3/15 Beginning of the End

Longview Forest to The Artifacts on the Water Race

28 k

I crack open an eye to a still-dark morning, the alarm beeping.  Ugh, as much as I love this spot, I did not sleep well at all.  Once the air mattress deflated, the ground was lumpy, and I couldn’t get the lumps to line up comfortably like pillows.  Every hour or two I would wake up with my hips screaming, my knee deeply aching, as if I may never walk again.  I should probably lay off the half pound of chocolate a night.

This morning’s first breakfast is tomato soup with couscous and poached eggs. Ohmigod, yeah. Warmed and fueled, we break down camp, the sky starting to brighten.

Striding up the road, I fend off the realization that today might be tough.  We hit the start of the Longview Track, and I immediately lose power on the uphill mud.  I feel discouraged, weak, slow, flogging myself with my brain with each step.  I finally stop, take a deep breath, force off my internal criticism, strip off all my thermal layers, and find a decaying log to dig into for a cathole.  Aaah, that is so much better.  I get turned around in the moss covered forest trying to find back the trail, and burst back onto it well below where I left my pack just as Mouse walks upFinally building up steam for the day, I am able to appreciate the gorgeous forest track, the profusion of ferns, the variety of trees, the thick luxuriant moss.  In a few groves the trees are draped in flowing moss, like furry characters from a Dr. Seuss story.  The sunlight catches their fur and makes them glow…maybe they are alive and just moving so so slowly I can’t notice at my hasty pace.  

I listen to an Outside Podcast about a canyoneering accident; they have this gruesomely fascinating series called the Science of Survival, wherein each episode the listener is walked through a rescue emergency in  second-person present-tense (ie “you feel your air run out”).  I know I should not be listening to this, as my brain already works in overdrive to predict impending disaster everywhere (like the Pandimensionl Griffin on Men In Black 3), and this is only making it worse.  But I.  Cannot.  Stop myself.

The last stretch of forest before the top is the most beautiful, and I wonder if I took the time to examine each tiny lacy stem of moss, if they would each be different, like snowflakes.  I break out into the open to find Prana waiting on the ridge, which is covered with tussock and flax. We have a second breakfast and snack, getting chilly in a hurry.  Where did summer go?  We climb together towards the top of Bald Mountain, weaving through the patches of thick and spiny plants, some kind of cell tower structure marking the apex. Piles of crumbling reddish rocks appear to replace the plants, and the ground morphs from bog to white, glittering, huge-grain granitey-quartzy sand. We crest the peak and there it is- full views of the end and beyond. Bluff!  Stewart Island! The southern ocean!  It is a magnificent sight.

There is a wide, gently descending road, perfect for a jogging pace leading down the other side. And so we jog. Glorious!  The road winds past beautiful rock piles and hanging gardens and little tricklets of water in the hollows.  Not long before what is marked on our map as the “Old Quarry” turn off is the last creek for 12k, cascading out of ferns, and flowing through a culvert crafted of wooden staves bound by a metal ring, like an old fashioned barrel on its side.  We tank up on the delicious sweet water.

The road gradually entrenches itself into a clay tunnel the rest of the way to the quarry.

The quarry itself is a strange crater in the ground sunk 15 feet into the clay layer; a wide open hub with 5 roofless clay tunnels leading off to different areas.   With some ungraceful scrabbling, we gain the 6 foot lip of our trail and start steeply upwards back into the forest.  Once on top, the path alternates through pockets of forest and open bogland with beautiful views to the ocean. It is fairly flat going, even if the trail tread does require some concentrated footwork. We decide to have lunch on a dry grass island of a boggy field, and the sun shines through the clouds just as we sit.Eventually gain the Longwood Ridge for which this track is named.  It is a beautiful bouquet of draping flax and bayoneted spines and succulent shrubs. We walk the long soggy length of the ridge, sloping toward the ocean.  At another break I have service, and check my email.  I am glad to see an email from Jo.  She must be within a day of finishing, I think.  When I open it, though, I read she is off trail with a broken wrist.  No!  I write back, hoping for her that she will still be able to complete her hike.

The flax marshes transition into feathery tussock, a beautiful golden rippling counterpoint against the stormy blue sky and aquamarine waves.  

When we turn down off the ridge, for some reason I think this signals that we are close to Martin’s Hut, the last hut on the Southbound Te Araroa.  The last!  For how much I longed for it to be over last week, it is drawing to a close so suddenly now.

I think the cabin is close. But it actually is not, the mistake magically compounding its distance. A supposed 3 k, muddy but not unmanageable; it’s kind of fun actually. I get into a zone and a step-slide rhythm, and a long hour later we arrive.  The notes fussed about dilapidation and mice, but it is cute! Not nearly as dismal as it’s made out to be.

We briefly toy with the idea of staying, but as it is still early and we calculated only 5 k or so to a neat looking campsite mentioned in a blog, we decide we will go on.  Sitting inside on the bunks, listening to the brief spat of rain on the roof that materialized out of nowhere, Prana and I have another smoothie treat, and Mouse has something called a Fistful of Awesome, a title which delights me.img_3887

Ol’ Katniss (the nickname we’ve given to the vanguard of the girl pack) arrives as we are preparing to leave. Seeing we are on our way out, she appears more relaxed and exchanges a bit of small talk with us.  Scarcity likely plagues her too, I realize, although who knows what particular form hers takes, what vision or narrative she is trying to protect.  I feel a warm pang of acquaintanceship and curiosity from this thought, and then we are on our way.

I find the last bit of track from Martin’s Hut quite charming, although I can’t put my finger on why.  There are a slew of mushrooms, a few of impressive size.

We pass a turnoff for Turnbull’s Big Dam Hut, which I wish we had time to go see, purely for the name.  We dispatch a few fast k on gravel roads, then hang a right onto the the Potts Water Race Track, another intriguing name labeled on our maps of which I am not sure what to expect. It proves to be an old irrigation flume, and the path is funky, flat, and flanked by deep trenches on each side as it winds into the lush forest, lending the illusion of a suspended walkway. It is quite charming, with significantly less mud than the last track.

We zip along on this sidewalk.  In several spots the elevated race track has sloughed off into the flume; at one there is a handline down to gain access to a felled tree as a ramp back out, and another features a big step or small leap across.  Not all the spots marked on our map for access to water have water running, and I hope that we find some easy water before camp.  I suddenly realize it is about to be a double-cathode day, and not long after I find a sturdy trunk that spans the gap between the race track and the forest.  It feels like I am taking an exit off the interstate as I duck into the moss.

I start to wonder where camp could be, as we have already gone much further than the figured five k. We have passed nothing else that is a possibility, and claustrophobia from the moated confinement of the narrow walkway sets in.  Prana reviews the notes and recalculates a few more k.  The spot, which we assume will be obvious, is not there either.  A few more k after that, we cross a creek that has clear water.  I stop and fill all the bottles, prepping to make do with the first available flat spot we find, even if it is the trail itself.

Opposing waves of frustration and wonder wash over me.  Where is the camp?  Then again, this forest is sublime, and it is the last one we will hike in. But where is the camp?  But I don’t want this to be done too soon.  Etc.

We turn a flat dry corner, and there finally is the indicating machinery sticking out of ground on a bench below the trail.  There is indeed just enough flat space for both of our tents with the doors overlapping again. We pitch and prop ourselves against the old mining equipment to cook up a bowl of rice noodles, then bundle into the tents just as the sky opens up with rain. Perfect timing.  I savor my nightly ration of Whittaker’s chocolate as I listen to the big fat drops slap the leaves in the twilight.

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