Top Timaru Hut to Stodys Hut
The hut is so cozy and warm and quiet, we sleep until 7:00, even in spite of the fact that my mattress deflated completely sometime before midnight. Prana’s deflates so quickly now he didn’t even bother to start with it last night and slept on our sit pads. The morning shows mostly blue skies, and even though the air outside is sharply cold, people are in high spirits. No one is in a hurry, hoping each lingering minute will allow the river to come down a little bit more. It has definitely shrunk from what it was last night, but it is still high and running thick with dark gray silt, appearing as if it is carrying ash from a freshly burned area. By 9:00 we can’t wait anymore, and so we depart the hut.
We start out on the tail end of the bulldozer track from yesterday, and the going is easy. It gradually peters out to a thin sloped line along the side of a steep ridge line, a classic NZ sidle. (Is this word a shortened form of ‘side-hill’? Or is it because one must perform sidling motions to make it along one of these hillsides?)
The crumbly sidle edges above the aggressively steep gorge of a major tributary to the Timaru, eventually leading safely down to the water and a series of back and forth crossings of the clear stream. (I curse Steve’s stinginess again, imagining what this slick mud would have been like in the active storm of last night, on our way to the tent site he had suggested.) These crossings are not too deep, pretty easy. Somewhere I had read the estimate of a dozen river crossings on this leg- were these four included? Or is it a dozen crossings of the main Timaru? Would that be comparable in ease to these? I have no idea what to expect.
Once the trail finally reaches the main stem of the Timaru, it follows along the left bank for awhile, up and down in the forest and through some sunny grassy meadows, before crossing the first time. The thick water makes it impossible to see what’s below the surface, and it is running cold and fast. Prana, Mouse, and I convert to river crossing mode, and wade in. It’s not too bad, but there is more than plenty of water coming down at us, and there are big random boulders all over the bottom that make the footing tricky. We emerge from the other side, and watch Matt and Micah cross successfully.
We barely progress downstream when we are confronted with crossing back. Same drill: we link up, Prana at the upstream end, and work to stay in one line parallel to the current, crossing at the widest spot, working from eddy to eddy. We cross a third time, and then a fourth, the push of the current and the Braille of the bottom becoming more familiar. The trail winds in the forest for a bit, then brings us back down for another pair of crossings. This set is slightly spicier, with a deeper faster tongue amongst the boulders in the widest spot, waist deep on the three of us. Matt and Micah ford upstream of our crossing and find it a quite a bit shallower, winning the round.
The trail is an up and down sidle along the forested ridge for awhile; I imagine that looking at it from a distance, it would appear similar to an EKG pattern on a graph. The river valley itself is spectacular, and down by the river is a lot of exposed rock, while up on the tops of the ridges are views for miles. The trail drops back down to the river and travels the very edge for a stretch, and a fantastic lunch spot with several large, flat, table sized rocks appears. We take full advantage.
We pack up, fully sated and unaware that within 30 feet is our fourth pair of crossings. The ford back involves a scramble along an island of debris in the middle of the split current, and no obvious place to cross the far braid. Luckily the tongue we choose is not as strong as it appears it will be, and we reach a deep eddy that allows us to walk to a place we can pull ourselves out.
The trail takes turns leading through the forest and skirting the edge of the river, and this goes on long enough (and dives down to the river to only walk in the shallows of the near edge often enough), that I become convinced we are done with all of our crossings for the day. This proves incorrect.
The final pair of crossing starts with the scariest ford yet. It’s deep, it’s fast, it’s gorged and boulder strewn below, and there are no alternatives we can find by searching upstream. We wade in once, back out, then go for it again. The current rips at our legs, and from a combination of being pushed by the current and pulled by Prana to keep his balance, I am completely off my feet. I absolutely abhor this utter lack of control, but Prana insists he needs the counterweight to balance, and since he is the keystone of our transformer configuration, I suck it up and trust. And it works. We make it across. We walk downstream in the river on the far side, easing around sculpted walls sticking into the current, climbing over small ridges and down boulders. The last crossing is a wide, shallow, gravel bottomed dream, and we are able to cross with ease, individually. And then we are climbing, leaving the river behind for the final time.
We pass a turn off for a trail that continues down all the way to the mouth of the river, and from here the trail beelines almost 2000 feet straight up the hill. This is perhaps the steepest climb yet, at least sustained for this long, and it is grueling in the effort required and exhilarating in the views that it offers above the tree line. I feel strong at first, trying to keep a fast pace, then simply trying to keep a steady pace, then near the top only trying to minimize breaks. Reaching the tussock line, the trail levels out, and treats to a spectacular vista of the Southern Alps while contouring along an easy tread, watching rocky fins and glaciers and snow fields and razor ridges marching in rows into the distance. Spectacular! I’ve heard of at least two instances of a Southern Alps Traverse (I’m sure there are more), where one is actually up in the mountains and amongst the tops, and both times my body flushed with excitement and desire at the thought. It is supposed to be difficult and often off trail and unpopulated and tricky. Now that sounds like my kind of hiking, and when we come back, that is what I want to do. I surely don’t regret spending a season hiking the Te Araroa, but on the balance it is not the kind of hiking I thrive on.
The contours loop until landing gently at Stodys Hut, just on the beech forest/tussock line, and Justin, Caroline, and Prana are all lounging in the sun in a small protected meadow out back of the cabin. Two guys that work as guides on the Fox Glacier are dismantling downed trees for firewood. We wait for Mouse and muse about staying, as it is just so pleasant right here, right now.
And so we stay. Caroline shares an orange Tang-like drink that she mixes up, and Prana and I set up our tent in a meadow by the trail, so Matt and Micah can have bunks in the hut in case they are struggling and make it very late. A cold breeze funnels through, and Prana gleefully constructs a stone wall windbreak, and in the tent it is warm and still. We cook rice noodles for dinner, and cheer when Matt and then Micah arrive not late at all, and compare notes on the last several river crossings with them.
Everyone seems ready to call it a day early, and I fall asleep content.