Day 137 : Zero day
Day 138 : Riverton – Invercargill (31.7 km / 19.7 mi – Total: 3007.2 km / 1868.6 mi)
Day 139 : Invercargill – Bluff (33.9 km / 21 mi – Total: 3041.1 km / 1889.7 mi)
Day 140 : Zero day
Day 141 : Riverton – Ports Water Race Track (NoBo) (20.7 km / 12.7 mi – Total: 2954.8 km / 1836 mi)
Day 142 : Ports Water Race Track – before Martin’s hut (NoBo) (21.3 km / 13.2 mi – Total: 2933.5 km / 1822.8 mi)
Day 143 : before Martin’s hut – Merrivale Road (NoBo) (25.1 km / 15.6 mi – Total: 2908.4 km / 1807.2 mi)
Day 144 : Merrivale Road – Birchwood (NoBo) (21.5 km / 13.4 mi – Total: 2877.1 km / 1787.7 mi)
Mar 25 – Apr 1
Total days : 8 | Walking days: 6
Section distance : 164 km / 101.9 mi
Average distance per day : 27.3 km / 17 mi
Total distance : 3041.1 km / 1889.7 mi
It was pitch black outside by the time I hobbled into Birchwood cabin, my injured ankle just barely making it through Mt Linton station. The hut was dirty but the fire was going and the warmth was welcoming. Michael and Martin were already in front of it. I folded into a chair and devised a plan. I needed to take a day off to rest my sprained ankle, but I wanted to finish the trail with these hikers who’d become my friends along the way. I was already days behind. I knew that most of them would be passing through the town of Riverton the next day, 98 kilometres ahead, and I decided I would hitch into town and surprise them. I would hike the final two days to Bluff with the others, then return to Riverton to hike the stretch I’d skipped northbound. While I wasn’t entirely keen on doing a flip flop, I also didn’t want to reach Bluff alone.
Both Michael and Martin left early the next morning and I headed out a little later. Birchwood was placed awkwardly along Ohai Clifden Highway, and it seemed as though I could hitch into either direction, either towards Tuatapere to the south, or Ohai and Otautau further east. Both would eventually lead to busier roads with easier links to Riverton. The problem was that there was absolutely no traffic. Apparently, the term ‘highway’ was gifted rather liberally, and it was a small road that proved thoroughly deserted on a Sunday. I left the farm and walked a few kilometres south, where a junction on my map suggested more traffic, but when I got there it was nothing more than a small gravel road, populated with cows. I began to realise my chances of actually getting out of Birchwood were very small.
I waited for what seemed like hours. Few cars passed but they all seemed to be locals with no intention of picking anyone up. I watched the Birchwood farmer handle the cows until he drove his little vehicle up to me and wrote me a hitchhiking sign on an old piece of cardboard, his hands covered in dried up blood. Some time after his wife appeared. She stopped her car in front of me, their small children standing on top of the drivers seat, interrupting our conversation. I thought she stopped to offer me a ride but she didn’t. Instead she told me the road would be busier a further ten kilometres towards Tuatapere, but I couldn’t walk that much – I needed to rest, or I could’ve just continued walking along the TA another day. She drove off and left me on the empty road. I was annoyed although I did understand – these people had kids to watch, cows to herd and a farm to run, they didn’t have time to transport hikers around, but I couldn’t help but feel resentment for not just driving me the ten kilometres down the road – it would’ve taken no time in a car.
As I sat losing hope in the gravel, Michael suddenly reappeared from the trail. Apparently, he’d grown so frustrated with the incorrect signposting that he’d come back in a fit of rage, and had decided to hitch out instead. I was relieved I wasn’t alone anymore, although we were still stuck by the side of the road, stoically ignored by the few cars that passed. Soon Michael was calling up every phone number he could find on the trail notes until he found a farmer who was willing to pick up up and drive us to Otautau for fifty dollars. Finally we were somewhere. When we walked into the pub for food, Martin was already there. He’d hiked through Woodlaw Forest and had had an easy hitch into town. We should’ve just walked it.
We ate, said goodbye to Martin and didn’t get a hitch into Riverton until the early evening, despite the busy road. It had taken us all day to get out of Birchwood and my daydream of getting into town early and leisurely resting at a café had been crushed. I didn’t feel as though I’d had a day off at all, but at least I was there. Riverton. When we walked up onto the campsite I managed to surprise Speedy, who had no idea I was coming. Sunshine and Emma and Dan were in town too, and we all went for dinner. I was going to finish with my trailfamily after all.
The next morning we had slow starts. Speedy and I sat in a café most of the morning and I picked up some bandage to wrap around my ankle. It was still swollen, but it felt much better with the additional support. It would take two days to reach Bluff and I was going to make it, sprained ankle or not. We found the beach and continued the route to Invercargill a little before eleven, and Speedy sped off.
I stumbled along on my own, tackling the sand, some compressed and some soft, and ploughed through thick layers of red residue from the sea that looked like dead flesh. I tried my best to avoid getting my bandage wet from shallow streams spilling into the sea. It wasn’t a difficult day, but it was a monotonous one. After 22 kilometres on the beach I finally moved into Invercargill, a long stretch of unattractive road walking into an equally unattractive town, that didn’t feel entirely safe in the dark. I’d spent much of the day texting Speedy, and taunting her with guilt for deserting me, which became even more comical when she booked herself the last available bed at the Southern Comfort hostel, and I was the only hiker in our group who had to find an alternative place to stay.
For our last day on trail we all agreed to finish as a family and get to Bluff by five in the afternoon. I started my day just after seven to give myself enough time to make it, and chased down the elusive open supermarket during a gorgeous blue and red sunrise, picking up some oversized pastries for the last day. When I was finally out of town and walked along Invercargill’s Estuary Walkway, I realised Speedy was behind me. For about the first time ever, I’d started the day earlier than she had. I waited so she could catch up, because despite my hobble, my pace wasn’t too bad. We stuck together and after all those months, it was perfect that we would finish the trail together, especially as this last day was a horrible one. There was nothing scenic about the route – we walked alongside the busy road while it was cold and it rained and after all the roads we’d tackled on the north island, this was definitely the worst of all.
As we got closer to the very end of the south island, we walked straight through town, keen to get it over with as soon as possible as opposed to taking the longer scenic route over the hill. The last few kilometres were slow. ‘I feel like it’s getting a bit difficult now,’ I said, and it cracked us up a lot more than it should. Then we rested, sat on the stoop even though Bluff was just moments away. When we finally walked up to the signpost, I teared up. I’d made it to Bluff.
Our timing was perfect – it was half past four in the afternoon. Thirty minutes early. We joined Isha in the restaurant next door and waited for the others. Nobu and Kei arrived, then Emma and Dan. We received medals from the restaurant which were ugly but we took them anyways. We went outside as it got darker and we began to take our finishing pictures. But where was Sunshine? People began to leave – Isha hitched out to get to her flight in time, and Dan went to the hostel to secure accommodation for Emma, Speedy and myself. It was eight when she finally appeared, confused about our plan to get there by five. We took more pictures of everyone who was still there, now we’d all made it.
But I hadn’t quite.
I’d skipped almost 100 kilometres and despite significantly losing the desire to go back to trail, I wasn’t going to leave without finishing those final kilometres, without making sure I had an intact pathway going down the country. I took a day off in Invercargill, said goodbye to my friends and booked a shuttle back to Riverton. I had two half two full days to hike northbound, back to Birchwood, where I would finish on another Sunday. Luckily, this time Emma and Dan would be able to pick me up with their rental car, a complete coincidence as we were all catching a plane from Christchurch on the same day. It would save me from a disastrous day of hitching – or worse, a 50 kilometre walk to the nearest bus stop.
The shuttle back to Riverton was slow, transporting not only people but also goods along the way, and I didn’t begin the hike northbound until half past twelve. I immediately ran into the Kiwi couple, who I hadn’t seen since Boyle Village, and then Garrett, who I’d last seen some weeks before. I chatted quickly, and went on my way. I wouldn’t see many hikers in the next few days, and very few I knew.
It didn’t take long to realise I was going to struggle all the way up to Birchwood. The trail that day was little more than a route through beaches, impossibly soft sand and climbs up short inland sections that were overgrown with a myriad of plants and passed through fields of cows. The progress was slow and frustrating and I despised it more than anything I’d despised so far. It took all day to get through that beach and arrive at Colac Bay, where the trail turned inland and followed a road towards Longwood Forest for five kilometres. When I finally entered the woods it was getting dark. I checked my map – it was only day one but I was already running behind on schedule.
So I kept going. I walked into the night, the start of the Ports Water Race Track meandering but well defined. I walked until ten but still didn’t get as far as I’d hoped. It was pitch black and I turned on all the little lights I had, and pitched my tent in the faint glow right on trail, the only flat spot around.
The following day I continued through the woods, progressing far too little. The forest had been used for gold mining many years before and the trail followed the slew of trenches, which I sometimes had to jump across or climb over. At one point, I got stuck before a trench which had a crevice that was too high to lower myself into – facing forward or backwards, I couldn’t do it. I had to go off trail to find a lower spot where I could jump. It wasn’t the only type of obstacle that day – often the path was blocked by enormous fallen trees that took ages to climb around.
I only made it to the start of Turnbulls Track that day, the steep, dirty trail that lead towards Martin’s Hut. It was intimidating in the dark and I found myself camping in the middle of the trail once again, terrified of the shadows with nowhere to hide. I’d only managed to cover a little over 21 kilometres, despite walking for eleven hours. I was tired and unmotivated and still fighting my injury. How was I possibly going to get through these forests in time?
When I woke the next morning the temperatures had dropped. I’d had a few decent days but it was fall now, the air crisp and cold. It was difficult to tear away from my warm quilt and I was still in my tent when I heard noises outside, and I remembered my tent was perfectly blocking the way to anyone wanting to pass. I looked out and saw a couple I hadn’t seen since the start of the Richmonds, and I apologised as they barely managed to squeeze past to continue south. It was time to pack up again.
I had a day and a half to finish the final 56 kilometres and while that was nothing significant, at the pace I was going, I didn’t know if I was going to make it. My ankle was still swollen and I simply wasn’t hiking fast enough. I passed old Martin’s Hut before the track began to deteriorate. This was the last thing I needed. Suddenly I was back in the muddy forests of the north island and I was manoeuvring around the huge puddles, clinging onto trees and precariously skirting around the mud.
As the trail moved higher the track dried up a little, but the exposed mountain top came with an icy wind that chilled right through to my bones. I saw Bluff in the far distance, but this time it was behind me, I’d already been there. So I followed the trail down again, back into the forest, back into the slowness of the mud until it finally stopped, and it was just me and a mossy forest, cold and daunting but beautiful, and before I knew it, I was out.
I’d reached the end of a forest road that would lead to Merrivale. Once again, the world slipped into darkness and I tried to find a concealed spot to hide my tent from the road, but the bush was too dense. I kept pushing through the crammed branches to find a spot but there was nothing, it seemed impossible. After an hour and a half it was so dark I forged my way into a barren forest, removing dead tree branches carelessly strewn around the surface and hanging mid-air, barely managing to set up my tent in the space available. I spent that black night scared of the noises in the distance, alien and desperate, which I later found out were deer from farms nearby. It was a strange last night on the TA.
In the morning I woke early to a car parking in a clearing just meters away – I’d completely missed that the night before. When they drove off I dared to leave my tent and broke up camp. I received a message from Dan, ‘We’re coming for you,’ and that was it. My last day on the TA. I had half a day to walk over 31 kilometres with a sprained ankle, and I felt sad, because I knew I wasn’t going to make it. Not in my condition, and not with the time I had left. The official route went through Woodlaw Forest up to Birchwood, and I had to make the decision to follow the road instead. I wasn’t going to be on the TA but I’d keep a continuous footpath through the country, which was what I cared about most. I was still going to finish the TA.
I wound down the final 4.5 kilometres of Merrivale Road, and turned left up the main street, after which I followed the Ohai Clifden Highway, the quiet gravel road that would lead me all the way to Birchwood. From Merrivale it was a 17 kilometre roadwalk instead of the official route – 26 kilometres mostly through forests, but I was so happy when I made it I didn’t care anymore. I turned the corner and walked up that ugly road to that crossing just south of Birchwood, where I’d tried so desperately to hitch out just a week before. I’d done it. I didn’t tear up like I did at Bluff, and I didn’t feel exuberant. Mostly, I felt distinct relief for finishing the trail. For being done ploughing through the mud, the forests, the farmland. I took some pictures and sat on the side of the empty road, until one vehicle approached and it was Emma and Dan, coming to rescue me. I’d finished the TA.