Continued from part 1…
Adrenaline snapped me awake four hours later, and struggle as I might, I could only manage another twenty minutes or so of intermittent dozing. Rather than waste more time tossing around in a sleeping bag, I decided to get up anyway and get into my preparations for the day – which turned out to be a rather good decision indeed! Breakfast was simple – more instant noodles, a couple of nutella sandwiches and a banana, the peel of which I conveniently chucked into the small fire which I had rekindled just to give me a bit of last minute warmth before I headed out into the cold. By the time I had washed up, packed away my gear and filled my bottles, the dawn light had already begun to glow in the sky. Pack on, and bundled up, I stepped out of the hut, and into a steady drizzle!
The trail started innocently enough – not unlike any of the typical trails through the bush back home in Victoria. Skinny trees and a lush undergrowth of ferns bordered the wide track. The fresh smell of cool morning rain invigorated me as I trotted through the forest and over the Aorere river. No more than five minutes of starting out, the rain subsided, never to be seen again for the rest of my journey! With such a near-perfect start to the day, my spirits were high, and my concerns from the night before were but a distant thought, packed away in the corner of my mind.
Shortly after crossing the river, the trail began its long and gentle ascent up to Perry Sadle. Small birds chirped and flitted through the vegetation on either side of the trail, and as the clouds cleared, the sun’s warming rays began to poke their way through the trees. The temperature remained cool, and I kept up a steady rhythm, power hiking my way along the trail. The first leg to Perry Saddle Hut was approximately 17km, so the 900 or so metres of elevation gain were generously spread out, making the effort quite comfortable. Settling well into the hike, I pulled out my bottle for a swig of water, and filled my mouth with the most foul tasting, disgusting beverage I had ever allowed past my lips. The water was flavoured with a thick, bitter, smoky aftertaste not unlike the throat gagging, lung clogging aromas of a recently filled ashtray. What on earth!? Then it dawned on me – that kettle I had used over the fireplace had clearly boiled its share of liquids over that fireplace, and had probably been infused after all those years over that sooty grill. With the bulk of the climb ahead of me, I would just have to suck it up and pretend it was a good smoky islay scotch.
The wall of foliage on either side of the trail only offered tantalising glimpses of the stunning views beyond, but as I progressed up the trail, brief openings on the downward side of the trail gave excuse for a 30 second pause to take in the surreal sights of the surrounding peaks.
Before long, almost unexpectedly, Aorere shelter popped into view. A glance at my watch indicated that I had been on the move for 2.5 hours, and given my target of reaching Perry Saddle Hut in 3.5 hours, I was making decent time. There wasn’t much of a view from Aorere shelter, so after having a brief look around, I resumed my upward ascent.
As I climbed higher up the mountain, so did the sun above the valley, and the clearings in the canopy offered more breathtaking eye candy.
Not much further down the track came the next landmark on my voyage – Flannagan’s corner – the highest point on the trail at 915 metres, just a five minute detour off the trail. After seeing, spectacular views from the top of the little spur, I decided it would be a good spot to have a bit of a food break, and so the five minutes stretched into 15 as I sat on a bench eating nutella sandwiches and staring out into the stunning wilderness of Kahurangi National Park.
Back on the trail, it was just a hop, skip and a jump before I could hear the sound of voices up ahead, and lo and behold, leg one was over. I had arrived at Perry Saddle Hut.
I had a brief chat with some of the hikers who had spent the night there, and we all commented how wonderful the weather was. A day earlier and, apparently, I would have been running in howling winds, hail and sideways rain. One of them was headed back the way I came, and the other three were moving in the same direction, and so off they went whilst I got some sunscreen and insect repellent on, and replaced the foul contents of my waterbottles with icy cold and fresh mountaintop rainwater.
The golden, grassy shrubs across the valley contrasted well with the brilliant blue sky, and I took a moment to linger and appreciate the view from Perry Saddle Hut before setting off on the trail once again.
It wasn’t long before I passed the group of hikers, and wished them well again as skipped past them on the rocky trail. About a kilometer or so on, the trail disappeared back into the cover of the trees, once again obscuring the beautiful mountaintop scenery. As a consolation, the rains from the night before meant that there were bountiful streams flowing across the track, and the miniature waterfalls along the way were compensation enough. The trail surface was strewn with loose rocks which made footing somewhat tricky, but other than that, the trail was well formed and I was more or less able to switch off and cruise along, just enjoying my surroundings.
I still felt strong, and other than the odd ache every few minutes or so, my tib post was behaving itself reasonably well. Three hours in and twenty kilometers down, so far so good! The weather was just phenomenal. Blue skies scattered with fluffy white clouds. A far contrast from the tumultuous start to the week, this day was turning out to be near perfect.
A couple of kms along, the trail broke out into the golden tussock covered plains of Gouland Downs where, over a century ago, James Mackay had come searching unsuccessfully for grazing pastures. The vast plain looked both beautiful and exposed at the same time – gorgeous and unforgiving. Thankfully, my life wasn’t dependent on there being lush green pastures around for my cattle to graze upon, so I was able to fully enjoy the rugged beauty of the tussocklands on the trot.
Besides the sweeping views, there were other points of interest along the way, including the walking boot pole, various creeks and streams and even an old rusty pile of junk in the middle of nowhere, looking quite out of place. The trail was mostly level, if not slightly downhill for most of the way, and this allowed me to pick up the pace a little – in between bouts of goldfish gaping at the amazing scenery.
Eventually, after a short descent in and climb out of the ravine carved by Cave Brook, I arrived at Gouland Downs hut. By this time, I felt a hotspot forming on my right heel, and so I paused for a short toilet break and to patch the hotspot over with a bandaid. It was now 1130h, and the next stop, Saxon Hut, was just five and a half k’s down the track, so I decided to hold off a little longer and make my way down to Saxon Hut for lunch.
The trail around Gouland Downs Hut passed through an area filled with limestone caves, and whilst it was tempting to spend some time exploring, the unfortunate thing about my schedule was that it left very little margin for error, so I didn’t really have time for more than a quick poke around. The rocky environment around the limestone caves was covered by the same emerald green moss I had seen in the podocarp forests back at the Kepler track, and once again the setting was almost fairytale.
Half a K or so later, it was back out into the tussocks, and the trail crossed several large creeks. Already facing one potential blister, I was keen to keep my feet dry as possible, and in each instance, I opted to take the slight detour and cross via the rickety wire suspension bridges that had been erected to enable crossing when the creeks were in flood.
After crossing the last creek, the trail remained flat for another couple hundred metres, and then began to climb steadily up through a saddle towards Saxon hut. The ascending trail was lined with trees, which meant limited views for much of the climb. This time however, due to the scrawny nature of alpine vegetation, there was no overhead shade from the harsh noon sun. Out came the trusty walking poles, and I put my scrawny, useless arms to work.
At about this time, I started getting a rumble in the tummy, and as the rocky, dusty trail went by, all I could really think about was the four cream cheese and two nutella sandwiches left in my pack. I took a big swig from my bottle in an attempt to stop my stomach from consuming itself, grateful that the cool liquid within actually now tasted pleasant. I passed a rather tired looking couple heading in the opposite direction – my first human contact in several hours – unfortunately they didn’t seem too much in the mood for pleasantries, and so it was just a quick but friendly “hi!” without so much as a pause in our strides.
The climb was a mere 2.5 or so kms long, a fraction of the ascent to Perry Saddle Hut earlier in the day, but it seemed to go for eternity. Another stream crossed, another corner turned, it just kept going up and up. I had just about had quite enough, when the wall of trees on either side opened up again, and a cool, refreshing breeze rushed over me, bringing some life back to my legs. The gradient flattened out and I broke into a decent run for the last km or so down to Saxon Hut.
Saxon hut was small but well kept and certainly looked comfortable, and the view back across the valley was just spectacular. I decided to sit outside on the verandah and munch on my remaining sandwiches while enjoying the fresh mountain air and the gentle breeze rustling through the golden grass.
As I finished my meal and got my pack together again, I couldn’t help but notice it looked a bit strange. Something seemed to be missing, and for a few seconds, I couldn’t put my finger on it, until suddenly I realised that my jacket, which had been rolled up in the quick access pocket on the back, just wasn’t there!
My heart sank. Up till now I had made good time and had set myself up with a very comfortable 8 hours of daylight to cover the remaining 32km to Heaphy hut. Now I had a decision to make – leave the $200 windshell (which I might very well need given the unpredictability of mountain weather) or risk having to back track all the way back to Gouland Downs Hut, which was the last place I remembered seeing it. My mind was blank – I was utterly torn. I really liked that windshell – ultralight, waterproof and warm, and the thought of leaving it in a ditch somewhere in the middle of a pristine national park didn’t sit well with me either. On the other hand, I really was not looking forward to having to add possibly 10 kilometers to my already rather long journey, and have to potentially complete my trip in darkness.
I settled for a compromise – I would backtrack 3km or so, and if the jacket hadn’t shown up by then, then I would write it off and hope that maybe someone kind would pick it up along the way. A wave of adrenaline kicked in – the fatigue that had started to accumulate in my legs just half an hour ago seemed to vanish as I hot footed it back down the hill. Knowing that I would have to make the ascent back up again, I was determined to cover the downhill section as fast as possible. I turned corner after corner, each time hoping to see a brilliant blue bundle lying somewhere to the side of the trail, but disappointment was the tune of the hour. I reached a small bench, the mental landmark I had as the turnaround point, where I had stopped for a short breather and the place I figured I might have dislodged the jacket when I sat down. To my disappointment, the bench was empty. I slowed to a trot, and prepared to turn around, but for some reason decided to just take a peek round the corner, and there it was – just sitting innocuously smack in the middle of the trail. Thankfully, for whatever reason, that couple I had passed earlier had decided not to pick it up!
Now reunited with my jacket, I turned my attention to getting back on track, literally. Arriving back at Saxon Hut, I took a quick breather and assessed the damage. My 15 minute lunch stop had been stretched to 56 minutes by my little backtrack, and my legs now had an additional unplanned 5km on them. Based on the elevation profile, I had a bit of a downhill and flat to look forward to, before another couple hundred metres of elevation gain. Poles back in the bag, I set out to make the most of the upcoming flat.
The narrow, rocky trail leaving Saxon Hut carved a white line through a field of auburn grasses, and crossed a clear but tannin stained stream. Whilst I was now pressed for time, I reminded myself that this was still a holiday, not a race, and the weather didn’t seem life threatening in the least, so I still took the time to carefully photograph any scenes that made an impression. The little hiccup in my plans had thrown me off somewhat, but running through the open fields definitely calmed me down a notch again, and before long, I was back in the trees and climbing steadily up the last significant ascent before James Mackay Hut.
I had just under 12km to cover to James Mackay Hut, and with the climbs thrown in I figured 2 hours would be a good time to make it in. That would take me up to around 1530h, with five hours of daylight to make the last 20km to Heaphy Hut. With that in mind, I set a steady pace up and power hiked my way up the 4km climb. The views along the ascent were once again obscured by a thick wall of vegetation – seemingly a trend for climbs along the Heaphy – but this time, for some reason, that worked in my favour, as I became focused on the forward progress and the steady, co-ordinated rhythm of my arms and legs as the muscles in my body worked in unison to propel me forward.
The 4km, 200+m ascent took around 40 minutes, and led out into a bit of a valley with some very interesting rock formations – not quite open, but interesting enough. As the trail flattened out and began to descend, I packed my poles away and hot-footed it towards the next hut – literally. It was now coming up to 3pm, and the sun was blazing down like a mega heat lamp – the high altitude and lack of ozone certainly did no favours either. At this stage, the breeze had stilled and so it was basically a long, hard slog through a furnace. Thankfully, the scenery wasn’t too bad, so there was still some consolation as I plodded along the twisting trail.
Eventually, I started hearing the very artificial buzzing of a chainsaw in the distance – a sign that my interim destination was drawing near. The DOC was in the process of building an entirely new James Mackay Hut in the true fashion of their more modern “Great Walk” amenities. A far contrast from Browns Hut which I had spent the night in, the new huts (including Heaphy, which I hoped to spend that evening in) were spanking new, complete with flushing toilets, gas cooking facilities, coal or wood fire heaters and solar powered lighting. The new rendition of James Mackay Hut was nearing completion, and I later found out that it was expected to open in just a couple of days.
I decided to stop for a decent break of around 15 minutes or so. My bottles were in need of a top-up. In addition, the sandwich lunch I had was a distant memory as my stomach was beginning to growl again, so a packet of crisps and a couple of sticks of beef jerky hit the spot just right. In my fumbling for the food, I managed to snap one of the legs off my little gorilla pod, so that was the end of easy selfies for the rest of the trip! As I had my mid day snack, I indulged a brief conversation with some friendly American folk who lived close to Washington – a nice and friendly bunch. They were travelling in the opposite direction from me, and had just arrived from Lewis Hut. They took one look at my exhausted condition, and started taking wagers as to whether I would make my destination before nightfall! I didn’t have time for bets myself – I was pretty determined to make Heaphy or die trying, and so after the last stick of beef jerky went down, it was back on the trail for the next 12.4km section to Lewis Hut.
This section of the trail was critical to my strategy – 12 km of almost complete downhill, dropping around 700m or so down to the Heaphy river valley below. I was counting on the trail gradient being tame and non-technical enough to put some pace on. For the most part, and to my relief, that turned out to be the case. The trail was relatively wide, and although it was quite rocky in parts, there was usually sufficient room for me to plant me feet without having to worry about rolling an ankle. The drop in altitude meant that for most of the way, the surroundings were more of jungle/temperate forest type environment, not too unlike my initial ascent earlier in the day. It certainly was pretty, but spectacular views were few and far between.
Again, this turned out to be a good thing, as the minimal photo/gawking breaks meant that I was able to make upa fair bit of the time I had lost earlier during the descent. As the valley floor neared, I started getting more and more glimpses of the tea-stained Heaphy river as it slowly meandered along the valley floor.
By this time, my tib post tendon had also started to protest a little, and a dull steady ache would erupt for minutes at a time whenever I had a badly placed foot or risked a jump over a mud puddle. The lower the trail got, the wetter the surfaces became, and there were many hidden boggy spots in the trail which simply gave way beneath my weight as I passed by. The rocks, boggy patches and ruts all turned the descent into quite an enjoyable game of dodge the obstacle, and with all the light (at least it felt light) footed hopping, time passed quickly.
In a snap (compared to the dreary middle part of my journey), I found myself at Lewis Hut, and was promptly assaulted by a cloud of the renowned sandflies of the west coast. Eager not to spend my entire night in a fiery itch, I dashed into the hut to apply liberal amounts of insect repellent, which I then transferred to one of the front pockets on my pack for easy access.
The repellent seemed to work – I was still surrounded by swarms of the vicious bloodsuckers, but I noticed that none of them were landing for a meal. Happy enough with that, I set out to cross the Heaphy river via the Heaphy suspension bridge, the longest one built by the DOC to date. I stopped in the middle of the bridge to spend a moment just watching the river silently but powerfully flowing beneath my feet. I longed for kayak or a rubber tube to float down to the river mouth with, but as I had neglected to drag one with me over the past 46 kilometers, my tortured limbs would just have to bear the load for the remainder of my trip for the day.
Clearing the descent to Lewis Hut in just over 1h 40min meant that I now had a generous 3 hours to sundown, with just 8km to clear – a distance which, on fresh legs, I could typically pick off in under 40 minutes. At this point however, just after crossing the Heaphy bridge, it felt like the entire day’s fatigue had decided to cumulatively manifest in my legs in that one moment. I suddenly felt like my calves were filled with lead, and just didn’t have the strength or will to even trot along the path.
Considering that I had so much time to get to Heaphy Hut, I decided to really slow things down, and spent the next kilometer and a bit at a leisurely stroll, exploring in detail the new jungle environment I was in. Shiny green Nikau palms lined the sides of the path, interspersed by gigantic Northern Rata trees – quite a sight to behold. The air was heavy with birdsong as hundreds of feathered creatures began their search for their evening meals, and as I wandered along, many of them perched in the trees along the side of the trail, looking curiously the strange bipedal novelty dragging its feet through their part of town.
The twenty minute stroll was enough to revitalise my legs somewhat, and I gradually eased back into a gentle jog, still dreamily admiring the deep green and brown hues of the magical palm grove trail. Whenever there was a break in the bird calls, it would be replaced by the calming sound of the nearby river slowly but powerfully flowing towards the sea. If only this was my daily commute to work – I would certainly choose this anytime over huddling on a crowded train in peak hour madness.
It was approaching high tide, and as I ran along side the river, I had the privilege of watching the powerful ocean force its way back up the river, causing the top layer of water to flow in reverse – a fascinating sight and something I had not had the chance to witness up till then.
The sight of cormorants diving in to the water from overhanging branches was frequent as the tide brought with it all kinds of yummy treats, and plump brown kiwi scampered across the trail as I neared my destination. There was just so much to see and experience, and it was more than enough to keep me occupied for the rest of the journey.
The canopy above was still reasonably dense in some parts, and provided some respite from the sun, which was now gradually making its way back down towards the horizon. As the temperature cooled, my pace picked up and the walk breaks became less frequent. The anticipation and excitement of reaching my destination was coupled with a bit of impatience, and I started counting the remaining kilometres down. Five became three then two, and eventually I passed the 1km to go hut marker. Only a thousand metres stood between me, dinner and a good night’s sleep. I straightened up, quickened my strides and launched into an all-out dash (or at least that’s what it felt like) for the finish, and burst into the well kept lawn out the front of the hut.
Sapped, I collapsed onto a bench and sat there for a good ten minutes just staring out to the roaring sea, ecstatic that I could now give my legs a proper rest. The time was just after 7, nearly 13 hours after I had set out in the morning. A couple of kiwi were pecking around in the grass, and in my exhausted daze, I fell into a bit of a trance, just watching them peck incessantly at the ground.
Eventually, I decided to make my entrance into the hut. I was looking forward to the serve of dehydrated beef hotpot that was sitting at the bottom of my pack, and keen to get out of my shoes and running clothes into something slightly more comfortable. There were five people there for company – a couple named Jim and Cathy from Canada, a man called Steve and his grandson who were at the hut for a few days of whitebait fishing, and a Japanese girl whose name I didn’t manage to get.
The hut slept 32, and with just six of us, each of the groups got a room to ourselves – a handy thing as there would be no awkward snoring to deal with. I dropped my pack off in one of the rooms and headed back out to prep my much anticipated dinner.
Everyone was quite friendly and chatty, particularly Jim and Cathy, who were on a bit of a New Zealand escape and were looking to complete six of the nine great walks. Heaphy was their third after Lake Waikaremoana circuit and the Abel Tasman track, and they would be travelling further south to tackle the Milford, Kepler and Rakiura tracks once this was done.
Once I had my meal sitting in hot water to rehydrate, we all headed out to the beach to watch the impressive surf, and wait for sunset. The pure white sandy beach at the Heaphy river mouth was scattered with an abundance of driftwood, clearly built up over many decades. Set against the roaring waves of the incoming tide churning through the river mouth, it was nothing short of breathtaking.
Taking advantage of a hint of cellphone reception on the beach, I tried to give J a call – despite having a whale of a time out in the mountains, I still did miss them alot, and was also keen to see how J was feeling after what happened two days earlier. Not getting an answer, I had to settle for leaving a voicemail and a text, and then turned my attention to a spectacular fiery sunset.
The day ended after a hearty meal and a good chat with new friends, with me learning much about Canada, and the possibility of migrating there. Eventually we all dispersed to the bunks and, satisfied, I stretched out in my sleeping bag, shut my eyes and slept like a baby.
To be continued…..