I can’t quite believe it but I survived eight days in the remote New Zealand wilderness walking up and down a lot of steep, tall mountains through the Richmond Ranges.
This was classed as scary shit – the Richmond Ranges are dubbed the toughest section in the South Island on the Te Araroa trail.
Naturally, I was totally freaking out about them.
A month ago I passed the halfway mark on my #WalkNZ adventure, and while I was proud of what I had achieved, the dark cloud of what was to come in the form of big mountains in the South Island played on my mind.
It tormented me. My self doubt returned.
When I struggled with the Tararua mountains in the North Island, I really started to worry about what I was in for come the South Island.
I mean, this was a completely different beast that awaited me – and the Richmond Ranges was the beast in a bad mood.
In a worst case scenario, I could be looking at 11 days in the wilderness if the weather turned bad, holed up in a hut. Or perhaps, worse still, flying off the side of a mountain into a cloudy abyss and no one realising for days.
But it’s funny how our minds take a concept, a fear, someone else’s perception and then twist it and contort it until it takes on a form all of its own devoid from reality.
In the end, I was really only fearing the unknown. But that was enough to give me the heebie jeebies – big time.
But in hindsight, the Richmond Ranges weren’t nearly as bad as my mind had made them out to be.
For starters, I was graced with perfect weather. And I had the company of some fellow walkers. Things were ok.
The first two days from Pelorus Bridge were a straightforward amble through green forest along a nice, albeit narrow, path, marveling at emerald waters and distant mountain tops. This I enjoyed.
Then it was into the Richmond Ranges proper, with the bigger mountains.
And bigger mountains mean bigger views.
The third day began with a steep uphill climb through forest to above the tree line, where I was suddenly feasting on mountains galore, their rippled peaks a slash of green forest bottom and yellow, sandy and grassy tops.
In the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Kaikoura Ranges twinkled in the sunlight.
I drank in the views as the mountains dipped and dived into deep forested valleys as I strode along the ridge line.
My senses were on overload – “this is f***ing awesome,” my mind continued to repeat with every step.
And then came day four – the big day; the one with the 1,700 metre plus high mountain. The one where the trail notes described the day as the most difficult and demanding in the section.
I was definitely anxious, as I eyed the fluffy layer of cloud that lingered over the top of Little Rintoul that looked down on the hut.
It was supposed to burn off.
There was no time like the present to push fear to the side and take on the mountain.
I set off, along with a fellow SOBO (south bound) walker, to keep an eye on each other.
Going up was easy. And the view from the top of Little Rintoul showed peaks on one side and cloud on the other as jets of sunlight danced through the gaps.
Descending on the other side, though, was a slightly different ball game.
Exceptionally steep on loose rock and scree, it gave me not just the mental wobbles but the leg wobbles. One slip and I’d be off careening down the mountain side.
The misty cloud that swirled around us only added to the sense of foreboding.
But then, as if someone had flicked a switch, the cloud suddenly disappeared and the view was replaced with mountain tops.
Surviving the perilous descent it was back up to the summit of Mt Rintoul, the day’s high point.
I sat at the top looking out at the Kaikoura’s snowy peaks, reveling in how special it was to have this experience.
Surviving the second perilous descent to the hut, I realised I had just completed the most demanding day of the Richmond Ranges, and despite the horrendous and painfully slow descents, I felt it hadn’t been that bad – at least not as bad as my mind had presumed it would be.
That night I lay in the top bunk watching the lights of Richmond twinkle in the distance.
Day five was another peak, followed by an undulating forest stroll.
Unfortunately, a steep descent to the hut had me toppling over mere centimetres from hitting my head on a rock.
Meanwhile, day six had me almost drowning when I slipped on a wet rock during a river crossing and found head pushed down under a current of water. The energy from the realisation that my toilet paper was getting wet had me coming up for air and hobbling off on shaky legs, vowing never to make that mistake again.
The afternoon of day six and then day seven brought a change in landscape – large red boulders, dusty dry trails, tussock and alpine shrub.
It was hot. I imagined this was what it would be like walking through Africa, outback Australia or along the Californian desert section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Mentally, this part was the most gruelling of the Richmond Ranges.
And then it was the last day. I was walking out, back into civilisation.
The last hut was dry out of water. I was sore, bruised, coated in sweat and dust and sunscreen. My right leg was bung and I limped. My hair was a grimy slick matted to my head. I could smell myself while standing still as a rancid, pungent odour wafted off me.
It wasn’t pretty but I did it. I hobbled out of the Richmond Ranges, as a hot shower and proper food called to me.