You Win Some & You Lose Some
This is probably true for everyone who embarks on a long distance trail, but at some point along the way, everything will seem like it's falling apart. Whether this sensation comes as a slow building of events or all at once, it will happen. The last two weeks have been that time for us, in our case a slow build to an ultimate crescendo topped with a tough decision - but despite the (now somewhat comical) unraveling of ourselves and our hike, the kindnesses shown to us and the bits of sunshine inbetween shine out the stronger, and we find ourselves placing one foot in front of the other again, our eyes trained forward to the final lengths of our trail.
After the sunshine and views of our trip through Nelson Lakes National Park, we were disappointed to find the day dreary and drizzly as we began our hitch out of Hanmer Springs and back to the trail. Debating if we should walk to the main highway or try to hitch, we decided on our thumbs, and then waited the exact amount of hours it would have taken us to walk when we finally got a ride. Eventually making it to the trail again, we started through a section of river valley walks, reasonably easy going for the first few days, but with our spirits dampened by clouds and an incessant drizzle. Although we were lucky enough to have warm huts to sleep in, our sunlight determined schedule was broken by less than courteous nighttime deer hunters our first two nights. Still we soldiered on, sleep deprived and wet, though with one true bit of excitement thrown into the mix - hot springs! The trail passed below a steaming and sulfuric waterfall, atop of which a pool had been constructed into the falls, creating a large and luxuriously hot bath tub - the perfect spa on our rainiest day - though with the necessity of braving a swarm of hungry sand flies on our way in and out!
On our fourth day we passed over Harper Pass and into a new river valley. Although the weather had improved the trail deteriorated and for the next two days we bushwhacked through a river valley, the trail disappearing and reappearing, apparently its pieces lost to the changing course of the river. On the second day of this, after attempting to take a high water track through the forest that we only managed to keep track of for less than 500 meters we gave up on "the trail" and took to the rocky, braided river flats, for a few ankle twisting hours. By midday we reached the junction with the Deception River, and what we knew to be another day and a half worth of sore-ankle boulder hopping and wet feet. At this junction also was a foot bridge and the highway. Frustrated and tired of the lack of "trail", we made a choice we usually avoid at all costs, and skipping the last day and a half of the section, we walked to the road and hitched ahead to Arthur's Pass.
Sometimes the TA is as much about the people we meet as it is about the trail, and although we felt somewhat guilty skipping out on a bit of trail, this feeling passed away quickly as soon as we were picked up. In fact, the strange kindness of hitches had much to do with keeping our spirits up in this emotionally and physically difficult section of trail, and so we will chronicle them!
Hitch 1: The second car to pass us, within a minute of sticking out our thumbs, turned around and came back for us. A young dairy farmer, he not only drove us all the way to our destination but insisted on giving us the change in his pocket to buy our first beer or treat in town!
We managed to spend just one night in Arthur's Pass and began again the next day with slightly higher spirits, pleased to find that the trail was not only beautiful, but in reasonable condition, and that the hut for the night, lovingly nicknamed the Hamilton "Hilton", was indeed quite nice, and also inhabited by the first two Southbound (SOBO) hikers we had met in weeks. We had missed swapping stories with other TAers, and finding out that we weren't the only ones still out there was a welcome relief. The rest of the section passed uneventfully, and reaching the Rakia River (an impassable hazard zone of the trail, making it necessary to hitch around), we made our way into the town of Methven to resupply.
Hitch 2: The trail dropped us in rural Lake Coleridge, but the first car to pass us at 9 in the morning stopped. Two young Czech guys, who had been out fishing gave us a beer (they were already half through theirs!) and listened to loud Techno as far as they were able to take us.
Hitch 3: Having made it almost to Methven with more walking and a short ride, we were picked up on the last stretch by a "Granny Blue" classic old Buick, perfectly restored, and driven by an old Kiwi gone American cowboy, complete with ten gallon hat and boots! By far the nicest car that had ever picked us, and we could all fit on the bench front seat!
Usually nights in town, though busy, are a chance to rejuvenate before the next section, fueled by internet and showers, but this town stay had in store for us something sinister.
We did laundry as soon as we arrived at our hostel, and set out to hang dry our wet clothes and wet tent. Having been warned by the owners of the hostel that their automated, Roomba-esque, lawn mower would attack tents laying directly on the lawn, we tacked our tent up on the clothesline, careful to keep its strings out of reach, and left to go get groceries on this windless and sunny afternoon.
After an overlong time in the grocery store we emerged to the sun gone and wind blasting through town. Depressed that the change for better weather hadn't lasted, we headed back to the hostel and Alexa went to bring in the dried clothes and tent. She found them strewn everywhere, the strong winds having pulled them off their pegs. Forgetting the lawnmower at that moment she gathered the laundry and then went to grab the tent, but something hard and heavy was hidden beneath it. Pulling back the cloth she found the automated lawnmower, its three evil blades snagged in the unraveling fabric of our wonderful, dependable, expensive, featherlight, and only found in America tent!
Tears were shed the next morning as we bought a whole roll of duct tape and attempted to fix the significant damage, which included lines of quarter-sized holes across large stretches of the tent's roof. When we had done what we could, the tent stood sagging with duct tape, grimacing up at us. We had betrayed it's trust, and we couldn't be sure it wouldn't betray ours on the next rainy night.
That night looked like it could be soon in coming as we packed up the tent and began our hitch up the far side of the Rakaia under lowering clouds and a persistent drizzle. We walked to the edge of town and stuck out our thumbs, worried that as it was already mid afternoon we might not make it to the rural trailhead that day at all. But for the moment, luck was on our side.
Hitch 4: Within twenty minutes a truck pulled up and a friendly Kiwi farmer, out to fish on the Rakaia and with some knowledge of the trail offered us a ride. Passing by his intended fishing spot, he drove us 40 minutes farther than he planned on going, dropping us off at the trailhead, and leaving the rain of Methven miles behind. We were there within an hour and now would make it to a hut that night - no leaky tent for us!
After a breathtaking climb to a saddle above the Rakaia river gorge, with beautiful views and dramatic clouds, we reached the hut just after dark, the clouds and drizzle having returned. That night we felt the beginnings of winter setting in, and shivered the night away in the drafty old hut. The next morning dawned even colder, and true worry fell on our shoulders - our warmer clothes were still weeks ahead in our bounce box in Wanaka, and we would be spending the first half of the day making our way up a large, icy stream, with little trail to speak of and very wet feet. The day didn't improve as we climbed higher into cloud and rain, knowing that grand views surrounded us, just out of sight behind the mist. We reached the next hut soaked through and chilled, but although the hut was also drafty and old, some kind soul had left five pieces of slow burning pine, and we managed a fire to dry our wet clothes and souls.
The next morning was rainy again, and we knew that we would be camping, and then the following day hoped to ford the Rangitata River, another hazard zone, though its low flows of late had allowed many other TAers to walk its braided waters, avoiding the wearisome hitch around it. Beyond the river lay Stag Saddle, the highest point on Te Araroa, and then the town of Lake Tekapo.
Our now three day old weather forecast told us that the next night may hold some rain, and worried about the structural soundness of our tent, not to mention the river crossing, we asked for an updated forecast from some university students out on a field trip as we walked a rural farm road. Their answer was dismaying. What had been 10mm of rain three days ago, was now a cyclone from Australia, bringing potentially 150mm of rain, gale force winds, and snow above 1000 meters - not a good forecast for a leaky tent, a river crossing, and an almost 2000 meter Saddle.
A stressful argument ensued as we battled with our desire to not delay our journey South, and our fears of a soaking, freezing night and an impassable river. If it hadn't been clear to us before it was becoming abundantly obvious how much weather could make or break the trail and our happiness - even minor rain made beautiful sections a world of mist, and the fury of early winter storms held the power to utterly halt our progress. With low spirits we headed off trail towards the closest farm houses, looking for a second opinion on the forecast, when a truck drove by. Hoping for news or a ride, we stuck out our thumbs.
Hitch 5: Malcolm, a wonderful Kiwi and farm animal vet tech pulled over. With his confirmation of the impending weather we decided a night in town was the only responsible decision and he offered to take us into Mount Somers Village. Half way there, knowing we were low on funds this far through our travels, he graciously offered to take us home instead!
We spent the next two nights in the beautiful new home of Malcolm and Rae, sleeping in a real bed, and treated to showers and many delicious home cooked meals and cups of tea (cuppas!) while the weather outside remained fitful, and the forecasters continued to insist on an impending doom for the region. We tested our tent in the rain without having to be in it, and found that although not perfect, our franken-tent would most likely keep us dry enough in moderate rain. Still, as the days wore on we grew increasingly impatient with the weather and our lack of progress towards Bluff. We worried that even once the storm passed, swollen rivers and snow would keep us from safely attempting our next section for even more days, especially without our warmer clothing. We didn't wish to overstay our welcome with our wonderful Kiwi hosts, and yet couldn't justify unnecessary nights waiting for weather in a hostel. And still, the last thing we wanted to do was miss another section of the trail, especially the high point of our 3000km walk.
For two days we pondered and New Zealand rained, but on the third day we forced ourselves into action. We had plans previously to return to the area anyway after Bluff, to visit Mt. Cook, and so we would skip the section, taking a bus to Twizel, supposedly south of the storm and a convenient place to return for a trip to Mt. Cook and a northbound trip through our missed section. Rae and Malcolm wished us goodbye, with our plan to visit them again when we returned for Stag Saddle, and they dropped us in Geraldine to catch our bus to Twizel.
We breathed a sigh of relief, thinking we were finally back on track, and both trying to internalize our decision to skip ahead, always a painful call to make, when fate had one last punch to throw at us. We sat by what we thought was our bus stop in the small town of Geraldine, watching the buses of other companies pulling away, and beginning to worry and wonder as 10:45am came and went. At 10:50 we asked a shop owner, and discovered that only our bus left from the opposite side of the tiny town. We ran in the rain, coffees in hand, the three blocks across town, watching as our bus pulled away moments before we reached it. Money wasted and feeling dispirited all over again we walked in silence to the edge of town and stood in the cold rain as car after car passed us by, ignoring our outstretched thumbs.
But a half hour later a kind Swiss kid working in Queenstown pulled up beside us, and we squashed into his car, dripping wet. As we drove south the rain began to clear and when he dropped us in Twizel, arriving just about when our bus would have, the clouds had thinned and beautiful, snow capped peaks could be made out in almost every direction.
We camped that night and woke to our first morning of a frosty tent, but the sky was clear, the sun was out, and the glittering peaks of the Main Divide were a sight to behold. We waited in town until the outdoor shop opened, bought cheap fleece lined leggings and warm socks, and by 10am we had our feet on trail again, walking in a postcard perfect world of crystal lakes, fall colors and snowy peaks. We had made it through endless rain, freezing temperatures, tough decisions, and a rogue automatic lawn mower - and yet here we were again, back on track in the stunning wilds of New Zealand, just over 500kms from our goal.