3,129,333 Steps (2,347 km)

3,129,333 Steps (2,347 km)

Bealey River to Washdyke Stream

Despite the thick, low-hanging clouds, the view from Camp Stream Hut took my breath away.

And, gave me perspective on where this journey is truly headed.

I walked the road away from Arthur’s Pass late in the morning of February 27th feeling strong. A few days off the trail gave my right shoulder, in particular, a chance to heal and recover. I had arrived earlier in the day on the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch, where the devastation of the 2012 earthquake was still widespread and evident. Shocking to witness the extent of the damage in person and heartening to see almost as many signs of resilience and recovery underway.

It took an hour to walk back to where I had last left the trail, in the rocky flood plain of the Bealey River. At this point I considered whether to follow the trail or take an easier, faster route along the road to the beginning of the next trail section. I settled on the slower river flats route, which eventually met up with the road again, before rounding the Bealey Spur and disappearing into a steep path in beech and pine forests.

Around 5 pm the trail escaped the forest across tussock and grass-covered ridge and over the Lagoon Saddle. From this treeless vantage, there was a stunning views of the mountains under the low early evening light. I took it slow, enjoying the surroundings, and within an hour arrived at the Lagoon Saddle A-Frame hut. A nice spot settled next to a small stream within beech tree forest.

This cozy and clean hut had two beds, and two young Czechs, Pietr and Helena, who had already made themselves at home. Although they offered to make room for me, I decided a night in my tent would be better for everyone. I set up my tent in a grassy patch amongst the tussock adjacent to the hut.

As we prepared our suppers, I got to talking with Pietr and Helena. They, like many young people I have met, had come to NZ on working holiday visas for a year. They split their time working in a place for a few weeks, then travel and hike for a few weeks, then repeat the pattern. I respect all the young people that make this choice and will encourage my daughters to consider doing this kind of travel before they reach 30, the typical age limit for these kinds of visas.

Helena explained to me that NZ was the second choice for them. Their initial goal was to go to Canada for a year and travel in the same way. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of these visas made available to Czechs. After being put on a waiting list, they made alternate plans to come to NZ.

They were a charming young couple, with a great attitude and a positive outlook. They were particularly patient as I peppered them with questions about “Czechoslovakia” over the course of the evening…

After a freezing cold night in my tent, owing to a clear sky and high altitude, I was slow to get up and going the morning of February 28th. I took time to try and dry the dew and condensation from my tent and said my “so longs” to Pietr and Helena.

The trail was really pleasant, following beside the Harper River and opening up to a gorgeous valley surrounded by cone-shaped mountains. I ended the day at a spectacular camp site near the Harper River’s confluence with Lake Colleridge. Protected from the wind, with convenient water facilities and flat soft ground I enjoyed a peaceful, low-key evening reading my book and a had a great night’s sleep in a dry tent.

Well rested, I broke camp early the morning of March 1st with a long road walk ahead. Gravel road running along a valley parallel to Lake Colleridge. Exiting the road I crossed through a sheep pasture alongside the lake before climbing a bluff that provided a spectacular view of Lake Colleridge, then finally descending through an arboretum featuring samples of dozens of mature pine trees from around the world.

Exiting the arboretum spat me out at the doorstep of Lake Colleridge Lodge at about 2:30 in the afternoon. I checked in and was greeted by Toni, who showed me my room, served me a chocolate brownie and a half dozen cold beer and handed over my mailed food resupply package. I loved this place! I spent a leisurely afternoon sunning myself in the garden, drinking beer, showering and napping before dinner was served at 7 pm.

I was the only guest that night, so I had the place to myself, including the hot tub, where I enjoyed a post-dinner soak watching the sunset before retiring to the front porch. There, Toni brought me my dessert. I slept very, very well that evening!

Beyond Lake Colleridge Lodge lays the Rakaia River and a break in the trail. This river is too dangerous to ford, so the official trail stops, then restarts on the other side. I had made arrangements with Dean to get a ride around the river hazard zone the morning of March 2nd. We left around 10 am, after I had enjoyed a lovely breakfast prepared by Toni and organized some mail packages she agreed to post ahead on my behalf.

On the drive, Dean and I talked a bit about the trail, but mostly we talked about Canada. Turns out that, several years ago, Toni and Dean had spent a year travelling in Canada on a working holiday visa. They started in BC and went across the country, ending up in Halifax, where Dean had a three month gig doing auditing work for a large accounting firm. He related the highlights of this journey, including the different “woofing” projects they took on. Woofing involves volunteering on organic farms in exchange for room and board. This was all new to me, but it is well-established thing apparently.

Shortly after 11 am, I was back on the trail. This time walking up a low saddle, then down Turtons Stream, fording several times on the way to Comyns Hut. This was a leisurely walk again, in a new landscape. Out of the forest now, the mountain landscape was more barren, covered in short grasses and tussock. This meant lots to see, as compared to the dark forests. A welcome change of scenery.

I arrived at the Comyns hut at about 4 pm. Looking at the Visitor Book, there was a note left behind addressed to me. It was from Eff and PJ. We had agreed the day before (via Facebook) to try and across the next large river hazard together. To be safe in numbers and in judgement. They were several hours ahead of me, but took the time to leave a reassuring note to confirm their intentions. So considerate to leave me this message of assurance. This warmed my heart and I enjoyed a quiet evening alone in the hut (except for some well-behaved mice).

An overcast sky awaited me the morning of March 3rd as I started my day with a march up a series of creeks. I came upon a pair of deer early on, climbing up towards yet another saddle. The sky cleared at midday and I marched along under a beautiful blue sky as I crossed one last saddle into a remarkably open alpine valley. The traverse that followed was across steep scree slopes and offered gorgeous views. This was another day when the solitude was welcomed: knowing this landscape was mine alone for several kilometres in every direction.

I retired to the charm of the Manuka hut, which was old but well cared for. Dehydrated, I fell asleep early before the sun had set.

With a big day ahead of me, and a good long sleep, I was up early and out the door before 7 am the morning of March 4th. I also wanted to do my best to catch up with Eef and PJ that day, so as not to hold them up ahead of the Rangitata River crossing. Out of the forest, the views were fabulous once again and thanks to a friendly trail I caught up to them around 1:30 pm. Sitting in a grassy field, overlooking  Lake Clearwater, they were finishing their lunch. Right on schedule as planned. We reconnected for a while, then continued a descent down the valley towards the expanse of the Rangitata river, visible kilometres away.

Along the way, Eef told me that before settling upon the Te Araroa, their first plan was to travel in Canada for a year, but the visa limitations were a barrier. They were both very interested to know I lived so close to Banff.

Settling at a campsite in the early evening, we were visited by a ranchhand who warned us that a large storm system was on its way, We would be wise to head out early the next day to ensure a safe crossing.

This freaked us all out a bit. We were already anxious about this river crossing before we heard this news. I did not sleep well after hearing this, nor did Eef.

We were all up, packed and walking in the dark at 6:30 am on March 5th, in the direction of the river, aiming to hit first light in time for the first braid of river.

It was all fine. We followed some directions other walkers had shared, PJ led, Eef navigated, I followed. The water rarely went above the knees, and current was manageable the entire time. Still, it was slow going, and it was 9:30 am before we met the next trail section.

Scrambling among boulders and rocks up the Bush Stream under the hot sun, I was mindful of Rory, who had slipped and severely cut is leg on this same stretch a couple of weeks earlier. I played it safe and took my time, stopping to drink water at regular intervals to stay hydrated in the heat. The weather had not yet turned. Climbing away from the stream, the trail began a very long ascent towards Crooked Spur saddle. I love the challenge of big climbs, so I charged ahead and waited at the top for Eef and PJ. The view was amazing: steep, scree slopes on all sides, descending into a tussock covered valley floor. Once Eef and PJ arrived, I shared my plan to walk ahead to Royal Hut that evening so as to race farther ahead of the upcoming weather, a couple of hours beyond where Eef and PJ were aiming. We said our “so longs” and I made my way ahead of them, skiing and sliding down the scree before a long technical walk down the valley through dense tussock.

It was close to 7:30 pm before I arrived at Royal Hut. So-named because Princess Anne and Prince Charles reputedly stayed there as children. It was well maintained, but the mice were clearly the king of this particular castle. Exhausted after a 13 hour day, I had two suppers, most of a chocolate bar and crashed soundly to sleep on a high bunk. Briefly, I was kept awake as wind gusts stressed the ancient hut’s reinforced timber frame.

Up bright and early, I packed with one eye towards the sky the morning of March 6th. The dawn light offered a clear sky, but with a bank of dark clouds over the mountains north and west of me. My aim was to get out on the trail, then up and over the Stag Saddle, which at 1,925m, is the Te Araroa’s highest point. I was racing the weather once again.

For the first hour the walk went well. Then, the storm came. The wind first, then heavy rain. Then heavier winds.

Dressed in shorts and Gortex shell, as I have always been in rain, proved inadequate. My hands went numb first. Then my body started to shiver. Trying to stay warm, I began walking more aggressively to warm up my body’s engine. This did not help.

I stopped at the beginning of the saddle ascent to change gear. My clothing bag was at the bottom of my pack, so this entailed spilling all my other gear on to the wet ground, under driving rain. I put on a warmer layer of clothes, including rain shell pants, stuffed the rain-soaked gear back into my pack, and started moving once again.

The ascent was not particularly challenging, which in this case was unfortunate as my body failed to warm up. Reaching the saddle was anticlimactic. While other walkers had stopped at the top to take in views of the Southern Alps, post photos of this elevation milestone, and reflect on the landscape, I kept moving.

The clouds were thick, so there was no view to be had. The wind was stripping any remnants of heat from my body. Cold had set in beneath my weather gear. To stop would only make me colder.

I glanced briefly at the sign marking the elevation point and marched right past, seeking refuge from the wind and rain. I took no photos because my drenched cold hands could not operate the touch screen of my phone camera. Besides, the clouds obscured any view or vista.

Seeking warmth, I just kept walking.

Shivering along the way, I started the descent and became even colder as the physical effort decreased and gravity did most of the work.

After another half hour, as I descended into the Camp Stream valley, there was some modest shelter from the wind and the terrain flattened. I began to warm up somewhat, still under near-constant rain. The next three hours were a slow march through tussock and cold stream crossings, further chilling my already-numb feet.

Along the way I resolved that I would cut the day short and walk no further than the next hut: the historic Camp Stream Hut, built in 1898. I would settle in there, find warmth and wait out the weather til the next day.

A final stream crossing, and a welcome ascent up a farm track brought me to the shelter of the Camp Stream Hut just after 1 pm. Still shivering, I dropped my pack in the hut, left to retrieve some water, then began to prepare to settle in for the afternoon and night.

Under a constant rattle of rain pelting the hut’s tin roof, I stripped down, laid out my wet gear and began to assemble my stove in order to prepare some lunch. All this time, looking ahead to an afternoon of recovery curled up in my sleeping bag, reading, and hoping for better weather the next day.

Then I turned around.

There. On the back of the hut’s rickety door hung a flag. A Canadian flag. Marked with names and dates. Not just any names. Canadian names. Only Canadian names. Walkers that had come before me.

The sense of belonging was overwhelming in that moment. The kinship of being with my tribe: in that place, at that time, at that moment of physical fragility.

A reflex kicked in.

My breath stopped.

A warm glow overtook my body. Centred in my heart.

A halting, stuttered inhale followed.

My eyes welled. My gaze shifted up.

“Oh. Boy.” I said out loud. To nobody.

While seconds earlier I felt broken and disabled by the cold and wet, I suddenly felt alive and connected. A switch flipped deep inside me.

My spirit was awakened.

As crazy at it sounds, something else changed in the moment that immediately followed: discreetly and gracefully, the sun appeared through the window above the doorway. A quiet settled upon that hut as the rain abated and stopped its pinging on the roof.

In the span of minutes, my whole reality had changed.

A sat down on the bench to process and reflect, while busying myself with lunch preparation. Fifteen minutes later, halfway through a hot bowl of ramen, peas and pumpkin soup mix, I settled upon a new plan for the balance of the day. I laid out my clothing and gear outside in the sun to dry, proudly signed and dated the flag, and prepared myself to continue walking.

Come 3 pm, I was dry, packed up and back on the trail under a warm sun and a blue sky.

Within another 90 minutes I marched uphill from the Coal River, over a crest, to inspiring views of the snowcapped Southern Alps, Mount Cook, and the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo laid out below me.

I stopped to lay in the sun for a few minutes. To rest and appreciate the view of the Southern Alps that I had missed in the clouds atop Stag Saddle that morning. An alert pinged my phone when I turned it on to test for cell coverage: a Facebook message from Alex, sharing news that his son, Tim, had applied for a six-month school exchange in Banff-Canmore. Tim’s friend had done an exchange in Banff last year and said it was the best experience. Another timely, unanticipated connection to home.

I spent the next two hours walking along the grassland step of the Richmond Range. A warm wind at my back, mountains on my left and clear views of Lake Tekapo on my right the entire way. As 7 pm approached I came upon a flat spot of ground, just beyond Boundary Stream, overlooking the lake, sheltered from the wind by a small hill. I set up my tent on the dry ground, had a quick dinner, then lay in my tent watching the sun set over the valley and lake below. A calm and quiet moment, in a peaceful and warm spot, to reflect on a remarkable day.

There are many moments when life is trying to tell me something. The challenge, being human, is that I mostly don’t listen owing to the distractions I choose to bring into my life.

Day after day, Pietr and Helena, Toni and Dean, Eef and PJ, Alex and Tim all underlined the same point: I live in an amazing country. A country that with amazing scenery and a humble spirit. Where people carry a flag across the globe, carry it up a mountain, pin it to the door and give an amazing gift to the Canadians who follow.

I have now completed 80% of this journey. I will be done within the month. That little flag was a gentle tap on the shoulder. A timely reminder that this journey has only ever had one destination. That moment in the Camp Stream Hut was my realization that, while I am walking to Bluff, my true destination has always been home.

I am now entering the homestretch.