I did it.
I finally reached the official 2,000km mark on the Te Araroa trail down the length of New Zealand.
But to finally get there after all the strife and mental and physical battles of the last six months is simply epic.
I’ve now walked into unknown territory.
This is all virgin trail for me.
I’ve done my 300km or so warm up on tracks I’ve paced before. Now I’m in uncharted waters.
It’s a little bit scary but also a lot exciting.
The section started off in St Arnaud, a tiny alpine village where the local Alpine Lodge does a legendary Sunday night all-you-can-eat BBQ – I feasted like a queen!
I missed that last year so to be able to stuff my face on the ultimate selection of barbequed meats and tasty salads was quite a treat.
Just a pity I knocked my full glass of wine over in my excitement to get seconds.
The trail from St Arnaud up to Blue Lake hut took me three days through gorgeous beech forest and up over Travers Saddle where the views of jagged mountains rippled off in all directions. Some peaks still had pockets of snow.
Blue Lake hut – named after the crystal clear Blue Lake nearby – was my last port of call on my journey south last season.
Back then, I’d ventured out early in the morning in an attempt to make it over Waiau Pass, the second highest point on the Te Araroa trail at 1867m above sea level, but the weather was grim, cloudy, drizzly and bitterly cold.
Going over the pass solo with a bung knee was out of the question.
This year, however, the day dawned perfectly, the sky like liquid blue ink.
Today I was going to do it – I was going to cross the Pass and reach the 2,000km mark.
My stomach churned with anticipation.
Five of us set off together. We climbed a small hill which afforded us a view of Lake Constance, whose green blue waters shone under the sparkle of the sun.
This was several steps further than last year already – I didn’t walk as far as the lake and I certainly hadn’t been able to see the foreboding mountains, all points and knife edges, in the near distance. The cloud had been too dense.
From the lake it was uphill for a bit through scree and then a sidle high above its shores before being halted in our tracks by a steep descent.
Visions of the Rintoul descent last year where I injured my knee flashed through my mind.
This one was decidedly shorter but no less unnerving, especially when the girl in front of me tripped and looked like she was heading for the edge only to balance herself just before momentum pushed her over.
It would have been as easy as that.
Needless to say, I took my time going down. Small steps, carefully positioned, trekking poles testing out suitable ground and keeping me upright.
At the bottom, the expanse of blue green water stretched out, enticing.
It was only 9:30 in the morning, but two hours of hard walking had already been ticked off.
We stripped off to our underwear and washed the morning’s sweat (and in my case the previous three days) from our bodies in the cool water, drip drying on warm rocks in the sun.
We viewed the terrain ahead. A flat walk along the shore of the lake and into the river valley heading towards those horrendously tall mountains yonder.
I spied a slash on the steep side of one.
“I think that’s the trail,” I said squinting at what looked like a skin wound scar diagonally across the side of the mountain.
“No way, can’t be,” one of the guys said. He made it clear that he had no interest in walking along that track.
It was true, it seemed impossible that the slash could be the trail but this was Te Araroa after all.
We reached the base of the mountain face and scanned for the marker poles with orange tops.
There they were, hiding in the green alpine brush and scree, a line of orange poles going straight up. No zig zags, no stairs, no ski lift. Straight up in a “direct fashion”, as the trail notes described.
Hmmmm, this was going to be hard.
“Half an hour,” one of the guys said. “We’ll be there before lunch.”
Well that was clearly said by someone who had never walked uphill on scree, on a steep mountain where the drops were dizzying.
Fast becomes relative when walking on scree. It’s two steps forward, one step back as you lose traction, the scree moving like liquid under your feet. Gravity is determined to win. But equally, will power is determined to not give up.
And there is no place for fear when you have a mere 30 cm wide track of fluid rocks next to an instant death drop to navigate.
The only way was up. But it was unnecessarily hard.
“Are we there yet?” I puffed as I reached the others sitting on a flattish grassy perch, which looked decidedly unlike a summit or a saddle or anything remotely remarkable.
“No,” they crowed in unison. It’s deceptive. There was still more mountain to climb.
But it was easier and soon we stood facing one giant valley, our backs to another and all around us grey peaks loomed, pockets of white snow glinting in the sunlight.
The trail notes say this is one of the most spectacular views on the trail. If you don’t mind climbing on scree, it’s definitely worth it.
But what goes up must come down.
This was the bit I had been dreading. Another steep, exposed descent.
Again, visions of Rintoul descent flashed through my mind.
But conditions were perfect, no wind to flick me over the edge, no rain to make me slip.
And funnily enough I really enjoyed it. A bit of technical back scrambling (interesting with a large, heavy backpack on) and a slow windy descent on loose grit.
It was exposed in places and in poor weather it would be dangerous but it wasn’t a second Rintoul.
I’d made Waiau Pass out to be much scarier in my head. I’d let my imagination run wild. It was nice to know the reality wasn’t that bad.
After a cooling foot soak in river water it was another four hours of boulder hopping, forest padding, and grassland meandering, crossing the 2,000km mark as I walked.
I stumbled into sandfly city (aka Waiau Hut) eleven and a half hours after setting off, tired but exuberant.
Milestones reached. Absolutely epic.
For the next three days, I slowly made my way downhill along side the river to the tiny settlement of Boyle Village, essentially slap bang in the middle of nowhere.
Here I rest for two days. The knee has been sore but not a major concern.
Next up river crossings and what could be a gigantic storm. It’s not an ideal combination so plans are likely to change.
Arthur’s Pass here I come.