After reaching Lake Hawea, Victoria and Emilie take on a challenging alpine trek through the historic Motatapu Track, traversing beech forest, tussocks, and sub-alpine scenery.
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.
Stodys Hut to Arrowtown
Day 108: 13 March 2022
Stodys Hut – Pakituha Hut
Conversations with Emilie
Breast Hill, waiting for friends to arrive from Lake Hawea
Emilie: When are they coming? I’m bored. It’s boring out here.
Me: Look at the beautiful scenery. You children today are so used to fast-paced entertainment – your movies, cartoons and toys – but life isn’t really like that.
That’s why people like to get back to nature. Nature is slow. Look at how long it took this lichen to grow. If you try to live at such a fast pace for too long, you’ll have a breakdown, like Mummy did.
Emilie: I think there’s a type of ice cream called a ‘breakdown.’ Hey, I can see two big cherries (talking about the mounds of my bum cheeks in my pink shorts). Tui and Kiwi want to get tucked into bed now! (sticking her soft toys up the back of my shorts).
Me:Wtf am I doing trying to deep talk with a seven-year-old?
Emilie: I’m bored now, can we play?
But I drag myself up and play with her. We make her toy Tui and Kiwi play hide and seek for a while, then I show her how to use the thin slabs of slate to make houses, two slabs for the walls, one across the top for a roof. She watches then tries to make her own house, but it falls over. I show her how to balance the rocks. She wants to share my house because it’s better. She tells me it’s her house now and to build my own house next door.
She says let’s decorate the houses and build a garden. I say okay, but don’t pick the native plants. Which ones can I pick? she asks. These grasses and the yellow flowers – that’s hawkweed. She says okay, go pick me some and I’ll make the garden. So I lumber around picking her bits of dried grass and flowers, suggesting where to put them in the garden.
She says it’s fine, just leave them there, she’ll do it herself.
Day 109: 14 March 2022
Pakituha Hut to Lake Hawea
I wake in the dark with a gasp, struggling to recover from the horror of a bad dream.
For a moment I lie with eyes wide open, reconnecting with my surroundings, bringing myself back to the warm safety of the hut. Emilie is breathing heavily beside me and I turn to cuddle her.
In my dream, it was the screams of the cheeky thirteen-year-old girl that awoke me to an awful, stomach-dropping feeling – the one where the world as you know it is being ripped out from under you.
I get out of my sleeping bag and went outside to pee under the stars. Dawn was close, but not close enough. I sit and stare for a while, trying to calm my beating heart.
Then the paragliders are up and we watch in awe as they soar off over Lake Hawea, tiny colourful specks against the massive landscape.
Soon we begin our own descent, my low mood a frustrating contrast against the insanely beautiful scenery.
Lack of sleep, a big dose of the panic button and coffee on a tired stomach are all leading to racing thoughts. I struggle hard until I realize what I’m doing. I tell myself to imagine my mind as a busy highway and I’m watching the cars zoom past, just watching them, not trying to jump in them or wrestle them to a stop.
It works for a while and then I break into song because I’m so fucking chuffed that we’re descending from on high to end yet another section.
I sing numbers that my dad used to sing on his guitar when we were kids – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, the Beatles. Then I start on Bird on a Wire. I remember Dad singing it to my Mum and I bet he felt like such a prick when he sang those words . . .
For like a baby, stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me.
And he never could make it up to her. So, she left and we all fell apart and don’t even talk to each other anymore.
The young girl by the fireplace – her father lit up in her eyes – screwed up her face and wept, huge ugly soundless sobs. I bent half over my hiking poles with saliva dribbling out my mouth as the sorrow hit me like a punch in the guts. How much I miss those people who are strangers to me now.
In case you’re wondering, Emilie didn’t notice because she was walking behind me telling herself a story.
And after a while, I pulled myself back together and sang some rousing verses at the top of my lungs. We then finished the final few hundred metres and stripped off to jump in the lake.
Day 110: 17 March 2022
Motatapu Track – Fern Burn Hut
The beautiful Dee dropped us at the start of the Motatapu section this morning and wandered a way up the track with us.
We parted ways still glowing on the buzz of that connection and dropped into beautiful beech forest, following the crystal clear waters of Fern Burn river as it climbs above the bushline and upland mountain tussock.
We sidle past huge beech trees, monsters with multiple gnarled branches spreading out like an old man’s arms.
The track is steep and almost vertical in places and my knees and ankles suffer the most. My pack feels way too heavy for this sort of elevation gain and I’m wilting with the heat.
My mind slows down and my body is clumsy until I synchronize my breath. My strong legs then power me up the track, feeling like Xena the warrior princess, or at maybe more like her little blonde mate, Gabrielle.
One final climb and the hut is there ahead of us. We drag a couple of mattresses onto the deck to relax in the sun and unpack our art supplies. Emilie draws in her hut diary while I work on a watercolour.
But soon a cold breeze is whispering up through the valley and the sun dips behind a peak. Darkness will soon follow. We dive for our sleeping bags and giggle with the fun of being alone on the top bunk of a beautiful hut, as the first of the evening stars twinkle outside.
Day 111: 18 March 2022
Fern Burn Hut – Highland Creek Hut
Light has faded to a pale pink hue and the first stars are just beginning to twinkle. Emilie and I are alone in the hut, a double-glazed resort compared to some of the more historic shelters from the last section.
The landscape is all pointy, thin and narrow with emaciated ridges and steep drop offs into eroded gullies and stony creeks. Some mountains are full and round like the ripe skin of a peach. These ones resemble sallow skin stretched over emaciated ribs, an old man’s hand with long crooked fingers stretching down to the valley floor. Water oozes out of these slopes, trickling out from shale and shingle and flowing steeply through twists and bends to join the Motatapu River.
Today’s track was narrow, steep and technical, requiring strong legs and steady concentration.
It’s our mission to slowly and painfully stagger up each finger tip, pausing often to draw whatever oxygen we can muster deep into our burning lungs, before crawling further to the next marker and the one after that.
Eventually we reach the top of yet another jagged peak and descend slowly, perilously, into a dusty abyss, only to repeat the process again and again, taking four hours to cover six kilometres.
We arrive by 2pm and rehydrate. I then flop down on my outside mattress to paint a watercolour of the hut and the pattern of shade cast by closing in clouds, before indulging in a quick puff on my pipe. I allow myself to degenerate peacefully, a tiny insignificant speck within this massive landscape.
Emilie stays close and we entertain each other with a game of rough and tumble on our mattresses, tickling and cuddling each other while burbling nonsensical language that only we really understand.
She looks exceptionally beautiful with her golden brown ringlets escaping a single plait and curling around her cheeks.
Laughing in the sunshine with a splash of white pearly teeth standing out against that golden skin, I feel a deep pang of love for her. I usually see an older version of the rapturous, smiling baby she used to be, but occasionally an extremely lovely, bright and beautiful young woman laughs back at me.
Day 112: 19 March 2022
Highland Creek Hut (0 kms)
This morning we climbed a low spur which led to an narrow ridgeline to gaze over the back of beyond and see what we could see. I had plans to traverse the ridgeline and descend further up the valley behind the hut, but as soon as we got up here it was clear the landscape was much bigger and more rugged.
So we sat around on top of a rocky overhang and watched feral goats crawl across the landscape. The white ones stood out like sheep, but the darker coloured ones were harder to see as they navigated steep drop offs and cavorted along ridgelines. We followed their tracks up the side of the hill and saw their droppings and damage everywhere. I was sad to see so many of them up there, snacking on fragile native plants.
Clumps of golden tussock faded to grey, even spiky speargrass had telltale chew marks. I watched spellbound as one deftly navigated a sheer rock face.
Such charismatic, resilient creatures – perhaps better equipped to deal with adversity than our own gentle wildlife. I wondered if Soho Station had a handle on these rampaging ruminants.
A flash of brilliant green now catches my eye against the yellow flax. It’s a katydid, a winged grasshopper, only far more delicate and slender than its mottled brown cousins who ricochet from underfoot.
I pause to scoop it up in my palm, thinking it dead, only to feel it thrashing and very much alive.
It hops daintily onto the stem of a hawkweed and flattens its slim body to camouflage as a blade of grass. I watch, fascinated by its large eyes and long, thin antenna, those slender rear legs tucked daintily under the vivid green body.
There’s little more magical than a chance encounter with a wild animal and I stare, completely absorbed in this tiny creature as it crawls across my fingers, seemingly peeking at me from over a dip in my knuckle.
She is beautiful, from those huge, bulbous golden eyes in that sleek head to her tan wings neatly folded and those long, athletic legs. I could lie around staring into her eyes for hours, but I’m perched precariously on a narrow ridgeline with one foot screaming from pins and needles.
Day 113: 20 March 2022
Highland Creek Hut – Roses Hut (11 kms, 7 hrs)
It’s 10pm and I’ve gone outside to see the moonrise and lie in wait for the exuberant possums that are scuttling across the roof. Right now they’re playing a delightful game of hide and seek behind the water tank, under the blue white glare of a full moon. I place two dried apricots on the deck to help lure in these fluffy miscreants while I sit back on a bench, a dark shadow waiting quietly for the show to appear.
I don’t have to wait long.
Tiptoeing up to the deck, Mr. Possum pauses before bouncing up the steps to the first apricot. But he can sense me, a tense waiting presence in the darkness. We stare motionlessly at each other, the shadow of his little round body and upright ears illuminated by the moonlight that’s slowly rising over the ridgeline like a spotlight.
I breathe slowly and reach for my head torch, not wanting to break the spell we’re both under. I then press the power switch to reveal a petite little chocolate brown and black possum, sitting on the deck calmly observing me with bright intelligence. We sit watching each other for a long moment.
Encounter with possums and wild animal was a joy of my childhood camping memories, but sadly these little guys are a crafty pest here in backcountry New Zealand, gobbling up our native plants and fragile wildlife.
I turn my light off to sit under the moonlight. The spell finally breaks and the possum melts away into the shadows under the water tank.
I can hear his mate scrabbling about back there and I know that later in the night, once all us pesky humans are in bed, two young possums will be enjoying the sugar high from dried apricots. It will consist of fabulous high speed chases across the roof, down the water tank, bouncing off the metal sink and clattering across the deck before leaping off into the long grass to do a lap of the hut, only to do it all again.
While it’s going to make for a scattered sleep, I can’t wipe the big grin off my face to think of this charming encounter with two wild animals.
Day 114: 21 March 2022
Roses Hut – Arrow River
We’ve camped early, two kilometres short of Macetown because I can’t be bothered going any further. Someone switched on the panic button just as we cleared Roses Saddle, so my stomach cramps intensified until we hit the river and I found a quiet spot to drop my guts.
After I felt weak and nauseated with clammy skin. The only thing keeping me with it is the icy cold water around my legs. It’s like part of my frontal cortex has shut down and only the lizard brain is functioning – breathing and moving, but devoid of any ability to think clearly.
It has turned into a beautiful warm afternoon and we’re sitting out along the river bank, me flopping on the grass by the tent and Emilie playing in the rough warm sand created by water running over millions of smooth rocks.
Green, blue, golden, white and dark, they all grind down into a dust with little shimmering flecks. Emilie looks like she’s been doused in fairy dust, especially against her golden skin and the glow of the evening.
I would never have expected this exquisitely beautiful geological phenomenon to be found in these grey gold hills. We pull my inflatable mat out onto the grass and she growls and cries while I attempt to remove the soggy dressing from her knee, demanding me to go slow but get it off quick!
She buries her face against my chest and whines like a crocodile, playing out this melodrama until I remind her of Mummy’s trips to the salon and the significance of ripping the wax off quickly. She brightens up – clearly lots of great memories there – and we practice breathing techniques while little by little, I prize the strapping tape bandage from her knee. We celebrate her first knee wax with big cuddles and a ginger nut, before pressing play on Harry Potter audiobook 3!
Day 115: 22 March 2022
Arrow River – Arrowtown
I wake with a start to a still-dark morning, still tired but aware it’s already 6:30am and time to get up. We have a big walk out to Arrowtown today and we’re on track to meet up with @inspire_teararoa and @onewalkingerin in Queenstown tomorrow.
Despite my motivation, it quickly turns into an emotionally draining morning. I don’t lose my shit or yell at anyone (yay for me!), although I feel sorely, painfully tested. It’s at the point I just wish Danilo was here – I could rest my head against his chest and feel him kiss the top of my hair, while I calm the fireball raging in the pit of my stomach.
Emilie isn’t impressed with her still-damp socks or the fact we’re stepping straight into the river to continue our walk downstream to Macetown. She’s a beautiful, bolshy seven-year-old and I feel beaten.
I get it, I really do, it takes a heap of internal fortitude to step into that icy water, especially with the late morning sun only just caressing the top of the valley. We have a battle of wills where I leave her with the option to finish her breakfast and follow me across the shallow river, as I can’t wait around for her any longer.
The moment I stepped in, the water which had felt like bliss around my toes yesterday afternoon quickly turned them numb. I walk swiftly for fifty metres, my head throbbing, to find Emilie scurrying along swiftly behind me. It turns out she’d opted to dump her breakfast and follow me, which isn’t cool.
So we went back and I insisted she pack out that unwanted porridge, rather than leave it on the grass for the vermin. You can imagine her indignation, and I almost caved too, except I had to make the point. It’s not cool to dump your unwanted food like that.
As we keep moving she calms and so do I, the cool morning breeze soothing our fire.
The path was a maze of golden grass and spikey matagouri with multiple icy stream crossings across blue and green stone.
We pass the ruins of Macetown, snack out hard on lush blackberries and wild apples, stagger up the Big Hill saddle and cry out with delight at the views below.
We did it! The Motatapu section is now firmly under our hip belts.
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.