It’s funny how long-distance walking undulates mentally as much as the mountains and hills that I hike along the Te Araroa trail.
Last week, I was ecstatic that I’d completed eight days in New Zealand wilderness in the demanding Richmond Ranges in the South Island.
This week, I have a dark cloud hanging over me after having to turn back and bail from the Nelson Lakes after poor weather and injury struck.
I write this while holed up in the spa resort town of Hanmer Springs, giving myself several days to rest my bung leg and sort my head out.
The Nelson Lakes section had started out so promising after the success of the Richmond Ranges, a rest day in St Arnaud, and refuelling on masses of churros drenched in caramel sauce.
Sure, I’d hobbled into St Arnaud with a sore leg but it was nothing that a rest day and some food wouldn’t fix, I reasoned.
But even as I left St Arnaud and trotted through the forest along the edges of Lake Rotoiti towards the first hut, I wondered if my leg was really alright.
I banished the doubts from my mind.
For three days I wandered deeper into the Nelson Lakes, along forest paths and over roots and rocks, climbing higher in altitude.
I crossed bubbling streams and hopped tentatively over boulders, each day bringing me closer to bigger mountains, more hard, raw jagged rocks, and more remote wilderness.
I climbed to Travers Saddle at over 1,700 metres to see the mighty mountains spread out before me, glinting grey in the sunlight.
It was Snowdonia on steroids.
And then there was the descent – nothing like the Richmond Ranges but it was long and seemed never ending.
My legs were tired by the end of it, so an almost four-hour walk uphill only proved to fatigue them further.
The next day I would take on Waiau Pass, the second highest point on the Te Araroa trail at over 1,800 metres and described as a “serious undertaking” only suitable for fit and experienced individuals with good agility.
It consisted of walking up a steep scree slope and a then coming down a steep descent with some technical scrambling (or rather back climbing). It was demanding but a highlight of the trail with views bordering on the spectacular by all accounts.
To say I was anxious was an understatement. I was doing it solo.
The words of an American girl I’d passed a few days earlier rang in my ears: “I actually found it really scary. I’d say if you have any doubts, don’t do it.”
I slept fitfully, woken each time one of the old men in the hut got up to pee – which was frequently.
When I woke for the last time, it was still dark.
I could hear the wind rushing through the trees and whistling through the gaps in the hut.
That wasn’t good.
When I ventured outside, it was cold; a real chill was in the air.
That wasn’t good either.
And when the inky black of night crept away, the sky was left sullen and grey. Fine tendrils of cloud wound themselves around the mountain tops.
I walked for almost an hour, uphill.
The wind got stronger; the cold chill more piercing.
I reached an open field, almost at the lookout point over Lake Constance. Here, the wind was keen, pushing the tussock grass into a sideways dance. The chill it brought from the south, penetrated my clothes.
The mountains in front of me, including the Waiau Pass, dissolved into murky grey cloud.
The fluffy cloud brought no comfort, just foreboding.
I stood in the blustery wind for five minutes shivering. My leg throbbed; my mind was haywire.
This wasn’t right, I thought. Why take on a beast of a climb by myself in conditions like this, with a bung leg, and no rewarding views for the effort? What was I trying to prove? That I was stupid?
With that, I turned around and hobbled away from the cloud and the cold wind back to the hut and into dark thoughts of failure and inadequacy.
I returned to the hut, announcing “I’m back”.
The hut warden said he had been thinking of me. I’d made the right decision; the weather had deteriorated. The wind gusts were now 50km an hour, not ideal for a technical descent.
I decided against attempting the Pass the next day despite a slightly better weather forecast. I just didn’t trust it or my leg.
Instead, I walked northward out of the Nelson Lakes, tagging along with three British blokes who had been at the hut for a boys weekend. They lived in Christchurch. They let me jump on their water taxi ride out and then drove me to Hanmer Springs on their way home.
They were legends, rescuing a damsel in her time of need.
I made the right decision. Two southbounders I passed were determined to get over despite the dodgy weather but they were I’ll equipped.
“Have you got a personal locator beacon?” I asked one, a Frenchman who looked barely 20.
“Bacon? No I have other food to eat,” he replied.
“No, no,” I said. “Do you have a device to call in an emergency?”
“Gas? Yes I have gas,” he said proudly.
“No,” I exclaimed. “A device to call a helicopter. To rescue you if you break your leg.”
He looked at me, shocked at the very thought. “Oh no I will not break a leg,” he said adamantly. “I need my legs to walk the South Island.”
Finally, I deciphered that he had no personal locator beacon. I wished him luck and told him to stay safe.
Whether he made it over I have no idea.
In the meantime, I now find myself in a spa resort town with a sore leg and 45km gap in the trail that I haven’t walked.
Technically I’ve walked 2,000km – two thirds of the Te Araroa trail. But it’s bittersweet; I clocked it walking in the opposite direction.
According to the physio who looked at my leg, I possibly have irritation of the knee cap. The good news is it shouldn’t stop me from walking. The bad news is I don’t know how long I have to or should wait.
And time is against me now. The seasons are changing; leaves are falling, the nights are closing in, and mornings bring a chill to the air.
People I started walking with are now finishing – I still have 1,000km to walk.
I’d like to get to Bluff by the end of April. That’s seven weeks.
A lot depends on my leg and the weather.
The rest of the trail could be the most mentally challenging yet.