Day 3: Riverton to 8km short of Martin’s hut
We left Riverton quite early, about 6:30am in order to catch favorable tides on the beach walk between Riverton and Colac Bay.
The beach walk started out not so much a beach walk, but rather a scramble up and down hills along the coast where sheep and cows were waiting to greet us at the top, and the rocky coastline pulled us back down to the ocean. Mostly, this was a pleasant and very beautiful walk, except that all the grass, ferns, and flax plants we were walking through were soaked with dew and we quickly got wet feet and wet legs. It was also drizzling, which felt really nice compared to the heat that we’ve had the last few days.
Then, we spilled out onto a beach where some of the time we were able to walk on hard sand, but a lot of the time the sand was soft, and my hips quickly got aggravated by my feet slipping in the sand. Soon, however, we reached Colac Bay, where we found a Tavern which was open. We ordered burgers and rested. The burgers were amazing and huge, and I had to put some of my fries (“chips”) in a zip lock bag to take with me. I obviously don’t have my hiker appetite yet.
The notes said that the next stretch would take about 9 hours through forest to Martin’s hut, but we found a short cut which would save us a few km, and a substantial part of the road walk, and we figured we would camp somewhere before Martin’s hut. We took a steep driveway up to meet the forest when a car drove up to us, and a gentleman asked us if we wanted a ride to the top of the hill. We politely declined, and he looked slightly disappointed. Next time we’ll have to explain that we’re stubborn stupid people that want to be able to say we’ve walked the length of at least the South Island of New Zealand.
We entered the forest, and it was gorgeous. Huge tree ferns scattered the forest in a jungle-like fashion, with ground ferns and ferns growing on trees filling in the vegetation further. It felt like we had taken a time machine back to the Jurassic age, and I could almost imagine a dinosaur barging through the trees.
The birds made sounds we’ve never heard before, and unlike most birds we’re familiar with, many of these are curious. Especially a bird called the fan-tail, which, as its name suggests, has a tail which fans out in a lovely display. This bird is the most curious of them all. It is practically flirtatious, and flutters around us, almost landing on our hands. It’s hard to get a good picture of one though, since the forest is dark, and they move quickly.
The jungle does not lend itself to finding a place to camp. Even where the terrain on a macro level is somewhat flat, the trees, ferns and other vegetation have made the forest floor hilly on a micro level. We walk for hours looking for a suitable spot. I’ve never walked this far without finding a spot to squeeze our tent in, but this was almost worst than finding a spot in the dense forest of Maine.
I had almost given up hope and come to accept that we may really have to walk the entire distance to Martin’s hut when we did in fact find a tiny spot with a bit of a slope, but which will do for the night. I was happy to take off my soaking wet shoes, and not walk the remaining 5 miles. It looks like we will need to be a bit more careful with planning our days so we don’t get stuck doing more miles than we want due to lack of camping opportunities. I think I understand now why so many people just hike from one hut to another!
Day 4: 8km short of Martin’s hut to 2km short of the end of Marrivale Rd, roughly 16 miles
We woke up to our alarms, at 5am, and started walking in the dark. The jungle is full of obstacles for walking in the dark, so we decided that from now on we would shift our schedule so that we’re walking starting with daylight, which starts around 6am. In the darkness, we either wore or carried our headlamps, but something glowing caught John’s eye. We turned off our headlamps to see what it was, and it turned out to be glowworms!! They were all over the place under ferns and wet overhangs. We felt like we were on another planet.
As the sun came up, and we were able to put away our headlamps, we stumbled upon a campsite with a tent on it, and someone peered out from their tent to see who we were. It was a Canadian girl named Frances who was walking southbound. We spent some time chatting and trading notes. It was very helpful to talk to her and find out more about the trail ahead.
Soon we came to Martin’s hut, the first hut on the trail, and we peered inside. It didn’t look very welcoming. There was nobody there, it was dark inside, with only 4 bunk beds, and quite a lot of trash. I found a notebook for signing in, and I checked the last few entries to see if any northbounders were ahead of us. It looked like there were, but not close ahead. We used the nearby privy, and headed out.
We climbed steeply up for quite a ways, and at some point the forest opened up into boggy grassland with fantastic views of our surroundings.
The mosses and lichen were amazing, and often covered the entire ground, sometimes obscuring ankle deep mud underneath. The trail went in and out of trees, which were less dense than the last, more jungle like forest. The trees in this forest were covered in huge lumps of moss wherever light could shine through, and they looked like trees out of a Dr. Seuss book. We joked about being Thing One and Thing Two.
The sunshine gave way to fog, and we climbed up to a tower which was barely visible in the fog. It was nice to have the cool fog blowing on us like air conditioning. We came across a flat spot in the forest before Marrivale Rd where we decided to set up camp.
Day 5: Just short of Maryvale Rd to Justine and George’s farm, 15.5km
We got going and walked down to a gravel road which was lined with eucalyptus trees. With the humidity and the fragrant smell of eucalyptus, I felt like I was in a steam room. I breathed deeply, hoping the scent would help my lungs. Today is my last full day of taking antibiotics for a sinus infection, and I still seem to have a little bit of a cough. I’m really hoping it will go away, but if it doesn’t, I’ll go see another doctor in Te Anau, and get checked out for pneumonia. I would hate to have pneumonia (I feel like I would know if I did?)
Soon we ran into a couple of trampers from New Zealand who had lots of advice for places up ahead. Most of of the places they mentioned I had no idea where they were talking about. But we also got some names of birds that we’ve seen, so slowly we can start learning.
The gravel road led us to a paved road, and we did the small road walk before hitching into Otautau. We got a ride from a lady who was a midwife, and was definitely a local: she even showed us the house that she was born in as we passed it.
In town we hit the grocery store and stocked up on food. While we were repackaging food outside of the store and stuffing it into our packs, we got chatting to a lady who offered to drive us back to the trail once she was finished with her shopping. We gladly accepted. She was very familiar with the area, and knew just where we were talking about when we tried to describe where the trail left off- it would have been hard to find it otherwise.
“This is where I usually see walkers looking at their maps” she said, pointing to the side of the road.
That was just about the right spot!
We climbed over a stile and into farmland and up into a pine forest. We stopped to take a rest and John noticed a orchid growing in the undergrowth. As we continued, we noticed a few more. There were at least two species. I’m sure most people miss them since they’re hard to spot, and quite well camouflaged.
We descended to another road where we walked along some country roads next to farms for a few miles. Then, where the trail left the road again, we saw a sign that indicated that there was no camping allowed in the forest up ahead for the next 16 km. We probably wouldn’t make it through that forest before dark if we started that section now. So, we decided we needed to redo our strategy since it seemed like most people walked from one designated place to stay to the next – meaning not many people actually camp on this trail. In fact there aren’t really that many opportunities to camp. Either the trail is on private land, or in a conservation area or on farmland, or through bog, or in dense forest where finding a camp spot is practically impossible.
We found the phone number of some folks who offered a cabin not far from the road we were on, and there was one bar of cell phone service. Luckily the call went through. Fifteen minutes later George picked us up and drove us to their farm were we met Justine and had a cup of tea. It was still early since we didn’t do many miles.
Justine drove us up the hill to their rustic cabin where they had just installed an outside shower that you could fill full of water from the top. Once we got the tour, we heated some water for the shower. There were no curtains, so I took my shower with a wonderful view of the hillside. But there was no one for miles, so I didn’t have to be shy.
We cooked some dinner and set up for the night.
Day 6: From Justine and George’s farm to Birchwood, 17km
We slept in knowing that we only had 16km to get to Birchwood the next day (now we’ve figured out where we can stay each evening, this was the next obvious spot). We got a ride back to the trail and hiked up through some steep terrain to get to more flat four wheel drive roads in pine forest. It was so windy that we couldn’t use our umbrellas and the sun was shining brightly. We got to the top of a hill with some towers on it and we had fantastic views of country side with large mountains in the background. The trail then went extremely steeply downhill along a fence next to sheep and cows.
Amongst the cows there were smaller calfs and mothers and a very very large bull. He looked at us walking through his domain and showed no fear. I had a sudden rush of adrenaline, but thankfully he decided to move on. We got to a road and found Birchwood, a farm with a hiker cabin/hostel. Here there is a shower, a washing machine, and a bunk room with room for at least 8 people. We took showers and put our clothes into the washing machine for our first actual laundry since leaving the United States.
After an hour or two a British couple showed up headed southbound, and then an American girl hiking with a French girl, northbound. I was keen to meet some more northbounders. Soon Jeremy whom we met in Riverton also showed up and a Polish guy going southbound. The cabin was full up. We chatted about the trail up ahead and did our chores. John and I along with the British couple decided to do some sewing to fix a few pieces of gear.
I was the first to crawl into bed and stick my ear plugs in hoping for a good night’s sleep. In fact, I had bad allergies from all the grassy fields that we’ve been walking through, and even with allergy medicine, I was having quite a hard time. On top of that, John was in the bunk above mine and every time he shifted, the entire bunk squeezed loudly, waking me up. I decided I much preferred camping.
Day 7: Birchwood to Telford Campsite, 28km
We were the first to open our eyes with our alarms at 5:45am and quickly turned them off so as not to bother the other people as much as possible. We grabbed our bags and headed into the kitchen to sort our gear. Several others started packing up as well, and by 6:15AM we left and started walking through farmland.
Today’s hike was entirely on a “station” meaning one farm. But I really wouldn’t call most of what we walked through “farmland”. The first few miles we were walking through more dense sheep and cow pastures, but later in the day, it was beautiful country side, with lots of sheep, and some cows, but enormous areas of land on steep hillsides as far as the eye could see. It was so picturesque, I could not stop reaching for my camera.
Unfortunately, I’ve developed a bit of a fear of cows since an encounter with another bull this morning. Nothing really happened, but this bull wouldn’t move until the last moment, and looked like he was hesitating between walking off and charging us. It was completely nerve wracking, and now every time I see a bull I imagine it charging us. I wish we didn’t have to walk through their pastures. I wonder how many incidents there are with hikers and cows each year. I’m also slightly worried because my shirt is bright pink, and I have a feeling that doesn’t help. If anyone has any advice, I’m all ears.
Besides that, today has been a really wonderful day of walking. There was morning mist, which hung around well past noon, and made walking without shade very pleasant, and the views have been very rewarding. We had to ford a stream twice, but it was not much more than ankle or calf deep, and felt very refreshing. Not hazardous at all. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a drought at the moment, so all the rivers and streams are quite low.
We got to a designated campsite where we are allowed to camp (otherwise the rest of today’s walk has all been on private property), and even though we arrived at 3:30pm, we’re stopping for the day since we wouldn’t make it through the next section today. I guess this trail is letting me take it easy. I’m kind of grateful since my hip does ache on a daily basis, and the muscles in my shoulder like to cramp up after a lot of walking. We’ll just continue to take it easy and see what this trail has to offer next!
We camped in the grass, and the sand flies started to get bad as the day wore on. Our friends, Dianna and Aurélie showed up a bit after we did, and we stayed outside chatting until the sandflies drew us into our tent.
Day 8: Telford Campsite to Aparima Hut, 21km
Overnight it rained, and in the morning all of the grass was covered in rain. Even though the rain lifted by the morning, our feet still got drenched walking through the wet grass.
The trail went straight up to a ridge. By straight up, I mean steeper than a staircase. Sometimes I had a better time if I thought of the trail as a climbing wall instead of a stupidly steep trail. As we climbed we had terrific views, and I stopped to take pictures every 5 minutes (and to catch my breath).
We hit the top of the ridge and we saw our friends not to far behind us scampering up the rocks. We cheered them on while we sat eating breakfast. Once they made it to the top we took pictures, and carried on.
We then entered forest, and the trail was easier. We passed by two couples going southbound, one older couple from New Zealand, and one couple from Europe.
We soon reached Lower Wairaki Hut, and stopped to eat lunch. This hut was nicer than the first one we saw, but our destination for the day was one hut further. We once again packed up and followed the trail through the forest. It was fairly easy going, but lots of up and down to keep us on our toes, and keep our hearts pumping. The New Zealand forest just isn’t somewhere where it is easy to walk.
It felt like forever before we hit an open bog where we walked through squishy terrain towards the hut. We had to cross a river with a swing bridge, and we took turns crossing over safely.
We made it to the hut, where there was an old hut and a new hut, and also some flat spots for camping. It looks like there are quite a few sandflies around here, so we may camp so as to have the bug netting.
Day 9: Aparima Hut to State highway 94, 23km
We woke up early so as to get into town (Te Anau) in a timely fashion. The hike started with walking through massive amounts of tussocks. If you’re not a hiker in New Zealand, you probably don’t know what tussocks are, so let me try to describe them. They are basically huge grasses that grow in large bunches about 4-6ft tall. You can’t see your feet, nor much ahead of you (unless you’re closer to John’s height) while walking though it. Along with the tussocks, there were small streams running through, some of which were visible, but some were just so completely covered by tussocks that the only way of finding them was falling directly into them. These streams carve out holes that are about 3ft deep due to erosion, but I promise you that there is no way to see that you’re about to fall into a 3ft hole unless you are the height of a bunny rabbit.
So, it was slow going, and windy. The tussocks waved about as we stumbled along.
Eventually we got to more forested area, but the trail did not become easier. In typical Te Araroa fashion, the trail led straight up and straight down several hills and although the trail is well marked, it is anything but easy walking. We often are pulling ourselves up by roots or branches of trees and scrambling over fallen branches, logs or incredibly muddy patches. It’s kind of fun, but very exhausting.
Finally, we arrive somewhere. We see a hut, and then a vehicle, and a lady who has been waiting on a friend to come out of the “bush”. We assure her that her friend would definitely not be coming out of the bush today, but potentially tomorrow given that they started after we did from Bluff.
Then, in the bright sun and with 20-30 mph winds, we walked the gravel road through some farms to reach the highway to hitch a ride into Te Anau.
It took a while for someone to pick us up, but eventually we did get a ride and made our way to the YHA youth hostel to check in, take a shower, eat a meal and fall asleep.