12/31 Camp Creek hut was warm and dry and through the dusty windows one could make out blue skies overhead. We ate breakfast quietly at first (well, as quietly as two people ruffling through plastic bags and crunching on granola can be) before Marcin, our Polish, Alaskan bunk mate, rolled over and bid us good morning, thus granting us permission to munch more freely. The air outside was still remarkably chilled at 6:30 in the morning and we marched outside with full gear on, hopelessly trying to warm our hands. Let me describe how this feels in detail: your hands are cold, they get colder as they brush against waist high tussock grass, covered in nearly frozen dew. Yet, one must hold on to trekking poles so as to not fall into hidden cracks between the grass beds or trip in rocks that also lie hidden beneath the grass. Thus, as your fingers go numb you attempt to maintain a grip on these metal implements that have become an extension of an appendage. Then, in brief moment when the trail levels out, you quickly tuck the poles under an armpit and shove your hands into wet, but warm, pockets, letting them briefly enjoy the head radiating from your thighs, before once again grabbing the poles and clamoring over another section of trail. We could see the sun rising and luckily began to climb towards its glow as we reached a plateau above the valley. From then on, everything began to warm as the trail evened out into a cycle trail and we shed layers of clothing with the rising sun. As we crested another hill, the unnaturally blue Lake Tekapo came into view. We meandered for another 13 km down towards a dirt road that led into town. By now, it was hard to believe that this was the same day, as we were clad in shorts, t-shirts and sunglasses. The walk was long and hot with vehicles passing and causing dusk to stir up and blow in our faces. Yet, the views were spectacular and everyone appeared in good spirits for the holiday and perfect weather. As we approached town, the bustle was contagious as tourists and kiwis alike dined on picnic tables, prepped for water excursions and tramped about town. We stopped at the grocery store just to pick up a few things and grabbed a bottle of wine to hike out as a means of celebrating the new year. We were happy to leave the expense of town and make our way out on a short highway walk toward a nice secluded dirt road. We passed a couple taking their wedding pictures in some lupins on the side of the road. They were awkwardly kneeling in the flowers as a photographer instructed their assistant to maneuver a lighting panel. Jeff remarked- "our wedding photos are way better". I couldn't agree more. We turned down the dirt road and crossed over a clear stream. Having not bathed for a week, opted to jump into its clear, rushing waters. The cold felt amazing in the now punishing late afternoon heat and as we put back on our clothes I realized- yes. I smell kind of homeless right now. Alas, laundry in Twizel within 36 hour awaits and at least our bodies were clean. We wandered down the vacant road till we reached a long grove of pine trees, a perfect place to pitch the tent and make dinner for the last time in 2015. A bottle of wine to wash everything down was a special treat and, to our tired bodies, put us right to sleep. I think I may have made 9:15. Happy New Year!
Our day started in the hut, breakfasting with Lena, our German bunkmate. She seemed keen on hiking with us, as the weather was turning foggy and the trail ahead was supposedly hard to follow, but we set off slightly before her... only to get turned around leaving the shelter and having to awkwardly pass her immediately. This was not the first time experiencing the desire of others to walk with us, but we both find it a little strange and forced when they rush about to do so; needless to say, we usually try and avoid it. As we headed off into the mist, we felt a little guilty about leaving her to her own devices, but quickly found ourselves preoccupied as we searched for the track in poor visibility. With only about 50 meters of vision, and trail markers spaced some 200 meters apart, we slowly blundered our way forward until the clouds lifted. When they did, we caught sight of a couple ahead of us, as well as the Lena behind; our fears about her getting lost had been unfounded. After some more wet-booted tramping, we all arrived at the cozy Stone Hut more or less simultaneously. The duo ahead of us turned out to be the French couple we had heard about from several people for the past few weeks. They took off with Lena while we stopped for a longer break, but we eventually passed the lot on the way to the nearby Royal Hut, so named due to the fact that it once hosted a young Prince Charles on holiday. The trio elected to stay here for the night, but we decided to press on over the Stag Pass (the highest point in the whole trail, at 1920 meters), in spite of the less than ideal weather. The track wound through a narrow gorge before opening to wider slopes, which proved much harder to navigate on and slowed us greatly in the pea soup conditions. Thankfully the GPS was able to guide the way, and we crossed the pass in wind and fog, but not before trying (unsuccessfully) to get cell service to text our mothers on their combined birthday. The trail and visibility became clearer as we descended, though the weather remained foul. With steady rain and no hope of shelter as we trekked over broad tussock land, we marched on towards a hut marked on our map. The terrain fell over several wide terraces as a stream splashed in the raw gash of an eroded ravine beside us, and after several hours we arrived at Camp Stream Hut, a small but tidy affair. Luckily, an American from Alaska named Marcine had the stove going, and we were able to dry our gear and ourselves. He turned out to be the perfect bunkmate after another wet day, and we turned in at our usual time after cooking dinner on the hut's stove, hoping once again for better skies tomorrow. Such is the Te Araroa. 12/29 Our moms birthday! Woo! Also, the trail gods have blessed us with (gasp!) 4 days of sunshine! We met Heidi in Ann Hut who told us the day after Christmas the weather would be hot and sunny, and we're sure glad she's been right. We broke camp quickly as we thought a farmer and his dogs might come upon us in the early morning. Clouds had moved in over night but cleared quickly as we entered the Clearwater Track. The trail let mostly through tussock and afforded great views of the lake and Clearwater village as we rounded the saddle. We found out from a passing biker that the smoke we'd been smelling was from a brush fire and helicopters flying over we're dumping water to try to distinguish it. We headed down into the Rangitata River Valley for what would be an epic ford. The large braided river spans close to 10 km and it's crossing is not part of the trail. Nevertheless, with 3 dry days and a promising endorsement of its passable level from some kiwi women, we ventured forth. There were over a dozen river braids to cross, but surprisingly none came above mid thigh and we cruised across the river bed in good time- Jeff even stopped for a swim! On the other side, we made our way across rocky, once flowing river beds and up to meet our next section of trail. In fording the river we'd saved ourselves a 134 km hitch, so spirits were high. The next track led once again up a river valley with several crossings even more difficult than the previous river. We forged on towards Crooked Spur hut, passing several trampers heading in the other direction. One couple even had a baby on board! After missing a turn, we found ourselves in the river a bit longer than anticipated, but met up with the trail around the next bend. The trail climbed steeply, questioning my end of the day stamina, before arriving at the hut. There we met Lena, a German girl section hiking the trail, and we had dinner and conversation before heading to bed. The weather report is dicey for tomorrow, so good by blue skies for a bit! 12/28 We departed from our camp alongside the A Frame Hut, alone as Karen apparently had gone inside sometime during the night. We had an easy hike through rolling hills towards the Comyns Hut, when an ancient and dilapidated building was leaning next to a newer affair, both empty. As the sun started to wash the slopes around us in golden light, we turned and headed up Round Hill Creek; this challenging section was composed of dozens of river crossings in a narrow gorge, which at this point we were experts at navigating. We ascended the dry Clents Hills Saddle, where the landscape exploded beneath us in to open, grassy plains and distant lakes. The grassy tussocks worked against us as they concealed spiked vegetation that threatened to gore us at every opportunity, but we pressed on regardless. Upon arriving in the barren and sun baked low country, the size and scope of the region dawned upon us as we surveyed our route. We had miles of visibility as we trekked past several huts is the midday heat, slaking our thirst at the numerous improbable streams we crossed, while wondering at the fate of some dry lake beds that were marked as full on our maps. Unfortunately, we missed an opportunity to fill our camelbacks at one point and had to search for a stream that had mysteriously disappeared, meeting two women out for a day hike in the process. We walked on, passing the sparkling Emily Lake and skirting a farm situated in a small oasis of green amidst the desolation, before stopping to camp atop a hill overlooking the vastness that would be our hike tomorrow. 12/27 The glow of soft morning sun brightened the inside of our tent as we woke and had breakfast. We broke camp quickly and hit the dirt road out of our DOC recommended side track. The trail led down through private land and afforded beautiful views of Mt. Ida and Little Mt. Ida. All of the mountains here look like giant drip castles that you'd make at the beach that have been left out in the sun, causing the sand to run flat on the sides, but maintaining their strong, singular peaks. We could see Lake Coleridge in the distance long before we reached its shores and the day got hot fast with not a cloud in site. Numerous cars towing boats past us and many kiwis on holiday took advantage of the nice weather for fishing, boating and tramping. We wove around the lower half of the lake on a poorly designated side track and caught the Coleridge inlet road down into the "village"- (just a collection of houses and a post office). We had to figure out a way around the Rakaia river and it seemed we were receiving mixed messages: option 1- wade out into the middle of this braided monster an hail a jet boat. Option 2- wait for a school bus, in 2 months. Option 3- schedule a tour for 120$. Option 4- try to hitch.. And so we did. We got lucky as Hamish, a local kiwi, actually turned around and got us part of the way there, dropping us at Rakaia gorge. We then walked a grueling 2 km on the highway over for Blackford rd where we sat for over an hour with not a single vehicle passing in the direction we needed. Finally, I convinced a man to turn around and drive us the 34 km back in the direction he'd come, if we paid him, and he did. The road splashed through rivers and twisted around narrow turns. Driving with a bum arm and a cigarette, our hitch wasn't the safest driver, but he got us to our destination and we thanked him well. The trail climbed through pastures with cheeky cows and up on a saddle via switchbacks. We arrived at A Frame hut and met Karen and Brittany, a mother daughter duo, whom we dined with and had tea. Karen was sleeping outside for some photography and because a Taiwanese couple at grabbed the other two beds. We happily retired to our tent for some much needed rest. 12/26 Like two hungry puppy dogs, we sidled up to the counter in Sadie and Fiona's kitchen for one last meal before hitting the road. Some muesli, homemade rhubarb compote and more fresh baked bread left us full and ready to hit the trail. Fi dropped us off on the highway that would lead back to Arthur's pass, where we'd got off the trail for Christmas. The first car that drove by picked us up and got us a portion of the way there! This woman had been working all night with dementia patients (Christmas night) and still gave us a lift to Darfield. After this we began to shell some fresh peas, another gift from our hosts, as we stuck out our thumbs and waited for our next ride. Katalina, a French woman who'd just arrived on holiday in the country and was still getting used to driving on the other side of the road... Picked us up and took us all the way to the pass, with a few stops for sight seeing and photo ops. Once back on the trail we made quick time on well defined track that meandered through forest and over small river beds. The sun was shining and we hurt a bit from holiday drinking and eating as we climbed over Lagoon Saddle. We passed a few trampers heading in the opposite direction and then continued on further down from the more populated trail. We walked along a river with quite a few crossings before cutting up into the hills on a side track that had been recommended to us so as to avoid some road walking. It was a beautiful walk and I was happy to be walking by Mt. Ida on what would have been my grandmother Ida's birthday in the states- happy birthday, Meme! We walked around the small hidden Lake Catherine/Monk and found a nice camping spot next to a private hut on the other side. It was hard to leave the leisure of a few days off the trail, but it felt good to be back in action and making our way toward Bluff.