Back on Track
As we near the end of our long journey, we start to wonder if some sights will be our lasts - our last time above 1000 meters, our last near vertical climb, our last alpine lake. We may not quite be there yet, but the growing feeling that the end is nigh makes every sunny day and gorgeous view that much more precious. And yet it is hard to not let our worries about what comes next cloud over our last stretches of the trail, as all of a sudden the return to our "real" lives looms up ahead of us, and we wonder what we will return to, and whether it will be different or if we will be. Still, the beauty and variety of the New Zealand landscape and of the people we meet within it calls us back, and we are enjoying every last drop of it.
After our first long day out of Twizel with sunny skies, huge lakes, and views of snow capped peaks our depression of the days before fell away, and we swung back into the rhythm of the trail. Fate had once last swing at us when that day, a small bag with our nice camping knife and a few other less expensive but useful odds and ends fell from Alexa's bag at some unknown point along the trail and was lost. Still, our spirits were high with the new sunshine and we took this new loss in stride, feeling that somehow things would work themselves out.
Our second day dawned cloudy but we were well rested and began climbing away from the Otago flatlands and back into the mountains. Our efforts were rewarded as we reached our lunch spot on an unnamed saddle above Lake Ohau. The mist burned away and we found ourselves sitting just below three rugged and snow capped peaks, while a stream of fresh snow melt gurgled beside us and green-golden tussock and aging wildflowers stretched down the mountains shoulders. Appearing in the distance below the valley we had just ascended was Lake Ohau. We drank straight from the crystalline stream, and took a long lunch, feeling assured that this was where we wanted to be.
We passed another easy day and a half walking through old farm station's lands, in the far reaching tussock plains of the Ahuriri River and its surrounding mountains. We had begun to listen to The Lord of the Rings on audiobook, and as we walked through vast valleys, and climbed to the saddle below thesnow-capped and rugged Mt. Martha, it seemed a fitting story to narrate our similarly epic journey by foot.
Still Te Araroa tends to not give itself over easily, and after the relatively well graded old station farm tracks that had taken us from Lake Ohau over Martha's Saddle, we descended into the valley of the Timaru River. Taking the advice of previous TA'ers from their writings in the Top Timaru Hut Book, we decided to stick to the river itself, thinking the flows were low enough to allow safe passage and heeding warnings of the pointless difficulty of the high water track. We will never know if the river was simply too high for this course of action, or if there was no good decision to be made, but having already climbed the almost 1000m ascent of Martha's Saddle that morning, we then struggled through the narrow gorge of the Timaru River all afternoon, sunless and often with the freezing flows of new snow melt reaching our hips. Night grew near and our planned campsite did not. Knowing we were near the end but tired and chilled we pitched our tent on a narrow, mossy bank above the water, hanging out our wet clothes but knowing that they wouldn't dry in the deep and sunless valley.
Still, sleep did us well, and after a lazy morning of avoiding putting on our wet clothes we began again, realizing that we had been within an hour of the end of the river section. Happy to reach anything that wasn't the river we then struggled up the literally vertical ascent to Stody's Hut, a somewhat dilapidated old musterers hut, in time for lunch. Despite somewhat worsening weather we carried on, excited that the track promised ridgelines with views and mostly well graded 4WD beneath our feet. We made it to Breast Hill just before the real rain hit, catching a last glimpse of Lake Hawea below and the distant mountains before we hurried down the ridge. The sideways rain turned icy, and we breathed a sigh of relief as the Pakituhi Hut came into view and proved itself new and well sealed. Wind and rain howled all night as we snuggled together alone in the hut, and as the morning dawned we packed slowly, hoping for an improvement in the weather. The rain stopped though mist and wind still veiled the surrounding landscape. We suited up in all of our clothes, and began our descent down the knife ridge above the lake. To our pleasure the clouds began to clear and we were treated to views of Lake Hawea, its village, and in the distance our destination for the day - the town of Wanaka.
Wanaka was a goal of special importance to us, not only was it where our bounce box full of warmer clothes waited (something we had been in need of weeks earlier!) but we had also chosen it as our last significant rest spot, and Andrew's mom had graciously offered to get us three wonderful nights in an airbnb house in town. We hurried ahead, but it was a long walk between Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka and we reached our airbnb just before dark. The next morning, showered and with freshly laundered clothes we went to pick up our box. Alexa was a bit down as she had asked the only northbound hiker on the last section to see if he could mail the lost bag with our camping knife if he found it, but she hadn't received an email from him saying it had been discovered. Still, just in case, she asked at the post office - and there it was! A small package with her name on it, hoped for but unexpected.
We spent our two full days in Wanaka in part as we usually would - resupplying, running errands, and filling up on as much fresh good food and alcohol as we could, but in addition to these things we had had a special reason for choosing Wanaka to rest - it's movie theater. The Cinema Paradiso was remembered fondly by Alexa from her first trip to New Zealand five years previously, and although since it had moved locations and added another screen it held on to all its former charm, complete with an assortment of couches, airplane seats and a car for seating and intermissions set into each film for decadent fresh baked cookies, coffee, and homemade ice cream. Deprived of the joys of movie going for so long, we took ourselves to the other extreme, seeing three movies in two days while the weather in Wanaka was dreary and wet.
We left Wanaka in the early afternoon with the sun out again and walked speedily along the fall colors of the lakeshore before turning away into steepening farmland and old beech forest to reach Fern Burn Hut after dark, crowded for Easter weekend with a mix of TAers and vacationing kiwis. After an enjoyable night attempting to explain the madness of American politics, we started out again over the steep, rugged terrain of the Motatapu Track (apparently all owned by Shania Twain), our legs sore from our fast push to the hut the day before. We made it to Highland Creek Hut at lunch time, set in an altogether new type of mountainous landscape - steep, almost inverted peaks, with patches of bare cliff intermingled with their golden tussock sides. With two more rough ascents and descents between us and the next hut, and long time estimates on the DoC signs, our already sore muscles and knees won out and we took the rest of the day to enjoy the hut and it's gorgeous setting.
Our next days travel proved difficult, though less so than anticipated, and we were fresh from our half day of rest. We made it to the last hut of the section early (Rose's Hut), and spent another enjoyable evening with a mix of other trampers, taking in the surrounding mountains and the golden river valley.
We left first the next morning, planning to camp just on the edge of Arrowtown, a reasonably big day with two more steep ascents and descents, broken up by a walk in the Arrow River to the derelict old mining town of Macetown. We enjoyed a sunny day as we neared the end of the TAs last section of packed elevation gains and losses - from here on out the going would be much flatter, and only once more would we pass above 1000m of elevation. Upon reaching the crest of aptly named Big Hill we were met with views of Arrowtown and the suburbs of Queenstown stretched out below, the valley filled with the yellows, reds, and oranges of fall. So close to a beer and a restaurant meal our resolve to save money and camp that night began to fall away and we pulled out our phone to check in on accommodation options in town. As soon as we caught service though a message popped up with a welcome surprise. After a quick phone call we ran, literally, down Big Hill to a welcome change of plans...