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Beers With Angels

Beers With Angels

{For our friends and family, we are actually back in the US now! This post was written while we were still on trail but we didn't have time to post until now. The last installment is coming soon!}

 

Packs thudding against our backs we hopped, skipped, and ran down the track the last seven kilometers to the parking lot at the edge of Arrowtown. There, leaning against their rental car were Ben and Laura, the American couple from Iowa that we had travelled much of the North Island with, but hadn't seen since reaching the South. We knew they had finished the TA a few weeks earlier, and now here they were back in Arrowtown to greet us with hugs, beers, and wheels. Once our trail family, they had now joined the ranks of our trail angels - the loving name given by thru-hikers for the wonderful people whose care and generosity help them along the way.

 

The message we had received atop Big Hill had said that Ben and Laura were in Queenstown and planned to leave the next day on the Routeburn Track - one of the Great Walks in Fiordland which happens to connect to the TA via the Greenstone-Caples Track. They had offered to take us along with them if we made it to town in time, saving us much road walking through to Queenstown, as well as the long hitch around Lake Wakatipu which currently forms a break in the continuity of the TA. After we reached their car we quickly decided that we could all make the plan work, and were lucky enough to also book a campsite half way through the Routeburn (an uncommonly rare find at the last minute, let alone a year in advance!) allowing us time to resupply in the morning before driving to the start of the track.

Tarns high up on the Routeburn at sunset. 

Tarns high up on the Routeburn at sunset. 

We spent the evening eating a well earned restaurant meal, drinking our fair share of beer and whiskey, and swapping tales from the South Island. Having taken time off trail with Alexa's family, and to wait for Ethan's backpack to arrive, we had travelled the majority of the South Island behind the last significant bubble of southbound thruhikers. This had meant that although we met plenty of northbound hikers for a night, and occasionally passed or were passed by a southbounder or two, we had for the most part hiked and slept on our own. We had kept track of the progress of our North Island trail family in the intentions books of the huts, and by text message and Facebook when in town - and although some solitude was nice, as well as the simplicity of being only on our schedule, we had missed our friends. Being back in the company of Ben and Laura was a welcome change of pace.

 

We left town again the next morning after a fast resupply, not even having done our laundry, and were soon driving up the winding road along the lake - not the best road for somewhat hung over heads and stomachs. We stopped in the town of Glenorchy at the top of the lake long enough to grab some delicious and much needed dumplings, and then continued on towards the mountains of Fiordland which loomed ever nearer.

Fiery peaks on the Routeburn. 

Fiery peaks on the Routeburn. 

Fiordland, the southwestern region of the South Island of New Zealand is renowned for its breathtaking beauty and inclement weather. Three of New Zealand's nine Great Walks are in this region, the most famous of which is the Milford Track, and they are usually booked solidly a year in advance. The region is home to sheer mountains that make up the base of the Southern Alps, and is cut deep with fantastic fjords, rivers, and waterfalls. The Te Araroa skirts the edge of this region in its stretch between Queenstown and Colac Bay yet never enters it, and so we were glad for the opportunity not only to check off another of the Great Walks, but also for the chance to explore a bit of famous Fiordland.

 

We reached the start of the track and set off up it at almost 2pm. We moved quickly, knowing we had quite a few kilometers and plenty of elevation to make it to our campsite at Lake Mackenzie. Still we paid little heed to the signs which stated that it took two days of walking to reach our destination - we were TA walkers and could beat every Department of Conservation time estimate, and doubly so on the well formed tracks of a Great Walk. 

Standing below Earland Falls. 

Standing below Earland Falls. 

We sped through the forested first section of the track, taking in the large beech trees and the occasional views, but at this point more in awe of the first "hut" we reached - not our usual six bunk tin musterer's shack, but a multi building palace with flushing toilets and electricity. Now we could see how the other half (those that walked little and could afford to pay $54 per night for a bunk) lived. After making use (with many joyous exclamations) of the flushing toilets, we continued up the track, and began to encounter the rich beauty of Fiordland. Just above the hut were the cascades of Routeburn Falls, and after climbing beside them a ways we entered a grand valley, cliffs rising ahead of us and to both sides, while the streams that fed the Falls twisted through the tussock of the valley floor. A light mist hung around the peaks and the late afternoon sun gave the valley a golden hue. The track circled the valley's edge, then climbed up the side of the cliff towards Harris Saddle, the high point of the Routeburn. As we climbed higher we could now see that the valley streams were fed from the outpouring of a beautiful mountain lake set in a plateau above one corner of the valley. 

Dark waters at the top of the pass.

Dark waters at the top of the pass.

We climbed around the side of the last peak, through a gap high above the lake, and came to Harris Saddle, our view opening up to the vast expanse of Fiordland - the depths of a dark valley yawning far below us and snow capped peaks receding into the distance on its far side.

 

After a group picture at the top we proceeded along high up the face of the Hollyford Valley. As we walked the sun slowly sank and the clouds around the distant peaks formed and cleared as the light shifted from golden to pink and purple. Every ten minutes or so we paused to turn and take in the sunset over the grand valley, until finally the trail, steadily descending, turned away towards a narrower valley as the dusk settled. Far below sat Lake Mackenzie and the hut and campsite, and we hurried down the zig zagging path as the light failed, reaching the campsite after a short walk in the dark.

Our campsite & "hut" far below as the sky darkens.

Our campsite & "hut" far below as the sky darkens.

Only one tent site had been available, and we found that although it had allowed space for four, the site was tight and had a gravel platform that would not fit both our tents. Looking at the clear, starry sky, and hoping for the best from the fickle Fiordland weather, we decided to risk a night lying "cowboy" under the stars, and we lined our four mats out on the platform. 

 

We woke in the morning happy to discover that we had made it through the night with nothing worse than morning dew on our sleeping bags, and having enjoyed a cloudless night of star gazing. After breakfast we continued on the Routeburn, enjoying the last big views of the Hollyford Valley in the full light of day and being tempted by the misting showers and pool of the 174m Earland Falls. Before long though we had reached Howden Hut and our turnoff - we would miss the last few kilometers of the Routeburn, opting instead for the Greenstone branch of the Greenstone Caples track which would drop us back onto the official TA. 

Waters from Fiordland come to feed the Mavora Lakes. 

Waters from Fiordland come to feed the Mavora Lakes. 

The rest of the day was spent moving relatively quickly down the long valley of the Greenstone River, first through mossy green beech forests which later gave way at times to open valley flatlands and some grazing cattle. We reached the Greenstone Hut just as dark fell, but due to its easy proximity from a carpark found it overflowing with kiwis and tourists alike. Without even attempting to push our way into the crowded building we went around back and pitched our tents, making our dinner out on the hut's spacious porch.

Sunset over the lake. 

Sunset over the lake. 

The next day Ben and Laura left us to return to their car, but it wasn't yet our final goodbye. While still in Queenstown we had hatched the plan of meeting again at the end of this next section in the town of Manapouri and spending two nights in an airbnb, hopefully in the company of Simon (our Dutch companion of the North Island) and perhaps other TA friends who were within a few days of reaching Bluff and completing their TA journey. Although we were looking forward immensely to reuniting with our friends before they flew home or went their separate ways, we had made the date of the airbnb according to the TA trail notes, which we soon learned had vastly overestimated walking times for most sections of the trail past Queenstown. We found we now had five days to make it only about 70kms of mostly flat track, and thus prepared ourselves for an on trail vacation. 

 

We spent a full off day at the Greenstone hut, enjoying the solitude after the morning rush of departing hikers. The next day we continued on towards the Mavora Lakes region, and spent the next few days enjoying easy river valley walking, short days and lots of time to read our books and enjoy lakeside lunches.

Day 119: We've eaten the last bag of potato chips. Nothing here but rocks and grass...

Day 119: We've eaten the last bag of potato chips. Nothing here but rocks and grass...

Before long we were back on a gravel road through a large station (NZ farm) heading towards our meeting point with Ben and Laura. We were picked up by Ben still a few kilometers from the highway and found out that not only Simon, but also Sonya and Sarah (Germans who started the same day as us in Cape Reinga) and Max and Jayson (companions from our North Island canoe trip and other sections) would be joining us for our town stay!

Where there is a quiche there's a way! 

Where there is a quiche there's a way! 

In true thru-hiker fashion we spent the next two days packed into a much too small cottage cooking and consuming elaborate meals, watching movies, drinking, and reminiscing on the trail. Loathe to leave our friends and return to the trail, knowing that for most it would be our last goodbye, we even extended our stay for another night. But everyone else had already finished, while eight more days of trail still stood before us, and before long we felt it time to return to our unfinished business. 

The last resupply of the entire TA. 

The last resupply of the entire TA. 

We gave hugs and final goodbyes to all but Simon, who would be meeting us at the end of our trail for a bit more adventuring, and we spoke of plans for future reunions in far off times and places. We were surrounded by the wonderful people that had been our family, full of encouragement and laughter, for the last five months, sharing a trail of both mud and beauty, and we knew how much we would miss them. 

 

Laura and Simon drove us to the trailhead and after one last picture and hugs we turned towards the trail, wind and rain gathering around us, as we began the last effort which would carry us to Bluff.

This photo stolen from Simon's Facebook - hopefully he doesn't find out! 

This photo stolen from Simon's Facebook - hopefully he doesn't find out! 

All Good Stories End With...

All Good Stories End With...

Back on Track

Back on Track