Nice as it was, the Queen Charlotte Track was merely a warm up to the rest of the South Island, an easy stroll along the coastline leading us to the mountains ahead. This is it. The 700 roughest, wildest, most physical kilometres of our journey across New Zealand. It’s exciting, slightly intimidating, somewhat astonishing that we are here. Sometimes I still can’t believe that we have walked all this way.
We headed out from Havelock with a 10-day food ratio that made us feel the weight of our packs. We did not want to play on the margins of food supply as we were unsure about how fast we would be moving in the mountains and how the weather would develop.
Ironically enough we walked into a drought after the cold, wet spring on the north island. Some of the ridge line huts ran out of water, making our planing more challenging as we had to be more careful about where to stay.
We walked the Pelorus River Track in two days to keep our options open for the ranges. For those who have seen He Hobbit: this is the river where the barrel scene was filmed, and we walked right by the film set at Pelorus Bridge. The blazing heat and the river’s crystal-clear blue waters lured us into swimming at least once and up to three times a day. Perfect escape from the sand flies too.
The forests we walk through here are beautiful, open, spacious beech and podocarp forests contrasting sharply to the dense northern bush. But again we noticed the silence in them. The only sounds we heard all day were the wasps buzzing and the sequetas screeching. A few birds sang here and there, a couple of fantails came hopping on our walking sticks. Compared to their northern counterparts, these forests appear dead.
The Richmond Ranges reminded me a lot about the Tararuas, but with better trails and more extreme height differences. New Zealand’s fault line literally cut the mountains in half, relocating the ridge lines. Once you are up you will inevitably have to go down again to reach the next part of the ridge. It must have contributed to the beauty and drama of these sharp, rugged ridges. It’s a tough stretch, but very much worth it.
From Starveall Peak we looked over the Tasman Sea and felt as if we looked towards the end of the world, where sea meets sky. As soon as we entered the Richmond Alpine country the drought decided to take a break and dumping rain had us stay inside of Slaty Hut for a day.
Detoriating weather the following morning made us retreat into Old Man hut before crossing the Rintoul Peaks. It was a detour we hoped to avoid – 2km and 550 height meters – but with rain, wind and low visibility there was no chance to cross the peaks at 1643 and 1731m. Later in the afternoon all went clear except for a persistent cloud surrounding the mountain, which was possibly the least evil of all conditions we could get so we went for it.
We had a clear ascent up to Little Rintoul with wonderful views to the east. As soon as we set foot on the peak clouds surrounded us and it became harder to find the trail. On the way up Mount Rintoul visibility fell lower and lower. It was getting late and I started getting concerned whether or not we’d find our way to the hut in time. Luckily ten seconds of clearing in the fog every now and then enabled us to find our way to the hut by 7PM.
From there it was a scenic walk trough the forest and by the Wairoa river to the other-worldly landscape of the Red Hills. A few clearings in the bush offered spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, lots of waterfalls appeared on the way as the Wairoa tumbles its way down. Low water levels made all river crossings straight-forward affairs, a nice feature since one of them was right by the chute of a waterfall dropping 4m below.
The alien landscape of the Red Hills is formed by mineral-rich ultramafic (very dense rock rich in iron and magnesium) that is so inhospitable that hardly any plants manage to grow on it. This rock, tectonically uplifted from the mantle, is only visible in a few places on the planet so as a geonerd I got rather enthusiastic about walking on it.
We had planned to get off the track and go exploring along the Red Hills Peak and Ridge, which would have offered spectacular views of the area. Unfortunately, howling, biting-cold winds and a prediction of snow confined us to the track. We still had some beautiful panorama’s but little time to enjoy them as most of our focus was directed towards keeping our feet firmly on the ground. That summer we started hiking in seems ages away now.
With plenty of food we took our sweet time to get to the end of the track – partly because we wanted time to enjoy the views, partly because we timed our arrival to the opening hours of the fish’n chips shop and the Sunday barbecue.
We met up with a pack of other TA hikers at Red Hills hut and reunited the group that has been walking together since the very start. All day long we talked about the food we would devour once we made it down. That barbecue better be ready for the renewed hiker’s hunger that is coming at it.