Te Araroa Part 17: It’s all downhill from here
After resting for a few days we were keen to get back on trail, although I was a bit nervous about the new boots. Had I broken them in enough by strolling from cafe to cafe in Christchurch and Geraldine? How soon until I got blisters on my little toes? Had I made a stupid choice in buying waterproof boots that would take forever to dry? Would the atrocious pink laces detract from my carefully constructed image of trashy hiker who tramped in her underwear? This section will answer those and many other important questions.
We got an early start from Mesopotamia. Our plan was to walk to Lake Tekapo in just two days, a distance of more than 70 km. Luckily the last 15 km were on a gravel road and we knew we could get a ride to town along that section. Still, that left us with (according to the trailnotes) 22 hours of walking, after which we needed enough time in Tekapo to resupply for the next section, which we would do by bike. So we set off around dawn with Francois, Marion and Penny. The first morning would involve numerous river crossings and bashing our way up Bush Stream. We were a bit worried that the stream might still be high after the heavy rains of the last few days. Apparently, there had been a period earlier in the season when localised heavy rain made Bush Stream near impassable while the nearby Rangitata was relatively easy to cross (but please don’t try to cross the Rangitata anyway, it can rise very rapidly!)
We needn’t have worried. Bush Stream had gone down enough to be easily crossable. It was kneedeep at most, and the current was not too strong. Cold though, from snowmelt! Francois and Marion, who both wore boots, sat down before the first crossing and put their water shoes on. Marion’s broken foot becomes more painful with heavy, wet boots on and this was their strategy for keeping dry feet. I decided to follow their example and put on my old trailrunners. I hadn’t had the heart to throw them away, so now I have boots, trailrunners and a pair of sandals. Bit excessive, I know, but if it keeps my feet comfortable I am willing to carry the extra weight. Or rather, Jasper is. Since my feet started hurting so much he has slowly but steadily been taking some of my items. Usually I carry my own sleeping bag, some clothes for cold/wet weather, and all of our food. Jasper has the tent, sleeping mats, the rest of our clothes, camera gear, and other odds and ends. This meant my pack is almost as heavy as Jasper’s at the start of a typical 5 day section, and then gets gradually lighter as we eat more food. But now Jasper was carrying a lot of our food too. It was definitely easier on my feet but it did make me feel a bit useless.
At Bush Stream, I was happy to have my trailrunners. We splashed around in the cold water with Francois, Marion and Penny. We had stayed together in case we needed to help each other with the crossings, but although it was easy to cross on our own it was nice to have company. It’s been a lot of fun getting to know them better (and occasionally bringing up the dreaded nutella-cheese combo, which will never not be funny). After a few hours in the stream it was time to put the boots back on (hurray, dry boots!) and begin the climb up to Crooked Spur hut. It was a good steepish climb, with views opening up around us. The hut itself had plenty of character and a lot of history (i.e., holes in the roof). We had a quick snack break, and then pushed onwards to the saddle. It was not a steep or a difficult climb, but our legs suddenly felt like jelly. The other three went ahead but we realised we needed another break. We had been thinking to push on to Stag Saddle that day and camp there in order to reach Tekapo early enough the next day. But we quickly realised that was no longer an option.
Our descent was equally slow, although the path was good and my feet weren’t doing too badly either. My arches were not so sore, and the stabbing pain in the heel not as pronounced. And so far, no blisters! We reached Stone Hut in the mid afternoon, to find Penny, Yerin and Brianne already there and preparing to leave. Penny told us about the time she had ended up in hospital with dehydration on a long distance hike in Australia. We took the hint. After about an hour in the hut, sipping water, we decided to continue. The path was easy and in places followed a contour line, making a classic Austrian panoramaweg. With speargrass. We stopped once so I could put my trailrunners on to cross the river, and once so I could pick up a familiar looking-water bottle from the side of the path. Yerin was very happy to be reunited with her water bottle at Royal hut, which got its name because Prince Charles or some such royal visited the place aeons ago.
Yerin was preparing her dinner - wraps with cheese and assorted other foods that she found in her pack. Peanuts. Pretzels. Uncooked noodles. Yerin has very weird wraps, and she spends an inordinate amount of time preparing them so they look pretty. All the peanuts must be perfectly aligned, bordered on one side by a neat row of pretzels and with a straight smear of peanut butter underneath. Out of consideration for the French, she was making her cheese and other weird foods dinner outside the hut, so the poor souls wouldn’t have to suffer so much. It was a full hut. In addition to Yerin and a non-suffering Marion and Francois, there were four others. Courtney and Emeric had started hiking the previous evening so they could camp on Stag Saddle, but Brianne and Penny were there, and to our surprise and delight also Pauline and Sebastian, the Belgian couple we’d met on the Whanganui. One great thing about the TA is that you never really say goodbye to people, because you’re sure to meet them again later on. The downside of the full hut was that Jasper had to sleep on the floor. But he didn’t really mind. His sleeping mat is more comfortable than the DoC mattresses, not least because he actually fits on it.
We decided against pushing on to Tekapo in two days. So the next morning, while Francois and Marion got an early start, we took it easier. It was sunny but also windy, and we knew there was some rain forecast. We were happy to be slightly less fatigued and made good progress up to Stag Saddle, catching up with Brianne and Yerin. Climbing is what I am and have always been best at, and it’s the least painful for my feet. I was pleased with myself when we reached Stag Saddle, the highest point on the TA. Up here it was even windier. It was nothing compared to Colonial Knob and Mt Kaukau on the North Island, but some gusts nearly pushed us over. We quickly took some epic squad photos and I kept a tight hold on Philip lest a stray gust of wind would blow him away. Then it was time for the descent. Most people descend from Stag Saddle via the ridgeline, which gives spectacular views over Lake Tekapo and towards Mt. Cook. But with the winds that strong, we decided to drop down into them valley as fast as possible, hoping it would provide more shelter. We could see Marion and Francois far below us. What we could not see was a trail, or more than one or two marker poles. It was one of those classic “good luck, guys!” trails where it was impossible to know where to go other than down the valley. So down the valley we went, bracing ourselves against the wind and the splattering rain that began to fall. There was a stream that we followed down the valley, and every now and then we thought we reached something that resembled a trail. But every time it petered out after about twenty metres. The vegetation consisted of tussocks and speargrass, so that we could trip and be stabbed at the same time. Rough terrain, especially for Brianne who grew increasingly frustrated.
We reached Camp Stream hut in time for lunch, at which point the weather cleared up and it became sunny and windy rather than rainy and windy. We got chatting to a couple of NOBOs as well as Jeanette, the Australian we’d met in the Richmonds. She was going NOBO this section. The trail was a lot easier after the hut, but Jasper and I decided just to take it easy. If we weren’t going to push on to Tekapo, there was no reason to push on at all. It meant I could give my feet a bit more rest. The narrow toebox of my boots was getting on my nerves a bit, and every break I’d take the boots off so I could stretch out my toes. We walked a few more hours, enjoying the views over the lake, and then pitched our tent by a stream. It was a cold and windy night. We huddled in our tent as soon as the sun went down and somehow managed to stay warm enough during the night. I wore my thermals and slept in my thermal liner, on top of my superisolated winter mat, under my -5C quilt. One or more of these items must be exaggerating their warmth because it was still pretty chilly. I don’t know how cold it was, but the temperature must have dropped below zero because the next morning, Jasper’s socks (still wet from the river) had frozen solid. The tent itself was surprisingly enough bone dry because it had been windy enough to prevent condensation.
The alarm woke us around seven, but we decided to stay huddled under our quilts until the sun reached us. So for an hour or two we just lay there, muttering about the cold and enjoying our lazy morning. By the time we finally got up and packed away our stuff, Penny was walking down the path towards us. She had stayed at Camp Stream hut. It wasn’t any warmer than our tent, so she decided to get up early to walk herself warm. This might’ve been a better decision than ours because she looked reasonably toasty. We stuffed the last items in our packs and tagged along with her, walking the last 13 km to the road quickly to get warm. An hour or so later, I had warmed up sufficiently to take my longjohns and baselayer off. I always warm up quickly as soon as I do any sort of exercise, and on a day like this I didn’t mind at all. We chatted with Penny while we walked. She’s from Waiheke Island near Auckland, where she has her own pottery workshop, and she’s hiking the TA in sections. This year’s section is Ship Cove to Tekapo, which meant we’d have to say goodbye to Penny very soon! Suddenly we were a bit sad that we only had a few hours to walk that day.
Once we reached the road, we were picked up by Annie, who runs Bespoke Bikehire in Tekapo. Penny was dropped off at her hostel (but not before inviting us to Waiheke, hurray!), then Annie took us to her garage and found bikes for us. Amazingly she had a bike large enough for Jasper. Even better: she saw Philip and got me a little handlebar bag to put him in so he could ride in front. Once we were all kitted out, she dropped us at the campsite and we had the rest of the afternoon for our resupply. The post office in Tekapo had a parcel for me: my insoles! The bloody courier company had finally delivered them to Arthur’s Pass and the DoC rangers there had kindly sent it on. Hurray! We also caught up with Yerin and Brianne, who were chatting with a group of NOBOs. We are finding it increasingly strange to meet NOBOs. Weeks ago, we would look upon them as highly experienced and knowing everything about the TA. But now we were halfway across the South Island. It was less than 700 km to Bluff. We realised that we were the experienced hikers now! Whoa.
Since we had booked a room at the campsite hostel, we decided we might as well use their kitchen and make ourselves some nice warm soup. It was still bloody cold. The supermarket had no leeks so it was spring onion and potato soup, cooked in the tiny cramped hostel kitchen. The only things tinier than the hostel kitchen were the hostel beds. I hardly fit in my bed, and Jasper had to put his mattress on the floor so his feet could stick out. Definitely not our favourite hostel. Unfortunately Tekapo has become incredibly overrun by tourists, so we were lucky to get beds at all.
The next morning was still cold as, so we wore gloves and baselayers as we set off on our bikes. It was around 90 km to Ohau, where Annie would pick up the bikes again and drop off our packs. 90 km in just over 8 hours. Normally, we’d take three days to hike that distance so it felt a bit intimidating. But biking is a lot quicker than walking. You just pedal a bit, and suddenly you’re there. After about half an hour we decided to stop for breakfast, and realised that we’d already done nearly 10 km. Just like that. It was getting warm quickly so the baselayers and longjohns were removed. We kept the gloves on though, in a vain attempt to keep our wrists from getting sore. We’re used to cycling on old Dutch city bikes, where you sit upright on a broad, cushioned seat, and the main challenge is to get to your destination before integral parts rust through and fall off. But Annie had given us fancy touring/mountain bikes, well-oiled and with narrow seats raised high above the handlebars. This forces you to lean forward, with all the weight on your wrists. Ouch. And the narrow seats were definitely making themselves felt.
It was 90 km along flat roads, some sealed, some gravel. Nearly the entire route was car free, because it’s part of the Alps to Ocean cycle trail. It’s mostly along the canals that link the lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau to various power stations. We cycled past the salmon farm, and sure enough, there were dozens of people fishing there. No doubt all hoping to catch a record trout. The views were glorious. Lake Pukaki is bluer than blue. On the other side were snow capped mountains, with Mt Cook towering above the others. We stopped at the Pukaki visitor centre for an ice cream and had just sat down at one of the picnic tables when we realised we were in a prime tourist selfie spot. We edged away slightly, to give a couple of Japanese ladies some space but they were having none of it. Before we knew what was happening, we were engulfed in dozens of Japanese selfiestick-wielding tourists. One of them spoke just enough English to wish us a happy holiday and say she liked my haircut. At this point, my hair was very slightly past the ridiculous fuzzy dandelion stage (yes!) but it had been crammed in a helmet the entire morning. It was nice to know that there was at least one person on the planet who thought it was cool.
We cycled on, and suddenly we were at Lake Ohau. With only an hour or two to go, we decided it was lunchtime. We sat in the shade of the only tree, enjoying delicacies like real bread and tomatoes. Two other TA hikers came by, also on bikes. Their bikes looked slightly comfier than ours but they had to drag their packs along on little trailers. Yikes. The gravel road/path along this section was a bit bumpy and we were suddenly very glad for our pack transfer! We reached Ohau Lodge in the afternoon, well before the time we’d agreed with Annie. So we had a beer on the terrace and soaked in the view and the afternoon sun. Annie had spent the day following Philip’s adventures on Instagram (@philip.penguin for the new readers) and was now his biggest fan. Soon we’ll have to keep a stack of signed photos for him to hand out. Ohau Lodge was amazing - very hiker/biker friendly. They allowed us to camp for a small fee, which included use of all their facilities. Not only did we have a shower, but we got to soak in their hot pools! We also treated ourselves to a delicious three course dinner which was infinitely better than our couscous tramper trash curry. There were a lot of Alps to Ocean cyclists at dinner, but only one other TA hiker, a British guy called Michael. He had biked from Tekapo as well but in two days, stopping overnight in Twizel which we had bypassed. That was a little bit of a shame, because we knew there’s a trail angel there who had built a hobbit hole in their garden for TA hikers to stay in. How cool is that? Although it’s hard to beat our camp spot for the night. The night sky was just amazing.