Celebrating their crossing of the Waiau Pass, Victoria reflects on her former fast-paced lifestyle and how truly precious it is to have this mummy daughter time in nature.
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.
Lake Constance to Boyle Village/Outdoor Education Centre
Day 71: 12 January 2022
Lake Constance to Waiau Uwha River (7 kms/7 hrs)
Over the Waiau Pass!
I wish I could paint a picture to express everything I’m feeling right now, or even better, bring you here to sit beside me in this quiet mountain paradise. You could hear the bellbird in the beech tree and share a little of this joy with me.
I’m resting outside our tent watching wisps of cloud do that delicate dance of merge and reform before disappearing over the tops of the St James Range.
Behind me is the towering bulk of the Spenser and Franklin ranges, with the 1870m Waiau Pass, its lower flanks covered in alpine flowers, somewhere in between.
Yesterday we walked all the way to Lake Constance, much to Emilie’s disgust. She gunned hard to stay at Blue Lake hut or one of the sanitized little campsites behind it, but I wasn’t having any of it. So we staggered another 200m elevation gain up to the rocky and tussocky land at the end of Lake Constance. Here we had a wonderful evening rock hopping and exploring the lake before bed, with the promise of a gingernuts with our hot morning drinks to offset the 5am alarm.
And now it’s 4pm and I’ve just had a hot brew and a Lindt chocolate ball, hauled all the way from St Arnaud for this special occasion, and my body is floating away on a stream of warm bliss.
Emilie is inside the tent drawing in her hut journal.
The highlight of her day was making a snowman some 1700m high, sitting in the sun surrounded by jagged mountain ranges with Mummy serving up peanut butter crackers topped with squares of chocolate.
The highlight of my day was . . . all of it, but maybe just sitting here, feeling absolutely exhausted and blissfully happy, knowing that my seven-year-old daughter and I had just climbed over the Waiau Pass together.
I admit to being nervous at 5am this morning as I said a little prayer to Papatūānuku to please protect us girls as we passed through one of the more wild and dangerous parts of her domain.
And once the early morning mist swept over Lake Constance and disappeared up over the mountains, we had the most picture perfect day. We stopped at the pass to clamber up to the lookout and add our rocks to the cairn, taking our lunch by a patch of snow and pausing to watch water beetles and insect larvae in a shallow tarn.
There were wildflowers everywhere and I photographed more than five different types of alpine daisies, alike in their white and yellow faces but differing in thickness of stems and leaves.
Alpine grasshoppers erupted from under each step you took, brown and green, propelling themselves forwards wildly, sideways, like a shower of insect confetti. Even when the alpine scrub gave way to sheer slaty rock scree and the occasional vegetable sheep, there were still grasshoppers.
Patches of snow were scattered across the dark grey scree slopes, their slow melt trickling down as crystal clear alpine streams or tumbling waterfalls, all part of the growing white blue headwaters of the Waiau Uwha River.
Our legs trembling on the descent, we focused on a patch of green grassland flanked by dark green beech trees, a sign we would soon be leaving the beauty of the subalpine landscape for the valley below.
It was still several kilometres before Caroline Bivvy and several more to Waiau Hut, but I was in no rush to leave this quiet mountain paradise. We wandered down the stream until we found a soft patch surrounded by young beech trees, the perfect size for our tent.
Once we’d sleepily set up camp and indulged in a warm drink, we made our way to the river to strip off and lie around on its warm rocks, both happy in our quiet daze of blissful, peaceful joy.
Day 72: 13 January 2022
Waiau Uwha River to Waiau Hut
I truly believe much of our sickness and discontent stems from being disconnected with nature.
When I think of what triggers me, the answer is simple: other people.
I’ll walk into the bush for a fortnight with my child and cross over the Waiau Pass – no problem, but I shudder to enter a room full of people I haven’t met before. What will they think of me, will they judge me, welcome or reject me?
Nature doesn’t welcome or reject. It simply gets on with the glorious task of living and dying. Symbiotic relationships flourish, just look at those lichens created from algae and fungus.
Nature doesn’t judge. There’s no social anxiety to be found out here, sitting quietly on a mountain side watching the clouds or marvelling at the wildflowers. Beneath the forest canopy a curious robin or pīwakawaka might come close by . . . or if you sit quietly by a stream you can watch the damselflies or a spider sunning itself on the rocks. You realise that all you really need is some shelter, some food and some clothing, while the colour and style doesn’t matter as long as it keeps you warm.
Even better, in the heat of the day you can shed your clothes and feel the warm sun on your bare skin and walk quietly through the moss and tussocks, feeling completely at peace with yourself and your surroundings.
Statistics show that so many of us suffer from mental distress during our lives and I have experienced firsthand the pain and shame of trauma and the debilitating mental anguish that follows. If we’re lucky, we can access support early on to help us process and normalize these feelings. If not, it can take a lifetime of suffering before we realise that we’ve become trapped in a mental prison of our own creation.
I truly believe that reconnecting with our natural world, on nature’s own terms, is key for our happiness, wellbeing and sense of place. The more peace and affinity we find in our natural world, the less we rely on the affirmation of others.
We find contentment within our scars and imperfections, holding the knowledge that we’re connected to something much bigger and deeper than the superficial fickleness of modern society.
The more we love and care as we heal the earth, we heal ourselves.
Day 73: 14 January 2022
Waiau Pass Route – Anne Hut (18 kms)
The St James Conservation Area is a land of stark contrast, soft green grassy valleys flanked by blue and grey hills.
We stomped our feet and blew our freezing fingers in the icy dawn, the sun kissing the tops of the high hills still an hour away.
Rugged up in long pants, merino hats, gloves and waterproof jackets to fend off the long wet grass, the first part of today’s walk was a traumatic affair with Emilie wailing dismally beside me.
I fed her toffees and encouraged her to keep her mouth closed so the hot air would warm up her toes (and give my ears a break), but once the sun rose over the tops we were both stripping off layers and swapping beanies for sun hats.
And now it’s hot, hot, hot on the long exposed track down the Waiau Valley, the silver blue of the river shimmering in the morning sun.
After so many days of technical tramping, I’m enjoying the opportunity to stretch my legs again and gaze upon a new type of scenery.
One of the most beautiful things about Te Araroa is that you get to wander through an ever evolving panorama of New Zealand scenery, watching the landscape slowly change before your eyes.
Today the exotic grasses are a shimmering field of yellow and gold with reddish purple undertones, occasionally flecked with yellow dandelions and the white daisies.
I like to trail my hand across the tops of the long grass, feeling the seeded tips tickle the soft skin between my fingers. Have you ever had a lover stroke the palm of your hand with a feather? So many sensations shoot through your body like an electrical current.
The deep blue sky appears completely clear, but if you squint ahead, you’ll notice black flying shapes. At first glimpse they could be tiny birds, but they’re actually giant dragonflies, rising and falling on their own secret trajectories.
Day 74: 15 January 2022
Anne Hut to Boyle Flats Hut
It’s 5:22am and I’m holding my morning coffee with a front row seat of the sunrise, if I’m still here when it peeps over the hills.
I remember being woken by the surreptitious rustling of other trampers last time we were at this hut. How ironic that today I’m the first riser . . .
There’s still a couple of stars twinkling in the sky and my aim is to cover some distance before we wilt in the heat of the day. Yesterday the long, flat grassy plains of the St James transformed from easy walking to a relentless desert inferno.
Anne Hut is a huge, solid, purpose-built shelter, somewhat empty and soulless in its sheer size. It’s our first time sleeping in a hut in over ten days and I didn’t sleep well, wedged between a snuggly Emilie and the wall. I would much prefer to be in my tent, with the korimako singing in the trees above my head, than sitting alone at this bench with the cool orange glow of sunrise ahead of me.
There’s nothing like being around other people to make you feel lonely. I enjoy the company of the mountains and streams, but other people tend to make me feel on edge.
We set out at 6:30am, misjudging the sheer amount of moisture in the long grass and getting soaked thigh-deep in minutes. It was miserable. My legs were burning from being gently lashed by frost-encrusted grass. Emilie was faring a bit better in her waterproof trousers but neither of us were very happy.
It was somehow reminiscent of the 7km cycle commutes to work in the depth of Christchurch winter, slowly losing the will to live with every metre gained.
Looking back, I really don’t know how I managed to keep that up for so long – years of full-time work wrapped around full-time parenting, the candle burning lower and lower at each end until I would send Emilie to school and call in another sick day, collapsing back into bed to weep into my pillow with exhaustion.
Why do we do this to ourselves? I expended all of my precious energy to earn money to pay the mortgage on a house I couldn’t stand being in, yearning instead for the freedom of the hills.
We spent our weekends shopping for trinkets to decorate our houses, stuffing the empty corners of our lives full of useless junk as we tried in vain to fill the void inside of us – the void that we had created by becoming completely disconnected from our natural world.
We reached the tiny three-bunk Rokeby Hut by midday and headed for the river, sprawling around on its rocky banks and soaking up the cool breeze.
We were going to stay, but the hut was burning hot and the sandflies were fierce. So instead we wandered down to Boyle Flats Hut where I set up the tent in the shade, before heading back to the river.
Day 75: 16 January 2022
Boyle Flats Hut to Boyle Village/Outdoor Education Centre (13 kms)
The morning arrived cold and frosty. I caught myself wondering why I’d opted for the tent over a nice warm hut.
But after a big day outside under the beautiful sky, I hadn’t felt like sharing my space with others, crammed into a corner bunk. Apart from waking at 3am to put on some layers, I’d slept well and felt ready to walk out to Boyle and civilisation.
We ate breakfast in the hut as the sun rose slowly over the steep ridges. As we were just preparing to leave, we saw Britta and her husband coming up to the hut with their full packs.
As we greeted them, we could see her husband was in a very bad way. He was exhausted and severely dehydrated after suffering from heat stroke yesterday. They hadn’t made it to the hut last night, instead setting up their tent a couple of kilometres upriver.
He collapsed on a bunk and since it was clear he wouldn’t be able to walk out to their car, I sent some messages to the response centre at TrackMe, who sponsor my InReach. They organized a helicopter to come pick him up. The other folks at the hut helped carry out some of his gear for Britta and I gave her a big hug before we left.
The walk out to Boyle felt both speedy and like an eternity as we stretched our tired legs to the max, arriving in time to score our frozen pizzas and soft drinks. We saw Britta again, collecting her gear before driving down to Christchurch hospital. She was happy and relieved – we were glad to have helped them out.
Now for a shower and a feed before filling up my pack for 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.