Te Araroa, Days 5 – 7: Colac Bay to Birchwood Station
Hello and greetings from the trail! It’s been over a week since my last post, and so much has happened that I’m actually going to give you an in-town special deal and do TWO posts today while I’m luxuriating at the free computer station at the Te Anau public library. (Again – libraries! Clutch!!) So if I’m not mistaken, last time I wrote it was from the holiday park in Colac Bay, where I had the fun experience of soaping up in the shower and then discovering that the generator running the water pump had given out. I clambered out of the stall as a bedraggled sud-monster and had to rinse myself off using the water I had left in my Platypus water bladder. Still cleaner than when I had started, so on balance everything worked out just fine.
Colac Bay was also where my own little trail family started to come together: Rob and Ellyse, a couple from Sydney, Australia, and Harold, from Utah. The four of us hit it off and have been walking together ever since. Much of my hiking in the past has been solo, so it’s been delightful and so much fun to have a group of new friends to walk with.
After leaving Colac Bay, we entered the Longwood Forest, our first real stretch of backcountry and the part of the trail where holiday parks and hostels give way to the system of huts operated by the Department of Conservation. We walked a little over 9 miles and arrived at St. Martin’s hut, a tiny structure straddling the boundary between dwelling and woodshed. I opted to set my tent up outside the hut rather than sleep “in” (debatable categorization there when it came to indoors vs. outdoors), and had a restful night in my own private little room. We met a southbound hiker named Matt, whom we mercilessly interrogated for details about the trail conditions ahead of us – he took it with good grace and warned us that we were about to encounter our first helping of the legendary New Zealand Mud.
We set out early the next morning with a 17-mile day ahead of us through the beautiful and otherworldly Longwood Forest, realm of southern beeches with their arms robed in moss. Emerged onto a high boggy moor, billows of fog all around us. The ground gives way underfoot – Harold says, “It’s like walking on a sponge!” Rob says, “It’s like we’re IN the clouds.” The mud is as advertised. There’s no way around it, you have to go through. Sink in to your knees, pull yourself out with your poles. And then later the rain comes! The last couple of hours down from the mountains are on a logging road past timber harvest and then along a farm lane. We sop our way up to Merriview Hut in the diagonal rain. There’s a barn swallow nest in the outhouse – everyone seems satisfied with the arrangement, chicks huddled down in the nest to keep warm in the wet wind. A hot dinner of mac and cheese, then I have extra hot chocolate to share with the gang and we’re all warmed up again and cozy. I sleep like a stone at the bottom of the ocean.
The next morning, after a solid night of sleep at Merriview, Harold and I set out early with Rob and Ellyse planning to meet us at the day’s destination, Birchwood Station, 15.6 miles ahead. Across a timber clearcut, past a eucalyptus plantation, into and out of the Morrow Forest and then sheep pastures on outrageously steep hillsides – we pick our way down using our poles as brakes. Down to the valley and Birchwood Station, a hut run by a farm family and a shambolic oasis – busted easy chairs on the front porch spilling their polyester guts onto the decking. Harold sits through a couch. We meet Aaron, a Scotsman nursing a twisted ankle. It’s so easy to get injured out here – uneven terrain, heavy packs, and exhaustion stacking the odds. Aaron’s ankle seems like it’ll get better in a few days, but his disappointment is palpable through his cheer.
The town of Nightcaps, about 10 miles away from Birchwood Station, has a bar, the Takitimu Tavern, which operates a courtesy shuttle for scruffy hikers and local drinkers. I text them from the hut and a little while later a woman drives down the farm lane in a white minivan and picks us up for a stop at the local convenience store and a trip to the pub. “Sweet Home Alabama” blasts on the stereo as we whip across the countryside in the van. In the convenience store I am ravenous and spellbound by options – my impulse buy is a huge shiny red bell pepper which I’ll have to eat for lunch the next day to save it from getting crushed in my pack. Next we’re off to the pub, where I order an entire veggie pizza, steal an outlet to recharge my phone, and collapse into the banquette. The musical entertainment is superlative. A Maori gent in a Hawaiian shirt and a porkpie hat with a karaoke setup, crooning along to the greats – Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, Elvis. The rest of the bar sings along, which gets better and better as people get drunker and drunker. The shuttle driver says, “I’m gonna take all those lot home later on.” She delivers us back to Birchwood Station first, and I’m asleep in ten minutes.
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