1/28 Out of the Richmonds

Maitland Creek Tributary to Lake Rotoiti

28 k

We rise to the early alarm, and the river shining in the gloaming. The stars were out last night, and the air was cool, cool enough that a sleeping bag felt cosy rather than stifling. My mattress is undeniably deflating at a faster and faster rate, so my hips and knees woke me up aching, but the chance to see the radiant stars was a fair trade off for being awake.

We eat a bag of cereal, and dunk stale ginger snaps in coffee, watching the world materialize outside of the tent. Once packed, we scramble up the bank on the far side of the creek and walk a beautifully shaded ridge line. The pattern goes: drop to a tributary, cross, climb to the ridge, undulate. Climbing a fin of loose sediment, I look down and see an amazing swimming hole had been hidden on the backside. Tricky, since it’s not seeable until one is too committed in the effort of gaining this ridge. I will swim there next time we are in the Richmonds!

The track changes gradually from loose gravel sediment to boggy tussock, the squelchy mud returning, and entire portions of ground, 4 feet in diameter, flexing and depressing under a footstep. Is there just a giant water ballon holding the sod up?

The last water source for the day is a creek prior to the Red Hills Hut. “Should we do the mattresses?” Prana asks. I don’t really want to, but I want to fix them, so, “yeah.” We blow them up, then start carefully pouring water over each section, working them carefully, like walking a grid. I’m looking for any bubbles, any disruption in the sheen of the water before it drains away that will pinpoint the leak. I start on the bottom, since that is the most likely side to be punctured, then work the top. After I have methodically gone over every inch, I have solved nothing. Blast! Prana has not found his either. We deflate them again, holding out for a big enough pool to hold them under water. I am severely dejected by this failure, disproportionately so. I try to hide the tears by aggressively stuffing snacks in my mouth. “It will be okay,” says Prana. “I know,” I sniffle. It’s ridiculous, I know it is, but for some reason I am so deeply bummed. “I’m probably going to start my period, maybe that’s what’s going on.” If Prana would have been the one to suggest it, I would have had to fight down a tsunami of fury, but since I was the one to recognize it, I feel some of the desperation of my emotions drain away. Prana gives me a big, silent hug.

We filter water and drink, then crest the low end of the meadow leading to the hut. Lo and behold, a quiet little bog pool, waist deep, silent of trickling sounds, so we can perhaps hear the sibilant betrayal of the leaks. We blow up the mattresses again and wade in.

With much bending and squeezing and working together against the buoyancy I have come to be grateful for, we find the tiny hissing pinprick on the bottom of Prana’s pad, probably from a thorn. We circle it in sharpie, and wrestle mine under.

Mine has eight multi-vent holes, and they are all lined up on the top where the mold is the darkest concentration. Damn! Looks like my trusty sleeping pad is in its death throes. Geez- I envision lying down on the pad and it bursting into shreds like a cheap balloon. I circle all the spots that are merrily bubbling, and hope that at least patching those will ration the leak to longer than the length of the night. If this is what the mold has done to plastic in two months, I think, I hope neither of us have gotten any into our lungs. Good. I’ve really been missing obsessing over contracting Hanta virus, you know. This will make a nice substitute.

Feeling much more hopeful, I pack up again and we finally make the hut at 10:30, the morning having ebbed away. We peruse the register, chat with a nice couple of women, then tackle the mountain bike trail that is our last leg of the Richmonds.

The trail leads up at a generally gentler incline, but there is still plenty of up. The wasps seem to finally be lessening, and the climb is interspersed with long glorious pseudo-flat switchbacks, with rootless tread. Switchbacks! How I’ve missed these. We zoom down through open underbrush and gold and silver mosses, banking on the turns. I forgot what it feels like to use my whole stride! Wheee!

Two more big climbs left until the coasting down to town. On the first one, I am suddenly reminded with a vengeance that I forgot to use the long drop at the hut. The digging is easy, and there are no wasps to be seen or heard. Friendly, friendly forest!

I reach the top and Prana is sprawled in thick moss, in the shade of Beech trees bare of understory, completely unharassed. No bugs! No bugs!

We snack and notice we have reception, reply to a few texts and emails for friends on the trail trying to pinpoint if we will run into each other. Mario and Peach have sent several texts, reporting their intention to reach Lakehead Hut, which day I do not know, motivated to miss a big storm in the high country predicted for Thursday and Friday. I let them know where and when we are, expecting they are already into the next mountains. A reply pops up immediately: “We are at the Alpine Store in St Arnaud right now!” We closed one day of the two day gap by camping between huts in the last section; if they spent a night in town last night, and we only spend an hour to pick up our box, then we could make up the second day, catch them, and hopefully avoid the same storm; or at the very least be trapped in a hut to wait it out with them, which would be way more fun than trapped in our tent just the two of us.

We pack up and take to hiking again, working our way up the steep mountainside. “Bike!” yells Prana from in front, and I step off the trail as a downhill mountain bike brakes to a stop next to him. I join Prana while they are chatting, and a second bike stops behind the first, the rider a woman with a long strawberry ponytail. “I know you!” she announces. “I gave you a ride out of Nelson! It’s Michelle!” she says at the same time I say, “Michelle of Michelle and Ollie!” What a small world! She asks us how our trip went, and she introduces her husband who is just as nice and she and her son are, of course. What a wonderful family. She offers a ride if we need it at the bottom, then they carry on downhill as we carry on up.

Cresting the last climb is a pleasure, and the trail down is a series of well maintained gentle switchbacks crisscrossing a gravel road, the mountains of the next section visible across the valley below. I notice service again, and give John a call, and somehow Prana gets ahead of me out of sight. When I lose reception, I put on some higher energy tunes and start shuffle-jogging down the switchbacks. At one intersection, the map shows the TA joining the road instead, and I fly down hill, hopping a fence to gain the paved country road leading to the highway.

At the highway I am surprised to not see Prana ahead in the distance, but I suspect he might be making time to assure that one of us makes it to the store while they are open, since we have no idea what time they close. I redouble my efforts, and speed along the shoulder. I call Mouse, who answers, and informs me of her plan to be at Waiua Pass at around the same time we will be there. The band? The band! We’re getting the band back together! How the hell do we convince Bro to come back?!

Dark stormheads are building on all sides, and a few kilometers from town I feel a sharp pelting of big fat icy raindrops. In the distance behind me, I see a second large silver umbrella deploy. How did I get in front of him? I have no idea, but I slow so Prana can catch up, and we laugh in the rain.

St Arnaud is a small village, reminiscent of National Park or Koitiata. We reach the Alpine Store, which has a large covered porch, and inquire after our package. “No parcel here,” is the answer. Uh-oh. We pull up the tracking, which of course doesn’t make the package appear. Shoot. When we present the address, the woman informs us, “oh. That’s the Alpine Lodge, across the street.” We thank her and I zip across the road to learn they indeed have our food box. I collect it, pay the holding fee, then ask if there is anywhere we could charge our phones. “No, there’s nowhere that I can think of that has an open outlet,” she says. I cast an eye over the bank of 5 empty outlets in a little lounge room off to the side. “Our packs our clean,” I try again, “is there anyway we could repack our food box in the little sitting room?” “No, sorry, we can’t have hikers or their packs in here,” she says, not sounding sorry at all. “Ok, thanks.” I cross back to the covered porch at the store, and wish that we had sent our box and therefore patronage here. We purchase two extortionately priced ginger beers and a reasonably priced jar of honey in gratitude for the space occupation, and refill our food bags. As we are repackaging anything into ziplocs that will allow us to leave trash behind, a young couple approaches. “Are you guys hiking the TA?” asks the boy, who looks about seven feet tall. “Yes,” I answer, trying to strike a balance in tone between civil and conveying focus on what I am doing. “Did you guys stay at the Mikahaka Outdoor Center out of Palmerston North?” “Yeah, we did.” “Those are my parents!” says the girl. Turns out the boy hiked last year and met the girl, and moved here when he was done. They are having an enjoyable tour of the South Island and are now on their way home. She is Emma and it turns out he is Shawn of the legendary 1.5 day traverse of the Tararuas. Seeing the length of his lanky stride and the excess of energy boiling off of him, I no longer doubt the validity of the story. We have a nice chat about the TA highlights, then shoulder our packs and head back onto the trail.

We follow a little creek to the DOC campground, and as we pass it by, I realize with a twinge of disappointment we probably won’t meet Justin and Caroline again unless we get behind them from another side adventure. We contour along the edge of the large lake, Lake Rotoiti, and there are several informative signs that explain some of the ecology of the beech forest. The scale insect is a major player, a burrowing bug that sucks in tree sap and excretes honeydew drops out of a long waxy filament (“the longest anal tube in the world!” the sign excitedly proclaims).

This sugary excrement is food for geckos, lizards, other native insects, and is a major food source for the recently introduced wasp pests. Aha! That’s why they are always swarming the beech trees with the sickly sweet smell. An active wasp poisoning operation is underway so they cannot continue to steal the nourishment from native species, and if the lack of wasps in the direct vicinity is any indication, it is brilliantly successful.

We walk two kilometers until we reach an easily clearable opening in the underbrush. The sandflies are monstrous, and after the effort of clearing the ground and pitching the tent, I notice one of the trees towering above us is quite dead. Shit. I push on it, and it at least gives off the illusion of solidness; but if it does go, it will either fall parallel to the bottom of our tent, or directly on to our tent. What are the chances? I voice this to Prana, who dismisses the likelihood as too inconsequential to calculate. I hope he’s right, mostly because if the 0.0001% chance plays out tonight, I will be so pissed at myself for having known better. I am too tired and preyed upon to put forth more effort, so I filter water and crawl into our sandfly bunker of a tent, Prana joining me once dinner is cooked. A few gusts of wind fan my anxieties as we pass the pot of pesto gnocchi back and forth, but then the air is silent and I drop deeply into sleep.

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