A Walker of Rivers
Water — you’d have thought I’d had enough of it. Starting the Te Araroa on September 1st (against the advice of everyone consulted), I sloshed my way through the Herekino and Rataea forests, splashed up the Mangapukahukanu, climbed any number of peaks to admire the fog, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to wade across the mouth of the Okura just north of Auckland. The better part of my first two months on the Te Araroa was in a damp mist if not outright downpour. But as spring gave way to summer, that fog lifted and water took on a new and surprising quality — indescribable beauty. When hiking the Appalachian Trail in the United States, I crossed many rivers — from the white water of the Nantahala in North Carolina to the broad slow tidal waters of the Hudson just above New York City, or the Kennebec in Maine where a paid staffer ferries thru-hikers across in a canoe. The Te Araroa has more than its share of tough river crossings, particularly on the South Island — the Rakaia, Rangitata, and my personal nemesis, the Ahuriri — but along with crossings, the TA also brings opportunities to hike a river’s length, to become a walker of rivers. Each has its own attractions and devotees, but for me, nothing compares to the trek from St. Arnaud along Lake Rotoiti then up the Travers River to its high mountain source.
I woke early at the backpacker hostel in the Nelson Lakes Motel — one of those places cherished by hikers both for its amenities and the information passed between staff and fellow trekkers. Triple Hands Dave, a mountain guide who had also hiked the Appalachian Trail, was already cooking breakfast for his crew. I made coffee while we talked about the differences between the AT and the TA. Little did I know, I was about to start a day’s hike that would bring into stark relief those very differences. I soon packed up and headed out, but not to the trail just yet. One of my Te Araroa resolutions was to never eat food from my pack when there was a restaurant nearby, so I wandered down to the St. Arnaud Cafe for the “big breakfast.” Hiking the Appalachian Trail brought few opportunities for a cafe breakfast. It was almost always an early morning meal of cold poptarts or granola bars before plunging back in the wilderness, so lingering in a cafe was quite the luxury. The morning was cold as I sat at the picnic tables waiting for the cafe to open, using some free wifi to catch up on the news and staving off obligations back in the States. Soon I was tucking into a hearty breakfast followed by ice cream (on both the AT and the TA, thru-hikers can eat as much as they want, a habit hard to break after returning to a more sedentary life). Soon the trail beckoned, and I started the thirty kilometer hike to Upper Travers Hut.
The best beginning of a day, one that limbers up old arthritic joints, is an easy flat walk. Along the shore of Lake Rotoiti, one of the Nelson Lakes that give water a good name, the manicured path at times veers out onto gravel beaches giving a chance to linger and study the water’s color, texture, and the lake bottom which, regardless of depth, always seems just inches from the surface. By the time I got to the top of the lake, my legs felt young and the sun was shining brightly. There was a clear sense of adventure in the air, and the water was in the lake, streams and river, not coming down on me from the sky. The valley opened up as the trail crossed old pastures and followed the winding of the Travers, occasionally crossing by those swinging bridges that still give me pause. Walking those lower parts close to the river, I became increasingly aware of the water’s clarity, marveling at its almost unimaginable color. In the United States before the advent of brown ceramic insulators, rural electrical lines were strung on blue-green glass knobs. Today those knobs are collectibles (they make great paper weights). The one siting on my desk at home echoes the color of the Travers River, but it is a only a feeble echo.
The hike took me from the lake to the headwaters, so the river’s life unfolded across the day, going from the staid maturity at the mouth to the rollicking turbulence of youth (yes, the water really does rollick over rocks). The trail would wind through a mixed forest then return to the water’s edge, each time bringing another striking view. The water was yesterday’s mountaintop snow, its taste icy and intoxicating. I stopped once to look into what must have been a deep pool, though it was difficult to judge the depth of something so transparent. As I stared at the bottom — perfect, round blue-gray stones — a trout caught my eye. Large, brown, at least 20 inches long and initially invisible, the fish was holding steady in the current. I’m not a fisherman though at that moment I wish I were. Instead I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” where Nick Adams, the protagonist, is recovering from the mental anguish of fighting in World War I. He goes fishing in northern Michigan, and early in the narrative leans over a bridge rail to watch big trout in the current. Nick has travelled to this river hoping to find a way to steady himself. Similar to most long-distance hikers, his actions are studied — precise, almost ritualized. Taking care is a way for him to control his situation and dampen down the uncertainty that wartime trauma has brought. Standing there watching that particular trout, I began to better understand Hemingway’s story. The Travers plunges down the mountain to the lake below, waterfall after waterfall. Even slack water is anything but slack. That fish motionless in the pool was swimming fast. Holding steady is hard work.
Although smaller streams had been joining the river all day, toward late afternoon, they came rushing in louder. I could see the mountain looming after passing Hopeless Creek (one of many vaguely ominous place-names along the Te Araroa). In contrast to the valley, the trail became steeper and more hazardous. The surrounding mountains cast dark shadows, and the trail itself made that familiar move — climbing above the stream then striking out level along an edge both narrow and slippery. I walked with care, staring at the path to keep steady, occasionally stopping to see where it led — a narrow chasm cut by slips, slides, and tumbling brooks. Then I saw, dropping straight off a mountain top, a waterfall with fully half of the water making up the Travers river at that point. It was as if someone had just taken up half the river and leaned it against a mountain, then let it fall, that blue-green water rushing vertically for what looked to be hundreds of meters. There are no words.
The day was winding down as I finally made my way to the hut which, to my surprise, had smoke coming from the chimney. Hiking the Te Araroa early in the season had been a solitary experience, so I wasn’t expecting company up near the top of Mt. Travers. With the hut in sight, I decided to cut across a meadow in what seemed a more direct route only to discover the way I had chosen was more water than land, so I managed to soak shoes and socks within yards of my destination. On entering I was met by a party — two Kiwi guides from Picton and four trekkers from Australia. They had crossed the lake by boat and spent the previous night at John Tait Hut, clearly hiking a more civilized pace than I was, something evident by their buoyant good humor. Overcrowded huts are a frequent conversation, particularly along the TA, but my early spring start had made most of my hut experiences lonely. I well remember two nights and one very long day at Waiopehu in the Tararuas where I found myself wet, cold, and alone staring at windows made opaque by driving rain, wondering what was out there. The morning it cleared brought a clear view of Levin, the town I had hiked out of two days earlier, looking entirely too close for all my hiking efforts. The Waiopehu and Upper Travers huts are fairly new, spacious, clean and inviting with the Upper Travers made even more so by the fire in the wood stove and a group of enthusiastic hikers. I hung my wet clothes by the fire and instead of a solitary evening, I was treated with extra food, some wine, and lively conversation.
The next morning, I woke to the expedition leader rekindling the fire, and soon the rest were rustling about. I packed, made breakfast with steaming coffee and even had a second cup, but that day my goal was Waiau Forks which required a climb over Travers Saddle and then, later in the afternoon, Waiau Pass. I said my farewells and walked out into one of those days where the very air is like glass, imparting a sheen on everything within sight. The path soon climbed above the bush. and spread out below was the entire river valley. Even though I couldn’t, it seemed as if I could see. all the way back to Lake Rotitiri, so for a moment it felt as though I was looking at an illustration in a topography book, one that explained the parts of a river valley, and I had the view from the top. All around were peaks, jagged rocks, some softened by the remaining snow — the snow that melted and fed the Travers. I lingered for a while at that point where the river began, then turned to start the long descent to the Sabine Valley, heading off for another day of walking rivers.