Crossing the Harper Pass, the wild west coast welcomes Victoria and Emilie as they bathe in its icy waters, explore its lush forests, and meander along its rocky riverbanks.
Here at Wilderlife, we’re collating Victoria’s diaries, photos and videos into a digest. Each post spans a section of Te Araroa between major towns and rest days.
Walking with her seven-year-old daughter Emilie, together they are raising funds for Federated Mountain Clubs and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy.
Boyle Village to Otira River Crossing
Day 76: 18 January 2022
Boyle Village to Hope Halfway Shelter (19 kms/7 hrs)
My favourite part of today was lying on a big rock down by the river with the warm sun and cool breeze on my skin. To be fair, it was about the only thing I enjoyed about today. It was a long, hot and heavy slog along the Boyle River flats to join up with the Hope Valley.
We left Boyle Village late, around 9am. Somehow we overlooked that the relentless heat would bake us for the first 12kms, abating only when we finally reached the coolness of the beech forest.
By the end of it, everything hurt. My head was throbbing, my right knee twinging sadly, my back and shoulders tender and I also seemed to have swollen lymph glands since my throat hurt when I swallowed. And to top it off, I had a cold sore lurking on my bottom lip and my period.
But all was forgotten when we reached the little green shelter, dumped our packs and staggered down to the river.
After washing the dust and dried blood from sandfly bites on my legs, I stripped off and sat in the shallows. The river rushed busily in front of me while Emilie hopped rocks to the side of me. Behind me, there stood a large red and white cow eating her way through the grassy bank.
Emilie was interested in the cow after I reassured her it wouldn’t bite or chase her. She noted its large udder and round stomach, deciding it was probably having a baby and was down here on its own for some peace and quiet.
The water was pleasantly cool compared to the freezing snow melt of the Sabine and Waiau. I felt the sun warm upon my bare skin.
I draped myself over a huge rock, enjoying the sensation of the intense heat of its smooth grey surface transferring to my skin. The breeze dried my damp body, tickled my bottom and wrapped its fingers through my hair. This is why I walked seven hours today, I told myself – for these precious moments of bliss, immersed in my natural world.
Day 77: 19 January 2022
Hope Halfway Shelter to Hope Kiwi Lodge (7 kms/2 hrs)
I’m sitting outside the hut drinking Fireball cinnamon flavoured whiskey and trying to comb a dreadlock out of my hair. I usually like whiskey, but I’ve never known it to taste this bad.
Inside the hut, Emilie is happily entertaining a group of oldies. I don’t mean any disrespect in saying this, as they told us they were all over 60 and had grandchildren.
The sandflies are swarming and my long hair is my secret weapon to protect the soft skin around my neck. There are dark clouds moving through the valley and occasional gusts of strong wind transforming the grassy flats into a golden glowing sea.
I’m not sure if the forecasted rain will actually fall or simply be blown over to elsewhere. It hasn’t rained in weeks judging from the dry, cracked ground and patches of dead grass.
Our eventful morning drifted into a long afternoon, as we came across James running through the forest only minutes after setting out from Hope Halfway Shelter. Emma was sick and the couple wanted the advice of my TrackMe support team to help decide their next steps. Given Emma’s condition, we requested an extraction. James ran back to her while I called up emergency services on my InReach. It was the first time I’d used the SOS function and it all felt a little surreal. However within thirty minutes, we heard the roar of the rescue helicopter and knew Emma would be in good hands.
We arrived at Hope Kiwi Lodge as James was leaving and ate an early lunch, contemplating whether to continue 20kms to Hurunui Hut or stay put. My motivation was low and my knee still felt a little sore. A friendly group of northbound older walkers turned up and recognized Emilie, so we stayed.
We left the hut only to seek out the cool sanctuary of the river, following animal trails through the long grass until we found a suitable pool, bathing and playing a fun game of floating dandelions down the miniature rapids. Now it’s 5pm and I’m watching the rain sweep down the valley holding my little dram of cinnamon flavoured whiskey.
Day 78: 20 January 2022
Hope Kiwi Lodge to Hurunui Hut #5 (18 kms)
I didn’t enjoy anything about today’s walk through the beech forest. I was too busy convincing my body to keep going, despite all the various pain and protest. Trail walking could be an analogy for life – some days you just don’t feel like it, but it eventually gets better if you keep going.
Shortly after Kiwi Saddle, we came across a tree of shrieking birds and realised in horror that they were being raided by a stoat. The lithe little thing was stalking along a high branch. As we yelled and hit the bushes with our walking poles, it dropped down the tree trunk with surprising agility.
The sun shining through the canopy of the towering beech forest onto the carpet of green moss below should have been pretty, but my knees and shoulders hurt and I just wanted out of this god-damned forest.
We were both relieved to reach the massive swing bridge and throw down our packs to swim in the cool green waters of the Hurunui.
It was much colder than anticipated, but very refreshing. My aches and pains were momentarily numbed by the cold water, only to again rejoin me as I hobbled up the hill.
My resolve crumbling, I realized I was staring wildly through the trees and willing the hut to appear – the slope of a roofline, the loo, anything, just please let me stop walking.
I pulled myself together. Huts don’t like desperation. I swear they get up off their piles and scuttle away through the trees when they sense a desperate tramper drawing near.
I made myself focus on the bright green of the moss, a friendly tomtit following me down the track and the dappled sunlight shining through the huge beech trees.
And you know what? I came round a corner and there it was . . . squatting in a clearing, a big red and green hut.
Why am I hurting?
My pack is too heavy and my body is suffering. My legs ache from my hips to my knees . . . not to mention my ankles, but right now, especially my knees. The excess weight is placing strain on my joints and the pain is probably inflammation. But at least I’m not hungry, because I’m carrying a ridiculous amount of food – eight days’ worth for two people. It’s insane and it’s not working. So once we make it out of this section, I’ll need to rethink our food supplies. While our bellies are loving big bowls of couscous for dinner, cheese and peanut butter crackers for lunch and super-sized porridge oats with honey for breakfast, the whole food kilos are killing me.
I’d love to try walking Te Araroa with only my own gear, just food and kit for one human being instead of two.
Day 79: 21 January 2022
Hurunui Hut #5 – Hurunui Hut #3
It was after 10 am when us ladies of leisure finally departed Hurunui Hut.
We’d had the 16 bunk hut all to ourselves and enjoyed a leisurely sleep in, long after the korimako had finished their morning songs.
Today’s walk to Hurunui Hut #3 was a combination of river flats and forest ramblings, the undergrowth thick with young beech, mountain toatoa and broadleaf and the forest floor carpeted in moss and ferns. Small birds chattered in the canopy, heard but not seen.
I wasn’t a great Trail companion today, according to Emilie, as she told me three stories and I didn’t even tell her one. I really had nothing to tell as once again, my entire preoccupation was walking.
I tried to talk to her about the birds that we were seeing, while she tried to talk to me about My Generation dolls. At one stage, hot and frustrated, I explained to her that I wasn’t really interested in hearing about dolls. “Well, I don’t care about your stupid birds!” she retorted, stomping off in front me.
I dropped back to a respectful distance, allowing my gaze to drift upward into the dappled green canopy of the mighty silver beech trees.
We made up once we arrived at the hut and unanimously decided to head to the river.
We found a beautiful swimming hole full of icy water and played in the current, a mother and baby seal, before eventually hauling out onto the warm rocks and returning to the hut to hide from the sandflies.
Day 80: 22 January 2022
Hurunui Hut #3 to Harper Pass Bivouac
The forest nymph is lying on a rock in the sunshine, dangling her plaits in the water.
Now she’s stepping into her paddling pool to submerge herself in the clear water, before returning to the warm rock. Her little lips are moving all the time, although the sound of the water running over rocks drowns out any sound.
She comes over to tell me she’s actually a mountain stone mermaid, very rare and endangered. She asks if I can share my crackers and peanut butter, so I feed her some, although she tells me she’d prefer Nutella.
Apparently all her family were killed by a pirate ship. She swam all the way up the river, the birthplace of the Hurunui at the feet of the great Southern Alps, to live in this pool.
She wears a magic necklace made of greenstone, which nobody else may touch. It transforms her strong brown legs into a rainbow colored tail. She shows me her island, two giant moss covered boulders, where the river diverts rapidly around one side and trickles through a quiet pool on the other.
The banks of her river are adorned with flowering hebe, harakeke, the occasional dracophyllum and ferns. Her kingdom is filled with clumps of long serrated grass, neither flax nor tussock (maybe a type of toitoi), while tiny native bluebells shimmer in the shade.
I sit under a shady bush whose name I do not know, the face of its thick green leaves contrasting with a white underside, like an olive. Mt Drake towers above us with wisps of cloud moving rapidly over his head. It’s surreal to think we’re going to walk through the Southern Alps tomorrow, crossing Harper Pass to the West Coast and the birthplace of the mighty Taramakau.
Day 81: 23 January 2022
Harper Pass Bivouac to Taramakau River via Locke Stream Hut
The forest nymph was furious. After waking in the night for warmer layers and a wee, she was tired, sullen and moody. The service around here, quite frankly, wasn’t up to her standards. I could hear her down by the stream, wailing at the unfairness of the world after being sent off to wash the dishes.
For a moment I was left alone in the tiny shelter, shattered already and it wasn’t even 8am. Perhaps my chronic exhaustion on this leg of the Trail had nothing to do with pack weight or gammy knees – it was the constant battle of wills with a bolshy seven-year-old.
How had I managed to raise a child who expected to sit around and have everything done for her, including a guided, all-entertainment-provided walking tour of New Zealand? Mum was running ragged from packing, prepping and serving up substandard breakfasts that never had enough honey in them.
“How dare Mum ask me to wash the dishes, ME, Emilie?! Oh, the unfairness of the world!!”
I could hear her voicing her indignation above the calm gurgle of the stream, as I huddled in my bright orange bomb shelter.
Yet, in true Emilie fashion, she soon became distracted by a game or a bird or a pretty flower and came skipping back to tell me about it.
And shortly, we’ll head out on the Trail to discover more magical treasures, while the darkness of the morning fades away under the brightness of a brand new day.
But it wasn’t over yet. At the first stream crossing, the drama escalated into full scale pandemonium. The rocks that she’d hopped across effortlessly yesterday afternoon were now an impassable barrier. I took her pack, offered to take her poles and stood around with the blood thundering in my ears while she wailed and stalled. I felt so unwell. After I finally explained that there would be heaps of stream crossings today and I didn’t want to wait around any more, she hopped across like a little pink and blue mountain goat.
But it was too late for me, as my own floodgates opened and a tonne of grief poured out. I don’t like crying for this reason – you aim to fill a cup and a bucket comes out. I staggered through the beautifully overgrown track, the dew-soaked grass reaching out to hold me in its damp embrace, willing myself to get it together. Someone once told me that the social concept of a nuclear family was only something recent; that previously it was a known fact that it took a village to raise a child.
So where the hell is my village? Because oh boy, do I have a special delivery for them!
We just drank from a stream that, according to my NZTopo50 map, is at the very head of the mighty Taramakau River. And from what I can see, this little stream originates from the side of a mountain covered purely in giant harakeke.
There are the tiniest of birds in the dracophyllum tree above my head, cheeping and chirruping as they acrobat through its gnarled branches. A few moments earlier, the bushes rustled and gave birth to a weka. He wandered down the track to regard me with a beady red eye before stretching his tiny stubs of wings and fluffing his feathers, only to disappear back into the scrub.
The track over Harper Pass is delightfully overgrown with toitoi, harakeke and ferns. We brush our legs against the occasional gentian and mountain daisy that are popping through. We crunch across a red and orange carpet of dracophyllum, mountain cabbage tree, growing beside pretty mountain toatoa and other species I do not know. I take heaps of observations for iNaturalist, happy in my nature loving heaven.
The dramatic scenery of the Waiau Pass and Richmond Ranges has its charm for sure. But for me, this little section across the Harper Pass could be one of my favourites, just me and my daughter discovering a world of tiny treasures.
Suddenly the world around us was green on green, every available surface covered in plant life. Hookgrass and ferns grew out of a carpet of moss, lichen covered tree trunks and larger trees served as a host to a myriad of smaller ones. A huge, gnarled trunk twisted off into the canopy and I followed it, open mouthed, to see its leaves. This time the host tree was a giant griselini with shiny bright green leaves. Its thick trunk provided a home to smaller trees and a huge lichen perched like a fancy lettuce, dangling moss and other epiphytes.
The sight of all this quiet symbiosis brought tears to my eyes.
A waft of warm, humid air drifted up the path – we were definitely in West Coast territory now. The canopy on the other side of the river bloomed red with rātā, but I was being called forwards by my tiny tramping companion and had to turn my gaze to my feet so I could navigate the steep and slippery track down from the pass.
And then we were back on the flats in the company of giant beech trees. A pair of robins flew down to join us on the Taramakau swing bridge, seemingly enjoying the bounce of the wires as Emilie ventured across.
We reached the red tin bulk of Locke Stream Hut just before 3pm and headed down to the river to cool off. I lay on my stomach in the shallow, yet swiftly flowing waters, digging my fingers and toes against the rocks to hold me in place.
I made us both a hot drink and some crackers before we shouldered our packs to press on.
Neither of us really wanted to stay in the big empty historic hut, with its mouldy mattresses and rat traps.
So we wandered along the golden river flats, enjoying the cool breeze on our faces and hot sun on the backs of our legs. The Taramakau ran alongside us only ankle deep in places. I smiled as I spotted huge tree ferns popping out amongst the green canopy.
Hello West Coast, it’s good to see you!
We made it another 4kms or so, meandering along through the long dry grass, losing the track every once in a while and making our own way until we picked it up again.
A little grove of shady beech trees just before the junction to Townsend Creek seemed too good to pass by, so we set up the tent and hopped in before the sandflies discovered us.
And here we are, lying in the late evening sunshine with a korimako above us, the river below us and the high purple-blue shoulders of Mt Wilkinson and Mt Dixon on either side.
Day 82: 24 January 2022
Taramakau River track to Otira River Crossing/Aickens Carpark (15 kms/5 hours)
The sandflies were viciously circling by the time we opened our eyes, adding a layer of complexity to our morning hot cuppa routine.
My trick was to open the vestibule and slip my hand out of the tent, exposing delicious bare flesh up to the wrist, then put the pre-filled pot onto the cooker and leave it to boil while setting up our drinks inside the tent. Once the water had boiled, I repeated the process to bring it inside and 100 savvy sandflies tried to sneak in with it! This process, accompanied by a couple of rounds of cards, saw us setting off at the very leisurely time of 10am when the sun was already strong.
We decided to try and walk out across the Otira River today, as 15kms along grassy river flats wasn’t too hard of an ask and we were both keen for an ice cream. But flood damage had ravaged the giant valley, washing away any resemblance of a track. We were left picking our way across rocks painted brilliant orange with lichen, wandering across the river bed multiple times in our best attempt to keep a straight line down the valley.
We checked out Kiwi Hut and left feeling a little sad at its lonely, grimy interior. It was well overdue for a wash and a coat of new paint to help restore the otherwise cute hut to its former glory.
At some stage we noticed other walkers on the far side of the river, which is where my NZTopo50 map indicated there was another track. So we made our way across to discover local @HokiJack having a yarn to some fellow TA walkers.
Confident that we were on the homeward stretch, we followed a 4×4 track until it petered out. We then tried a cow track followed by the remnants of a trail that popped us out onto the banks of the Otira. This beautiful river was reduced to a clear blue multi-braided trickle and we hung about on its far bank for a while, playing in the water and watching the outline of trucks roar down the highway beyond.
But for the next few days we’ll rest and resupply in Greymouth, before heading back to Arthur’s Pass to walk the Mingha-Deception route and the next section.
Victoria and Emilie are walking the Te Araroa over the 21/22 summer season. They are raising funds and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy. To see all their stories, visit wilderlife.nz/adventures_with_emilie/ and follow them @adventures_with_emilie on Instagram and Facebook.
90% of the funds raised are donated evenly between the Mental Health Foundation and the Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ Mountain & Forest Charitable Trust. 10% is going towards some of the expenses of walking the trail.
If you’d like to help them out, please donate via their give a little page.