Lightening strips of pain burned up the back of my legs.
My lungs were in meltdown trying to support my muscles that sucked up the scant oxygen in my blood, while my heart seemed to be in its death throes as it attempted to keep up with the relentless uphill movement of my legs as I inched slowly closer to yet another mountain saddle.
Five mountains over 1000m high in three days. Classic Te Araroa.
And oh man, it hurt.
To say I underestimated the Motatapu Track is an understatement.
Mountains? Pft! Nothing could be as bad as the Richmond Ranges, I naively believed.
That was until I was introduced to the Motatapu Track between Wanaka and Queenstown – suddenly the Richmond Ranges had competition for the title of ball breaker.
It’s sort of easy to get complacent after getting over Waiau Pass.
You know that’s the hard sections done and everything becomes comparable.
Getting to Stag Saddle, the highest point on the trail wasn’t a walk in the park but versus the Richmond Ranges, almost easy.
The Motatapu Track, however, was a leg killer.
We went up, and up and up (and over a large fallen tree) and up some more, just to get to the first hut and then more up after that, all the way to a saddle with a view of crinkled mountains.
Then is was down and down and down – a steep down where my quads burned in an effort to protect the jarring on my knees and to keep me upright.
By the time we reached the river, my legs were like jelly.
But we had to walk back up a bit to get to our hut for the night.
That was the easy day.
Day two consisted of two climbs to two saddles and two descents.
I couldn’t even begin to overuse the word “steep” to describe this.
To start striping off layers before 9am on a freezing cold morning says something about how much I was working.
It was hard and it hurt but the views of river valleys and distant mountain tops floating above the clouds made up for all the pain.
When we reached the saddles, we’d play a game of trying to pick out the trail on the next mountainous mound.
The trail never seemed to bode well.
To add insult to injury, as I recovered from staggering up saddle number one for the day, the organiser for the annual Motatapu race caught us up.
He had already run (yes run) from Wanaka that morning – it was barely 11am by this point – and was running all the way to Arrowtown in one day – what would take us three days.
The top elite athletes that compete in the Motatapu race can run the 51km in under six and a half hours, he said.
I was both staggered and exhausted by the fact.
He bounded off with the energy of a baby goat leaving me feeling deflated and slightly concerned for his ankles and knees.
It was not an unjustified concern considering I’d already achieved a spectacular faceplant in a tussock grass followed by a sideways forward roll as the track traversed the mountain and somehow not ended up halfway down the hillside.
By the morning of day three on the track I was really starting to feel it, and we still had a further two more mountains to climb.
My calves were tight and fiercely painful. All strength had gone from my quads. And I was tired to boot.
A combination that doesn’t go well with another big climb, especially one that is considerably steeper than first thought.
Even without a back pack I would have struggled.
From the top the mountains dipped and dived layer on layer, where one ended another one began.
The slow descent down brought us to a river.
The options were wet feet and travel along the river bed or the high water track traversing the mountainside above the river.
Dry feet won out. Sore legs lost.
The undulating “trail” (not dissimilar to the Mangaokewa River Track in the North Island but with better views) took us through bracken, clumps of spikey plants, slippery tussock and muddy bogs.
I couldn’t help but cry as I wrestled my way through the shrubs and slipped over yet again on the slick ground.
This was the closest I’d come to breaking on the South Island – and it wasn’t over yet.
Another hill climb in the heat of the day brought us to our final saddle for the section and a view of distant civilisation, which promised a bed for the night.
Relief swept through me.
We staggered into Arrowtown at 7pm.
While there were no hills the next day, it was still a long and painful almost 30km walk to Queenstown where I proceeded to consume a bacon and egg buttie, a side of hot chips, a mince and cheese pie and a large ice-cream milkshake all before dinner.
Now my thoughts begin to turn towards the end of the walk.
There are just 330km left, which will take about 15 days.
The end seems to have come around so quickly I can barely comprehend it.
In many ways I can’t wait to get there yet at the same time I want to avoid it for as long as possible.
The pressure is on to find the answers I seek.
I haven’t had the chance to fully reflect on my thoughts around self-doubt, freedom and identity.
And what about work and real life? Who will I be when I hang up my walking shoes?
Everything will come in good time and all will be ok – this I know.
Fifteen days and a new life begins.