Day 111 to 114 – Always take the high route
Monday 4 February – Thursday 7 February
Bush Stream Carpark to Twizel
Day: 111 – 114
Cumulative km’s: 2,433km / 3,000km
After being blown away last week by the spectacular scenery between the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers/TA designated ‘hazard zones’, it was now time to climb to the highest point on the entire Te Araroa trail – Stag Saddle at 1,925m. Despite being the highest point on the trail, we had heard that the climb was a gradual one so it shouldn’t be any tougher than the other climbs that we had already completed to date. We really hoped that this would prove to be right.
Also ahead of us in this section, a 50km+ stretch of trail along canal roads between Lake Tekapo and Twizel with no camping options. Rather than having a long hot day in the sun along the canal roads, we opted to roll the dice (given Leigh’s previous experience on the Timber Trail) and hire some bikes which would allow us to have a fairly leisurely ride through to Twizel by early afternoon.
Day 111 – Monday 4 February, 21km
Bush Stream Carpark to Stone Hut
So today got off to a memorable start… while sitting on the loo in the backpacker hostel in Geraldine contemplating life, I heard the door handle start to turn. I was certain that I’d locked the door when I went in though, so I didn’t think too much of it… that was until the door swung open, much to my surprise, and another hiker went to walk in. I guess the lock didn’t work so well.
Wayne from Alps2Ocean was scheduled to pick us up from the main street of Geraldine around 8am and drop us on the other side of the Rangitata River, so we headed into town early to grab some breakfast from a nearby cafe. We ended up a Central Cafe which was an interesting place, but their food really hit the spot.
We could have stayed in that cafe all day, but once Wayne arrived we reluctantly pulled ourselves out of our seats and jumped into the minibus to start the 1hr+ drive to Bush Stream, which is the official trailhead on the southern side of the Rangitata. En route we chatted weather forecasts and alternate trail routes, you know, all the good stuff.
Wayne’s advice ended up being invaluable. His view was that you really need to do the high route when descending Stag Saddle rather than the low route marked in the trail maps. Having not read the trail notes in detail yet, I wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about at the time, so I just made a mental note to go back to this nugget when the time was right. He also gave us some great advice for intreprating the regional weather forecast. Based on the regional forecast, we were particularly concerned about reaching Stag Saddle on a rainy day which would mean we’d have no views from the tops. Wayne put those fears to rest but told us to watch out for any high winds that may also come through. In any case, we were prepared to wait any bad weather out if we had to for a day or two in one of the huts on trail.
Before we knew it we had arrived at our destination, Bush Stream carpark. It felt so remote on the way out there, it was amazing to think that some other TA hikers had been able to hitch rides rather than going via shuttle. We were happy in the end to spend the money on the shuttle, as it gave us certainty on our arrival/departure times which allowed us to plan our food resupplies as accurately as possible.
We thanked Wayne for his help and got ready to start walking for the day. We had just enough time to catch up briefly with a fellow hiker and shuttle-mate, who we had last seen on the trail at Boyle River a few weeks back. Since we had last seen him, he had the experience of being reported as a missing person by family/friends after he was not able to check in with them on schedule. It was kind of surreal when we arrived in Arthur’s Pass to see his photo plastered on a missing person poster at the DOC office, when we had seen him only a few days earlier.
We’d heard stories about the Bush Stream having some challenging sections and deep river crossings, but we must have managed to catch it on a good day as it wasn’t too bad. The sun was shining and the river levels were low. We even had time to stop near a deeper pool to do some small rock jumps into the freezing water. In her excitement to do some swimming, Leigh managed to slip on some wet rocks on the edge of the pool and smash her knee on the rocks. Thankfully no damage was done though.
Despite the cold water, the sun was roasting and did a stellar job at drying us off quickly.
Not long after our swim, we reached the end of the Bush Stream track and started our climb up the nearby spur. For some reason, the trail had us climb steeply before descending equally as steeply and crossing the river again in the space of 10-15 minutes. Once across the river, we started the climb proper to Crooked Spur Hut. Not the easiest climb up an exposed spur in the hottest part of the day. Even the stunning views back down over Bush Stream weren’t enough to make the discomfort go away. The midday temps have definitely caught us by surprise on the South Island, frequently hovering around the 30 degree mark.
It was a welcome relief to finally reach Crooked Spur Hut and give our legs a break out of the midday sun. Ahead of us as yet more climbing in the sun along tracks overgrown with tussock. Beautiful, but challenging terrain. The threat of rolling an ankle was ever present. After admiring some of the history of this old mustering hut, we set off towards Stone Hut.
The track eventually turned into scree as we got closer to the top of the first climb, but this actually made the walking slightly easier. Taking in the views from the saddle, we continued down the other side of the scree slope.
As we got the to lower part of the slope the ground got a bit soggy. At one point my foot slipped into a boggy crack that was full of mud, which was a fun experience.
Topping up our bottles in a mountain stream, we continued towards Stone Hut. At that point we were in two minds as to whether we would stay at Stone Hut or keeping going through to Royal Hut.
The shadows started to grow long over the many hills as we got closer to Stone Hut, creating some stunning sights. As we reached the final descent into Stone Hut, we were greeted with yet more amazing scenery of a picturesque mountain stream running through the valley as the sun started to disapppear.
After taking one look at the number of sandflies hanging around the entrance of the old hut, we decided to keep walking for another half hour or so. We wouldn’t make it to Royal Hut in that time but after reviewing the topo map we were pretty confident that we would find a decent camping spot somewhere along the river that we would be walking alongside.
With the potential for some bad weather tomorrow on our Stag Saddle ascent day, we wanted to be able to get to Royal Hut at the base of the climb as early as possible, in case we needed to wait out the weather for a day.
We found a great little spot to pitch the tent just as the sun was going down. The sandflies were still bad but seemingly had not evolved yet to figure out how to follow you under the tent fly or into the inner tent, in comparison to the sandflies encountered in previous sections of the trail.
I ate my dinner pacing up and down the trail near our campsite, swatting sandflies away as I walked. I’m sure I would have looked like a crazy person if anyone had seen me.
Day 112 – Tuesday 5 February, 18km
Stone Hut to Camp Stream Hut
While we expected some bad weather today, we had not expected freezing temperatures overnight. I ended up sleeping with my sleeping bag hood on (which has been a rarity on this trip). We also awoke to shoe laces that were frozen solid.
Leaving early, we seemingly were awake before the sandflies as we didn’t see any this morning.
As has become a trend in our time on trail, whenever we make the effort to get up early to walk, it always seems to pay off. Walking under the rising sun, we got to watch the shadows disappear and the the colour change over the vast landscape in front of us.
Before we knew it, we were at Royal Hut and the weather still seemed good. We scanned the sky for any signs of incoming bad weather but there were none, so we decided to head for Stag Saddle and see what it was like once we got there. Maybe we would be able to get through the saddle before the weather crapped out. Worst case, we could always take the low route once we reached the top.
The track to Stag Saddle had us following a stream to begin with before heading up a rocky hill where the track was not exactly well formed. It involved using route markers every 100m or so to choose your path between the markers. As many TA walkers have already been through these sections this season though, there inevitably were half a dozen different ways to get to each marker. We broke up the climb by stopping to enjoy the views of the valley behind us, which got better and better with every step towards Stag Saddle.
Once we reached Stag Saddle, we were blown away by the view of Lake Tekapo and surrounding mountains. Having seen so many photos of hikers posing exclusively in front of the Stage Saddle sign in the past, I hadn’t expected the views to be so good from the saddle itself. Thankfully, the cloud stayed away and we had 360 degree views to die for.
Hearing the wise words of Wayne from Alps2Ocean ringing in our ears, we now had to decide between the low route and the high route. With the weather better than expected and the winds at a manageable level, we threw caution to the wind and went with the high route. What followed was possibly ten of the most spectacular km’s on the entire trail! This was a clear contender for our best single decision on the trail to date. We stopped for lunch along the way, taking in the amazing views. This was a really special part of the trail.
The ridgeline trail felt like it went on forever as our destination for the night, Camp Stream Hut, got closer on our GPS. With a few kms to go, the wind started to pick up and made a hasty retreat off the ridgeline.
Camp Stream Hut seemed to shrink in size as we got closer to it. Initially, it looked to be a decent size, but once we arrived we discovered that it was tiny, with 5 cramped bunks inside. With the wind picking up outside though, we didn’t like our chances of pitching the tent anywhere nearby, so we bunkered down for the night inside the small hut, chatting with some fellow TA hikers who were also staying in the hut and chilling out while the wind bounced off the walls.
Tomorrow we would be heading to Tekapo to resupply and hopefully get a night in a real bed.
Day 113 – Wednesday 6 February, 34km
Camp Stream Hut to Tekapo
We had originally planned to hitch the road section from the trail end through to Tekapo, after being told that it was an easy hitch. One of our fellow hut mates at Camp Stream Hut had organised a shuttle pick up though and was looking to split the cost, so we mulled this over during the morning.
It was a cold and misty old morning. The mist wasn’t too bad when we were in the valley, but once we climbed up the first hill we were completely engulfed. We did however still manage to spot the outline of a wallaby through the mist. Apparently, they were introduced historically in New Zealand for hunting. Go figure.
Eventually a sliver of blue poked through the cloud as Lake Tekapo started to reveal itself through the low hanging cloud.
Despite the mist, the walking was relatively flat and well defined, which allowed for easy walking today. With the shuttle organised to meet some other hikers at the bottom of the trail around 12pm, we made sure that we were on track to make it in time, just in case we decided to join them. As we got closer to the road, we noticed that there was very little traffic. The shuttle suddenly seemed like a master-stroke.
With the shuttle pulling up literally just as we reached the trail end, it was hard to pass up the offer. So we didn’t.
It turned out that the shuttle had been organised with Annie from Bespoke Bikes. Not only was she able to get us into Tekapo from the trail but we were also able to organise bike hire for the following day. Two birds, one stone.
Unfortunately, not everything came to us this easily though. Our arrival into Tekapo coincided with Chinese New Year and an influx of tourists. After coming from the beautiful scenery and stillness of the past few days in the mountains, it was a complete shock to the senses to land in a buzzing tourist hotspot. We couldn’t move on quickly enough.
We were hoping for a bed somewhere in Tekapo but after a quick scan of Google and a few phone calls it became clear that we would be lucky to find anything. In the end, we ended up camping on a small square of grass at the Holiday Park for way too much money. Despite the beautiful scenery surrounding the park, the fact that it was bumper to bumper with RVs, made it feel like a car park.
As we head further south, it seems like this will become the new normal. Walking in tourist towns without a booking hasn’t been an issue until now, but we’ll need to seriously start thinking about putting together a firm timeline for the last few weeks of the hike so that we can at least have a chance at booking some accommodation in advance. After going almost 4 months without booking anything more than one day in advance though, it is going to be a real challenge to adjust!
After reluctantly pitching our tent at the Holiday Park, we headed out to The Tin Plate for a much needed pizza.
Day 114 – Thursday 7 February, 55km
Tekapo to Twizel
After another chilly night we packed up the tent and waited for Annie from Bespoke Bikes to pick us up from the Holiday Park. In the blink of an eye we were kitted out and ready to ride from Tekapo to Twizel.
We were told that the cycling track was easy to follow but we still managed to make a few minor navigational errors before finally joining the track.
It wasn’t long before we were on the notorious canal roads. Notorious because they are long, flat and normally very windy. Only today, there wasn’t much wind at all, so lucky us.
Riding along the canal road, we felt sorry for the tandem bikers who basically had to dismantle their bike everytime they reached a gate to get it through to the other side.
We couldn’t get over how blue the water in the canals looked as we rode along the gravel roads.
Eventually we reached a commercial salmon farm in the middle of the canal. It was funny to see the scores of opportunistic fisherman set up adjacent to the farm, attempting to catch any wayward salmon that managed to escape from the confines of the farm.
We stopped for lunch at the end of the canal road, where we had our first glimpses of the magnificently coloured Lake Pukaki.
Setting off downhill after lunch, I realised about halfway down that I had forgot to do my helmet up again. Not wanting to challenge Murphy’s Law, I pulled over to do it up before taking on the rest of the hill down to the lake.
Once on the shores of Lake Pukaki, we took our time cycling around the edge of the lake, stopping every few minutes to take photos. At first we couldn’t figure out where Mt Cook was, but as the cloud cleared we finally we able to admire the stunning mountain in the distance. We’re hoping to check it out more closely after we reach Bluff and have some time for some more sightseeing.
Again, the swarms of tourists were slightly overwhelming, particularly when they stood in the middle of the cycleway, oblivious to our presence.
After crashing a wedding photoshoot, we cycled away from the shores of Lake Pukaki, headed for Twizel. There was a fun downhill section of trail where we were able to get some speed up before we rode across a field of what I can only assume were unwanted Christmas trees from last year.
We rolled into Twizel not long after lunchtime and headed to the nearest cafe for second lunch, followed by ice cream. Because it’s always a good time for ice cream.
After dropping our bikes off, we swung by Foursquare to resupply for the next few days into Wanaka. Having learnt our lesson from Tekapo, we made sure to book our accommodation in Wanaka a week before our expected arrival date.
Having spent a solid chunk of time on the trail since Christchurch now, we’ll be taking the opportunity to have a short break in Wanaka before continuing on towards Queenstown.