Rest, Relaxation & the Richmond Ranges
We woke early our first morning on the South Island and rushed to get ready and down to the waters edge in time to catch our 8am boat to Ship Cove. Here we would officially start the South Island section of the TA, beginning with the Queen Charlotte Track, and joined by Alexa's sister Leslie. Ship Cove holds historical significance for New Zealand as it was the landing spot of Captain Cook and crew - the first Europeans to set foot on the islands - and he landed there again on subsequent voyages. Before we reached this historic point though, we were treated to a misty and mysterious boat trip through the Queen Charlotte Sounds - a beautiful landscape of ancient river valleys drowned in sea water long ago, their mountainous sides now a fingerlike network of peaked peninsulas.
We took a leisurely four days walking along one of these peninsulas, gaining magnificent views from the ridge line before dipping back down to the edge of the turquoise bays, and back up again. The weather was clear, and possibly our hottest since ninety mile beach. We took every opportunity to swim in the cool water, though with a bit of care as our first night we sat on a dock and watched families of silently gliding stingrays swim through the water we had only recently vacated. Leslie survived her stint with thru-hikers with little more than a blister - helped in part by the fact that we had spent quite a few days in Wellington fattening ourselves on beers and restaurant food!
The end of the Queen Charlotte Track put us out in the small town of Anakiwa, and we kept on strolling straight to the door of the airbnb in town where we met Alexa's parents later that evening. Although we had officially been back on trail since Wellington, it had felt more like a stroll in the park, and here we were again ready to spend another five days relaxing, this time catered by parents and with the benefit of a rental car - what luxury!
Our first day of true "vacation" was spent doing an activity we had been lusting after as we eyed the water from the dust of the Queen Charlotte Track - we went sailing on the sounds. The owner of our Anakiwa airbnb owned an older sailboat and we had arranged to spend the day exploring the sounds from a new vantage. Simon, who had traveled so much of the North with us, and had spent much of his life sailing, had hitched his way back to Anakiwa from a further town and joined us for a day on the boat. It had been years since either of us had sailed and we soaked in every moment as we drank cold beers and watched the scenery pass by without any work from our legs.
After a wonderful sail and a dinner of green lipped mussels (a New Zealand specialty), we said goodbye again to Simon with little hope of catching him after our extended time off trail. The next morning we all packed our things and piled tightly into the rental car to head towards Blenheim and the Marlborough wine region. After stopping for lunchtime pies, we visited a few wineries - all delicious - and stopped by Moa, our favorite NZ craft brewery. As we drove around the wide valley full of vineyards we were treated to clear views of the Richmond Ranges, the mountains that we would be climbing only a few days hence. We ended the day at a local chocolate factory and as we drove towards Nelson and our next airbnb, the car was now even more packed with wine bottles, beer bottles, and boxes of chocolate - sure signs of a successful day.
Weighing over our heads through all this enjoyment was the logistical nightmare of the next month on the TA. We knew our upcoming sections could stretch as long aseight days each, and that the towns in between were expensive and limited for resupply. We knew we needed to plan our days, and choose whether or not we would ship boxes of food ahead, or waste time hitching out to larger towns and grocery stores. To complicate things further, we knew that our friend Ethan from back home would be joining us for two of these sections, but we were still unsure of his arrival date. Wanting to rid ourselves of this worry overshadowing our leisure time, we woke the next day and were dropped in town on our own to make a plan and shop. We first spent hours in a cafe, pouring over our trail notes and maps until we had a plan - two food boxes sent, two hitches out to bigger towns, and eight days of food for when we next started on trail. We then spent too much time browsing the outdoor stores in Nelson, picking up stove fuel and making a few clothing changes for the South Island, and then headed to an Asian food store where we picked up ramen, curry packets, and every package of dried mushrooms available (good on everything and so lightweight!). After reconnecting with the family and dropping this lot in the car they headed to the movies and we entered the grocery store. Three hours and roughly $500nzd later we had food for almost a month and were absolutely exhausted.
We unwound the next day in the way we know best - the family all drove out to Abel Tasman and while Alexa's parents enjoyed a short hike and some beach exploring, Leslie joined us for a half day stretch of the Abel Tasman Great Walk. The next morning we said goodbye to Alexa's family who were continuing on to Queenstown, and they dropped us in town after a quick trip to the post shop to send off our resupply boxes. We dragged our bags to a hostel - heavier than they had ever been with eight solid days of food - and decided to spend one more day in town, we had already missed the bus back to the trail, and we desperately wanted to go the movies.
After an early bus we arrived at Pelorus Bridge campsite, but after eyeing our heavy packs warily we sat down at the roadside cafe for one last pie and coffee on the edge of civilization. When we couldn't justify sitting any longer we hefted our backpacks and started down the road towards the first river walking section of the Richmond Ranges.
Our first few days in the ranges were a rude awakening as our bodies not only dealt with the shock of returning to walking, but also to packs far heavier than ever before. We sweated our way up and down thousands of meters of ascents and descents, enjoying one wonderful swim at the end of our first hot day in the emerald green pools of the Pelorus River (and braving the swarms of sandflies that guard its waters). As we ate our way through our pack weight and our leg muscles settled back into their work our days became more enjoyable. We began to realize that our South Island experience was going to be quite different than our North Island one, and that although we would still carry the lessons we learned on our first Island with us, they didn't all apply to the South. Some changes we adjusted to with a sigh of relief, while others presented new challenges and concern. The percentage of trail that has once been mud (most of it!) was now rocks - a significant improvement in our book. On the flip side though, the most pressing question of most days had become whether or not the long drop toilet was infested by wasps (most of them were!) - not a particularly welcome change of events. In fact, insects in general had become a much greater concern than ever before. As we hiked the Queen Charlotte we had found ourselves caught in the midst of a great cicada hatching and were smacked in the face a few times daily by their kamikaze diving. Then upon starting the Richmonds we were lured by the crystalline waters of the various mountain rivers, reaching their edges ready to swim, only to be engulfed by clouds of sandflies, sometimes biting and sometimes just trying their damndest to fly up your nose. The worst insect discovery though was the (actually somewhat serious in an environmental sense) plague of invasive wasps that literally filled the beech forests of the ranges. The nonnative wasps had taken a liking to a black fungus that grows on some New Zealand beech trees, a problem for native birds that also ate it, and as we walked through the forests every square foot of space housed at least one wasp - and if it happened to be square feet occupied by a long drop toilet, than it was sure to hold a whole colony of them! It was inevitable that one of us be stung, and Alexa drew the short straw with a sting to the shin on our third morning.
Despite all the unruly insects, the Richmond Ranges were a truly spectacular section of trail. They challenged us with the highest density of elevation gain and loss in (we think) the entire TA, and rewarded us with emerald rivers, towering forests and some of our most impressive views. The most memorable day fell in the middle of the range, as we travelled between Starveall hut and Rintoul hut.
We woke early that morning to cold cloud and drizzle, and our first climb out of the hut had both of us thinking that it wouldn't be a great day as we struggled up the rocks with stiff limbs. As we dropped to the other side though the clouds began to peel away and we enjoyed our first high altitude views, mountains stretching away from us in every direction. Our pace quickened as the sun renewed our energy and we made it to Slaty hut while it was still morning. Once there we had to decide whether we would push for a long day and make it over Little Rintoul and Mt. Rintoul, our biggest peaks in the ranges, or if we would stop before them at Old Man Hut, unfortunately located a steep descent off our main trail. Slaty hut's rain water tanks would be our last water source for the day if we went over the peaks. Unwilling to make a sure decision we loaded up with water but decided that if we didn't make it to the Old Man turn off by 3:30pm than we wouldn't continue.
We sidled around the huge bowl in which Slaty sat, and caught our breath as our eyes crested the next ridge. Below our feet a huge valley dropped away, its outline encircled by a long curving ridge line. Across the valley and at the end of the ridge line rose three ascending peaks - Old Man, Little Rintoul, and Rintoul - the last of which had its top still veiled in cloud. We cruised along the wide grassy ridge, occasionally scrambling over boulders, and stopped for lunch about half way along when we reached views off the far side of the Marlborough wine valley below. We ate and enjoyed this new perspective on the vineyards we had visited just a week earlier.
We continued around the lip of the huge valley and towards the peaks, as the trail slowly became rockier and rougher. A steep climb but still mostly in tussock brought us to the rounded top of Old Man and we took our time taking pictures as the view expanded to even further mountains stretching into the southern distance. Coming down its far side we reached the junction to the Old Man Hut. It was 3pm and true to our word we pushed on, still feeling strong and strengthened further by the good weather that day, and the unknown of what weather the next morning might bring. As we had circled the ridge we had seen the clouds at Rintoul's top dissipate, and we knew we would be treated to 360 degree views if we pushed on.
Little Rintoul's ascent passed easily as we listened together to an audiobook, but as we began to descend into the saddle between the two peaks the terrain became difficult. Loose mid sized rock mixed with large boulders and sections which were vertically steep or that took careful sidling faced us. We took our time, Alexa's knees (which had been giving her some trouble since the descents in the Tararuas) slowly began to act up, but with attention and care we traversed the saddle and the most critical parts of the climb.
We reached the top of Rintoul (1731 m) as the day began to wane. Clouds gathered in the distance and shafts of sunlight pushed through them to illuminate distant mountains. We could see in every direction - to Nelson and the ocean, to the vineyards near Blenheim, back where we had come from, and far ahead into the unknown terrain we were headed towards. We drank it in for as long as we dared and then headed quickly across Rintoul's sloping top and toward our descent. The far side was a scree slope ground almost to gravel. We slipped-ran down it (actually a welcome break for our knees), and moved quickly through the forest below.
Just before sunset we reached Rintoul hut, located in a small grassy clearing with an impressive and uninterrupted view of Nelson and the ocean far below. We began our dinner preparations inside the hut, but were distracted as the light slanting through the windows turned a brilliant orange all of a sudden.
We hurried outside into the strange light. The sun was setting behind Nelson as beautiful clouds rolled across the sky. The sky above us burned a fiery orange, while ahead above Nelson and the ocean the world was fading into a water color of blues and pinks and purples. We stood in awe watching the colors and clouds shift as the sun slowly set, forgetting our dinner until the first stars began to appear.
The rest of the Richmond Ranges passed with a continuing landscape of impressive valleys, rivers, and mountain tops - complete with beautiful views and more wasps. We were blessed with only one half day of rain, and walked the roads into St. Arnaud on the morning of our ninth day, feeling accomplished and excited to continue our journey South.