The highest point on the Te Araroa

The highest point on the Te Araroa

We’ve made it to the highest point on the Te Araroa trail! After Wayne shuttled us around the Rangitata River, we rejoined the trail with some wisps of rain cloud still in the air.

As much as blue sky days are wonderful, I love a little bit of mist and cloud in the air. It gives everything a slightly surreal quality.

We had a few challenging crossings of Bush Stream, but more of the fun variety, nothing actually scary. Hiking in New Zealand seems to be all about crossing streams and rivers. And then re-crossing them.

The climb up to Crooked Spur Hut was steep but the views back toward the Rangitata River are impressive.

The hut is basic but comfortable. Strangely, two hunters had taken four of the bunks. They were hunting tahr, an endangered Himalayan animal but one that’s a successful invasive species in New Zealand.

The next morning we awoke to dense fog. It rained overnight but stopped by the time we began walking. The tussock grass is so tall, though, we still got quite wet. If you were just a few clumps of grass away from someone else, you could easily miss seeing them, it’s so tall.

Even if it’s hard to see where you’re going in the fog, there’s nothing like that moment when it begins to lift and you suddenly catch sight of the huge mountain landscape around you.

The walk up to Stag Saddle, the highest point on the TA, is actually pretty gentle compared to some of the other climbs we’ve done in the Richmond Range and Nelson Lakes. Still, it felt like a great accomplishment.

Everyone celebrated… by looking at Facebook and Instagram.

The views coming down from Stag Saddle were spectacular! We walked down a long ridge with clear skies extending all the way to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Now, this is real alpine scenery.

Along with the big sweeping views, I also noticed some interesting smaller details. For example, take baby spear grass. It almost looks cute, if only I didn’t know it would try to impale me when it got big enough.

We followed the ridge for miles with fantastic views down to Lake Tekapo.

The hut was full when we arrived, so we pushed on for a few miles further and found a great camp spot on a terrace above the Coal River. Sleeping in such a place, it’s easy to imagine you’re the only one around and that this is all yours. And it is, at least for the night.

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Rakaia River to Rangitata River

Rakaia River to Rangitata River

After a night in the little town of Methven, we met up with Wayne from Alps2Ocean. Wayne shuttles cyclists and trampers all around this part of New Zealand and he offered to take us back to the trail on the south side of the Rakaia River. We met Wayne at the Primo Cafe, which felt like sitting in someone’s living room. Small towns have the most interesting and unexpected shops.

Back on the trail, we were instantly immersed in a world of long golden grass and large dark brown cows.

Looking back to Rakaia gave a sense of where we’d come from, just the day before. The other side of the river is only a short distance but, with no bridge, the only practical option is to hitch hike or shuttle around. Many hikers skip this section as a result. Another shuttle is required at the end to get around the Rangitata River, unless you’re lucky enough to have low water levels and good weather to cross by foot.

As well as golden grass, we also met some other native New Zealand plants, namely Spear Grass. This spiky plant has long tough leaves with needle-sharp tips. If you’re not careful, they’ll jab you as you pass by, puncturing your skin. It’s rather unpleasant. Perish the thought that you might fall on one.

Unlike spear grass, the mountains here feel very soft and welcoming. From a distance, their grey scree slopes give them a gentle, benign character.

Below these big scree slopes are endless fields of tussock grass. Sometimes there’s a pretty clear trail but at other times, you can barely make out where to put the next foot. I often found myself stepping on long strands of grass with one foot and the next foot getting tripped up, nearly making me do a face plant into strategically hidden spear grass.

The forecast was for three days of good weather followed by strong wind and rain. We decided to push hard to beat the weather, allowing us to cross the Rangitata River.

We made good time but as we neared the Rangitata, we could see high winds pushing a storm front right for us.

In good conditions, the Rangitata is straight forward to cross. It can be nothing more than knee deep if you choose your path wisely. The problem lies in how wide it is. New Zealand’s rivers are often highly branched and the Rangitata requires around 9km of walking to cross. That can easily take 3 hours. Yet, the river has been known to transform itself from dozens of channels to one powerful torrent in just one hour. You could be midway across and suddenly find yourself in big trouble.

With rain falling in the mountains upstream and a strong wind making walking difficult, we went with the safe option. Nearly all our fellow walkers made the same decision. Here we are waiting under a tree, out of the wind, for Wayne to come rescue us all.

Two people did decide to cross the river and they were safe but later that night, water levels rose dangerously high. Sometimes it’s best to save the adventure for another day.

Harper River

Harper River

It took us six days to walk from Boyle Village to Arthur’s Pass and we were looking forward to a shower and a comfy bed. Every last room was booked up for the big race, so we caught a ride back to the trail and stayed at the unassuming Bealy Hut.

Looking back toward Arthur’s Pass and the Coast to Coast race (the tents look like rocks from up here)

I love visiting all the huts as we walk south through New Zealand. The country has nearly 1000 huts (some people say there are even 2500!) and you never know how luxurious or how simple they’ll be until you get there. Here’s West Harper Hut, for example.

We decided to continue on to Hamilton Hut (which has earned the nickname Hilton Hut). What a beautiful place to relax.

Now that we’re beyond Arthur’s Pass, the scenery is completely different. We’ve gone from the wet west side of the continental divide to the much drier east side. The walking was flat, across river beds and through fields, and under volcanic looking hills.

In the afternoon a strong wind picked up, making the flat walking feel more like uphill.

Coming to the end of the trail at Lake Coleridge, we expected to camp for the night then begin a long gravel road walk the next day. Completely unexpectedly, a car pulled up asking if we wanted a ride! This is a very remote area and it’s pretty rare to see any vehicles, let alone one offering you an easy way back to civilization. When we set out to walk the length of New Zealand’s South Island a month ago, I was keen to walk every mile, making a continuous footpath. It didn’t take me long to decide that walking long distances on roads isn’t very fun. So, we were more than happy to take the ride.

The best part of getting into town is that there’s an adorable kitty at our hostel and she insists on sleeping on my pillow! Now, this is the break I needed from hiking.

Arthur’s Pass & Deception River

Arthur’s Pass & Deception River

After four weeks of walking south along New Zealand’s national trail, Te Araroa, we paused for a nice break in locally famous Hamner Springs.

I ate as much as I could. Amazingly, I haven’t lost any weight yet. Then back to the trail.

January was a very unusual month in New Zealand, weather wise – hot and exceptionally dry. A touch of rain finally arrived just as we crossed Harper Pass and made it to Locke Steam Hut. It continued to rain throughout the night but cleared up as soon as we left the hut.

Another beautiful day of walking in New Zealand. I found the Taramakau River valley especially pretty as we walked along the river bed, speckled with brightly coloured red rock. Despite the rain, the river crossings were easy and fun.

There seems to be some fatigue setting in among our fellow walkers, especially those who also walked the Te Araroa in the North Island. The next section, Deception River and Goat Pass, is one of the most spectacular but also easy to skip. That’s what most of the folks staying in the huts with us decided to do.

You’d expect, then, that we’d have the trail to ourselves. The opposite couldn’t have been more true. The river was abuzz with activity as volunteers for the Coast to Coast race, one of New Zealand’s biggest and most celebrated sporting events, marked the route for the following day. That made it pretty easy to follow. Usually navigation is difficult here.

Helicopters buzzed up and down the valley, dropping off supplies and crew. It was all very exciting!

I’d love to stay at Goat Pass Hut one day. It has amazing views. On this day, though, it was packed, so we continued on and camped in the forest.

The following day we walked into the cute town of Arthur’s Pass where I resumed eating as much as I could while watching pre-race excitement build. I’ve never seen so many expensive bikes in one place!

Next up, we walk to Lake Coleridge, the end of the line, as the Rakaia River is too deep to walk across.

Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson Lakes National Park

We’re into our fourth week of hiking down the South Island of New Zealand along the Te Araroa Trail. The scenery continues to change surprisingly quickly. We’ve gone from hidden ocean coves to cool green rivers, dense steamy rainforest, and now clear blue alpine lakes surrounded by jagged peaks.

We hiked up and over Travers Saddle with just a touch of rain. It’s been so unusually hot this season and we’re grateful for the cooler weather, even if only for a day.

Even in these hot dry conditions, the forest is still nice and cool. There are so many streams and little waterfalls, keeping everything enchantedly green.

The Richmond Range has lots of cozy little huts but in the Nelsons we found them big and luxurious. Here’s Blue Lake Hut.

Blue Lake is celebrated in New Zealand for its incredibly clear water. A glacial moraine has dammed the flow of water from the mountains above and acts as a big filter, releasing nearly distilled water into Blue Lake. Visibility is up to 80 meters! That’s some of the clearest water in the world.

Our next challenge was Waiau Pass. This is probably the trickiest bit we’ve hiked so far along the whole trail. It’s just beautiful going up, and fairly straightforward, but it takes some skill and attention coming down.

It wouldn’t be hard to lose your way.

I love that New Zealand’s national trail includes sections that require scrambling and are only safe in good weather. I think that says a lot about the strong, independent spirit of the country. Here even the marked descent required hands on the rock.

Once down from Waiau Pass, the scenery changes completely. We passed by an old homestead and I could easily imagine myself falling in love with that place. This must be one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever seen.

It was nice to have some easy flat walking after scrambling down craggy mountains and over big slippery roots in the forest.

We made good time and caught a ride to the town of Hamner Springs where we indulged in some very tasty food.

It’s a good thing we made good time because my first pair of shoes has worn out! This seems far too early and I’m hoping my next pair lasts longer. But, if that’s the cost of exploring New Zealand by foot, it’s one well worth paying.

A

Richmond Alpine Track

Richmond Alpine Track

We had a nice day in Nelson, a charming little town tucked into a bay at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s really fun to take a break from walking and enjoy the cultural side of the country.

After our day off, we set off for 7 days walking the Richmond Alpine Track, considered the most rugged and difficult part of the entire Te Araroa trail. It didn’t take us long to find out why.

There are roots and rocks everywhere and the trail often chooses the steepest path possible, rather than working back and forth gradually up a slope. Sometimes you even pull yourself up by grabbing onto a big root. I love the ups and downs and the way you constantly need to think about where to put your feet. It’s very mentally engaging.

One of the best parts of walking in New Zealand that we’ve discovered is the wonderful network of huts. Every night along this section we arrived at a cozy hut where we found a comfortable bunk to sleep and a warm dry place to relax out of the wind. The huts are spaced quite conveniently, so you can easily walk to the next in a day, maybe stopping at one for lunch and the next for the night.

The variety of scenery in the Richmond Range really surprised me. From dense rainforest to exposed alpine peaks and dry desert-like hills that remind me of Arizona, it had a bit of everything. We walked over sharp volcanic rock and I even found a few flecks of obsidian.

Despite being rugged, the trail is usually easy to follow. There are orange markers showing the way, either on trees through the forest or on poles in open areas. Some even do double duty, also catching wasps, which are an invasive species in New Zealand and sting people frequently.

These traps are placed on beech trees that look burnt but are actually infected with insects that suck out the sap and secrete honeydew from their anal tubes. Sooty mould fungi grow on waste honeydew that has run down tree trunks, forming a dark sponge-like covering. Yes, New Zealand is a strange place. You know you’re nearing an infected tree before you can even see it by the sweet smell in the air.

Most people come to New Zealand for the mountains and those have certainly been beautiful this week but, for me, the forest is most special of all. I love walking among the misty green leaves, feeling the soft moss under my feet, breathing in the rich aroma of decaying plants, and listening to lively birdsong. I could walk through this paradise forever.

I’m excited for our next section – Nelson Lakes National Park!

Pelorus River

Pelorus River

We’ve just completed the second leg of our walk through New Zealand. After a rest day in Havelock, we continued south to the Pelorus River Track.

The first 20km or so followed gravel roads and crossed a through farm fields, so it wasn’t the most exhilarating walking. Over the next three months we’ll walk some of New Zealand’s most spectacular tracks. The sections of road walking joining them together are the cost of making a continuous footpath across the country.

When we arrived at Pelorus River, I couldn’t have been happier. It’s a beautiful deep green and warm enough to swim. After a long day of hot walking, there’s nothing as refreshing as a dip in the clean cool river.

We’re getting up into the mountains too! Often in New Zealand, we’ve found, the forest is so dense, you don’t really have a sense of the larger landscape around you. It’s thick and embracing like a jungle. Now we’re getting high enough that the trees are becoming smaller and we can get a glimpse of the mountains we’ll enter in a few short days.

But first, it’s time for another cultural diversion from the trail. Since we’re in the northern part of the South Island, it’s a great opportunity to visit the town of Nelson. I can’t wait to soak up the coastal scenery (and abundant food) before heading into remote mountainous New Zealand.