Monkey Flower Creek to Peel Forest Farmstay
12 k on trail
18 k on road?
100+ k in cars
The scenic granite lumps are awash in beautiful sunrise colors this morning.
We take to the trail at 7:30, and across the flats a stunning, jagged range of peaks rise in the distance, a dramatic wall we couldn’t see last night due to the clouds. This is what we are walking towards most of this morning. Big swaths of glaciers glint from up amongst the summits, banks of dark storm clouds billowing around them. And the wind. The wind is gigantic. The wind is a solid wall of reckoning screaming down from the mountains.
The peaks draw nearer quickly, and within a few hours we reach the edge of the Potts River gorge, which doesn’t contain much of a river to speak of. It empties into the Rangitata, which looks similar in formation to the Rakaia, and floods the same way. Except this one is supposed to be crossable in certain situations. The anticipation of deciding to attempt a crossing has kept a low level of anxiety buzzing in my head and my gut for most of the morning. The wind is kicking so hard that a thick cloud of dust is migrating down river.
We trace the edge of the Potts ravine until a steep drop leads down, wrapping around the nose of a stubby side ridge, like a spiral staircase of clay and silt. Down down down into the cows.
We pick our way down the cobbles of the river, keeping our feet dry and mostly manure free. A hop across the last braid lands us at the edge of the highway, and the edge of decision time.
Interestingly, there is no sign of any others we know are in front of us. Two guys are breaking camp, and I eagerly ask if they crossed the river to get here before recognizing them as two young German guys we have already met. They said they had talked to two fellows who had crossed it heading north yesterday and “regretted it. They said it was up to their necks and they had to swim”. This instantly makes me more nervous, although I am well aware there are more possible reasons for this than it being mandatory- sand bagging, exaggerating, impatience, poor decision making. Indifference to swimming. The hardest part of the incomplete information is this: if we start the process, and make it all the way to the last braid, and then can’t cross that one safely, by turning back we could spend over five hours in the drainage. Or feel so much pressure to continue that we push on anyway. And swim. But would it be that big of a deal?
We use the satellite texter to ask my brother for the current river flows. 78.4 cms and holding steady. Rumors say 80 and under is good to go. We use the magic machine to check weather at the GPS coordinates for the headwaters. 20% rain. The propaganda we have read insists the weather at the headwaters needs to be perfectly clear. The benefits to going? Not having to do a massive hitchhiking epic, and the adventure, answering the question of what it will be like.
In the end we decide to go around. We don’t know if the 80 cms cutoff means possible or easy- there’s a big difference there. The 20% rain prediction would be a lot more dismissible if it weren’t for the cauldron of dark clouds boiling in that direction. And lastly, there’s the hammering wind, which adds a violently foreboding dimension to the whole package. Water crossings are my Achilles’ heel, and I can’t tell if my anxiety is intuition to heed or neurosis to ignore, so I am disappointed; not with the decision itself as much as my own lack of boldness, my own lack of desire to work hard for uncertain results. Even with the disappointment, my stomach unknots in relief.
We leave the German boys to toil at their hitchhiking stakeout, and walk up the road, grateful that the unbelievable wind is at our backs. Several cars pass in both directions, but no one picks us up or even slows. We’ve heard the road leads to a filming location for Rohan and Edoras and therefore a draw to unexpected amounts tourists in spite of the dead end. We decide we will at least walk to Clearwater Village to slightly increase our chances of a lift. The wind hustles us along, cupping our backs, confirming our choice.
I start listening to a book I’ve been saving for long road walks- Ready Player One. It is a hodge podge of video game nerdiness, 80’s nostalgia, and epic questing. It is excellent.
We make it to the Village after about two hours of walking. A few cars go by, and we even jokingly try our luck with the tour busses, but no one stops. There’s enough relief from the avoidance of the river that I do not despair yet. We filter water from the lake, and lounge on the grass, lying prone to try to escape the wind, jumping up for any approaching vehicle and arranging our faces and postures to try and convey a combination of humility, supplication, and harmlessness. No luck.
A random guy with a wheeled fishing cooler approaches us and makes bizarre small talk as he is sucking down beer- the interaction is reminiscent of a house party, freshman year of college. Friendly as he is, he is unknowingly hampering the hitchhiking project, and so we prepare to walk some more. We don our packs, and a car that passed us returns to us in reverse. “We don’t usually pick up hitchers, but the weather is so bad today, we will take you to Mt. Sumner if you like.” That works for us! We pile into the quiet, windless interior of the car.
They drop us at Mt Summer near the public campground and bottle store. What is a bottle store? We go in to find out. It is the equivalent of a sad, small town tavern with a stale dark interior, few beer selections, and no food until 5:00 pm. Prana and Mouse each get a ‘ginger-flavored’ soda, and I finally order a Tui beer, a ubiquitous brand that I have been curious to try. It has the same bland start and generic slightly sour aftertaste as the Budweiser class of cheap beers back home. Can’t win em all I guess. With not much interest from the barkeep, we pull a piece of cardboard from the stove tinder pile on which to write our destination: ‘Peel Forest,’ and escape back to the light and fresh air of the outdoors.
With little to do but walk anyway, and the stories circulating of others’ 3-day-long efforts to complete this logistic piece, we start walking towards Mayfield, stopping to hold up our sign and thumbs whenever a car (or tractor) approaches from behind. Car after car after car goes by, often making indecipherable gestures of helplessness. “Why do they all seem to say this?!” asks Bigfoot Mouse. “It’s like they are all saying: I don’t know where you want to go. I don’t know where I want to go. I am lost!” It’s the hottest part of the day, and the sun reflecting from the asphalt is punishing, and my feet, which have been accumulating agony each day for the last week and a half due to a miscalculation on my part of when to replace my shoes, are beginning to radiate crippling pain from walking in the road. Is this better than being terrified for several hours crossing the Rangitata? For the first time, I am not convinced.
Finally a couple of hours in, a full time business manager and part time mountain biker pulls over. He recognizes our plight, fellow traveler, and says he will drive us to the turnoff for Peel Forest. He and Prana chat about bikes while I stare in relief out the windshield in a daze. Slowly, I realize that the guy’s call list is on the digital screen of his dashboard. There’s something interesting on it. Chuck Norris’s name is on his call list nine times. I try to think of something funny to ask about this, but it takes too much effort, so I keep quiet.
We cross the Rangitata on a bridge, and Prana and I both strain our necks to see it, as though it will hold the correct answer for our guess earlier, but it doesn’t look that imposing here at the road crossing. In fact, a fisherman is standing a third of the way out into the river, and not struggling at all. Oh well.
Mountain biker man makes the executive decision to drop us at a different road than the one we originally asked for, and the first turn off zips by the window. The kilometers start to stack up, and so does my uncertainty. “You will definitely get a ride at the other road. It’s the main access,” he assures us. I check my map, and even if it is more trafficked, it is twice the distance if we don’t get a ride. I ask a few leading questions, thinking of all the many times a non-walker had thought they were doing us a favor but inadvertently screwing us (because short distances and access to basic needs are surprisingly easy in a car), but he is adamant. What am I going to do? I am going to accept the fate I am handed, and not argue with a dude that has Chuck Norris on speed dial, that’s what.
About 2 kilometers in, a dozen cars have passed without even an acknowledgment. A pissiness towards our benefactor has started to build when suddenly a mini-van pulls over in front of us, and a guy jumps out to do some rearranging. He is a father of three junior high age girls, all in the car, and they are on their way to the campground where they are staying for their week of school adventure holiday. The man is friendly but matter of fact; not interested in us but kindly driving back and forth to find the elusive farmstay driveway. The daughters, however, are very interested in our trip and are beside themselves to tell us about their day whitewater rafting on the Rangitata. I adore them. Not only does the dad find the long driveway but drives all the way up it, to deposit us safely at the back door.
We are unsure of where to go, but a Swedish guy calls through the kitchen window “The hostess will be out, but look out for Chopper.” There’s a black and white dog, still as a statue with his head on his paws, watching every move with glowing, wary eyes. I assume must be Chopper. While we stare at each other, Jenny appears. She is a delightful gentle woman, and shows us the garden, the hothouse, the shower, the tenting area, the pool. She invites us to make ourselves at home, to shower, to swim, to plug in our things, to pick tomatoes and apples and cucumbers for ourselves. She inquires about our hike, and weighs in about the unpredictability of the river. We book a ride for tomorrow to the trailhead- the only one is leaving at 6:30, sharp. We agree. She is so kind and gentle, I wish there was more time to chat, but it’s already after 7:00 and I am beat. We are halfway through pitching our tent before it becomes apparent- there is no wind here!
I go to admire the garden, a riot of gigantic sunflowers, huge apples, and a bounty of juicy tomatoes. The pool sounds enticing, but the sun slips behind the trees just then, and the temperature drops. That’s alright. I’m so exhausted from today, I’m not even interested enough in a shower to actually take one. Prana cooks potatoes for dinner, then we plug in the battery banks and crawl into the tent. It’s so peaceful here. What a wonderful feeling. I savor this for the few minutes of consciousness before I fall asleep.