Richmond Alpine Route - Part 2
After a short day to Tarn Hut we were now back in the game and wanted to get first to Mid and then Top Wairoa. The first section was a little bit of up and down and then mainly a long, partly steep descent through the forest to the Mid Wairoa Hut. Our poor battered knees didn't really enjoy that but so far we haven't had any lasting problems.
As usual we couldn't beat the time estimates when descending, we are just like a hundred year old couple slowly walking down the mountain. So we wanted to be faster for section two of the day. Unfortunately the trek really wasn't made for speed.
It went mostly alongside the river, always a few meters above it with lots of steep cliffs and some landslides. We had to walk along on narrow paths, sometimes climbing around on big boulders with narrow footholds, all the while being crippled by the still heavy packs on our backs. At this point we absolutely concluded that the Richmond Ranges are not a place for people who are afraid of heights. At all. You really had to keep your head clear and your mind focused.
I (Sonja) did get tired of that after a while, and when the trail finally moved on into a forest section I was absolutely bummed to see that now we just climbing across huge roots, or better networks of roots with huge holes in between that I kept getting my poles stuck in. I guess I wasn't having a good time. It felt like we were just crawling along the way and we never seemed to get anywhere. It didn't help that the uneven ground made it hard to see a path at all, and we were searching for the next marker all the time, trying to figure out where we had to go. At this point I do want to say that the trails are mostly very well marked, better than I expected.
Towards the end of the trek we had to do quite a few River crossings so we marched along in our crossing shoes. They are pretty comfy to walk in, but sometimes little rocks and other stuff gets in them, which doesn't help at all. Then after the last crossing we stood in front of this huge landslide and looked for the path. Which went of course right up through the slide. We were so happy to finally see a brightly orange toilet up there and then find the also bright orange hut just a few meters afterwards.
What a day!
Later in the evening the dutch guy, who had also stayed at Tarn Hut, stepped in. And he had UNO with him, so we spent the evening playing cards. That was really nice for a change.
When we got started from our bright orange Top Wairoa Hut the day was already overcast. We walked up the mountain side through the strange vegetation of the mineral belt. At first we had a good view of the saddle we came from and the hut growing smaller and smaller. But once we got to the ridgeline we walked into a cloud. It was almost whiteout condition. We could only see the next pole by the time we reached the current one.
We continued along the ridge before descending again through scree into the valley. From there on it was quite a bit of a walk through the bottom of the valley before we had to cross the river and then climb up to Hunters Hut. The hut is a fairly new one that we really liked, but since our plan was to leave the Ranges the next day, we had to continue on to the next hut.
The way to Porters Creek Hut led through more beech forest, and a lot more scree. Climbing up on a ridge through one of the fields we suddenly met a group of four people struggling to walk up through all the loose gravel without poles. We passed them and continued on our way, then realized that that would make a group of seven in a six bunk Hut that night, since Manon, the French girl, was also on her way ahead of us.
We arrived at the hut just shortly after Manon, who was already getting ready to set up her tent because she also knew the others were coming. Since it looked like rain Tim and I decided to share a bunk instead, so we could all have a bed.
The group of four arrived a bit later and were super glad once they made it. They turned out to be botanists in search of plant samples (some special kinds of forget-me-not that only grow in the mineral belt), and two of them were students who had never really hiked before. They were exhausted due to the long day out on the trail, and quite astonished when we explained about our plans to continue on the Te Araroa Trail.
The last stretch of the Richmond Ranges back to St. Arnaud was a long one. But we really wanted to get there, so we got up early and started walking at 6:30.
It was yet another cloudy day and when we descended into the first valley the view was spectacular - fog rose from the river at the bottom and it had some thing magical.
The track of the day had some special surprises for us also - after a small river crossing is suddenly went straight up the flank of a mountain and I guess that's probably not in the definition of hiking anymore. We packed up our poles and just climbed away. Really it was just a few meters but still we were a bit surprised. And started feeling sorry for the poor botany students that would also come this way today.
Later in the day when we got closer to Red Hills Hut, the last Hut on our way out of the Richmond Ranges, we came through a swampy area. All hopes of reaching the end of the ranges with dry feet were useless at this point. It might have looked like a grassy field, but at some points it resembled a river - we were stuck in water and mud ankledeep quite a few times. The absolute highlight was when suddenly my foot sank into a hole up to my knee, and I was a bit scared that I might loose my shoe when trying to pull my foot back out.
We were oh so glad when we finally arrived at the hut and had a dry place to have lunch. But putting on the wet socks and shoes afterwards was really hard. We were not in the mood to continue on, as we had only made half the kilometers that we had to go. And it had started raining again.
The remaining trail followed a mountain bike track over two saddles and then down into the valley. But it stretched forever. The ridges just didn't seem to end, and with our wet feet, the rain and the fog we didn't even really get to enjoy the lovely beech forest we walked through. It looked like something from a fairytale, the skinny beechtrees with the lichen hanging from the branches, and all of it slowly emerging from the fog. But with the hoods of the rainjackets on our heads, and everything dripping it was only half as beautiful.
Later we learned that there was a much shorter way around than the mountainbike trail that we followed but at that moment it was just what we had to do to finally get into town.
When we finally came off the track and arrived the 4wd-road that would lead us to the town we were super happy. We followed that for a few kilometers and then hoped to hitch a ride along the highway to St. Arnaud. Unfortunately we weren't lucky with hitchhiking this time, and we ended up walking the remaining 8km into town. What a long day! It all summed up to a bit more than 30km and we were so glad when we finally got to St. Arnaud and then luckily the Alpine Lodge Backpackers had a room for us.
That evening we went out to the Restaurant of the Alpine Lodge because we felt that we really deserved some real food after the long walk. The burger was absolute delicious and we ended up even treating ourselves with a dessert - Apple Tarts with cinnamon ice cream. We probably spent more on that dinner than on our supplies for the week in the Ranges, but it was absolute worth it.
We loved the Richmond Ranges. It was a challenging section set in beautiful landscapes. We love mountains, and this range is just beautiful. It was great to move on from the Richmond Range to the Red Hills and see yet another aspect of New Zealands Alpine Environments.
The Richmond Ranges are not a section suitable for everyone. We came there mostly untrained physically - but in our view the area is more challenging for the mind than the body anyways. If you are afraid of steep ascents or descents or just of heights in general best don't go there. There are a few dodgy parts where we were glad we had some previous experience in Alpine areas and climbing, because that gave us additional sense of security. An older lady doing the trail at the same time, told us that she was so worn out mentally during the trail to the Top Wairoa Hut that she almost collapsed after one of the dodgy parts of the track.
If your mind is set to do it, most probably should be able to physically do it. Still it takes some effort to haul your own body plus the heavy backpack up and down mountains. Down was generally harder here for us than going up and we don't know how we would have done it without our trekking poles. A big shout out at this point to our poor bodies and our beloved trekking poles! We would recommend them 100% to anyone attempting the Richmond Alpine Route.
On another note: We were exceptionally lucky with the weather and there were a few sections where we can't even imagine how they'd be in bad weather conditions.