We are reading Moby Dick. Every night, we snuggle into our sleeping bags with the iPad and drift off to Ishmael’s world of ships and whales. It’s taking us a while to get through, and we’re still waiting for him to actually get on-board the ship (sheesh, Melville is a wordsmith!), but it’s something we look forward to when the chat dies down and everyone retreats to their bunks.
Anyhow, while we were traipsing through the mud one day, we decided that, like Melville, we could divide the Richmond Ranges into very distinct chapters. Every day seemed to have a theme, something weaving through the kilometres:
Chapter 1: Rain
It took us two days to get to the “official” start of the Richmond Ranges trail. After swimming in the water holes near Pelorus Bridge – a favourite spot of director Peter Jackson – we awoke to heavy rain and the prospect of a wet 10km walk along the road to the trail head.
Fortunately, four kilometres down the road, a New Zealand goose hunter named Steve took pity on us and invited us to squeeze into his ute. He drove us all the way to the beginning of the Pelorus River trail, where we were mostly covered by the canopy of beech trees. It was another three hours of sliding over roots and rocks and down muddy hills before we made it to Captain’s Creek Hut for a quick lunch with fellow TA-ers Max and Malcolm. And four more hours before we hit Middy Hut, our home for the night.
The next day, true to the forecast, we again woke to the sound of rain. Dressing in our still-wet clothes, we began a long ascent up to Rocks Hut, famous for its flushing toilet (luxury!). Trails had become streams and it wasn’t long before we gave up dodging the muddy water and just waded on through. We wandered through tree graveyards and mourned the hundreds of trees that toppled in a massive storm. We splashed over waterfalls and filled our bottles with the freshest drops. And finally, we made it to Browning Hut, just two kilometres from Hackett Hut and the start of the Richmond Ranges.
Chapter 2: Rivers
The Richmond Ranges isn’t just peaks and valleys. Oh no. Before you start the 900-metre climb from Hackett Hut to Starveall Hut, you are faced with a river to cross. Sure, you could just cross it once and be done with it…but there’s no fun in that. Why not cross the same river eight times instead? EIGHT TIMES! And of course, even though summer had returned, after two days of rain, the river was a little faster and deeper than before.
The first crossing was a breeze. We congratulated ourselves on making it across, followed the orange arrow a little way upstream and then looked at each other in dismay as the next orange arrow was back across the river.
So we crossed again. This time, it was a little trickier to find a shallow spot away from the fast flow.
And we crossed again. And again. And again. By our seventh crossing, we had come unstuck. We just couldn’t find a place to cross that wasn’t deep and fast. By this time, Max had caught up with us and after some ummming and ahhhhing, we found somewhere to cross.
With our shoes well and truly saturated, but our spirits exhilarated, we began the long climb to Starveall Hut and then onto Slaty Hut.
Chapter 3. Peaks
As three trampers slumbered high above the clouds, one tramper silently wrapped himself in a jacket and sneaked out of the hut. He climbed a little way above the hut, found a rock to perch on and watched in awe as the sun rose above the cloud-covered bay. It was 5.30am and Mat had swapped coffee for the cold mountain air and a fix of colours, light and cloud waterfalls. This was the day we would summit two peaks: Little Rintoul (1643m) and his big brother, Rintoul (1731m).
Up, up, up we clambered, trusting our poles to heave us over boulders and scree. We watched in envy as the mountain goats leapt and flew from edge to edge. Little Rintoul, with its 360-degree views, was a perfect picnic lunch spot.
Then, we tumbled 200 metres down the steep scree slope between the peaks. Every rock seemed to move beneath us. Solid ground was a distant memory. Nothing could be trusted. At the base, there was no time or space for resting – we switched gears for the second, longer and steeper, ascent. Reaching the top was like landing on the moon and we bounced over rocks and down to Rintoul Hut.
Chapter 4. Falling
Down, down, down we ran to Mid Wairoa Hut. Following the sweet smell of Black Beech trees, and dodging the swarms of wasps around them, we glided through the forest back down to 370 metres. It was hot and sweaty and the sandflies were vicious, so we cooled down in the river for an hour. Ahhhhhhh.
The afternoon was a painfully long five hours following the Wairoa River’s left branch to Top Wairoa Hut. More painful for Mat, who decided to take a surprise shortcut off the side of the track towards to the river. Luckily, his bag and the trees had other plans and he came to an abrupt stop just in time! With renewed concentration, we tramped onwards and upwards, across a waterfall, until eventually, after what seemed like days, a vivid orange hut came into view.
Chapter 5. Scree
Here’s something everyone should try: brushing your teeth on the top of a mountain. That’s how our day began, a smidge below the summit of Mt Ellis (1615m). The rest of the day was spent skiing over scree. Except for the part when Nicki had a meltdown because the scree seemed to come to an abrupt end next to a cliff face. But what happens on the mountain, stays on the mountain right?
Chapter 6. Water
We ended how we began: with road and rain. From Porter’s Creek Hut, our final hut, we descended through the valley between the Red Hills. It was raining once more. But there was more water underfoot than overhead. We followed creeks and crossed over the roaring Motueka River with our thoughts on the warm lunch waiting in St Arnaud.
Finally, Red Hills Hut came into a view – an orange beacon just across the meadow, marking the end of the trail. Except the meadow had turned into a marshland, with fast flowing rivers this way and that, invisible holes and deep mud. With one final push, we swam across the swamp and into the hut. Then it was a 5.5km march down the 4WD track and a hitch into the village for two days of well-earned rest.