Te Araroa (Part 15) : Rivers and Cyclones Do Not Match, day 101-112

Day 101 : Zero day
Day 102 : Zero day
Day 103 : Zero day
Day 104 : Zero day
Day 105 : Zero day
Day 106 : Zero day
Day 107 : Rakaia River – Comyns hut (16.2 km / 10.1 mi – Total: 2295.9 km / 1426.6 mi)
Day 108 : Comyns hut – just before Manuka hut (20.9 km / 13 mi – Total: 2316.8 km / 1439.6 mi)
Day 109 : just before Manuka hut – Rangitata River / Mt Potts car park (32.6 km / 20.3 mi – Total: 2349.4 km / 1459.8 mi)
Day 110 : Rangitata River – Forest Creek Track / Private hut (off-trail) (14 km / 8.7 mi – Total: n/a)
Day 111 : Forest Creek Track – Round Hill / Ski Field Access Road (partly off-trail) (31 km / 19.3 mi – Total: 2393.7 km / 1487.4 mi)
Day 112 : Round Hill / Ski Field Access Road – Lake Tekapo (29.6 km / 18.4 mi – Total: 2423.3 km / 1505.8 mi)

Feb 17 – Feb 28
Total days : 12 | Walking days: 6
Section distance : 143.6 km / 89.2 mi (official trail miles only)
Average distance per day : 23.9 km / 14.9 mi (official trail miles only)
Total distance : 2423.3 km / 1505.8 mi

Lake Coleridge was hot and empty, and so was the road I was trying to hitch out of. Rakaia River was blocking my way, and I was trying to hitch to Methven or Christchurch for a double zero and resupply, before finding my way back to the trail on the other side of the braided waterway. I walked up the road, loathe to stand still and wished for cars. It took some time and three awkward hitches to made it to the town of Methven, but I made it. I was looking forward to finally having a day off. Two days off, in fact. It was just before the weekend and I immediately booked the school bus shuttle back to the trail for Monday. Methven was an odd place. A few decent cafés, a tourist information centre, a horrible YHA and that was about it. I was soon reunited with all the hikers I knew and ran into Emma and Dan, and we would spend the following days running into each other a lot more, on every street corner in town.

Then the news emerged that would change all of our plans – a cyclone (which by the time it reached New Zealand had become ex-tropical cyclone Gita), was raging over the Pacific, destroying the Samoa Islands and Tonga, and was now bound for New Zealand, and the trail I was headed for was right in the middle of it. It was due to arrive late on Tuesday and I wondered if I could do the next short stretch, the 70 kilometres to Rangitata River, before it hit. It was a risk as I didn’t want to give up on my weekend zeros in town, which meant I didn’t have a lot of time left. As the warnings became more severe, I realised I had to wait it out.

Methven quickly accumulated a large amount of hikers, a state of emergency was declared and my two leisurely days of rest turned into six. Needing a change of scenery, I hitchhiked into Christchurch with Sunshine, where I did some shopping to replace my lost cap and raggedy socks, and stayed with Sunshine’s family friend Eunice, who took us into her house and offered us hot dinners with her family. We watched the storm from the city, where it had dwindled down to a mere slog of wind and rain.

When I finally returned to Methven it had been five days since I’d gone off-trail. The cyclone had just passed, and Sunshine decided to keep on hitching, right back to trail. Most hikers had set off that morning, back to the trail or skipping ahead for safety. I wasn’t too keen on continuing in the cyclone’s tail end, and stayed in town for one more night to hang out with another upshot of the cyclone’s mayhem: the arrival of Bee!

With the cyclone disrupting our progress, Bee had caught up and arrived in Methven. We shared a perfectly awkward hug in the town’s square and spent our last day off together, before finally boarding the school bus in the morning, back to the trailhead. It was just Bee, myself and Martin, who we’d shared the Whanganui canoe journey with. Because of land slips, the bus was only able to take us so far, and we had to walk the last 22 kilometres to the trailhead ourselves, and managed to get a hitch for the final six. I was the first to reach the trailhead.

Beginning the 22 km walk to the trailhead with Martin and Bee
Another slip ahead

Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that the six days off had not recovered my body and mind to full strength. Instead, I felt as though I’d never, ever, been on a hike before. My body was lethargic and shattered, my fitness levels at their all-time low. The easy hike felt endlessly more difficult than it should have, although the sights were nice: the land golden with tussock, the only bushes a scattering of prickly gorse and the nearby peaks powdered with a layer of fresh snow, courtesy of the cyclone. The views back towards Rakaia River were grand, and I felt a sense of calm as I watched the clouds cast small patches of shade over the mountains around.

The trail followed a 4WD track until it joined a stream, where I remained on the left side until I was forced to ford it just before Comyns hut, a deep and strong current that seemed a lot higher than it should be – another byproduct of the cyclone. I pitched my tent outside of the hut, a spot that seemed to be used for horses, too happy to be in my tent again to be bothered by the cold. Bee and Martin were in the hut, and we read the comments in the hut book on the ‘fun’ river section coming up. We had no idea what to expect after the cyclone, and I decided I couldn’t worry about it until I was actually there.

Looking back at Rakaia River
A layer of fresh snow from the cyclone
The first, very cute hut on trail! The hut book was signed by several people who’d been stuck in here for days during the cylone

The next morning I slept in. I was exhausted, and Bee and Martin said goodbye from a distance when they left around 7:30, when I was still huddled deep inside my sleeping bag. It was cold in the shade, and I didn’t leave until 9. I had no idea what the day would bring, so after packing I quickly moved on from the hut, turned around the corner and found myself face to face with Hakatere River, which had become a terrifyingly raging torrent. I didn’t know much about rivers, but I knew that this wasn’t what it was supposed to look like. What was undoubtedly usually a quiet stream burst against walls of rock and there was no way to remain on the side I was on – I had to cross.

The very first river crossing – pictures could never capture how powerful this water was

The ferocity of the river was well beyond my comfort zone, but I knew it had to be possible – Bee and Martin had earlier that day, and even more people the day before. I went in, one determined step after another, trying not to think about it, just focus on every single movement. The water was so cold the pain was immediate, and it reached up to my hips. I immediately felt the force of the water tearing at me, my trekking poles violently pushed along with the current every time I wanted to place one pole forward to take the next step. I ended up awkwardly clutching both poles with both hands, so I could use all my strength to gain stability and get through the river. When I reached the other end, I was terrified, and then I saw I immediately had to cross the river again.

After the first two crossings, I was shaking. A third one was right there, and again I had no choice but to cross. It looked even scarier than the first ones, so I looked around in the hope of finding any alternatives. The slopes around me were ragged, blocked by giant rocks or too steep to climb. I saw a faint route going up the steep scree slope right next to me. I couldn’t tell if it led anywhere, for all I knew there was a steep lethal drop on the other side, but I was too desperate not to try. I climbed carefully, and was ultimately met by a dense bush of prickly gorse, blocking my path. It was too steep to climb even higher so I favoured the gorse and single-mindedly pushed through the needle-like branches that unceremoniously stabbed me everywhere. When I got to the other side, I almost couldn’t believe there was actually a way down. It was my very first small victory that day.

A scree slope on one side, gorse bushes on the other…

This was only the start of the river section. The route turned into a continuous river crossing, with only short sections where I could continue along the riverbed, rock outcrops continuously obstructing the way through, forcing me into the water again. At times I used the river as the pathway, when there was no riverbed to walk on, and I stayed in the icy water, holding on to rocks and pushing against the current, one step at a time. At one point I was walking upstream when a huge rock, solid against the edge of river, blocked my way. The waterway left was raging and deep and seemingly impossible to get past. I turned back and decided that being stabbed by a field of gorse was the better option, until I’d forced myself past the first layers of spiteful bush and got deterred by an even denser wall of gorse. I had no option but to turn back, and plunged right into the water, where I hugged the giant rock as tight as I could while I curled around it, the water thrusting at me, and surprisingly made it to the other side, without much trouble.

After this, I felt as though I was getting a little better at each crossing. I will still terrified, but if I’d made it this far, I would make it all the way. My most immediate problem was now the icy cold water. It was so astonishingly painful that I could barely stand. The sun was mostly still stuck behind the mountains, so when I finally spotted a sunny area, I immediately stopped and rested in the warm glow. I took off my shoes and tried to warm up. When I checked the time I realised I’d left the hut 1.5 hours before. I’d only managed 1.1 kilometres.

Another spot where the only option was to walk through the river

Finally the river changes…

With the sun finally out I pushed through. I navigated through the water, the rocks and gorse, until I was faced with a last impossible crossing. Again, the water was too violent for me to risk, but I found a faint path leading up the steep incline above me, something that was probably formed by animals rather than humans, and it climbed up until I faced a sharp descend of dry rock and scree on the opposite side. I looked down and it was too sharp to walk down, so I sat on my bum and slid forward, one small movement at a time, feeling the loose grind and rocks waver and tumble from underneath me. I was holding my poles but they were in the way – I loved and hated those things. I threw them down the hill, and watched them disappear behind a rock below me, just out of sight, where the river turned a corner and swept violently. I stopped – had I just thrown my poles in the river? But there was no time to worry – I was halfway through the incline and I was holding on to loose rocks, hoping they would stay in place at least until I was done with them. The last bit was too steep and I plummeted down. My poles were right there, lying around the dirt.

After this the river began to change. As I moved upstream, the river became more braided, and with the passing of each side stream, the water levels lowered. The water remained swift but fording became more and more effortless with the stream below the knees. When the trail finally moved away from the river and began the steady climb up to Clent Hill Saddle, I could hardly believe the river was behind me, and I was looking forward to never, ever having to repeat that again. I checked my phone: it had taken me 6 hours to complete 7 kilometres through the river.

Finally I was able to just follow the trail. I walked through the tussock and a new plant I hadn’t seen before: Spaniard, which had sharp spines that pinched like thick needles, and were tough as nails. I kept hitting them, constantly, somehow they were impossible to avoid, but it was okay – it was still far better than being in the water. The best moment that day was when I sat down in the grass, and washed my shoes and socks clean of grind in a tiny stream that flowed under the ground. The way up to the saddle gifted some calm views of golden fields, while the descend on the other side revealed a large flat valley ahead of me. It took ages to get down, and I often lost the trail, and closer to the bottom, found myself stuck in bushes of gorse all over again.

The top of Clent Hill Saddle
A typical sidle, definitely not as scary as it looks

When I followed the 4WD track through the stretched out plains in the valley, light was beginning to fade. The land looked like disused farmland, and it was a nice change to the madness of the morning. I assumed Bee and Martin had made it to Manuka hut further on, so I walked, desperate to talk to someone about that horrible day and find out how they fared with all the crossings. As it got darker, my pace quickened until I was practically running. When the last light had disappeared and the battery on my phone had died, I gave up, and pitched my tent right next to the track, quickly getting inside my sleeping bag for rest, finally rest. When I charged my phone I checked the map – I was camped 400 meters from the turn-off to the hut.

Walking during dusk

The next morning I ran straight into Sunshine. It felt amazing to talk to someone and share our experiences of the previous day. She told me her story, which was even more horrid than mine. She’d begun the river section the day before me in even higher water, and it had taken her 6 hours to get through the first 1.5 kilometres. She’d got stuck and was forced to set up her tent on an island in the river. Bee and Martin passed her in her tent the next day, and they told her I was behind. She waited for an hour so we could tackle the rest together, but I never came. I’d been too far behind.

We walked and chatted until I had to stop to filter water, and we both spent the rest of the day moving along the vast, open spaces alone. The day was nice and easy, mostly through valleys, flat spacious land, and a short section of road. We caught up to Bee and Martin having lunch and shared more horror stories. The final stretch took us to the carpark next to Rangitata River, where we all set up our small shelters and withstood a night of storm – an intense wind and substantial downpour. Martin even had to relocate during the night, and none of us slept much. At the time, we didn’t quite realise how drastic the rainfall that night had been, and we had no idea what impact it’d had on the trail ahead.

Sunshine walking uphill!

My water source that day

A view over the last valley and Rangitata River
Following Potts River where it joins Rangitata in the distance

Rangitata River was another river that could not be forded, and required a long hitch around. The roads on the other side were little used, so Martin had booked a shuttle to get himself to the trailhead without having to wait around. Bee and I decided to join him, preferring to spend the money for a guaranteed ride, while Sunshine stayed behind to hitch. The ride was awful. Incessant chatter from the driver while he carelessly drove us into a gutter and got us stuck, after which he sped to the town of Geraldine.

We picked up some extra supplies and Danish Michael joined us back to the trail, who we all knew from the north island. When we finally arrived at the Bush Stream Track trailhead, the driver reckoned the river was too high to tackle and he told us about an alternative trail eight kilometres back, which reconnects with the TA just before Royal hut. The distance was about the same and apparently, there were a lot less river crossings. It was good to hear about and alternative but by now we’d all learned not to trust advice from anyone who wasn’t actually a thruhiker, so we first went off and attempted the official route.

Michael continued quickly. He was tall and fast, while Bee, Martin and I took a quick break to ready ourselves mentally and sort the new food into our packs. We set off into the sparse valley and after some time came across the river, and we faced our first crossings. They were scary. They were scarier than the alarming crossings through Hakatere River just two days before. This river was unnerving, the water raging and high, with lots of tiny rapids and whitewater. We struggled to get through but we made it – the river reaching up to our hips.

By the time we got to the third crossing, Michael had reappeared on the other side of the river and showed us where to cross. He told us the actual crossing, which was much further up, had been too deep for him, and he’d come back as he was worried about the crossings further up ahead. If he could barely cross this one, what were we going to encounter further up? Martin and Bee attempted to get to the other side – but failed. We tried out several different spots, scouring the river up and down, but we couldn’t make it across. Our only option seemed to be to head back, walk the eight kilometres down the road and take the alternative down Forest Creek Track.

Bee before the first river crossing. This river was a lot more terrifying than it probably looks in the picture
Martin getting to the other side
The river that defeated us
Martin and Bee on the rocky field, walking back to the road to try the other trail

When we got back to the road, Sunshine approached from a distance. By the time she’d caught up, Michael and Martin had both already continued walking, and Bee and I were left to tell her of the river ahead, and that we were aiming to do an alternative route instead. I urged Sunshine to come with, follow us to the other trail, but she was hesitating, unsure with the overload on information. Then Bee began to walk off as well, following the guys who were quickly moving ahead, and left me with Sunshine. I couldn’t quite believe it – why was everyone so willing to just leave her behind, after we’d all just experienced that river, and knew it wasn’t safe. Why couldn’t we all just take ten minutes to allow her some time to catch up and make the decision to come along? What was the rush? Even more annoyingly, I watched everyone walk off and knew I couldn’t lag behind either. I wasn’t confident in these rivers, and they all walked faster than me. I would clearly loose them if I didn’t run after them now. So I left Sunshine behind, told her to catch up, desperately hoping she would.

The four of us received a hitch part of the way from a local, and found the track to be huge rocky riverbed, with practically no trail markers. We followed the rocks and forded the superfluous braids several times. They were cold and we couldn’t see the bottom of the streams because of the murky water, but they were straightforward enough. It looked to be okay, the river crossings along this track were certainly easier than they’d been along Bush Stream Track. But by now, I’d spend hours walking after a bunch of others and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I liked these people but I just wasn’t made for it. I wasn’t sure why I was feeling so emotional about this – surely I should be able to hike with others for just the day – but clearly I couldn’t. I felt miserable. I felt like I’d lost my freedom, and the entire reason for me being out on the trail had been stripped off me. The others walked just a bit too fast for me, and I struggled to keep up, feeling unstable on the rocks. I hated how there wasn’t a moment for me to even stand still and look behind me, look at the views and take some pictures – all the other did, was walk. At that moment I really, desperately, wanted to be alone. When they stopped for a break, I told them to move on without me. We had passed the river crossings and the valley seemed to be a wide, easy walk at the foot of the mountains. I waited for the others to set off and watched them grow faint in the distance before I moved on alone.

Jumping over fences to get to the riverbed of the alternative track

I felt much better, instantly. I wandered upstream across this awful field of rock, but now I had all the time in the world, and everything was going to be okay. Until I hit the first river crossing after the break. I wasn’t expecting this – this was supposed to be the easier trail, the trail with just a few crossings as we’d been promised. But this one was swift and nasty and it wasn’t easy at all. It took some careful negotiating to get through, and when I got to the other side, I realised the river was only getting worse. The water was cold and deep and treacherous and the crossings just kept coming. I watched the others struggle in the distance and tried to catch up once again, I didn’t want to face these rivers on my own. I managed to catch up again as they manoeuvred across a terrifying braid, and I asked them to wait, and show me where to cross – despite me telling them to continue without me, I was upset they hadn’t stopped after realising the river had got so bad. But at least I was with the group again, and it made crossing this river a lot safer. I was happy not to be alone. For a short while we followed a defunct 4WD track until the crossings came back. It became a constant: another unavoidable crossing would have us walking up and down the river, trying out several locations to get across and only barely managing to get to the other side each time. We all hesitated at each other’s chosen spots, each with different opinions and different comfort zones. It was a truly nerve-wrecking afternoon. It this track was this bad, I wondered how bad the official route was?

It took all day to get to the other end of the track. We had begun the Forest Creek Track at three, and it was now almost seven. Finally we saw the trail markers on the other side of the river, directing the track away from the river and up into the mountains. We had one last hurdle to cross: between us and the very end of this horrid river trail was one more crossing. And it was the worst crossing we had seen so far. Everything was white water, and it was nothing less than that very crossing on the official route that had made us turn around to take this trail instead. In fact, it was probably worse, but we had grown accustomed to highly distressing crossings by now. The meandering river was barricaded in by two rock faces, so the stretch in which we could cross was limited, and the river raged violently the entire way. When we got to the far end, I didn’t care anymore – probably none of us cared anymore – we had made it this far, and we were going to cross this river. Step by step we pushed through the torrent, one after another, desperate to start climbing up that mountain, to get away from all this.

The last river crossing – a trail marker points towards the mountain!
Just one impossible river to cross
WE MADE IT

It felt amazing to be on the other side. We were safe, at last. We quickly moved up the steep ascend and ate sweets to keep up morale. We walked through a thickening fog and kept going and going. I just wanted to stop, set up my tent and leave this day behind me but I got stuck following the others as they went off track to find a private hut we’d seen on the map. We meandered through tiny forests and jumped over creeks to find this ramshackle place, where they lit a fire and I stayed outside, wishing for a better day tomorrow.

Celebrating getting away from the river

Looking back on the river
Camped at the private hut

When I woke up I was purposely slow. I assumed the others would move on but they didn’t, and it wasn’t until much later that Bee told me they were taking it easy for me, so we could get back to the TA as a group. It was a noble idea, although a little bit late, and something they should’ve shared with me, because I would’ve either told them not to wait, or agreed on a time to head out. We were now far away from the river and would connect back with the TA soon enough. I couldn’t wait to truly be alone again.

We left together and moved through the cold, wet tussock, while everything was shrouded in a thick mist. There was just one pass to get to before connecting back to the TA, Bullock Bow Saddle, and as we slowly climbed up, we suddenly emerged above the clouds, and everything changed. The clouds hugged the valley below and we continued to the other side of the mountain, where everything was different: fresh and sunny, a trail carved from pink rocks and mountains in all sorts of browns broken up with small lakes, stretching far ahead toward snowy mountain tops. It was beautiful.

The other side of the mountain is very different… and completely without fog!

Finally back on the TA!
Made it to Royal hut

The others were far ahead now, and I felt relief with being by myself once again. I celebrated by taking all the pictures I could, while winding down the mountain, and slowly reached the TA again. It felt good to be back. I quickly stopped at Royal hut and ate, and continued through the tussock up the small stream as it moved towards Stag Saddle, the highest point on the TA at 1925m. It was a bit of an anti-climax. The views were enveloped by a mist and I later heard there’s a marvellous view of the bright blue Lake Tekapo in the far distance, which I couldn’t see at all. Al I saw was rocks and mist and tussock stretching out ahead of me, nothing too dramatic or fantastical.

Waking towards Stag Saddle
Looking back over the mountains
I was so unimpressed with the views from the TA’s highest point – Stag Saddle, that I didn’t even bother to take a better picture
The views ahead, the ridgeline with the alternative trail is to the right

The trail officially moved down from the pass, right into the valley, but there was a more interesting alternative that followed the unmarked ridgeline instead, which ran parallel to the trail. There was so much mist I wasn’t sure what to do, until I saw Bee and Martin in the far distance approaching the top, and I decided to do the same.

I made my own route across the field of rocks to get there, and walked along the mountain’s spine, watching the clouds at lower level move in and out, and giving me temporary views of the mountain ranges beyond, one of which was Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. Luckily the path was well-trodden and easier to follow than I’d expected, and I slowly wound down to the small Camp Stream hut, where I found everyone I’d started with, once again.

Close-up of the mountains emerging from the fog in the far distance – is this Mount Cook?

Camp Stream hut

There was a surprise as well, and Nobu and Kei were also at the hut. They’d also done the Hakatere River section the day Sunshine did, and I couldn’t believe they managed to get through all those crossings. These two looked so innocent but they were tough as nails. They had also just done the Bush Creek Track, and told us there were only about six or seven crossings, and they’d made it through all of them. Evidently, the easier alternative wasn’t easier at all. We’d had far, far more than seven river crossings.

It had felt like one of the longest days on trail, but after the past few days I wanted to recharge so I bid everyone goodbye, and continued on from the hut, opting to walk into the evening and wild camp further up. I got my feet wet once again as I waded through another stream and continued to walk across the valley until the trail steeply sidled up a tricky path, to the top of the mountain, a plateau that stretched across for miles, with grand views over Lake Tekapo. Everything was exposed here, and although I worried about getting stuck in a storm, I found a spot in a large clearing, somewhat sheltered, and found a trickle of water. I set up my tent and watched the skies turn to red as the sun faded. I was so happy this stretch was almost over. At night I heard some odd noises, as though a wallaby was running around outside, but by the time I dared to peek outside, everything was clear.

Looking back at where I came from – the hut was beyond the curve in the river
Views from the plateau – Lake Tekapo in the lifting fog

The next day I cruised across the plateau. It was nice, simple, a good time to breath out. I walked across the tussock and then, as the temperatures increased once again, walked the road for the final stretch into the town of Lake Tekapo. I was the first to arrive. The blue lake was popular and it was crowded with tourists but I didn’t care, I staunchly walked past and collapsed at a café. It was over. And Lake Tekapo was the beginning of a whole new stretch.

Lake Tekapo!

The last road to town

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.

One thought on “Te Araroa (Part 15) : Rivers and Cyclones Do Not Match, day 101-112

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