Kat Young tackles the Richmond Ranges
A SWOLLEN WATERFALL poured out of a gorge across the path. I paused. A slip trying to cross it would send me into the raging Pelorus River a few metres below.
I walked up the bank to see if there was an easier crossing, but eventually returned to the path. I poked the water with my poles to gauge the depth, then tentatively waded in. My first leg went in up to my knee and I immediately felt the force and breath-taking cold of the water. My next step went up to mid-thigh. Slowly, I edged across.
Finally, I pulled myself up the bank, heart pounding. If this was what the rest of the trail was like, I would need to rethink my schedule!
THE UNBEATEN TRACK
It was my first day in the Richmond Ranges, the longest stretch on the Te Araroa (‘The Long Pathway’ in Maori) trail between resupply points and civilisation. My backpack was filled with nine days’ worth of food – the heaviest it would be during this whole three-month walk, and I knew the Richmonds contained a number of large river crossings. I looked ahead with no small amount of trepidation.
Then there was the trail itself. The ‘path’ for the Te Araroa through the Richmonds was a narrow, muddy semi-route, crisscrossed with tree roots; every foot placement required concentration. Entering these mountains felt l like a step into the wild.
The next morning we (I walked intermittently with Liv and her friend Ali) got into the mountains proper, with views emerging through areas of storm-felled trees as we climbed a peak. It made for slow progress, clambering over metre-wide tree trunks with a big backpack. My rucksack was heavy with food but at least water was in plentiful supply on Te Araroa. Some walkers didn’t bother filtering from the rivers; one Kiwi even got offended when I said I had been.
The descent on the other side of the peak was as direct as the climb, and I scooched the last part on my backside down to Browning Hut. New Zealand’s backcountry hut network is excellent but was not built for the rising popularity of the Te Araroa Trail. Almost every hut I stayed at in the Richmonds was full, with people sleeping on the floor or camping nearby.
FEELING THE HEAT
My first major river crossing came soon after, but thankfully the waters had returned to clarity and I could place my feet confidently. The water came up to my knees and I made my way steadily across. The trail weaved back and forth across the river several more times. Some days had over 20 crossings; a day of dry feet was a rare treat.
The next morning I walked above the clouds on a gorgeous ridge from Slaty Hut. I couldn’t stop grinning to myself at the simple joy of putting one foot in front of the other in the mountains while carrying everything I needed on my back.
Later that day, in searing heat and dazzling sunshine, I started feeling queasy climbing Little Rintoul. It was the first taste of the heat exhaustion that would dog me throughout the Richmonds. I trudged slowly upwards whilst the nagging doubts over my ability to walk New Zealand got louder in my head, but Ali and Liv – friends who I made on the trail and intermittently walked with – caught up with me and the company boosted my spirits.
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