One last resupply. One last heavy pack loaded with 9 days of delicious food. We rather took it on the safe side for the final rough tracks with unpredictable weather and tired bodies. Up and down, up and down, up and down we went, until we stood on the beach. The TA challenge is not over until it’s over.
After hearing and reading the stories of other TA hikers on the Takitimu and Longwood forests we mentally prepared for the worst. This means that you keep repeating to yourself “progress will be slow. Days will be long. Mud will be deep” until you feel that you’ll be OK with it.
The Takatimus were honestly not nearly as bad as we expected. There were a few slippery parts that required caution (our friend Andrew broke his foot on one of them) but generally going was good. Slow, but good.
The forests were beautiful, once again evolving as we go further south, that bit different from what we’ve seen before. The Takitimu range in general was a bit different. Somehow similar, somehow not, but hard to say what the difference was. It mixed a lot of things we’ve seen before but not together, and not quite the same. Just as I was saying how beautifully remote the range is we ended up in a TA bubble at Aparima Hut, where an unfortunate French couple had to share their romantic evening with 9 smelly hikers.
We had two short and one big day planned to get through. We rearranged our plans after reading the DOC signs stating much longer times than the trail notes. We doubted if we could make it across our final 1000+m peak from Lower Wairaki hut before dark, so we pulled out. The long days before Queenstown and on the Routeburn took their toll and both of us really can’t push as hard as we used to anymore.
But the trail over the peak was not as bad as the times had hinted at. The view was stunning up there. We looked upon the Takitimus, down on the forest, on the farmlands, and far away, on the southern ocean. The weather was turning, but for a short minute we could see our end goal: Bluff, stretching out into the ocean like a pancake. Then clouds blocked out everything and in pouring rain we made the descent. Yet before we reached the valley floor, the sun came through again.
What followed were a number of private land sections linked together. This created a stop-start-stop-start-stop-start sequence, as every section has daylight access only and no camping permitted. So for a few days we needed to set up camp by the road. It was a bit awkward but alright and a few friendly Southlanders pulled their cars over to have a chat.
For a couple of days our group was extended by one, 19-year old Johannes joined us from Aparima hut. He shared our philosophy of not rushing by but enjoying while walking, learning about the land and appreciating the variety of landscape. We heard so many bad things about this final section, that it is boring, crappy, and so on, yet it was so beautiful and very nice to have a change of scenery again. Southland is amazingly green. We all loved it. We all didn’t understand what so many needed to complain about.
We had all kinds of weather on the way: biting cold southern winds, warm sunshine, drizzle, rain, gales. Our days were mostly warm and sunny, so we had a chance to appreciate our surroundings. The Woodlaw forest was the second big surprise: an unexpected stand of old and beautiful beech filled with birdlife. Tippits, fantails, a yellowhead, magpies, bellbirds, robin, hawk, falcon and a morepork owl created a lively walk in a surprisingly beautiful environment.
Partly because of my bad advice PJ’s food supply was too little. Mine was too – I couldn’t bring myself to carry more than I did. Everyone was hungry, except for Patrick who brought a good 1,2kg of cheese and salami for his wraps. I shared as much as I could: I cut my breakfast down from 3 to 2 oat sachets, gave him cheese, salami, flat bread etc which alleviated the hunger a bit. In the nights I dreamed of hopeless searches to find an open bakery, of free toasties being handed out by McDonalds clowns (don’t ask, I don’t know) in bars where I was hanging out with my cousins, of Nutella,… I guess it’s fair to say that food was the main topic of conversation.
On day 5 Marylène brightened everyone’s afternoon by noticing an unvaluable sentence in the trail notes: there was a tavern at Colac Bay, only 6,5km after the end of the Longwood Forest. We impromptu voted for a 30km day to get there straight after our final day in the woods. Who are we to resist the call of beer and fish&chips?
Now, the Longwood Forest was a different story. It was a challenge. It was a mind game. It was another piece of astronomical luck with the weather, or the story would have been very different. It was the beginning of an end that mirrored the beginning: from a dense, muddy forest we were put out on a long beach. Luckily, a monsoon didn’t fall down on the forest this time, and the beach was not 90 miles long. We had a phenomenal view from Bald Hill: the lonely Takitimus, the Fiordland mountains, the flatlands to the east, the coast… the Bluff. It was one of the best on the trail.
After walking for a good number of hours in mud, swamps and on soggy ground afterwards, I was ready to get there. And then we came to the final hut. We wrote our names, our final comment and our end date in the hut book one last time. As I was reading everyone else’s last words I felt the first emotions welling up. I was not ready to get there.
In beautiful morning light we closed the door after our final night in a back country hut on Te Araroa. The final quiet night in the woods. The final morepork owl calling. A silent minute staring at the hut.
So we went on, to the tavern. It was a sunny day. The trail wound itself in endless bends along the line of a historic water race for gold mining. The bending made going slower than we thought. Around noon we looked for a good lunch spot. “Let’s go 15 more minutes” I said, “there is a stream up ahead”. Five minutes later it was pouring down. Lunch cancelled, there was no point sitting around in the rain. We kept going. The trail worsened: we came across more washout, we had to plough through more and more mud. Soon we came to a turnoff. An early exit. We read about it in the hut book. We debated. Would we cut off a part of our final forest track? PJ said yes. My body said yes. A small part of my head said no. It was four more hours of mud ploughing versus two. For once the hour signs were right. It was wet and cold. I didn’t have the willpower left to get myself through it, let alone the two of us. We bailed. As we came to the tavern, Patrick and Marylène were already munching on hot food. We all laughed. It had been beautiful. It had been enough.
We wanted a good night’s sleep in a bed so we checked in at the holiday park. It was fairly disappointing: the rooms were ice cold, and there was no water in the morning. I almost missed the huts, and without being able to go through our morning routine we started going to Riverton. It would be a short day, only 12km, to offer us some break before the two big ones to Bluff. The day was gorgeous. We gazed at the southern ocean under the sun, not realising that we are at the opposite side of the country. On the viewpoint at Mores Reserve everything became a déjà-vu: forest, beach below, rolling hills, it almost felt like we had walked all the way back, or nowhere at all yet, and were looking at the Northland shore again. How are you supposed to realise that you have walked 3000 kilometres from one side to the other?
In Riverton we did check in at the backpackers. We just wanted to sit somewhere inside: cosy, on a sofa, without thermals and a primaloft and a beanie on. The backpackers used to be a bar, and it still looks like it but with more sofas. We had the whole place to ourselves. In the evening I cooked everyone pasta bolognese, troop reinforcement before the final push. Only a few obstacles remain to the finish: a really long day on the beach, and a big estuary to cross somewhere in the middle of it.
The beach walk was beautiful, and proved what we had debated for a long time: it would be easier to get across the long beach now, as 22km of it today did not feel nearly as bad as 25 back in Northland. The morning was sunny, but bad weather was blowing in from the ocean. We knew about it, but it came so slow and we thought we would outrun it. Then suddenly with a sprint the clouds came forward. Behind us, Riverton disappeared. In front of us, Bluff went up in the clouds. A minute or so later we did too. New Zealand won’t let us finish easy, and after a number of kilometres in battering headwinds and rain we finally turned off the beach.
In the middle of it a small clearing with a beam of sunshine made a rainbow stand out over the ocean. It was a magical moment. It will be these images of the final kilometres that will stick on us during the upcoming days. We kept walking on the road to Invercargill. I was tired after the storm, but once we caught eye on the city my body changed. PJ changed. Rain over us, Invercargill in front, Bluff on our left. For the first time it occurred to me that I never thought these places were real, or that I would see them, having walked there for months on my own two feet. We smiled, shining of unbelief and proud. And inside something was gnawing, something that knows that we will not go back to the woods and the mountains.
In Invercargill we prepared our bittersweet celebration. The owner of the Riverton hostel gave us beautiful pieces of venison meat, which we cooked for our victory baguettes at Bluff. We charged camera batteries. We had dinner together with the others.
One more day of Te Araroa and then it’s done. I can’t say if I’m happy, or sad, or proud, or anxious. I feel many things at the same time. But I try to keep my head clear for one final day. One final, sweet day on the trail that has shown us a country, shown us ourselves inside out.