I was sat in the cafe/general store/local gathering place in lake Hawea village, watching it rain. It’d been raining for hours. ‘One more coffee, then I’ll go.’ Well, I was 4 coffees deep now, and getting a little wired. Then it occurred to me – this rain was pretty much a metaphor for life. What if it never stopped? What if there was bright sunshine and rainbows (and unicorns) on the other side of the hill? I was never going to find that out by sitting inside now, was I? So I quickly purchased a can of man-up, downed the lot and headed off in a general vertical direction up Breast Hill track.
10km later, the rain relented and I heard voices at the crest. “Annaaaaaaa, hey Annaaaaaaa….” I stopped and looked around, I couldn’t see anyone. A few steps further on, and I heard it again. “It’s the runner, it’s the runner...” Was this it? Had I finally gone loopy? Had I slipped off the ridgeline and these were in fact spirits from the beyond? Then, in a Stars In Your Eyes style smokey reveal the clouds parted and two figures appeared from the mist. Tonight Matthew, I’d be sharing a hut with Whio Warriors Finny and Fi. And boy was I pleased to see them. Although I’d only spent one night in their company in the Motatapu’s, somehow on the Te Araroa, friendships are magnified. Once inside Pakatuki hut I found American boys Andrew and Peter (also of Motatapu fame) there too. Little did I know that these four would form the basis of tight-knit ‘trail gang’ for the next 10 days.
The following morning was like an episode of Top Gear. The sure but steady Team Hammond (Fiona and Finny) left at 8am. The slightly reckless high-octane seeking Team Clarkson (Peter and Andrew) departed at 9am, taking a higher route along a ridgeline. And myself, the sensible but always a little late James May, left at 10am to chase down the pack. I caught thrill-seekers Peter and Andrew at lunchtime, with the added bonus of running into Coach Ron again (who was busy writing signs to direct trail users to the nearest water source, naturally).
By mid-afternoon I’d caught early risers Finny & Fi just as they’d stopped to have a chat with southbounder Jory, who was walking the trail barefoot. Jory had made his own packs from leaves and vine, and foraged or hunted for as much food as he could along the way. As someone who gets flummoxed hunting for supernoodles in their backpack, I found it all rather impressive. He’d even accessorised with a vine headband, which performed the dual task of keeping his Beckham esc locks from his face, and filling me with style envy.
WAITING OUT THE STORM
It was 6pm when I arrived at Top Timaru hut to find Kirsteen Collins nestled quietly in 6 person
bunk. Kirsteen, also a southbounder, or a ‘SOBO’, is somewhat of a trail celebrity. She’s renowned for keeping an incredibly detailed blog, militant in her preparation, and approaches each day with admirable gusto. She’s the kind of lady who’d sawn the handle off of her toothbrush and then drilled holes in what remained of the stub, just to shave off a few extra grams. Kirsteen seemed to be enjoying the peace and quiet, and I hated to burst her bubble of serenity: “There’s a mobile hut party heading this way.” I warned her. “Prepare yourself!”.
A few hours later Finny and Fi arrived, followed by the San Fran lads, and finally Coach Ron, who concluded his hike by doing a victory lap of the rock out the front. That night Ron picked up the guitar again for a round of country tunes and poetry. We sang along in our bunks, chatting, eating, laughing and discussing tomorrow’s impending weather warning. Rain they said, snow they said, gusts of up to 120mph they said. And they weren’t wrong – the next day was a write off.
A younger me would have been frustrated with such a hold up. This is a run, after all, and that was not a day I’d be doing any running. But older me has grown accustomed to enjoying however the adventure unfolds, and so I embraced a day of enforced rest. If I’m honest my legs were just about the wrong side of screwed anyway, the left calf especially, and so I drifted in and out of sleep all day. Come the evening, the only pain I was pushing through was in my left arm – I’d been holding my Kindle up for too long and it had gone numb.
LAKE OHAU LODGE
Following a days battle through tussock and pokey-plants (gawd knows I hate pokies – see the video), it was a relief to make the shore of Lake Ohau, and Lake Ohau Lodge. Owners Mike and Louise were Friends of friends, and they treated me like a princess.
I woke on the first morning of my stay, enveloped in crisp linen and marshmallowy soft pillows, looking out through floor-to-ceiling sliding doors at Mount Cook in the distance.
The lodge has a rich and turbulent history. In the years preceding Mike and Louise’s ownership, it, along with the attached ski field, had been to the brink of closure and back again. Now it was booming. A hive of activity as mountain bikers, hikers and passing tourists stopped in. Lunch, a beer, an overnight rest – the story was always the same: “Oh we love it here, we’ve been coming for years.”
There’s a real charm about the place, which is just beautiful. Dinner time is an old-school affair, where the general format is to sit at tables with people you’ve never met before and to… talk. Imagine that. In my nights there I had the pleasure of meeting a British couple with a holiday home in Martinborough – he was a retired ear, nose and throat surgeon, she was a mother who’d set up a business selling wood burners in later life and rediscovered her joy de vivre. Then there was the Australian lady who was writing a book about the 10 years she’d spent as an aerobics instructor in Hong Kong (judging by her stories of the city fitness class scene, I’ll be buying the book). Then there was Karl and his young son, Kyan – who’d come to the lodge for a spot of business and to go fishing together – isn’t that lovely? And everyone else, well everyone else seemed to be from the East coast town of Timaru, although I’m yet to work out why.
After a day of rest my legs and feet had swollen to walrus size, something that I’ve learnt is the norm on days when I don’t run. Setting off for the 35km to Twizel was like trying to make headway with sausages for limbs – possibly Cumberland, but I can’t be sure. Whatever the variety, my pegs were in revolt. Especially the left calf which I’d been pushing through a decent amount of pain for the past week. The going was slow, and the infamous Central Otago heat started to become unbearble.
4kms from town I had a wee bit of a meltdown. I’d run clean out of gas. Every step felt like lead and my mouth tasted as if someone had placed a block of Brie on my tongue and left it there to ferment. My gums stuck to my teeth and my throat rasped. I decided that pushing on in the heat was getting me nowhere fast, and so found a small tree at the side of the road. I curled up in a ball and lay in its shade for 40 minutes. Just until I felt human enough to move, and to make the final few kilometres into town.
THE DARK SKY RESERVE
After a bound from Twizel and along the shores of Lake Pukaki, I decided I’d go all out for a marathon day to get me to Lake Tekapo. I’ll agree it’s a strange life when you get into your tent after running all day, and think – “Yes, yes, let’s go for a marathon tomorrow.” I was only carrying one day’s worth of food so the pack was relatively light at 10kgs. I say relatively. It’s all relative of course when everything is graded from “Mother Hubbard that’s heavy.” to “Mary and Joseph, that’s a bit lighter. ”
Everything went according to plan and after 44km I stumbled out of some woods and onto the edge of the campground. And who is the first person I see? Finny. Trail-gang Magic truly is everywhere.
The following morning I was downing my coffee, when I got a call from Graeme Murray. Graeme was a friend of Mike and Lousie from the lodge, and as well as being the owner and founder of the Mount John Observatory, pretty much runs the town of Tekapo.
“Say Anna, why don’t you come over for tea? It’s Chinese New Year and so the observatory tours are pretty booked up with tourists, but we’ll work something out.”
And work something out we did. The next 24 hours were a whirlwind. I ended up de-camping to stay with Graeme, who took me on a tour of the mountain, for lunch then for pizza and beer, before chasing down a tour bus at midnight to squeeze me on a stargazing tour.
A NATIONAL PARK IN THE SKY
Over the course of my time with Graeme I got to understand the monumental amount of work that had gone into making the observatory the world class site it is today. I learned that Lake Tekapo is the second best place in the world (behind Chile) to observe the night sky. Thanks to the strict light pollution laws within and around the town, the Milky Way is just about visible all year round. The Mackenzie area is already officially a dark sky reserve, and there’s now a campaign under way to make it the worlds first UNESCO heritage site. I’d never really thought about having a heritage site in the sky before, but of course the skies are as important as the ground. They contain even more of our history, after all.
For the star tour itself, I was expecting a Disneyland kind of experience. To be greeted by cheery attendants, music (perhaps a dash of David Bowie) and to be bundled from place to place in militant fashion. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The guides are in fact accomplished astronomers. Individuals who are in the process of studying nighttime wonders and simply want to share their knowledge with a wider audience. They come armed with (super awesome) green lasers, which they point up at the sky as if it were a giant projector screen, to show you where the constellations are. And, because they are bona fide research students – you can ask them pretty much anything and they’ll know the answer. Wonderful.
Between midnight and 2am I looked at Jupiter up close. I watched a moon-rise, learnt how to navigate using the southern cross, stared down a telescope at a globular cluster of 2 million stars, was shown not one, but two distant galaxies and learnt about good old Orion and his hunting belt. By far my favourite constellation was the ‘jewel box’ cluster. A group of stars which were visibly Green, Blue or Red, according to the different levels of heat they generated. Who knew that stars were more than one colour? A-mezzin.
Well. That’s me for now. I’ll leave you all you starlets where you belong, hanging out up there, and come back to collect you for story time next week.
Enjoy the weekend, maybe go for a little run, or something…?
Big high five,
McNuff out xxx
The pictures are up on Flickr here.
Help me use this run to send some youngsters on adventures of their very own here