3,561,333 Steps (2,671 km)

3,561,333 Steps (2,671 km)

Albert Town to Queenstown

My plan to the finish involves changing the plan until the finish.

To ensure I have enough food and a decent place to sleep each night demands a certain amount of preparation. At this stage of the journey, however, I am leaving the fate of my schedule to circumstance in the hope that time will slow down of its own accord.

The schedule in my Moleskin captures the rest of this journey on a single page spread. The schedule is laid out in pencil, so that it is easy to change. These are the final days and rather than feel excited by the prospect of finishing, I am feeling the opposite. I want time to slow down. I am looking for reasons to justify (to myself) taking shorter days, having more zero days, relaxing. I am aiming to stretch this out in a practical way so I can savour it more.  Like so much of this journey, how that works out will come down to the weather.

I awoke March 16th in Albert Town with the shortest of days ahead of me: a 12 km stroll towards Wanaka. This was another flat and easy gravel bike track, towards, then along the shore of the next lake: Lake Wanaka. Approaching the outskirts of the townsite, I was completely struck with the resemblance to my home in Canmore: the gravel pathway, boulders and water on the right, million-dollar vacation homes on the left, mountains on the horizon. As I came closer into town the resemblance was even stronger: a decidedly tourist-oriented town centre that is only one block deep, and another half of the town where people permanently live. It all felt very comfortable.

I spotted an internet cafe as I entered the main drag about 11 am, so I took the opportunity to spend a few hours writing a blog post before checking in to the hostel later in the afternoon. Some beer and dinner followed, then an early night.

March 17th was a zero day, a full day spent in town organizing food supply, laundry, bounce box, shaving, calls to home, reviewing maps of the next section of the walk. This all takes a lot of time. Zero days are anything but downtime. After enjoying a quick pint of Guiness in honour of St. Patricks Day, I used some MacGyver skills to figure out a way to stretch out my new hiking shoes – using a hair dryer and empty beer bottles (this worked incredibly well…). Then, I had a brief rest in my room before later heading out for a beer with Rob and Joss. Just as I met up with them in the lobby, Marylene approached and gave me a long hug and said some very kind things about my last blog post.

The connection among fellow-walkers has become increasingly evident in the past week or so. Alongside the realization among the group that this journey is about to come to an end, there is an understanding that these intermittent meetings with fellow-walkers are about to cease also. I think everyone is having a certain amount of struggle with that at this time, judging by the uptick in facebook messages, texts and check-ins. Joss, Marylene and I closed the pub that night sharing some of our feelings, confusion and anxieties around what finishing the walk will represent.

I was pretty hungover the next morning, March 18th, but managed to get out onto the trail by 8:30 am. After saying so-long to Marylene, I headed out of Wanaka around the Lake in my newly-stretched hiking shoes. The trail was fast and scenic, with many views of the blue waters of Lake Wanaka and the backdrop of Mount Aspiring. Around midday, I headed uphill away from the lake toward the Motatapu track. The gradual climb was up a steep-sided narrow valley surrounded by increasingly sharp peaks. Another welcome change of landscape. Because of a weather forecast calling for rain, I had sketched out an aggressive plan to get to Queenstown ahead of the wet weather, in three days time, which called for a 30 km day to the Highland Creek Hut that night. I took it slow, comfortable with my pace and allowed myself to walk through the early evening, arriving just before 7 pm at the hut. After a quick meal and pleasant chat with Jim (a Kiwi hiker tackling the Motatapu) I crashed asleep.

It was cold that night. Fall is definitely here, which means even on sunny days there is a cool breeze which makes for comfortable hiking. At night, in the mountains, the cool Fall air gets cooler, even in a modern, well-insulated hut, so I have been making the most of the “mummy” features of my sleeping bag to keep warm at night. As I stepped outside to fetch water for my coffee the morning of March 19th, the air was actually warmer outside than inside: a sign that it would be a nice day of weather ahead. I had another big day of walking planned, so I was packed and back on the trail by 7:30 am.

This proved itself a glorious day: perfect weather, big blue sky, incredibly scenic views of the Motatapu Valley. The walk involved a couple of big ascents and descents but in these conditions they were no problem physically. I have been feeling very strong physically of late, and the ascents are often welcome as a means of keeping warm. Each of the climbs this day offered in return spectacular views. I just loved this section, in part because of the state of the trails themselves: easy to navigate, cut into the hills in a nice way. Apparently the Motatapu track and huts were constructed as part of negotiation with foreign property owners who made an application to purchase the surrounding farm station and grazing lands. The foreigners were Shania Twain and her now ex-husband. He still owns the property.

The end of the day was a cold march down the through the Arrow River, ankle deep in icy water for a couple of hours towards the abandoned gold mining settlement of Macetown. There, I found a terrific tent site, set up camp, ate and fell soundly asleep before 8 pm. An exhausted but peaceful end to another rich and rewarding day.

I woke up around 4:30 am on March 20th feeling rested and ready to tackle the day ahead. I enjoyed two cups of coffee while reading a book before packing up and heading out in the darkness at 6:30 am. My headlamp guided me for the first hour downstream towards a final ascent that would lead me back to civilization. By 9:00 am I was resting at the top of the Big Hill Saddle, looking out over Arrowtown and the surrounding valley that would lead to Queenstown. I turned on my cell phone and got some (somewhat) welcome messages: Jorg had finished the journey two days prior. He also has made arrangements to come to Queenstown and meet with me the next day. Rory had finished the evening prior. Very real and immediate reminders that this journey is coming to an end soon.

I descended down into Arrowtown, and enjoyed breakfast along the surreal Disney-esque mainstreet before marching onward toward Queenstown. Along the way I got a little turned around, pounding out some extra kilometres weaving among golf courses, real estate subdivisions, airports, sewage ponds and construction sites, before eventually finding my way to the shores of Lake Wakatipu in late afternoon. A last hour spent walking the lakeshore was peaceful and calm right up until the moment I was spat out of the forest onto Queenstown’s Marine Parade.

If Banff and Whistler had a baby, who they then abandoned in a food court and who grew up eating only candy and corn syrup. That baby would be Queenstown.

This place is crazy. The surrounding mountains are gorgeous, but the intensity of commerce, tourism, bars, shopping, tour buses and crowds is completely overwhelming. From the moment I stepped out of the forest, there was this wave of people and buses and glassware and music. I headed for the hostel immediately, simply to regain some bearing before venturing again outside. Later I found a pizza and a beer before crashing asleep before 9 pm.

Today is March 21st, another zero day just four days after the last: another chance to organize supplies for the next leg of the walk, to blog, to wash up and to reconnect with fellow walkers: Jorg, Rob and Joss all arrived this afternoon. More importantly, it was another chance to slow down time.

Jorg and I spent the evening together. Beers then dinner and catching up. He shared his experience and some helpful tips for the trip ahead. It was lovely.

I didn’t say goodbye. I said so long. Although I won’t see him on the trail ahead, Jorg is someone I truly like to talk with. Someone worth making time for who I know I will see again. I expect this will be sooner rather than later.

I might be slow on the trail tomorrow, owing to one beer too many. But this isn’t a race. I am only exerting myself to make more time: time to savour each precious step that remains in this journey.

My plan will just have to adapt to that.

All that I need to make it happen is a pencil.