Gaudi-like rock formationNext morning I set off down the Harper River, slightly surprised to find a Department of Conservation sign that pointed downriver to Lake Coleridge. When I'd done my trail report, no-one had mentioned that this was a recognised route to the lake.

I waded and re-waded the river to by-pass bluffs, past one strange formation that looked like the Sacrada Familia, the knobbed Catholic spires of that strange and perpetually unfinished Barcelona cathedral stretching up and away toward nature-worship. Gaudi had passed this way.

But mostly it was river terrace leading back finally to farmland and I stopped for lunch on the tussocky flanks of a 1,000-metre hillock, The Redoubt.

I sliced off big chunks of salami. I ate crackers and cheese. I drank the rainwater from Hamilton hut. There were big peaks all around and I laid out the map.

This is one of the great pleasures of South Island tramping. The country is so open and the views so clear that when you lay out the map it's an uncanny contraction of the real thing. You look down, and there it is, artificially small but accurate. You look up and there it is life-sized and even more accurate. At first you just look to the main mountains. Mt Olympus here, Mt Gargarus there. Then you start to study the flanks of individual mountains. The map shows the contour lines of the mountain nicely separated here, but fearfully bunched there. You look up and see the same bits of mountain, nicely sloping here, but fearfully steep there.

Small mountsAnd the names - it was an idle game sitting here in the sun, entirely relaxed, chewing on salami, drinking cool rainwater, and deciding whether to quarrel with the pioneers. Olympus ? No way. An overreaction to a rather ordinary 2000-metre peak. Gargarus - a good powerful name for the big, solitary brooder that rose slowly west of the river. The Spurs, sharp and rowelled, The Knuckles, yes suitably knobbed, and Mt Ida seemed, with its strong but slightly complex ridging to suggest faithful love. The distinctly conical Mt Fitzwilliam should however, I decided as I packed up again, be renamed The Cone.

The Redoubt was on Ryton Station land. I'd rung the station and had permission to come through on a 4WD track, and by late afternoon I was in a $20-a-night lodge beside the farmhouse, peering into the cold store at five skinned sheep carcases on hooks.

I was waiting for the station owner, Mike Meares, who'd headed out on a 4WD safari, and I grabbed a beer from his fridge and took out the battered copy of 'Te Araroa - South Island Trail.'

I'd included as an appendix the original South Island trail design done in 1970 by the Scenic Trails Sub Committee of the Federated Mountain Clubs. The FMC route and Te Araroa's route both came down the Harper River, and both turned sharply east here. The FMC report and my report recommended tracking east some 40 km, to cross below the confluence of the Wilberforce and Rakaia Rivers on the bridge that spanned the Rakaia Gorge.

There were compelling reasons for this. The Wilberforce and the Rakaia are both braided rivers, but the Wilberforce is steep and the Rakaia's channels simply carry a lot of water. Both rivers rise and fall unpredictably, and are perhaps all the more dangerous because they are crossable sometimes. But a tramper who crosses the Wilberforce above Lake Coleridge must then tramp south-west along the bank of the Rakaia some 20 km before reaching a safe ford. On that long strip of river gravel the tramper is beyond roads, or farmhouses. Rainfall in the mountains can make the river uncrossable at the ford anyway, and trap you in the open between the alps and the river.

I went up to the farmhouse in the evening and talked to Meares. I told him we wanted a tramping route across his station, because a tramping route that crossed the Wilberforce and then the Rakaia, would almost certainly lead to tramping deaths.

"Yeah - you can't have them friggin around the big rivers," said Meares. "It's not beginners' country."

He'd been culling Canada geese once and was crossing the Wilberforce with mates, all of them hanging onto a pole for strength of numbers. Next thing the river took them. His mates were swept immediately onto sills but Meares went on and for the first 100 metres, he was still clutching the pole and laughing. The river was sweeping him along, up on his toes. After 300 metres he was afraid - "You can touch the bottom, but you can't stop yourself, you can't grip. It's one man against a Crusaders scrum. You're fighting to get a footing. And after about 3 or 400 yards, by jingo you lose your strength."

Mike and Karen Meares managed the 14,500-hectare station, running 8,000 sheep, but for 10 years they'd been diversifying into tourism. The station did skiing, skating, 4WD safaris and self-drive tours also walks. Besides the backpacker lodge, they had more expensive $100 per night chalets with linen provided, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I asked about Te Araroa. What were the possibilities for a through route here?

Anyone who stayed at Ryton got free access to the station's walks, said Meares and there was a walking route some 15 km from the head of Lake Coleridge down to the lodge where I was staying, and the chalets.

Kayaker makes a star turn If trampers did not intend using the lodge or the chalets, Meares would expect them to stick to the legal road which also came down from the head of the lake. There was very little traffic, but there'd be no view over the lake.

Those choices sounded okay to me, but Meares stressed the lodge and the farm chalets were often full over summer, and any tramper would have to book. Ryton Station, said Meares, would reserve its options to change the agreement, dependent on how it seemed to be working.

I walked down by road, to the bridge, crossed it as a kayaking troupe did roll turns within the deep blue curve of the river, and went on up to Mt Hutt Station.