We left Queenstown early but not early enough to miss hearing that the tourist city had its first coronavirus case.
I couldn’t get into the mountains and away from people fast enough.
And so my boyfriend and I headed for the New Zealand wilderness, moving further south, getting closer to the finish line.
But there was a chill in the air. (No, I don’t mean coronavirus).
It was no longer an autumnal crispness but a wintery chill. It lingered hours after the sun came up, forcing me to keep beanie and gloves on until after lunch.
Yes the seasons were now noticeably changing. It was dark when we woke, the sunlight during the day seemed weak, and it would disappear all too quickly behind the mountains when we got into camp each evening.
It was perhaps not the best time to decide to do the walk a little differently – to decide to wild camp each night.
The cold and I don’t get on particularly well – and they were three cold nights, spent in the foetal position, hiding in my sleeping bag.
But the sun breaking through the morning mist, with the mountain tops peaking through is one of the Te Araroa must-have experiences. Or bedding down under a pine tree, hearing the wind whoosh through its branches all night long. Or doing yet another road walk (yeah, I know!).
We decided we wouldn’t carry 10 days worth of food, opting instead for four days and hitching into Te Anau for resupply.
Quickest hitch ever. We crossed the road as a car turned the corner, put our thumb out and he pulled over. Probably not even 10 seconds.
Te Anau wasn’t exactly the bustling tourist town I remembered. It was pretty darn quiet. Coronavirus was starting to make its mark.
We stayed for two days, contributing significantly to the local restaurant and cafe economy.
While we were there, New Zealand hit alert level 2, non-essential travel was limited and foreigners banned from entering the country.
We figured the New Zealand wilderness was probably the safest place for us away from the crowds, and with 10 days left until reaching Bluff, surely we’d get there before the country got up to level 4.
The finish beckoned. 3,000km walked. After oscillating for some time over whether I wanted the journey to be over, I realised I was tired. I was ready to hang up my walking shoes and start on the next chapter of my life. I couldn’t wait to get there.
But first I still had the Takitimu mountains, a rather muddy forest and some beach walking. That’s all that stood between me and completing the Te Araroa trail down the length of New Zealand.
Getting a hitch out of Te Anau was a little more difficult than getting a hitch in. There were several cars out on the Sunday morning, but every driver shook their head at us until one man on the way to Invercargill pulled over and picked us up.
Success with getting out of Te Anau and we were back on the trail, this time climbing a mountain through a muddy forest – muddier than I thought it would be.
I thought ironically how the walk would end how it began – muddy forests and a beach walk.
I don’t like mud.
I also don’t like wet shoes. And we got that too, walking through moor-like tussock plains, where sodden, muddy-water-soaked moss swallowed our footsteps.
This was the theme for two days – alternating between muddy forests and wet plains.
And then there was snow.
Well it started as rain, became hail, which turned to snow.
We were in a section of forest at the time, heading towards a 1,000m summit, when the rain and hail started.
I was surprised. Yes it was cold but I hadn’t come across any mention of snow in the forecasts.
With annoyance my supposed waterproof gloves proved they were in fact not waterproof and were doing more harm than good locking in the freezing cold water. So they came off.
Decisions are always made with the best intentions and with the best information at the time. Hindsight comes later.
We pressed on up the mountain under the shelter of the forest, as fallen trees and ferns slowly turned into a winter wonderland.
We briefly questioned whether we should retreat but decided it would make sense to push on, despite the fact conditions would naturally worsen the higher the altitude gain but knowing they would also improve once over the summit and down the other side. Bluff called after all.
I was somewhat surprised when the trees started to shake, mere metres from the summit. The forest had been so still and quiet.
Wow, those trees are really shaking, was the first thought that went through my head before moving to: Huh? There’s wind out there?
My brain connections seemed slow and fuddled from the cold.
Then suddenly I was out in the open on the top of the mountain with a full on blustery wind throwing snow in my face.
The ground was coated in snow and the gale-force wind chill had to be in the negatives.
It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t wearing gloves as all feeling and any remaining warmth was sucked away by the wind.
We needed to get off this mountain – fast.
Only the wind had other thoughts, blowing me sideways, off my feet and into the snow.
Panic set in as I tried to battle the elements, but I was pushed backwards on a haphazard course towards the mountain edge.
My bare fingers seemed frozen in a useless club, an excruciating pain throbbing through them. The wind pummeled me, tormented me. The show whipped in my face. I was sure frostbite was starting. How long till hypothermia set in?
I blubbered like a maniac. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.
Was I going to die on this mountain?
Like the experienced hill walker that he is, my boyfriend took control, stuffing my hands up his shirt to bring some warmth back as he explained authoritatively that we needed to move off the mountain and down as fast as possible, that continuing was better than going back because we had less distance to cover to camp, and the ridge line ahead dropped quickly so the wind would decrease and the temperature would rise.
He jammed my raincoat hood over my head so I could barely see, knotted his arm through mine and dragged me over the rocks and through the snow.
We stumbled over the uneven ground, slipping and rocked by the wind as we rushed to descend. The snow spat at us.
As if to reassure me, he said he’d been in worse conditions.
And then the sun came out, glinting brilliantly off the white ground.
Great now we’re going to go snow blind, I exclaimed, still slightly crazed.
But I could feel the warmth of the sun through the chill of the wind.
We dropped down. It got warmer, the wind became lighter.
As we reached the snow line, I was able to release my hand from my boyfriend’s and walk unaided.
Feeling started to return to my fingers as I was able to take stock of what just happened, how stupid and embarrassed I felt at panicking and how grateful I was that my boyfriend looked after me and got me off the mountain in one piece. Legend!
That night we camped in our tent as snowed whirled outside.
We woke to grey skies and mountain tops dusted white and set out on a 25km walk through the paddocks of one of New Zealand’s largest agricultural stations.
From an early high point, we were supposed to have a view of the sea and the South coast of New Zealand. The finish was literally in sight – although all I could actually see was grey smudge.
It was all about the walk, surviving the snow storm, the coming finish line as we wandered over the rolling hills and paddocks, so it was a bit of a shock when a farmer on a quad bike raced towards us to deliver the coronavirus news that New Zealand was at alert level 3 and going into alert level 4 tomorrow, with a lockdown of the country for four weeks.
What the! My head swam with the information overload.
With limited details of what it all meant, we ummed and ahhed over our next moves. Continue walking and stay in the wilderness where we were essentially isolated from other people or try to get off the trail now?
My fear was we would continue walking and when we eventually hit the first sign of civilisation we’d be stuck with no accomodation, food or transport options.
It was decided. We bail on the trail for now. It would still be there when Covid-19 was over, we reasoned.
We picked up the pace. Time was now of the essence. We needed to get to the state highway and get a hitch to wherever. Our best option was probably Invercargill.
We raced through the paddocks as they undulated over the countryside, reaching the state highway after 6pm.
It was dead.
We stood in the middle of the road and waited. And waited. And waited.
Fifteen minutes after we arrived, the first car drove past.
It was only at the last minute after his conscience had kicked in, that he pulled over and asked where we were heading.
He was going to Te Anau. The irony.
Given the distinct lack of traffic, we took up his offer of a ride, although he asked rather bluntly before we got in: you haven’t got coronavirus have you?
So, here I find myself in Te Anau, a tiny tourist town turned ghost town.
My boyfriend and I are now holed up in a motel room with yellow walls until lockdown is over. We were fortunate to get a room – not because demand was high (there are hardly any tourists here) but because it seemed no one was particularly keen to put up two unknown walkers for four weeks. What if they had coronavirus?
Lockdown hadn’t begun but everything was closed bar the supermarkets and the stationery shop. It was a mad rush to resupply and buy a selection of magazines, colouring in books and a board game to keep boredom at bay.
We have no laptops, no garden to weed, no DIY to do, no typical kitchen to cook up a storm in, no filing or boring admin to sort through, no bikes to ride, no car to drive, no house to reorganise or decorate, no clothing to iron, no musical instruments to play. Life has been put on hold.
I was ready to stop walking but not like this.
When I woke that morning and set off into the farmer’s paddocks, it was just another day walking with only eight left before arriving in Bluff. I woke thinking I would walk all eight.
That changed in an instant. I had barely got my head around the concept of lockdown and what we would do before I was climbing over my last stile and walking the last section of the trail. It was surreal.
It’s unlikely I’ll get back on the trail this season once lockdown is over because who knows when that will be and whether movement between cities and regions will be allowed. Currently, tramping is officially banned. Meanwhile, the leaves on the trees in Te Anau are turning red and orange and flying on the wind. The heater is on. Winter is coming.
Naturally I’m gutted that the finish line yet again has been wrestled away from me but one thing I have learnt from walking the Te Araroa trail is that a problem is only a problem if you think it’s a problem. Think of it as anything else, an opportunity for instance, and hey presto your experience changes, possibilities present themselves.
Coronavirus and the early departure from the trail is merely a twist in my journey. Now I have the time, the opportunity to write my book, write my story, share what I have learnt about life, about self-doubt, about failure, about strength and mental resilience while walking the Te Araroa trail.
This is the next chapter in my life. This is the next challenge.