Day 67: No possum problems last night. We packed up, walked back into town and straight to the visitor’s center, where we looked at some trail maps and came to a consensus on where we wanted to hike- to the base of the glacier, a hike we could do in half a day walking from town, and end up in a better place to hitch. We stopped at the gas station for some snacks and I was sorely disappointed when there were no vegetarian pies, I had come to be quite addicted to them. We followed the track out of town, off the shoulder of the road. We crossed the bridge and the river blew my fucking mind. It was so clear and the rocks beneath it so white and grey that it made the water itself actually look white: whitewater. There were many swift and gnarly braids, and I imagined the chaos of trying to run any of them. Xena laughed at my outbursts of uncontrollable excitement. We walked the road, then a well maintained forest track with informational signs about the local flora and fauna as well as the glacier and its erosional effects on the landscape. There were little streams dug out parallel to the trail that were sometimes crossed, and icy crystal clear water flowing through them in a cold jungle. Every view of the river was more epic than the last: roaring, gushing, spewing waterfalls, massive boulder fields, and a million tributaries of all sizes bringing water from all directions, moving the current around in an unpredictable and heinous way. When we finally got to the parking lot, there were all the people. Heaps and heaps of them in cars and trucks and in busses. The trail was not extreme at all, and yet many people struggled. Slow and steady wins the race on the most high use trail around town. Parts of the trail had been washed out, but the reroutes were already well groomed and there were. There were hundreds of people on the trail, and cotton in the cold rain, selfie sticks, high tops, and ignorant behavior and comments tried to distract me. But the beauty of the scene around me was immense. We came off a bluff and onto a rocky grey shore- the scattered pieces of great boulders, sheared and worn away by the glacier, deposited through melts and floods. The river was wide and raging and more furious the further up we got. The canyon was gigantic- about 3-4,000 feet of change in less than one mile, cliffs in tiers to the top. Great waterfalls poured from everything, walls of rock on either side of the river were worn smooth from the glaciers eons ago, crystal clear pools swirled around in the rain, giant chunks of ice with blue cores had a million black and grey specks of sediment ready to deposit, palms and ferns clung to every available surface, FLAM (fungi, lichen, moss, and algae) covered the rest, and the tourists flocked by the hundreds. There were people of all ages, though mostly families with teenager kids, and groups of old people led by glacier guides. We passed many of them in the rain, stopped for a photo of the glacier at the first good overlook and my attention was torn between one of the most impressive geological features I’ve ever seen, and the hoards of people with their selfie sticks, taking pictures of themselves. I walked the rest of the way in silence, feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing. I was in total, utter awe by the vista in front of me- the striking beauty of it, the immensity of the space and time needed to create it- a thousand equally stunning things to take in all at once, and also by a solemn disappointment, a personal resignation, and a fire deep in my belly, that wilderness areas like this are being marred and disrespected, and the only remaining wilderness areas are the ones that are hard to get to. And yet I found peace in thinking that this is only the edge of this wild landscape that is otherwise fairly untouched and inaccessible to these sort of people. Still, the most overwhelming feeling of confused despondency came when seeing the base of the glacier close up. First and foremost, the scale took my breath away- a gargantuan waterfall poured from directly beneath the ice, thousands of cubic feet per second dropping 40 feet over jagged boulders, raging and murderous, and a dark blue, white, and grey deluge of ice crept from the prominent snow capped peaks that were barely visible through the thick grey clouds that passed quickly overhead. The thought of the glacier itself, receding rapidly in just the past few years, caused by the side effects of a culture that promotes taking pictures of yourself instead of pictures of the glaciers. But the glaciers don’t care. The glaciers could all melt tomorrow, causing catastrophic and disastrous flooding worldwide and massive changes in the global climate, and they wouldn’t care; they have no intent, no spirit, only the forces of physics driving them. It is merely a cause and effect chain, a set of reactions without purpose of meaning. I am comforted by their indifference, assurance that the world will be fine even if we’re not. It doesn’t revolve around us you know. When we get back to the parking lot, I can still feel this feeling in the pit of my stomach, but it is eased when a japanese tourists takes an up-close photo of me playing guitar. Lol. We end up hitching a ride back to the highway with a private shuttle bus, and I played the passengers some blues. We got a ride from there with a young kiwi dude in a sweet 80’s toyota truck 4×4 truck with a bunch of monitors built into the dashboard and a bunch of open space in the back. The dude grew up in Queenstown, and was on the national mountain biking team before a knee injury kept him of his bike for a while. We chatted about how he traveled a lot for competitions, and the woes of working a “real” job (he works for a towing company now) when all you want to do is play outside. He still gets out though- we talked about canyoning down waterfalls, about him towing a car off some back road near a lake when a family looked at their map, saw a road near the water, and kept driving down this very muddy and rough road long after they should have turned around. We also chatted about hunting, and how for a time, european red deer, elk, and even moose were brought in for game, and that even though the moose were hunted into extinction some decades ago, rumor has it that there are still some out there. We followed the winding road alongside the epic Haast River with its humongous white water in a deep, jungly, and steep canyon. He took us off the highway and onto a rural valley road past sheep and cow farms on the outskirts of Wanaka, promising that he knew a faster route into Queenstown from growing up around here. We passed the chateaus and luxury cars in the ski town of Cadrona, then went up and up and up over the pass near Mt Scott, a panoramic view of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains near Queenstown. Down many tight switchbacks, it was clear that this dude had the rig for the job, as many other cars, many of them rentals from tourists, drove white knuckled up and down the pass. He dropped us off at Arrow Junction and we were picked up very soon after by a dude who had worked at mine sites in the Australian outback, saying he made good money but it was dangerous work, and that the town was very small and full of drama. It was also hellishly hot, but only at the surface, as he pointed out. Just before he dropped us off at the New World, we saw an electronic sign on the road saying to expect traffic this weekend for the Fat Freddy’s Drop concert. We ate sushi, resupplied, walked around a cricket field on a paved path with calisthenic exercise equipment in stages along the way, playing on each one as we went by, then hitched out to Invercargill. We were picked up by a dude who worked as a chef for an italian restaurant, and we talked about his views on young people, gangs, and how bad Maori fathers were to blame, but how Invercargill is a very diverse place and much safer than other places. Before he dropped us off, he said he’d give us some free pizza if we came into his restaurant tomorrow, but after we had done a resupply for our upcoming trip to Stewart Island off the southern coast, we went instead to a fantastic Indian restaurant called Bombay Palace, and filled our bellies with samosas, naan, paneer tikka masala, aloo gobi, and lots of basmati rice. A young girls birthday party and Indian music videos played on the TV while we ate. When we tried hitching out of town, we spent some time walking down the main road with sunny and clear, but windy skies. Just as we reached the bend in the road at the edge of town, we stuck our thumbs out for a few minutes, only to have yet another pair of hitchhikers jump in front of us on the road. She hooped and I jammed while we waited, but after a quick snack, we walked a bit further out of town, where we found a much better spot to hitch from, getting picked up quickly by a dude in a little sports car. He was big but not fat, kind of pear shaped, wore a leather jacket, a bald guy with wiry glasses and he smoked as he drove. He said he had been in Bluff for 8-10 years, but still felt like a newbie, being in a community of old fishing and boating families. He dropped us off at the ferry and we booked our tickets for that evening, at 6:30 which still meant we would have plenty of day light when we got to Stewart Island, a place as far south as central Maine is North, where sunset happens after 9:30 and civil twilight after 10 this time of year. A girl asked us if we could help her figure out how to set up her tent, so we went out to the parking lot to try setting up as she explained that she had gotten it for less than $10 and didn’t plan on camping, but wasn’t sure if she could get a room at the hostel on stewart island and brought this just in case. The thing was just a rectangular soft nylon tarp and thick aluminum poles, some of which were missing, and there was no chance she would be able to get it standing without extra cordage, neither of us had. The competitive purist culture that pervades the american thru hiking community meant that we were weaksauce dirty yellowblazers, but this was a much stronger batch of weaksauce. With a couple extra hours to kill, we walked around town, did some acroyoga in the park, and ate some grub at the kids table in the Asian takeaway place, then made our way back to the ferry building. We tossed our packs into big bins that were picked up and set onto the boat by forklift, then waited inside among lots of tourists and only one or two residents or employees. When we finally boarded the ship, it was similar to the Urupukapuka ferry, with a bar in the back and rows of seats, but the captain’s controls were in the front of the main cabin where all the passengers sat. Xena slept with her head on my lap to try to avoid feeling seasick, and I watched the screens of the instruments and measuring devices from a front row seat. We left the harbor along rocky outcropping by the lighthouse and were soon into open waters. The sea wasn’t as furious as I thought it might be, so we had a relatively smooth ride and it only took about half an hour for the island to come into view, but as it did the dense forest and small mountains around Halfmoon Bay, near the hamlet of Oban, showed themselves to be truly wild. When the boat was docked, we filed out of the boat with a fairly surprising number of other passengers, waited for a minute for the boxes to be lifted of the deck and onto the dock so we could grab our backpacks, then donned our stuff and walked through town. It was pretty well established for such a small island town- there was a gift shop, a lodge, a restaurant, a cafe, the Department of Conservation building, a movie theater, a wine bar, and some informational signs under small pavilions throughout town, not to mention the tiny houses and the cars in the driveways that never drive more than a few miles at a time. The flora was less prolific than, but just as abundant as that on the south island, and NZ pigeons and tomtits were seen hanging out on the electric poles, on the signs, and in the trees and ferns. The town’s layout was like that of any other, only in miniature; the first quarter mile was “downtown”, the next the “suburbs”, and the next couple miles of dirt roads and no trespassing signs pointing to houses up on the hill would be the country. Beyond the country of Stewart Island is the airport, a mile or so from downtown, where helicopters sat waiting to take off, and beyond that is the trailhead, where a ramshackle house with junk in the yard, some it put to use as a fence, a clothesline, or for an outdoor chilling area, a Maori flag flying, and some woodcarvings in the lawn. There was one car in the small parking lot and we walked past it, through the gate, and onto the well groomed, maintained trail with irrigation ditch on one side and small pebbles underfoot, a puddle here and there to step around, and a young forest with a bed lined with ferns and tangled roots. This section, called the Kaipipi Walk, was a piece of cake. We laughed and talked and made a good pace to a small side trail that led to a grassy knoll right by the water’s edge at Kaipipi Bay. We set up the tarp just off the grassy knoll in a relatively flat spot, struggling to get stakes in the ground and shaping the tarp oddly with some of the guylines tied to trees and roots. We did a little uneven ground acroyoga on the knoll, made a fancy trail dinner, and played some music before bed, letting it echo gently across the bay.
Day 68: It rained on and off all night and into the morning, so we ate breakfast under the tarp, packed up our wet camp and started hiking with out rain jackets on. The trail became more tricky once we passed the turnoff to our camp, parts of the trail having washed out, other parts held together, just enough to form large puddles, by well-constructed 4×4 and plastic netting retainers that kept the track together. There were times when it was fairly windy too, but the weather was always highly variable here and it was hard to stay layered appropriately. The forest had obvious scars from intensive logging, like young trees, a magical carpet of fern on the forest floor like something out of a story book, and homogeneous groups of the same trees. We crossed over a bridge, skipping another turnoff that led to an old sawmill site from the logging days, hiked mostly along the water across rolling hills, crossed the head of the peninsula, then along the North Arm to…. North Arm hut. We got there around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, hung up our wet clothes and gear under the awning outside, and faced with the prospect of putting wet cold clothes back on, we decided to stay. We chilled at one of the picnic tables by the window facing the bay, protected and warm against the bitter rain outside. We made fancy trail dinner and practiced spanish, played lots of music, and talked as more and more people came into and out of the hut. The rain stopped later in the day and some deer came out into the lawn between the window and the North Arm, so everyone in the shelter gawked at it and took photos. We drank tea and a ton of chickpea crisps while we listened to the ranger talk about LNT and shelter etiquette, and she gave some tips on spotting kiwi. That night, we walked up the trail, playing a kiwi call on our phone to try to lure one in so we could see it, but to no avail. We thought we heard on down in the stream, but it very well could have been someone else playing the kiwi call on their phone. We claimed a foam mattress and slept in the main room, comfortable as can be.
Day 69: We were woken up quite early by the first people to leave, but took our sweet time making breakfast and playing some more music before we left. The trail was muddy starting from our first steps out of the hut, the deep, slick, and goopy kind of cold mud, squishing over our ankles. Ferns blanketed the dark forest floor, impossibly more than we had seen the day before, and we crossed many streams, dipping into the channel between their banks by climbing over or under fallen trees. Eventually, we gained some elevation and passed the Rocky Mountain side track, the trees stunted and more sparse, and when a fantail flew very close to Xena, as they are wont to do, delighting and scaring her a little. Only as we began our descent into the Freshwater River valley did the trail begin to get easier. Still, there were gentle waterfalls to climb down, and fern swamps to wade through up to our waists. I had been trying to estimate how much longer we had to go to get to the hut from what I remembered seeing on the map and a rough guess of our average pace, but it took longer than I thought it would, which my growingly hangry brain found frustrating. When we finally did arrive at Freshwater Hut, there was a giant water collection tank and a sink where we washed our blackened shoes and socks, and a few other people staying inside- an older couple, some older ladies, a few older dudes, and a very young couple too. I started a fire in the wood stove and we lit a few candles, snuggling up on the floor behind the picnic table.
Day 70: Today we went packrafting up the Freshwater River. Our last attempt at packrafting had been a little dicey, but paddling upstream was a safe way to mitigate our risks, but just like last time we were in a remote and wild place perfect for explorative adventure. We put a half inflated sleeping pad in the floor for more buoyancy, gave the boat time to adjust to the cold water, then climbed into the boat, Xena in front and me paddling in the back as far up the river as I could before the water became too narrow and swift, maybe a half mile, through such a dense forest corridor with lots of overhanging branches, and Xena took a turn paddling on the way back. I let the packraft dry out in the evening sun as we made jammed and she hula hooped before dinner, and afterwards went for a sunset hike down a muddy part of the trail, stopping on a short sandy section to appreciate the big orange sky, fantails and Stewart Island blackbirds fluttering around us. Tonight we ended up claiming one of the bunks with the foam mattress, sleeping as well as ever on this remote island halfway to the south pole.
Day 71: Our hike back towards Oban was much better in terms of weather. We didn’t stop at North Arm hut, but instead camped just past it off the trail in some really unfavorable terrain- the ground was was uneven, full of roots, damp to the point of sogginess, and with not much room to set up the tarp, but we made it work.
Day 72: We had an easy final stretch to get back to Oban, and we got tickets for the ferry back to Bluff from a wry and cheeky ferry attendant, and we had a nice and easy ride back. We saw the young couple from Freshwater hut say goodbye to each other after what they had told us were just a few months of working and travelling together, and like a tv melodrama, he got out of his car before pulling out, ran to her and picked her up by the waist as high as he could, spinning her around as she leaned over and kissed him. Nice move dude. And yet, a reminder that we will be leaving her soon too. We booked a couple bunks at the hostel in Bluff from the tidy, impersonal owner lady, took showers and did laundry, got some food from the Four square and are dinner with 2 chicks from Thailand who told us how they came here to work, met each other along the way, and have been travelling together ever since. We went to bed fairly early, wiped out from a few hard days spent on the trail.