Te Araroa enters the Richmond Mountains


I had a route mapped through the Richmond Mountains behind Nelson. A number of wise men looked at the plan and wagged their heads.

"By gosh Geoff - that's a very rugged route," said an old friend, Des Dubbelt, who'd tramped the range in the past. "This may well be your 'Heart of Darkness' - but no, that's a joke - that's a joke."

When passing through Wellington on my way south, I'd also shown it to Denis McLean, formerly New Zealand's Secretary of Defence, a man who walks and writes with a fine eye for geology and history.

He studied carefully the contour lines en route, as map-readers do.

"Hmmnnn - it's very steep country in there."

Trampers do not usually cross the Richmond Range north to south. The Alpine Fault runs parallel to, and just south of the range, and it seems to have pulled a noble landform to bits. No good connecting ridges exist, and the interior is high and jumbled. Trampers go in and they come out re-tracing their steps after an overnight in a hut, or they stick to the two- or three-day tramps that exit near Nelson or Richmond. To go right through is to accept a circuitous route. To go right through is to pack at least nine days' food. To go right through is to tramp around 125 km, almost double the distance of the Heaphy Track. To go right through is - inevitably - to step onto mountain-top routes which the Richmond Forest Park map describes as ". . . extremely demanding in poor weather . . . not recommended for any but the most experienced and well-equipped parties."

Well, Te Araroa was going through, but it felt the need for a companion. I rang Susan King from the Marlborough Tramping Club. Everyone was back at work, but she gave me one number to try, Kevin Wills, a LandSAR rep at the club, 24 years a tramper, formerly a fireman at Upper Hutt, now retired to Blenheim, age 65.

Kevin asked for a day to consider the proposition, but rang back within hours to say he'd do it. While we waited for a good weather pattern, I did the walk up from Anakiwa to Pelorus Bridge. My finders keepers luck still seemed to be holding. On the roadside just beyond Havelock, I found a top-of-the-line Swiss Army knife, the one with everything on it, from magnifying glass, to saw and scissors, to toothpick and nail file, a few of its bits and pieces protruding, like a tumbleweed with a red oblong seed at its centre.

Swiss Army Knife

I walked on in pouring rain up the Maungatapu Road, marked a spot and persuaded a local to take me back to some comfortable accommodation. I was then ready to start the Pelorus River Track with Kevin at a moment's notice.

Kevin's pack had everything you might need for a long tramp but was also weighted with professional extras - binoculars for identifiying distant landmarks, some 20 metres of rope, a carabiner for an unspecified emergency, a whistle, the Thunderer.

I was carrying only the necessaries, but that included a mountain radio. It was no heavier, as everyone says by rote, than a lb of butter - but it was heavy nonetheless, and I estimated my nine-day pack at around 30 kilos. The only good thing about that was that day by day it had to get lighter.

Right at the start Kevin took the lead, and set a cracking pace.

Within minutes we struck a party of three chatting male trampers, who stepped respectfully aside.

"You go on through. You're obviously going some place, and I'm just talking bullshit here." It was a kiwi comment, from the trio's leader, and after the wash of English-as-a-second-language on the Queen Charlotte track, it was something of a relief to find fellow kiwis out in the forest.

Kevin went on, and was soon out of sight. The Pelorus River alongside the trail fell into deep green pools. The forest that rose up on its banks was mossed, gentle. The trail itself was brown with the confetti of fallen beech leaves, and the Richmond Range, despite its formidable reputation, seemed entirely friendly in these first hours in. A female South Island robin came visiting me, then a male, and the forest was full of a soft and dappled light.

female South Island Robin
Female South island Robin
Male South Island Robin
Male South Island Robin

Only once did I catch up to Kevin on the flat.

"If I don't do this, I swell" He was stooped over a packet of antihistamine pills. He'd been stung by a wasp - a fact I put down to moving too fast into opposing traffic. Sometimes I could catch him up on the hills, but mostly he was a figure always vanishing in the trees ahead, and after a couple of hours trying to keep within a reasonable distance of him, my legs had turned to noodles. I stopped. I leaned on my Lekis. I'd had enough. I'd hit the wall. But there's always what's called your second wind. After a good long drink of water, I plugged on to Captain's Hut, arriving in something under two hours.

Kevin was already unpacked and setting up a hot drink. As he vigorously mixed the powdered milk in a small plastic shaker bottle, it frothed and bubbled, and I turned to him:

"Ah - that's got a good head on it - a latte coffee for tramping heroes who beat the suggested DOC tramping time of three hours to this hut Kevin."

Kevin Wills
Kevin Wills in the bush

"I think," said Kevin in the voice of a man not easily corrupted, "that cappucino coffee is over-rated myself."

"Oh? You're a filter coffee man ?"

"Cona coffee is usually boiled for too long. Or stewed more like it."

"What kind of coffee do you like Kevin?"

"Greggs Instant."