2,879,466 Steps (2,156 km)

2,879,466 Steps (2,156 km)

Towards Arthur’s Pass: Boyle Village to Bealey River

The path to enlightenment is riddled with injury, exhaustion, bugs, rodents, dead livestock and bags of urine.

I passed through an emotional and physical tunnel this leg, but have come out the end with some long-sought clarity.

The prior day’s rest and soaking in the pools at Hamner Springs had a mixed effect on my body. I felt extraordinarily drained. Perhaps the hot pools had sent my muscles a message that they could ease up, because my legs had little energy to offer as I walked the highway from town the morning of February 12, looking for a hitch back to Boyle Village.

I was out of the hostel early. Perhaps too early for the purposes of hitchhiking, as there was very little traffic on the road at that hour. It was over an hour before I was picked up by a charming young couple on their way to Nelson from Christchurch.

When I turned up the road towards the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre (where I had mailed a food resupply) I came upon Kent, who was just coming out of the last leg. We briefly caught up. His plan was to walk more of the path ahead and then hitch to Hanmer Springs from farther down the highway. A few minutes later, down the road came Jean and Julliette. I enjoy running into them immensely, and I spent a bit more time catching up with them and sharing our respective highlights from the Waiau Pass.

After picking up my food package and re-organizing my pack, I set out again on the trail along the Boyle and Doubtful rivers. This walk was not pleasant. The trail was poorly marked, the route was awkward, along steep banks with many stream and river crossings. At one point I had to scale a seven foot high deer fence to get back on the trail. It was slow and frustrating and hot.

As I stopped to rest mid-afternoon at the beginning of the Harper Pass track, I ran into Kent once again. He was preparing to hitch, having completed this stretch of he walk ahead of me. In the course of conversation, I mentioned that I had failed to mail ahead an extra gas canister for my stove, and he kindly offered up his spare before heading on. Another kind soul.

My energy level was still low as I continued on towards Hope Kiwi Lodge, my planned overnight stop for the night. I meandered and took my time, and ran into Robbie and Ryan (Georgia) a couple of times along the way. They too were feeling “wiped” and were taking it easy.

The Hope Kiwi Lodge was empty when I arrived around 6:30 pm. Empty of people, that is.

There were tons of mice. And mouse droppings over the countertops. They had the run of the place. The Intentions Book was full of recent reports about the extent of the mouse infestation. Turns out that every five years, the beech trees in these forests release an extraordinary amount of seeds. These seeds feed the mice, who thrive in numbers in that year. This year is one of these years.

I made extraordinary efforts to hang up my bag and all my food to protect it from the mice. After I had supper, some others arrived at the hut: a couple of Swiss fly-fishermen and a pair of free-spirit “hippie” walkers, including Sharon (Hawaii) who was walking the Te Araroa.

I chose a bed on a high bunk and fell sound asleep late in the evening (10 pm) to the sound of the mice scrambling along the floor in the opposite corner of the room.

Despite the mice, exhaustion continued to take hold and I slept in the next morning (February 13). Not waking until 7:30 am, and not heading out until after 9:30 am. A very late start for me, but a short day ahead: just 19 km to the next hut.

This was a low key day. I took my time, navigating some gaps in the trail due to tree falls, resting and taking in views of Lake Sumner, and enjoying a steady breeze and a clear sky as I made my way along the Hurunui River towards the Hurunui Hut. Along the way there was a lot of dead livestock. Sheep and cows. Often the smell was the cue of something dead ahead. I found that my pace quickened at the scent of this death, instinctively anxious to move beyond as soon as possible.

I arrived before 3 pm at the hut and was happy to see only modest evidence of mice infestation: this hut was relatively modern and mouse-resistant. I settled in and enjoyed a nap before other Te Araroa hikers started to trickle in: Gil (Israel), Peter (Scotland) and once again, Bobby. Also, Sharon and her hippie friend, who mostly kept to themselves, having made a fire outside (despite the fire ban and extreme fire warning).

Interestingly, Gil, Peter and Bobby were all feeling the same as me: sluggish and lacking energy. (I later learned that some hikers had contracted a flu on the Waiau Pass track, so perhaps our bodies were using energy to fight this off.)

The morning of February 14th, the four of us headed out, ahead of the hippies, with a common goal to get to the Locke Stream Hut. Once again, the trail was very sketchy at several points owing to many tree falls. This slows things down signifantly. The trees that fall tend to be massive: they topple from their own weight under the force of wind and lift the ground all around. I had planned to stop at a hot spring along this stretch, but found the path disorienting and so I just continued. The challenge of these tree falls is to navigate around them, in the absence of a clear path, and to then find the trail again. This demands a lot of stopping, searching, stepping back and retracing steps.  Sometimes, in the absence of any simple path, it means scrambling through the bush into the unknown.

And that’s what I was doing just before I fell.

The ground gave way under me as I was manoevering over a fallen tree. At the edge of a steep incline. My body followed my feet. My right arm followed my body. My walking stick did not follow. It held firm, yanking my arm above me as I continued to slide down the slope.

I hugged a tree, with all the strength of my left arm, and came to a stop about 10 feet below. I was okay. My right shoulder was tender, but I was unharmed. I calmed down. Let the adrenaline rush subside, climbed up to retrieve my pole, and found a safe route to continue. More cautious than before.

Yes, I was rattled.

I continued, stopping to recharge and overcome my lack of energy with a hot cup of coffee at the sketchy, mouse-infested, dirt floored Cameron Hut.

The four of us eventually met up again at the Locke Stream Hut. This hut was charming, home to mice, but with simple precautions to hang food, proved to be comfortable and we all had an undisturbed, good night’s sleep.

I felt my energy return to me the morning of February 15th. Heading out later than usual after an extra long sleep, I felt recharged. Finally.

The morning was spent walking the Taramakau River, mostly on the rocky flood plain. I took my time and enjoyed the sunny day. Stopping to dry my feet after river crossings and warming them in the sun.

It was delightful.

Until the Otira River flood track. This track was dreadful. It was nothing but tree falls. One after another. I spent three hours trying to cover the four last kilometres of the day. It was similar to the terrain I had fallen on the day earlier. When the tree falls were behind me, the trail markers proved inadequate. I had to continually retrace steps to navigate my way. Pushing my way through spiky gorse and thistles, my arms and legs were covered in cuts and scratches before I finally arrived at the Morrison Footbridge and a place to set my tent for the evening. It was a wholy frustrating end to a longer than planned day.

But it wasn’t over. Setting up my tent just as the bugs hatched, I was overwhelmed by sand flies. Beyond anything I had endured to this point in the journey. I retreated to my tent, gingerly zipping and unzipping my tent just enough to allow my hands to operate my stove and prepare dinner without exposing myself. Like a lab worker handling viruses, reaching behind a glass window. A thousand flies crawled and clustered along the length of the screen of my tent, trying to find a way inside. When Bobby arrived an hour later, I didn’t get up to greet him. I just yelled my apologies.

The wind picked up and thinned out some of the bugs enough that before bed I was able to get some water from the stream and connect with Bobby. We both lamented the sand flies and the awful state of the Otira River track before heading to bed and the safe protection of our tents.

Thankfully, February 16th was, as it turned out, a great day, but it did not start well. When I awoke and got ready at 5:00 am in the morning it was because I had simply had enough of lying with my face inches from a bag of my own urine.

See, in the night I had peed into a ziplock bag to avoid the returned swarm of sand flies that awaited outside my tent. I had initially tried to step out to pee, but as the tent zipper opened – as little as 6 inches – I was immediately swarmed about my face, nose, mouth and eyes. I could not breath without ingesting dozens of flies. They were immediately drawn by the light of my headlamp – and my face below. They were overwhelming.  Peeing in a ziplock meant not being exposed to the swarm in the middle of the night, but it also meant waking up facing a bag of cold pee.

So, there was no lingering in bed this morning. I was motivated and ready to get moving pretty much as soon as I awoke! I had my tent packed and was walking by before 7 am. The early morning was spent tripping over rocky riverbed, punctuated by knee-depth river crossings as the trail followed the Deception River up to its headwaters.

As the morning progressed, the valley walls narrowed, the boulders became larger and formed cascading clear pools like a giant staircase up the valley. This was a magical walk. Crossing the river with greater frequency until the walk became a wading game: knee-deep in crystal-clear water, then a scamble over or around a ten foot boulder that formed a pool or waterfall ahead. This was so remarkably pretty, and the cold water was a great complement to the warm sunny midday weather. I made a point of stopping on the hour. Settling on a boulder and taking in the moment and the scenery: waterfalls, pools, lush forest hugging the steep valley walls. The walk became increasingly steep and tricky, but today my body felt stronger with every push. I had my legs back, and I was motoring.

Eventually, the trail devolved into a steep rocky climb on dry boulders up to Goat Pass: an alpine valley home to a well-maintained hut that Bobby and I had discussed sleeping at that night. But the morning walk had gone really well and I was there by 2 pm. I weighed the decision to stop or go on and decided it was a beautiful afternoon to keep on walking.

So, after signing the hut’s Intentions Book, to let Bobby know my new plan for the day, I walked on. The landscape was magical. Alpine scrub and waterfalls in every direction. Mountains meeting one another at the expansive pass under a warm blue sky. Again, no other people for kilometres around.  I continued on the Mingha track for 10 kilometres, following the Minga River. This time, descending with the flow of the river as it opened up in its own rocky flood plain and confluence with the Bealey River and the state highway. This was another big day, covering two days of ground in one go. But I was once again feeling strong and far from exhausted. From there, I marched on the road for another five km into the village of Arthur’s Pass, arriving at 7 pm.

I was greeted by Bob at the front desk of the YHA. Bob is a Canadian, originally from Ontario, but studied at the University of Calgary and lived in Alberta before moving to New Zealand in the late eighties. He is a chartered accountant and owns and operates most of the available accomodations in Arthur’s Pass (hostel, cottages, motel). We talked for quite a while before both heading across the street for beers at the cafe-bar.

The cottage I retired to that night had, like everywhere in these parts, a mice issue. Exhausted, but kept awake by the intermittent rustling, I eventually chased the mouse out of my room and blockaded myself by jamming a towel into the gap in the foot of the door.

Waiting to collect my bounce box and shoes the next morning (February 17th) from Bob is when I ran into Bobby. He had continued on as I had the day before, arriving after dark and sleeping in his tent at the campsite at the entrance to town. He was now checking in to the hostel and collecting a food parcel he had mailed ahead. We each got our stuff, and then retreated to our independent zero day routines: eating, showering, napping, laundry, emails, reviewing maps for the walk ahead. We met up for dinner that night and then retired early to our respective mouse-ridd en cottages.

“So, what’s your story?”, Bob asked me the next morning.

I started to tell him about my background, and he stopped me.

“No. Not your history. Your present. What is your narrative? What is this walk all about, for you?”

Bob explained that he meets all kinds of people walking the Te Araroa. They all have some different goal and set of rules they bring to the journey:

Some won’t hitch even off-trail for resupply. Some won’t sleep in a bed. Some want to carry their own food. Some want to complete the walk fast. Some are racing against their dwindling bank accounts. Some want the lightest pack. Some want to look the part and grow a bigass beard. Some are collecting through-hike trophies, adding the Te Araroa to other conquests like the Appalachian Trail or the PCT. Some want a wilderness experience. Some want to pause, take off, and do other notable hikes along the way, before continuing on the Te Araroa trail. Some want to test their mettle and resourcefulness. Some, just want adventure and nothing more.

He explained all this in colourful detail, with examples and stories. Then he asked me again.

“Well… I don’t know how to put it…” I started to say. My mind scrambling to provide a truthful answer.

“My goals aren’t tactical, beyond walking the entire trail…”. I was starting to ramble on about “perspective in life…” and all that.

Then, I had a moment of clarity.

“I really don’t care about all that hiker bullshit. I am not here to be in the wilderness, or live in a tent for weeks on end without bathing or shaving. I respect that others get something out of that. Everyone has their own journey. But I don’t know what my pack weighs and I don’t care one way or another about that kind of stuff.”

“My story? My story is I want to live my life in a different way. This walk is a means to that end. It is nothing more than time and space to figure out what that is. I am here to write my own story.”

I am getting a sense now of what that story is. I have now begun writing my own narrative. It has five key influences.

  1. Patience: To give myself, and those around me, the space and time to learn.
  2. Kindness: To assume the best in people. To accept and suffer, if need be, when people take advantage or misunderstand.
  3. Gentleness: To be tender. To approach challenges with a kind heart. To seek the safest, healthiest path for all involved.
  4. Consideration: To make life easier for all the people around me. Family, friends, strangers, whoever.
  5. Genuine: To respect others by not wearing a mask. To be honest and transparent about me and my motives.

Yes, these values are obvious and familiar. Some might say trite. But what I now recognize, for myself, is the need for them to be at the fore of my story. Not the rear.

This adventure?  Blisters and bugs, rodents and rain, injury and insult? Vistas and valleys, folliage and friendships, solitude and stars? A mixed bag. Just like the rest of “real life”.

When walking in the forest or in the alpine gorse, I use my walking sticks to push back the folliage ahead of me. To better see the path and avoid hazards. It doesn’t change the path. It simply helps me avoid missteps, cuts and scrapes or tripping on a rock as I move forward.

This journey has served to help me push back the clutter. It won’t dictate my life’s path. What it has done is provide the glimpse I need to move forward with fewer missteps. A chance to stay mindful and be true to my own narrative.

To write my own story.