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A trip with freedom
I started to plan the trip in March 2019 – walking a month on Te Araroa trail covering a third of a South Island section – from Queen Charlotte to Harper Pass. Once I had laid out a rough itinerary, I tried to invite people to go with me. There were several who showed interest, but no one confirmed. By early December, I decided it would be a solo trip. After considering my workload and family needs, I reduced the trip to ten days from the 1st to the 10th January 2020. And because there was no pressure from any trip companions to plan the details, on 31st December (apart from an annual hut pass I always had with me and air tickets to Nelson and back from Christchurch), nothing had been booked. I decided to try a trip without a detailed plan.
Day 1: Nick sorted me out
I started packing early in the morning, and by 1pm, had arrived at the Nelson airport. I sat down in the arrival lounge and started calling the accommodations on Te Araroa trail and quickly found out it was in vain; all accommodations were fully booked. I had no choice but to stay in Nelson that night. I called a shuttle service to get me from Nelson to the trail head and discovered it would cost $190! I tentatively booked the shuttle and felt a little silly but go on with getting to Nelson first.
There’s no Uber service so I wandered to bus stop. A little shuttle bus was waiting there with a friendly driver. After a quick chat, I concluded that the best option was to take the shuttle to the Nelson Information Centre and make decisions after getting some information there. Nick at the information centre received me and to my surprise, he helped me book the bus to the trail head (Pelorus Bridge) the next morning for $23, one bed in a female shared room in in between for $65 (normal price is $35, the price increase is due to the last minute booking and there was a musical festival, he apologised). That was surprisingly way better than any option I could’ve planned by myself. I was so happy.
Day 2: Hikers took my pack
On the bus to Pelorus Bridge, the bus driver Tia was a treasure, she was funny, bubbly and full of wit. She made the guests laugh along. Couldn’t help but wonder if our tour bus drivers are the main reason for New Zealand’s tourism boom. Hopped off the bus and started the first 14km road walk towards the trail head. About 5km away from the trail head, a shabby car with five young, cheerful, hikers stopped by and offered to give my pack a ride. They sincerely apologised that they couldn’t take me. It was such a relief because my pack was about 16kg (it was the first day so included nine days of food supply). I arrived the Captain Creek hut by 9:30pm, right before dark and felt great. I managed to kick start the walk with minimum cost and I was proud of my sound decision making and felt grateful for good luck.
Day 3: Fritz shot a goat
I reached the Middy Creak Hut at midday and met a young boy Fritz from Germany. He was born and raised in Bulgaria and trained to hunt by his grandpa. He used a bow and arrow to kill a goat, then pan-fried the leg steak and shared with me and the kind group of kids who helped by taking my pack the day before. Wow… that was surprisingly delicious. In return, I gave Fritz some brandy I carried in a flask. Meeting such a resourceful young kid was truly a joy.
Day 4-7: Walking with freedom
In the next several days, I walked at my own pace without a plan or goal. If the hut was nice, view was good or weather was not promising, I stopped – even if it was only two in the afternoon. If the hut was crowded, weather was good and I felt energised, I pushed on until dark. Some nights, I got lucky and had a bunk bed; and others I pitched a tent and enjoyed the peace. The views on some of the mountain peaks were super nice.
I bumped into several group of goats and there were heaps of hikers walking the trail because it was peak season. Most were from overseas, some walking solo and some in pairs. Some knew each other and they shared very interesting trail stories with me. I learnt a lot from those seasoned walkers, and I was also able to share my NZ tramping experiences with them.
Day 8: Found an old map
I realised that with my leisurely walking pace, I was not going to arrive at St Arnold before the 10th January. Although I had plenty of time to spare, I had started to feel home sick and a bit guilty leaving my son Sean to play computer games all day at home. In the Tarn Hut that night, I found an old map on the wall showing a route from Tarn Hut to Wairaou River, meeting Goulter Road, then extended to Northern Bank Rod and ran all the way to Blenheim. I thought perhaps if I walked out of the bush to the road, I could hitchhike and get a ride to Blenheim. It looked like a doable exit route that could get me home on 10th.
I left one day ration of food for myself and gave all the rest to Jennifer and Luke from Brisbane who were suffering from food shortage. Obviously, the Richmond Forest Park is one of the toughest trails in Te Araora and many walkers underestimate the days they’ll need to hike this section.
Day 9: Ray, Barry and Mark
I left the Tarn Hut at 6:15am to begin my exit plan and around 1:30pm spotted the beautiful, winding river. Before descending to the river, I bumped into a team of DOC (Department of Conservation) staff Ray, Barry and Mark who were blazing and tidying up trails. I relayed my plan to them to double check the feasibility and the look on their faces after hearing my plan was quite funny. At last, Barry who was the leader of the pack told me that Goulter Road had been closed for about a year to the public and the chance of me getting a ride there was zero. Plus, it would take me whole day to walk out of the 25ish km of Goulter Road. But… I was very lucky, because they would complete the job they were doing by the next day and their depot was very close to the Blenheim Airport. They had just one spare seat on their truck, and heaps of food to share with me some. Wow… I was feeling super lucky in this moment.
That night, the DOC staff, myself and two other hikers shared a hut and learnt a lot from the staff on how DOC works. Some of the information was very good to know. For example, goats had been eaten all the precious seedlings and the whole forest was fucked. Mark was hired by DOC to shoot the goats. They went out in three or four with a helicopter and on some days, would shoot hundreds of goats but there’s still no way to eliminate them.
Barry was champion on a project to replace all the old wood burners inside the huts. They’re not efficient and burn too much wood. I quite liked the look of the ancient burners and took some photos of them. I asked whether I could get one, Barry said they were going to install them in the very remote and rarely used huts.
I told them about my observations of each hut and campgrounds I had stayed at and they appreciated the information. It’s very helpful to DOC if hikers could be a bit more observant and gave feedback to local DOC office to help them maintain and service facilities on the trail.
In the end, a trip without a detailed plan turned out to be one of the best trips I have ever had. And the joy from unexpected, good surprises is just so nice. Yes, life is full of uncertainty and challenge, but who says bright hope and opportunity are not right there waiting for us?