TA Day 118 Lower Princhester Hut to Lower Wairaki Hut, 31 km

I’m awakened by birds peeping in that silver flute tone of theirs, the sky barely light. I am more of a morning person than Tony, though he races outside for wood and builds up another roaring fire.

I really enjoyed sharing the space with him – good conversation and laughter. I take a picture before I go with his ‘sombrero helmet’ made especially for the unforgiving New Zealand sun and I’m on my way.

The air is cool as I head straight uphill. The forest dense with little to see but trees, mostly huge gnarly beeches with Sideshow Bob ferns scattered at their feet. These ferns are tough, like plastic to the touch and snag at my hands, so I put on gloves.

The going does not feel all that easy today. I’m tired and my tachycardia revs up. I take it slow, seeing light and thinking it’s the top, only to be sent along another ridge.

I’m impressed there appears to be some trail maintenance here – the track is obvious and some fallen logs have been sawed into steps. When I finally reach the top, it’s Ratea forest redux in the form of deep mud hidden by ferns. Some spots are so wide, there’s no escape and I’m wet and muddy right from the start of the day.

But I’m descending and my heart beat slows down. I spy beautiful open land ahead and long for views as I approach straw-colored tussock. Ah, yes, this is the place I was warned about. Both Tomaš’s told me it’s a pole-to-pole nightmare of tall grass hiding mud and deep holes, and it’s now in front of me. I wade out into it, no path obvious and the orange poles hiding in this massive field.

First I squish through watery mud, then it’s a slip and slide as I try to use my poles to reveal what’s under the fountain of grass, until – bam! – my left foot goes right into a hole up to my knee. My feet are a muddy mess and I’m moving so slowly.

When the tussock lightens up, it’s walking on top of a bog, sinking in with a splash-sploosh every step. I will never have dry feet today.

As I approach a huge rock outcropping I notice movement ahead. A hiker seems to be hiding from sight, not wanting to be seen. No, he’s simply shorter than the grass. There he is going the wrong way. I wave my poles and he comes closer, happy to be on the ‘trail’ again. Joe of the posh English accent takes my picture and promises me this gets better. In fact, the forest coming up was his favorite day yet.

He heads off as I try to brighten my attitude towards this frightful section, saved briefly by the trail heading into the woods where I can take long, confident strides. Eventually I finish with the nightmare combo of grass and mud – and holes – and head up to a small summit with a trig and spectacular views. The tussock appear absolutely lovely – and harmless – from here. “What mud?” they appear to ask.

I’m close to a hut, where I have some cheese inside away from the sandflies, and decide to give the forest section a go since it was posh Joe’s favorite. But first, it’s a few kilometers through another bog – spongey wet, springing back into shape as I move past.

DOC posts a sign telling me it will take eight hours to walk 16 kilometers. Other trampers claim four, and I take my chances entering the beech forest that supposedly has a hard to navigate trail. I cross the Aparima river on a rickety swing bridge, the sides contained by wire fencing, always a thrill. Once on the opposite bank, the DOC sign bumped the hours down to six. At least it will still be light if I go that slow.

Orange triangles abound, and the trail is well worn and obvious. The only problem with the forest is it’s really long. I go up and down over ridges and across streams digging out ravines. There are no views at all, just endless forest. I take tea bu a stream and marvel at how utterly alone I am – well, except for flies, bees, birds, and the water bubbling next to me.

Massive old growth reaches to the sky, whispering to me in the wind. I tell them that I will miss them when I go, but they have me all afternoon.

This is the hard part about thru-hiking, the ‘green tunnel’ of forest for what seems an eternity. I go up and up and think I must see something up there as it appears light is opening, but it’s just an illusion as I head right back down.

I play games with myself, sing songs, work out issues, anything to just keep moving and push through this. Camping is always possible, but I see nothing flat in this jagged landscape.

Mud is everywhere too, and I finally give up trying to avoid it. The tussock was soul-destroying. This is sort of soul deadening, up and down and up again, feeling like I’m not getting anywhere.

It begins to drizzle very lightly. I debate about putting on my rain gear and decide against for now. Moss grows on everything, creating characters in topiary.

A river clatters to my right and I realize I’ve reached the namesake of the two-bunk hut, Wairaki. A sign at the junction gives me three more k, but it’s through impossible-to-avoid mud, further sucking the life out of me.

I have to cross this river, where I wash it all off, fingers crossed no more before the hut. I also cross my fingers the hut is all mine, or that one bunk remains with a cool person. A pair of sticks are leaning by the door as I come in, seeing two people already tucked in their bags – and big surprise, a four bunk hut. DOC really got a lot wrong on this section which took me just over four hours, not eight, to a four bunk hut, not two.

It’s Russell sleeping in one – and the other, Kiwi Pete. I’m so happy to see Russell again having put all the misunderstandings in the past. Just as I settle in, it begins to pour rain. And Russell tells me tomorrow, it will snow.

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