Day 132 : Zero day
Day 133 : Princhester Road – Takitimu Forest (15.7 km / 9.8 mi – Total: 2822.8 km / 1754 mi)
Day 134 : Takitimu Forest – Lower Wairaki hut (19.5 km / 12.1mi – Total: 2842.3 km / 1766.1 mi)
Day 135 : Lower Wairaki hut – Telford campsite (7.9 km / 4.9 mi – Total: 2850.2 km / 1771 mi)
Day 136 : Telford campsite – Birchwood Station cabin (26.9 km / 16.7 mi – Total: 2877.1 km / 1787.7 mi)
Mar 20 – Mar 24
Total days : 5 | Walking days: 4
Section distance : 70 km / 43.5 mi
Average distance per day : 17.5 km / 10.9 mi
Total distance : 2877.1 km / 1787.7 mi
Despite the near empty road, I ended up with a carefree hitch from a Belgium girl, who took me all the way into Te Anau. It was nice to be off trail, and I immediately prioritised the supermarket where I got myself a large tub of tiramisu ice cream. I checked into one of the town’s campsites, and by the time I was finished setting up, showering and eating, it was too late to join Sunshine who was in a café with a group of others. At least I knew I was in the same place, I had temporarily caught up with them.
The next morning I packed up early and went to a café. Sunshine, Nobu and Kei were headed back to the trail but I had a few things to arrange before continuing myself. The last Tracknet bus back to Princhester Road would leave at 5pm so I could take a half day off. I‘d spent most of the hike in New Zealand working on an article for Dutch Glamour, and I’d promised to sent a final edit (it was my story about how I got introduced to hiking and walked around Tasmania – you can find the translation into English here if you’d like to read it). While I sat writing, the weather outside deteriorated. Showers turned into the type of steady grey downpour that was one of the most dispiriting conditions to hike in – and I was happy to be inside. As I watched time go by and the weather remained unchanged, I realised it hardly made a difference if I stayed in town for the night or moved on. By then, I’d only make it to the first hut, less than six kilometres in. I could easily add that short distance to the next day’s hike. I finished the story and went back to the campsite, and set up in the exact same spot as the night before.
When I woke again it was still dark and quiet. My tent was dry. But by the time I returned from the washrooms it had begun to rain once again, and I hesitantly packed up, joining the long row of people awaiting tourist buses for day trips. When we reached the trailhead I was the only person to get dropped off, and the driver wished me luck. It was still dark, it was cold and it rained. The day had hardly started and it was already miserable.
I walked the monotonous 4WD track through sodden farmland while the cold grew more intense. By the time I reached Lower Princhester hut it was just before nine, less than and hour and a half later. I was drenched, the rain already permeating my rainproof shell and I was so undercooled that I couldn’t go on. I found shelter in the hut, which was small and old, and frightfully cold, but at least it protected me from the rain and wind. Inside, I sat on the one old chair and waited. Everything I wore, my pack, it was all saturated with heavy, cold rain. I wanted to dry my things, shed a few layers but it was no use – it was too damp to dry.
I desperately wanted to continue. Aparima hut was 17 kilometres away, an 8 hour hike according to the signs. It was too early to stop, plus I didn’t want to fall too far behind of the others. Isha had introduced the idea for our group to finish together when we were hiking the Motatapu Track. I’d never considered it myself, always assuming I’d just finish on my own, the same way I’d started the trail, but the idea had grown on me. Speedy, Isha, Nobu and Kei, Sunshine and Emma and Dan. These were the people that I’d been seeing from the start, and they’d become a huge part of the trail. We would all be finishing days from each other anyways, so why not finish together?
I’d been texting with Speedy about slowing down a little, but I knew I had to catch up to Sunshine. The three of us were the only ones that didn’t skip parts of the trail, so I needed to close in on them. But I could only do that if I left the hut and walked. I had a feeling they would all continue walking despite the conditions so I kept going outside, attempting to leave, but every time the frigid temperature sucked every last iota of warmth out of me and every time I knew it was impossible, I was not capable of hiking in these conditions.
The next moment a car approached and three people burst inside, carrying sleeping bags and plonking down on the beds. I wasn’t sure what was going on, they were loud and busy, sharing food, invading my solemn solace. Apparently, they had just finished hiking the TA, and for some reason didn’t sleep much the night before, so decided to drop by the hut for a few hours to nap. As they turned quiet I realised I needed warmth as well. I took off my wet clothes, lay inside my quilt on one of the bunks and closed my eyes.
When I opened them it was almost 2 pm, and I knew it was my last chance to leave. The rain had finally calmed and Aparima hut was 17 kilometres away. I still had a chance of making it. I put my damp clothes back on and shivered as I stepped outside. But it felt better. The edge had been taken off a little, the temperature must’ve risen by a few degrees. I entered Takitimu forest where the umbrella of the trees kept me safe from the wind and the spattering of sporadic rain. It was a lovely stretch.
It wasn’t until I reached the exposed patches of tussock that it got difficult again. The rain had returned, and the tussock was high and wet, the signposts irregular and difficult to spot. I waded through small but unforgiving streams, icy cold and numbing. I meandered through the tracks, finding my way by slogging through the worst puddles of relentless mud underfoot. It was horrible.
It was already 7 pm when I was stopped by a stream, still another six kilometres from the hut. It looked like the type of stream that was barely there in normal conditions, but now it was deep and swift and I couldn’t even find a spot suitable to lower myself into the water. As I walked up and down, I began to realise it wasn’t going to happen. Even if I got across and continued to the hut, it would take at least another two hours at the pace I was going, and half of that I’d have to hike in the dark. If the trail was anything like I’d just passed, I would never find the way. Even more concerning was how deeply cold I was. The past few hours had drained everything out of me and I feared I was borderline hyperthermic. I had to stop walking.
I was close to a small forest where I found a flat spot right next to the tree line. I erected my tent and crawled inside, every movement in slow motion, everything stiff and cold. Inside, I wrapped plastic bags around my feet and stomped them on the ground until I got the feeling back in them again. I kept them wrapped in plastic all night, feeling the slight warmth increase blissfully.
It wasn’t until the morning that the bags got cold and clammy. It had stopped raining during the night but the fresh air had a distinct chill. I looked outside. Four deer ran across the open land, and powdery snow topped the mountains in the distance. That wasn’t there before. For the first time I understood why it had been so cold. Fall was setting in.
When I finally managed to tear away from the relative luke-warmth of my quilt and shelter, it was already noon. I’d hardly got back to the track when I ran into Sochi, another hiker I hadn’t met before. When I told him my name, he said, ‘You’re the Cosmo!’ and told me he’d been reading my hut book entries for quite some time. We walked together, waded through the stream that had blocked my way the evening before, now shallow and hardly worth mentioning. Soon we moved along the tussock, over the hills and into the forests while Sochi told me about his work, outdoor therapy for youths, which was hugely interesting. His pace was so high that I actually warmed up, and it felt great. I wasn’t usually able to warm up through hiking as my body lost heat too fast. I stuck with Sochi for as long as I could, then watched him disappear in the distance. I was left in the tussock, and quickly found myself lost, unable to locate the path due to the high grass and lack of markers. It was a highly frustrating stretch, but at least I was glad I hadn’t attempted this the night before. There was no way I would’ve found my way in the dark.
It took two hours to reach Aparima hut, where I met Sochi’s friends, Robert, FAFBAB and The Man (the last both girls.) They were an exuberant bunch but also ridiculously nice and it was comforting to have people around, even though I had a feeling I wasn’t going to see them again.
After a break I watched the group continue ahead, and I stayed behind to adjust back to my own pace. Once I’d reached the other side of the river, the sun broke through the clouds. Finally. I’d almost forgot what it was like to feel warmth again, to be dry again. I felt reenergised. The rest of the day the trail moved through the forest, a nice change after all the tussock.
When I reached Lower Wairaki hut in the evening, the others were there, already in front of the fire, eating dinner. It had grown cold with evening again and Sochi gave me his chair so I could warm up a little. It was a tiny hut. There were only four bunks. I had hoped it was big enough for me to set up my tent inside, but there was hardly any space left. So I went outside once again, and walked back to the river. This was going to be my home for the night.
When I passed the hut in the morning the others had already left. It was only nine kilometres to the next campsite on the other side of the mountain, but it was supposed to take eight hours. Clearly the terrain was demanding. First I moved through the forest and while it was pretty like the day before, I felt lonely, and my thoughts got stuck in a negative loop. Then I stepped on a cut down tree trunk and slipped. I fell on the floor, hard, and stayed down for a while, my thigh in pain. That was going to cause a big bruise.
Despite my forlorn feelings, I reached the top of the mountain suddenly, exiting the tree line and walking along the rocky top. The wind was fierce and it was deeply cold, and the views stretched out over the land and the sea ahead. Bluff was near.
The views were great. I took pictures of the craggy peaks next to me, the very tops covered in fresh snow. I ran along the layers of rock and enjoyed the different viewpoints, the vegetation contrasting against the rough surface. When I hurried across a rock surface with a mild slope, something went wrong. I slipped over the loose grind lying on top and at once, my feet slipped forward and I fell on my bum. That first instant I didn’t feel anything I would describe as pain, and it certainly didn’t feel as though anything had twisted, but there was something off about what I did feel, almost as though my foot had lost a little bit of its connection to the rest of my body.
When I got up, I wasn’t able to stand on my left foot. I sat down on some rocks and began to realise something was wrong. Pain emerged. I knew I’d hurt my ankle. I hurt it quite badly. My little world collapsed around me. I’d struggled for weeks with the exhaustion, the trailburn that crippled me physically and emotionally. I was running behind on everyone I knew, already fighting and utterly failing to catch up, and now I’d hurt myself. I wasn’t going to be able to finish the TA with my trail family. Everything I was holding onto had broken into a million pieces.
Furthermore, I was walking along the wide ridge of a mountain top and I was nowhere near civilisation. I had to get down the far end, after which I’d have another extended day of hiking through a huge farm station, before I would reach a road. I took my trekking poles and held on to them like crutches, and began the long way down, a rugged traverse over rock that I could barely navigate. My ankle couldn’t offer any support, or hold weight, and the downward motion was increasingly painful. I crawled forward, checking every possible way down for the selection of rocks with the least difference in height, always getting stuck and having to backtrack.
Suddenly, Danish Michael passed me. I was surprised to see him. I thought I was all alone up there. He told me the campsite was just at the bottom of the hill, and asked if he should stick around. I told him to keep going, it was no use for someone else to get bogged down by my sprain. I was happy enough to know the campsite was near – I though it was miles away. It was another three kilometres of steep descend, but as time went by, my ankle warmed up a little, making the hike down just a little easier.
By the time I reached the bottom, Martin had also overtaken me, and both him and Michael were set up on the campsite. I took cold water from the river and sealed it into ziplock bags, and kept them on my ankle for as long as I could take the cold. The outside of my left ankle had turned to a huge swollen bump, it didn’t look good. I felt crushed.
By morning it hadn’t changed. I wondered if I should stay in my tent for the day to rest my ankle but the field was covered in sand flies and the mice had kept me up at night. This wasn’t a place I cared to stay. But the hike out wasn’t ideal either. It was a long 27 kilometre slog through Mt Linton farm station, which would take all day. As it was private property it was also tied to certain rules, one of them being that you were only allowed to pass through during daylight hours. I had no idea if I was going to make it out in one day at all, so I’d been checking the map for a faster way out. I found the previous year’s route, which crossed the farm station only for several kilometres before crossing a bridge, passing Rock hut and continuing along a gravel road. It would be much faster, and I wouldn’t have to get up too early to start the hike. I figured it was my best option.
It turned out that Michael had the same idea. I left just before him around 11 am, and I followed the route to the beginning of the station, a careful hobble along the grass and through a shallow river, where Michael passed me and slowly disappeared ahead of me. After just a kilometre and a half from the campsite I reached the crossing between the current TA route and last year’s path, and a huge sign made my heart sink.
It was a painfully aggressive trespassing sign, aimed specifically at TA hikers. It was very clear we were under no circumstances to deviate from the official route, and if we did, we would be escorted back the way we’d come. The hostility made me wonder why the route went through this land at all. If they were so averse to having hikers pass through, I didn’t really want to be here either. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have a choice. And I wasn’t allowed the shortcut. I wondered which route Michael had taken. I tried to spot him but didn’t see him anywhere. I could imagine him taking his chances and following the shortcut anyways, but what if he hadn’t? What if I went on my own? I was injured, surely they would understand? It was only several kilometres to the bridge, I had a reason to need the shortcut. I started walking towards the bridge but I got too scared. I freaked out a little, not sure what to do, then I turned back.
By now, it was after midday and I had another 25 kilometres to hike before dark. I was so desperate to make it out in time that I began to half-ran, which was probably no more than an awkward hobble. I felt a huge pressure to keep going, so I leaned on my crutches and powered through the 4WD tracks, a wide river and faint trails through fields. After a few hours I was so desperate that I was ready to hail down a car and ask a farmer to take me to the road. I was ready to skip this section, to call it a loss. As much as I was loathe to skip anything, I just didn’t see how I was going to get through this stretch. But there was no one to help. No cars, no trucks, nothing. It was a Saturday and the farm was deserted. I was going to have to do it on my own.
I never stopped walking that day. I didn’t spare a second for rest, and I barely ate. All I did, was lean on my poles and go. Throughout the day my ankle warmed up a little, making the walk somewhat easier despite the tracks only getting worse, with more holes and bumps. I almost couldn’t believe it when I witnessed a gorgeous sunset during those very last moments on the farm, and I made it out just before dark. It was 8 when I reached the road. Just in time. I walked in the dark as I tried to find Birchwood station down the road – the owners had a cabin for TA hikers. As I walked up their long driveway, I lit the road with my phone, inching closer to the little house, where Michael and Martin had the fire going already.