Day 113 : Lake Tekapo – Hayman Road / Lake Pukati (37.5 km / 23.3 mi – Total: 2460.8 km / 1529.1 mi)
Day 114 : Hayman Road / Lake Pukati – Twizel (16.9 km / 10.5 mi – Total: 2477.7 km / 1539.6 mi)
Day 115 : Twizel – before Freehold Creek (36 km / 22.4 mi – Total: 2513.7 km / 1562 mi)
Day 116 : before Freehold Creek – Ireland Bridge (off-trail) (27.8 km / 17.3 mi – Total: 2534.7 km / 1575 mi)
Feb 29 – Mar 4
Total days : 4 | Walking days: 4
Section distance : 111.4 km / 69.2 mi (official trail miles only)
Average distance per day : 27.9 km / 17.3 mi (official trail miles only)
Total distance : 2534.7 km / 1575 mi
It was time for another change of pace. I’d climbed the most beautiful passes along the TA, survived cyclone-enhanced rivers and I was inching very close towards that coveted 2500 kilometre mark. The next stretch would interlock a number of cities along easy paths, and it was quite nice to slow down, to just walk without obstacles or worrying about them. It started that first day out of Lake Tekapo, which took me along the vividly blue, man-made Tekapo Canal, a long, exposed walk that burnt me in the heat of day. It was meant to be a long day – there was no camping allowed for about 43 kilometres, until Pines Camp Area at the bottom of Lake Pukati.
I didn’t see many people along the way, but I met several cyclists. The first was a Tour Aotearoa rider – which was the cyclist version of the TA, and I could hardly believe he was about to cover the length of New Zealand in a matter of weeks, while it was taking me many months. I was always fascinated by this stark difference. Walking was slow, but I liked it because of its simplicity, and apart from carrying a backpack, you didn’t have to rely on any other gear. You just got up and walked. I then met a woman on a bike who was riding around for several months with no fixed plans. She was intrigued by my pack, and how I was able to fit everything I needed in there. She told me about an apple tree that I would pass soon, and implored me to pick some. She was kind of crazy but I liked it.
This is how that first day led me to a few unconventional highlights. First, I found the apple tree. It was huge, and heavy with small apples everywhere. I wasn’t much of an apple person, but when I passed, I picked a bunch, and surprised myself devouring them all as I walked along. I couldn’t believe I’d been able to just pick these apples for free, and that they had the perfect sour tang. And I couldn’t believe that my body was just wolfing down these apples, one after another. Further up, there was another apple tree which had even bigger ones, and I kept a bunch for later. I was so happy, I was so happy over these apples.
Energised from the fresh and free fruit, I made it to the walking paths that would edge around Lake Pukati for almost 14 kilometres, until I’d reach the Pines campsite. Here it was easy walking, the windy paths leading through the trees, with the most joyful addition I could ever imagine: scores of bunnies dotted the paths and crowded the wooded riverside, all alert and still, until they noticed me and swiftly hopped away. It was so cute, it was almost better than Waiau Pass. As I continued walking I texted with Bee – she was at the Pines campsite with Martin, and it was horrible – crowded with tourists, and horribly noisy. I began to look around – people were camped all around the lake here, and I wondered if I could too. I took my phone and looked it up online, it seemed as though it was allowed for RVs only. I hesitated. Pines campsite sounded ghastly, and I could camp with all the bunnies here. I didn’t like doing something that wasn’t allowed, but I decided to risk it and hid in the trees, while all the bunny rabbits miraculously disappeared.
The next day was a short and easy walk into Twizel. The trail followed an exposed track though vast, dry land, littered with Christmas trees – it wasn’t as good as bunnies, but it was close. I was happy when I reached town and I could sit in a café, breathe in and drink a coffee, before locating the local campsite and chatting with some of the other hikers.
After Twizel the route went from lake to lake, and the landscape deteriorated into little-used land, backroads that appeared decayed and discarded, whatever left to fend for themselves. It felt odd walking there, like someone was watching me. When I passed Lake Ohau the sights were handsome and dramatic, although they were marred with the constant presence of the prickly bushes – there was something gloomy about the landscape, and there was something gloomy about the day.
I was walking towards the trailhead that would take me through Ahuriri Valley, and I continued until late, bypassing the DOC campsite along the lake, in favour of finding a wild camp spot at the start of the trail. I was tired after the long day and I was looking forward to sleeping in the wild, wherever I could find a spot that fit my tent. As I moved along the trail and the darkening trees I saw Hart sitting at a picnic table. Hart was another hiker I’d been running into sporadically on the south island, and he had set up in the trees behind the table, a lovely little spot. I decided to walk on a little longer and get closer to Freehold Creek so I could get water. When I reached the stream, I looked around for a spot, but saw so much recent storm damage that I got too scared about falling tree limbs, and instead moved into the next open field.
Suddenly, thunder roared in the distance. I looked into the horizon where the sky was dark and worried. It wasn’t supposed to thunder tonight, but that didn’t mean anything. If the thunder moved towards me, I wouldn’t be safe anywhere – camping under the trees would be even more dangerous than I already feared it was, and staying in the open field would be equally bad. I began to run towards the large bushes and low trees in the field – what if I set up here? The bushes were a little taller than me, but not tall enough to crush me to my death. I walked back and forth in the overgrown land, trying to find a flat spot but after endless scouring, I found nothing. So I ran, once again, back to Hart, back to the safety of someone else. I set up next to the picnic table, next to the trees, and could only hope for the best.
The thunder didn’t move closer overnight. I woke up to a perfect, quiet morning as the sun rose over the lake and I packed up quietly and went back into the forest, up the steep paths and the fields of rock. I saw Bee again, and Martin, and when I left the trees behind me, a wonderful scene opened up in front of me: fresh rocky mountains and a rippling stream to the side. It was a little like a fairytale, even though it was mostly a repeat of the landscapes I’d seen before. In front of me were a few craggy peaks, and behind me, Lake Ohau peeked out from between the mountains in the far distance.
I moved up the mountain first, following the path into East Ahuriri Valley, before beginning the long descend, following the East Branch of the Ahuriri River. It turned into a difficult day. The path down kept jumping from one side of the river to the other, even thought it didn’t need to. I waded through the stream over and over because it was easier to follow the path carved underfoot than creating my own, but it was frustrating to encounter a trail made much more difficult than it needed to be. I was tired quickly, and with all the crossings, it felt as though the trail just didn’t want to end.
But there was one other obstacle I’d have to face that day. It was the last big river crossing, and the widest crossing on the TA. One more river, at the end of this very trail. After all the rivers I had forded in the previous sections, I finally hoped to put them behind me. The only question was, whether I’d actually be able to cross it. Three days earlier it’d been unpassable, and I had no idea what I was going to encounter when I got there. As I got closer to Ahuriri River, I met two northbounders and I was quick to ask them about the crossing. They immediately put me at ease – it was only knee-deep for them, and they didn’t seem at at frazzled by it. They said two other hikers showed them where to cross, and I assumed they were talking about Bee and Martin. Evidently, everyone was getting through the river today.
Just a few kilometres later, I was there. I stood on top of a higher plateau and looked down onto the wide, light blue river moving steadily ahead of me. As I drew nearer I saw Bee on the other side setting up camp, and she motioned me to a spot in the river where the waterway parted, where she gestured a diagonal crossing across the braids. I looked at the water in front of me and it looked deep. The current was swift and the island in the middle of the river was far. Of all the places I could cross this river, this was not the one I would’ve chosen. I looked ahead and saw a spot were the two braids met again, which looked less deep, less terrifying, but if Bee crossed here, this was likely the spot the northbounders had taken as well, and I could only assume this was the spot to take. I decided to go for it, and grabbed my one trekking pole. My second pole had just broken a few days before. The separate parts pulled apart and no longer twist-and-locked, the renowned Kathmandu quality speaking volumes. In a river like this I was handicapped with just one pole, but I had no choice. I stepped in the water, and immediately felt the rocks slipping underneath me. I moved ahead, one small step at a time, my two hands clutching the one pole in front of me, balancing, and soon found myself in hip deep water. This wasn’t right. I felt the current pull me backwards while I looked at the distance I still had to cover to get to the other side. The island was far, frightfully far, and I saw the current grow stronger in between. I looked back at where I’d come from, I was hardly a few meters from the edge. I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I had to go back.
I felt beat when I got back to shore, drenched and heavy. I waved Bee goodbye and cried as I walked downstream. I didn’t want to give up but I knew I wasn’t going to make it across this river. I tried once more, further downstream where the river braided again, and failed a second time. The river had defeated me.
My only option left was to detour to Ireland Bridge, five kilometres downstream. I’d imagined a path leading alongside the river, but it was just the rocky riverbed, and it wasn’t fast terrain. The river roared next to me, growing only larger and stronger as I moved downstream with it, until I noticed a bend in the river ahead of me. The riverbed on my side practically disappeared, turning into a vertical slope of scree in the distance. It looked as though there was nowhere to walk. I wondered if I should keep going, or if I should climb up the steep incline right next to me now and continue at higher level in the forest on top of the plateau. I made the rash decision to get to higher level, and pulled myself up in the loose soil in between the shrubbery. This was definitely not the trail.
When I finally reached the top, the forest was fenced off and the edges of the platform crumbled down the chasm. I jumped the fence, and ran, ran through the forest, the thick rows of dying trees, in fear of someone seeing me. It took an hour to get through, until the forest ended and the land steadily angled down again and I found myself joining the river once more. Finally I’d reached Ireland Bridge, and finally I’d got to the other side of the river.