Te Araroa part 20: O Brianne, where art thou?
Damn, still nearly two weeks from Bluff. And a lot can happen in two weeks.
I suppose it had to happen sooner or later: the breaking of the Anti Wekaweka Squad. Technically the squad had already broken when Joe left us in St Arnaud, but we knew that was going to happen and we could prepare ourselves and keep the tears to a minimum. This was more sudden, and so it broke our hearts. The day we left Queenstown will forever be known as The Day We Lost Brianne.
The day started sunny and fine, with a massive breakfast of pies and pastries, and no hint that our squad would soon be down to three. We had to hitch from Queenstown to the Greenstone carpark on the other side of the lake, to bypass what the trailnotes called the “Lake Wakatipu hazard zone”, which sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is. There are no monsters lurking in its depths, waiting to snaffle unwary travellers. It’s just a lake with a narrow winding road around it, that no one in their right mind would walk on.
Yerin and Brianne both had things to buy in Queenstown, so Jasper and I were the first of the squad to start hitching. We got a ride quickly, from a British couple on holiday here. They were heading to Glenorchy to do some hiking and were happy to drive us there. We had a great chat about Te Araroa, hiking in general, and NZ birds. They hadn’t seen many yet, because whenever they went for a walk it would always be in some area with lots of people who talked too much and scared off all the birds. When we arrived in Glenorchy, we realised that the British couple hadn’t really decided which hike to do. We had a look at the map and advised them to go to the start of the Routeburn track, and walk as far as they wanted and then go back the same way. The first section of the Routeburn passes through beautiful forests with lots of birdlife, and the tracks are well-maintained, so we reckoned they’d have a good time. We confess we had an ulterior motive, because by having them drop us off at the Routeburn junction rather than in Glenorchy, we were a good 15 km closer to the trailhead. They did offer to drop us off at the trailhead but we could tell that this was just British politeness and we were expected to graciously decline (this is something we learned during our five months in Cambridge). They were uncomfortable driving on gravel roads and we didn’t wish to subject them to the even dodgier gravel road with three fords that led to the Greenstone carpark. So we wished them happy birdwatching on the Routeburn and waved them off.
Many TA hikers actually do the Routeburn as a sidetrip. It’s a Great Walk, with superfancy huts that cost a fortune (130 dollars a night for us foreigners), but because it’s only 35 km, many TA hikers do it in one day. About five km before the end, a trail leads to the Greenstone track so you can join up with the TA again - and stay in the standard huts where the hut pass is valid. We did the Routeburn this way a few weeks after the TA, and it’s stunning. You have to start early if you want to get through it in one day, though, which is why we decided against it as we hitched out of Queenstown and just did the regular TA up the Greenstone valley instead.
We got a ride to the Greenstone carpark fairly quickly. An Israeli couple in the world’s coolest van stopped and crammed us in somehow. Everything in that van rattled and danced around as they drove over potholes and whooshed through the fords. At the carpark we met Valeria and an Australian dude named Fabrice. They were waiting for the rest of their group to hitch in and were a bit disappointed when we hadn’t seen them. We hung around with them for a bit. Valeria and I chatted while the guys combed their beards. Like most guys on the TA, they had great big bushy beards. Sometimes people will ask us whether we have ever met X, who is also hiking the TA, and then describe X as a tall skinny guy with a big beard.
After an hour there was still no sign of Yerin and Brianne, so we started walking. The Greenstone track is ridiculously fancy. We could walk next to each other, and there wasn’t a single treeroot to trip over. The DoC sign said it would take 3 to 5 hours to get to Greenstone hut. We took it easy and made it in less than 3, and that included plenty of breaks to photograph the river which twisted its way through some picturesque gorges. To my delight, we also saw some riflemen which are without a doubt the best NZ forest birds. They are small. They are chubby. They hop around on branches and sometimes hang upside down for a bit. The only annoying thing is that they don’t sit still for long enough to get a good photo. Of course it doesn’t help that we only have a 18-55 mm lens!
The Greenstone hut was one of the fanciest we seen on the trail so far. It had flush toilets! The coolest thing was the resident ranger, who had also walked the TA! Because he had to do his ranger duties in the summer, he walked it in winter which definitely makes it a lot tougher! We saw in the hut book that we had just missed Marion, Francois, Courtney and Emeric, who had been there for lunch. Oh bother! But luckily Yerin showed up just as we were making dinner! She had a slightly harder time hitching - the people who gave her a ride were too nervous to drive through the fords so she had to walk an extra 10 km. We sat by the window so we could keep an eye on the path to the hut. Dan and Liv arrived. But the shadows lengthened and dusk fell without any sign of Brianne. Where was she? Still stuck in Queenstown? Had she somehow gotten turned around and was she following orange triangles back to Cape Reinga? Had she been turned into a toad? Or attacked and eaten by a wekaweka?
We got up early the next morning, then dawdled at the hut drinking cups of tea and hoping Brianne would show up. No such luck. So we set off with Yerin, along a path that was slightly less fancy than the highway to Greenstone hut. A short climb led us through beautiful forest to a viewpoint, after which there was a small stream crossing. I didn’t want to get my boots wet this early in the day, so I took them off. Yerin rolled her eyes at this - her boots have so many holes in them that she pretty much always has wet feet. After the crossing I happily walked along in dry boots for at least an hour, until the path just became too damn boggy. Oh well. It was worth a try. We stopped for snacks at Taipo hut and felt we were making good time, despite Yerin, Dan and Liv all walking faster. The landscape, while not as dramatic as the alpine scenery of the Cascade Saddle, was pleasant. But after the hut it all began to go downhill, literally and figuratively. The ground became boggier. Where there wasn’t bog, there were giant tussocks that very effectively hid the marker poles. The map suggested we had to stay on the lower slopes of the valley and not descend all the way to the river. This was a good thing, because the river was full of cows. I do not and will never understand why cows are just allowed to run wild like this, especially near a river! There were no fences that I could see. We sure as hell would not be drinking from the streams here...
The terrain was frustrating and we could only go slowly. Around us were some magnificent mountains, which made it even more frustrating to be stuck down in a valley with cows and bogs rather than up on the ridges. Te Araroa, why do you keep doing this to us? We reached Boundary hut sometime after lunch and felt only mild elation at having reached the 2700 km mark. We had only 10 percent of the TA left to walk. But it definitely would not be the most spectacular 10 percent, and there were no more beautiful rugged mountains looming beyond the horizon. We were definitely not in the happiest of moods as we continued towards Careys hut, which was just a little but further. But it was along a 4wd track, with big rolling stones on it. So my annoyance level gradually rose from “miffed” to “felt like setting fire to my boots and screaming”. I’m sure there’s a lot to be said for “mind over matter”, but anyone who says a good day on trail is all in the mind has no idea what they are talking about. Plantar fasciitis is in the feet, trust me. The sight of the Mavora lakes lifted our spirits slightly but not enough. I was grumpy as when we reached the hut. A whole bunch of familiar TA hikers were there - Yerin, Courtney, Wieke and Emeric. And apparently Valeria and her group showed up late. We hung around for long enough for everyone to realise I was in a pretty foul mood, and then we set off again. At least our friends would not have to spend an entire night with annoyed me in an overfull hut.
It was already six o’clock, with just two hours until sunset. This was also the time it would take to get to the campsite at the southern end of the lake, according to the trailnotes. If we managed it, it would be our longest day in terms of distance: 38 km. We figured that if we could do that, the day might’ve been frustrating but at least we had accomplished something significant. And I wanted to walk more and hopefully have some sore muscles by the end of it. This may sound weird, but I would have relished any slight pain or discomfort that was not in my feet, just to draw my attention somewhere else.
The 4wd track did its very best to be frustrating. In addition to having stones that rolled around, there were massive puddles that were more like lakes than anything else. After testing their depth carefully with a trekking pole, and seeing the pole nearly disappear, we decided to edge around rather than splash through. This was further complicated by gorse bushes on the side of the track that did their very best to push us in. Only at the very end of the lake did it become possible to veer off this stupid track and walk along the shore with stunning beech forest on one side, and enjoying mountain views across the lake on the other. And just like that we had done 38 km in a day! We reached the campsite before sunset, just after Dan and Liv. After pitching our tent we sat for a while chatting with Oscar, our neighbour. He was cycling from Bluff to Cape Reinga, along the biking equivalent of the TA. It was interesting to hear about his experiences. Apart from the crazy car drivers, and sore butts and wrists, cyclists have it easy. They pass through a town every 30 km or so, so some people apparently hardly carry any food! But on the other hand, they don’t get to scramble up rocky slopes, or riverbash.
Because we’d just done our biggest day, we allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in and having an extra cup of tea the next morning. So it was past nine when we finally left the campsite. The path led across a massive swingbridge and then down the western side of South Mavora Lake, through beech forest. A couple of South Island robins hung about. The track was easy and we were enjoying ourselves, despite the intermittent rain that forced us to stop several times so we could take our raincoats on or off. Our feet got wet again when we had to cross a small patch of tussock land. A little while later were reached a plaque that announced we had qualified for a medal! Judging by the wording on the plaque, we were pretty sure that we were not the intended age group, but oh well. A medal is a medal.
Just before noon we were overtaken by Yerin, who had started early and was dripping a bit. She cheerfully announced that she had fallen into one of the massive puddles while trying to go around it. We had lunch together by yet another massive swingbridge, after which it stopped drizzling and really began to pour down. Well, that made it a lot easier to decide where to walk that afternoon! Instead of continuing down the trail on the western side of the river, we’d cross to the eastern side and walk on the road to see if we could hitch into Te Anau a day earlier. Yerin had the same idea, as had Wieke, who just then overtook us. Less than a minute before we reached the road we saw a car driving past. This turned out to be the last car for a while.
We walked in the pouring rain for hours and hours. It was getting cold too, but we didn’t want to stop to put another layer on because the rain would get everywhere. We ate some chocolate while we walked. I would have liked to stop for a real break but it was too cold and too wet. Around us was farmland, so if we didn’t get a ride soon we’d have difficulties finding a spot to camp legally. But surely, no farmer would begrudge us a few square metres to pitch our tent in this weather? Provided we found somebody to ask. There weren’t that many farmhouses in sight!
A few cars passed the other way, but nobody seemed to want to leave Mavora Lakes that day. Except one! And they stopped for us! Unfortunately, this was only to tell us that they were full. We glanced at the backseat and saw Valeria waving at us. Damn her! It took another eternity for the next car to arrive, but this time Jasper and I were lucky. Yerin got picked up by the van right behind. Apparently these people were all working on one of the farms here and had just finished their shift. They dropped us at the main road, and from there we hitched into Te Anau. It’s hard to hitchhike with many people, so Yerin and I did our best while Jasper hid in a bush, and soon the three of us were in Te Anau. It was still cold, but at least it was no longer raining. We got some food from the supermarket, and Jasper got into a debate with the checkout woman because she thought we were crazy for having Kiwi dip with tortilla chips. Excuse me, but if you make a dip of condensed milk and powdered onion soup you are clearly already crazy and have no right to judge anyone else’s chip preferences! We went to the first campsite we found, which was a mistake because it was right next to the main road so traffic kept us awake all night.
We wanted a day off trail so we took a zero in Te Anau. The first thing we did was pack up and leave the noisy campsite. We then spent pretty much the entire day planning the next section. We reckoned we could reach Bluff in eight days but the question was - did we want to follow the TA? There would be a lot of farmland, and a lot of faffing about in valleys. Was there any way we could include more mountains, and finish on a high instead? Anything that would take us from roughly Te Anau to somewhere on the south - or west - coast would be good. Then we could hitch to Invercargill and walk the last day to Bluff, just to finish in the same place as everyone else. We considered the Hollyford track, but there you have to walk the same way back or get a helicopter ride which was a bit excessive. The Dusky trail would have been cool, with waist deep mud and dozens of river crossings, but getting to the start and end would be tricky unless we wanted to pay well into the three digits for a shuttle. The Central Otago railtrail was too far away, and besides, it’s cycling rather than walking. We considered the Humpridge track along the south coast. A bit too fancy perhaps, with trails that are so well maintained they take all the fun out of hiking. Not to mention that the huts were ridiculously expensive, a hundred dollars per person per night! For that you did get breakfast though. But the breakfast was oats. Damn. No way. If they hadn’t mentioned the oats we might have considered it, but the oats were a black mark against the Humpridge trail. We were just going to have to grin and bear it and hike the TA!
While there was still no sign of Brianne, we had clearly found our way into a hiker bubble again. Everybody was staying at the other campsite, away from the main road. In addition to us and Yerin, we met Fabrice, Valeria, Courtney, Emeric, Myriam, Oli, and another French guy named Paul. We even bumped into Ralph, Laine and Iben in Te Anau, but they were hitching back to the trail that day, while everyone else was staying another night. After dinner, we hung about the campsite common room while everyone made ridiculous plans. Fabrice was planning an epic 100 km final march into Bluff. Myriam said he was insane and that she would not do something similar because she had to consider her sore feet, and then happily joined Courtney and the other French in planning a final day of 70 km, to be walked within a 24 hour period and starting in the evening. Everybody was clearly going mad.
A final note for those who are biting their fingernails wondering what happened to Brianne: don’t worry! There was no wekaweka attack. It simply took her a while to get a hitch, so she ended up staying in Glenorchy for the night and then decided to do the Routeburn. Then, while we were walking from Mavora in the rain, she very sensibly took a zero in one of the fancy huts on the Greenstone-Caples circuit. Because none of us had reception it took a while before we found out, and by that time she was a few days behind and we had to live with the fact that she probably would not catch up with us.