A few natural barriers form breaks in Te Araoa’s continuum. The Cook Strait is one, the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers are two of the others. Water from the Southern Alps is drained in their endless braids, filling up their huge shingle beds measuring up to 10km across. Both of them are Hazard Zones and unpassable under normal conditions. Yet the sustained drought changed a few things and the idea of crossing played around in our heads.
It’s a three day walk from Arthur’s Pass to the north shore of the Rakaia river. Getting out of the village was a hastle, and it took 3 hours of camper vans passing by before someone would take us 6km down the narrow, windy road to the end of the Deception-Minga Track.
We only made it to Bealey Hut that day but that was fine, since the next day would drop us off at Hamilton Hut, reportedly the nicest hut on the entire trail. And really, this place is a lodge. A spacious, wooden building with a big terrace around it and a stone-built fireplace in the middle. It was so nice that we decided to take our canceled zero day from Arthur’s Pass at the hut, enjoying the cosy environment to read and relax.
What exactly happened that day is hard to say, but we woke up the next day with energy and a lust for walking that we did not have for a while. We had both been struggling with our bodies, feeling drowsy, tired and weak, but as we woke up that morning it was as if a mist lifted from our eyes. Soon enough we were finishing the Harper River Track, and as we started walking down the road towards Lake Coleridge I told PJ that I felt as if I could walk all the way to the village. “Yeah, me too!” he said. And so we kept going, gazing at the landscapes that appeared from behind every corner, until we knocked off our day beyond the lodge. 44,5 km we did, until the trail stopped and we hit the north shore of the Rakaia river.
Crossing the Rakaia was never something we wanted to attempt: too many accidents have happened on that river. We only know of one hiker who succeeded: Mac the Invincible as we call him, an indestructible kiwi walking a few weeks ahead of us. We hitched to Methven for resupply and wanted to hitch out the same day but failed to get a lift. It was late Saturday afternoon, so we opted to wait for the school bus on Monday that takes hikers up he deserted road. We might have been lucky hitching, but might not have been which would have led to an additional 34km of roadwalk. The result would probably have been the same: start again on Monday, and at least now we could eat!
We left at 6 and started at 7, unaware that we would be pulling a 12 hour day. In the first shelter, Rod (a 69 year old kiwi hiking the trail, yes we are impressed!) was so kind to leave a weather warning for the following day. So we kept going to cover all saddles and river walks on that track. 34km, 3 saddles and a lot of riverbed scrambling later we were exhausted. Yet as we reached the Lake Heron basin the sun broke through between two black cloud fronts. Covering the last 2km took us over an hour as we kept turning around to stare at the light spectacle in the valleys and on the mountains beyond. We forgot our pain, and satisfied arrived at Double Hut. The bad weather never came, yet all this day was worth it.
On the following afternoon we ran into a group of lovely ladies having a day out. It’s been long since we met some enthusiastic locals and we’ve been missing the presence of an engaged trail community on the South Island. Where are the likes of Matthew Hare, Hilton & Melva, Dave & Caroll, Josie & Ray? It felt great to engage with a kiwi crowd again. They loaded us with lots of treats: an egg, cheese, cookies, and drove our packs a few kilometres down the road. Amazing! We feasted all evening on their goodies.
That night a possum assaulted our tent. I’m not sure whether it was frustrated about being unable to get inside or it just didn’t expect it to be there, but it went face first full frontal in the entrance, jumped up, climbed to the roof and sat there. Pj cried” Eef! Possum! It’s climbing the tent!” and started slapping the sail until it rolled off. Miraculously it didn’t do any major damage – for possums have big claws, and it seems that none of the tiny holes it left will leak. We’ll have to put it to a rain test, but definitely thumbs up for the strength of our Helsport tent.
After our initial big day we slowed our pace down to wait for Andrew, a Canadian fellow hiker to whom we promised to cross the Rangitata river together. He caught us in the afternoon of the third day. Around 4 we reached the north shore of the Rangitata and after a small debate decided to cross in the morning. Early mornings are when rivers are at their lowest, when we’d be physically fit and mentally fresh, able to make sounder decisions.
The Rangitata was at a historical low, even Rod stressed that he had never seen the river so low. We were all a bit nervous, yet assumed we’d be alright. Early in the evening the owner of the Potts lodge stopped by, Rod alerted him that we were there, to warn us about a big front approaching from the north west. “Make sure you get across that river before noon, and you might get stuck behind there. I’m worried about the people who will try to cross later on.” There was severe concern in his voice, and it made us feel anxious. We’d leave by 6.30, and get as far as we could. We kept a watchful eye on the dark clouds surrounding the mountains in the distance.
In the morning all was clear and that was a relief. After following the Potts river for about an hour we reached the Rangitata’s first braid and crossed it safely, the sign that we could go all the way. The flow of it was still strong but it didn’t reach much higher than knee-deep so it was straightforward. The river’s topography revealed that it was not to be taken lightly under normal flows, with many hidden gullies and canals deep under the main shingle bed. As for us, we were all happy that we had the chance to try for the views were gorgeous and it was a good experience to get to know a big river from up close.