All Good Stories End With...
And they lived happily ever after? The End? A signpost at the beginning of a highway and the completion of a journey? We are still struggling to find the words to describe finishing Te Araroa, and in many ways the journey is so much a part of us now that it doesn't feel as if it has ended at all - it is on our minds every single day, changing how we think, and how we interact with our old lives.
Our last eight days on the trail were a mess of storms, jungle mud, beaches, high winds, and road walks - a more frigid bookend to the first days from Cape Reinga - and yet despite their difficulty they were peppered with everything we had come to love about the Te Araroa. Magnificent views, gorgeous sunsets and sunrises, helping hands from total strangers and friends alike, and the support and company of one another as we walked our final kilometers - these were all present in our last days.
We began this final stretch with two days through the Takitimu Forest, which included our last time above 1000m of elevation. New Zealand continued to impress us with it's extraordinary variety of landscapes, and while the forests of this section became a mix of beech and more ferny flora similar to the Northland forests long ago, they were mixed in with high mountain grasslands, covered in golden tussock higher than our heads - a beautiful navigational challenge!
On our second day through the Takitimus, just as we neared the final descent before reaching our campsite at the edge of a large farm station, we found ourselves suddenly emerging from the forest onto an open, rocky ridge line. So far south the sun was never high in the sky, and the day was already nearing its close. Gorgeous pink and golden rays from the lowering sun set aglow a fantastic sight. To our right reared the peaks of central Fiordland, their dark masses soon to hide the sun. Ahead lay the path of the ridge, lined with small tussock and rock, reminiscent of the most lofty passes in Nelson Lakes or the Richmond Ranges, and a bit farther stood a final high point from which the world seemed to drop off into nothing. To our left and beyond stretched the rolling lands of Southland - soft greens, purples and browns defined the shapes of hills, farms, pastures and towns, and at the very edges of sight, the ocean itself.
After contemplating this airy feeling of standing atop the world, we left the mountains for the final time and descended to the Telford campsite. That night proved the most sleepless of the whole trail. We were camped in a valley coming off the mountains of Fiordland, and a blasting, freezing storm came down from their high reaches as soon as it was dark. All night our damaged tent shook and trembled as it was relentlessly beaten with freezing wind and sleet. Half way through the night a bag pushed against the edge of the tent caused a leak, and upon discovery Alexa bailed over five cupfuls of water from the inside of the tent. When the sun finally rose the weather had not improved, and just as we prepared to escape the tent, a blast of snow began to collect on its sagging roof. Knowing there was nothing for it, we got going anyway, luckily with no more snow, but with an overflowing river crossing first up.
We had planned to stealth camp in the Woodlaw Forest that evening, but after 20 kms in the freezing rain, walking farm roads and fields, we decided that a warm night and a chance to dry out was both desired and necessary to avoid the risk of hypothermia. Luckily we had the contact of a private hut provided by a family on the station, and we texted with our intention to stay as soon as we reached service.
When we arrived at the hut we were greeted with an already going fire in the stove, and after more inspection discovered that we had been left a pot of homemade squash soup and fresh bread. Having forgone lunch in the miserable weather, we made quick work of the food, sure that it was the tastiest soup and bread we had consumed in our entire lives!
The next morning after a gorgeous sunrise we started again, our spirits lifted by the lack of rain, now replaced by beautiful clouds and glittering new snowcaps on the mountains whose foot we had slept at the night before. We made good time on a mix of farm roads, fields and the trails of the small native forest of Woodlaw, allowing us to make up our lost kilometers from the previous day. We reached our campsite at the top of the forestry road before Longwood Forest just as the day grew dark, our painful feet reminding us that easy or not, 35+ kilometer days took their toll on our soles!
We had been warned by our friends of the return to mud that awaited us in Longwood Forest, and knowing from personal experience of the recent torrential rain, we were prepared for the worst. Our first day through Longwood was certainly muddy, and we accepted it without question, plowing straight through the pits as soon as we started, but the generally rain-free day kept our spirits high, even when we found ourselves struggling up a slope of knee-deep slop. We were surprised and excited to find that although the forest was dense and dark in places, we also spent quite a bit of time in squashy marshland above tree line. Although blasted with wind, the vantage from these high places on Bald Hill and Longwood trig not only afforded beautiful views back to snowy Fiordland while the sun gave off a stormy sunset light all day, but also gave us our first distant view of the peninsula we knew to house Bluff.
When we were thoroughly sick of struggling through the mud we reached Martin's Hut, the last hut on the TA and a mouse-ridden relic from 1905. After peering through the door at the dark, kindly described as "rustic" interior of the hut, Alexa was ready to pitch the tent, but after some convincing from Andrew we decided to stay inside - proving a good decision when the heavens opened again with pouring rain the night through, and the hut proved that it's one hole-less feature was its sturdy corrugated roof!
The next morning the rain continued as we began the Ports Water Race section of the Longwood Forest. This section, although theoretically flat, followed the track of an old gold mining water supply, and although the trail notes claimed the track's repair in recent years, we found large sections washed away, causing us to break our pace every few minutes to scramble up and down precipitous muddy slopes, or crawl over and under fallen trees while navigating flooded streams. We attempted to distract ourselves with music and audiobooks from the mud, rain, and monotonous forest for 15 long kilometers, when we finally reached an early exit from the water race that our TA alumni friends had strongly suggested we take (the alternative being 5+km more water race, and then a highway walk back to the same town as the early exit). Given the rain and the significant kilometers still to go to reach our destination of Riverton that evening, we took the exit and after a bit of confusion, emerged onto a dairy farm and began following the pastures towards the dirt road to town.
As we hit the main road through the farm, we were met by two folks and a dog on a four wheeler, who pulled over to us upon catching sight of our sodden, bedraggled forms. The occupants were Scott, the grown son of the farm's owner; Rebecca, an American working with Scott at the farm; and Archie, an excitable, adorable collie puppy. Taking pity on us they invited us inside to wring out and have lunch. Although a bit worried about making our day before dark, we gratefully accepted the offer and took a ride over to their house on the farm where we were fed a delicious lunch and invited to stay the night. This invitation incited a confused discussion as we tried to figure out how we could take the wonderful invitation and yet keep our finishing date on the trail. After a bit where Alexa was determined to walk the last kilometers of the trail religiously, and Andrew was determined to spend a dry night, we agreed to slack pack (hike without packs) the rest of the day's section, and Rebecca and Scott offered to pick us up where we would have stayed in the next town and take us home again with them!
We hit the trail again as the sun grew low (only about 3pm at this point in the season and so far South!), but luckily the rain had mostly cleared while we had lunched. We had 12 km to make before dark and we attempted to cruise quickly down the beach and dunes, but high tide, soft sand and a wandering trail slowed our progress. Still the setting sun and passing storm clouds made for a beautiful evening, and we hit the final hill with its luckily gravelled and well graded trail as it grew truly dark. We walked the well formed trail and the road down to the town of Riverton in the pitch dark, having in our rush and slack packing forgotten to grab our headlamps! As we reached the edge of town we were greeted by the welcome sight of headlights coming our way, and hopped into the car with Scott, Rebecca, and the beer they had just picked up!
We were then treated to quite possibly the best meal of our entire trail - a home cooked extravaganza of farm fresh veggies, eggs, chutneys, and fruit, prepared deliciously and accompanied by great conversation and refreshing beers. We ended the wonderful evening with hot showers and a real bed. What an end to a wet hard day!
The next morning we proved our worth as we sat with Rebecca preparing to leave the house, and saw out the window three loose cows heading down the driveway and towards the road! We slipped on borrowed gum boots and went running after Rebecca and Archie to head off the cows. We practiced our cow herding skills along with the overly excited Archie and after some effort succeeded in returning the runaways to their pasture.
After the morning excitement we were driven back to Riverton and dropped off to start the penultimate day of the trail. We spent the rest of the day in a frigid dream of Ninety Mile Beach, as we walked the curving expanse of Oreti Beach. The day wavered between sun and Arctic rain for hours, but never relaxed its blasting Southern wind, and when we finally reached the relief of the road walk into Invercargill we were wind burned and covered in sand.
We finished the walk into Invercargill in the gathering dark, and although we spoke of grand plans to go out for dinner and beers, we found ourselves only making it out of our hostel room for long enough to pour boiling water onto our last backup dehydrated meal, which we proceeded to eat in the comfort of our bed.
The next morning we had a slow start, having breakfast and picking up food for our last day. We hit the trail at 11 am and enjoyed the final chapter of The Return of the King as we walked the marshy bike trail out of the city. By lunch we hit highway 1, and began the last stretch of the Te Araroa, a whole lot of kilometers of highway road walking (fingers crossed land negotiations succeed in changing this for future trampers!). Still, this was one road walk we weren't about to hitch, and we skipped our way down the road, jumping into the ditch as trucks rumbled by, dancing to tunes and enjoying the return of the sunshine while the sweeping curve of the road made Bluff seem like a mirage that would never grow closer.
As we finally approached the outskirts of Bluff we got a message from Simon, he was already there and waiting for us to finish! Asking if we needed anything, we replied "beers" and before we knew it a campervan was pulling off the road up ahead. We reached Simon and were greeted with roadside hugs, a place to sit down, and a cold beer each from the fridge. Our sore feet attempted to convince us to stop then and there, but before long we forced ourselves off the comfortable couch and back on the road.
A huge sign soon proclaimed we had reached the bounds of the town of Bluff - a somewhat run down old fishing and shipping village, famous for its oysters, being the source of Highway 1, and not much else - an odd but somehow fitting terminus for the magical mish mash of the trail that is Te Araroa.
Realizing the growing darkness and the (even by the shortest route) five kilometers still to go we quickly looked up sunset (5:39pm!!) and started speed walking, hoping to reach the signpost while it was still light enough for a photo. As the sea turned purple in the failing daylight, we rounded the last corner and saw below us the yellow fingers of the signpost that marked the beginning of the highway and the end of our long journey! Breaking into a leaping run we bounded down the last hill, whooping for joy and grabbing the signpost to swing around it in jubilation as a single confused tourist looked on.
Simon's campervan was parked beside the sign waiting for us, and we were handed a bottle of champagne as soon as we had stopped hugging the sign and each other. We stood together as the final light of day failed, drinking champagne with Simon and another TAer who had finished earlier that day, not able to wipe the smiles off our faces - feeling profound happiness and profound sadness, at once and in equal parts. It was May 5th, and we had finished Te Araroa.
We spent the next week campervan-ing around the South Island with Simon, visiting some places we had been before and some new, throughly enjoying the R&R, the fresh food, the speed at which the landscapes whipped by, and each others' company. On May 10th Simon dropped us at the airport in Christchurch, and we began our time traveling journey back to the US, arriving three hours before we had left.
Two weeks later, as we attempt to return to our lives, our home, our work and our friends it still feels alternately that this is all a dream, or that New Zealand was. We both want nothing more than to relax on our own couch and to be back on the trail slogging through the mud to reach a fantastic view - all at the same time. Life has once again become complicated, with all sorts of doodads and doings and things to do, and yet we both are trying to hold on to the simplicity of the trail in any way we can - but how can you carry that simplicity into such a complicated world?
All we can say for now is that we miss Te Araroa, in all its tribulation and splendor. It may be a while before we can truly comprehend what it means to us and how we have changed. Or maybe the only real answer to this feeling inside is to start planning the next adventure.