Day 117 : Ireland Bridge (off-trail) – Melina Ridge Junction (26.3 km / 16.3 mi – Total: 2561 km / 1591.3 mi) (official trail miles only)
Day 118 : Melina Ridge Junction – Pakituhi hut (22.7 km / 14.1 mi – Total: 2583.7 km / 1605.4 mi)
Day 119 : Pakituhi hut – Albert Town (23.4 km / 14.5 mi – Total: 2607.1 km / 1620 mi)
Day 120 : Albert Town – Wanaka (11.9 km / 7.4 mi – Total: 2619 km / 1627.4 mi)
Day 121 : Wanaka – Fern Burn hut (24.6 km / 15.3 mi – Total: 2643.6 km / 1642.7 mi)
Day 122 : Fern Burn hut – Highland Creek hut (10 km / 6.2 mi – Total: 2649.6 km / 1646.4 mi)
Day 123 : Highland Creek hut – Roses hut (10.2 km / 6.4 mi – Total: 2659.8 km / 1652.7 mi)
Day 124 : Roses hut – Big Hill Walkway (19.4 km / 12.1 mi – Total: 2679.2 km / 1664.8 mi)
Day 125 : Big Hill Walkway – Queenstown (31.8 km / 19.8 mi – Total: 2711 km / 1684.5 mi)
Day 126 : Zero day
Mar 5 – Mar 14
Total days : 10 | Walking days: 9
Section distance : 176.3 km / 109.5 mi (official trail miles only)
Average distance per day : 19.6 km / 12.2 mi (official trail miles only)
Total distance : 2711 km / 1684.5 mi
I woke up in a field next to Ahuriri River, a stone’s throw from Ireland Bridge. I was five kilometres off trail. The previous day I’d been forced to walk the detour to the bridge when I failed to ford the river, and now I had to walk back to the TA. It was a demoralising start, especially since several other hikers managed to cross the river just fine, moments before me. I followed the empty gravel road upstream, trying to stay positive in sight of the new day but it was difficult not to feel discouraged, especially when I made the mistake of attempting a shortcut through private land – desperate to shave off a few of the extra kilometres and hours the detour had forced upon me. It took two kilometres of following the station road until I found the path in the distance obstructed by fences and I felt too uncomfortable to continue. I knew I had to return to the road. Inadvertently, I had made my route back even longer than it already was.
Soon my crestfallen mood only got amplified. After the additional two hours I found the TA again and followed the Timaru Track over rugged farmland up the hills. It was strenuous. I was hungry and worn out and even though I rested along the way and sat down to eat, it didn’t help. Something was different. I felt as though something was slowly defeating me, and I couldn’t go back to being myself anymore. I passed the tiny Tin hut at the foot of a climb and saw Garrett, a hiker I’d met for the first time some days before. He was happy. His face glowed and I watched him as he hiked, purposely slow, taking his time to stop and look around him. It was a little odd, but I liked it, because I did the same – I was always looking back to take in the views, to see the changing landscapes from different angles.
We leapfrogged a few times as we moved up the hill, and seeing our differences, I began to grasp how distinctly unhappy I was. Garrett was the polar opposite of me at that point – he saw the same landscapes in the same sun and appreciated them with all his might, while I felt depleted and I had no idea why I couldn’t do the same. I could only cry as I moved along the track, crawling up that final black rock pass until I reached the high point of Martha Saddle. I hadn’t expected a pass like that, or the views that came with it. The pass itself was all granite and rugged, and the views towards the other side like a carefully mowed lawn. It was simple yet spectacular, but only somewhere deep down inside of me did it actually register as such. It became one of my favourite views on trail, but only in retrospect.
Luckily it was easier to move down the switchbacks on the other side, and I headed from the almost black rock into the green layers of mountaintops. I followed the river and crossed rocky fields that looked like avalanche slides where side streams seemed to have been obliterated by storms.
I passed Top Timaru hut, the place where everyone I knew would be by now, but I passed by without saying hello. I moved into woods instead, feeling too lonely in my own dejected emotions to be around people. It grew dark as the path turned into a challenging sidle – the steep and angled path threatening scary slips. Out of all the sidles along the TA, this was the one section where I felt unsure of my footing. I tried to get as far as possible and walked until nightfall, when I improvised a small campsite next to the stream, at the bottom of the forest.
The next morning I rose in the dark. The trail had been dipping in and out of Timaru River, meandering alongside the water and forcing constant crossings, and it would continue to do this throughout the morning. The last river crossing had been noted as a challenging one by someone on the Guthook app, and after all the river crossings I’d faced in the past week, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d hoped that by starting early I would have other hikers behind me. If any of the crossing proved to be too much, I could wait for them to catch up and cross together. But as I packed my things, it simply wouldn’t get light. I realised that daylight hours were dwindling and with the track too hazardous in low light, I waited in my tent for the darkness to pass.
When the faintest of light emerged, I heard a commotion and watched Bee and Martin ambling down the trail with their headlights on. Not long after, Nobu and Kei passed. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been up since before dawn and still I’d find myself behind everyone else, and alone to face the river. I quickly stuffed the last items in my pack but I already knew I would never catch up to the others. I was going to have to do this on my own.
The trail continued next to the river for another ten kilometres, and soon it began to rain. It was a steady rain that increased in strength throughout the day, and the trail was as rough as it’d been the night before. Inconsistent and steep, and in the rain the ground, rocks and roots became slippery and I had to stay alert. Despite everything, I enjoyed the trail. The forest was pretty and I felt as though I was moving along quite well. I climbed the boulders that blocked my way and traversed the steep inclines above the river, up and down, crossing the swift and cold water before continuing on the other side. I approached the section moment by moment – with every cold ford, I had battled through another obstacle, and every sidle along the river’s curve got me a step closer to the end. I remember the moment when I realised I was going up, and the trail was no longer going to go down – and I’d finished the river section. That last crossing had hardly registered. It was a little deeper than the others, just above the knee, but it was a straight-forward plough through the current which I managed with just one pole. It hadn’t been terrifying at all.
The next challenge was imminent: a 600 metre elevation over two kilometres, a near vertical scramble to the old mice-infested Stodys hut. The way the trees looked along the rocky climb up made it look like my very first hike in South Korea, and I wished the weather had been better so I could’ve enjoyed it more. Instead, the higher I got, the worse the conditions. It was rainy and grey, and after a quick, miserable stop at the empty hut, I felt forced to continue, even though I really didn’t want to. I went up in thick fog as a ferocious wind cut through my layers. I crouched down in an attempt to shelter, moving a fast as I could while trying to stay low to the ground. Everything around me was white, and the views I was supposed to appreciate from Breast Hill over Lake Hawea were entirely concealed by the thick fog. When I got close to Pakituhi hut, I began to run, desperate for shelter.
When I barged through the door, the hut was filled with damp hikers and sodden gear. Inside was cold but at least it was safe from the freezing temperatures. Everyone I’d seen that morning was there, and the rest of the people were strangers on shorter hikes. I sat on a bench, feeling the low temperatures cling to my raw skin while I made dinner alongside the others. It was a good time for an announcement I’d been wanting to make. I’d had a recent inspiration – I finally knew what Bee’s trail name should be. As the person who’d spent the most time with her on the TA, I felt I was the right person to give her her new hiking identity. We’d been calling her Bee as a trail name but really it was her actual name, just spelled differently. Now I knew what it had to be: Speedy. Bee was Speedy. She did everything fast-paced. Ten minutes after waking up, she’d be stuffing her tent in her pack and be on her way. In town, she wolfed down plates of food while others were still reaching for their cutlery. She speed-read her books. In fact, she did pretty much everything fast, apart from hiking. It was perfect. From now on, Bee would be Speedy.
I slept outside that night. Despite the horrible conditions and one free bunk, I set up my tent in the rain and stayed in the wind and freezing cold, barely sleeping with a mouse running across the mesh inner tent. I couldn’t help but still prefer to sleep outdoors. To me it was key to the entire experience. When I woke up, the weather hadn’t improved. I left in the fog, and wore every single layer I owned. The trail descended along a rocky and precariously steep route all the way down to Lake Hawea. The path wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was hugely time consuming. As I moved lower the fog began to lift, and tourists in t-shirts headed in the opposite direction, to Breast Hill. If the conditions on top didn’t improve soon, their lack of clothing and supplies would prove a pretty miserable mistake.
Once I’d reached the lake, it was an easy walk to town, then a flat cycle path into Albert Town. It was hot now, the weather dramatically different at lower elevation, and I regretted pushing on the night before, missing out on the views over the lake. The next day I walked into Wanaka quickly, following yet another smooth trail that linked the small towns, and I nabbed the last campsite in town, while it heaved with visitors and tourists because of several events. Even though the past few days had been a lot less demanding, I still felt exhausted and weary, and I’d hoped to get a day off to rest my tired body. Unfortunately the busy events and limited accommodation meant I only managed one relaxed afternoon, and I walked on the following day. I’d have to wait several more days to reach Queenstown, where I would finally be able to rest.
On my way out of Wanaka, I felt heavy. The exhaustion had been piling up, and despite the easy days I didn’t feel any better than I did on the Timaru Track. I followed the route out of town, passed the famous Wanaka tree sitting obediently in the water, and clung to the lake’s shore lines until I reached crummy Glendhu Bay and changed direction, entering Motatapu Track. I would spend the following days moving along the many ups and downs of the tussock lined trail and was hoping to wild camp along the day, giving myself the freedom I needed to do the days however short or long I was capable of, until the sign at the entrance told me no wild camping was allowed outside of the huts. I was disappointment. It was supposed to be a tough track and by the time I reached the trailhead, I was already spent.
I decided to make it to the first hut, and followed the ugly farmland trail into a glorious forest where I ached to set up my tent, the umbrella of the trees making a perfect shelter. I moved on to find myself on an open spaced sidle when Isha suddenly popped up behind me, and led us to the first hut. I felt depleted. I talked to Speedy and we both regretted not staying in Wanaka for a rest day, and I told her how horrible I felt, as though all my reserves had left me and I was running on empty, a deficit not only physical but also mental. She gave me the best advice anyone could have given me: go slow, she said. Just go slow.
I woke up the following day and stayed huddled in my quilt, waiting for time to pass, waiting for my body to ready to itself and move out of free will. I didn’t move much until the sun hit my tent and began to warm it up, and Isha came over to see about my plans. She was planning on going slow as well and was headed to the next hut, only six kilometres away. I planned to do the same. It was the day the yearly marathon would pass through the trail and by the time I left my tent all the participants had already passed, and I hadn’t even heard a single one of them. That slow morning was comforting, just being there, without hurry, without expectation. By the time I left, it was almost noon.
It was supposed to take four hours to Highland Creek hut, and I only had one big up and down in between. It was sunny, the heat stroked me, and the landscape folded into a dramatic mountainscape, a desert dotted with clumps of grass, the green and yellow moonscape that was so typical of this area.
While I climbed away from the hut, I knew that something was wrong. I’d begun to feel depleted during Timaru Track, but this was different. I didn’t just need a lot of rest, or more food. I could barely walk – every single step uphill required an equal moment of rest, as though I had nothing left in me to continue. When two other hikers passed, I said it out loud: I feel like I’m having a trail burnout, I need to go slow. But it wasn’t just a trailburn, I just didn’t know it yet. I thought it had been the lows after the highs, the burdensome tracks after the beautiful ones, or perhaps the long wait during the cyclone, and the strenuous days after it, when I faced the terrifying river crossings. Perhaps it was the fact that for the last two years I had mostly just walked. After having never hiked in my life, I’d gone through all sorts of different trails in different places. Maybe it was all of that combined. But still, even after all that walking, I wasn’t supposed to feel like this. I wasn’t supposed to feel like I was going to fall apart every time I looked at the slightest upward trail, or a rock on the ground I’d have to manoeuvre around. It wasn’t normal. But I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that what I had wasn’t going to get any better with a few days of rest and more, nutritious food. I didn’t know that it would take another six months after finishing the trail to feel better, to finally feel as though something had shifted and something had returned I barely knew was still missing. I had no idea when I walked up that mountain, that it was so much more than just being tired, that it was more than just a trailburn. That something inside of me had changed, and it would stay with me for the rest of my hike.
I spent five hours manoeuvring the mountain and covering the six kilometres to Highland Creek hut, and I set up my tent in the sun overlooking the craggy range across the river. I slept badly because of a screeching possum and got up late again. This time I hiked two ups and down through the layered landscape to Roses hut, another ten kilometres away. It was warm, another beautiful day with extraordinary views that I managed to appreciate only because I had forced myself to go slow. I still lacked energy and struggled through, but taking it slow was the only thing that kept me going. It was the best thing I could’ve done.
After Roses hut I was nearing the end of the Motatapu track, and my short days were behind me. I had to do a normal day to get as close as possible to Arrowtown, after which Queenstown would be only one more day away. I left the hut and climbed up the tussock hill behind it, away from the valley and its widespread vistas. I progressed along the path as it led over the hills, and climbed down towards another river section. I saw my first northbound TA hikers here, and it made me realise how close to the end I was: they looked so clean, their packs and clothes still so colourful, not yet covered in dirt or faded by the sun.
I had a choice when I started the river section. There were two trails. I could walk through the river, or take the sidle at higher level instead. I was relieved to get away from the river, and chose the sidle, which soon proved a huge mistake. The trail was overgrown, often eroded and parts looked like they had been randomly hacked out of the ground. It felt like a constant bushwhack while the river below flowed silently, and the water was low.
At the end at the track I waded through the river and passed through Macetown. It was an odd place. A historic uninhabited gold mining town with some buildings left that functioned as an open-air museum. I followed a 4WD track out, and struggled to find the trail that continued to Big Hill Saddle. I had to fight my way through a wooded area without a trail, before I found the badly signposted route commencing through a derelict homestead, another uncomfortable place to be.
The trail was horrible here, unmaintained, the tussock high and not the dreamy sort, but the ugly stuff on uneven ground that was difficult to move through. I was happy when I reached Big Hill Saddle much faster than I’d expected, and that the other side of the hill proved to be a world of difference: suddenly I had joined a maze of local trails that overlooked the lake and town in the distance. I followed the paths, in and out of small forested sections until I found a camp spot at the very last moment, just a few kilometres before the historic and touristy Arrowtown, and just before I’d join the popular jogging routes from town.
It was just one more day to Queenstown, and one more day to finally get some rest. I still hoped I’d overcome my burnout, although I’d soon realise it was too late for that. The few slower days had helped to get through the worst moments, but I was still exhausted, and I was just going through the movement of walking and progressing through the trail. At least the day into Queenstown was going to be straight forward. Another flat route between two towns.
I was just walking out of town when I ran into another hiker. It was Lost Kiwi. I’d never met him but I knew he was on the trail somewhere, and he recognised me from Instagram, from those early days when I was still walking around with a wooden stick. We ended up walking together for the rest of the day, and for once it was nice to have some distraction, to chat to someone, even though it caused us to make a few wrong turns and miss the entire trail around Lake Hayes, ending up following an old version of the TA instead. It didn’t matter. When we arrived in Queenstown I clonked down on a bench. Finally, rest.