Mountains are the most awesome landform on Earth.
I write you now from Hanmer Springs. We have completed the first three hikes of the South Island, including two mountain tracks–the Richmond Alpine Track and the Waiau Pass. The last posts I published was after the Richmond, so now we are after the Pass, too.
My best friend’s dad, Dr. Doorenbos, joined Philippe, Georges and myself. Hiking with Dr. D was really great. He brought a lot of balance to Philippe’s pace needs and G’s and my more developed fitness. He brought new conversations and new focuses. And he brought part of my home to me. 🙂
G and I sometimes realize we don’t exactly know a lot about a particular track…it’s not that we don’t listen when people share things, it’s more like we don’t have any idea about anything. Oh well; someone’s always saved us before we make any harmful mistakes. 🙂 So, though we didn’t know it, the Waiau Pass was the highest point on the TA–quite a surprise for our guests!! Haha…oops.
From day one of this section, everything was breathtaking. A walk through purely indescribable scenes. In hindsight, it was the perfect section for Dr. D, but at some points during the hike, G and I exchanged worried looks wondering what we got Philippe and Dr. D into.
In brief, we followed a long lake south and the continued hiking up its tributary river–both of which had completely clear water. The first hut we slept in had exactly enough beds for us, which means there were nearly thirty people in the hut. G and I are used to having huts mostly to ourselves, but we knew this section could be crowded. While in the hut we heard the weather was expected to turn bad in the next couple days–also that the crux of the section, the Pass, couldn’t be completed without fair weather. We had a bit of rethinking to do.
The weather was predicted to bring two days of gale force winds and rain. Looking at our schedule, we could neither get over the pass before the rain nor confidently wait out the rain with regards to getting Philippe and Dr. D to their flights home. Knowing the weather reports are unreliable, we agreed we wouldn’t try to rush and combine days to get over the pass before the rain (because it was a biiiiiit too much to ask of our guests) and we would just take things one day at a time.
The second day we followed the river further upstream, deeper into the mountains. We had a short 3-hour day planned–just to the next hut. About halfway there I realized I had forgotten the SPOT at the previous hut. Since it was such a short day planned, Georges ran back to the hut to get it. He caught up to us just as we arrived at the hut (completely soaked in sweat). Long discussions later we decided to push over the second hardest part of the section, Travers Saddle, and so we headed back to the trail and completed the next 6 hour section we had planned for the following day. Surprise everyone! Georges has already completed a double section, Dr. D was hoping to rest after our two 11 hour days, and Philippe was still struggling to fit to our somewhat demanding lifestyle. I was fine 😉
Over the saddle we went!! Steep climb up three hundred meters and then down six hundred. Dr. D realized the true demands of hiking over a mountain, and though he made it to the top a nap was in order when he arrived. (Beautiful pictures to follow) The saddle was awesome (and yes, a great deal of work to summit). We saw a helicopter land just on the other side of the saddle as we hiked up. We would later learn it was rescuing a TA hiker with an existing back injury which flared too much for her to be able to carry her pack or walk. The decent down to the river on the other side was substantially less enjoyable, but “one step at a time!!” got us down. Unfortunately, having combined the whole day’s hike into an afternoon, we were quite late to the hut. Boasting 34 bunks, there were about 40 people in the hut. Even more stressful was talking to a few groups of people and finding about twenty folks who were headed off the main track to the next hut on the TA–which has only 16 bunks. That hut would be the last before the pass and we were planning to wait out 2-3 days of rain storms in it. G and I decided that the following morning G would hike the 3 hours to that hut starting at 5:30 a.m. and guarantee our group 4 bunks; the guests and myself starting at our normal 7.
With the threat of sand flies devouring us, we decided to fight for a strip of floor space for the night in the 40+ people hut. Dr. D slept under one table, Philippe under another and G and myself slept on benches. Not comfortable. In the night, a couple decided to move out to a tent site and offered G and myself bunks. With G planning to race out in the morning, we decided he should move to the bunk. The other bunk was offered to Dr. D. I couldn’t sleep at all on the bench, so I moved down to Dr. D’s spot under the table. A couple of hours later, Dr. D came back to his spot in an attempt to treat severe heartburn was startled to find me under his table. He asked if I would move to the bunk because he thought he’d need to be up most of the night trying to take care of his discomfort. Seemingly exhausted, I gathered my sleeping bag and wound my way through the packed hut in the pitch black to find a free mattress I had never seen before. Finding G’s feet, I clambered up to a top bunk in my underwear and prayed I wasn’t snuggling in by someone or something gross since I couldn’t see anything. It was a restless night for many people, I think.
We had prepared everything down to his breakfast so G got up at 5 and raced off to the next hut before anyone else was awake. Philippe, Dr. D and I left around seven and hiked leisurely to the hut. G told us later he arrive near 8 and very few people were out of bed before he got there. He waited until four bunkers pulled their sleeping bags down and quickly put our stuff in their places. By the time we arrived at 10, he had selected perfect bunks, made a fire, bathed and done laundry. The hiking had been easy and beautiful. We continued up the river but were gifted unbelievable views of the towering mountains with their waterfalls and snow. Everything was beautiful. Everything.
The hut overfilled and we ended up with about four people sleeping on the ground. Luckily, the rain didn’t start until the late afternoon so everyone had plenty of time to clean up and settle down. Everyone also had enough time to hike out to the blue lake upon which the hut was situated. It is said to be the clearest natural water in the world–thousands of years of rain water and all the right conditions. Georges spent most of the day chopping wood and building a wall by the stove to support us through the rainy days. By evening, the rain started and the wind told us it meant serious business.
No one could hike over the pass until the weather was good and no one actually knew when the rain would stop. A couple from Alaska came in late and had a satellite phone. Thankfully, they called D.O.C for weather reports each day. Everyone enjoyed a warm and restful evening, knowing we would all get to know each other very well in the coming days.
With morning came very little light and very much rain. Going to the toilet was no easy feat, and people waited as long as they possibly could before dawning full rain gear and running the fifty meters through the shoulder-high grasses to the toilet. A group of folks who were not going over the pass but heading back north geared up to leave around 8. We thought this would lighten the capacity of the hut, but within two hours the group came back saying the streams coming down the mountain to the river were impassible. Those who had eagerly moved from the floor to the vacated bunks sadly returned the bunks to the very wet hikers. So we knew no one could come or go for the day; everyone was safe and stuck. The hut was completely cut off from the world with winds making the south impossible and waters making the north impassible.
The day passed socially with everyone trying not to eat too much food because of boredom. Some people didn’t have enough food to get through being stuck, but everyone’s packs opened to share. The rain was predicted to keep us there for two days but our evening report said the pass might be possible after only the one day of rain. Our group decided to try the pass if it wasn’t raining when we woke up, so we packed our stuff after a very restful day and a half.
In the morning the skies were clear. We, along with three other groups prepared for the pass–9-15 hours up, up, up, down. The others prepared to go north. Philippe decided not to do the pass with us and went back north with someone else from the hut; he had developed a toothache. Dr. D, Georges and I set out to climb to the highest mountain on the Te Araroa.
Dr. D set a shocking pace and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was going to burn out before our potentially 15-hour long day. We climbed and climbed and climbed. We skirted a massive lake which feeds the Blue Lake, and began a 500 meter climb straight up skree (small rocks that slide backward as much as you try to climb upward). Unbelievably, we made it to the top. In celebration, Dr. D found a nice place to sit, G rushed to his longed for snow and I enjoyed the views–of the mountain ranges and of the men I love. G and I climbed a nearby peek to make sure we really conquered the mountain and then we began our descent. We submitted in only a couple hours and so were confident the day would be easy enough. The weather remained perfect, and the views remained awesome.
After a long 9 hour day we had summited the highest point on the trail, touched mountain top snow and completed our first two dangerous river crossings. Thankfully, Dr. D is much more experienced than G and me, so he taught us lots and we crossed safely. We knew the following day would bring us to a river which could be impassible after heavy rains. It had certainly rained hard, but we were hoping the river would drain by the time we got there the following day.
The remaining days of our hike brought us increasingly closer to each other and to the other couples hiking with us. Besides two other TA couples, a couple from Auckland, Brynley and Connie, traveled with us each day. Laughter was common at each camp and conversations flowed easily from one sit to the next. The views remained amazing, Dr. D remained incredibly fast, and the hike concluded with as awesome views as it had started–more awesome, maybe.
Three days after the pass we hitched our way into Hanmer Springs and rustled up one of the few remaining beds in town. Philippe joined us the following day and we enjoyed wondering around the town eating too much, drinking too much coffee and relaxing for hours in the thermal pools.
All in all, it was probably the best section we’ve done–due to the nature and the company. Like so many others, Brynley and Connie will forever be an unforgettable part of our trip. We were honored to hike with the BCTC (Brynley and Connie Tramping Club) for a day and I hope to meet them in Auckland for ice cream at Giapo’s before flying home in March. Having Dr. D and Philippe with us added more value than can easily be explained. They just left for Christchurch and it was terribly bittersweet–I know they have to leave for G and me to finish the trail, but having them here was so close to home.
Tomorrow morning Georges and I head back out to the trail. Nothing left to set goals for except Bluff, and February 29th will be here before we know it.