In the days leading up to heading over Waiau pass, I consulted the map. Uh oh – a dotted line. Dashed lines are good, dotted lines – not so much. They mean ‘a route’ rather than a trail. As in, you can go this way, many do, but be prepared to place your heart firmly in your mouth to negotiate it.
“Waiau Pass is a route for experienced trampers and mountain leaders only”. Dear mother above.
The night before taking on the pass, I stayed at the site of Caroline bivvy. The department of conservation do a pretty got job of maintaining huts, but some get rather neglected. Caroline’s reputation had preceded her. Cesspit, hell hole, mouse factory – were among the words used to describe it by Southbounders. “That thing needs burning down” one tramper had gone so far as to say. Another had reported that it was “an actual sh*t hole” and that someone (a human) had taken a dump right outside it. How splendid. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t expecting a Hilton, but that was okay, because it just so happens that I carry around my very own pop up palace for just such occasions.
OH MICKEY (YOU’RE SO FINE)
After inspecting Caroline’s crumbling innards and writing in her tattered log book, I pitched up in the trees nearby. In my haste (and in laziness), I camped a little closer than I should have done. And so, as night fell, the performance of Cirque de Rodent began. Miniature mickey mice suspended themselves from the ceiling, twirling from scarlet ribbons, as others flew between trapeze’s. One tamed a sandfly in the corner and another shot itself from a cannon. Okay, they didn’t quite do that, but I could hear them outside and woke to one doing laps of the tent. “How did you get in you little bugger?” No answer (rude if you ask me). I assumed it’d gotten in when I went for a wee and so duly evicted it before bedding down. An hour later and I woke to another crawling across my face. Across my actual face. Dear goodness. As my Mum always reminds me “You do know that mice pee as they run along, don’t you?” And so ensued a sleepless night, wondering if that taste on my lips was the Supernoodle spice sachet, or something a little more sinister.
Sleep or no sleep I was up and at em’ early doors the next day. I followed the trail up the Waiau riverbed and onto verdurous slopes, past tumbling waterfalls cascading into azure pools. The valley was filled with a low hanging cloud, and as I climbed the first hundred metres, I entered into a band of fine mist. Not an ideal day to be going up to a ridgeline at 1,700m, but I employed my favourite fear tactic (pretending it wasn’t happening) and ploughed on. The track steepened. And steepened. And steepened, until I was clambering up fissures, like Spider-(wo)Man. Hand over fist, pushing off one leg and reaching for another rock to haul myself upwards onto the next resting place. I paused to catch my breath. Was that? Yes, that was snow. It was snowing. Oh my. Well, the only way was
onward, so onward I went until finally the vertical direction gave way to something a little more horizontal. Once on the ridgeline two snow poles appeared, instead of the usual one. ‘This is it!’ I thought. ‘This is the top!’ Alas, the snow poles giveth, and they taketh away – it was a false top. The real top was five minutes further on, marked by a suitably sized, icicle encrusted cairn. Was it me, or did it just start snowing harder? And has that wind picked up? I was half expecting Storm from the X-Men to appear, levitating in front of me, her eyes an opaque white as she concentrated her efforts on encasing me in an ever growing blizzard.
I scampered quickly down the other side, and within 100m the wind had stopped. And with every step the temperature rose, just a fraction. Ten minutes further on and would you Adam n’ Eve it, I was out of the cloud. Not only that, but into some bright sunshine too. Sunshine that glinted across the surface of Lake Constance, way down below. This side of the mountain was a whole different ball game, and I liked it very much. With each onward pace I relaxed further still and began to and enjoy a far less dramatic jog to Blue lake hut.
That night I caught up with Whio Warriors Finny and Fi again, who I hadn’t seen since the last town. We discussed Waiau pass, which they’d come over the day before. “It’s your classic type-5 fun” said Fiona. “Not much fun, and just bloody dangerous.”
Nelson lakes doesn’t offer any rest for the wicked and after a night down next to the riverbed, I was back up at 1,700m the next day. Only this time it was an entirely different story. Two hours of ascending through thick bush (no scrambling required) had led me to Traver’s saddle. And oh my word, what a saddle. The skies were blue, the air was clear, and I could see a thousand miles from up there, or so it felt. Gargantuan granite peaks merged into grassy slopes, which tumbled away down the valley. Snow clung to the darkest corners of the rockfaces, but this time, and thankfully, it was no where near me. I must have spent 90 minutes covering the 300m along the top and down the other side. I just kept stopping to sit, eyes ablaze with the wonder of it all. And to feel the breeze on my face. And to eat cheese. And then to eat some more cheese. I truly didn’t want to come down. I was Julie Andrews: The hills were alive and it was glorious.
THE RICHMOND RANGES
For Northbound TA travellers, the section through Mt Richmond Forest park is a thing of legend. Southbounders report it as the the most beautiful section of the entire trail, but the views aren’t without sacrifice. As one couple described it: “You go up, you go down, then you go up again. There is nothing else.” At this stage in the proceedings I’ll admit that I approached the Richmond’s as something to ‘just get through’. The mountains of the South Island hung like a lead weight around my neck, and my body was a little weary. Plus, I knew that beyond the Richmond’s lay the Queen Charlotte track – 70kms of undulating stunning trail, rumoured to be well graded and delectably run-able.
I was, as always, enjoying the sporadic company of Finny & Fi. And so over a boozy dinner in the small town of St Arnaud (I say boozy, I had a whole two glasses of wine) I decided to plan the week through the mountains so that I’d end up in the same hut as them each night. Thank goodness I did. In the 6 days through the ranges, I only encountered 2 other people. There is no denying that without their companionship, I would have gone, well, mental.
The days began to settle into a rhythm. Each morning Finny and Fi would leave the hut before me. I’d stay behind, do my stretching exercises, faff a bit (a lot), spend too long reading one of the many back copies of Nat Geo left there, and then catch them up mid morning. We’d have a brief chat, share the genius creative ideas we’d had so far that day (of which there were plenty), question why it was so gosh darn hard, and then I’d bound on to whichever hut was next. There I’d take a nice long break, wait for them to arrive, and we’d lunch. As they were digesting, I’d skip off again to the hut for that night. I’d have time to take a nekked dunk in the nearby river, and curl up for an for a pre-dinner sleep before they came through the door, and we could begin digesting the days efforts.
I wondered whether I was annoying the heck out of them by hanging on like a 3rd wheel, but my antics seemed to help break up their days too. Plus, I’m going to back myself that I offer unparalleled levels of entertainment. And on me being at the hut before them each night – “It’s lovely” said Fiona. “It’s like coming home to your mum after school.” Said despite the fact that I never once had tea on the table and didn’t help them with their map reading homework.
THE RED HILLS
The Richmond range begins in the Redhills, which are strangely enough, rather red. A rare section of mineral belt, these were unlike anything else I’d encountered on the trail so far. The pathway through them dived into creek beds, clambered over boulders, sidled steep banks and disappeared across scree slopes over Martian looking landscapes. As we consulted the map one morning, we were delighted to see that the trail passed ‘Gordon’s knob.’ “There goes Gordon again…” I said. “Getting his knob out.” Fiona looked sideways at me. “Oh Gordon.” She sighed. “You really can’t take him anywhere.” Quite.
RINTOUL AND THE RIDGES
This was it, this was hump day. The hardest day of the trail, and over halfway through the section. We got up in the dark at Mount Rintoul Hut, something ordinarily outlawed. There’s no point in tramping in the dark after all. But this was a special day, and an early start was crucial. The twinkle of Nelson was visable from the hut window, a good sign which indicated that the clouds had cleared overnight.
Off I went, up the steep initial climb, where the view was even more spectacular than from the hut below. “I’m at the top of the world, lookin’ down on creation...” I hummed as I puffed and panted to the top.
I’m not entirely sure how to describe the next three hours, other than to say that it was was hands-down the best section of the entire South Island so far. The trail scuttled along precarious ridgelines, and where the ridges became a little too jagged for even Te Araroa’s taste, it dropped down to scree slopes and climbed back up. Mountain peaks poked through a blanket of clouds, as the sun teamed up with the bluest of skies to frame ghostly outlines of the ranges I’d already run.
Scenes of inefferable natural beauty mingled with moments of panic, exhaustion, fear and elation. This I thought, was surely life at its fullest, and the world at its most beautiful. Two realisations that made me want to break into a Bill and Ted style air guitar every thirty minutes. This, I thought, was real living.
*Does an air guitar*
*Exits stage left*
Catch you soon kiddywinks 🙂
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