Along the lines of a historical Maori route Te Araroa winds its way from Wanaka to Queenstown. Motatapu is a fantastic track. It is not characterized by your typical dramatic mountain landscape – glaciers, snowy peaks, blue lakes – yet there is something inherently impressive about it. It is different from any other mountainous place I’ve seen. It is rough, rugged, full of deep stream and creek gullies, cross-cut by countless steep and sharp ridgelines. It holds some of the last beech forest in the area. The track follows “a demanding line” across this beautifully remote terrain.
If I understood it right, it was our last hard, high-altitude mountain track. So we took it easy and enjoyed it as much as we could. We walked together with Patrick and Marylène, one hut at a time. The huts were great, the tracks provided wonderful walks every day. It was a tough run, but as we walked along, navigating ridgeline after ridgeline, the geography of the place left an ever-deepening impression. And I must say, I’m happy I had 2600km of training before coming here.
On our third day out we covered the hardest part of it. It was cloudy and foggy. The atmosphere in the mountains was very mystical that day. Sharp rock outcrops kept dooming up out of the fog and every now and then a window showing the valley floor deep below would open. It was all going pretty great and I liked the vibe. And so I was descending the Knuckle Peak ridgeline when I noticed PJ lying face first in a tussock-filled gully.
For a second I thought he was pulling a prank on me. And then I realized he must have fallen from where I was standing, almost 2 meters higher. “PJ?” No answer. Again, a bit louder. “PJ? You OK?” No answer. He lay motionless on the ground with his head down, sticks all over the place. “Oh f*ck”, I thought, “this is seriously wrong.” I was trying to find a way down, ready to throw my pack off and press the SPOT when I finally heard a faint “Auww”. Phiuw. At least he was conscious.
It took a while to get him up again and all the while I feared he was severely injured. Miracoulusly, he wasn’t. it was a hard blow and he felt it deerly throughout the next days, yet it all could have been much, much worse.
We continued our way to Roses Hut. Right before the final descent to the hut, we sat down on one of the ridgeline knobs. I nestled myself in the tussock grass. It was quiet, peaceful, beautiful up there. PJ quietly sat beside me. We looked down to the Motatapu station, to Patrick and Marylène walking to the hut. We sat still for a while. “I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to get to Bluff. Let’s just stay and sit here” I said. Even after his blow, PJ agreed. “I don’t want to get back to society.”
Almost five months have passed since we started walking. Fall has officially come now, and we picked up some warmer clothes from our bounce box in Wanaka. So much has happened since the Cape, yet time seems to have been standing still since we left. The trail has offered us a window on a life unrushed, a life of freedom and fresh air. The touch of this life has reshaped us, reshaped our views on ourselves and on the future, in irrevocable ways, I guess.
So in the days to follow we would stop at every saddle, every pass, every magnificent viewpoint along the ridgelines. All four of us would stand still, breathe in that mountain air and repeat the same thought. Let’s stay in the mountains! But of course, we had to come down in the end. Through the ghost settlement Macetown and the historic mining village Arrowtown we made our way to the noises of the city Queenstown, longing for the silence of the lonely mountains that are surrounding it.
And so we came to our final stop before we will continue all the way to Bluff, extending our hike with a bit by going over the Routeburn Track. Of course in ways it was nice to reach the city too, to sleep in a warm bed, to eat something greasy and filling. The physical consequences of the trail are becoming very clear now: as for me, my feet are shattered, and the skin repeatedly ripped off will not heal before we get to the end. But with some tape, they’ll hold. PJ’s back is up for a rest, and his knees too. I’ve lost about 7 kilos so far, mostly in the period since we came to the south island. I was surprised as I assumed the gain in muscle would make up for the loss of bodyfat in terms of weight. Pj hasn’t been on a scale yet.
Yet even with the battered feet, backs and knees, we don’t want to leave the trail. All we really want to do, is keep on walking.