I woke up sometime in the middle of the night to the sound of rain hammering against the tent. I wasn’t sure what time it was, but it was still dark so I knew it wasn’t time to get up yet. I rolled over and went back to sleep, hoping that when I woke next it would have stopped raining. It didn’t stop raining, but something pretty amazing happened anyway: I slept longer than Alana! Maybe I’m getting the hang of this sleeping in the tent thing. I don’t know how it happened, but I rolled over, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, to see Alana already up and struggling through breakfast.
It was still raining pretty hard and we had no idea when it would stop. We didn’t want to wait around too long since we had a very long day ahead of us. We thought it might be a good idea to try to take down the tent underneath the rain fly. It worked for a couple of seconds, but then everything just collapsed and we just rolled everything up as fast as we could and stuffed it into our packs. It was all pretty wet and we no longer had anything to stay dry under. Now that we were out in the rain there was no sense in delaying any more so we set off down the trail.
The first section of trail was three to four hours of steep switchbacks leading up to the first hut. The path was muddy and spotted with puddles and streams running down towards us. It was a level of miserable we haven’t experienced since the Tongariro crossing. Everything was wet. Okay, not everything. We had our pack covers on so everything in our packs (minus the tent) was still dry. But our pants and jackets were soaked. My jacket was waterproof, but I had gotten so sweaty from the steep trail that it felt the same inside and out. By the time we got to the hut the water had soaked though my shoes and pants and my socks and underwear were nice and damp as well. Next Christmas I’m asking for waterproof pants.
We couldn’t see much, even after we cleared the tree line. We were trudging along through the mist when suddenly the first hut appeared not fifty feet in front of us. The clouds had been so thick that we hadn’t been able to see it until a strong gust of wind cleared some of the clouds away. Alana got a bit spooked by the sudden appearance. I have to admit it did have a bit of a haunted house feel, just materializing out of the gloom like that.
Fortunately the hut wasn’t haunted and the friendly hut warden let us come in and dry off a bit (or at least try to). The drying wasn’t going all that well, in fact we were beginning to shiver, so we didn’t stick around very long. We could see some patches of blue sky starting to show up, and we wanted to make sure we got to the second campsite with enough daylight left to dry the tent. We stepped outside to find the rain had stopped and there was more blue sky showing through. It was a Christmas miracle!
The next section of trail was more brutal, steep uphill track, but at least it wasn’t raining anymore. The clouds continued to clear and before long the sun was shining and our clothes were starting to dry. We were walking along enjoying the scenery when another big cloud rolled up in front of us. Suddenly we were right in the middle, unable to see more than fifty feet in any direction, the drying of our clothes momentarily suspended.
It wasn’t raining like earlier, but it’s hard to walk though a cloud without picking up some moisture. Unfortunately, the weather in this part of New Zealand can change quickly and frequently, but fortunately, the weather in this part of New Zealand can change quickly and frequently. It wasn’t long before we made it through this next cloud and everything was sunny and warm, and on its way to being dry again.
There were two emergency shelters on the highest portion of the trail. The trail wound the sides of the mountains, working it’s way up towards the top. If I had a dollar for every switchback we came across… I’m not really sure how many dollars I would have. There were so many of the darn things that I lost count early on. Needless to say, our legs and lungs were crying the whole way.
We were almost at the first shelter when we had our first kea encounter. Kea are the world’s only species of alpine parrot. They are very intelligent. I heard a kea screech as it flew directly overhead. Then I heard another shriek and turned around to see the kea flying over Alana (not sure who it was that shrieked). This kea swooped down over top of us and landed right in front of us on the trail. It started hopping forward right at us. We were a bit nervous as kea are known to take human possessions that are left out. I wouldn’t expect a kea to approach us so boldly, unless it had gotten used to getting food from humans.
PSA: Don’t feed the kea! They are endangered and human food is bad for them!
We got some good pictures, and as we started walking forward it flew off. It followed us a good portion of the way to the first shelter. After the first shelter there was more torturous uphill on the way to the second shelter. The trail followed along a series of ridges, going from one peak to the next, higher and higher. There was usually a tease of a downhill section after each peak, but it wasn’t long before the trail would angle upwards again. Looking into the distance we could see the trail, a faint brown line amidst the grass and rock, continuing on into the distance. It wasn’t exactly encouraging, seeing so clearly how far we still had to go.
Fortunately there was no shortage of majestic views of the surrounding mountains, lakes, and clouds to keep our spirits up while we were going. I’m having a really hard time right now narrowing down the pictures to use for this post. Every time we rounded a turn or crested a hill we were greeted with a new sweeping vista before us.
As we crested the highest hill and were in sight of the second shelter, another kea was sitting on the side of the trail. We got a few more pictures as we walked past. Not long after the kea took off and flew ahead of us to land on the roof of the shelter. The shelter had a drop toilet with a nice view. I say this because it was situated right on the side of the mountain with some great scenery behind it, and also because there was no door. Oh well, I figured. I’m a guy and I’ll be facing into the toilet so no one will see anything.
I walked into the toilet and unzipped my fly when I heard a screech and the sound of claws on the roof. I looked back over my shoulder to see an upside down kea head poking down from the roof above the door. We shared a moment of awkward eye contact. I said “Hey man, no looking!” and the head disappeared. Talk about feeling pee shy! I was suddenly struck with the fear that it might mistake my member for a worm or something, so I finished my business in a hurry while the claws clattered on the roof. When I finished up the head was back looking in from the roof. I shooed it away as I walked out of the toilet, grateful that I had survived the incident unscathed.
After the second shelter it was all downhill until we got to the second campsite. Like earlier in the day, we could look down and see the trail winding interminably into the distance. It was a nice break from the uphill before, but it still dragged on a lot longer than we were expecting. It took us a full ten hours from start to finish. Normally we tend to finish faster than the posted times on the trail, but today we were on the slow end.
Thanks to the long daylight hours, we still had time to set up the tent and let everything dry off in the sun. We were both pretty tired, so we got started on dinner right away. We didn’t hang around long afterwards. Lying in the tent we could hear light pattering on the outside of the tent. It wasn’t rain though. It was the sound of sandflies hitting the sides of the tent. As I was writing this in my journal it started raining again (heavier pattering). Fortunately, even if the weather didn’t hold up, it would be an easier day tomorrow.