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.
Te Anau/Princhester Hut to Merrivale
Day 129: 5 April 2022
Te Anau/Princhester Hut – Aparima Hut (17 km/7.5 hrs)
We’re lying on our bunks with the rain pattering on the roof of the hut, still basking in the glow of our big walk through the forest. We arrived just at dusk with the rain sweeping across the mountains, soaked through with squishy socks.
I was dosed up on my new pain medication and felt so much better than yesterday. I’d crawled into Te Anau as a shattered shell of myself. But the kindness of strangers, a chat with my GP, a hot bath and some TLC (in the form of a hair trim and eyebrow tint from Karen the psychic hairdresser) had filled my bucket enough to pull myself together.
Once my GP faxed through the prescription, I gobbled down the painkillers and felt so relieved to feel my body responding within the hour. The local physio was booked out yesterday, but rang me back to explain that my pervading pain was perfectly normal as bruised muscle and bone repaired themselves. He expressed a little concern for my plan to dose up on strong analgesics to get me through to Bluff, but I promised to combine them with a good anti-inflammatory.
Jazz drove us up the farm road to Princhester Hut and we set off up the steep track to the saddle, marvelling at the lush green of the overgrown forest track.
We were delighted to catch up with Eliene who was enjoying a quiet break in the forest. It had only been 24 hours, but Emilie had so much news to tell her – especially about her new sparkling pink hairbrush that we’d picked up at the Te Anau pharmacy.
Together we powered through the forest with soft leaves crunching underfoot, fighting through the damp tussocks and scampering ahead of ominous rain clouds. The rain caught up as we hit the last hill and Eliene showed us how to dance in the rain. I was happy and high from the beautiful walk and our combined joy, so relieved to no longer be in pain.
We arrived at the hut just at dark and Emilie was delighted to discover a new pair of Trail walkers inside. As we all frantically peeled off our wet clothes and unpacked in the dwindling light, she pestered me with a million demands: where to find her clothes, when would we be eating, but most of all she wanted me to find her that sparkling pink hairbrush.
Once I found it, she proceeded to show everyone in the hut, including the boy, at the top of her voice with the exuberance of a drunk friend, clearly unaffected by the 17 kilometre slog through the forest.
Day 130: 6 April 2022
Aparima Hut – Lower Wairaki Hut (14 kms/6 hrs)
Today’s walk was a dream of green with moss. Ferns and lichen thickly carpeted the forest floor, softening the roots and mud that grabbed at our feet. Last night’s rain had eased into a cold, grey morning and I died a little inside at the thought of pushing through the shoulder height tussocks covered in icy droplets.
Emilie bounced out of bed, still on form, but Eliene gently explained that she wanted to walk on her own today and listen to her audiobook. I understood, as her ears must still have been ringing from yesterday’s chatter.
We set off towards the swing bridge – thankful that we weren’t fording the murky brown waters surging below – and picked up a faint track heading through tussock and manuka towards the hills. The trail notes warned breezily that the track is light or non-existent in places. We soon found ourselves fighting along the river bank, until I looked up to see the tiny figure of Eliene with her bright red pack cover moving swiftly on the flats above us.
Retracing our steps, we clambered out of the river and picked up a better trodden trail through the scrub – dracophyllum and soft mossy boggy patches scattered underfoot. Emilie was all wrapped up in her wet weather gear to keep her legs dry, but her feet and toes were already soaking wet and she was not happy about it.
She snapped and snarled at me and I could feel the heat rising in my throat . . . how could she be so sweet to everyone else then talk to me this way? I felt sore, tired and unsupported, my shoulder still twinging despite my morning dose of pain medication. I decided to take another Tramadol, hoping it would take the edge off what seemed likely to be a long day.
Finally we reached the edge of the beech forest. From here, the world changed into a magical fairy land of thick green moss dotted with ferns and big shiny fungi. We had warmed up now and our spirits rose as we followed the track markers around the foothills, marvelling at this soft green wonderland.
A tomtit flittered down to observe our progress. It still had the light grey, fluffy markings of a juvenile and Emilie spoke to it in a soft voice. I stopped to photograph remarkable fungi and pointed out an almost-pornographic purple specimen with a thick shaft and shiny bulbous head: “Look Emilie, it’s a purple penis fungi!”
“It’s actually a purple pouch fungi,” she replied seriously, my grown-up humour passing way over her head.
“How do you know that? I asked her.
“I read it in a book!” she responded.
Of course, she had memorised the contents of the Gillian Candler books by heart and was a repository of interesting facts about her natural world.
After a while I realised the slow-acting Tramadol had caught up on me, as every time I stopped my eyes wanted to roll back in my head. Even the damp moss that covered the rotting logs like a carnivorous carpet looked like a great spot for a nap. I decided it was time for lunch and set about making us both slices of ciabatta bread spread thickly with brie and salami, followed by some chocolate.
I felt a bit better, but my GPS said we still had six kilometres to go and it was turning into a real slog. Emilie went in front and launched into storytelling mode, while I stumbled along behind her, trying not to slip on the muddy, undulating track.
At one point we parted ways to navigate a particularly muddy section and I plunged ahead up to my thigh in brown, viscous muck, splashing it everywhere as I fought to extract myself. Emilie was very impressed and I remembered Smash’s story about sinking up to her waist (which at the time I took to be creative licence) and vowed to take more care in future.
The track dipped into yet another creek and we checked the map again, my heart sinking to see we still had six kilometres to go – what the hell?! I calmed myself when I realised it was just a glitch. We were actually 300 metres from the junction to Upper Wairaki Biv and now three kilometres from the hut. The others had pushed on to the Telford campsite, but as the clouds had regrouped and it had started to rain again, we would call it a day at the hut.
Once across the river, we climbed back into beech forest and here was the hut, a tidy four-bunker with a big open fireplace nestled on a terrace. It was empty and waiting, so we turned it into a cosy home for the night. I peeled off my wet weather gear and lit the fire that someone had kindly set in the hearth, while Emilie fetched water for hot drinks.
The sign outside said “Telford campsite: 9 km/8 hrs,” which the Trail notes said was wrong, but we would figure that one out tomorrow.
For now, it’s time to sit by the fire, draw, eat and chat. As the dusk settles and the cold night comes in, we’ll retreat into our warm sleeping bags to listen to the exploits of Harry Potter.
Day 131: 7 April 2022
Lower Wairaki Hut – Telford Campsite (9 kms/5 hrs)
I’m lying in the afternoon sun outside our tent, as a korimako sings its sweet song in the tree above my head.
It’s 4pm and finally the sky has cleared and the sun is out to put some warmth back into our tired bodies. Up the valley, snow-covered peaks rise behind hills still dusted with last night’s snow.
I’m so tired, yet I feel completely at peace. The river is gushing in the gully below and Emilie is bouncing around making a fairy garden, while I lie back on my rain jacket and soak up the sunshine.
Earlier today we climbed up and out of the wet, quiet beech forest to the bushline, greeted by sweeping views of Linton Station and beyond. Behind us, the peaks of the Takitimus rose stern and white with fresh snow, a stark reminder that summer is over and our time in the bush is coming to an end.
But right now, I don’t want it to end. I want to stay right here in the sunshine with my belly full of hot tea, stale bread and smashed avocado with brie while the korimako hops around overhead.
The beauty of the sub-alpine has left me quiet and dreamy. It was as though a thoughtful gardener had arranged all the plants, clusters of stiff silver-grey mountain daisies, yellow and orange dracophyllum, golden tussock and tiny bright green hebe, some still sporting delicate white flowers.
Nature is so beautiful, the rhythm and flow of the plants as they quietly coexist in what might seem barren and precarious conditions. The cold, dry breeze took our breath away today as we pushed on along the ridgeline, slipping and sliding on the mud from last night’s rain.
We spent the night huddled in the freezing cold Lower Wairaki Hut, grateful for the shelter, while the rain fell and temperatures plummeted outside.
Morning came reluctantly, dark and damp, the faintest glimmer of a thin sun through the clouds.
As we struggled past the 1,000m elevation mark, we found ourselves wandering through a freezing mist that gripped our bodies in a lethargic daze. It was so cold we didn’t want to move, but forward was the only way out of there.
We pushed on, fuelled on buns with peanut butter and honey, until the forest finally opened up and our hard work was rewarded by stunning views – the densely wooded mountains through which we had come and the dark blue finish line of Bluff just visible on the horizon.
Day 132: 8 April 2022
Telford Campsite – Birchwood (30 kms/9 hrs)
Emilie laughs out loud in her sleep, so we roll over and start chatting to each other, two snuggly warm cocoons in our sleeping bags.
I’m awake and ready for our big day, anticipating a nine hour trek through New Zealand’s largest sheep and cattle station, but realise it’s only 4:30am! I lie back for another hour, then boil water for tea and porridge. The sky remains dark until almost 7am and by 7:30 we’re off, clambering over the style, stomping through the river and up the first of many hills.
The track has been rerouted around the back of the property to avoid stock and farm workers, often cutting an unimaginative and brutal line straight up the fence. Authoritarian signage warns us against venturing off trail or using the farm tracks, although all we want is to get across the property as quickly as possible.
Sheep stare at us nervously and bolt away, jostling each other to be first to wherever their collective consciousness is headed. We cross many stiles – clearly built with six foot men in mind – and wander through a field of giant turnips, their spiky green foliage make good eating for cattle and sheep.
The hills offer sweeping views of the agricultural epicentre of Southland, the Fiordland mountains a dark blue on one side, and ahead, the path to Bluff. We feel strong and speedy until the last final five kilometres. But our spirits rise when greeted by Greg some two kilometres from the road end.
He’s come to give us a lift into Tuatakere and a hot shower and bed for the night. What a legend!
Day 133: 9 April 2022
Birchwood – Merrivale (24 kms/8 hrs)
This morning Greg dropped us at the trailhead and we enjoyed a full day of slack-packing through the Woodlaw Forest. I toted Emilie’s pack and she skipped ahead waving her hiking poles.
The crisp morning is quickly thawing into a beautiful sunny day and we’re both in good spirits. I hadn’t realised how much the monotony of lugging a heavy pack was getting me down, until I tried climbing a hill without one.
Emilie chatters and I chat back. We’re taking turns telling the story of our invented character, the Bush Baby, and the exploits of her bush friends. The Bush Baby lives in the forest with her best friend Daisy (a forest fairy) and her adopted children, Baby Kiwi and Willy the Weka. She’s the guardian of her forest and spends her time looking after the animals and going on adventures.
Emilie’s imagination knows no bounds as she chats away, easily keeping pace with me as we stride down the forestry track. The Bush Baby has opened a hospital behind her house and is busy tending to a variety of ailments with blood tests, x-rays and healing potions.
Our visit to Wildbase Recovery in Palmerston North, so many kilometres ago, inspired much interest in the care of wild creatures and Emilie has memorised most of the facts in Gillian Candler’s nature series. I’m soaking up the radiance of my daughter – her enthusiasm for life, seeking fun and enjoyment in everything she does. I love the way her mind works, so bright and fun.
The forestry changes into native bush with tomtits and pīwakawaka flitting about, listening to Emilie’s chatter. Between gaps in the trees, the cultivated green plains of Southland stretch away until they fade into the dark blue of the mountains.
It’s surreal to think we’ve come so far.
We’re on fire today and we stride down the gravel road between Woodlaw Forest and Island Bush, determined to make it to Merrivale. The rows of eucalyptus bring back pleasant memories of Australia and I show Emilie how to rub the leaves between her fingers to release the fragrance.
The track dwindles into a faint ground trail through dense beech and dangling moss, markers barely visible in the gloom, until we reach a stile and we’re out the other side!
A farm gate reveals a herd of young cows, big brown eyes in shaggy heads watching us with interest as we slop through their muck. They start to line up, but too late . . . we’re through the gate and the road is in sight.
Greg is waiting for us and we’re off to reward ourselves with giant ice creams from the Tuatapere store.
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.