Richmond Range: Pelorus Bridge to St. Arnaud
There was no space in my pack for my fear. So I chose to go on without it. This journey just kicked up a notch. I spent the last five and half days walking the Richmond Forest Park and I feel I have just awoken to the world in a new way.
I had an amount of anxiety when I packed up my tent the morning of January 31st. I was heading into the infamous Richmond Range, the purported toughest section of the Te Araroa. I took a late start so I could have a hot breakfast (pizza) once the cafe opened at the Pelorus Bridge campsite. Around 8:30 am I said goodbyes to David (Matt had already headed off) I set out on the Pelorus River track. This started with a couple of hours of road walking, then a forest walk upstream alongside the Pelorus River. This also involved a series of swing bridges, which is always a moment of pause and focus, walking so high above bubbling rapids and the hard rock river bed. The weather was mixed, but relatively hot, but I moved pretty quickly and arrived at the Captain’s Creek Hut around 2 pm. I signed the hut intentions book, only after reading through pages of complaints about the mouse infestation of this hut.
I changed my plans in that moment and decided to walk onward for a couple of hours to the Middy Hut, the next hut on the track. But first I took some time to rest on a rock, rehydrate, and soak my feet in the cool crystal clear water of the Pelorus River. It was delightful, in spite of the sand flies nipping at me the whole time.
When I arrived at the Middy Hut around 4 pm, Matt was already settled in. David and a friendly German woman who was challenging herself with this leg of the journey also showed up, shortly after. We were all asleep by 8 pm, exhausted from the heat and a 27 km uphill walk.
I was somewhat relieved to wake up to an overcast sky and light rain the morning of February 1st. This is because the recent drought had caused shortages of water at some of the upcoming alpine huts, which would necessitate carrying water up the mountains. Also, there was much complaint by the walkers a week ahead of us of unbearable heat wearing them out on the upcoming, long alpine ascents. Rain and overcast skies would resolve both these issues, so I decided to adapt my schedule for the coming days to walk longer days while it was still cooler. Also, to reflect some dramatically shorter walking times that I was taking compared to the trail note estimates. I decided to push on that day to the Starveall Hut, a 24 km uphill walk with a long, steep ascent at the finish.
As I approached that last challenge of the day, the 900 m ascent to the hut, I came behind a pair of hikers in front of me. There was something familiar about the way they navigated the steep, rocky path. As I came upon them from behind, they turned around, and there they were: Jean and Julliette! Turns out they just returned to the trail that day, after taking a two week trip to Australia to reset their NZ travel visa. It was so lovely to see them again, and they were very interested to hear about my trip home to Canada. After a brief catch up, we said our so longs, and I continued ahead in front of them, pushing myself up towards the Starveall Hut. Once again, Matt was already well settled by the time I arrived.
February 2nd was when everything started to change: the trail went into the alpine immediately, up steep ridges, many of them narrow, and it kept climbing, then descending, then climbing again. The weather was overcast, the wind was very strong, a misty rain turned to brief showers at points, then went away. Throughout the day the clouds sped past, gushing and swirling up and over the ridges and summit of Mt. Rintoul. For periods, the blue sky would break through and illuminate the valley below. This dynamic is what no picture can replicate: the weather decides what you will see and when you will see it. It was an immersive experience.
By 4:30 pm I arrived at Rintoul Hut, just below the summit. Matt was already settled. After sharing my excitement and energy from a fantastic day on the mountain, I went about my dinner-making routine, which I had adapted the last two days. Because I had been walking farther than originally planned, I was on track to finish this journey in five and half days. I was also using a lot more energy each day to cover these longer distances.
So, I adapted my meal plan accordingly to provide fuel. Basically, I doubled up on dinners each night, pairing a dehydrated prepared meal with a bowl of spicy ramen and peanut butter, followed up with a careful portion of dark chocolate. In essence, I would eat eight days of food to cover eight days of walking in five days. Each day the weight of food would diminish, so by the last day I would allow just a single serving. I front-loaded my calorie intake, basically.
As I was scraping the corners of my bowl of ramen in the Rintoul Hut, others started to arrive. Jake (South Island only, from Kansas), then Patrick (California), then some familiar faces: Serina (Canada), Eff (Belgium) and Per Jonas (Norway). I was so happy to see Serina, Eff and Per Jonas. I had walked with them over a couple of days in late November, ahead of Auckland, and had stayed in touch over social media for weeks after. After returning from my two week Xmas break I had no expectations of running into any hikers from before, but here in the span of two days I had run into five of them, including Jean and Julliette the day before! Though I maybe didn’t let it on, it was heartening to me. They carry a very positive energy – all of them. It was a very welcome surprise.
The hut was bult for six, and there were seven of us, so Jake kindly offered to stay in his tent that evening, which was actually pretty wise. Six sweaty hikers in closed quarters, on different schedules, makes for a stinky and chaotic environment. It was tough sleeping that night but comforting all the same given the company.
Once again, I wanted to gain some mileage on February 3rd, so I headed out just before 7 am, ahead of everyone (but Matt). I figured I could push myself to the Hunters Hut that day if I had an early start. The morning was a quiet start, through sub-alpine forest, along moss-covered tracks in clear morning light. So calm. Very little wind. After a quick late breakfast stop with Jake, I started the long walk up the Wairoa River. This is where the trail became most tricky. Narrow path cut into very steep cliffs high above rapids, boulders and waterfalls. Incredibly pretty, but treacherous, with many scrambles up vertical rock walls with nothing but toe holds to prevent a 30 foot tumble into the canyon below. Plus, about 8 crossings of the river without benefit of a swing bridge. I slowed right down here. I was cautious and methodical. After several hours, the track ended at the Top Wairoa Hut at the foot of a beautiful alpine valley. I considered the time and decided there was not enough left in the day to safely go farther, so I settled into the hut and took the opportunity to dry out my shoes and prepare dinner. A couple of hours later there was a knock on the door. It was Serina (Canada). Followed shortly after by Patrick (California). Per Jonas and Eef were stopped at the hut behind it was reckoned. The three of us had a relatively quiet, calm and stink-free evening and fell asleep to the wind howling through the valley above us.
The weather forecast for February 4th called for rain later in the day. I was up especially early and out the door at 6:30 am sharp, with the goal of walking to the very last hut on the track before nightfall and staying at the Red Hills Hut. What that required was a huge ascent up Mount Ellis, a descent into another valley, and then a long walk up-and-down, sidling of the Motueka River and then the Maitland Creek. It would be a long day whatever the conditions.
February 4th proved to be the best day of this journey to date. From my initial ascent away from the Top Wairoa Hut onward, the light was magical, the views were spectacular, the terrain varied. The air was comfortably cool and the sky was mixed throughout. I was constantly struck by the majesty of the place, and the solitude. There was not one person I came across in the 11 hours I was on the trail. I stopped constantly to take photos and more so to soak in the moment. To be in that moment. In solitude. Listening to the wind. Watching the light shift on the river below. The clouds drift above. Sitting on a boulder in the middle of a creek bed and staring back down a valley. I would like to do that day over again, it was that rich a tapestry.
Towards the end of the day, the weather finally turned to rain, but this only disrupted the last hour walk to the end of the trail. I was soaking wet but in high spirits when I opened the door to the Red Hills Hut about 6:30 pm. And there, awaiting, was another friendly face.
“You made it!” said Bobby.
I made it. Still buoyed by the power of this day, I organized myself and then introduced myself to two other hikers in the hut I had not yet met: Graeme (NZ, who had walked lots of the journey with Serina, Per Jonas and Patrick) and Graeme’s good friend Colin, who was joining Graeme for the South Island part of the trail. Graeme and Colin were tons of fun. As I ate the last of my food, there was much talk that night about how much beer we would be drinking the next day when we arrived in St. Arnaud. Beer, bacon and eggs…
With visions of beer mugs in our heads we were quick out the door the next morning (February 5th) for a hasty three hour walk of forest and highway into the small town of St. Arnaud. Within 20 minutes of arriving, by 11:30 am we had beers in our hands and that kinda was the rest of the day – with some spattering of laundry, collection of food mail drops and resupply – beer was the agenda of the day.
I elected to take an extra zero day in St. Arnaud on February 6th to update this blog, shave, and eat some big meals for the days ahead. Bobby, Graeme and Colin are leaving half a day earlier. I hope to catch up with them within the next couple of days.
I loved these last few days: the physical challenge, the tactical decisions required, the adaptation to circumstances, the quiet moments alone at the top of a windy ridge, the relatively fortunate weather, the connection with fellow hikers I had not seen in a long time, the company of hikers I only just met.
Not carrying your fear is not the same as being reckless. It is being cautious and considering what is really in front of you and adapting to that circumstance. Without fear.
Whatever it may be.
The Richmond Range has taught me this. Or at least reminded me in a vivid way that I hope to hold onto.
I walked out of the Richmond Range feeling stronger than I went in. Hungier, sure. But stronger physically and mentally.
Without my fear, I feel alive. Without the burden of fear, I am having the time of my life right now, and I am ready for more. In this journey and my life beyond.
That starts tomorrow: the next challenge is the Waiau Pass. Another 6-7 day stretch in the high country.
The forecast suggests snow.