On our approach to Te Anau, we were beginning to see much bigger landscapes up ahead. More mountains and jagged ridgelines spanning the horizon, all of which we would need to negotiate our way through. The trail, almost thankfully for the northbound hiker, eases you into it with a beautiful hike through a region called Mavora Lakes. After a days rest in Te Anau, we were hitching back out to the trail to get back to it.
The first day along this section, whether you continue on from Princhester Hut or start from the highway where you can hitch to Te Anau, is a long one that took us mostly along gravel roads. The official route meanders alongside the Mararoa river that flows down this valley, but due to regular heavy rains and the flooding that comes as a result, the trail is a boggy mess with little to offer in the way of a clear route. We followed the gravel road for the most part, but joined the river as we neared Kiwi Burn Hut where we would be staying the night. We struggled on for what seemed much longer than it actually was, losing the trail repeatedly and generally wishing we had stayed on the road. The final hurdle of the day would be crossing the river before reaching the hut. Though not particularly deep, it was the first substantial river that we had to cross on the South Island, and the sharp sensation of cold water reminded me that many of the waterways we would be encountering are fed largely from mountain, and sometimes glacial, streams. At least on our arrival at Kiwi Burn Hut we were greeted with a wood burner to restore some heat to our feet.
The following day, we tramped through the beautiful beech forest that grows in this area, with all the birds that by this point we had come to expect. Fantails flitting about around us as we disturbed insects for them to feed on, calls of bellbirds from the canopy, and even the charismatic kakariki can be seen here. That being said, it was the mosaic of lichens that had grown across the bark that grabbed my attention. Dense cover of forest becomes punctuated here and there by views of the lake that the trail edges around, before emerging to a swingbridge leading us to a popular campsite on the lakes edge. Though a nice place to stay, we were aiming to cover more distance, and so pushed on to Carey's Hut, continuing along the trail that borders the northern lake edge.
More people will be familiar with this place than they realise owing to the fact that these lakes are featured heavily in the Lord of the Rings films. Sam insists on almost drowning here in his efforts to follow Frodo, and Boromir takes an arrow to the everywhere just a stones throw from the lakes shore. We managed to succeed where these hero's had failed by not trying to go for a swim with our backpacks on, and by not engaging in combat with bow-and-arrow wielding Uruk-Hai. We did however lose in a game of smarts against a mouse....
After a night camping outside Carey's Hut, in the shadows of the high valley sides, we followed the gently undulating trail up through the valley floor, where there are a number of huts to stay at along the way. Arguably some of my favourite huts are along this part of the trail, all of which are a short distance from one another, anywhere between 10-15km so you can take all the time you need to take in the surroundings. From Carey's Hut, we had lunch at Boundary Hut and pushed on to make our bed for the night at Taipo Hut, beautifully situated on the crystal clear waters of the Mararoa River. It was made all the sweeter thanks to the great weather conditions we had, perfect for hiking and great for photography. The good weather was set to follow us for a while to come as well, with a beautiful evening near the Greenstone Hut before our journey into Queenstown the following day.
Queenstown itself was overwhelming. Having come from the middle of nowhere, to then suddenly be thrown into the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest tourist towns in New Zealand was a bit much for us to take in, and we generally relaxed away from the crowds, camping on the lawn of a local Trail Angel who very kindly took us in for a few nights while we gathered ourselves for the next stretch This involved buying heaps of food that we sent ahead of ourselves for more remote sections where resupplies would be difficult. In hindsight we didn't make it that far, and ended up picking up boxes of depressing dehydrated food post lockdown. This being said, we were catching up on the developments of all things COVID-19, and Queenstown had definitely taken a big hit in terms of tourist numbers, with shop workers saying how quiet it was for the March build up to the ski season. With plenty to be getting on with in terms of planning the upcoming sections however, we didn't think too much on it and continued on soon after, heading on a four day section along the Motutapu track to Wanaka, then another 6 days to Twizel.
The stretch to Wanaka was some of my favourite walking. Once you've completed the walk to Arrowtown from Queenstown and undoubtedly stuffed yourself with burgers from Slow Cuts, you're no longer walking along roads or forests. We climbed clear valley sides before dropping back down again through steeply undulating terrain, again relying on the back country huts that are regularly dotted through the hills. Winding our way through valleys and crossing the most crystal clear streams before passing over saddles and low mountain passes that go to make up the Motatapu track. We we're hitting our stride in terms of walking, feeling stronger and more capable and confident on the steeper and higher terrain. I'd even noticed muscles in my legs I'd never seen before, I'd gone from having stick legs, to slightly stronger stick legs. But we were looking forward for the bigger stuff that was still to come.
Emerging from the Motatapu track and making our arrival into Wanaka meant a tourist tick for me in the form of the Wanaka Tree. Though some kind sole had taken it upon themselves to cut off the lower limbs only days before I got there. Whether it was mindless vandalism in response to the constant stream of tourists lining up on the beaches, or a more calculated cut that was supposed to be of some benefit I'm not sure. The cuts were done with a blade, and seemingly not in random places so I'm leaning more towards someone local has done it because they think that it would look better that way... But this is only speculation. And at any rate, in the right light it still looks pretty great, even if there are a countless images of the same tree out there.
The section from Wanaka to Twizel was to be our last before lockdown. We were incredibly fortunate as our original plan would have meant we would take an extra day between Wanaka and Lake Ohau. As it turned out we managed some big days, and arrived a day earlier than planned. Instead of stopping at Lake Hawea after leaving Wanaka, we pushed on as the sun set up a 1000 metre climb to Pakituhi Hut near Breast Hill. The day after offered beautiful views through clouded mountains from the summit, but the weather gradually deteriorated as the day went on for our arrival at Top Timaru Hut. Sunnier weather followed however for our pass over Martha's saddle, and our final night on the trail after crossing the Ahuriri river. The following day was when it all came to a halt.
Our good fortune came at Lake Ohau when we bumped into a fellow TA hiker we met on our first day on the trail, Chris. He was kind enough to greet us warmly and with a smile before giving us the bad news that New Zealand was to go into lockdown in 48 hours, and that we had to find somewhere to live for the next month. A big blow, but in true kiwi spirit we were able to jump in with a lift with a brilliant Trail Angel called Denise that Chris had arranged, stay in Twizel, get a ride with Denise to Christchurch the following day with a bunch of other stranded hikers, stop the night with Chris's family before catching the last flight up to Blenheim where we would stay with friends for the duration of lockdown. Had we arrived on our originally planned date, we would have been clueless as to what was going on with respect to the lockdown, and likely stuck in the middle of nowhere with little option to travel. In the space of 48 hours, I had gone from hiking 30km a day through remote wilderness, to waking up and justifying a beer before 10am...
Looking back at it though, I don't think we would have been left high and dry if we hadn't any friends to call. As has been the over-arching theme for our entire stay in New Zealand, kiwi hospitality shines through despite so much confusion and fear in times like these. We were offered numerous options of places to stay if we needed. Texts from people we'd not spoken to for a while offering a place to stay and making sure we were ok. There was something that really stuck with me when this was going on when staying with a Trail Angel in Twizel before leaving for Christchurch the next day, which was that because New Zealand is a country regularly affected by natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and with the growing presence of extremists over the years tragic incidences such as terrorist attacks, the people of New Zealand have this almost innate reaction to band together and help each other. National alerts sent out to peoples phone's make sure as many people know the situation as possible, and when that happens people know to take it seriously. You get the odd exception to the rule but compared to the likes of the US, people in New Zealand actually give a shit about those around them.
This isn't the end of our Te Araroa journey however, we'll be making plans to pick up where we left off soon, after all, we can't go to New Zealand and not spend a night in an hobbit hole.