I stood and stared at the squelchy pool of brown mud in front of me, a mixed look of disbelief and annoyance etched across my face.
“Really! I mean really,” I said out loud, to no one in particular. “Not more mud,” I moaned. #WalkNZ was quickly becoming #WalkMuddyNZ.
Here I was on the Tararua mountain range section of the 3,000km Te Araroa hiking trail down the length of New Zealand and yet again I was looking at a vast heap of wet, boot and soul-destroying mud.
“I’m in the fricken mountains,” I thought. “There’s not supposed to be any mud.”
I guessed this was another memo about the trail I had missed.
Of course, I could have listened to John from the Makahika Outdoor Centre the night before who, sort of, flippantly noted that the tramp was muddy. Well, if I recalled, his actual words were “mud slide”.
I had brushed his comment aside at the time; mud in the mountains? Yeah right.
Now as I stared at the quagmire in front of me, I felt foolish and more than a little bit peeved.
The new boots I’d worn from Whanganui were about to get their first proper introduction to New Zealand mud. There was no way around it.
I groaned inwardly, took a breath and gingerly advanced through the slush, trying my best to avoid the worst of it. It wasn’t exactly a successful attempt.
From there, the first day of the Tararuas section didn’t get any better.
It was a struggle of a steep uphill climb – me carrying eight days worth of food on my back for all just-in-case scenarios.
First it was through forest and over tree branches, then it was through alpine shrub and grass, which hid the mud and the trail well and required my newly acquired bush-whacking skills to plough through.
My heart pumped, while my lungs and legs screamed and my boots squelched as I climbed upward for hours.
The only joy was the immature thought that I was climbing Richards Knob – and how much that really needed an apostrophe.
As it was, reaching Richards Knob was rather elusive with several false crests before the unremarkable knob was finally reached.
What wasn’t unremarkable was the vista that began to spread out around me – waves of green-tipped mountain tops.
It was a stunner of a day with barely a whisper of a breeze.
I’d been forced to come up today instead of tomorrow to make the weather window and get through the Tararuas before the inclement weather changed for the worst.
It was currently the diamond in my mud-fest tramp.
And that was also the theme for the next day as I climbed to a high point of 1,400 metres above sea level and then trekked along a ridge line – brilliant blue skies, drool-worthy mountain views, a shimmering distant ocean and a s*** load of steep, slippery mud.
Had someone said mud slide?
A couple of hours in, and I’d already lost count of the number of times I’d slipped over, once stuck on my back with my legs up in the air.
Mud caked my legs, coated my new boots and had worked its way under my fingernails.
I looked at a valley below with a ribbon of water meandering through it. On my other side I could see Kapiti Island and far in the distance I could even make out the South Island.
The truth was, the views were pretty but it was all makeup hiding the imperfections of the trail. And this trail was far from perfect.
It wasn’t just tramping; it was extreme tramping – and I had been unprepared for just how brutal this section would be – and that was without bad weather thrown in.
It was both physically and mentally demanding, what with the steep uphills, overgrown brush and copious amounts of mud.
On a level of one to 10, (10 being damn hard), I was ranking this section an 11. I was seriously struggling and close to breaking point. With every step, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a prelude for the South Island and how the hell I would cope.
With all the will in the world, I forced myself to not cry. I focused on goal one – getting to the next hut for lunch.
When I finally got there, the guys who were in my “group” were already tucking into wraps. It took some time but they all slowly admitted that the trail was hard and they too were struggling. I’d thought it was just me; that I was the slow inadequate one.
“So how long have we left to go before Nichols Hut?” I asked, conscious that 2pm was coming round.
One of the guys raises four fingers. “Four hours,” he said.
With that we entered the trees, still following an undulating ridge line but this time through an otherworldly goblin forest where stocky, deformed trees were clothed in green moss jumpsuits and the sunlight filtered through the cracks in the leafy ceiling above. The trail remained muddy, but in places it was blanketed with tiny leaves like wedding confetti.
The hut finally came into view, sitting in a dip below a saddle. The sunset that night was a watercolour splash of apricot pink on the horizon, silhouetting the mountain tops.
The next morning, I was woken by the banging of the hut door.
The glorious sun and windless weather of the past two days had been replaced by smudgy cloud and howling wind gusts. Gone were the views of mountain tops; in their place was a monochrome pallette of fluffy grey.
It was time to get off this muddy mountain.
The wind pushed against me as I trod the narrow and often-times exposed and rocky ridge line to Mt Crawford, while all around me the mist swirled.
I slipped on a bit of mud and found myself a little too close to the mountain edge, thankful that a wind gust hadn’t swept through at that moment.
My heart beat wildly, but this time from the exhilaration.
This was the most fun I’d had in the Tararuas to date.
I was already on the steep descent before I realised I’d passed the summit of Mt Crawford, its view completely lost in the cloud.
Now it was just down, a full 1000m down; firstly over rocks and then down the muddy slopes of the forest.
A couple of sections were dicey but nowhere near as bad as I’d expected.
But scuttling down one bit, I slipped and plunged forward, the weight of my momentous pack carrying me forward. In slow motion, moss and dirt came up to greet my face in a spectacular face plant as I became wedged, somewhat perilously, over the edge of the track with my bum hoisted high in the air above me.
I was completely stuck, the weight of my pack pinning my face down in the mud, my muscles too punny to push myself back up.
“Um, help,” I shouted as best I could through the moss and my embarrassed giggles.
It was fortunate one of the guys came to my rescue, although there was a distinct pause as he observed my predicament and the ungainly position I was in before yanking my backpack backwards to normality.
There was a big sigh of relief when I finally reached the lower hut.
I was out of the main danger of the Tararuas. Here is was calm, a little cloudy but calm. I could see how people would expect similar conditions up top.
But I hadn’t counted on the last leg out to Otaki Forks, which turned out to be a five-hour gruelling push through a muddy and wild forest.
It was like a purposely set-up obstacle course of mud, tree roots, felled trees, slippery rocks over streams and vines. Or I was an intrepid explorer charting the New Zealand undergrowth for the first time.
By the time I finally made it out, I had a sprained ankle and was starting to question my sanity.
If the South Island was going to be like three days in the Tararuas, then it was definitely going to be an adventure.