Te Araroa Part 13: the Wekaweka Conspiracy
As Kiwis would say, our packs were “heavy as”. We had 10-11 days of food. And not just the bare minimum needed to survive, but plenty of solid meals and delicious snacks. I hate being hungry while hiking. And since we are constantly hungry, it means we carry enough to feed a small village for a year. It would probably take us 8 days to get through the Richmond Ranges but there are sections that involve river crossings and we had heard horror stories of people getting stuck in a hut for four days while waiting out rainstorms until the rivers were low enough to cross. The current weather forecast: heatwave with zero chance of rain. At least one of the huts was out of water. Great.
We got our packs onto our backs somehow and then they weren’t so bad. The balance pockets certainly helped. At least our packs were not as disturbingly tall as Brianne’s, which towered over her head when she walked. It helped to have new shoes, too. Hurray for Altra Lone Peak 4! My feet felt so much better in these which was great because it started out with a nice roadwalk. Gravel road, luckily, without too much traffic. Except there was an entire platoon of evil cows. We passed the 1800 km mark sometime in the morning but didn’t stop to celebrate because it was agonisingly hot. We took snack breaks in the shade and a long lunch break once we reached Emerald Pool, a beautiful swimming hole in the Pelorus river. Of course there was swimming. From Emerald Pool to the first hut, Captain Creek Hut, was only a few hours further and we decided to take a shortish day and stop there. The hut was a sauna, but people still chose to stay inside rather than outside because there were a few million sandflies outside. After a plunge in the river, we decided to pitch our tent rather than being boiled in the hut. There wasn’t anyone we knew in the hut, anyway. Yerin and Brianne had gone on ahead to the next hut.
The next morning, half the sandfly population of the South Island was between our inner tent and fly, all waiting to pounce on us when we crawled out. Jasper put on his baselayer, longjohns and headnet and ventured out to cook breakfast. When he came back into the tent with it he brought a good six dozen sandflies with him. We spent so long squashing the buggers that the pot of oats had cooled to a sad, gloopy mess by the time we finally got around to eating. Time to go. It was another hot day, but luckily the trail stayed in the shade most of the way. There were cool swingbridges to take us across streams to Middy Creek Hut, which was as hot and sandfly-infested as Captain Creek. It looked exactly the same too: six bunks total, arranged in an L-shape. After the hut, we climbed up a nice trail to Rocks Hut, a massive 16 bunk hut with a veranda and flush toilets instead of the usual longdrop. We took an early lunch there, chatting to an Australian woman named Jeanette and admiring each other’s buzzcuts. She was going to stay at Rocks and was spending the afternoon cleaning the hut, which was pretty filthy. Some daytrippers or overnight hikers must have come in recently, because there were empty beer cans on the shelves (TA hikers don’t bring beer, we can barely lift our packs with the food we are carrying). We had done a similar cleaning session at the Pahautea hut on Pirongia, so we didn’t feel too guilty about leaving it to Jeanette this time.
From Rocks, the trail went through forest and across open scrub land and then down again. The trail was really good. The best thing was perhaps that we could enjoy the beech forest without sinking to our knees in mud. On the North Island we had heard stories of these glorious mudfree trails, but we thought they were just myths. It was early evening when we arrived at Browning hut. We thought we would just check to see if anyone was there, then quickly carry on, but we ended up having a good half hour chat to a NOBO called Salome who gave us lots of tips for the next 1150 km. We did the last hour to Hacket hut quickly and got there in time to have a quick swim and make dinner before it got dark. It was a small 6 bunk hut again, with about a dozen people there. Because the weather was nice many had just decided to camp. We met up with Brianne and Yerin again, and got chatting to a local hunter who was going to hunt wild pig once it got dark. The only other non-TA hiker was a Canadian called Joe, who was hiking the Richmond Alpine Track on his winter holiday. It was his first time hiking for a week and he was a bit worried about his food supplies. He had a massive bag of oats, an equally massive bag of pasta and a packet of crackers. To complete his incomplete kit, he had a tent without a tentpole and a smallish water bottle. But he made up for it with a great personality and sense of humour so we told him to stick around so we could feed him our scraps, because we had 11 days of food and the chances of us having to wait in a hut until the river level dropped were looking increasingly slim. And we really didn’t want to get our next foodbox while we were still carrying half the previous one.
Just before dark, a hiker called Lana arrived at the hut. She asked us all if we had seen her friend Tom (who we had never met, but on the trail you identify people by the colour of their shirt and pack). No one had seen him, even though he was ahead of her. Lana was worried he had fallen in a ravine and broken every bone in his body, while we all assured her he had probably just gone the wrong way in the afternoon, which would take him on a longish detour to Roebuck but. He would probably stay at Roebuck or Browning, depending on how fast he hiked. Lana didn’t seem very reassured, but at least she didn’t go looking for him in the dark. The hunter offered to take her to Nelson the next day so she could contact the police or search and rescue if he still hadn’t turned up by then.
There was no sign of Tom the next morning. Lana decided to get an early start and get to Starveall hut as soon as possible, because NOBOs had told us there would be reception there. The rest of us had a slightly more leisurely start. Joe, Brianne and Yerin set off together and we were a bit behind them. We’re slow getting ready in the mornings. Probably because we have to eat warm oat porridge for breakfast during a heatwave. At the risk of repeating myself: it was another hot day. The climb to Starveall hut was steep and sweat was soon pouring down our faces even though we were in the shade. My legs were heavy and I felt like we weren’t making any progress at all. However, when we reached the bushline and Starveall hut not long after, we saw we had gone a lot faster than the time on the signs and in the trailnotes. Joe, Brianne, Yerin and Lana had dragged the hut’s picnic table into the shade in hope of staying somewhat cool. Yerin had decided that the heatwave warranted a comment in the hutbook: “Too hot, kill me now”, while the rest of us opted for slightly more restrained comments along the lines of “Hot”, “Warm and sunny” or “Heatwave”. Not long after us, the missing Tom showed up. He had indeed gone the wrong way and taken the detour to Roebuck hut. We all cheered Lana on as she shouted a bit at him - because he had raced ahead, because he went the wrong way, and because he didn’t have a PLB (personal locator beacon) with him. We could tell this was true trail love.
Brianne, Yerin and Joe continued to the next hut, Slaty, and we followed a little while later. We still had some steep climbing to do, but now with views and a nice breeze to cool us down. The trail was rocky and fun and we were whooping with delight at this “real hiking”. Not that the previous 1850ish km have been boring or anything (far from it) but I love trails above the treeline. Only one thing was really annoying me. Chafing around the upper thighs. I decided I might as well take my shorts off and hike in my underwear. I have purple undies, and my shorts are tiny and purple, so I figured there wouldn’t be much difference and besides, we were hiking so who cares. The tiny purple shorts come with built-in merino underwear which I suppose was put there for runners and other people who wash their clothes after every workout. My tiny purple shorts hardly ever see the inside of a washing machine, so I wear regular underwear in them. The legholes of the built-in merino underwear were a little bit tighter than those of the purple undies, with chafing as the result. Taking the shorts off helped a bit, and indeed nobody batted an eye when we arrived at Slaty. Joe was rather tired, but Brianne and Yerin decided to go on. The huts in the Richmond Ranges are all between 3 and 5 hours apart, so most people plan to do two huts a day. However, the logical stopping point for the following day, Rintoul hut, was known to be out of water. The DoC office had specifically warned us about this. We had enough water bottles to carry 8 litres for the two of us but we didn’t think that would be enough if we decided to stay the night at Rintoul. Yerin and Brianne didn’t fancy this either, so they decided to push on to Old Man hut, which was another three hours but also quite a bit off trail. For this reason, we stayed put at Slaty. Also, it was bloody hot. Joe was feeling a bit woozy from the heat so stayed at Slaty too. The three of us made plans to get an early start in the morning, and do three huts - past the turnoff to Old Man, then via Rintoul to Tarn hut. It would be a long day. As we were laying our plans, we heard a “Whoop!” from the ridge in front of us from Yerin and Brianne. The view must be great, so we decided to start before dawn to catch the sunrise on the ridge.
Three more people showed up at Slaty. The first was an ex forestry service guy called Colin, who had lots of good stories to tell. He used to have to stay in huts for weeks on end, and said they grew beansprouts then too, plus made massive cheesecakes for hikers. He was great at chasing weka away from our socks and drysacks. Sneaky birds, but not very clever. One tried to grab Jasper’s drysack of warm clothes. The bag was bigger than the weka. Lana and Tom arrived late in the afternoon. We had dinner together, and observed two weka, one of which was very clearly male and interested in the other, which was obviously female and just wanted him to bugger off. Lana and Tom asked if we knew the knife game. “Is that like Magic Spoon?” we asked. It was not. The knife game is a bit like Twister except you throw an actual sharp knife and try to make it stick in the ground. First one to lose a toe loses the game. Something like that. We decided to stick to Magic Spoon.
We were up before 5 am the next morning. After a quick breakfast of muesli bars and a litre of water each, we set off with Joe. The moon was bright and the trail was good, so we had no trouble following it up to the ridge. There, we let out a “Whoop!” too. Even in the dark the view was amazing. We realised there was a peak in the way of our sunrise, so we continued quickly as the sky lightened around us and then had an absolutely glorious sunrise. Streaks of colour lit up the clouds. And of course, with the sun came the heat, so we quickly stripped off the baselayers we were wearing. I was in underwear again. This time, Jasper’s. Boxers have seams in other places and short legs rather than legholes so there was less chafing. We made excellent time along the ridge to Old Man, where we stopped for a quick snack break. I’m not going to bother to describe the view, except that it was amazing, glorious, beautiful, stunning. Just look at the pictures.
We continued along a forested, scrambly ridge and passed the turnoff to Old Man hut. Not long after, we could see the hut far below the ridge. Good thing we had plenty of water so we didn’t have to go down there! After a little climbing, we were above the treeline again. Before us loomed Little Rintoul, a steep scree slope dotted with marker poles. We heard a “Whoop!” from ahead of us and realised we must be close to Yerin and Brianne. The climb up Little Rintoul was steep but straightforward and we had terrific views from the top. The trail dropped down from Little Rintoul before climbing up to Big Rintoul. For some reason, we thought the trail would be along the top of the narrow ridge but we actually dropped down the side. The descent was steep in places, with a lot of scree, but never very narrow. It felt great to do some “real hiking” after the broad trails on the Queen Charlotte track. My feet were feeling great now they had something to do! During the descent, we spotted two small dots ascending Big Rintoul in front of us. Obviously Yerin and Brianne. We reached Big Rintoul after another steep climb and decided to stop for lunch there, just as Brianne and Yerin were beginning their descent. That descent was pretty steep too, and straight down scree. I try to avoid excessive scree surfing if possible because it sucks for the people behind you, but we ended up surfing pretty much automatically. Joe went a bit slower because his feet were hurting. He was wearing Fivefinger shoes without socks, so he was getting weird blisters and his arches were rubbed raw. As we approached the treeline, my feet decided they wanted in on all this pain. I slid on some rock and twisted my ankle, the same one I had twisted on the gnarly slopes of the Forest of Death after Te Kuiti! Noooooo! I got up and carefully put some weight on it. It held. Very slowly, I descended the last bit to Rintoul hut. Because I was going so slow, the sandflies were catching up and were beginning to eat me alive. We took a break at the hut and I poured some water into my sock and hoped it would be a little bit like and icepack. Joe found that contrary to all reports, there was water at the hut, in the small rainwater tank. He was nearly out so was quite pleased, while Jasper looked a bit miffed at having carried 3 extra litres of water all day (I had carried the extra water on the Queen Charlotte track, so it was his turn now). We also went through the hutbook to see who was ahead of us. This is always a lot of fun. We saw that we were slowly, very slowly gaining on Falk and Rebekka. Jakub and Katerina were a good two weeks ahead of us, and enjoying themselves immensely, by the look of things. Courtney was walking with Ralph, Laine and Iben, and seemed to be having a great time. Then we spotted Pete and Karen, next to the comment “Helicoptered out”. Oh no! We didn’t have their phone number, so we couldn’t contact them to see what had happened and whether they could continue the trail after some rest. But we decided the handwriting looked cheerful and resigned rather than panicky, so we hoped/assumed it hadn’t been too serious. If they had to stop the TA, at least the injury happed on a gnarly section. My nightmare is to trip over my own feet and break a leg somewhere in a quiet residential area in a large city. That would be too humiliating for words.
I gave my ankle a brief pat for not breaking, and we continued. With water at Rintoul hut, we could have stayed, but the longdrop was more of a shortdrop and besides, Tarn hut was next to a lake and we really wanted a swim. So we walked on. Four hours to go. The heat was doing weird things to us. It must have short-circuited our brains and fried our neurones. We started talking about the weka. From there, we went on to its nastier cousin, the wekaweka. The wekaweka is evil. It has red eyes and a third eyelid to hide its devilish glare. It flies. It pretends that it cannot, but that’s just so that it can sneak up on you and steal your lollies (aka sweets, candy). If you have eaten all your lollies, it eats you. All lolly companies are owned by wekaweka, who try their very best to get people to buy more lollies. For this reason, some people talk about “Big Lolly” which is basically the wekaweka conspiracy. There is only one way to protect yourself from the wekaweka, and that is to eat high protein nuts. Remember the Pak ‘n Save checkout lady in Whanganui, who suggested we buy high protein nuts rather than lollies? She was only trying to protect us from the wekaweka. Everything suddenly made sense. The conspiracy got bigger and bigger as we climbed up Purple Top and continued along a forested ridge swarming with wasps. Wasps like to hang around in beech forests to eat honeydew, which is a secretion of a type of insect that lives in the bark of the trees. At least, that’s what they say. In reality, of course, the wasps are there to spy on behalf of the wekaweka. We tried not to upset them too much. Finally, finally, we arrived at Tarn hut. We dropped our packs and went for a swim in the murky pond. We ate our dinner by the pond, enjoying the beautiful reflections and relatively low numbers of sandflies. Brianne and Yerin were there too, as was a hiker called Nick and another called Tom (a NOBO, not Lana’s Tom). Tom, Nick and Joe decided to hold a stone skipping competition. Joe and Tom managed somewhere between five and ten while Nick just chucked a boulder in to make a giant splash. Clear winner. After some black stories, which Joe solved extremely quickly, we decided to follow Brianne’s example and pitch our tent without the fly. This is something all Americans do on Instagram. So they can look at the stars. I have always felt this is a thoroughly idiotic idea. What if it rains?? It never rains on Instagram, duh. But what about the dew??
The dew, of course, settles on the stuff inside your tent rather than on the fly. The result: damp sleeping bags, wet inner tent, puddle of water on the floor. Luckily there was a heatwave with plenty of sun so we could dry everything before we set off the next morning. We planned on having a short day anyway. After three huts the previous day, we felt like doing just one now. Yerin left early and decided to stick to the two huts a day schedule, because she was a bit worried about her food situation. Brianne left early too because she didn’t want to hang around and wait for our stuff to dry while being eaten by sandflies. Joe stuck around and hiked with us because we are excellent company and have a near endless supply of black stories. We also had lots of food and he was getting hungry, so we gave him some wraps, mueslibars and a dinner or two. But not the Thai lemongrass stir fry sauce which we like better than the hoisin. Joe, luckily, was hungry enough not to mind the hoisin. His feet were still sore so he wore his sandals rather than the Fivefingers. It was a short day, involving basically just a single long descent through the forest. Tom the NOBO had warned us about wasps but they weren’t nearly as bad as on the previous day. We arrived at Mid Wairoa hut around lunchtime, which we decided to have by the river. Brianne joined us and the four of us had an amazing afternoon by the world’s best swimming hole. We still had a good supply of black stories. It got a bit confusing to talk about a man meeting another man and then a third man would do something, so we introduced names from the start. Bruce and Steve had some ridiculously dramatic adventures, and were occasionally joined by Albert and Chris.
The sandflies discovered us in the evening so we hid in the hut with doors and windows closed. These older huts do not have bugscreens on the windows so it got boiling hot in there. I decided two days of hiking in Jasper’s underwear was enough, despite assurances that the blue boxers looked just like tight shorts on me. It was not the look I minded, but the chafing. Men’s boxers have seams where women’s underpants do not so there was chafing in new and interesting places. Time to go back to my own underwear, with tiny purple shorts. But first I would remove the built-in merino undies. I did this by simply cutting them out with scissors. As I held them up, we all burst out laughing. They were giant. The biggest pair of merino undies in the world. How did they ever fit in the tiny purple shorts? An extra dimension? A rupture in the space-time continuum? Were the tiny purple shorts bigger on the inside? You have to make your own entertainment on the trail, and there was plenty that evening. Thanks, Icebreaker!
Joe and Brianne decided to sleep in the sauna hut, while Jasper and I camped outside. This time, with the fly on. No dew settled on my sleeping bag, and we slept relatively sandfly free and certainly a lot cooler than the other two. Again, Brianne left early in the morning while we started later with Joe. He was still wearing sandals, which proved a bit challenging. The track was quite narrow in places, sidling above the river and crossing it numerous times. Jasper and I splashed around in the water. First wet feet on the South Island, and actually quite refreshing on a hot day! But Joe’s sandals became extremely slippery when wet, so he hopped from rock to rock to cross. In one spot, there were no good rocks, so he just threw a bunch in until he had decent stepping stones. This was the section where people had gotten stuck in previous years because of high rainfall, but with the dry weather it was not very difficult. The forest was beautiful too. Joe did get stung twice by wasps, of which there were still annoyingly many.
We met Brianne at Upper Wairoa hut, which was painted a cheerful bright orange. The four of us continued together into a completely different landscape. Brianne, who grew up in Arizona, thought it looked like home. We thought it looked like Mars, or a random alien planet from Star Trek. The earth had turned red and the only trees were scraggly prickly things. We clambered over boulders up the slopes of Mount Ellis, where we had a great snack break with a view. In the distance, we could see our destination: Hunter’s hut. It looked far away, but the descent went a lot quicker than expected. We are finding it hard to judge distances in NZ because so far the valleys are not as deep and the peaks not as high as we are used to, so everything looks bigger than it really is. The trees in the distance were also small rather than just far away. Just before the final climb to the hut, we crossed a river where we decided to have a swim to cool down a bit. Joe hurried on immediately to avoid being eaten by sandflies, while Jasper and I walked the final bit as slowly as possible to avoid getting sweaty again. This was impossible, unfortunately, and we were dripping as we arrived at the hut. Just as we were beginning to think there would be only four of us at the hut again, two others showed up: Marion and Francois from France. We had met them briefly on the North Island, but we hadn’t talked much then. They had done a three hut day, coming all the way from Tarn hut, and were feeling pretty tired but still happy to chat and be social. The six of us spent the evening snacking and enjoying the amazing view of the Milky Way.
The next morning Brianne and Joe set off early together. Jasper and I were packing up to leave as Francois and Marion were preparing their breakfast. They were having oats, of course, and from the look on Marion’s face they hated them even more than we did. In part, this was because they had instant oat sachets, which look and taste like glue. Jasper and I mix oats and milk powder (and vanilla flavoured pea protein powder because we wanted to be sure to get some protein). Jasper managed to convince them to give our oats a try, so at least we got rid of some of ours. It was the hottest day on trail yet (at least it felt like it) and we were boiling hot even before the sun crept over the mountains. First we hopped our way across a boulder field, then descended a steep scree slope with some steep cliffs down one side. Someone had scrawled a giant 1900 on the path. 1900 km, hurray! We arrived at Porters Creek hut for lunch, just as Brianne and Joe were leaving. As we were getting ready to leave again, Marion and Francois showed up, ready to take a break. We kept up this pattern for all our breaks that day. Every time we passed a stream, we splashed our hands and face, or just dunked our entire heads in. The trail passed through a forest of sorts, but the trees were stunted and scraggly and provided no shade whatsoever. Just 5 km before Red Hills hut, our final destination of the day, we spotted Joe and Brianne in a river. As we caught up, Brianne told us it was too shallow to swim in, “but just lie down in it”. So we stripped off our clothes and spent a good half hour just lazing around in a shallow river. Marion and Francois showed up as we were putting our shoes back on, and we told them the same thing. As we started on the final climb of the day, we wished the hut was down by the river. Or that Joe could race ahead and bring the hut to us (as Brianne had asked him to do). Sweat was soon pouring down our faces again.
Just before the hut, we reached a plateau which looked suspiciously green. We poked at it with our trekking poles, and sure enough, it was a bog. We edged around the deepest patches and soon arrived at Red Hills hut where Brianne’s shorts and shoes were drying outside. She had stepped right into the bog. It’s a special talent of hers that she can find all the holes on the trail and fall right into them. The hut itself was the fanciest so far in the Richmonds, with bug screens on the windows and even on the little ventilation holes of the longdrop! The hutbook contained a comment from Yerin (half a day ahead of us) which accurately summed up that day’s weather: “So fucking hot”. There was very little water at the hut. The tank was nearly empty, but luckily we wouldn’t need much because the next day was our final day. With this in mind, we raided our foodbags and had a snack party. Once Francois and Marion showed up, we introduced them to black stories. They felt sorry for poor Bruce who always ended up dying in the stories so our motto for the day was “Let’s kill Steve”. Francois probably wanted to be a bus driver when he was a kid, because his questions were all about buses. Was Steve a bus driver? Did he take the bus to work? Was he involved in an accident with a bus? It certainly made for a memorable evening in an awesome hut.
It had finally cooled down a little the next morning. There were actual clouds! We all debated whether to take the quick route down to the valley, or follow the official but slightly longer TA down. Brianne took the official route, Marion and Francois the short route, and Jasper, Joe and I followed them a little while later. As we were out of black stories, we did logic puzzles instead. Once we reached the road, we decided to hitch rather than roadwalk (it was a narrow road with hardly any shoulder, with more trucks than I would have liked). Hitching turned out to be surprisingly difficult because there was little traffic, apart from trucks. We ate an entire block of chocolate and hopped around to avoid sandflies, and finally someone stopped for us! Sam and Lisa had planned to go mountain biking on the path that we took down, but changed their minds about which trail they wanted to do. They were a bit worried at first that we wouldn’t fit with our packs, but it was no problem in the end, and after they dropped us off at St Arnaud they gave their phone number to Joe and invited him to stay with them if he came by Nelson later in his holiday. Brianne, Marion and Francois had all walked along the road, and we all arrived at the lodge around the same time. We got our food boxes, had showers, did laundry and had pizza for lunch at their restaurant. Jasper snaffled the one spare pair of shorts that we carry, so I walked around in rainpants most of the afternoon. Luckily it had cooled down a bit. It was even drizzling slightly! We met Yerin again too, because she had taken a zero at St Arnaud.
We still had a lot of leftover food and with our new box we had way too much. Francois was perfectly happy to take our leftover oats. He literally asked if we had more of those “delicious oats” while Marion looked ready to murder him. Their instant oats went in the hostel’s “free food” box, along with some of our couscous and a few other items. After a quick visit to what Joe called the Department of Conversation to update them on the water situation in the huts, we spent a good hour in the lodge hot tub where we did all the black stories that Yerin and Brianne didn’t already know. We realised that all black stories are connected and happen in the same universe - Steve jumps out of a window and regrets it, while Bruce is found dead in a telephone booth. All part of one great story.