The lakeside town of St Arnaud was small but the alpine lodge coupled with the gas station directly opposite made it easy to do all our town jobs. We had our first shower of the year, it now being over a week past New Year’s Day, and put all our clothes in the washer to get them smelling a little fresher than they currently did, as they were last washed on the 24th of December, over 2 weeks ago. As we needed to wash everything we didn’t have any clothes except our puffy that wasn’t in the washer. That meant fashioning some bottom layers out of the hotel bed sheets so that we were decent enough for a morning coffee at the petrol station/general store.
“I love your skirt,” said the local water taxi man with petrol pump in hand as he looked at Jenny. He continued, “is it a Tibetan monk wrap?”
“No, they are bedsheets,” said Jenny to a roar of laughter. Never had Jenny been complimented on her trousers before, and of course when she was it would be the time she wasn’t actually wearing clothes!
Over the course of the next six hours I would end up consuming four pies (butter chicken, veg, mince, and venison and red wine), Jenny would go through three coffees and we both had more ice cream than is healthy. We enjoyed not moving much until 4pm, only begrudgingly getting up to hike as every room in town had been booked.
Leaving St Arnaud the track transformed back to a highway: wide, clear and easy, making the 10km to Lakehead Hut a two hour trip. We set up our tents and as I went to get water from the hut, I started chatting to Noor, the fellow Dutch hiker/apple pie store owner.
The second coming
As I chatted, I noticed someone looking at me funnily, but then again that wasn’t too unusual with my loud Hawaiian shirt, hiker funk and moustache. I’m starting to look like a character from the TV series Narcos. Jenny then entered the hut at which point the stranger in the corner yelled out our names.
It was German Jesus, the lady who had miraculously cured Jenny’s legs on the section from Arrowtown to Wanaka. She threw her arms around us and invited us to stay in the hut which had plenty of remaining beds. With that we quickly packed down our tent and joined them for dinner indoors.
We caught up with Jana and her partner about their time in New Zealand so far, and exchanged fun stories filling each other in on Christmas, Jenny’s birthday and their time camping in the Abel Tasman. It was such a fun evening sharing stories and laughter again. We discussed our plans but unfortunately Jana and Benny were going a different direction from us, heading up to a fancy hut called Angelus which had been sold out for weeks. It’s a popular side trail for TA hikers as the scenery here is unworldly, with a hut sat within a crater, surrounded by lakes. We instead were planning to head south on the official TA track.
We shared the hut with an organised tour company which had two guides for a group of six. As we started to tuck into our instant noodles the other guests had their dinner served to them. It was an amazing sweet and sour dish with rice, noodles and lots of fresh vegetables. It was then onto the cheese platter before chocolate dipped strawberries and banana bread was served. They must have seen the look of envy on our faces as we were offered the desert scraps by the guides, something we gladly accepted. Noor was midway through brushing her teeth, but quickly decided banana bread was more important. In the morning we were offered leftover porridge along with chicken, cheese, cucumber and tomatoes to make up our own sandwiches. The chicken was honestly the best chicken I have ever had. It was honey roasted and the texture was unbelievable, but then again it might be hiker hunger making real good taste better.
Unfortunately for the tour group they had a dose of bad news for their guests. Due to high winds they wouldn’t be going up to the Angelus Hut as the forecast had 30kph winds reaching gusts of up to 65kph. For insurance purposes they were not allowed to go up to the hut, located at 1700 meters above sea level. That meant that the sold out hut now had 8 spaces open up.
We saw this as a sign that we had one more day to hike with Jana and asked the tour leaders if we could take their reservation.
“Of course, it’s just going to go to waste otherwise!”
A side tour
With that we changed course and thanks to the extra food we had been given, we would be able to add a day to our plan without much worry.
The day would only be 10km in distance but would involve having to climb over 1400 meters over a relatively short distance (6 kilometres).
After a shallow river crossing, we headed up the mountain making light work of the track. This was probably because we were transfixed by the trail’s beauty but could also have something to do with Jana being the pace-setter again.
We passed waterfalls and magical forests, and then were dropped into another world as we reached the hut. Saddled between ridges on three sides the hut looks like it is in a crater on Mars.
We went for a very cold dip with a friendly Brit before getting the fire going in the hut.
At 4 pm the warden of the hut came in and introduced himself and asked for bookings. An Irish couple didn’t have a screen shot of their reservation and were told they wouldn’t be allowed to stay without providing this (which would now be impossible as there is no cellphone service) before Hunter then turned to us.
“Where is your reservation?” said Hunter, the warden.
We explained the situation and how we’d been given the reservation from the tour group.
“Sorry, you can’t do that. You’re going to have to leave. The hiking group could always turn up. Or you could pay me $120 (£60) double the standard price in cash and I could let you stay.”
I asked where the closest spot was we could camp with our backcountry pass and was told it would be up on the exposed top of the mountain, a 20-30 minute walk away. Begrudgingly I stated we would move on, but agreed to the condition that we would eat dinner here and use the toilets so that we didn’t leave a trace on the alpine environment.
As the warden left we quickly lost track of time making dinner and merriment with the 9 people occupying the 36 bed hut. It seemed that with the amber weather warning a lot of people had chosen to cancel their trip for fear of the weather. The temperature was really dropping and the winds had started to pick up to the gusts promised at the start of the day. We really didn’t want to camp outside where the wind would rip through our tent all night and it would be bitterly cold and noisy. We were not looking forward to the poor night’s sleep ahead.
At 8pm we were reading and diary writing when we saw Hunter, the warden, circling the hut outside. He then came into the common room where we were all sitting. We all quickly became very interested in what we were reading. We were being hunted.
The hut had gone dead quiet. Everyone in the hut knew the situation and had expressed earlier in the day that they believed it was silly that we were going to get kicked out when we were given the booking by the group. They were just waiting to see what Hunter would say. It was like that moment when a teacher walks back into a classroom and you know the naughty kids are about to get it.
Hunter walked up to the log burner and started warming his hands.
He then turned slowly around and did the same to his back.
This book, The Road by Cormac McCarthy that I had picked up in St Arnaud was now the only thing I could look at. I was seeing words on the page but not taking them in.
The hut was so quiet. I was sure all nine of us were holding our breath. It was just a matter of time before one of us keeled over from asphyxiation.
Hunter then shuffled awkwardly towards the bench Jenny and I were sitting on. He sat down. Then, reached across Jenny to pick up the hiker log book. Still no sound.
He put the book back down in front of Jenny who had stopped writing and now was like a deer in headlights
“Cormac McCarthy is my favourite author of all time.”
I looked up at him in a state of confusion.
Oh, my book! He was talking about the book and had been staring through for the last few minutes.
“Yes!” I pounced. “I’ve never read anything from him but a fellow hiker in the Richmond Ranges suggested it to me and I found it in the community book library in St Arnaud. Have you read it?”
Hunter softened and we had a conversation about his work here, his work back home in Zion National Park (USA) and his upcoming role as search and rescue for Antarctica. I was just waiting for the conversation to turn. It felt like it was building to what he really wanted to say.
“Well, have a great night yall” and with that Hunter left.
The puzzled crew stared at each other in disbelief before the room erupted into a symphony of laughter, cheers and recounting of what just happened. It felt like kindness had won for today.
Walks on top of the world
We awoke to a blue bird day. Even though Hunter seemed fine yesterday, we didn’t want to test it so awoke at 6.15 to leave the hut by 7. We slack packed up to the edge of the crater for our morning granola bar which was served with some of the best views we have had all trail. It was then back to pick up our bags before we headed up to a different ridge line following Mount Cedric down.
The scenery here was unreal. We could see all the way out to Nelson, the sea, and the mountain ranges beyond. We had a morning picnic up on the ridge which reminded us both of Goat Rocks. It was then onto Sabine Hut following a path through the woods so steep down that Jenny and I slipped out on the dry leaves more times in 2 hours than we had fallen the rest of the trail combined. Still we were having fun descending about 1500 meters down the hill. Our knees on the other hand were screaming! Sabine Hut was a welcome respite for the knobbly joints and from the sandflies on the shore of the lake.
After 15 kilometres through the trees we reached west Sabine Hut, a very popular hut for families. The chatter continued late and started early with Jenny waking to the kid in the bunk next to her stating, “Mummy, it’s 6 o’clock we need to get up now!”. We groggily got ready knowing that this day would be tough. We had the second highest point in the trail to climb today. But before then we had to get to Blue Lake.
Known as the clearest lake in the world, Blue Lake has an underwater visibility of over 80 meters. As such you can’t touch the water of the lake, but instead we used the river outlet of the lake to fill up our bottles. This would be some of the cleanest water in the world so we made an exception to our usual rule of filtering all our water sources.
From Blue Lake we climbed steeply to the shores of Lake Constance. This was the warm up to the main event of the day which was a pass covered in scree. Lunch was had at the bottom of the Waiau Pass and as we were wrapping up we saw a hiker coming down.
“How was it?” I asked.
“Don’t see what all the fuss is about. It was pretty easy.”
After we summited and were down the other side we agreed with her. Whilst steep in places, it was very manageable. A bit of clambering as we headed down but nothing we haven’t done in the Richmonds. We had heard stories of 100kph winds on the pass the day before but today was as still as a mouse. It seemed like the side tour with Jana had helped us miss a spot of bad weather. What that also meant though is that everyone who was going to try the pass yesterday had all summitted today, meaning there were 12 hikers ahead of us heading for the 6 bed hut. As such, when we stumbled upon a campsite an hour out from the hut we took the opportunity to stop and try and get a more peaceful night’s sleep.
A Thai green curry backpacker meal was on the menu to reward ourselves for the 3000 meters of combined gained and lost elevation, and we fell asleep instantly to the babbling of the Waiau River.
Having slept soundly through the night,we felt good for the day, walking through the Waiau Valley where a flat day allowed us to clear 28kms. Whilst pretty under the blue sky, the flat track was at times a little dull versus the mountain ranges we had been challenged by during the rest of this section. The only other person we saw all day was a hunter who was successfully walking home having accomplished what he set out for: a tahr. Now the tahr has an interesting history in new Zealand. They were introduced in 1904 by the duke of Bedford who gifted six Himalayan tahr from his personal UK estate to improve new Zealands game animals. Without any natural predators the five who made the long journey from the UK thrived eventually reaching a population of 40,000 before the department of conservation decided they needed to do something about it. Today about 2,000 of the endangered species exist in New Zealand, the largest heard outside of Nepal and India.
Tony, the hunter, made us reflect on our lives back home, as he had decided on the Thursday evening to come up into the mountains, left after work on Friday and had a lovely weekend in the mountains doing what he enjoyed. We concluded we need to ensure we are continuing to make time in our busy off-trail lives to keep doing the shorter adventures, especially as we have now used our entire holiday allowance for 2023.
Remembering how well we slept under canvas the day before, we decided to do the same that evening, erecting our tent 5 kilometres short of the hut that at least a dozen other hikers would now be at. It was another peaceful spot where the sound of birdsong and a lapping river was all for company.
The flat planes continued for the next few days as we followed the Anne and Boyle rivers down to the road. The huts and paths got busier the closer to the road we got with hikers doing all manner of loops and tracks, as well as a mash of north and southbound hikers, as we meet in the middle. A few days back we met a German couple who we had hiked with in the Mavora Lakes section, and in this section met a few who started on or around when we did. We shared stories and agreement on weather and trail conditions, and we were again pleased with our decision to flip.
The huts were starting to get very full, so even though we had stopped by Boyle Flat Hut for our final night on trail, we camped a short way away, only using the hut for respite from the sandflies and to chat with other hikers, which included two very cute kids who were finishing up a five day tramp. After games, elaborate stories, dinner, second dinner and high fives it was time to retire to bed. It was 9pm after all.
After 14 Kms we had made it to Boyle village where a hitch to the tourist village of Hanmer Springs finished this section. We have loved the trail and all the surprises it has thrown up this section. Great views, good company and simple living, what more could you ask for!