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 Tekapo to Stodys Hut
Day 101: 6 March 2022
Tekapo – Twizel (40 kms/6 hours)
Today we swapped our backpacks for mountain bikes and rode all the way to Twizel, much to Emilie’s delight. The good folks at Bespoke Bike Tours NZ dropped us at Irishman Creek and away we went – a little wobbly at first, but soon enjoying the ride along the canals.
We stop for an early lunch on the shores of Lake Pukaki, stripping off to cool our bodies in its icy blue waters while the magnificent Aoraki/Mt Cook (New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3,724 metres) towers in the background.
After a quick break for an ice block at the Mt Cook Salmon Farm, we leave the lakes and turn inland, following the Alps2Ocean cycle trail through pine forest until we reach the hot, flat plains leading into Twizel.
After the wild beauty of the mountains and high country, I feel saddened to see this highly modified country, fragile dry lands choked with exotic grasses and peppered with wilding pines. Thick mats of hawkweed compete with lichens and other micro-flora. Native to Europe and North Asia, this highly invasive plant has become a serious weed in New Zealand’s tussock grasslands.
Perhaps somehow, these uncertain times of climate change, global pandemic and war will stimulate us to look inward and reflect on how our action – or inaction – will ultimately determine the fate of our fragile native ecosystems, before they are lost and forgotten.
All this deep thinking aside, I’m now sitting on the porch of our cabin at the holiday park, stuffing my face with freshly sliced tomatoes drizzled in basil pesto and enjoying a nice cold beverage. This will be the last fresh food and cold drinks we’ll have for at least seven days, so I thought I’d make the most of it.
I can see Emilie playing under the washing line, the rising breeze flapping drying laundry in her face. I imagine it’s like being in a maze with flapping walls of nylon and cotton, a secret world of other people’s pyjamas and underwear.
Now there’s company to entertain and swap stories with — three 80-something year-old grandfathers out here for a reunion, reminiscing of backcountry adventures in the very mountains we’re walking past.
I hope I’m still out in the hills when I’m their age.
Day 102: 7 March 2022
Twizel – Lake Ōhau
Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run because Mr. Pest Control is staring at you down the scope of his rifle.
Today’s jaunt along Lake Ruataniwha to Lake Ōhau shows the devastation these furry little pests are causing across New Zealand’s dry lands. It’s a war zone of half-dug scrapes, bunkers, burrows and ammunition casings of all colours scattered everywhere . . . and the rabbits seem to be winning. Despite the rabbit proof fencing, kill traps and a shooter who waves as we wander by, we spot hundreds of bunnies bouncing across the track and disappearing into the scrub.
We pause to watch contractors excavate the river, scooping up huge rocks and tonnes of sediment with their heavy machinery, massive trucks and diggers. Emilie is fascinated by a digger. He rolls forward to plonk his load of rocks against the stopbank then swivels around 180 degrees to retrieve more. She thinks this is amazing.
Suddenly we spot a young scaup, a native diving duck, in the chalky blue pools near the digger. It paddles to and fro then disappears under the water, apparently for a bite to eat. As we stare, it swims about, seemingly unperturbed by the huge machine only metres away. Then to our horror, it starts paddling into the path of the digger.
Emilie is worried – the duckling isn’t safe! We wave at the driver and point. He turns off the engine and tells us the little fellow has been hanging out with him all week. Good on him for watching out for the wee scaup and what a cool little bird to staunchly defend its patch.
We continue another hour before pausing to eat lunch huddled under a gum tree, sitting on our rain jackets atop sandy soil peppered with rabbit holes. Only moments earlier, I spotted a feral cat bolt across the field and melt into the vegetation.
Low, dense columns of cloud march silently through the valley ahead, the same direction we’re heading, towards Lake Ōhau. I’m tempted to set up our tent right here, on a sandy flat spot between the gum trees overlooking the river, but it’s only 1:30pm with the lightest of drizzle, so we press on.
Day 103: 8 March 2022
Lake Ōhau – Freehold Creek (16 kms)
We’re sitting at a strategically placed picnic table with sweeping views across Lake Ōhau and the mountains beyond. The village is a tiny cluster of rooftops below to my right and to my left, I can see the black, ice-topped peak of the Naumann Ranges, flanked by the Hopkins and Dobson river valleys.
I’m dreaming of those golden ‘olden days – when tough folk like Jim Wilson and his mates, Barry and Mike, hiked up these untracked valleys, hungry for first ascents on yet unnamed peaks, disappearing for weeks on end into this wild country.
Emilie and I dragged ourselves up here by 6pm, looking for the sweet camping spot noted on my Guthook app, and hoping to take the first bite of tomorrow’s mission up Freehold Creek. We’re sitting at 700m elevation up here above the lake and tomorrow we climb to around 1,300. Ouch. My body has gone completely soft after two week’s rest and relaxation in Dunedin, and while I feel mentally prepared, my legs and back are still catching up.
Today I want to give thanks to all the amazing people who pitched in to help reunite Emilie with her purple thermal top. My decision to pare back our clothing to one set of thermals each backfired when Emilie left her only thermal top tucked into the bed at the Twizel Holiday Park. But fortunately for us, a very kind soul collected it from reception and delivered it to the Lake Ōhau Lodge.
Unfortunately though, we hadn’t planned to stay at the Lodge. We started doggedly walking the six extra road kms (without packs, thank goodness, as I’d stashed them in a sense thicket of matagouri) when a lovely couple on bikes – who had also been caught up in the purple t-shirt drama – offered to ride up and grab it for us.
We gorged ourselves on ripe plums from a roadside tree while waiting for them to return, then shouldered packs and continued up the track to Freehold Creek, hoping to claw back a few kilometres before calling it a day.
Day 104: 9 March 2022
Freehold Creek to East Ahuriri Hut (Historic)
It’s not yet 7am and the sun is a red-orange glow behind the low hills to the east.
Our little tent is in the perfect position to see the sunrise, yet I’ve woken up anxious to be moving, aware that the dwindling daylight hours signal the end of summer. Once it emerges, the sun seems to catapult into the sky as if eager to make up for lost time.
We say goodbye to the curious tomtit and pīwakawaka who shared our camp, shoulder our packs and set off through the beech forest. The climb to the bushline feels longer than the one hour signposted, as we sidle up beside Freehold Creek to a low saddle.
Once we clear the beech forest and step out into the wide open subalpine scenery, it’s like we’re back with old friends again – whispery dracophyllum, golden tussock, speargrass and snowberries. I pause to pick handfuls of fat white berries, savouring the juicy sweetness.
Sleek brown and striped skinks scurry through the grass on either side of me, already warm from the morning sun. Tiny grasshoppers scatter from under my feet. The dark grey shingled tops rear their heads on either side and behind me, Lake Ōhau is a gleaming expanse of silver and blue.
Up in the mountains, we’re wandering through the tussock and cushion plants, navigating the swampy marshlands and tiny tarns that help drain water out of the mountains. From out of nowhere, a pair of paradise ducks launch into the air, flying in low circles seemingly unable to decide where else to land.
Emilie is in fine form, telling me stories and chattering along. We both feel good, happy and secure in each other. By 3pm we can see the rusted tin outline of East Ahuriri Hut, a historic mustering hut built in the 1890’s with beech framing and wire hammocks.
After setting up “house,” we head down to the stream and sit around naked in the sunshine building a swimming pool for the forest fairies.
I remember spending hours doing exactly the same thing with my brother at Emilie’s age. It’s so beautiful to watch her little face and share this magic with her.
Day 105: 10 March 2022
East Ahuriri Hut – Tin Hut (18 kms)
We celebrate our successful crossing of the mighty Ahuriri, the largest unbridged river crossing on Te Araroa, by sunbathing naked on its sandy banks.
Emilie is building a sandcastle with the soft grey river sand, sediment washed down from the Alps. I help her dig out a moat before retiring to a dry patch to lay in the sun.
The crossing itself was straightforward enough until the final quarter. That was where the bulk of the flow pressed heavily against our legs, our feet seeking strong holds in the slippery rocks.
We’d gazed down at its wide icy blue braid, watching it curl against the bank, swift and deep, before widening out and cascading down a set of rapids. It regrouped again in a wide, deceptively calm pool before splitting into two frenzied braids.
It doesn’t look so bad! Emilie exclaimed as I knew she’d been anticipating this crossing, since we’d talked about how we would cross it and our Plan B (a lengthy detour) if it was too hard for us to get across.
But rivers are deceptive like that. From up high, it looked little more than knee deep, clear and blue, sweeping over pebbles that turned out to be decent boulders, covered in a slimy layer of sediment, up to thigh deep in places.
Yet we make it across, delighted with ourselves, and ditch our packs and clothing to play on its banks.
My little river nymph is soaking up the warm sun on her bare skin but, ever the sensible one, she has opted to keep her sunhat on. Her bottom is dusted grey with sand as she moves busily about, now collecting river mud which she says will help keep the water in her moat.
It reminds me of my childhood, simple times building sandcastles, dams, moats and fortresses with my brother in various creeks, rivers and beaches.
Once I push myself through the initial discomfort of immersing my shrinking flesh into the icy cold water, I lie in the river, the rapids thundering in my ears, huge mountains all around.
I love the wonderful feeling of being free in your bare skin with no thought of self-consciousness or judgement.
Day 106: 11 March 2022
Tin Hut – Top Timaru Hut
We awoke to a bright pink sky and eery calm after strong winds rattled the roof of the Tin Hut overnight.
There was a heaviness in the air as cloud closed in and the wind picked up. Strong gusts raced over the tussocks, bouncing off the side of the hills and knocking us off balance on the long, slow plod up Martha Saddle.
On the way Emilie stumbled on some loose shingle and fell forward onto her knees, digging a deep chunk out of one knee on a sharp rock. You can tell it’s bad when kids don’t cry, instead she called “Oh Mummy, I’m scared!”
As I crouched down, I could see the exposed flesh and gristle. I called my nursing skills into action (bet you didn’t know I once trained as a nurse!) and got her to straighten her leg, so we could pull the jagged lips together before slapping a big plaster over it.
My mind was restless, like the weather, and I felt troubled by a dark cloud of anxiety over nothing in particular. It’s so hard to think clearly through a thick haze of anxiety. You fight your way through to a moment of pure clarity, only to undercut yourself with more worry.
I’ve often found it very hard to make big decisions in life, as I’m paralyzed by the fear of getting it wrong, making mistakes, screwing up and knowing it’s all my fault. No matter how well I analyse and rationalize a decision, the dark voice of doubt and fear tries to undermine whatever conclusion I’ve come to, making it feel so much easier to just curl up and do nothing.
By the time we’d sidled down the jagged scar of track to follow the narrow river valley along to Top Timaru Hut, we were both tired and sore and looking forward to a restful afternoon.
Unfortunately the hut was already taken and since we wanted to limit our exposure to unknown people in these times of global pandemic, we wandered off to find somewhere sheltered to pitch the tent.
That proved much harder than anticipated, as the wind was now raging up and down the valley. We’d only just hopped into the tent and boiled water for a hot lunch – freeze-dried meals – when a huge gust filled our ears.
As the light died from the sky, the wind grew stronger and louder. We spent an anxious night cuddling each other while the tent flapped and flattened. Eventually when it became clear the tent wasn’t going to split apart or blow away with us inside it, Emilie fell asleep, snoring contentedly with my arm sprawled protectively over her chest.
When really strong gusts blew the tent flat, the pole would dig into my arm and I would breathe slowly, calmly, ever so close to completely losing my shit, until it bounced back up again.
Day 107: 12 March 2022
Top Timaru Hut to Stodys Hut
Sometime during last night’s wind from hell, I noticed Emilie’s pack was missing from under the vestibule. When I crawled out into the gale to reassure myself the rocks I’d placed over our tent pegs were still holding, I spotted it submerged in the stream.
It’s eerie to see your kid’s pack face down with the stream gushing around it. But stranger still was when I tried to lift it out, heavy as hell and full of water. A combination of wet gear and exhaustion saw us set off by 10am. We went up the hill and down – down into the narrow, slippery, Timaru River track with its steep drop offs and surprisingly beautiful scenery.
After days in the exposed high country it was wonderful to descend into beech forest with moss and ferns, with fantails following us through the trees and shy tomtits flitting about.
A chorus of cheeping had us stop still and look around. The tree ahead shimmered with teeny-tiny riflemen (titipounamu) – about the size of your thumb – just a heartbeat and some feathers.
At one point a dark shape swooped down from the canopy and bounced over the forest floor on the far bank. I stared as it turned its head to stare back at me and saw the distinctive yellow markings and those piercing eyes . . . it was an NZ falcon, a kārearea!
These beautiful birds hunt live prey, which they kill with a quick powerful bite to the neck. As I watched, it lifted up the little white form clutched in one claw and proceeded to tear into it, ignoring me until I respectfully took my leave.
The track felt like it would go on forever – a steep climb out of the river bed to sidle around the side of a steep hill, little more than 15cm wide in places and angled to make your ankles groan. Emilie baulked a few times on the scary descents and I didn’t blame her. Scree and dust scattered under each timid footstep, a painfully high drop-off on one side and a slope with few handholds on the other.
At one point she dropped a hiking pole that slid down the bank some ten metres before coming to rest on an almost vertical section, narrowly avoiding a further deep drop to the river below. Cursing, I propped up my pack against a tree and bade her to stand by it and please not to let it tumble! I then executed a perilous and rather stupid mission to rescue the pole, which involved climbing down, Spiderwoman-style. My fingers and toes gripped rocks and tree roots until I could inch my hand out to grab it, then I scuttled back up the dusty slope to Emilie.
Exhausted, we finally arrived at the Timaru River junction only to realise we had a further gruelling 500m ascent before reaching the dark and mice-infested Stodys Hut by 8pm.
Emilie the Mountain Goat did us both proud by scuttling up the hill and calling out lots of encouragement: “You’re doing a great job, Mummy! I love you!”
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.