Sunshine and Summertime (mostly)
5/1/16 We had a cold morning as we packed up camp with frost on the grass around us and our breath on the air. The trail resumed its ascent on a good farm track towards Martha's Pass, then immediately dropped via long switchbacks towards the Timaru River, it's waters flowing out of the rocky headlands around us. We made the descent to the next hut, a relatively new and clean shelter, and had a brief break before continuing down the valley. The trail sidled along the gorge walls, often worn out and slippery, before turning and steeply climbing 500 meters to Stody's Hut, then on to the ridge line of the awesomely named Breast Hill track (thank you, whoever named this area). The alpine tussock afforded us great views in the clear weather of the distant, snow capped Southern Alps and Mt Aspiring, as well as Lake Hawea and the river valley below us. The geology of the area was laid bare as massive rocks jutted to the west, revealing the thrust of some tectonic shift eons ago and leaving curious outcroppings amidst the barren grasslands. The track was visible for miles as we ambled along an old farm road, and for once we had fair skies to enjoy the altitude. The highlight was Breast Hill summit, with its panoramic views of Lake Hawea and the Wanaka area in the distance. It was probably our single best view to date as a patchwork of farmland spread out beneath us and our route for the next several days was visible. We finished the day hiking along a craggy escarpment surrounded by sheep, and made the Pakituhi Hut our home for the night as strong winds blew along the mountain tops.
1/4 It hard to believe that we can find ourselves waking up so many days in a warm, dry bed on this trail, given the amount of rain that we have seen. Once again we got to enjoy this luxury, and even had the good fortune of clear skies outside; the bipolar tendencies of NZ weather never ceases to disappoint. We packed our things at the usual early hour and headed out before our hosts were awake, ready to start the day. We had one more stint of road walking before leaving Ohau Lake near the Glen Marie ski area and headed up Freehold Creek, ascending steeply to a saddle. The views back over the water were awesome, particularly with the snow-crowned peaks around us, the remnants of last nights storm. As is usually the case with the southerly weather here, the rainy days are followed by clear but cold ones, and we were happy to climb to warm our bones as we eagerly waited for the sun to fully rise. We began the usual descent down the stream on the opposite side, but stopped for a chat when we ran into an unexpected surprise; our first north bounders! Mark and Mike were hiking together and had a Swedish girl in tow, and we exchanged info and trail tidbits with them. Mike even congratulated us on "finishing" the trail... a bit premature, given that we still have 600 km to go (it's one of my superstitions to never assume you'll finish until the last step is taken). We wished them well and headed on our way to the Ahuriri River, what they had described as the "last real challenge" we'd have to face. This river was slightly different than the Rakaia and Rangitata, in that it was not braided and ran between huge cliffs of sediment. Despite the warnings of our guidebook, the crossing was rather easy, if a little long, and we were happy to have one more hurdle out of the way. We climbed the banks and crossed the desolate flats, covered by the ubiquitous rabbit poop, to the next trail head that wound off into the hills. The track was easy and followed a dirt road up through sheep pastures, passing several bare rock formations along the way, another reminder of the island's turbulent geological history. We finally decided to camp beside an old hut alongside a stream, saving the rest of the climb for what will probably be a cold morning.
1/3 Our snoring and coughing tent neighbor at the Twizel Holiday Park careened off on his even noisier motor cycle at around 6:15 leaving us awake but grateful for his absence. We packed camp in less of a hurry than usual. Town had been packed seeing as it was a four day weekend here and we barely got room at the park even for a tent site. We cooked a quick but delicious breakfast (eggs!) in their kitchen before hitting the road to progressively darkening skies. As expected the rains rolled in and, unexpectedly, the temperature dropped dramatically. Within a few km's we'd stopped twice to add on extra layers while the wind and rain picked up around us. The landscape was quite sparse with few trees and sporadic tussocks coming only up to shin level. Luckily the track kept mainly to a dirt road/ cycle trail and we made good time after our brief rest in town. We wove our way around Lake Ohau and into the small village that followed. A packed campground looked nearly deserted despite the multitude of tents and camper vans that occupied the grounds. One family passed us and we able to confirm good weather for the following day, which was up lifting. Still the rains came down and we almost opted to walk by the entrance to the village, but something pulled us off trail and up the street. As we walked up the road we spotted a woman just taking her dog out for a walk and I thought I'd ask if she knew of a place we might be able to grab a warm drink. Maybe it was our cold, red noses or the fact that we were wearing plastic bags on our hands, but she invited us back to her place for coffee and then offered to have us for the night! Rain drops on their sky lights meant their was no way we would be tiring down this offer and she pulled out two fully plated Christmas dinners and added them to the counter next to the 2 that were already sitting out for Susan and her husband Peter. Wonderful conversation of art, comedians and Kiwi culture ensued as we spent the evening warm and in the best of company. Brighter skies in store for the morning, we graciously thanked our hosts and retired to their immaculate guest room. Still incredulous at our fate and fortune in stumbling upon such a lovely evening. 1/1 We started our new year as we had done so many days the last few months; eating breakfast in bed and striking camp at first light, ready to hit the road. With cloudless skies overhead, it was shaping up to be a hot day, but we felt the tinge of a chill in the air as we began walking in the shade the trees lining the road. As soon as the sun hit us, however, warmth flooded in, and we reveled in the morning glow as we approached the charming Telegraph Hut (or Irish Creek Hut, depending on which sign you believe.) This 2 bunk corrugated tin shelter had been equipped with a fireplace and a telegraph, as evidenced by the power line hookup and morse code translation guide inside. The entire structure was strapped to the ground with wire, exposed as it was on an open flat, but curiously lacked a long-drop. After paying a quick visit, we pushed on towards Lake Pukaki, trekking on gently sloping pastureland while gaining our first views of The snow shrouded Mt Cook and the massive Franz Josef Glacier. Upon reaching the lake, we turned left and began yet another road walk along its shores; for all it's beauty, this stretch of the South Island is fraught with its share of monotonous gravel. With the sun high in the sky and clouds just a inkling on the horizon, the way was fast but hot, and our attention was allowed to wander to the incredible vista around us. Lake Pukaki, like Tekapo and the other lakes of the McKenzie Basin here, is fed by glacial rivers, which lend it an otherworldly aqua-blue tinge due to the finely ground sediment washed into by the ice far upstream. This, coupled with the peaks across the water and the banks of wildflowers around us, make it one of the most picturesque places we've been on the trail, as the groups of tourists driving by would attest to. It reminded me of the long hours spent watching my grandparent's slide shows, and wondered how all these memories would be received some long years from now, when the glaciers are yet smaller. After many hours or hot walking, watching people jet ski and swim around the lake, we finally decided to join in. Though not as crystalline as the mountain tarns or streams we have seen, we were glad to have yet another way of cooling off. We wouldn't have thought even two days ago that this would be an issue, and yet here we are at last in high summer (on New Years Day, no less). When the roar of the jet boats and traffic from the roads subsided, one could hear the water lapping and imagine standing alone on these epic shores before the flood of humanity got here. We finished the first day of 2016 hiking along the lake head to a campground populated by RVs. Though we managed to find a semi secluded spot in the trees, the area was polluted with toilet paper, the unfortunate fallout of the place's beauty and its proximity to the highway. Apparently the "leave no trace" concept doesn't apply to those with the easiest means to pack out their own garbage. Maybe someday these people will get the message and resolve to clean up their act and not ruin these special areas... but unfortunately not this year. One can only hope.