, it gave me that sense that even though I was alone, I wasn’t truly on my own.

At one point, the footprints were suddenly bulldozed over by huge sloppy ones, the type of shoes that thruhikers would never wear. It was confusing – The footprints had appeared out of nowhere, seemingly an impossible thing for footprints to do. When I reached Locke Stream hut, I finally understood why: two workmen were lounging around the hut, sorting equipment and boxes filled with heavy provisions like potatoes and root vegetables. They had only just been dropped off by a helicopter at a landing spot nearby, to fix a broken bridge. Their oversized, heavy shoes lined the sunny porch outside.

I spoke with one of the workmen while I was reading the hut book, asking what they were doing and how they got there. I told him I was chasing my friends ahead of me, and that I’d tried to follow their footprints until theirs had confused me, coming out of nowhere and trampling all over the others. I remember him looking at me after this story, like I was speaking a foreign language. Had I said something strange? Had I been unclear? Formed awkward sentences that didn’t make sense? But it wasn’t that. My sentences had made perfect sense. It was the idea of tracing your friends through following their footsteps that must’ve been too alien for him to understand. I wondered if this was this typical thruhiker behaviour. It had become so normal to me – I’d been doing it since day one.

I got back to the hut book, which was signed by all the others. Nobu had noted they were headed for the next hut along, Kiwi hut. It was 5:30, and I’d already walked for ten hours. It had only been 24 kilometres, but New Zealand terrain was no joke. I decided to keep going, walk until late, and get as close to the hut as I possibly could. After the decent day, I was thrown back into the trail of hell. I walked alongside the river and the trail kept jumping from one side to the other, and every time I forded it, a buck load of grind entered my shoes, driving me absolutely nuts. I walked for another three hours until the light began to fade. It wasn’t far from the hut, but it was too far to keep going. I set up in between thorny bushes in the grass, in the spot with the most aggressive sandflies I had ever encountered. I put on all my clothes just to be able to set up my tent, and once I crawled inside, I didn’t come out until the next day.

Camping with the sandflies

When I woke up I made a dash for Kiwi hut. It was cloudy and foggy and I reached the hut only 45 minutes later. It was a little off trail, so I threw off my pack and ran into the forest to see if anyone was still there. But I was too late, everyone had gone. The only remnants were a hut book with Nobu and Kei saying they would hitch out later that day, bypassing Deception River. No one else had made any comments on their plans. I was now 14 kilometres from Morrison footbridge, the start of the Deception-Mingha Track, and also the link to the road, where hikers could hitch to the towns of Greymouth or Arthur’s Pass.

The trail continued a convergence of madness. I continued crossing the streams over and over, sometimes finding the trail disappeared, and I would follow a path through the forest until I got stuck, bushwhacking my way out or lowering myself back into the water to bypass some rampage bush, blocking my way. There was one significant river crossing, one that wasn’t even annotated on the Guthook app, merely showing the red line going across Taramakau River just after its confluence with Otehake River. It was a wide and deep place, and midway through a stronger current moved underwater. I decided not to overthink it, scaring myself in the process, so I located the widest spot, and went for it.

I think I got lucky that day – the water was crotch deep and strong but I managed to evenly pace through, keeping steady in the current. I later heard that others had been less lucky and had been swept away by the current, pushed into the water. After this last big crossing, the day turned into a continuous rock walking exercise – the worst exercise of all, walking the riverbed on unsteady pebbles of all sizes, at times dipping into the overgrown forest again, only to get spit back out on the riverbed.

This crossing across Taramakau River was wide and deep, and not as innocent as this picture makes it seem!

Five kilometres before Morrison Bridge I hit a fork in the rivers, where Taramakau met Otira, and the Te Araroa moved away from the riverbed and into the forest to follow the ‘flood track’, a punishing trail that sidled along a sharp slope in the dense jungle to follow Otira River south. At this intersection it was actually possible to ford the many braids of Otira to reach the road and hitch out, or wait until Morrison footbridge at the end of the flood track to do the same. I continued the trail, which was a barely manageable crawl through a narrow and overgrown track, covered in uprooted trees. It was so unmaintained I couldn’t be sure it had ever been more than an emergency exit track at all and I often lost the path in the landslides, so I bushwhacked until I got blocked in by something again and had no choice but to climb up a vertical slope to find the trail again.

It was such a merciless pursuit that I began to prefer the rocks of the riverbed again. Now and again I would try and climb down, walk on the rocks but inadvertently got obstructed by rivers and I’d have to climb back up into the dense growth once again. Towards the end of the track I saw a chance to leave the forest behind for good, and climbed down to the wide riverbed that was now completely overgrown with gorse. I pushed through the prickly bushes, scratching and cutting myself, but still preferring this horror over the actual route. I couldn’t believe how this stretch had turned into such a hell.

Looking down on Otira River from the beginning of the flood track
Not quite an accurate depiction of how impossible this floor track was
The weather swiftly deteriorating
Morrison footbridge

Finally I reached Morrison Bridge. It was the start of the Deception-Mingha Track, which would take about a day and a half to get through. After that was Arthur’s Pass, a small town where I’d sent my last resupply box. When I looked up, it began to rain.

Everything had gone grey and miserable. It was foggy, and the rain was steadily pouring down, rain that looked like it wasn’t going to let down for a while. I looked around me – I was alone. I hadn’t managed to catch up with any of my friends, and I had no idea whether any had continued the trail, or if they had all hitched out. Now that I was officially alone, I wondered what to do. The river track would be tricky in the best of conditions, and in the rain it would likely prove a nerve wrecking experience. Climbing rocks in the water wasn’t quite my idea of fun, and the track had a reputation of killing people, seemingly quite regularly. There was however an official bad weather alternate, which took the footbridge to the main road and followed it into Arthur’s Pass. I hovered for a while, getting cold and more unsure and I decided to cut my losses and take the safe alternative, not risking the swollen rivers or getting stuck in a hut along the way.

The road was only 22 kilometres into town but the trail had exhausted me, mentally and physically, and I walked a slow pace on the narrow shoulders, the road often elevated for long stretches over valleys on bridges where I ran from one side of the zigzagging road to the other, hugging crash barriers and dodging lorries and tourist vans. It took a while to realise why it was so difficult to keep a pace – the road was very steadily ascending, the highest percentage annotated at 16%. As it got later I began to realise I wouldn’t reach town before dark. I called the YHA hostel when I found a spot of reception and tried to reserve a bed but none were left. I wasn’t sure where else to go, so I scouted my maps for trails nearby, or a forest where I might be able to wild camp instead. I located some tracks a few kilometres before town, edging around the main road and immediately dipped in when I passed, finding a perfect bed of moss concealed by trees – it was so perfect that this camping spot was the best thing about the entire stretch.

Finding a spot to camp

In the morning I walked the last few kilometres into town, and quickly located the small café where I found Emma and Dan lounging inside. I couldn’t believe they were there – apparently, none of us had gone to do the Deception-Mingha Track. They had all forded Otaki River before the flood track, where Nobu, Kei and Sunshine had hitched to Greymouth, and Emma and Dan, who were low on food, hitched straight into Arthur’s Pass. I stayed in the shop for hours before I picked up my last resupply box from the DOC office, which included not only food but also a new pair of bright blue shoes.

After the short morning break, I had somewhat reset my mind, and hoped for a better section up next. I would soon be hitting the Rakaia River, an unfordable river at Lake Coleridge village. The trail continued on the opposite side, but due to a lack of bridges, a long 60 kilometre hitchhike to get from one side to the other was part of the official trail. Another inconvenience was that there was no camping allowed at Lake Coleridge or its vicinity. It meant that the last day of this stretch was a 28 kilometre walk from a last official campground, and once I’d arrived at Lake Coleridge I’d have to hitch out from those barely visited roads that same day.

But that was still a few days away. First I had the stretch after Arthur’s Pass to get through. I left town just after 2pm. It was sunny again and I wore my perfectly new shoes down the road from town. It didn’t take long to get close to the official TA route, which ran parallel to the road and followed another impossible riverbed of rock until it forded the river right next to a bridge. In other words, it was a redundant route and I couldn’t even find a way to reach it from where I was. I decided to stay on the road instead, a long stretch, and it was almost 6 when I finally reached the track that would lead me back into the mountains.

New shoes!

It immediately began to ascend, moving through a dark forest dotted with red mushrooms and then panoramic views over the valley below, evening calling already. I reached the A Frame hut exhausted, and set up my tent in the dark, sleeping in the next day. I woke up without an alarm and felt energised for the new day, once again moving swiftly through the forest, which was nice and quiet.

The dark forest which was littered with beautiful red mushrooms

After Hamilton hut the trail changed. A 4 wheel drive track followed Harper River back to civilisation, and my plan was to make it as far as I possible, so I could walk to Lake Coleridge and hitch out the next day. It was a long stretch and a long afternoon, with constant the river crossings, moving from side to side, the water cold and rocks and grind filling my shoes with each and every maddening step. The trail notes mentioned it was possible to stay on the true left side without fording the rivers, so I tried until I got stuck again and again, having to bushwack my way out while tripping down slopes with rocks falling on top of me. Usually, the trail notes were way too conservative but in this instance it was the opposite – it was impossibly optimistic. This section was even noted as an all-weather route, which couldn’t possible be the case with all the river crossings.

The worst came with the last unexpected crossings of the Avoca River before it merged with Harper. The river bed was enormous, a stretch of at least a kilometre wide, and the many braids of the river were swift and icy cold. I went through them all until the last one, which was deeper and the current too strong, and I walked up and down for a fordable spot for quite some time, finally choosing a crossing that was just beyond my comfort levels. I didn’t seem to have much of a choice so I moved through, pushing against the current – and reached the other side safely.

One of the many braids of Avoca River

I made it all the way to the small campsite in town that night, feeling quite proud for getting through this long section in one day. The next morning I set my alarm early and left when it was still dark, rising with the farmers and the dogs, following the long but quiet and scenic road to Lake Coleridge. Only the last stretch moved away from the road and forced me through an awkward section that passed the lake and some farmland, cutting through bits of everything but nothing in particular.

I made it to Lake Coleridge by 1pm – enough time to hitch out and reach Methven or Christchurch and take some well-deserved time off. I hadn’t had a real day off since Wellington, almost a month earlier, favouring half days in town and continuing hiking as much as possible. I’d had two days off in my tent to wait out bad weather but they never felt like days off. And after this long stretch of seemingly continuous hiking, I was exhausted. I was looking forward to a double zero, to get a room to myself somewhere, clean everything I owned and truly unwind. I couldn’t wait to get to town, but first I needed to hitch out. I continued to walk to the main road that lead to the bigger towns east, and waited alongside the empty road for the first cars to drive by.

Getting close to Lake Coleridge village and watching unfordable Rakaia River in the distance

 

Published by

Rosanne Luciana

A Dutch-born London-based hiker who has swapped an East Asian backpacking experience for the opportunity to truly immerse herself into nature, by quite simple, walking.

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