(a long post about a looong and fabulous week)
After two weeks of relaxing and baking, we were ready again to hit the mountains (and burn off the reserves we had built up!). Initially we had planned to go South to the major mountains around Arthur’s Pass, but found we were reluctant to leave the area without seeing the peaks of the Richmond ranges (and the weather forecast for the Arthur’s Pass area was enough to deter us). While these technically are mountains (1500 to 1700m high), they are babies in comparison to their gigantic snow-capped neighbours to the South. But because of their relatively lower scale they allow walking on the tops, as opposed to the valley walks we tend to do when around the massive peaks. Also, they rise up from close to the town of Nelson where we were staying, meaning easy access. So we decided to head there, and I looked through the maps to string together a 9 day walk while waiting for a decent weather window. (Note the “I” here, as opposed to “we”, an important distinction as you will see later.)
The route picked was a point to point walk, as opposed to a circuit, and we chose to start the walk at the far end, getting dropped off, and making our way back through the mountains to Nelson. In summary our route was a walk up a remote river valley to access the mountains, and then several days of walking along the summits and ridge lines between peaks, before descending back through the bush into the town of Nelson. Part of the walk we were doing is on the Te Ararao trail (the north-south route through NZ) and is described as the most difficult part of that 3000k trail. When selling the route to Daniel, I neglected to mention this fact, thinking it was just because the walk contained the highest point of the Te Araroa (1731m). However, that was not the reason as we were soon to find out ….
Our first challenge was getting transport to as close as possible to the start the walk. Despite being close to towns, the park gets very few hikers, and the access point we had picked gets a tiny proportion of those, and so is not well known and tricky to locate. So we needed to find someone who was prepared to drive us into the gravel forestry roads on the fringes of the park, and then let us navigate him through the maze of criss-crossing logging roads to get as close as possible to where the trail started. Depending on the driver’s appetite for gravel roads and our navigation we could have ended up with anything up to a 4 hour walk before even reaching the walking track, so we were thrilled with ourselves when we managed to get dropped off only an hour’s walk short of the trail. What a great start to the day! To reach that night’s hut, the map showed a 5 hour route gently following the river up the valley, so we anticipated a relaxed walk. Despite the heavy packs (we were carrying food for 9 days walking plus 1 extra day in case of emergency), we were in high spirits as we set off in the morning sunshine, happy to be getting back in the mountains and excited about the adventure ahead.
Our exuberance was short-lived though as we realised the state of the track we were on. It was less of a walking track and more of a ‘sidle’ along a river gorge. What track had once existed, was heavily eroded, and hung precariously over the edge of the river gorge. It was one boot wide, often on a sloping mossy rock ledge, or on crumbling earth, or was missing where a landslip had run through it. Frequently we left the route entirely and scrambled 30m up a steep bank to avoid cliffs or a landslip, before slipping and sliding back down, hoping to arrest our slide before we slid completely off the trail and into the river below. Every 100m felt like an achievement, and at some point it dawned on us that what was behind us was surely as bad as what was ahead, and we were stonily committed to keep going. Occasionally I came to a particularly nasty stretch and froze, trying to coax myself on, knowing that if i lost my nerve the track would seem much worse, and i risked being stuck, afraid to go either forward or back. We rarely stopped, as almost no piece of track felt stable enough to linger on, and we both just wanted to get the walk over with. We spent 4.5 hours walking on this, although walking is a misnomer as that implies an upright position, whereas we spent most of the time sliding on our backsides, crawling gingerly on our hands and knees, crouching under overhangs praying we wouldn’t hit the roof and topple, or bending under huge trees that blocked the route. Finally we saw the hut, and crashed through the door swearing in frustration at the miserable excuse for a track that was now thankfully behind us.
The day’s exertions were not yet over though, as to get water we had to negotiate a steep slippery slope to the river. To get what we needed took several trips, each time cursing the slippery track and lack of a tap! That inconvenience paled when we saw every surface in the hut was covered in mouse droppings, and saw cockroaches darting away as we moved the mattresses on the bunks. There were also tiny red spiders on the wood of the bunks and while we killed everything we could see, we knew we wouldn’t be alone in the bed that night …
We spent a restless night, hearing the mouse scurrying around the hut (and as it happens, chewing a hole through the liner of my backpack), and responding to every itch (real or imagined) as if dealing a death blow to a cockroach. By morning we were just as tired as the night before, and eager to get out of that hut. (Incidentally several of the huts we stayed in had mice, and hanging our food bags from the ceiling became a daily routine. The mice didn’t bother me and the sound of them roaming around the hut usually didn’t even keep me awake, but most nights my sleep was haunted by images of the cockroaches we saw in all the huts.)
Things picked up from there as we were now on the main trail in the park and the standard of track improved vastly. Also, on the second day we reached the first of the many summits we would be on, and were rewarded with incredible views in every direction. Wave after wave of mountains sweeping north to the Marlborough sounds and south to the Alps, and an expansive view across Nelson Bay and a wide river valley to the snow-capped peaks on the West coast. We could also pick out the nearby peaks and ridges we would walk in the following week. The views continued all week long as we had exceptionally fine weather as we crossed these hills, except for some cloud that came in on the morning we climbed Mt Rintoul, the highest peak.
Our climb of Mt Rintoul was on the fourth day, and we were a little wary of it, having heard that a Dutch walker had to be rescued from the summit a day before we started our hike. Plus, the night before our climb we met another hiker who was walking in the opposite direction to us and had just come off the mountain. (As an aside, this guy was amazing. He was an Aussie in his mid 60s, who had just started hiking a few years before, AFTER being diagnosed with bladder cancer. He now hiked with a colostomy bag, which he lugged with him along the length of Te Ararao trail.) He had spent 8 hours on the mountain (almost double the guide time) and was shaken by his experience, speaking of exposed drops, steep slopes, high cliffs and a lot of climbing/scrambling. He also updated us on several previous tragedies on the mountain and it was clear he didn’t envy us having to climb it the following day. Now is probably a good time to mention that Daniel suffers from vertigo (fear of heights), and he began to look at me in a less than friendly way as this guy was describing his experience. No doubt he was wondering why of the 100s of kms of track nearby i had picked such a walk as this, why i hadn’t warned him what was involved and generally lamenting the day he had the misfortune to meet me …
The next morning we woke to clear skies, and Mt Rintoul looked bigger than ever, but while breakfasting, light cloud rolled in to obscure our view of the summit ridge. As it was only light cloud, and fearing things could worsen later in the day, we set off, eager to get to grips with whatever awaited us. We started with a steep climb through ladders of tree roots to the bush-line before emerging onto an even steeper scree slope. As we walked on this surface, our feet continually slipped back downhill as the small stones slid under our weight. We found the going easier by skirting onto the rocks on the sides, but it was nerve wracking when some of these started to slide under our feet. Eventually we reached the summit ridge and faced the cliffs we had to sidle under. The few moments before we stepped off the safety of the ridge and on to the side of the cliffs were anxious ones, but as with the scree, we soon got fairly comfortable on the surface, and gradually learned what kind of rocks could be trusted. Meanwhile the cloud had thickened, and we had to search the horizon for marker poles showing the way through. Before long we had crossed the summit ridge of Mt Rintoul, and just faced Little Rintoul. This involved a steep 250m descent to a saddle between the 2 peaks, and back up the far side. The second ascent in particular was a nightmare of extremely exposed scrambling (together with our 15 – 20kg backpacks), huffing and puffing our way up chutes and over cliffs, afraid to stop in case our footing gave way, trying to place each foot gently but firmly, planting our weight only for a second on each foothold, and hauling ourselves up with our arms when needed. We were hugely relieved when we reached the second summit and saw that our descent to the hut was fairly straightforward. It was wonderful to know the tough stretch was over and we had made it safely!
While it was a tough climb and deserving of its fearsome reputation, it’s the kind of half-walk half-scramble i have come across quite a bit, and so for me, although care and concentration were required, I was never really worried. But for Daniel it was a very different experience. It was far far beyond any hike he had done before and very different to what we had done so far in NZ. To be on such a steep exposed hike with his fear of heights was very challenging. At one point, he emanated so much tension i thought he was close to lose his nerve and freak out. But it turned out he was just fuming; fuming with me for bringing him on such a hike without warning him, and with himself for having come on a hike without checking what was involved. Once we were safely in the hut though, and looking back up at what we had conquered, he had calmed down and was quietly pleased with the achievement …
The next few days walking were pure joy. Some steep ups and downs that tired the legs, but stupendous views constantly, and some light scrambling to keep the track interesting! Our days were full-on, as once we reached the hut our chores started. These included clearing out the cockroaches, cleaning up the hut, fetching and filtering water, scouring the forest for dry dead wood, getting the fire going, heating water to wash ourselves, and then our clothes, followed by cooking dinner! And after that, we headed out to take pictures, exploring the area and often climbing nearby ridges. We collapsed into bed exhausted every night! We felt alone in the mountains, seeing only 2 people on the whole trail, and as our packs got lighter and we got closer to the end we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
As we neared the end of the walk, the lure of the comforts of town grew stronger, and we elected to walk 2 stages in 1 day, and so reach town a day earlier. While that meant a 10-hour hike on our second last day, the pain was numbed by the double food rations we could have 🙂 By the end of the day though, we felt barely in control of our legs, and stumbled into the hut wooden-legged but relieved the mammoth walk was behind us. The final day we had a 4 hour walk downhill into Nelson and the comfort of our backpackers. Since arriving yesterday we have baked several batches of scones and bread, so it looks like everything is back to normal :-). Thursday (20th) we depart for a hike in the mountains around Arthur’s Pass where we will spend Christmas, before heading to Christchurch to meet some friends of Daniel’s who are here on holiday.
This will probably be our last post for 2012, so here’s wishing you all a healthy, happy and relaxing end of year wherever you are!
Below photos from the trip, although unfortunately there are no photos from the worst sections as we were too focused on staying alive 🙂