Cendrine de Vis walks the trail - January - April 2008
210 kms done. 2100 kms to go. My feet already hurt.
Got to NZ two weeks ago, just before New Year. Met up with my friend John Youngman in Pahia. I had been able to coaxed him to join me for the first part of the tramp by promising easy flat walking on the beach (his first reaction to my email about joining me had been " no. too much work and not enough beer").
So I started with John at Cape Reinga, the Northern spot of the North Island. Peter Griffiths, a local organic farmer who built the trail in the area gave us a shuttle to the Cape in his beat up BMW. We tramped for a couple of hours before setting down for the night. We camped right on the beach.
The next day was great hiking on the bluff and then we got on 90 mile beach. I should say 90 mile bitch. Followed hours and hours and hours of hiking on the hard sand, with nothing to do but look at the snake like drawings left by the waves. Every single km was identical to the previous one. It got tedious and monotonous. And then the feet started to hurt, a little first and then a lot. The identical step repeated thousands of times do take a toll on the feet. Youngman started to have misgivings about having come. He cursed my name, put on his ipod, and took some vicodin in search of oblivion. We looked so pathetic that actually people, locals and tourists alike, started to take pictures of us (90 mile beach is not a wilderness experience, every 15 minute a car zooms by: fishermen going kite fishing, tour buses on their way to the sand dunes…).
We continued on. Day 1 passed. Day 2 passed.
Then on day 3, we run out of stove gas. Could not believe it! Two breakfasts, two dinners and the gas was gone. I was livid! How many bloody canisters am I going to have to carry? My pack is bloody heavy enough like that. No need to add anything. No gas, no hot meal. The food for the next two days: crackers, salami and nuts. Great.
That was the last straw for Youngman. As we were resting, a car with three surfer dudes stopped by. And they offered us a ride out of hell. Youngman jumped at it and within 10 seconds he was in the car. When the driver pulled off his shades and revealed beautiful blue eyes, for a slit of a second I wish I were bailing too. But instead, I shouldered my pack and started walking.
Day 4. I walked. Hate crackers, salami and nuts. For breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Day 5. I walked. Hate crackers, salami and nuts. For breakfast. By lunch I had made to the end of the beach to the quiet and low key village of Ahipari. Alleluia! Nothing there but a liquor store, a takeaway place and a small grocery store. But do let this not fool you. Beach view lots go for $250,000 and Bill Gates was there two days earlier carting in the sand dunes. Johnny Depp was there a week earlier. Shook off the sand of my gear and headed for Blitz Takeaway where I ordered the Blitz burger. The waitress put it down in front of me, saying that it was heavy on the meat side. Three dudes a table over started looking as I unfolded it: lamb steak, beef burger, ham, fried egg, tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and pickled beets! Yummy. It was gone in 5 minutes!
The next day, I started crossing from West to East for the first forest section. Not a forest like you and I know. This was heavy jungle territory with overgrown vegetation, cutting grass, gigantic spider webs, protruding roots, snagging branches, slipping moss and sucking mud holes. I would have gotten lost if there had not been a sign every 5 meters. To add to the experience, it had rained heavily the night before and the forest was bleeding rain from every trees. There was one redeeming aspect: the ground was so spongy that my feet enjoyed a welcomed rest. Peter (the guy who gave us a ride to the Cape) was waiting for me at the other end of the trail to take me to his home for a shower, dinner and bed. His place was a little crazy: a big shed with elephant garlic drying everywhere, bed sheet drying from the ceiling, ducks walking in and out… A real 70ies hippie hangout. His two lovely daughters (5 and 9) and his wife made me feel right at home and I stayed for two nights.
After some much needed rest, it was time to get back in the forest for another hard day of tramping on an old Maori trail that last saw a hiker 30 years ago. I was much much relieved to make it to the highway. That lasted only for a few minutes as I realized pretty fast that walking on the road might actually be the most dangerous part of the tramp. NZ roads are wicked: no shoulder, curves galore, dips and downs, no visibility and card passing at high speed. I know about crazy driving (I’m French after all and partial to extreme driving…) but Kiwi drivers put me to shame. Wow, can those guys drive fast. Like scary fast. So after 5 minutes, I stopped walking and got the thumb working. Within 2 minutes I got a ride to the next town (there was nothing there but a store, a pub, a hotel and a bridge). Got a room at the hotel. Was the only guest there and the lady went right on business: she kindly offered me the use of her washing machine and a beer. We chatted for a while at the bar before another customer joined us. Jeff, a possum hunter. So we went on talking about possum hunting. Had no idea that it was such a big issue for farmers and one is paid for poisoning possums. 100 NZD for 100 pelts. One can get 100 to 200 beasts in a day.
The next day I tackled some gravel roads through the farmland and logging areas. Was pretty uneventful, except that it was a long long long day before I found a place to camp. The bush was so dense and ground rain saturated that I could not find a spot for my bivi bag. Run into the first person I saw on a track (in NZ, trails are called tracks and hiking/trekking is referred to tramping). He was a guy on a dirt bike with a mean looking dog and a gun on his back. Lucky me. I almost hid in the bush but the dog saw me before I could escape. So, I just continued walking toward danger as if there was nothing odd about the scene. The guy was actually quite nice. He was hunting wild pigs… Well, that is what he told me and I did not argue with him.
Yesterday, after some more walking and hitchhiking, I made it to Paihia where I had left some stuff at a backpacking lodge. Today was a rest day, busy with logistics, grocery shopping (had to stock up on crackers, salami and nuts), washing, bla bla…. Nothing thrilling. I’m heading back to the forest tomorrow after a ferry crossing over to Russel. Another 2-3 days before continuing down along the beach and thru farmland to Auckland. Should be there in 8-10 days.
My feet hurt. I eat the same food over and over. I hardly talk to anyone. Have no idea what day it is. Do the same thing every day.
Yet I’m having a pretty good time. Really do not know why... : )
Little by little I have been moving South. First through the Russel forest then along the East coast. There were some beautiful beautiful stretches scattered between a lot of paved and gravel road walking. But looking back, it it not so much the landscape and tramping that dominated the past two weeks but the encounters I had along the way. Wonderful moments of kindness, shared laughter, and sometimes puzzlement.
Walking along the deserted beach one late afternoon, I saw two shapes moving toward me. As I approached, the shapes morphed into two women walking with their dogs. Of course, we chatted. That's what people do when they meet in the middle of nowhere. Upon hearing about my tramping and sleeping in the dunes at night, one of them promptly invited me to spend the night at her house, And, as quickly, I said yes. I was lead over the dunes to the most amazing house. Imagine a house inspired by the architecture of the caravanserail, the Iranian traditional desert dwelling where camel caravans stopped on their long journeys. Entirely made of the local yellowish sand (floor, walls, ceiling), decorated with selected modern art pieces, it was stunning. There, I met the rest of the party, Mandy, Bill and Jon and was soon handed a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. (By now, I knew I had made the right decision.) Followed a wonderful evening of delicious food, fine wine and eclectic conversation. I had such a enjoyable time that I was not quite ready to leave the next morning so I just walked a little further where I was picked up by the ladies and brought back to the house for another delightful evening.
The following day, I had to tear myself away from this extreme pampering to return to the hot and dusty trail leading to Auckland. I first followed the beach but was soon pushed in the streets by the approaching tide. As I was potzing along, minding my own business, I ran into one person who looked like a tramper (the clues: trekking poles and camel pack hose sticking out of the backpack). My first tramper! Yuppie! Peet was not really tramping but was training for his upcoming walk from Auckland to Bluff (the tip of the South Island). He decided to walk with me for a while so we could talk shop. You know, gear, route, etc. Soon another tramper in training was joining us but he only tagged along for a few minutes before turning to another street. Before leaving, he asked me if he could bless me for safe travel. And, of course, I said yes. I though that one can always use a little heavenly help (at least, it can not hurt)...
Little did I know that this was the beginning of an evening full of prayers and blessings. As it started to rain, Peet invited to stay over at the house where he was renting a room. He called the owner who said yes and who came to pick us up. We got into the car. Christian music was playing. Ah. Another sign. Should have prepared me for what followed: my arrival in a house full of Evangelical Christians who promptly announced that I was in the House of God and who kept saying that my encounter with Peet was a sign of God. OK. A sign of God, a sign of what?, I kept wanting to ask. For sure, there were many many many signs of God in this house: from the front mat and sofa cousins to the coffee mugs and candle holders. All bearing a psalm, quote or other godly words. It was everywhere, I mean everywhere, even in the bathroom. Seating on the loo, reaching out for the toilet paper, one could not fail to notice a strategically positioned plasticized card stating that God sees it all (great!) and that God loves us all (even when having bowel movements, now, that would make anyone feel so much better about themselves, don't you think?). Now, I was certain, I was in the House of Loonatics. Followed song singing, bible reading and blessings. As soon as was politely permissible, I alluded to great fatigue and escaped to a bedroom where I bolted the door and patiently waited for the morning.
I might have stayed in the house of God but no miracles happened the next day. I still had to walk every step to Auckland. No floating above ground. No levitation. Darn. But, nonetheless, something must have happened, as two days later I was in the presence of the Te Araroa God himself. No less. He is not a other wordily, white bearded, serious looking man sitting on a heavenly cloud. He is a red haired, black clothed, journalist/playwright/writer sitting in front of a computer in a suburb of Auckland. But Geoff Chapple is the one who had the vision (10 years ago) and tenacity (continuing today) to create, develop and promote a national cross country trail. The one I am following right now. So, I guess, he deserves the God "appelation". And when such a person talks, one listens. So, when he said "go to the South Island now", I packed up my stuff and flew to Nelson (no mystery there, it's only to benefit from the best summer weather when in the mountains).
But not before meeting with John who had just arrived from Portland on a surprise visit and not before attending Sir Edmund Hillary memorial service. John and I joined hundred of locals on the lawn of the Auckland Museum to pay homage to the man who is said to best embody the quality of New Zealanders: modesty, humor and courage. Now, that sounds like very hearty teachings, teachings that I can actually relate to.
Ah, les montagnes. I love the mountains.
I spent the last two weeks tramping around mountain ranges and that made me very very happy. There's nothing like gaining a little of altitude.
But before arriving on higher terrain, John and I tramped an easy, tourist clogged Great Walk, the Abel Tasman, in the northern tip of the North Island. The track hugs the coast line for most of its 45kms and it was quite beautiful. It's very easy so it is very popular, especially with day hikers. There are multiple outfitters who offer day hike with a jet boat shuttle in and out. One day, we witness a dozen or so boats disgorging its dozens of day trippers on a beach and a couple of hours later, saw those same hikers, re-boarding the boats to get back to their cars. It's usually easy to spot them. They were sandals, only carry a water bottle and they smell nice. We did it in reverse of the recommended way (starting north and heading south) so it was very convenient to know how close we were getting to the trail end (for us, start for them): the nicer they smell, the closer we were.
I'm sure John wished he were day tripper. He was carrying a heavy load and hurt is back. So, we forgo walking 50kms on a paved road to get to St. Arnaud and opted instead for a ride. There is not much in St. Arnaud. There is actually so little that the mail man only comes by three times a week. He only shows up between 2:30 and 3:00pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to deliver and pick up mail. Luckily, he was there when I needed him. I have been sending a bounce box ahead with all my extra gear, some clean clothes plus a couple of luxury items that I am too lazy to carry on the track. So I showed up on the right day, at the right time and there he pulls in his red van. The red van is pretty but does not come equipped with a scale. So, he proceeded to look at my box, lifted it a little, asked me how much I have been paying in postage and decided on a number. $6.95 to ship it to my next stop. Sounded good to me. And the box went into the red van.
From St. Arnaud, I had 7 days of tramping (140kms) in semi wilderness area going over a couple of passes. John did not think his back would do well so he only walked to the first hut and went back to “town”. I continued on... There was plenty of people for the next day but as I was getting farther and farther, fewer and fewer people were around. Till the day I was all alone to go over Waiau Pass (almost 2000 meters), a seldom traversed pass going from one valley to the next one over. The way up was pretty obvious: going straight up a scree slope to the top. The way down though was less obvious. I even had to pull out a topo map (by the way, it was the first time I carried one. So far, the road atlas and written directions have been enough) to decide what gully to go down. Messed up a little and ended up in the middle of a water fall. When I started slipping on wet rocks, I decided that it would be wiser to traverse to the right and get out of it. That worked. Made it down to the river. Then, the directions said there was an overgrown trail heading down the river. Overgrown all right. So overgrown that I could not even see my feet and had morph into an Apache Indian tracking down game to carefully look for any turned leafs or scratched rocks to guess where the trail was. Took me for ever to go 2kms. Followed a river crossing, boulder fields, bush, river wading, etc... before I arrived at my destination for the night: a tiny tiny little hut on a private ranch. I dropped my bag and was looking forward to a well deserved rest when I was suddenly attacked by dozens and dozens of blood thirsty sand flies. Shit Shit Shit. Within a second I was covered and had to quickly pull on full fighting gear: hat, heavy socks, gore text pans and jackets. Ended up eating my dinner running around and got into my bivi bag as soon as possible. Unfortunately, some of those nasty little things got trapped in it and I spent a considerable amount of time killing them one by one. I had no mercy.
The next day (day 5), I walked through the private station (or ranch) under the watchful eyes of hundreds and hundred of cows. And steers. Might have been some bulls, but I did not look too close. You might wonder what I think about all day when I tramp. I seldom think of important things. On that particular day, I just though about cows. How do cow groups form? Is there any structure to a group? Are they family related? Pure hazard? Is there a alpha cow? How much grass do cows eat? Though provoking isn't it? So I walked and walked and though of cows. I also started thinking about food. See, I did not calculate the food accurately. So I had the usual crackers, salami and nuts. Plus a kilo of raisins. I actually do not like raisins. That's exactly why I had purchased them. I would never eat them unless under duress. Well, by day 5, the raisin were actually looking pretty good and I was wondering how long they would last. I seriously doubted they would last another two days. I was not stressed about it but was getting pretty hungry.
Fortunately, as I was approaching the next hut, I saw John seating outside on a bench (he had come from the end of the trail to meet me for the last day tramping). Youppi! I hardly said hello before I asked for food. Any type of food, and was delighted when he pulled out of the bag my favorite chocolate and mint cookies. That made me very very happy. We hiked out together and two days later arrived in Hamner Springs where I did nothing by cooked, baked and ate gargantuan meals. (By the way, that was my favorite section so far, even half starved, I loved it).
Because, I occasionally learn from my mistakes, I loaded up on a lot of food for the next 4 day section. Was heavy but well worth it. Not more raisins for me. So I was heading for 4 days from Lewis Pass to Arthurs Pass. Pretty easy except for some potentially dangerous river crossings on the last two days. I was a little concerned about them, especially that the weather forecast was for heavy rain in the last two days of the trip. I did not see anyone on the track but for the first day. As I was nearing the first hut, I could see that the windows were opened, someone was already there. As I turned the corner to reach the front door, I counted one, two, three, four and more pairs of boots drying in the sun. I dropped my back and proceeded inside and counted one, two and three half naked man sleeping on cots in the kitchen. I walked to the dorm and counted another three. I went to the next dorm and counted another two. Slowly, and one by one, they awoke. And I was able to confirm that, indeed, 8 man were in staying in the hut that night. For a moment, I felt I was in some type of distorted Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs story. Except that I am no Snow White and that they were no dwarfs but 8 friends (between 66 and 75 years old) on their bi-annual tramp and that instead of red hoods, they were all wearing different colors of Croc shoes (that was pretty cute). I was soon invited for Happy Hour (tuna and cracker plus beverage of choice: brandy, whiskey, rum or gin) and then dinner. Had a lovely dinner chatting away (we actually soon realized that we knew the same people: the charming ladies whom I met on the beach North of Auckland). At 6:00am the next day, I was treated with a very particular (and traditional for them) wake up call: an off-key rendition on the national anthem sang in Maori by Michael, the first one up. After that, they left and I went back to bed.
Followed three days where I tried to beat the rain. I was so worried about the river crossings (those guys had told me that the rivers were high and had to cross 4 at a time and would never have done it alone) that I could not enjoy the tramp. I was always looking up to the skies searching for the appearing of clouds. I was even considering turning back and bailing out. But for some reason I just continued. Was lucky on day 2. No rain. Was lucky on day 3. No rain. Called the ranger station (from the hut radio) to be informed that the rain was coming on day 4. It started raining during the night and I hated the sound of the drops on the roof. Could not sleep. I started at first light the next day and made a mad dash for the rivers before the levels would rise. Crossed three rivers multiple times and was lucky that it never got more that mid-tight. I was so relieved after the last one, that as I reached the “solid” ground I almost fell on my knees and kissed the earth in a Pope like gesture of thanks. Almost.
Got a ride to reach Arthurs Pass village, 15kms away. Just as I reached the front door, it started pouring. It rained for two days. But I still went hiking one day with Youngman (he met me there for two days) and Doug (who is just joining me on the tramp.) Because it was supposed to be my rest day, the boys carried my stuff. One had my food and water and the other my rain jacket and clothes. It was sooooooooooooo good to be pampered!
It's sunny today and I'm heading out. No rest for the wicked.
It has been a while since the last update. I was just stuck in tussock country for weeks at a time with rare access to a computer and little energy to write.
So, I left Arthur’s Pass mid-February. The first two days were on a track, and after that, we left the trail and started bushwaking through the Southern Alps. The Te Araroa trail has yet to be designed and build from there to Lake Wanaka, so we armed ourselves with topo maps, vague directions from Geoff and days and days and days of food, and started walking South. After a few days, it soon became evident that if we kept it to a very simple strategy we will make it, we only had to: go up a gulley, over the saddle, down the gulley, across the river, up a gulley, over the saddle, down the gulley, across the river.... and that if we kept repeating it enough times, we would ultimately end up where we needed to be. Pretty easy. Except that the terrain was a bit rough at time (chest high tussock, bogs, spear grass....) and that sometimes the easier way was actually to just walk in the streams and rivers. After a while, you really do not care anymore if you’re feet are wet for days. It’s just part of the fun. On a good day, we did a whooping 12 kms (that’s 8 miles or a 10 minute car ride.) So at that impressive speed we moved through the Big and Powerful country of the South Island.
The Big and Powerful country is Big and Powerful and pretty deserted. In 15 days of tramping, we only saw 2 trampers, two Americans from Alaska who are tramping Te Araroa North to South. Then, we run into a little snag.
From Lake Wanaka, the route was taking us on a soon to be opened 3-day track crossing Shania Twain’s (as in the Canadian country singer) station (or ranch) to Queenstown. When we showed up at the local DOC (Department of Conservation) office to inquire about the track, we were told that signage and huts were in place but that the trail was closed and will not be accessible for another 5 days, when Prime Minister Helen Clark would officially open the track. We hardly hesitated before decided to go for it, discretely and un-noticed, and play dumb should anyone “find” us. We felt pretty good confident about our decision, after all, we had only met 2 trampers in 15 days so what were the probability of meeting anyone over three days. None. Well, almost.
So, there we go. We pass the closed sign at the trailhead and headed up the gulley until it became late and we found the only flat spot to fit the tent. Everything was going according to plan, until the next morning when, out of nowhere, a helicopter suddenly appears over the ridge, comes straight at us, hovers above the tent and lands 20 meters away. I’m thinking, “Great, here we are. Busted!” A very official looking DOC person walks to us and I’m thinking, “Time to play dumb”. He was no fool but did not mind at all us trespassing on public land. However, he told us about some potential problems ahead. The helicopter was coming back to bring a crew working on some last minute signage. Along with the crew, was the Area Manager, a big wig who could have an issue with us being there. Of course, I was pretty sure he could not arrest us but he could certainly give us an earful about illegally trespassing bla bla bla... Nothing very pleasant. After some discussion, we decided to continue and try to avoid all upcoming helicopter, crew and Area Manager.
We avoided the crew and Area Manager. However, we could not really avoid the helicopters. They kept flying above us, and any seconds, I was expecting the DOC swat team to descent on us to eliminate the rogue trampers. It did not happen. So, we congratulated ourselves on our narrow escape, and gleefully settled for the night at the next hut. When, out of nowhere (again!), come three small SUVs and a total of 8 persons suddenly burst into the hut. And I’m thinking “Busted. The swat team is here!”
They were only a group of locals volunteering for the next day race and coming to set up the first aid station. Oh Oh. Next day race.... when something like 600 runners and 2300 riders go through the valley for the Annual Motatapu Station Marathon. Perfect! Talk about trespassing discretely and un-noticed. We had picked the one day in the year when zillions of people would see us. We seriously considered quietly leaving the hut and valley before the night but realized that we were too late for such escape. Luckily, we soon learned that their route was slightly different than ours. We were going up the gulley, over the saddle, down the gulley etc... and they were staying on the valley floor. So, we “only” caught with the last 1000 riders on the last 5 kms and tried our best to merge in and pretend we were slow marathon runners who like running in hiking boots and carrying heavy loads. Must have worked. No-one stopped us.
After such eventful couple of days we need some rest and spent a couple of days in Queenstown before heading for the last section. Doug continued for another 6 days before heading back home while I continued to Bluff. Followed 2 long long long and boring boring boring days on gravel and paved roads. One day on the beach. And another long long long and boring boring boring day on a major highway to Bluff. Nothing much happened. Spent one night in a grove of trees all cozy in my bivi bag. Woke up the next morning at down when zillions of birds started cackling above me. In a half daze, I casually noticed that there was more to it and that I could hear something that sounded like bird droppings. After a few minutes, I suddenly stood up. The bloody bastards were actually shitting on me! I dashed out of the bag, grabbed the bag, the poles, the backpack, and the boots and made a mad dash before I got covered in poop. It kind of worked.
Reached Bluff yesterday. It was pretty anti-climatic. Just sat for a few minutes at Sterling Point looking the sea before hitching to Invercagill. Today, I’m resting. I’m actually tired. Tomorrow, I fly to Auckland to finish the North Island. Almost forgot I still have another 1000 kms to go. To finish before April 28th. Better get moving.
It’s been an eventful couple of weeks. I was attacked by a bull, fell in a mud hole, learnt to play cards and slept in a convent in Jerusalem.
I left Auckland on March 23 after having spent a couple of hours with Geoff pouring over maps of the South Island to walked along the Waikato river in direction of Hamilton. It was easy going terrain and relaxing walking.
I camped one night at the foot of Mt. Pironga among 40 kids from a local school who were enjoying a three day camp out featuring day hikes, games and evening lectures. The lecture that night was on possum. It started pretty low key and innocent. A local possum hunter talked about possum, the damage they do (they eat a lot of bush and trees), showed us his tools and then the lecture moved from the theory to the practical. He proceeded to trap a possum, killed it, and skinned it. The kids, and I, were actually mesmerized. I mean, when is the last time you saw the internal organs of a possum? I never did so that was pretty cool. Not sure it would go that well in the US. I can hear parents complaining of inflicting cruelty to an animal and submitting their kids to a psychologically damaging event.
Went up and over Mt. Pironga and then had a long section through farmland. I have been through farmland so often that I did not give any second thoughts to crossing a field with 30 black bulls. However, pretty soon I knew that that field crossing would be different. One of bull kept looking at me in a menacing way so I played it safe and hugged the fence. Suddenly, I heard noise behind me, I looked back to see the bull running straight at me. I did not stop to see if it was an intimidation run or not, I just high vaulted over the fence and barely made it before he got to me. That was a close call.
Anyhow, I continued. A few minutes later, I tried to cross a mud hole, slipped on a root and fell in. And found myself embedded in 10 cm of mud. Not pretty. It took me a while to clean up in the river. By then it was dark and I decided to set up camp. There was no other option than sleeping in a field full of sheepies. Because of my recent bull experience, I decided to play it safe. So before I lay down in my bivi bag I wrapped my whistle around my neck. The idea was that, during the night, should a sheep decide to nibble on my toes, I would simply blow him away. Pretty neat idea, hein? Pretty ridiculous too. Oh well, I never got to test that defensive strategy as no sheepie came to bother me.
For the next couple of days, I was in the Pureora forest. That’s where I found a dog. That dog came out of nowhere and followed me all day. I was starting to worry about what to do with it when we reached the next hut. Luckily, 6 hunters were staying there and even though it was not their dog, they said that they would take care of it and call his owner. So I was off dog duty and free to move on to Turangi where I enjoyed a great rest day: I did nothing but reading, eating and drinking Sauvignon Blanc. Had a great time.
It was hard to tear myself from the comfort of the backpacker to walk to Tongariro National Park, home of the most popular day walk in the country, the Tongariro Crossing. As you know, I’ve rarely seen anyone else on the tracks, sometimes going 17 or plus days before