It seems weird writing this instalment of our hike across New Zealand, so late after the fact. But given all the goings on of the year I've not really felt compelled to re-live the relative freedoms of the earlier months. Naturally, as you can probably guess, we had to come off the trail early, not completing the full length of the trail across New Zealand owing to all things coronavirus, but we're in the fortunate position of at least still considering it for the 2020/2021 season. So picking up our trip at Bluff, we were set to start heading northbound.
Going into the South Island was different obviously, as we had more hiking experience behind us. We had our packing down to a tee, and were used to carrying the weight which freed us up to enjoy the hiking even through relatively dull scenery. It does exist in New Zealand, and the section from/to Bluff is one of the dullest. I'm sure it will remain a fond memory for many hikers, with the vast majority of thru-hikers finishing their trail journey at Bluff, often on the long hard slog along roadside for 50km+. On the upside, it reaffirmed to us that our decision to not finish the trail here was a good thing. The idea of finishing on the Queen Charlotte Track with views of the Marlborough Sounds was the obvious choice to us, though we were met with some scepticism from other hikers, mostly down to the time of year it would mean we would be hiking through some of the highest sections of the TA. At any rate, for the time being we would be getting the fairly road heavy section from Bluff out of the way early.
The first few days that we had planned took us from Bluff, and along the coast for a few days, stopping off in small towns before descending into the Longwood Forest. After this we would emerge on the other side to cross expansive farmland. Vast stations that covered thousands of hectares of land, rearing sheep and cattle. Before crossing another forest to eventually reach our rest day location of Te Anau.
The stretch from Bluff to Invercargill was, as I hinted at, less than exciting. But the coastline sections did remind us of our years spent living on the Isles of Scilly, having known many people tell us how much like New Zealand it was. By contrast our arrival into Colac Bay, which was our last stop before the Longwood Forest, was memorable but mostly for the wrong reasons, with an absolutely monstrous surfer statue being there to greet us.
After one of the best pub dinners in New Zealand from the Colac Bay Tavern, we were set to head into the Longwood Forest and tackle all the mud we'd been promised from those who had passed through before us. As it turned out though, walking in a northbound direction seemed to send us following a pristine, newly marked trail that cut a huge shortcut through the forest. When you get into the rhythm of walking, head down and plodding on, you can sometimes miss a turn here or there. In my defence, there was a brand new footbridge and familiar orange marker beyond, so off I went. Only to realise a long while later that the path we were following, wasn't actually the official route at all and that we were in the middle of unfamiliar territory. With orange markers to show the way at every turn however, we carried on, with an idea as to where we might come out. Luckily, turns out we were right, and roughly 3 hours quicker than we originally thought, we arrived out our home for the night, Martin's Hut.
One of the more "antique", or "classic" backcountry huts on the trail, the notes we'd read about a nights stay here were pretty much par for the course. "Lots of mice here", "hang your food up", "be prepared to have mice walk over you in your sleep", the usual. To be fair the warning signs were there as soon as we arrived, with "BEWARE" emblazoned on the door, and they were right. We saw plenty of mouse activity in the daytime, so no doubt when we were fast asleep they were running amok around the hut. But we were prepared and had thankfully hung up our food supplies, so awoke in the morning with no damage, and no lost food.
The forest itself however, was beautiful. Despite it being wet and boggy in places, it was lush and green, and fully expecting the worst, we were pleasantly surprised to find the track manageable. The worst came on the more exposed tops, as the wind picked up and an oppressive rainy fog set in. Drizzle being blasted into our eyes as we pushed on made progress slow, and though the track wasn't too sodden, I managed to fall in an hidden muddy bog up to my mid-thigh. It became a common occurrence on the trail to spot a patch of ground that looked slippy, thinking aloud that stepping on it would end badly, only to ignore your own intuition and end arse over tit. I can only describe it as the same feeling you get when someone tells you something is hot. You have to touch it just to make sure.
Though muddy in places, it wasn't half as bad as we were expecting. I guess having done Raetea Forest had already shifted our benchmark for muddy tracks a little bit, so we hopped our way along roots and made good time towards our place of rest for the evening. The Merriview Hut, a privately built and owned shelter at the end of the forest. Cosy, with great views of the upcoming, steeper terrain.
After a relatively good nights sleep here, the next would be spent crossing the first of several "stations", which are essentially massive farms that cover thousands of hectares worth of land across the backcountry hills. The first day was Birchwood station, before staying for a night in the old shearers quarters, now converted as a hikers bunkhouse, and the next was across the Mt Linton station, one of the largest privately owned station in New Zealand, at over 12,000 hectares, where we would finish at a small campsite amongst the hills. The terrain from this point on becomes increasingly mountainous for the northbound hiker, which for us meant we were getting into the good stuff. Bigger mountains meant bigger views, which is one of the best bits about hiking!
Once we crossed Mt Linton, the following day would start by hitting the first steep climb of the South Island. Not up too high, about 600 metres, before dropping back down into forest once more. We would cross forest, expansive tussock plains, back into more forest again, and then finally out to the main highway. From here we were hitching into Te Anau where we would rest up for a day, catch up with some southbound friends of ours, before carrying on north into ever more mountainous terrain.