Weary on the Waiau
12/15 Our room was hotter than the rest of the backpackers with our heat cranked to high and the windows sealing in the warmth. We woke at Traverse Sabine Lodge and headed downstairs to cook eggs for breakfast. What a treat! While I was cooking a man came up and gave me a bag of spinach. Just.. Gave it to me. You have no idea how much Popeye was craving something green and this small gesture already brightened the morning. We checked out and headed across the street to grab a few more snacks before hitting the trail. We had mailed ourselves a hefty parcel containing 7 days worth of food so our packs were weighed down more than usual. We ran into Michael, the soft spoken German from Hunter's Hut, one more time before hitting the trail. We started off on a mostly flat, well maintained wooded path that lead around the shore of Lake Rotoiti. The lake was a crystalline hue of blue and the wind blew the water to the point that it sounded ocean-like to our right. We moved quickly to Lakehead hut and paused only briefly before pushing on to John Tait Hut. The weather was perfect and the trail was refreshingly easy compared to the challenging Richmond Range. We had been warned that it would take 9 hours "at least" to get to John Tait hut- we did it in 4 and a half. Feeling good, we decided to make a final push for the next hut- Upper Traverse. As we climbed through the river valley, the sun began to fall behind snow capped peaks and clouds moved in. As we approached Upper Traverse, the frenetic energy of a full 24 bunk hut was both overwhelming and comforting. A group of older trampers happily made room for us in one of the rooms and we cooked our dinner outside under the gaze of curious trampers within. We met a fellow statesman from Texas who had completed the PCT and come the NZ to try his hand at the Te Araroa only to realize that thru hiking wasn't really for him. He was section hiking a bit and figuring out his plans during his stay. The other trampers were shocked at the time we'd made in getting to the hut, and we simply smiled and quickly headed for bed. The room was full of heavy breathing and shuffling of plastic bags and rolling bodies on mattresses. Luckily, the snorer was in the next room and we slept quite well. 12/16
Bunking with a bunch of other early risers, we munched our Meusli (granola) with the rest of the crew in Upper Traverse as rains continued outside. As we informed others of our intent to make it to Caroline Bivvy (a bivvy is a small, two person hut) she exclaimed that we were "crazy" and such a feat would be impossible... Nie! While the rest of the trampers sipped their tea and urged us to "take time to enjoy New Zealand" (??) we put on our raingear and got out there to do just that. We summitted the Traverse saddle by 7 am and the skies began to clear, but not before a hail storm blew in. Luckily, we snuck in some stunning views of the morning sun rising over the mountains before we made a steep descent over scree (tiny rocks). The poled trail made switchbacks through the tiny pebbles and it was almost like skiing through rocks as we descended quickly toward West Sabine hut. The weather began to clear and we met a couple heading up to Blue Lake just leaving West Sabine as we took a snack break and dried our perpetually wet boots. West Sabine seemed quite a popular stop off point for trampers who would go up to Blue Lake and back with just day packs. We headed off with no intent of return and all our gear and made our way up to Blue Lake and the Blue Lake Hut. The lake itself was chrystalline and spring fed. It is supposedly some of the clearest fresh water in the world and optically pure as if it were distilled. We met Sadie and Fiona at the hut, (two women who would later make our Christmas in Christchurch merry and bright!!). They informed us that they had put in a tough day before and would be heading back down from blue lake as the weather was to be closing in. As it was still early in the afternoon, we decided to press on and climbed up to Lake Constance, which echoed Blue Lake in its clearity and nearly quadrupled it in size. The trail led up steep scree around bluffs and we were afforded stunning views of the snowcapped peaks and trickling waterfalls that flowed perpetually with seemingly no source. Then.. the weather set in. We skirted around the lake and made our way toward Waiau pass. The Te Araroa trail has only had one death since its opening in 2011 and it was over this pass. I was extremely nervous as it began to snow an winds picked up. At this point, there was no turning around. We stopped amid the torrent to put on another layer and put plastic bags on our hands (works surprisingly well to insulate!) and headed over to the pass. At its base, the climb seemed nearly verticle. It looked as if you slung a rope over the top of the mountain in might fall straight to the ground below our feet without resting on the side of the climb at all. I sniffled and hesitated. Jeff looked at me, face red from the cold, and leaned his head toward mine. "Ok. This is the pass. You can do this, you're amazing, you're super woman." Snot fell from my nose like the waterfalls around us and I sniffed loudly, but smiled and took a deep breath. We began the verticle climb and our bodies warmed quickly with the ascent. Out of breath, but glad to be done with the climb, we came to summit. Snow whirled around us, but we had made it to the top! Then came the descent...
It was hand over foot as we slid down slick rocks and boot skied through piles of snow. Our spirits remained high as we continued the slow descent, but as the trail gaveway to slick vegetation with hidden rocks below, we began to slip and our tired bodies fell easily. We had hoped to camp on the other side of the pass, but with the weather, this was clearly not and option and it meant we had to keep walking. We were exhausted, frustrated, and cold as we tiptoed on avalanche rock slides. We stopped and inhailed a granola bar to keep up our strength and made the final push to Caroline Bivvy. It was a box. The bunks had no matresses and we had no fireplace like the other huts. We stripped our wet clothes and cooked dinner right inside the hut. Freezing, we opted to try to share one of the sagging bunks and keep ourselves warm with body heat. Sleep never really came, but at least we were out of the storm and relatively warm compared to any other alternative. The day was triumphant, exhausting, frenetic and rewarding. It will be one of my most memorable on the trail.
After much tossing and turning and little sleep, we woke to grey and cold skies outside of Caroline Bivvy. Shivering, we quickly put on our still dripping wet clothes and freezing boots and hit the trail, hoping to generate some body heat by moving quickly. The trail was flat and easy to make good time on. As we tramped quickly down the path it seemed the one thing that would never warm up was our hands. They were so cold that I couldn’t unbuckle the snaps on my pack to reach its contents and needed to use the knuckles of my thumbs to awkwardly pinch the clasps and finally unhook the buckles. As took a break and the weather started to warm a little bit. We had been told that this would be a popular section of trail as we were on the St. James Walkway and that we should anticipate seeing other trampers… Well, perhaps that is true in good weather, but today we had the trail to ourselves. We planned to make a shorter day due to our exhaustion and booked it the 30 km to Ann Hut. Oh, wonderful, warm and spacious Ann Hut. It sat in the middle of an open field and we were greater by Heidi, who had been stoking the fire, as we entered. It was a huge hut with plenty of open bunks and we spent a quiet afternoon making repairs to our ripping shoes and chatting with Heidi, who is also section hiking the trail. We were warm and cozy and it was just what we needed after the past 24 hours. Sleep came easily as we looked forward to our tramp into Boyle Village the next day.