3/12 Tempest on the Tops

Tikitimu forest to Telford Tops

26 k

The morning light is appearing noticeably later each day now, and with the storm clouds snuffing out the sunrise, it seems even further delayed today. We carefully pack up the lumpy campsite, a strange initiative with feet planted in strategically selected holes, in which we only twist and turn from the waist up, in the name of preventing ankle disaster.

We set off through the synchronized waving tussock again, the cloud colors of the morning a spill of pastel paints across the sky.The forest takes over from the tussock again, a dazzling riotous tessellation of beeches, mosses and ferns.  The filtered sunlight casts the mood of moving through an aquarium.

At the Spence Hut Junction, the track climbs up steep, stair-stepped tussock to gain a contour around a massive land slip.  In several places I step across deep cracks forming in the soft ground where surely the next bit of hillside will calve away.  The Aparima river executes a perfectly framed bowknot bend, with the illusion of an island left in the middle

Leaving the overlook and submerging back into the forest, the fermented beech smell is back, thick and sickly sweet in the air.  I hate this smell, associating it with the hordes of hornets from further north.  I don’t hear any buzzing to accompany it, but stay vigilant.

Aparima Hut is a small nondescript hut that we breeze past, followed by a picturesque swing bridge spanning a decent looking swimming hole.  The k’s seem to float by, as we move through alternating fields of wiry marsh grasses and islands of deep mossy forest, up and down the wrinkles of the landscape, each turn a little vignette of delight.

The forest is enchanting.  Enchanting?  I realize the break in Te Anau must have worked a small miracle, because not only am I fully engaged in the hike today, I am enjoying it immensely, and taking lots of pictures.  I hadn’t even noticed until now that my despondency has caused a complete dearth of photos from the last 72 hours.  But whatever fever of pettiness I had seems to have broken, and I am filled with gratitude, with optimism, with glee!  I am struck hard with the first twinges of not wanting this to be over.The trail playfully climbs and drops against the grain of many many small ridges, darting through thick ferns up high, splashing across rippling black streams down low.  Along the Wairaki River, the tussock appears and takes its turn again, and then the forest closes around the Lower Wairaki Hut.  I smell wood smoke before we see the hut, and as we pass, the chimney is billowing a welcoming.  The porch, however, is packed layer upon layer with drying hiker paraphernalia, and any slight toying with the idea of staying inside turns to a wisp and is gone.

We hike on to the last stream another long kilometer farther and cook supper.  We have a big steep climb followed by a big steep descent, and want to retain the option  of dry camping on top without hauling the extra weight.  Rice noodles and curry paste again – I don’t think I will ever get tired of this meal!

Sated with dinner, fully tanked up on all the water we can drink, we begin the climb, and a beast of a climb it is.  We clamber up through the forest, seeming to cover more vertical than horizontal ground.  One shoulder of a ridge offers a single possible spot to camp, if we were so inclined,  and after a few agonizing minutes of playing the what-if-this-is-the-best-spot-there-is-and-we-are-passing-it-up, we do that exactly.  It’s too early to stop!  I tell myself as I started huffing and hauling up again.  The map shows small flat treeless areas up high, on the tops, but what if they are made out of bog?  Or tussock?  If the down-on-the-other-side is comparable to the up on this side, I do not want to be tackling it in the dark.  At last we crest the upper ridge break out of the forest onto the Telford Tops, which are spectacular.Silver, arrow-leafed plants decorate the wide open ridge, and craggy mountain tops run in a parallel backdrop.  A storm is visibly sweeping in through those rocky cliffs, and is doing hypnotic things to the late golden sunlight.  There are twisted and bleached sculptures of deadwood, old skeletons of trees abandoned and forgotten up here, scattered among bush not taller than my waist.  Where did they come from?  As the storm mist draws nearer, a brilliant half rainbow is projected into the sky.  I hope we can find a place to pitch up here, what an incredible place to be!

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I am standing enraptured by the prismatic luminescent arc, when all of a sudden…kaBAM!  The Wind.

It rises, gaining momentum, I can hear it winding up a lap around the Tops, then it hammers down and detonates. An invisible paintbrush slowly draws in the other half of the rainbow as I watch, buffeted, spellbound, leaving a complete neon archway beckoning us ahead.  kaBAM!  One little sting, and then another, as though pebbles are getting kicked up from somewhere; icy, pelting rain accelerates with a vengeance. The wind howls and wallops, landing one 15-second gust at least as bad as many at Martha’s Saddle. Panic suddenly constricts the back of my throat – how much worse is this storm going to get?  Are we about to be trapped in the open, pinned against the ground by a raging gale?   Prana must be wondering the same – “Should we go back?” he yells over the wind.

I don’t know.  “I don’t think so!” I yell back.  If we have to go down, we may as well go down the direction we need to, even if there will be no trees for cover for a long long time.  I have a hunch the thin forest we just passed through wouldn’t provide much in the way of protection anyway.At a tiny excuse of an alcove in the rocks, we stop and struggle into our rain jackets. Not only is the wind violent and insane, it is also icy cold.  For whatever reason, I feel unstoppable right now as I gallop down the loose footing to the first visible stand of trees that may offer shelter, only to discover the camping possibility is not even remotely as hospitable as last night.  Dang.  I keep following the ridgeline’s descent, dart down into a few side draws seeking a reprieve, anywhere. Prana catches me and drops even further off the ridge to check a stand of trees. Mouse catches up to me as he waves us over.

Skeptical, I descend to where he has ducked into the forest shadows. The ground is churned to hard mud and confettied with cowpies, but 20 steps down and the wind cuts off like a door has slammed shut. It is perfectly still, even as we watch the tops of the trees whistle and thrash above us. What are the odds?

We each find a spot to set up our tents, which we pitch while water heats on the stove. With a big pot of hot cocoa and plenty of leftover snacks shared between the three of us like a potluck, the adrenaline of our weather ordeal mellows. The only thing I lament is being chased from the incredible beauty of the Tops so soon. Later, rolled into my quilt, ears plugged against the shrieking of the gale and tucked in snug, the incredible scenery of the evening replays in my mind while the shadows of the tree tops silently lash like kelp in the tide.

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