Methven to Swin River
Regrettably, the alarm insists we get up at 5:00. We double check all the places overlooked gear might be hiding, then drink our green and black breakfast. Luckily, George is used to hikers catching this bus, and is at the desk to check us out, along with his dainty looking long-haired prissy calico, affectionately named Killer.
We walk to the bus stop, and wait under the black predawn sky with Rebecca, Jo, and Laura Marie. The bus is much nicer than I anticipated, more of a glorified transport van than a school bus, and as we bump over windy road the sky blooms from a deep maroon into the vibrant reds and oranges of a spectacular sunrise. (The bus was too bumpy for a nice photo, but here are the colors- I’ll claim it as impressionistic art.)Even though the scenery is fantastic, that uniquely NZ malady of carsickness creeps into my head and stomach. Luckily we arrive before it can really dig in, and we chat with the driver as I regain equilibrium. “Oh yeah,” he confirms, when we ask him about the validity of the propaganda directing to avoid the river. “I’ve seen the entire river bed fill with water in less than two hours. These big pressure waves come down the channels, and before you know it, it’s full. Quite impressive.”
He advises us of a feature called the rock of Gibraltar, and we walk the first half an hour to breakfast there. It’s not that noteworthy per se, but meeting mini goals always feels nice and productive.
The first half of the day is fabulous. The hiking is pleasant and the tread well made and clean, most of the time on a humble two track. There are even gentle switchbacks all the way up the first major climb, allowing a long stride and feeling of prowess. The scenery builds from nice to sublime, with beautiful views back down the valley to the Rakaia accented by dramatic lighting from the clouds, clouds that prevent the exposed hiking from being unbearably hot.
Once up in the saddle, we walk through beautiful golden rippling tussock and gravel sand streaked mountain peaks around us. We arrive at the first hut directly, the A Frame Hut. (Is it A Frame Hut, or A-Frame Hut? we wonder dorkily.) It is made completely out of corrugated tin, very Art Deco. We have a lounging morning snack break, and I trace the sweeping lines of the counterpointed art nouveau rubble of the mountains with my gaze, entranced by everything today.
The great tread continues on 4wd, and pass another of the bizzare pillar formations being birthed out of the eroding hillside.
In a satisfying amount of barely noticed time, we are at the Comyns Hut, another corrugated sculpture out here in the middle of miles and miles of sky and air and curves. We have lunch, and watch as Jo and Rebecca head out just before us…in a completely unexpected direction. We check the map, certain either we or they must be missing something, but no. The trail drops into then continues up the middle of the creek, vaguely back the direction we came. Alright then. Here we go.
Despite my initial misgiving, splashing up the creek for the next several hour and miles is great fun. It’s never terribly deep, although the current is ripping fast. I leapfrog with Jo, until I lose her at a point where I try to go around a loop that requires two crossings rather than ford it; as anyone other than me could predict, this is the opposite of a shortcut. A thrashing, thorn-filled, bramble-filled, blood-filled 15 minutes later, I cross the creek again anyway.
The upstream struggle, while enjoyable, is still inescapably slow. It eventually fizzles out after several hours, where the stream shrinks to a mere trickle and the trail settles into a contour above the drainage. We take a break looking back down the valley- I find this area indescribably stunning. What a gorgeous day!
We rouse ourselves for the final climb through tussock grass up to Clent Saddle. The trail instantly deteriorates at this point, crumbling, overgrown, riddled with pitfalls. A deep creek is noisily slicing under the ground, somewhere, leaving big holes cleverly concealed under the drapes of long slender leaves.
The top of Clent saddle, finally gained, has fantastic views in both directions, and a stiff wind raking the top. Two chair skeletons are firmly anchored in place, the seats and backs replaced multiple times with a combination of foam pads, duct tape, wire and strips of fabric. Jo and Rebecca sit in them, delighted. We nook down into a little pocket barely out of the wind and cook dinner, gnocchi and pesto, which we decanted into a ziploc bag to avoid carrying the glass jar. Prana added another ziploc layer each time it threatened to leak through; it has now insidiously oozed through eight layers of ziplocs, and much to his resentment Prana ends up covered in basil infused oil, unwrapping each bag like a disgusting messy Russian nesting doll. The worst part? Jamie Oliver’s pesto sucks.
The trail continues from our dinner nook across the scree face in front of us, slicing through an optical illusion of unblemished smoothness. The evening light is fantastic golden and alluring, beckoning us on over more ridges and across more rocky faces. The trail gains a ridge and broadens into a smooth sailing highway, then abruptly disappears. We spot orange markers far below us, and realize we should have known it was too good to be true. We cut down the hill, and lose the trail in a brambled, tangled, thorned mess. Prana thrashes free, but, true to pattern, I cannot figure out a reasonable path and work myself into a tiny clearing completely ringed by intertwined razor-plants. I am trapped, and I practically panic. Prana comes back on the path above in a show of solidarity, but there is nothing he can do. I finally accept my fate, bow my head, force my way out past all the daggers, and joining him on the path, leaving plenty of skin and blood behind. Hopefully Mouse, somewhere behind us, has far better luck than we did.
When I surface from my momentary trauma, I realize the twilight has taken on a beautiful rosy glow. I breathe easier, as I can see we are descending to open, docile grasslands again.
Suddenly Prana pulls up short, hopping on one foot. “How could he have possibly been stung again?” I think. There have been no bees for days. But it’s not a sting. It’s a crippling, stabbing pain in the top of his foot that reignites every few steps. This is troubling. Time to make camp. We find flat enough shelter from the wind at the base of a butte within 300 meters of the water, and call it good. Mouse arrives just in time before dark, much less plant abused, and we all hunker down, ready to replenish from the adventure of the day.