Te Araroa, Days 52-57: Boyle Village to St. Arnaud
Hello from the kitchen of the St. Arnaud Alpine Lodge, where I’m drinking hot cocoa and watching the rain come down in chilly-looking curtains outside. The weather is supposed to be sunny again tomorrow, so I’ve opted to take a couple of days off here and head back out to the trail in the morning. Ah, the delight of watching it rain and not having to get wet!
This past section of the trail, from Boyle Village to St. Arnaud, has been one of my favorites so far. Come to think of it, I don’t think I fully extolled the marvels of the Boyle Village Outdoor Education Center in my last post. The place is set up to accommodate classes of school children on overnight trips, so it’s spacious, has a huge kitchen, and most importantly, has a fleet of at least 30 well-stuffed bean bag chairs in the common area for people to flop down on. Also they have a chest freezer full of pizzas you can buy for $10 each, so I get one pizza for lunch and one for dinner, thereby addressing the troubling Vitamin P deficiency I’ve developed since my last infusion.
There’s internet but no phone service at Boyle, so I have a Zoom call with Scott before I set out. It’s the first time I’ve actually seen him live since I arrived in NZ, and I make silly grotesque faces at him via my phone’s camera. “You look great,” he says. “I’m guessing they don’t have mirrors in the huts over there?” What’s funny is that some of the huts actually DO have mirrors; I imagine they’re put there for comic relief.
From Boyle Village, Harold and I do two 20-mile days in a row to get to the base of Waiau Pass, a mountain route that will take us from the valley we’ve been traversing, up and over into Nelson Lakes National Park. These first two days are delightful walking – mild flat terrain with an easy trail. It feels good to take long strides and watch the valley pass by mile after mile.
Then we get to the base of Waiau Pass, which is something else entirely. Harold goes ahead and I meet up with Debbie (we’d survived that exciting hitch into Methven courtesy of Bulldozer Ben a couple of weeks previously, and trauma has bonded us) to do the climb. The elevation gain is 2400 feet to the top, and it’s STEEP. The ascent has three chapters:
- The Approach (this is steep, but it’s pretty much a trail along a varying grade)
- Stairmaster (imagine climbing up stairs that were built for someone 9′ tall)
- Full Spiderman (put the hiking poles away because you’ll need both your hands to free-climb an exposed rock face with your backpack on)
I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating re. Chapter 3, above, but I’m not – AND I have a picture to prove it, so there! The climb is via an exposed seam of bedrock that runs vertically up the mountain like a weathered arm bone. I keep getting giggling fits for some reason, and I make up a little poem to pass the time as I fight for my life: Hey, wow / Waiau / I’m gonna try to climb you now / But how?
At the top, I feel victorious and exhilarated – I want to shout and wave things around, and it occurs to me that maybe this is why people bring flags to the tops of mountains. Flagless, I do a little dance instead and just flap my arms a bit. I can see all of Nelson Lakes National Park from here – the deep glittering blue of Lake Constance below, and rows of beech-clad peaks marching away north into the afternoon haze.
Then it’s down and up and down again, and I’m at Blue Lake Hut in time for dinner. The hut is pretty full so I decide to pitch my tent instead of sleeping inside. Truly, I also want some time alone to reflect on the climb up Waiau and the sense of surprise and happiness I feel at having been able to achieve it.
Overnight I can hear scratching noises, and when I wake up I discover that a mouse has chewed into my tent near my feet, pooped on everything, and then chewed another hole by my head to get out. Astonishingly, it hasn’t found my food, but I still have a tent with 2 holes and a pile of mouse shit to contend with so it takes a few minutes for me to refocus on the bright side.
It’s too wet out to patch my tent now, so I pack it up and then pull it out at lunch to let it dry in the sun before fixing the holes. The adhesive patches work perfectly and I give myself a little pat on the back for having brought them.
The universe must see me gloating over my preparedness, because later that day the bottoms fall off of both my trekking poles and I need to use Harold’s duct tape on all the joints to make sure they don’t come apart like floppy noodles. Since I need the poles to set up my tent, I hope this fix will be good enough to get me to the next town with a gear shop so I can get them repaired. What’s funny is that the poles lasted just over 600 miles and broke within hours of each other – maybe Black Diamond makes these with a distance-triggered self-destruct mechanism?
Instead of following the official Te Araroa route through Nelson Lakes, Harold and I decide to do an alternate that will take us up TWO extra mountains, Cedric and Angelus. The climb is long and involves about 4500 feet of elevation – the first section, up to the peak of Mt. Cedric, is as though someone has just drawn a straight line up the mountainside with total disregard for both topography and human life. Up on Cedric I climb above the cloud line and watch wispy ghosts of mist blow across the ridge. Then it’s along the tip of a curving ridgeline to Mt. Angelus, the ridge sharp and crenellated like the stone teeth of some ancient predator. I’ve been listening to The Lord of the Rings on audiobook, and I imagine I’m a lost FedEx delivery person with a package for Shelob: “Um, is this Apartment 1B, Cirith Ungol, Morgul Vale, Mordor? Great, can you sign here?”
Then I’m through the Morgul Vale and down to Angelus Hut, where Harold and I have booked bunks for the night. It’s a popular destination for people visiting Nelson Lakes on short hiking trips, so the place is full of people who look way less scruffy than us. We win the Smelliest Guests Award without even trying.
Angelus Hut is beautiful – perched on the edge of a lake in a crater-like bowl at the top of the mountain. At night, the waxing gibbous moon shines ripply fingernails of cold light onto the lake, and the wall of the crater is a darker shadow against a star-flecked sky.
In the morning we’re the last people to leave the hut, and we walk across another stunning ridgeline and then eventually down off the mountain and into St. Arnaud. It’s 6 hours of hiking but it’s all downhill and it feels like a victory lap. We listen to bellbirds calling in the woods, and we know that pizza, beer, and beds are waiting for us at the end of the road.
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