Day 25: Campsite near hut to Twizel, 21 km
In the morning, the “trail” turned into less and less of a trail and more and more of “try to follow the markers without losing them.” We hiked through quite high tussocks which easily hid muddy patches and boggy terrain, which could easily swallow your shoe if took a bad step. With grass up to our armpits I often took steps with very little confidence, not knowing if I would be stepping in a knee deep pit of mud, or a rock, or a mound of shorter grass, or perhaps a hip deep hole with water flowing somewhere beneath. Of course John walked through this terrain with gazelle like grace, and I stumbled behind going half the pace, if that.
At some point I saw Charlie chasing up to us. He was gaining on us fast, and when we stopped to take off a few layers, he caught up. We wound up hiking with him for an hour or two and covered some terrain much faster than we ordinarily would have. As we finally were headed downhill, and it was easier to jump from rock to rock, I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with the boys. Eventually I fell behind, and Charlie went ahead while John waited up for me.
We knew that once we got to the bike path, all of us were in favor of trying to hitch-hike into Twizel instead of attempt to either walk the impossibly long bike path with no camping allowed, or bike it, with a huge headwind.
We eventually got down to the road, and there was absolutely no traffic. We decided to walk towards a junction which could possibly offer more traffic and we walked for maybe an hour or two before a Department of Conservation pickup truck pulled over and picked us up.
The gentleman named Gus knew a heck of a lot, and we picked his brain about plants, history, etc. In fact, he was part of creating a number of the bike paths that we were skipping, or likely to skip up ahead. We felt slightly sheepish skipping the bits that he had built, but knew that we were likely to spend a really good day hiking at Mount Cook instead if we took a side trip.
He also told us about how when they first were building the trail, they imagined that a few retired kiwis would hike it each year and that would be about it. They had no idea that hundreds of over privileged young Americans, Canadians, and Europeans would show up to do it. So they built the huts too small. He also admitted that they mostly didn’t build any trail.
“We just set up a few ‘reassurance markers’ where appropriate. We let you think you’re lost for just about 5 minutes before you should be able to see the next marker. But now so many people walk it, some paths are forming.” He told us.
He dropped us off in town, and we found a place to stay for the night. We ran into Charlie checking into the same place. We made plans to meet up for dinner, and set off to take showers and do laundry.
Before too long we were in the pub next door having several pizzas with beer before the kitchen opened up for dinner. At 5pm we were finally able to order “real” food, and we each ordered a burger. After dinner, we decided to go to the grocery store to get some ice cream, and a few meat pies and chocolate, you know, in case we got hungry.
We got back to the hostel and immediately pulled out the pies and ice cream while looking at maps of Mount Cook.
After an impressive amount of eating, we finally retired for the night with a plan to do an awesome day-hike near Mount Cook tomorrow. We’re hoping the weather holds up since it is calling for overcast turning into rain later on.
Day 26: Mount Cook, 10.5km
We got up and packed some of our stuff into a locker for the day before trying to hitchhike to Mount Cook.
Hitchhiking wasn’t too hard, and we got a ride with an Australian couple headed directly for Mount Cook! I climbed into the back seat right next to their adorable one year old baby. As they drove off, they asked us if we knew of the famous Australian hitchhiker murderer. We shook our heads, and I glanced over at their baby who was busy throwing the toy I had just handed it onto the floor. He gave me a dirty look and I had to laugh.
The 45 minute drive went by quickly and soon we were climbing up from the parking lot near Mount Cook Village to Mueller’s Hut, aver 1000m (3000-4000ft) elevation gain over about 5km. It was mostly stairs and rock scrambles.
Along the way we heard keas, which are alpine parrots, making a racket. They landed very close to us and started playing with the orange trail markers. They were not shy and I got quite close to one to get it’s picture. As I was busy taking a shot, the Kea made a lunge for my trekking pole, which it intended on stealing, but I snatched it back and it eventually few away. I knew that these birds were quite clever and very cheeky, so I’m quite glad I didn’t donate a trekking pole to the Kea lost and found.
By the time we got to Mueller Hut, my legs were worn out, but we had fantastic views of mount Cook and the surrounding peaks covered in snow. The clouds cleared just in time for us to have a perfectly clear view in all directions before we headed back down to the parking lot.
Once back down, we made our way to the exit, and as we were trying to find a place that would be convenient to try to hitchhike from, a British gentleman asked us if we were looking for a ride. Conveniently he was driving right past Twizle on his way back to Lake Ohau, which we had walked past the day before.
Again, the ride went quickly, and before we knew it we were back in the middle of this tiny town, but with nowhere to stay. We tried calling around to all the hotels within walking distance, but they were all fully booked. We finally found a place to stay at the local Holiday Park, where we paid to camp, but at least had access to a shower and the communal kitchen, so we were able to make some pizza for dinner.
Day 27: 0km
We had a number of chores to do in the morning. We had picked up a package with new shoes in Twizel and we needed to send it out again as well as shop for the next section.
By the time we had finished most of our chores it was already lunch time and it was pouring with rain. Looking ahead, we needed to hitchhike to Lake Tekapo to start the next section (skipping the rest of the flat cycle path). It was going to be a series of hitches to get to where the road ended and the trail began. We really didn’t fancy standing out in the rain waiting for a ride, let alone trying to hike in this exposed alpine desert in these conditions, so we decided instead to try to find another place to stay for the night. It took several hours of calling around to find a place. Since it’s tourist season here, everything is booked out a week in advance. We finally got a room, and with a sigh of relief treated ourselves to lunch. Once we got to our room we were more than ready for a nap. We got some greens for dinner, since we’ve been craving vegetables, and we made a fantastic salad which we fattened up with avacado and bacon. I think we’ll be making this meal again next time we have a chance.
We met some other hikers including a girl I recognized from “Wizards of the PCT”, a movie about the PCT that John and I watched years ago before we hiked the PCT. The hiking community is sometimes so small…
Somehow even though we had the whole day off, we still got to bed late and struggled to figure out the logistics of the next section which will involve either crossing a big river, the Rangitata River, or trying to hitchhike around it, which apparently is really difficult. We’ve been advised to try to cross the river – apparently it’s quite manageable.
Then, roughly 4 days later there’s another river, the Rakaia River which is apparently much more dangerous although we’ve met at least one person who has forded it. We will definitely hitchhike around this one.
The rain continued until the evening, and when we crawled into a warm dry bed we were thankful not to be outside, although we did feel slightly wimpy about it.
Day 28, Lilly Bank Road to Camp Stream Hut, 18km
We woke up to a slightly overcast day – perfect.
After breakfast, we walked to the edge of town and stuck out our thumbs. A postman picked us up, and let us put our packs in the truck with the mail. He thought web may be headed for Mount Cook- where he was headed to deliver mail- but he gave us a ride to the intersection to Lake Tekapo where there is a small visitor’s center.
At the visitor’s center we wandered around for a short period of time, indulging in hot beverages which they had for sale inside, and then found a good place to try to get all the way to Lake Tekapo. We were picked up by a Hungarian lady on her way to Christchurch. She dropped us off right near the public toilets, which we decided to use. These were talking toilets- they gave you verbal instructions, and were very automated. They even had elevator music and a time limit of 10 minutes. Very weird.
We walked through Lake Tekapo, visiting the church along the lake, and finally making it to the edge of town where the trail took a turn follow a small road for many miles. We decided to stand on the edge of this road and try to hitch hike even though there was not very much traffic here. We needed to get 9 miles up this road in order to get to where the trail left the road. We did manage to get a ride after about an hour with a couple from Belgium, who were trying to get away from the touristy towns.
The road was long, exposed, and at this point the clouds were gone for the day, and the sun was blazing hot.
Finally, at about 1pm we got to the trail. Half a day of catching rides and walking small bits here and there to finally get to trail! I’m so happy we didn’t do the roads, and we got to go to Mount Cook instead. I’m so happy with our decision not to walk every mile of this trail. It seems like more and more of the other people we meet hiking this trail are also doing the same thing.
The trail continued along the lake, but slowly gaining in elevation as we climbed a ridge beside Lake Tekapo. We are still very much in alpine desert territory, and the vegetation is boring to say the least. The scenery is still beautiful, and we can see for miles in all directions, but we are so exposed, and the wind was fierce. Unfortunately we couldn’t even talk to each other because the wind was so loud. Even though it was quite warm, we decided to put on our long sleeved shirts in order to try to avoid a sunburn. I’m sure we still got more sun than we needed!
After defending into a stream valley and getting our feet wet, we climbed up to a very old hut, perhaps the oldest on the whole trail, built in 1898 (not maintained by DOC – and requires a $10 per person donation in a box by the door). Here we ate dinner, and contemplated whether we wanted to stay inside. It was so windy outside that we decided to stay inside. We deposited our donation for the night.
Then some southbounders showed up and stayed for a short period of time to eat dinner and continue on. They told us everyone they talked to said the hut was full of HUNDREDS of mice. That convinced us to camp outside the hut. At least then we would be able to hide in our bug-netting, and hope that no mice try to chew through.
Day 29: Camp Stream hut to campsite past Stone Hut, 23km
The day was unusual – we woke up to clouds. Our first cloudy day. It was exciting because for a while we didn’t need to think much about getting sunburnt.
We had the choice between taking the ridge up to Stag Saddle, the highest point on the entire Te Araroa Trail, or to take the stream. The choice was obvious, and many southbounders had advised that the ridge walk was one of their favorite moments of the entire trail. The views were fantastic – on one side we had Lake Tekapo with tall mountains, including a somewhat obscured Mount Cook behind it, and another set of less tall mountains on the side that we were walking on.
From the saddle we went downward towards a stream which we would be following for the rest of the day. The mountains continued to be beautiful, but the view of the lake and the taller mountains disappeared. The vegetation was a bit same-ish. Tussocks as far as the eye could see with scree further up on the hills. Sometimes the tussocks were quite high, and we found ourselves getting swallowed by it.
We passed Royal Hut around lunchtime, and sat inside eating our tuna wraps contemplating what it must have been like back in 1971 when Prince Charles visited this hut by helicopter. According to our notes, he and his sister had a cup of tea and then left. Since then, the hut has been named Royal Hut. It didn’t seem very Royal to me. In fact, it could have used some cleaning up.
We moved on, again following the stream to the next hut, Stone Hut. This hut was very similar to the previous hut but had a stone foundation. We passed a number of southbounders, many of which were not interested in chatting, and we decided that we should probably try to hike few more kilometers and camp. I didn’t fancy making friends with any of the hut mice or rats.
We were somewhat forced to stop at a flat spot due to the terrain up ahead. We considered our options given what the map had to offer in the way of information, but decided that this one flat spot would have to be it. Tomorrow we will be approaching our first big river ford, and we’ll have to assess it, and see if we want to cross.