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TA Day 120, Birchwood to Merrivale Hut, 28 km

I wake with the others in the bunk room, a bit groggy and hung over from the drama of the previous evening. Life goes on for this group of hikers and supporters even though they leave me feeling depleted. The weather is supposed to clear today, so I decide to get up, pack up and walk to take advantage of sunny skies while I can.

Helen asks if I’m ready for today and I tell her I too have a caravan full of food and comfort and a support team following me every step the length of New Zealand. Though you – my team – is ‘virtual.’ I feel your spirit and am buoyed by your collective cheering me on. Helen looks a bit dumb struck and so I thank her for her kindness and walk out the door into a morning filled with a pink sky and promise.

The fog is lifting in the valleys. I can see my breath. I’m deeply sad but walking in this fresh air helps; moving my body helps.

I retrace my steps down the drive, through a mini forest before arriving at the main road where the mountain view opens to reveal an entire range covered in snow lit by the morning sun’s glow. It’s breathtaking, all that precipitation that fell on me and making my hike so challenging created this loveliness.

My Kiwi friend Rob tells me not to judge my entire New Zealand experience on this one awfulness. Other Kiwis jump in including Heidi, Irene, Robb, George and Alex saying to rise above this craziness. But there I am, so vulnerable, hungry and tired and it’s hard not to get drawn into the drama and lose sight of what I’m doing.

I know that I love to walk, and that’s what I do right now. It’s brave to walk the entire length of a country, and brave, too, to walk away from negativity.

The supporters van passes me carrying Russell and Pete who don’t want to walk the three kilometers on the road. It’s the most aggressive of the bunch who stops on her return to tell me where the trail begins. It’s a nice gesture and I accept her effort, the marker easier to see from a tramper’s vantage than a driver’s.

The trail heads into sheep fields, an old farmer commenting I’m up early and have a long way to go over these hills. I stride up, a bit nervous for a repeat of yesterday but the mud is manageable, the poo visible and the sheep, as always, ridiculous, like a bosomy woman in tiny high heels.

As I head up and my breathing increases I think of the positives – the wonderful giant shower-head pouring out loads of hot water, the soft pillow, an electric kettle, Southland cheeserolls. Maybe I’m too high maintenance needing support and kindness and to talk things out. I’m not sure if I’m cut out for a long thru-hike being high strung and emotional. But then I wonder if that smug man last night defending the trail could ever do this alone – plan, buy and carry his food; figure out how to get to town when he needed fuel or a good meal or just a rest; do his own laundry; keep himself company. Even Russell has a hiking partner he plans every day with.

The hill is big and like most summits, has false ones that tease me into believing the effort is over. The view is even more magical from the top, all the peaks dusted white making them look higher and more forbidding. I say goodbye to them and enter a pine tree tunnel of extremely easy walking. Even when it breaks away into a single track through beech forest – and I panic recalling the endless hilly forest from two days back – it’s easy walking and blessedly short. It’s no wonder the Kiwis felt so strong and sure of themselves – they have yet to walk one of the TA’s more ‘challenging’ trails of steep eroded slopes, barely-there sidling and epic mud.

I hear the squeeze-toy peep of a fantail as he flies past my face from one branch to another, flirting as he faces away and flips out his tail. I can hardly believe he comes so close and I feel renewed with hope and what’s possible. I may be sad, but I can still feel wonder and joy.

I hit a gravel road and follow it to the next forest. All road’s seem to lead to Scott’s Gap. A red phone booth sits in front of a rambler.

The forest is pine again and I come into the shade for lunch and run into Pete and Russell. I’m surprised how quickly I start to not care about Russell’s childish comment that I don’t have to finish walking if I don’t want to.

He asks if I saw the snow. I answer just as he speaks to me, joking that I didn’t see it. This appears to aggravate him and I realize he’s comfortable dishing it out but obviously not so much when taking it back.

They press on as I enjoy the view of farmland framed by pine. My walk through here is easy and I’m so grateful to the trail for providing me with what feels like a rest day, even as I move forward. I open the hip pocket of my pack and notice a chocolate bar I bought for Ian days ago. He doesn’t eat sweets and so the bar walked with me all these days laying in wait until I needed a treat.

Russell is not a stupid man. He’s actually quite charming and interesting when he wants to be. I heard him make the comment about complaining that the trail wouldn’t change for him, so he might as well stop complaining and get on with it. Very wise indeed, and of course applicable to people too who likely won’t bend to accommodate us, so best to take them as they are.

The trail is easy but lacks much interest before it brings me to a major road. The view of more white capped mountains is splendid and the drivers in Southland are the most generous I have met on the trail, moving over to give me room and returning my wave. One truck even tooted a little tune.

A family set up a cute little container hut with five bunks, an outdoor kitchen and a porch facing chicken coops and the mountains beyond. This is my destination.

Russell has had awful things to say about first arriving trampers taking over a hut so it’s impossible to find space for yourself. And he must have learned how it’s done because he and Pete have taken the only two chairs and claimed the porch as their own.

I set up my bunk and change, then look around for my own chair. There’s s log bench that’s less inviting and forces one to view the men’s backsides, at which point Pete lets out a loud fart.

I make a joke, then head to the farmhouse to see if I too might have a chair. No one is home, so it’s back to the log and the obvious feeling emanating from these two that they don’t want me there.

Friends, I guess I ‘threw the first punch’ so to speak by provoking an angry old man, but their utter rudeness was too much to bear. So when Russell stood up, I stole his chair.

Hoo boy, was he angry! “Get out of my chair or I’ll…” I pushed back a bit saying things like you don’t own it, we should share, why do you get to make the rules. But when he looked at me with such anger and threatened me with – what? Violence, perhaps. I don’t know. I got out of the chair. Pete left his too and went inside at which point Russell told me that everything isn’t always about me, that I am a psycho and he wished he never met me.

Looks like I struck a nerve in the old tramper. I don’t think he enjoyed being criticized for being mean to me, so he solved that by being meaner. I wonder how he’ll spin this in the book he’s writing about his hike for his grandchildren. He ought to hang his head in shame leading a pack of vipers last night in bullying me and then acting like a five-year-old over a chair.

I contacted Richard since I had signal and he said protect yourself and get away. I must admit, I was so drawn into this drama I didn’t want Russell to ‘win’ and had to tell myself to grow up and let this ugly person go from my life.

So I packed up and walked out to the highway where the very first driver picked me up, a lovely Maori tramper named Roger who offered sympathy, calm and healing just by his presence. He drove me to the closest town and waited until I found a room.

The really funny thing about Roger is that when I told him what happened last night he scoffed saying most of his tramping friends have exactly my attitude toward the trail, that it’s a cobbled together mess that doesn’t quite work. He understands why I walked it and appreciates my full experience here, just shaking his head in disbelief at the behavior of Russell and the other trampers.

I’m in a small town similar in so many ways to towns in the American West with a railroad and silos and a sweet main street. It’s not touristy, quiet and I’m safe away from the negativity. I may need to wait out weather, so I’m not entirely sure when I’ll return to finish the walk, but Russell will be ahead of me and gone before I walk to the end – and this most unpleasant chapter of my incredible odyssey will be just one tiny bump in the road that my Kiwi friend Heidi says, “you go around it or straight over it and never look back.”

27 Responses

  1. I am thinking that you are a few days ahead of schedule? So, take a couple of days break and let the dudes get ahead of you. Then when you start again for the finish you can walk alone or maybe you will fall in with a better crowd for the end. You must not let the bullies you encounter get the best of you. You will never change them. Remember that you are better then they are. Concentrate on enjoying your last few days. Block negativity away, remember the good times and look for the sunny days to come!!!

    1. I needed this, John. I am off trail now exactly for the reasons you give. They’re ahead and I can find a way to own my final days – and, I booked passage to NZ’s third island for a bit more walking! 🐥👣🎒

  2. You will never cease to amaze me! I will dig into your blog. I have only seen what passes on the FB feed. I feel your determination to finish. I know you will.

  3. I can’t help thinking that Russel’s issue might be that you make it hard for him to feel good about his own achievement on the TA. If you’re desperate to feel like a hard man who can do amazing things then knowing there’s a woman, not too much younger that you, who’s not only doing as well as you are, she – unlike you – is doing it solo, well, you’d better find a way of diminishing her so you can still feel really good about yourself. It’s a total dick move of course, but for an old-school sexist man with weak ego, dick moves are pretty much all you’ve got.

    1. lol, yup. I just had a really powerful conversation with the TA CEO who said the same thing. Tension is building though and will get worse as the trail becomes more popular. It was hard for me to leave the trail but the best decision I’ve made. I’ll return Thursday when the weather improves! Then four days to Bluff!!!!

      1. Yes, there’s trouble on the way for the TA I think.—paradise-lost I’m guessing the fundamental issue is that fixing the obvious shortcomings of the tracks would be very expensive and NZ taxpayers, who’d presumably be asked to fund the work, would question the rationale of spending so much on an attraction that is only of interest to the lowest-spending of tourists. In an ideal world money wouldn’t be an issue, but in the meantime it makes more economic sense to direct funding towards fancy facilities for the high-spending short stay tourists.

        1. – and some hikers don’t even buy a hut pass. There was a big kerfuffle when trampers left garbage in Crooked Spur’s fireplace – a lot of garbage – and I’ve seen huge groups hiking together which is just bad practice for the pressure it puts on the environment and facilities, not to mention the ‘party’ atmosphere most would rather avoid. I would institute a permitting system and charge a fee as right now it’s only a ‘suggested donation’ which I made but have not met one other hiker who donated. But then how is it enforced?

          1. You raise an excellent question. I have no idea how it could be enforced. Would ‘registering’ TA hikers be possible I wonder? Probably not. The back country payment model is honesty based and I doubt you could have an economically viable system in which rangers check registrations along the way. Something to discuss over a beer sometime though…

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