3/8 Three False Starts and a Bottomless Bog

Mavora Campsite to Wash Creek

32 k

It’s a dampened motivation to get out of bed this morning.  A late start as well – late by convention, but not too late for sunrise.  The days are getting noticeably shorter each morning, no way around it that fall has arrived!

We pack up and less than 300 meters along is an outhouse.  The ease!  The luxury!  No one else needs it yet, so I pop in, and there is even toilet paper stocked.

When I return to the trail, I trot along at a clip to catch up, while untangling my headphones and rearranging items to get set up for the day.  With everything requiring dexterity sorted, I start to don the gloves I had tucked into my armpit, and realize I only have one.  Gah!  About face, and back up the road.  There it is, lying not 50 feet past the outhouse.  I double my trot to make up my time as I start the trail again.  As the sun crests the ridge, I reach up onto my head to pull down my sunglasses…and they aren’t there.  What, did I drop those too?  Blast!  I turn and take a few steps back up the road, but then gamble that I forgot to even get them out this morning.  I stop, unsort everything, sling off the pack, and dig.  Sure enough, there they are at the very bottom.  Ok, onward, once again!  I race down the road for several minutes, before slowing down to check the map for the next waypoint I need to watch for.  The answer?  A turn I have already passed.

May as well accept it is just one of those mornings.

I catch up to the other two from a web of trails just as they are disappearing on the far end of a beautiful swing bridge, leading into the dark damp forest.  I let them slip ahead again, and then follow along.  The forest is velvety and plush, everywhere covered with moss, trail wide and well-maintained.  The frenzy of the clunky start up this morning fades with the soothing surroundings.

At the next swing bridge are a few cyclists that have been covering some ground.  They are chatting with Prana and Mouse as I walk up, and I listen on the fringe, happy with my rhythm and reluctant to be influenced too much by anyone else’s interactions or moods.  Then up strolls the French girl that had been so churlish at Boyle.  Damn, I think to myself.  Why do we keep seeing her?  I nod noncommitally, unwilling to be willfully rude, yet.  There must be a lesson I need to learn yet, and that is why the trail keeps providing her.  I roll my eyes to myself.  What, trail, what?  Can’t you just spell it out for me?  Rephrase it for me, so to speak?

The cyclists and hiker all take off across the bridge, and Prana, Mouse and I continue on our side.  The river is a gorgeous shade of deep aquamarine.  We march along and I consume episode after excellent episode of This American Life.  After another hour or so, I sense a rumbling in the basement of my gut, and realize its going to be a double-cathole kind of day.  I prop my pack against a tree on the trail and plunge into the moss, sinking up to and then over my knees with each step, wading out into the ocean of green velour.  Out of sight of the trail I find an island of downed branches to balance on, and dig a green velveteen well.  What a place for a nap! is all I can think as I finish my business.  I imagine falling backward, like a snow angel, and the moss just rippling away like a water bed.  My imagination is vivid enough that I am in as good of a mood as if it had actually worked the way I pictured.  Buoyant, I wade back to my pack and high step down trail.

I catch up to the other two at the third swing bridge of the day.  In the notes several people have mentioned that the track ahead on our side as it is marked on the map disappears, and that there is a continuation of the here-to-now fabulously well maintained track on the other side of the river.  We weigh the options; Prana doesn’t want to skip any true TA track that exists, and I definitely don’t want to struggle on non-existing track just for the principal of it.  At a stale mate, we break out lunch while we debate the decision.  We finally agree to continue down the TA as it is marked to the Kiwi Burn Hut.

The forest remains absolutely gorgeous, and the trail is present and obvious, in spite of the naysaying notes.  Nevertheless, my burbles of good cheer from earlier in the day have vanished, and a foul mood that I cannot shake has reasserted its spell.  I just don’t want to be doing this, this walking down low in the valleys.  The Richmonds and Nelson Lakes and Arthur Pass re-ignited the off-trail itch, and the Routeburn and its tantalizing glimpses of adjacent adventures teased until I obsess with abandon.  I want to be hiking high, up on sketchy rock ridges, with open sky views and uninhabited cowboy camps.  The Hayduke has ruined me in the best possible way.  I miss the desert, I miss the hardship and starkness of it, the space and light and the comfort of the bared skeleton of the earth, and I am shamefully irritated by the boring confinement of the tread in this beautiful forest.

The trail maintains its ease and distinction all the way to the Kiwi Burn.  There is supposed to be a genuine wood-burning oven in the Hut, but since it is off trail by at least a kilometer, I can’t rally enough interest to justify the effort to look at it.  What is wrong with me?  Where is my sense of adventure?

We change into sandals, and prepare to ford the Kiwi Burn, potentially deep if the pessimistic trail notes are to be believed.  It is evenly knee-deep and mellow, ice cold, no problem to cross.  We dry our feet and change back into our hiking shoes, and take off on the much less crisply defined track.  It winds along the wide Mararoa river bottoms, and we dutifully follow, pushing through stands of poky thorny plants.  The ground gradually becomes mushier, until we reach a bog hollow to cross.  Reluctant to get our feet wet, we search for a crossing.  No luck.  Prana, struck by inspiration, begins digging and prying up a huge rock to use as a stepping stone.  He tugs and muscles it back and forth, and when he triumphantly uproots it, staggers over to the edge of the bog and heaves it in.  SPLASH!  A tidal wave ricochets out, soaking him anyway.  The three of us dissolve into laughter, especially once we notice that, for all that effort, the bog hole is so deep the rock sits well below the surface.  With only one dry-crossing option left, Prana takes a running leap and makes it with a few inches to spare.  I take a few steps and a rather ungraceful jump, and mostly make it, sacrificing only my right heel.  Mouse gamely winds up and hops, hits the steep bank and stumbles backward under the weight of her pack. Prana catches her before she goes any deeper than her knees.

The trail follows along a wire fence for awhile, then winds through beautiful soft flowing meadow grass along the river.  The footing is a bit pocked and uneven, but nothing too bad.  Prana opens up a lead and I am feeling relaxed, so by the time I reach the first chance to cut up to the road he is too far gone to signal.  Damn.  I work hard to catch him and tell him my intention.  He is not interested in the road.  “Remember how many times the trail has stayed fine when we thought it wouldn’t?” he asks.  “Remember how many times it has gone bad when there weren’t warning?” I counter.  We agree on a meeting spot at the far end of the section, split snacks, and both go on our way.

The trail stays nice enough until hitting a wall of Matagouri, the vicious razor-thorned shrub.  Thrashing through it, we all take a snack break in the last nice pocket of meadow grass along the river.  Cell service shows up on my phone, and I call to see if there is a campsite available on the Kepler Great Walk, hoping to do it in long days like the Routeburn.  No luck this time around; just one more reason to come back.  I pack up and start walking, and just like that, the trail devolves into what I had been anticipating all day.  The long grasses hide 6 inch deep pocks, the pathway becomes impossible to follow. I roll both ankles several times in under ten minutes, and quickly become fed up.  The next drainage that allows passage up onto the bench with its road I take.  I notice that Mouse and Prana follow suit not long after, and put some music on my headphones.  The road is made of huge cobbles that hinder an open stride, and the wind is whipping, cold and grit-laden, up here on the bench.  Oh well.  At least I can stop thinking so hard about the trail itself, and partially zone out on the miserable straight-shot cadence.

The sky starts dimming almost imperceptibly, and a couple of hours have gone by when I finally reach the main road bordering the end of the river bottom section.  I turn and follow it to the Wash Creek trailhead gate that marks the end of the river bottom slog.  Prana is already here!  “How did you pass me?” I ask.  “I couldn’t stand the thought that I was missing trail.  So I left the road and went back down to the river.  I tried to hurry and make a game of getting here first, and eventually the trail did get better again.”  We are both pleased with our subsequent choices, and that is just fine with me.  We pitch the tent and Mouse rounds the corner, happy that it is still daylight for cooking dinner.  The wind is still gusting over the top of our little hollow, but the cold air that has pooled for the evening is still at the stove and sleeping bag level.  We cook pasta with tomato sauce and olives, and look forward to a layover day in Te Anau.

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