Lower Goulter Turnoff to Hunter Cabin
We are both feeling tired , so we indulge in an extra snooze, an extra eight minutes of brainlessness that somehow translates to an extra thirty minutes til leaving. No matter. “Swimming hole at the Hut!” we say gleefully to each other.
It’s an alternating steep and mild descent all the way to Mid Wairoa Hut. The other flat spot shown on the map has nothing for camping, so I am glad we stopped when we did. Down down down at the end, the roar of the river echoing up out of the treed valley, and my knees start to ache with the effort to skid downhill without tripping. I know I am tired when my mind starts circulating negative thoughts this early in the morning, but suddenly a swing bridge across the river appears, and the thoughts vanish, at least for now. The swing bridge spans a beautiful river, as blue as the Pelorus was green, crystal clear. Iceberg blue. There is a deep bewitching pool below, and sculpted rock walls lining the curves.
The Hut has a good-sized clearing with a picnic table and fire pit, and the inside is small and very well kept. The register is filled with stories of numbers. “4 days here,” writes a woman from Sweden, during the storm that prompted our decision to do the Abel Tasman. “14 hikers.” “67 hours,” notes Van Go, who spent the time painting an elaborate frontispiece to the register book. There are other sketchings throughout the pages, far more than typical in one of these, fillers of forced idle time. Many entries in the “# Nights Stayed” column are scratched out and amended. Prana peeks down a rock lined sidepath, reports a pretty spot at the river. The bumblebees and ground hornets are particularly bad here, and, after being unceremoniously stung on the hand while brushing his teeth, he is adamant to move on due to them and possible rain today. I feel a sharp twinge of disappointment, the carrot of a morning swim feeling like a bait and switch. I run down the path to look at the reported pretty spot on the river before we go, and am confronted with a perfect basin disappearing into a secret rock slot at the deep end and decorated by a waterfall at the shallow end. Wow!
“We need to go,” insists Prana. “We can swim later.” “Tell me exactly when we can swim, then,” I insist back. “Go swim,” he says. “Catch up when you’re done.” I wish I would. But the thing is I am nervous from the plethora of ground hornets paired with the reports of crumbling trail tread, and I am tired, too mentally tired to want to battle with the insidious pressure of catching up, which will be exacerbated by the possibility of rain and worsening river crossings. And I have been looking forward to this section; I want to experience it together, to share it, even if we are both edgy this morning. Is that reasonable or is it codependent? I’m too tired to decide.
“Fine.” I say, and strap on my backpack. “Fine,” says Prana who dumps his back down and stalks to the river. I stand there for a minute, then walk over until I can see he is stripping off his clothes. I consider my options. I could just hike on. Then I could stop wherever I wanted and the pressure to catch up would be on him. But the desire to swim in this perfect little spot outweighs my desire to be spiteful, and I unstrap my pack and head down. “I hadn’t walked all the way down before. I didn’t see this pool,” says Prana as I approach. “It’s perfect.” “I know.” We wade in and gasp and squeal. It’s so cold, it feels like there are flames on my skin. We retreat and splash back in and retreat again.
The swim magically puts us both in a better mood, and we re-dress and get on the trail. The Wairoa River! We climb to above the river, then parallel its course from above, looking down into its blue depths, crossing trickling and cascading side creeks.
So far this trail on the hillside, a ‘sidle’ trail as it’s called over here, is nothing like it’s been reported to be, just as so many other sections. We finally descend to the river to pick our way along the edge before rising again.
We debate another swim at the beautiful pool but decide it is too much effort to undress and redress, and pass it by for now- the only time we will do so today. There are supposedly eight crossings of this river- when will they be? We pick our way along up high, rising and descending as the path dictates. Eventually we reach the first ford, and it is fast and deep enough we cross together, even though it isn’t strictly necessary. No inviting basin beckons here, so we hike on.
There are a few rocky outcropping to negotiate, a few firmly entrenched root ladders to climb, but all the warnings for the tread seem overwrought. This is fun easy adventure hiking! In some ways the flavor of it reminds me of the Hayduke, and I feel happy.
The humidity has only increased, and I start to sweat profusely. I imagine dunking in the burning cold water, and pass pool after pool, below and out of reach. “If we don’t cross again soon, I want to climb down and swim!” Just like that, there is the next ford, which is a triple traverse zigzag of the river. After the third wade, a pool upstream teases with possibility. It could be deeper than it looks, and it could not be. Why not leave the clothes on to find out? Saves time; they are sweaty as hell anyway, so it’s not like it’s worth the effort to keep them dry. Plus it saves washing them later and we might keep cooler longer. We both splash in fully dressed and the answer is: deep enough to tread water in the gloriously burning cold blue liquid ice. Onward!
The fatigue I have today is mingled with joy; it creates a fast-fluctuating series of high/lows. The heat builds again, like embers of an inadequately doused fire. I have never fantasized about swimming as much as I do today. I feel the creeping hunger taking hold, but I want a nice spot to take a break for all the glorious things. The trail climbs and sidles, climbs and sidles, and then, to my dismay,
shoots straight uphill. No! My resilience is so low today, and the huger doesn’t affect my stomach as much as it is affecting my legs. I haul myself up, finally cresting the top to skid steeply back down. “Come on trail,” I think. “Do me a solid.” At the bottom of the descent is a turn in the river bed, and around the turn is a falls dropping from a cliff top into the water, with a swirling whirlpool tub to sit in.
I filter water and dig out snacks while Prana goes to scrub a pair of dead socks back to life. I find a bag of his favorite chocolate cookies, eat the crumbling half, and build his half into a happy tasty cairn on the edge of the swim spot. We take our clothes off and rinse and wring them, then put them back on and sit in the tub. I want to spend the rest of the day here. I am so happy it was not a miserable cold rainy day as we came through this section.
Finally, it’s time to go on. Seeing that there are camping options between the river crossings takes a lot of the pressure off to make it to the next cabin before afternoon rain, but I am actually chilly, a sensation that takes me several minutes to identify, and there is no reason to not hike. We balance on rocks and roots, climb past springs and moss gardens, stare down into the river.
The next crossing passes below the deepest swimming hole yet, and in an unspoken synchronicity we drop our packs. It is at the base of a short falls, the aeration bubbling up like a pool of prosecco, and Prana climbs out and cannonballs back in.
Snacks. This is the first section I have felt hungry like this, insatiable. Finally! It’s because I’m finally pushing my body, finally burning through the whole gas tank before getting a refill.
From here the river changes character, it becomes steeper, a series of deeply entrenched waterfalls with fewer pools in between. The flow is diminished, most of the major tributaries below us.
With the new steepness, the trail alternates between stepping along the edges of the falls and passing far above the pools.
One more crossing at the top of a high cataract, and then we are to our final ford. The landscape changes right here from the smooth, gray, scuptable riverbed to piles of warm toned, rough sided boulders, like a construction pile. We swim one last time in a granite bowl, soaking in the cold, willing it into our bones, then cross. We eat lunch on the far side, next to a shallow pool we can dip in before the climb out of the drainage, but the clouds roll in and when our tuna wraps and dried fruit are devoured, we are not hot. We toil up the crumbling embankment, and reach Top Wairoa Hut, a happy bright orange cabin and outhouse. We check the register for any gossip- Mario and Peach, our quarry, did not stay here, which means we won’t catch them in this section. Ah well. I look at the map for the next leg- a massive climb, and a massive descent. Typical. The day has been so full already, I wonder aloud about staying here, at Top Wairoa. We both sense the next hut will be nicer, and there’s no reason to not go on. We dally in the intermittent sun, muse and imagine over the displayed map showing all the routes in the area the Te Araroa doesn’t explore, and finally start the climb.
‘This was a mistake,’ is all I can think as I attempt to climb. Every part of me is tired, and the difficulty of each step only compounds the despair of how many steps I know still have to happen. ‘I should have stayed at the hut.’ The landscape is bizarre, so abruptly different than anything else has been, that it serves as an inadequate distraction. The boulders we hop through are a strange macro texture, and they are different shades of warm tones, like sandstones. The vegetation is sparse, and I am reminded of the desert. The desert!
A secret spring bubbles between some of the boulders, and Prana wiggles in a bottle and fills it. It is as cold as it can possibly be and still be a liquid. I imagine the earth’s life force galvanizing all my cells. We cross a stream and fill all of our bottles so we can cook dinner early if we want to, then do a stair master workout, up through the tussock. The heat is intense like an oven, and I wish the rain would come, like the sweat that breaks the fever of the land. I put in some music, trying to find songs that suit my pace, that suit the lighting. I finally join Prana on the upper saddle, which is thin alpine tundra, and look around, realizing that the clouds are doing all sorts of dramatic and vaguely ominous things.
The route is marked with bright orange poles, and we follow them dutifully into the cloud. The trail is across the flat inside bowl of Mt Ellis, and I lose all sense of time and space in the soft white bubble. The fog thickens until we work as a team, making sure one of us can see the pole behind and that we can see each other while the scout searches for the next pole. We may never know what views we missed, and the clouds part as we reach the line of the beech forest on the other side of the mountain.
Bright mosses and stunted abstract beeches alternate with tussock gardens. We arrive at an edge over looking the headwaters of the Motueka River, and I am ready for dinner. The wind is gusting, but we find a sheltered spot against some artsy boulders, and watch the clouds roil while we eat rice noodles and I rest my legs.
The final descent, down the slippery gravel to the floor of the valley. Bam! my feet shoot forward and I slam onto my back. And then: Bam! again. ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself,’ I instruct myself, laying in the dirt. I just hope I don’t destroy a crucial piece of gear with one of these backflops.
Finally at the bottom, we follow the path along crumbling sediment layers of all different colors- charcoals, corals, turquoises. The river is amazing, the variety of boulders unprecedented. I know the hut is a bit of a climb, due to the previous hut in this location being obliterated by a flash flood, but when I see it, perched so high above the valley, I despair. A second later, a swimming hole materializes in the river. “Seven o’clock swim?” Prana asks. You better believe it!
This water is warmer than any all day, and we float and splash and slowly get dressed. I want to camp down here by the river, but the story of the flash flood is too loud in my mind. We cross the river and climb a grueling unpleasant 15 minutes to the hut, which is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. In victory I set my pack on the picnic table, and a lovely soft spoken couple comes out of the hut to introduce themselves, Justin and Caroline, and make us welcome inside with them. I’d rather camp, but they are a pleasure to chat with and this we do until the soft rain begins. Prana and I set up our tent with a magnificent view of Mt Ellis ringed in racing storm clouds, and leave the door open while we savor a melted chocolate bar. We convert our tiny home to the sleep mode, and I watch the luminescent clouds until I fall asleep.