Rockin the Richmond Range
The section south of here entered the formidable Richmond range, a large mountain park reminiscent of the Tararuas for their difficulty, but far larger and more remote. We bid goodbye to Silent Knight, who sounded rested and raring to go, expecting to see him later that day as we anticipated staying in the huts throughout this section. The rough nature of the terrain and weather makes camping away from these shelters either impossible or just ill-advised, which unfortunately make us beholden to them as far as our mileage goes. Each hut is unique and full of charismatic charm, and their prescience is certainly appreciated in this type of country, but it seems like our days of just hiking until we feel like being done are over for the moment. The days are punctuated beforehand, each stretch already prescribed with the number of hours expected to reach the next shelter. Thankfully the awesome scenery and joy of being off roads for substantial amounts of time makes the kilometers fly by, even when goes straight up a mountains or sends you scrambling over rocks and scree. From Captains Creek hut, the trail ambled through beech forests, whose moss-blackened trunks and tiny yellow and orange fallen leaves lend an autumnal air to surroundings, despite it being high summer here (they also smell slightly of apple cider vinegar. Go figure.) We passed several huts with names like Middy, Rock, and Downing; apparently the Maori names don't really penetrate this high into the mountains of the South Island. We also have been seeing more day trampers and the occasional TA walker, though they don't really seem to discriminate between people thru-hiking and those just doing a section. As such, it's hard to tell how many people are actually hiking the whole trail, despite the hut books being filled with people signing in as hiking The TA southbound. Eventually, we began the 900 meter climb that began the mountains is earnest, and stopped to stay at Starveall hut, expecting Silent Knight to catch up to us. Unfortunately he never showed, and we assume he elected to hike with the other trampers we saw his with before. The night was rainy and the trail ahead high and exposed, but we were determined to push on the next day despite the weather, which originally showed some sign of promise as the clouds seemed to be break. As is usual for the climate (and our luck) however, the skies grayed once again after just a short respite from the damp. Our ascent over the formidable Mt Rintoul, which involved several steep and rocky ascents, was almost entirely clouded in. The trail, marked by cairns and orange poles, was difficult to follow from inside the clouds, but eventually we made our way down to the next shelter. Here, a Swiss man named Nicholas was holed up for the day, waiting for better weather. Thankfully he had a fire going, and we warmed up and had lunch before heading out into the cold once more, tired but hoping to get some more kilometers in. We made the last push to Tarn hut, located next to a mountain pond, where we met the charismatic Sharon, a Scottish woman who also spent time in Australia and here. We traded life stories while the rain continued on around us, happy to have good company in our secluded hut for the night. When we awoke, the weather had cleared somewhat, and we began the steep and knee-punishing descent towards the Mid Wairoa hut under sunnier skies. From here, he trail followed the Wairoa river upstream, crossing it 8 times as we passed numerous beautiful waterfalls and pool. He weather toyed with our hearts, as passing showers sprinkled us in between patches of blue sky, but it remained mostly amicable until we reached the next shelter. Here we stopped for a break just as a storm rolled through, and we huddled inside waiting for it to pass. Once it rolled through, we began yet another climb through increasingly open alpine landscapes, with views back down the valley as we ascended through the river's headwaters to a high saddle. Once there, the ever fickle weather turned its wrath upon us as we stumbled head on into a summer hail storm which pummeled us with such ferocity that we had to duck behind some rocks for shelter as it blew through. The ice was blowing hard enough we could feel it through our clothes, as if we were caught in a pellet gun crossfire, but luckily the air was warm and the storm passed quickly. We continued over the bleak and beautiful landscape, snatching glimpses into the landscape far below us whenever the clouds allowed, as we descended towards our next destination, the Hunter's hut (named in honor of two hunters who had been killed in a flash flood in the shelter that previously stood nearby). The path scrambled over rough red rocks, a geological anomaly that resembled the US southwest more than anything we had seen in NZ, which were speckled with stunning metamorphic serpentine and olivine minerals. After dropping to a braided river valley, we eventually arrived at the shelter and were greeted by Michael, another German, who had the stove going. We dried our gear and relaxed, happy after yet another difficult but beautiful day of tramping. The last stretch into St Arnaud was relatively easy (which is to say, only very challenging, instead of ridiculously so). We climbed up and down several small stream gorges before crossing a larger braided river valley and passing by Porters hut, visible from a great distance, as it stood in a clearing and is painted "emergency orange". Lastly we passed Red Hills Hut, the last shelter in the Richmond Range, where we stopped for lunch and reflected on the trials we had just overcome. We made the final hike to the valley, seeing pastureland for the first time in a week, then turned on to the road into town and walked 10 km to our accommodations at the Traverse-Sabine Lodge, having to decline another hitch in the process. The obligatory feast when we reached town was a subdued affair, given the small size of the store, but we were once again happy to be in civilization, however briefly.