5. Otago: Part One - Twizel to Wanaka (Glendhu Bay). 160kms (412kms)
Day 20 - Sunday 14th January
Twizel to Lake Ohau Lodge
38kms, 169m, 2hrs 20 mins (by bike)
It is exactly one month since I left the trail. My time at home had been longer than expected, and while wonderful, I was looking forward to getting back to the trail. I was also wondering how much trail condition I might have lost in the 4 weeks off. The next two tracks through to Wanaka - the East Ahuriri and Breast Hill Tracks are described as ‘a good transitional tramp for moderately experienced trampers looking to go to the next level on Te Araroa’s more remote and demanding sections.’ I guess I was about to find out.
We had always planned that Rich would join me on this section, so together we flew to Christchurch, jumped on a bus to Twizel and met Jill from Lakeland Explorer who was providing our bikes for the initial 40km section to Lake Ohau Lodge (also part of the A2O trail) and pack transfers.
The easy flat trail took us along the Ohau canal to the end of the lake, then around past Ohau Village & Lake Middleton to the lodge. Fire damage is still very evident in the surrounding bush from last year‘s fire. On the way we met other cyclists & Robin (Auckland) walking the whole Te Araroa trail.
We arrived at the lodge in time for a cold beer on the deck complete with a distant view of Aoraki Mt Cook, and races 3 & 4 of the Prada Cup before feasting on the Lodge’s legendary 3-course dinner. We also got the breaking news of a new community outbreak in Auckland and the associated elevated country-wide alert level changes that would take effect from midnight. As we were going to be out of coverage for the next week we wouldn’t get any further update until Hawea.
Day 21 - Monday 15th February
Lake Ohau Lodge to East Ahururi River (camp)
25km, 962m, 8 hrs 21min
We managed to secure the early sitting for breakfast and were fueled up and on the trail by 8:15am. We followed the zig-zagging A2O cycle trail up & across Sawyers Creek before splitting off onto the Freehold Creek Track.
As we climbed through the beech forest, there was a loud crack which sounded like a rifle-shot, but from the continued rumble, I realised it was a rock slide - thankfully on the other side of the valley!
Above the bush line, we encountered the fearsome speargrass! This small spiky native plant thrives at the altitudes of the Otago high-country - it’s outward-growing spikes providing a natural predator-proof environment for lizards, and needle-like leg piercings for hikers!
We continued climbing to about 1,430m before descending slowly across scree slopes and into the East Ahuriri River valley.
We needed to find a camp spot for the night before leaving the Ahuriri Conservation area and had expected to be able to camp near the main river, but had failed to notice the fence line on the map that suddenly now separated us from said river! We kept walking until we found a small side stream that would provide our water supply, and a soft grassy patch for the tent. The clouds to the south were looking rather ominous, and no sooner had we pitched the tent and boiled the water for dinner, the first spots of rain fell. We tucked into the tent, and by dark, it was pouring. We hoped it wouldn't last long as tomorrow morning we had to cross the Ahuriri River.
Day 22 - Tuesday 16th February
East Ahuriri (camp) to Tin Hut
15km, 398m, 4 hrs
It was still drizzling and COLD as we set off in jackets, beanies and gloves towards the Ahuriri River - the largest unbridged river of Te Araroa. The Northbound (NOBO) walkers we’d met yesterday had crossed without incident so we were reasonably confident it would be manageable, unless the overnight rain had changed things too much.
The track to the river was straight and long and a mine-field of rabbit holes. We walked past a neatly planted stand of pine trees to a bluff above the river bank. This gave us a great vantage point from which to identify the best crossing point.
We both had a nervous pee before preparing to cross. Taking on board the lessons from a river safety course, we unbuckled our chest straps, loosened shoulder straps, tucked jackets up under waist belts and linked up in the mutual support hold, with Rich upstream. The river was clear which helped with footing and slowly we inched our way across. The flow was noticeably more as we got about half way across, with the water by now up to my thighs. Slowly and surely we navigated our way through, and with relief, eventually felt the flow lessen as we neared the other side. It had taken full-on concentration & effort and we celebrated with high-5’s and hugs!
It was then a vertical scramble up a cliff on the other bank to the 4WD track. It felt great to have that behind us. Once out of the wind, we stopped for a well-earned coffee and snack. The rest of the day's walking was relatively easy going along a 4WD track until reaching our destination, Tin Hut.
This is a private historic musterers hut on Longslip Station that is made available by the station owners to hikers for a modest fee of $10 per person, on the understanding that it's left clean & tidy, as with any other hut. Complete with a door-less long-drop, it was full of character, but not full of insulation. Only a thin layer of tin & the tongue & groove lining separated us from the elements. The sun had not been seen all day and it was still cold. We sat inside and drank a hot chocolate while our (late) lunch rehydrated.
We heated some water to make the daily wash slightly more bearable & snuggled into our sleeping bags for the afternoon. Just after dinner, the cloud started to break & by the time we headed for bed (8:00pm), the sky was completely clear. Brilliant stars and an icy frost engulfed us. Our sleeping bags proved their worth and -6 deg rating!
Day 23 - Wednesday 17th February
Tin Hut to Top Timaru Hut
14km, 817m, 4hrs 36min
It was a struggle to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags but we had a big day ahead over Martha Saddle so emerged and dressed in every layer we had. It was -3 deg INSIDE the hut! We watched as the sun hit the surrounding mountain tops and slowly descended into the valley.
Just as we crossed the stream from the hut and began our climb, we felt the sun's warmth. Within minutes, we stripped off our jackets & gloves and got out sunhats and sunscreen. It was a steady, long & hot 800m climb to the saddle. I love how the landscape keeps me guessing as to where the track goes as each corner conceals and then reveals the next section of track.
Rich always climbs faster than me and had been stopped for some time enjoying the quiet of the mountains before I caught up with him, just 100m from the top.
We finally crossed over the saddle beneath the shadow of Mt Martha to views of Lake Hawea & Mt Aspiring. It was absolutely stunning!
We siddled a massive scree slope and descended to the head of the Timaru River. A perfect spot for lunch & coffee before the final hour down to the hut.
Top Timaru Hut was built in 2011 so is one of the new-design DOC huts. With its double-glazing, insect screens and north-west facing windows it was a warm & welcoming far cry from Tin Hut. We enjoyed a leisurely afternoon getting through the usual post-hike routine of washing, water-filtering and eating.
Just as we had dressed, we sighted a NOBO hiker waking up the river. Literally, walking IN the river. I had read that the section between Top Timaru Hut and the junction to our next hut is a toss up between a very slow track that sidles & clambers up and around the river before annoyingly dropping you straight back to the river - a pattern that repeats a million times. Or a wet & sometimes 'exciting' walk directly down the river bed. She was pretty casual about her experience walking up the river - 'totally doable, walked all the way...', so we agreed that we'd give it a go tomorrow - and save the elevation effort for the final gut-busting 500m climb we knew was coming - off the river valley & straight up to Stody's Hut.
As we were eating dinner, Lisa (Ohakune) arrived. She had walked all the way from the start of the 4WD track, past Tin Hut & over Martha Saddle. And that on top of about 10kms on a gravel road - a total of about 30kms. At the tender age of 22, with a farming-upbringing, she shrugged it off as just another day on the trail. She is thru-hiking the South Island but I think had wanted to avoid the Ahuriri River so hitched up the other side from Twizel. We had an adopted trail daughter for the next two days :-) As we were all settling in for the night, another set of footsteps revealed Shae, a DOC Asset Inspector, complete with rifle, who was out for a few days in the area checking trail markings and structures. He had shot a deer up on the Melina Ridge which he would retrieve on his way back out tomorrow.
Day 24 - Thursday 18th February
Top Timaru Hut to Stody's Hut
14.5km, 870m, 7 hrs
Despite the sunless valley, we stuck to our plan and started off walking in the river bed. It was the first time I had walked down a river-bed so a good new experience. It was generally reasonably easy-going until the sides started to close in. We went through one narrow gorge section that required some careful rock scrambling, but on the whole, the river-bed was reasonably straight-forward.
We knew there was a waterfall at some point, which we understandably wanted to avoid, and from studying the map, we deduced it was potentially around the 6-7km mark downstream. After about 4kms, we spied the track just above the river so decided to climb up and join the track to warm up our feet for a bit. And of course, no sooner were we up on the track, it led us straight back down to the river! Things carried on like this until lunchtime - which we strategically timed to get the caffeine hit just before the final climb to the hut.
I've been listening to an audio book by Megan Hine called 'Mind of a Survivor'. Megan is the survival expert on Bear Grylls TV shows among many other things, and its a fascinating story. So I pressed play and with this distraction, started to climb. It was the steepest climb I'd ever encountered -- 500m in just over 1km distance. It was incredibly hot, but with one foot after another the metres ticked off and after an hour or so, we were out of the trees, and at the top.
The track then sidled and returned to the bush just before the hut. Apparently the old musterer's hut had been restored to a 'reasonable condition' in 2010. We were searching for the evidence.... perhaps the tarpaulins covering the dirt floor, or the new strip of flashing on the roof? Hmmm...
As we were filling and filtering water a helicopter circled overhead, before landing on the open slopes above the hut, depositing 2 hunters in for the night. Lisa eyed it up - "Do you think they'd take me out on the return flight?" The chopper lifted off before she was able to find out. Basic it might have been, but the hut provided an excellent hot tin roof for drying our washing and good shelter for a much needed night's sleep.
Day 25 - Friday 19th February
Stody's Hut to Hawea
23kms, 900m (1,567m descent), 7hrs 12 mins
Another stunning clear day dawned for a big day ahead to Hawea. We'd decided to make this a long day all the way to Hawea, rather than stopping at Pakituhi Hut, as we knew our packs would be light and there was a cold beer waiting at the end. So we set off at 8am and headed up the 4WD farm track onto the broad ridge of Lake Hawea Station. Access over the station became available when Lake Hawea Station completed tenure review during 2010. The property has been owned by the Rowley family since 1912, and still operates as a working farm. At 1,400m, this route is very high and exposed so we felt blessed to be walking it in such perfect conditions.
The final ascent is to Breast Hill, with the most expansive, vertigo-inducing views over Lake Hawea and Mt Aspiring. There wasn't a breath of wind and we took our time drinking in the moment (and catching up on news & messages thanks to 4G coverage). We were relieved to hear that there had been no further community spread & alert levels had reduced.
Somewhere, somehow, a track leads 1,200m down from here to the road below....
We descended the first part along the fenceline to Pakituhi Hut for lunch. The 'challenging' 5km & 950m descent that followed was estimated to take 3-4 hours. It was sweltering hot and required every ounce of concentration on a very steep & narrow track, which helped focus my mind away from the sheerness of the ridge edge. Slowly but surely, the road came closer and after just under 3 hours we were finally down.
We walked straight across the gravel road, threw off our packs & shoes and walked straight into the lake. It was divine! We still had another 8kms around the lake to get to the Hawea Hotel, so we put on on our wrung-out clothes, and started walking. In some ways this felt like the hardest part of the day. I was pooped and my usual pace on the flat flagging. My feet were swollen & blistered from the heat and pummelling they got on the relentless rocky descent. It became a bit of a slow plod, but it was lovely to watch the myriad of people out enjoying the lake on such a stunning Friday afternoon. We reached the hotel right on 5pm. We'd been on the go for 9 hours. We dumped our packs, ignored the post-walk recovery routine, and went straight to the bar. A couple of TA walkers we'd met on the descent joined us for a well-earned drink, along with Jamie who joined us for dinner as well.
Day 26 - Saturday 20th February
Hawea to Wanaka (well, technically Albertown)
14.3km, 88m, 3hrs 5 mins
After a big breakie at the Hotel we hit the track for the final stretch into Wanaka along the Hawea River Track. I was a tad envious of the e-bikers whizzing along so effortlessly on the flat trail, but a surprise highlight was watching surfers on the Hawea Wave - an occasional phenomenon of the river caused when the water is released from the lake, increasing the river‘s flow over a weir.
After finally reaching Albertown, we made a beeline for Double Black Cafe for lunch. Jamie met us there, and the temptation of a ride the final 6kms into Wanaka was just too much. Our shaded cool cabin at the Holiday Park felt like 5-Star luxury. After cool showers, we wandered into town to watch the Prada Cup, washed down with another well-earned beer (or two).
Day 27 - Tuesday 23rd February
Wanaka to Glendhu Bay
16.7km, 352m, 3hrs 22mins
I have today walked the section from Wanaka through to Glendhu Bay. This gets me to the starting point for the Motatapu Alpine Track, which Jamie and I start on Thursday.