6. Otago: Part Two - Glendhu Bay (Wanaka) to Queenstown (Airport). 71kms (483kms)
Day 28 - Thursday 25th February
Glendhu Bay to Fern Burn Hut
7kms, 550m, 2hrs 25mins
The Motatapu Alpine Track traverses the absolutely stunning ridges and valleys of the Harris Mountain Range and follows much of an historic route that linked the Wanaka and Arrowtown areas . It crosses the Motatapu and Mt Soho stations and ascends a total of 2,780 metres over four peaks (highest point 1275m), along rough tussock-covered areas, long, steep saddles and river crossings. The Te Araroa route was agreed by Mutt and Eileen Lange (aka Shania Twain) as part of their purchase agreement of the Motatapu and Mt Soho Station pastoral leases in 2004. Not only did they agree to the track easement, but also funded construction of two 12-person huts en route, later adding a third. The track opened in 2008. Unsurprisingly, DOC's website describes it as a demanding alpine tramp for experienced parties due to it's physically challenging terrain. With Jamie joining me for this section, we were in for a treat!
The three huts are condensed into the first half of the track where the bulk of the climbing is & the going, slower. Many trampers will knock off two huts in a day, but we decided we'd enjoy a more manageable pace & stay at each hut, giving us two shorter days at the start, then a BIG two-peak day, and our final day covering half the total km's but with less elevation, to finish in Arrowtown. And in hindsight - a good call!
Jamie's friend Zoe dropped us off at the Glendhu Bay trailhead at 2pm. The track meandered alongside the Fern Burn, passing scrubland and grassy flats before climbing into a forest of mountain, silver and red beech. It didn't take long for the natural order of things to establish itself again - that is, my co-walker pulling away on the climbs and me taking up my slow & steady uphill pace at the rear. It was a total repeat of walking with Rich. The apple doesn't fall far from that tree :) Consequently, any photos of me will once again be through the rear-view mirror, while any of Jamie are the road ahead.
Once out of the bush, we climbed & sidled on quite narrow tracks, on to upland tussock country, before reaching the hut in a somewhat quicker time than we expected.
We spied one pair of boots on the verandah - belonging to Simon (Waiheke). He's walking SOBO, and had walked in from Wanaka that day. A while later Hannah arrived (we'd met her on the descent to Hawea last week) along with her local Wanaka friend Jen, who was just in for the night. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon relaxing & chatting in the sun - only slightly marred by the aroma of rotting rodent wafting from beneath the verandah. Simon offered to pitch his tent and leave us ladies to enjoy the hut (what a gentleman!) and despite the quiet night, neither Jamie or I slept particularly well. It may have had something to do with the rather big & bright moon and possum antics outside...
Day 29 - Friday 26th February
Fern Burn Hut to Highland Creek Hut
6km, 678m, 3hrs 5mins
Jamie quickly adapted to the trail routine and we were comfortably on the track by 8:30am. Hannah had left before us and we could see her up ahead as we climbed through the tussock up to Jack Hall's Saddle (1,275m). I had to watch where I put my walking poles with numerous geckos lazing on the track in the morning sun.
We took in the impressive views from the saddle while catching our breath and could see where we would walk tomorrow!
No time to dwell on that as our focus turned to the steep descent down a ridge to a creek, where we stopped for a well-earned coffee.
It was then up and over another two ridges and final descent to Highland Creek Hut - nestled within an impressive high country basin.
As it was still early in the day, we were the only ones there and enjoyed the solitude while we had lunch. Hannah had been and gone - heading on to Rose's hut, and during the afternoon, two NOBO's stopped by for a break before heading on to Fern Burn Hut. With so much time on our hands, it was easy to wonder whether we should have also carried on to Roses Hut, but from the trail notes, while only 10kms distance, the section included two fierce climbs and descents & is expected to take anywhere from 6 to 8hrs. We resolved to settle in and indulge in a restful afternoon. We were later (unfortunately) joined by the Germanic Alex (a snorer from Auckland) and then Andrew - both TA walkers. Needless to say, neither of us got much sleep, again. I did consider moving my mattress out onto the verandah, but it seems this was again reserved for the local possum population during the night.
Day 30 - Saturday 27th February
Highland Creek Hut to Rose's Hut
10.5km, 997m (1153 descent), 6.5hrs
Murphy's law -- Alex was the one who set her alarm for 6am then proceeded to rustle around trying (miserably) to not disturb anyone before leaving at 7am... We quietly hoped (prayed) she would walk all the way to Arrowtown today, or at least Macetown with Andrew, as was her intention. We lay weary in our sleeping bags and finally surfaced at 7:30am. The trail notes describe this section as the 'most demanding section of the track, with two major climbs and descents', and vantage points that offer spectacular views over the Motatapu valley. Our game plan for the day was to complete the first climb and descent, stop for a coffee/lunch break at the creek, before tackling the second climb & descent.
We initially dropped down & crossed Highland Creek, before starting on the first 'memorable' climb - straight up a spur. Jamie immediately took the lead, while I fell in behind. On any other day, a 450m climb is not unusual, but when it climbs in only 2kms, it's quite a different beast. I had to pace myself & took the climb pretty slowly (any slower and I would have been going backwards!), but have to admit to feeling pretty buggered after not much time at all. Despite all the training & km's I have done, I still find the uphills the hardest physical part of hiking. I now feel like this will always be the case, so just have to learn to deal with it. So in a bid to get on top of the negative thoughts now swirling in my head, I deployed the distraction strategy and started a repeat listening of "Mind of a Survivor". Jamie on the other hand, appeared to effortlessly float up the hill, stopping frequently to take photos and make sure I was still in her sights.
As we climbed, we crossed over a fence line on Knuckle Peak's northwest ridge & started to leave behind the somewhat intimidating tightly packed ridges & spurs we had been walking amongst, and head into the more open Motatapu Valley. We could see the 4WD track below (the route for the annual Motatapu MTB event) and views back through to Lake Wanaka. It's being immersed in views & a landscape like this that really does make all the hard yakka totally worthwhile.
We sidled, then descended steeply into the cool of the beech forest where we downed packs and brewed up a coffee. We'd been going for 2.5hrs and as it was early for lunch, we decided to share the lunch I had rehydrated on leaving the hut, and share Jamie's lunch once we got to Rose's Hut. We refilled our water from the creek and feeling food- & caffeine-fuelled, began our second climb. Whether it was the coffee, food, rest or combo of all three, we both felt heaps stronger on the second climb.
Partway down the second descent, the hut came into distant view and we could see where we would meet the 4WD road, and cross over the Motatapu River before walking a short distance up the open valley to the hut.
It was a long & seemingly never-ending descent after 6 hours on the go and our feet enjoyed the coolness of the river as we rested shin-deep for some time, summoning the energy for the final km to the hut.
Jamie had a headache coming on, most likely from not drinking enough so getting to the hut became a priority.
As we approached, we searched for any signs of life at the hut. The door was closed, but we did spot one pair of shoes & a telling pair of pink socks on the steps... Pushing that thought aside and not even bothering to go in & say 'Hi', we collapsed on the verandah with food, fluid & recovery taking centre-stage for the next hour. Right in front of the hut was a perfect flat grassy campsite... I tested the idea with Jamie who was initially reluctant, but we both knew it was our only shot at a much-needed decent night's sleep given Alex was there, so we claimed the spot and pitched the tent.
Voices were heard in the distance and we could see 4 people approaching. We were joined by four fabulous women from Wanaka out for a weekend hiking together. How some positive energy can instantly transform a mood & we enjoyed a lovely remainder of the afternoon chatting together. Dinner was an early affair then Jamie & I quietly retired to the tent. With full disclosure of the snorer, we wished the women a quiet night. And what a quiet night it was! Given we were in the midst of an immense landscape in a tent, there was literally not a sound all night - no wind, no river, no birds - nothing. The exception being a few spots of rain on the tent, the hut door occasionally banging, and of course, more possum antics.
Day 31 - Sunday 28th February
Rose's Hut to Arrowtown
24.5km, 555m, 4hrs 30mins (walking time)
Although forecast, the rain in the night had thankfully come to nothing as we had the Arrow river to deal with today. We set off again at 8:30am for our final climb and hike out to Arrowtown. Alex had again upped early and left by 7am, and the four ladies left just ahead of us at 8:15am.
It took us 1.5hrs to reach Rose's Saddle (1,270m & no photo evidence ’cause my co-star and/or photographer was on a mission) before we descended to the Arrow River.
Once we reached the river there were two options -- a low-water route down the river which is the quickest route to the old gold-mining ghost town of Macetown - population zero. Or if the river is high, there's a sketchy high-water sidle above the river. Thankfully, we were able to take the low-water option and sploshed in and out of the river for the next 5kms to Macetown.
Just as we reached the turnoff to Macetown, there was a group of four 4WD vehicles all camped up with their uber-cool roof-top tents. Jamie’s dream set-up! A woman was panning for gold in the river. We called out to say "Hi" -- so far no luck finding any gold. At this point, a 4WD track runs alongside and through the Arrow River the 15km to Arrowtown. It was our intention to follow this track, rather than tackle the designated TA route over 'Big Hill'. We had done enough big hills!
We stopped for lunch on a quiet bend of the river. I was tired, but Jamie was buggered. While she is super aerobically fit, she's done no hiking since Outward Bound - 7 years ago! We had done big days, and on top of a lack of sleep, it was all catching up. I deliberately took our time over lunch allowing her to eat & rest, even though I knew we still had another 3-4 hours to go. A thought went through my mind....it was Sunday... I said to Jamie - do you think those people camping might have just been in for the weekend? I wonder when they're heading back to Arrowntown...? No response. We slowly packed up and got back on the track for the final stretch. We had only gone a km when Jamie heard the answer to her dreams -- the sound of an engine! We looked behind, and sure enough, the convoy was approaching. Jamie stuck out her thumb. I think it was more likely that she was standing in the middle of the track that meant they couldn't pass, but they did stop, asking initially if we were injured, "No, just had enough of walking. Any chance of a lift?" Well, I've never seen a smile so wide or her move so quickly. Gear was thrust aside, she tossed her bag through the window and leapt inside.
The four vehicles were on a month-long 4WD trip around the lower South Island & were literally loaded to (and above) the roof. There were two women travelling in their separate Jeeps, a Dad & his 4yr old daughter who was leading the convoy, and a family of four. I jumped in with Haike (Detective from Auckland) and Jamie travelled with Cecilia (or Ci Ci, a Dr from Auckland). One of the guys was a Paramedic & the other also in the Police force. That explained their initial interest in our well-being. I think we were in good hands!
We bumped and joggled our way along the track and through the river for the next hour, passing relics, artifacts & fruit trees from the gold-mining by-gone era. I was also surprised by the number of Prospectors still trying their luck in the river.
Before we knew it we were deposited amongst the throngs of tourists in Arrowtown. After thanking them profusely, we made a beeline for the Patagonia IceCream shop & caught up with news, including Auckland going back into Alert Level 3, with the rest of the country Alert Level 2. We checked into our accommodation and after a blissful shower, we wandered back into town for a well-deserved drink at the pub before Jamie headed off with a friend back to Wanaka. It was the most fun & fitting finish to the Motatapu Track I could have wished for.
Day 32 - Monday 1 March
Arrowtown to Queenstown (Airport)
23kms, 302m, 4hrs 50mins
To be honest, I hadn't really given much thought to how far it is from Arrowtown to the airport, and naively thought it would perhaps take me a couple of hours to walk, so it was with some surprise that I realised it was 23kms and could take me 6 hours. But it was part of Te Araroa, so I committed to walk it. With my flight home scheduled at 4pm, I was on the road by 8am, wanting to give myself time for a shower and refuel at the Koru Lounge before my flight. The trail was mostly flat, meandering along the myriad of bike trails through Millbrook Golf Course, alongside Lake Hayes and then the Kawarau & Shotover Rivers.
I arrived at the airport just after 1pm, grabbed out my cleanest (least smelly) clothes & meagre toilet bag before checking in my pack and heading to the Koru lounge. I assumed they'd have towels in the showers, but hadn't appreciated, they don't have showers!! Being now reasonably proficient at basin washing, I made use of the generous space in the accessible toilet, the Antipodes hand & body wash and did my best to freshen up sufficiently so as not to offend my fellow passengers too much. I had two helpings of lunch and slept for the entire flight home.
Otago section completed! :-)