Te Araroa part 15: Wobble
In which our hiking heroes trip on smooth concrete paths, get eaten by sandflies, fall into rivers and trip over treeroots. It’s a miracle we’re still alive...
If hitching to Hanmer Springs was hard, hitching out of it was nearly impossible. Car after car passed us but nobody wanted to stop. Maybe the problem was that there were four of us? So Brianne and I, as the older and wiser members of the Anti Wekaweka Squad, relaxed in the shade while we let the two young ‘uns do the hard work in the blazing sun. Yerin and Jasper developed a series of hitchhiking techniques which ranged from passive, to active and on to downright aggressive. This involved sticking out a thumb, pointing and waving at approaching cars and doing a series of dance moves. After a few hours of this, two guys in a van finally stopped and picked us all up, as well as a lone NOBO further down the road (he hadn’t gotten a ride either in all that time, so it wasn’t just us). We were dropped at the junction with the highway, and now faced the second, longer hitch. Again, it took ages. Meanwhile, more and more TA hikers arrived from Hanmer, all of whom hopped out of cars and declared that it was such an easy, quick hitch. Hmpf. We were first so the others all agreed to hide in the bushes until we got a ride. It took two cars to get the Squad back to the trailhead just south of Boyle, and it was almost lunchtime when we got there, but at least we all made it. Time to hike the Harper Pass track, a historic route used by Maori when going to the west coast for greenstone.
The track was broad and easy, first through gorse bushes (ouch) then through beech forest. The easy, flat track made my feet hurt again but we couldn’t really stop for breaks because of the ferocious sandflies. We carry a sandfly repellent called “Goodbye sandfly” which is not nearly strong enough. Something along the lines of “Fuck off and die, you sandfly bastards!” would have been great. Soon we were dreaming of a sandfly repellent system. Brianne is an atmospheric scientist and Yerin will maybe sometime (after gap years) go to uni to study engineering, and together with mine and Jasper’s chemistry skills, we thought we should be able to design a system of lasers in a dome around us to detect any incoming sandflies, plus some minor explosives to kill them. It would be glorious to lie in our tents at night and just hear miniature explosions all around, knowing that each bang meant another dead sandfly. Sadly, the system exists only in our heads, so we had to use one of the only proven methods to avoid sandflies: keep moving! So with increasingly painful feet, I hobbled on to the Hope Kiwi hut. Just before the hut we saw three riflemen. These are tiny chubby fluffy awesome birds, that look like they have no tail. They fly around and hop across branches, sometimes upside down, and are bloody hard to photograph! Really fun to see them, and a nice surprise on a day which was all in all, nothing special. The hut was very fancy though, it looked like a real house with a large kitchen/living room and two separate bedrooms. It also had a concrete path leading up to the door, and I made a spectacular entrance by tripping over the edge of it and falling flat on the concrete while shrieking like a banshee. I scraped all the skin of my knee and limped into the hut, dripping blood. A perfect way to introduce myself to some of the people we would be hiking with the next few days. Vincent and Dagmar, the Dutch couple we’d met after Waiau Pass were there, as was another Dutch girl called Wieke. We also met Dan and Liv from the US, and Oli from France. Late in the afternoon, Courtney showed up which is always a good thing.
Unfortunately, there were also some noisy idiots in the hut. They entered our dorm in the middle of the night, with their headlamps blazing. They were talking so loudly that they woke people in the other dorm. Then early in the morning they started yelling again. A few hikers were already awake - Jasper and I, Brianne, Yerin and a handful of others. We were all whispering and making our breakfasts as quietly as possible so as not to wake anyone who wanted to sleep in (in hiker language, that means waking up after 6.30). Jasper got so fed up with them that he went to have a chat, and showed them how to set their headlamps to emit red light which is a lot less intrusive. Luckily these people were not TA hikers but just a bunch of local teenagers on an overnight trip, so we wouldn’t be bothered by them once we left the hut.
We had a beautiful valley walk up to Kiwi Saddle, across the grassy meadow where someone had cut the grass to make a nice track. Apparently there had been some pointed remarks in the hut book about this (“Really, cutting the grass was your priority?”) but Brianne enjoyed it thoroughly because she could walk without falling over. We dropped our packs at the junction to a lookout point and suddenly realised how easy it was to walk without them. We were flying! And the view over Lake Sumner wasn’t bad either. We continued through the forest along a weird zigzag track to get around fallen trees. Obviously there had been a big storm here in the last couple of days. The trail was a bit awkward in places and not very well marked, so as we emerged from the bush we somehow ended up on the wrong side of an electric fence. How did we know it was electric? We have hiked the North Island and we follow TA rule #1: “Assume all fences are electric”. Yerin, who is only doing the South Island, reached out and grabbed it: “I don’t think it’s elec-OUCH!” So we very, very carefully climbed over. The electric fence was there to contain a herd of mean-looking cows but luckily they were far away, and even if they had been inclined to chase us, they could not have followed us over the swingbridge across the Hurunui river. We had lunch at the Hurunui hut. It was once again a hot sunny day, and nobody felt like walking. One by one, TA walkers entered the hut and decided to take a nap. Eric and Emma, a couple from the US, had made that decision the previous day and were only now waking up from their nap. Naps are very important but not as important as snacks so we just spent our time eating.
Most people were pushing on to the Hurunui Nr 3 hut that day. At some point in the 30s, a number of massive huts were built because people hoped the Harper Pass track would become as popular as the Milford Track, hence the hut names. We wanted to camp a bit before the hut, where there are some natural hot pools that we wanted to soak in. Brianne and Yerin had walked ahead a bit, and Jasper and I were wondering whether we had missed the pools somehow when we heard inarticulate yelling just ahead of us. The source of this was Courtney, who had just emerged from the hot pools and was trying to get dressed while a hundred million sandflies were eating her. More yells came from Yerin and Brianne, who were in the pool up to their necks, and were trying to keep the sandflies from crawling into their eyes. Jasper and I decided we might as well wear our headnets and joined them in the pool. The bottom of the pool was murky and silty but it was nice to sit there, even on such a hot day, and someone had provided a sort of butterfly net that we could use to whack the sandflies away. We could only soak up to our necks, because a friendly sign next to the pool informed us that “Amoebic meningitis is fatal and caused by water entering nasal passages. Do not immerse head.” Lovely. Getting out of the pools was horrendous and we were soon yelling as much as Courtney. We hurried back down to the river, quickly pitched our tents, and then dived into the cold water to get the sandflies and the mud from the pool off. Wieke and Oli pitched their tents nearby too, and Dan and Liv were keen to try the hot pool until we told them about the sandflies and the amoeba.
We spent the rest of the evening sitting in our tents. It must’ve been a funny sight to any passerby. A beautiful, serene river valley. A few tents pitched there, silhouetted against the light of the setting sun. And screams and yells of “Die you bastards!” from each tent, as the occupants try to kill the sandflies that have flown in. Our original plan was to get some sleep, then get up in the middle of the night and have another soak in the hot pool. Sandflies are supposed to sleep or something at night. It was a nice idea, but the Hurunui valley sandflies were up way past their bedtime. And Brianne and Yerin were sleeping so deeply that they didn’t hear us trying to wake them. So then Jasper and I decided we might as well sleep too.
We somehow packed up our tents the next morning without being eaten alive by the sandflies, then pushed on to Nr 3 hut where we had a snack break. It was an interesting old hut, with bunks three storeys high. Someone had left a pair of merino boxers outside and Jasper decided they were his size. He also snaffled the small tripod that was left inside the hut. Technically I suppose this all counts as carrying out rubbish that someone has left behind. It was a long, slow climb up Harper Pass. On the way, we crossed a stream using a walkwire which is less scary than it sounds. It consists of three wires, one to walk on and two that are handholds, and they are linked together so as not to be too wobbly. Walking on the wire was a bit painful on my feet, though, and I sort of wished I had just splashed through the stream instead.
As we walked, we decided to teach Yerin and Brianne some Dutch. The first word we taught them was “gezondheid” (bless you). Then we went straight to the swear words which after all are the most important thing to learn in any language. Whenever someone sneezes, the standard Anti Wekaweka Squad response is now “Gezondheid, godverdomme!” You can probably guess/Google what that means. Brianne has a very good ear for Dutch, managing even the tricky “g”, while Yerin has an excellent memory and a knack for stringing together swear words in new and interesting combinations. Jasper got some use for these new swearwords that day. The laces of his trailrunners broke! He’s got Salomon trailrunners, which have superthin laces. According to the salesperson in the shop where he bought them, they are made of Kevlar and no one has ever managed to break them. Jasper managed to break both in just a few weeks’ time. One of the breaks was not so bad, so he could make a knot and still have a functioning shoe. The other broke in such a way that retying it would make the shoe impossibly tight. The solution: dental floss. What else?
Just before the pass itself, we reached Harper Pass bivvy where we had a swim in the stream to cool down. We then pitched our inner tent so we could sit and have lunch without being eaten by sandflies. This is one of the best ideas we have had so far in the trail. After a final climb, we got some excellent views over the mountains stretching away towards the south and west. The descent was a lot steeper and involved a scrambling section where the path had been washed away as we crossed the Taramakau River, which was still a smallish stream here. A NOBO had missed the crossing here and continued too far upstream. Brianne heard him splashing around and with a bit of effort Yerin managed to guide him to the right track again. The guy had his arm in a sling, which did not seem the best way to do a tramp like this. Luckily the other side of the pass had far easier tracks so we figured he’d probably be all right.
As we made our way down the river valley, we became closely acquainted with a local plant species - hookgrass. I’ve just googled it so now we know the name, on trail we called it “Christmas ornament grass” or “that fucking plant”. The seeds of this plant have tiny hooks, When you walk past it, the seeds stick to your socks, your shorts, your leg hair, everything. You can feel them dangling there and the moment of attachment is slightly painful and very annoying. Jasper was walking in front, and I was right behind him, so I told him we were now having a contest to see who could collect most Christmas ornaments. The result: Jasper brushed against every hookgrass he could find, leaving me, Brianne and Yerin with an ornament-free trail. To be fair, we did congratulate him on his astounding victory.
We decided to camp on the river flats just before the hut. The hut would probably be crowded, we had heard there were rats, and anyway we wanted to camp. At first, we enjoyed our little camping spot. We heard a kiwi in the bushes (hurray!) and the sandflies were not too bad. They soon called their friends over, however, and we spent the evening in our tents again just like on the previous night. The only difference was that the swearing and shouting was now all in Dutch. Cries of “Krijg de klere, kutvliegen!” and “Sterf, ik haat jullie!”, with just a smidge of Kiwi/US accents, filled the night.
It was drizzling when we got up the next morning. As we hadn’t seen a lot of rain yet on the South Island, we were a bit puzzled by the water falling from the sky. We packed up quickly and headed to the hut so we could have breakfast inside. Then we had to convince ourselves to go out again into the rain. Once we were moving it wasn’t so bad. Having wet feet already certainly made the first of the many river crossings easier. The trail followed the valley of the Taramakau river. There were marker poles which suggested a route (usually an ok trail) but in many places we just walked in the river itself. With low clouds swirling around the peaks, the valley was moody and gloomy and amazingly photogenic. We took a break at the Kiwi Hut, where we heard another kiwi! Who said they were nocturnal? Others of our walking bubble showed up a bit later, and heard kiwi too, and Liv actually saw one! Jealous! We had a long lunch break at the hut. Courtney just stopped for a brief snack and headed out again, but within five minutes she was back because it was still drizzling and she wanted hot chocolate. Jasper spotted a ball of twine on a shelf and snaffled some to make twine shoelaces to replace his floss shoelaces.
After lunch came the biggest river crossing. This was still fine despite the rain, with the water barely above the knee. The current wasn’t very strong and we crossed easily. The trail suddenly became a 4wd track which made walking a lot easier. Well, easier for normal people, nasty for my painful feet. There was gorse everywhere and cowshit dotted the track. My absolute least favourite type of trail! It luckily didn’t last too long and we were soon walking through beautiful native bush with lots of birdlife. The trail went into a side valley, that of the Otira river. This can apparently flood and become quite nasty, so a flood track had been made which went straight up the steep valley side. Three orange triangles pointed the way, so we followed. After a steep climb, the trail dropped down again almost to the valley floor. We had just spent several minutes and a whole lot of effort to go perhaps less than 100 m along the valley. We considered the rest of the flood track (up, down, up, down, up, down, repeat) and the river (zero water in the nearest braid) and decided to just riverbash. It was just a few km to our camping spot at Morrison’s footbridge, and the river was again kneedeep at most. We plodded upstream. The problem was getting out of the river again, because the sides were all covered in gorse. We found something that looked like a 4wd track, but that petered out and we had to fight our way through gorse to make it back to the river. The river bank was steep and just too high to step down easily. I was looking for a way down when the bank just collapsed under me and I went slipping down in an avalanche of rocks and sand. My pack decided to get stuck behind some treeroots, so I half sat, half hung above the river, feet dangling, until I could jump free. Not my most elegant descent, and of course my slip was witnessed by just about all the other hikers in the bubble. We continued in the river until we reached the bridge. Courtney had already set up her tent and she could shout some advice to us so we took the shortest route through the gorse. We all pitched our tents on the limited flat ground of Tent City, while we wondered where Eric and Emma had gone. They had passed us some time in the afternoon, but they weren’t here yet. It turned out they had gone off trail on an adventure somewhere along the flood track, while the rest of us were in the river. We spent a nice social evening in Tent City, all eating our dinners together, while a NOBO with a ukulele provided entertainment.
From Morrison’s footbridge, the TA follows the Deception River up to Goat Pass. Every year, the Coast to Coast race goes over this trail. Athletes run, bike and kayak from the west to the east coast, and this part of the track takes them about 3 hours, according to our trailnotes. The same notes told us we would need 8 or 9 hours to climb up to the pass, and another 5 to reach the road on the other side. I think the reason it takes TA hikers so much longer than top athletes is that we stop and take breaks to eat snacks, swim and above all, take photos. This was one of the most beautiful and photogenic sections of the trail so far. It started out overcast, with a braided river that we crossed and recrossed and crossed some more. Then as the sun came out the valley narrowed and steepened, and we were scrambling in the river, climbing over boulders and splashing in small pools. All around us were soaring mountains, their jagged edges sharp against the blue sky. The sandflies stayed in the lower valley so we could have as many breaks as we wanted. It was the perfect day for a swim. The river formed small pools and swimming holes and we found a glorious one that had a waterfall that we used as a shower. There was even a slippery rock that made a perfect slide.
Goat Pass hut was perhaps the most spectacularly located hut we had visited so far. It had a stunning view of the mountains, some still dotted with snow. Because most of the trail is in the river, it is really only doable in good weather. A fair number of people had hitched in from Arthur’s Pass, where they had waited for a weather window to do this section of the TA. There were even some people who had hiked the TA last season but were forced to skip Goat Pass then because of heavy rain. Add to that all the people from our Tent City hiker bubble, and we had a very full hut. Vincent and Dagmar decided to sleep outside on the porch, and a number of others put their mats down on the floor. Luckily there was plenty of floor space so we weren’t really cramped. We climbed the last few meters to the pass to catch the evening light on the mountains. Far above us we heard a kea, and we promptly decided to tie our shoes together by the laces. Kea love to steal and wreck stuff, but a ranger once told us they can carry one hiking boot but not two. Four trailrunners probably weigh as much as two boots, we decided.
We got up early the next morning because we were very excited to get to “town” and have some real food. From the top of the pass we followed boardwalk across boggy ground. The boardwalk was loose in places so it was like walking on a trampoline. We descended rapidly down the Mingha valley, walking on a trail rather than a river this time. The trail was a bit gnarly, with lots of treeroots that Brianne kept tripping over. Unfortunately, the rapid descent meant we were soon back in sandfly country. We did have a welcome snackbreak in the Mingha bivvy, which had been rebuilt only the previous week. It still smelt of freshly sawn wood and was mercifully sandfly-free. As the valley broadened the river became braided and it was back to riverbashing. It slowly began to drizzle as we reached the road. Then we faced the short hitch into Arthur’s Pass, which is the resupply “town” for next section. Jasper got us a ride by chatting to some people having lunch in a parking lot and then rescuing a bag of theirs that was blown away by the wind.
“Town” is a large word to describe Arthur’s Pass. It’s a popular tourist destination, with a cafe, a tiny tiny shop, a visitor centre, and a whole bunch of hostels and hotels that were all full. We went to the DoC visitor centre to get our resupply box that we had sent from Wellington. They had that box, but what they didn’t have were my new insoles that I had ordered from Trek ‘n Travel. Apparently, parcels tend to get lost on their way to Arthur’s Pass because the courier companies are rubbish. Arthur’s Pass is right on the main road between Christchurch and the west coast, but it is still apparently a rural area. The DoC people said with some luck my insoles would arrive the next day. Oh well, we weren’t going any further that day anyway. At least my package just contained insoles and not a water filter. We met a NOBO called Sonja who had that problem!
We settled down in The Wobbly Kea cafe with hot chocolate and pizza while we waited for the Pensionados on Wheels Tour to arrive. The PoWT consists of my aunt and uncle from Hamilton, plus my mum and dad who are in holiday in NZ. The four of them were roadtripping their way around NZ and we had made vague plans to meet in Arthur’s Pass. They arrived in the afternoon, bringing pouring rain with them. Mum and dad had a good laugh at my hair which had grown out quite a bit and was at the fuzzy dandelion stage. They also brought our suitcase of spare stuff, so Jasper could exchange his trailrunners with broken laces for a fresh pair. The PoWT were staying at a motel in Greymouth. They offered us a place to sleep on their living room floor (very welcome in the heavy rain) and fed us burgers. Hurray for the PoWT!