Wash Creek to Te Anau
It is a cold cold morning. The air is thick with the chill rising off the creek, and the sun has yet to break into our hollow, even if it is already lighting the sky. I pull my sleeping quilt fully over my head, the light layering the bright scarlet outside over the navy blue inside, cocooning me in a glorious bright purple glow.
We don’t get the day started until 8:00, what a leisurely pace. The three of us spread out over the nondescript gravel road that leads to the highway, and I plug in to listen to a Grand Slam episode of Moth stories. The road borders a farm most of the way, and when I can see toy-sized cars zooming along what must be the highway on the horizon, I notice a massive helicopter parked in the farm field. As if on cue, the rotors slowly start to spin, and by the time I have drawn even with it the whop-whop-whop changes pitch and it lifts into the air, not 50 feet away across the fence. How dramatic!
I hit the highway, and Mouse and Prana are waiting a bit up the way, sitting next to an easy turnout at the place where we will leave the highway upon our return. Lots of cars are going by and I hurry along, judging roughly where I can stick out my thumb and still make it to them if anyone pulls over. I cross over at a break in traffic, and go for it; the very next vehicle, a camper van, pulls over immediately. What luck! The three of us pile in, and a friendly bearded guy with a big woolen hat and sunglasses grins at us from the driver seat. “On the Trail?” he asks. His voice seems vaguely familiar. “Yeah!” we chorus, thrilled that a town day is so close and this easy. “I’m heading in to see my wife, she’s been on the Trail.” This guy radiates good happy vibes. “I was, but it was more than I wanted. Now I’m working in Invercargill til she’s done.”
“Wait, what?” I demanded, recognizing this storyline from somewhere. “Who’s your wife?”
“Her name’s Cat,” he said at the same time I yelped “Paul!” in recognition, finally placing his voice. Holy shit! Of all the chance encounters, what are the odds that Paul would pick us up hitchhiking! “We met you in the Richmonds! At the Rock Hut. You pretended you were from Alabama! Tried to pretend,” I excitedly remind him.
“Oh yeah!” his grin, if possible, grows wider. “How are you guys doing?”
“So Cat’s in Te Anau?”
“Yeah, she got in this morning.” Awesome. The trail provides…time with beloved friends.
Paul pulls the camper van into a parking space on the main street of Te Anau, and we all unload. “Cat’s at the bar over here, and then I’m hungry for lunch.” “Us too,” we agree.
The greeting between Paul and Cat is so sweet. They are obviously deeply in love, and deeply friends besides. It’s all I can do to not clap my hands together and jump up and down; joy blooms so hard in my chest that I’m surprised it doesn’t crack a rib. They are kind enough to share their limited reunion time and invite us to eat lunch with them. We all rush the Indian restaurant that smells amazing.
After a lunch full of hard laughing, and a rendition of Cat’s story of crossing the Ahuriri (it was indeed her we had seen, and she hiked 10 K off-trail, up stream to cross on a bridge, and then 10 K off-trail back down to the TA) as well as other anecdotes from her now-solo hike, we part ways for the afternoon. Mouse, Prana, and I, stuffed and content, wander over to the Holiday Park to scope out the digs. The woman at the desk, Margaret, is exceedingly friendly and helpful, and rents us a campsite at the far corner of the park, with a few trees to tuck under. Hopefully this will be a bit quieter than farther out in the parking area. She also gives us a thorough lay of the land, including where the groceries are and where the best fresh fruit ice cream can be found. We set up tents, the sky threatening rain, and go to take long, hot, much needed showers. I don’t hate this trail, I think, as I stand under the steaming spray. I’m just tired. It’s so hard to focus on the things that are good about it when I’m focusing so much on what I imagine I’m missing out on, ie, the high country, the glaciers, the off trail passes, the adventure routes. We can always come back and do those. But this is what we are doing now. Enjoy what is good before it’s over, I resolve.
We do a half-hearted and futile search for this magical fresh ice cream that I cannot even conceptualize as described by Margaret, but nothing reveals itself, on Google maps or in real time. We call it a wash for now and return to the Holiday Park from the Four Square loaded up with hummuses, good bread, and a cornucopia of fresh fruit for town food rations, as well as black licorice ice cream for dessert. (How will we survive without black licorice ice cream in the northern hemisphere?!) It is so unusually early in the afternoon for a town day, we throw around ideas for the next. With the Kepler Track off the table, we could pick something else to do, or conceivably skip the layover days so we have time at the end of the TA to come back and try for the Kepler again. This decision holds me paralyzed for far too long. We go to the desk and ask Margaret for ideas.
“You should definitely see Milford Sound while you are here,” she insists. I am dubious about this, as I assume Milford sound is simply a cattle-herding tourist trap, or at least it would be by whatever method that we could see it in a day. “There’s nothing I can suggest about the Kepler, it is fully booked,” she says as she scrolls through the campsites, looking for cancellations. She seemed to think our target mileage was a little crazy anyway, even though we had just completed a similar number on the Routeburn. “Think about it,” she advises, handing us a stack of brochures.
We return to the tent. I know I want a break, but I can feel the finiteness of our days left for the first time. What if we take a day off now and that is the one day that our schedule is too short later to do a much desired trail later? How can I possibly predict and get it accurate? Why do I even put so much energy into these types of decisions?
Miraculously, the afternoon slips away with something Mouse excels at but I can rarely achieve: a nap. When I wake up, some of the urgent need to make perfect decisions for unpredictable future situations has lifted. I make my way to the relaxing dining area and people watch while I make much-too shorthand notes in my journal. When Prana joins me, we stroll over to the grocery store and quickly dispatch of our resupply to leave tomorrow completely open. Easter must be coming, because eureka! My guilty favorite of all candy, Cadbury Eggs, are on the shelf! As if splitting a one pound chocolate bar each night isn’t enough, we fortify our dessert rations with an additional Cadbury egg each per night for this next section. Lord help me, can all this walking truly offset this heinous intake? There’s no way. Oh well, I’ll go strictly plant-based this summer as atonement, I console myself.
Back at the holiday park, we repackage and divy out the resupply, clean out trash, dump forest litter out of all the deep pockets, do laundry, floss, use q-tips in our ears, and all the other things that happen only in town. It’s a great reward when, at the end of the day, we have no required chores left for tomorrow, whatever we may choose to do with it. Prana and I sit in the dining room, reading and writing respectively, consuming fresh fruit and ice cream, content until we are ready to turn in to our already-pitched tent, already-blown-up sleeping pads, and already-fluffed quilts.