Te Araroa – Lake Tekapo to Wanaka
or I Walk the Line…
The line. The red line on the map, the line of the track under my feet, the line between loneliness and people, weariness and motivation, life and death, giving and getting…
I leave Tekapo on the 8th of March, feeling light. I am eager to walk again, my backpack is light with only two days of food in it, and it is an easy trail that lies ahead of me. Overcast morning, no wind, perfect for walking.
From Tekapo, the Trail is first along the SH8 then turns right onto Breamar Road all the way to Lake Pukaki. It’s a gravel road with almost no traffic, a big grey line cutting through the golden grass over rolling hills, offering a view of ever-increasing beauty. Mt Cook appears in the distance, the weather clears up nicely, and when I reach Lake Pukaki, I just have to stop and set up camp. It is the best view I could have and I don’t want to walk further and risk losing it.
Later on, Rob and Joss join me and I am delighted with the good company as we spend a wonderful evening, cooking dinner by a fire in the rocks and watching the sunset over the mountains.
The next day I play “leap frog” with Rob and Joss all day, passing each other when we take breaks at different moments. This is the only day of this section where I am around other hikers, every day after this I will walk completely by myself. It is a sunny day, and the Trail follows the shore of Lake Pukaki all the way to its south end. It is a hot and long day and I am grateful when I reach Pine Camp and can finally put my pack down, take my shoes off and go for a (short and cold!) swim in the Lake.
It is a half day of walking that takes me to Twizel through the Pukaki Flats the next day, following the Alps to Ocean cycle trail. I take a half day off in Twizel, having to resupply for the next section. Even if I am in town and surrounded with people, I feel alone. I barely sleep in the hostel (due to a fight with a mattress that was probably older than me.) and I am exhausted when I start walking the next morning.
The overcast sky reflects my mood and my mind wanders. The clouds lift up as I walk, and so does my moral when the Trail follows the shore of Lake Ruataniwha. But I struggle to maintain high spirits as it goes along the Ohau River, too far away from the water to bring me energy, and with the bare landscape around looking a bit sad (I really miss the trees) So when I reach the shore of Lake Ohau, I take it very slow, enjoying the scenery, and pitch my tent in a lovely spot at the end of the tiny bay. Andrew walks in later and I am happy to break my solitude with good company.
Andrew is an early bird and is gone before the sun comes up the next day. I feel in much better spirits walking on the lake shore, watching the mist lift up, turning the landscape into a world of silver. I briefly meet Michael, a section hiker, at the trailhead leading up and away from Lake Ohau, along Freehold Creek. The forest and the lively stream feed my soul and I decide to make an effort to reconnect with the Trail after the last couple of days of weariness. I climb up in a rugged landscape, and a light rain tells me it is time to stop around four in the afternoon, even if my feet want to keep on going.
By feeling physically and mentally tired lately, and by walking just to be done with the day, I feel I was taking away the value of the place I was in and the magic of the Trail. There, camping in the wild and watching the rain and sun play together, I open my eyes again, and my heart. I have been walking for almost four and a half months, and I know it is impossible to constantly feel good and in high spirits, but I also need to remember what I am doing. I am walking the length of New Zealand. And a day of weariness is nevertheless a day on the Trail, and I need to embrace all of it, no matter how I feel. I feel myself reconnecting with the Trail and its magic that evening, and it is with a big smile on my face that I get out of my tent the next day to be welcomed by a rainbow in the morning sky.
The Trail takes me down the East Ahuriri Valley, all the way down to the Ahuriri River. The crossing of the river is manageable even with the swift current, and I feel grateful again for the dry summer we’ve had. I set up my tent by the cute Tin Hut, (a private hut open to public) after an easy hike up the Avon Burn Valley. There I watch the light rain fall from the shelter of the hut, sitting in an old but comfortable armchair that I place in the door frame, treasuring the solitude that leads me deep in introspection.
When I wake up the next day, the sky is grey and low, and I walk in the fog on my way up to Martha Saddle. Just as I reach the top, the sunlight brakes the clouds and I am left speechless by the beauty of the scene. The clouds rise and swirl from the circ below, as if dancing with the mountain tops, and I get glimpses of the silhouette of the peaks behind them.
The other side of the saddle is perfectly free of clouds and the way down to Top Timaru Hut is an easy walk on a large bulldozed track winding down the mountain in long switchbacks. I am amazed. Am I in the USA? The track goes from pleasantly easy to horribly scary after the Hut. As the Trail follows the Timaru river, the valley narrows down, forcing me to take a track with several steep sidles that have to be negotiated with care. I end up walking in the river bed, making it much easier and fun. Half way down the river I come across the most attractive campspot, with a fire place and some benches made with flat river stones. It is another beautiful evening, but as I lit the fire and have dinner, it reminds me of my camp with Rob and Joss and miss having the good company of my “TA family".
I start the next day with confidence, thinking I could walk all the way in the river bed, but my confidence is quickly reduced to nothing. A big boulder blocks my way and the river rushes too fast between it and the rock face on the other side. I have to take the track. On my way back to the Trail, I slip and hit violently my shin on a rock. I could have broken my leg right there, I need to stay focused! Hopefully there’s more fear than harm, and I can keep on walking. I forget about my leg soon after, when the track turns into some more scary steep sidles. I have to walk slow, focusing on every step, every move of my body. The track is a thin line, barely wider than my foot in some parts, on an uncomfortable angle, and over crumbly and unstable rocks. If I slip, I’d slide down the long steep drop off and there would be nothing to stop me before I’d hit the rocks by the river down below. A thin line between life and death…
The climb to Stodys Hut is the last bit of hell I have to go through that day, and I tackle the steep uphill in a mix state of anger at the ridiculously dangerous aspect of this track, of determination of getting done with it, and of gratefulness and joy of having the courage to go through. I will discover later, talking with my fellow hikers, that almost none of them had a problem with that track, barely noticing the steepness of the sidles, whereas my fear of heights just enhanced so much the difficulty of it. I walk in a better head space in the afternoon, on the easy farm track leading up to Breast Hill. There, the gently undulating ridge I walked on suddenly ends in a steep drop, with rocky outcrops and sharp ridges that plunge into Lake Hawea. Standing there, on top of the world, I let out the loudest cheer I could do, releasing all the emotions I have in me. In front of that amazing view, I feel all the hardship I went through was about giving of myself to deserve this. It is a fair line between giving and getting.
The next couple of days are between grey and blue as I walk first the beautiful and rugged ridge down to Lake Hawea, then the easy track on the lake shore, along the Hawea River and the mighty Clutha River all the way to Lake Wanaka. It is pretty surreal to walk along manicured lawns, million dollars houses and yachts after such an epic hike in the wilderness.
In Wanaka, I meet up with Rob, Joss and Andrew and we share deep conversations about the Trail. All of us have mixed feelings about being “almost” at the end, talking about how much we enjoy the lifestyle on the Trail, how much it has changed us.
The guys walk on the next day. I decide to take an extra day off in Wanaka, loving the feel of the town. Patrick, Eef and P-J arrive soon after and I spend some quality time with them as well, very much enjoying the friendship that we have developed on the Trail.
As I sit here and write, looking at the peaceful lakefront of Wanaka, I think back of all those moments between loneliness and companionship, weariness and motivation, life and death, giving and getting…… and think that every moment is defined by an fragile equilibrium. A equilibrium necessary to find some sort of peace within…
It is up to us to find the balance on that thin line…
On the Trail, I walk the line…