New Zealand

Part 2: Walking the South Island


2497km (1200km bike, 1300km walk)


35 days


47,000 m


January 2024

Te Araroa

The first steps unencumbered with a bike felt pretty liberating. So much so that it’s now five days later and I’ve only just stopped to breathe. From where I started walking near Nelson it was right up into the mountains and above the tree line, into the Richmond Range, a world of massive scree slopes and angular rock. I managed to traverse the whole range in 2 days, which is supposed to take at least 6, but I just couldn’t stop, keeping going until the last sunlight had faded away and then crawling out of my sleeping bag again before sunrise to start all over again.

Next up was the Nelson Lakes National Park and a beautiful route over a couple of high mountain passes, the jewel in the crown being Waiau pass with views down to Lake Constance. I just managed to get through on the last fine day before the weather went to shit.

The trail I am following on the South Island – the Te Araroa – is satisfyingly rugged, rough going and amazingly varied. There are interminable rivers and streams to ford, landslides to skirt around and boulder fields to pick through. It’s tough going but so rewarding, you never know what’s in store next. I’m running a lot of the downhill sections and it’s here I feel in my element. Pretty much everyone I pass and stop to talk to seems quite baffled and asks what the rush is, or why do I go so far each day. It’s a good question and one I’ve been pondering these last days. Truth is I don’t have an answer, except that I’m a bit mental and it is ridiculously fun.

River Crossings

I knew I could make him smile, there just had to be a way. I was beginning to lose hope, not even my happy-go-lucky demeanour and witty quips could take the stern, solemn look from his face. I’d just walked completely sodden into a mountain hut just before dark and found the intimidatingly stern looking Austrian man sat in there alone.

I was walking the two days up and over Harper Pass – an old Māori trading route – which basically follows a river up one side and another down the other, requiring constant crossings along the way. The problem was that biblical amounts of rain (I later found out a state of emergency was called in many parts of the South Island such was the intensity of the rainfall) were falling and these rivers when flooded were impassible, so one could be easily stuck somewhere up there in the 80km between roads. I was aware of this and had been studying the weather and river flow data, but thought it was worth a try, and if I got stuck in a hut somewhere then so be it. Besides, it beat sitting around in a town for days, waiting for the rivers to go down, which is what every other hiker I knew around here had opted to do for this section.

As soon as I walked in the man stated that I must have come from the previous hut 10km away. When I replied that I had come from the road, 45km down the river he looked at me with scorn and made a ‘humpf’ noise to himself. He told me that I wouldn’t make it any further tomorrow as the rivers were too flooded and that there were 18 people trapped in the next hut over the pass, unable to go in either direction until the river level dropped sufficiently. There was something unnerving in the way he delivered bad news, like he enjoyed doing it. I tried to lighten the mood and break him with my amazing humour, but to no avail. I made it my mission to break the stony face.

I said goodnight to which he replied “I vill see you tomorrow after you get turned back, just like I told you”.
“Or maybe I’ll drown in the river” I replied.
Then it happened. His lips quivered and contorted, and a strange kind of grin spread across his face.

The man was right about a lot of things. The next day I crossed the pass – in torrential driving rain and wind, every stream, gully and inch of soil bursting with water – and I did indeed encounter a large group of people stuck in a hut. When I approached it was like looking at a bunch of castaways – all excitement and brief hope at the sight of someone new. One older couple had been there for 3 days already, unable to continue, and now also unable to backtrack. I had made it this far by leaping off fallen trees over the raging torrent to the other bank in the narrow sections, but understandably that was unrealistic for the group. I said I would press on and agreed to relay any info I had for them regarding the river levels coming up via satellite message. I ran off skipping over the river outside the hut, buzzing with energy and a sense of mission. I made it to the last hut before the road and reported back. It was empty. I then tried for 6 hours to ford the two big tributaries blocking my path to the road 13km away but for all my scouting and aborted attempts, couldn’t make it over. I did get over the first but was unable to ford the second with the level getting over belly height, I turned back before it was too late. I know my limits and wasn’t about to risk my life just for the sake of waiting overnight for the levels to drop further. I returned to the empty hut after dark, cheered to find a previous visitor had left two cans of baked beans behind. Good job the hut was empty.

I finally made it over the two tributaries early the next morning, even then my poles reverberated wildly in the current and was up to my waist, but it was much less powerful than the day before and I steadily made my way to the other side. I briefly celebrated by taking my shirt off and warming up under the suns rays but was quickly eaten alive by sandflies, so made a beeline for the road.

Gone Feral

Starting to reach that point after a good month wandering around in the mountains where the boundaries between you and the environment you are in become blurred. I remember this feeling from countless other trips but it always comes as a satisfying surprise. At this tipping point, where only a few hours in recent memory have been spent indoors or in civilisation, one can feel themselves give in to the mountains and slowly feel the pull and rhythms of the civilised world fade away, and more like the animal we really are. Or to put it less pretentiously, I’ve gone feral.

The rivers and rain clouds are my shower.
If I need to drink I stoop down and plunge my head into a stream and gulp the water down like a wild creature. Once I saw some wide-eyed hikers looking at me with bemusement and concern as they fiddled endlessly with their water filters and hydration packs.

It’s at his point where other senses become more attuned to your surroundings. I noticed this the other day, when I could smell the incredibly potent fragrance of shampoo and toiletries from hundreds of metres away, and some time later met the source of the heady mix in the form of a couple of day hikers, fresh from a hotel. That said, I’m sure they could detect my odour equally as easily too!

At the end of a long day I pulled off my shoes and stared at my legs and feet with a feeling of disassociation. I couldn’t tell what was going on – the ridiculous tan line, heavy soiling, trench foot and blood stains all merging into one to create the Frankenstein image before my eyes. Better not look in a mirror anytime soon, I thought.

I’ve crossed the divide onto the drier eastern side of the South Island, and within a couple of days saw the landscape change from dense, almost subtropical rainforest to arid, barren, tussock strewn high country. It’s a beautiful place, and I feel immensely privileged to be here. Next up, I’m leaving the shores of Lake Wanaka and heading into Mt. Aspiring National Park and make a meandering detour through some more wild country down to Fiordland.

Right, I better brush my teeth. Well, at least I haven’t gone totally feral just yet.

Getting Old

I guess the warning signs had been there for a while. The receding hair, the deepening wrinkles creeping across the face, the heightened levels of cynicism towards the world in general. I must be getting old.

This dawned on me as I lay in a crumpled heap on the floor of a remote backcountry hut longdrop toilet, my face inches away from decades’ worth of hikers faeces and other splatterings of human waste. A week or so before, for no apparent reason, my ankle started giving me some trouble. Nothing new there, just walk on and it’ll be fine in a day or two as usual I thought. Apparently not. Each morning it got worse and high up in the windswept terrain of the southern alps, I had no choice to carry on. Well, actually that isn’t quite true. I did have a chance to stop walking when I knew my ankle was bad already, but I saw a miraculously good break in the weather and I had made it to a part of New Zealand I was most excited about walking through, so I carried on regardless.

I ended up not being able to put any weight on my right leg, but still managed to continue forward progress through a combination of pain killers, pig headedness and using my hiking poles as crutches. Then that morning it gave way completely and I found myself on the toilet floor as dawn broke and the rain hammered down on the tin roof above. Had to chuckle to myself. The days of indestructible youth appear to have disappeared over the horizon (or maybe a better metaphor in this context would be ‘down the shitter’).

Don’t mess with the trolls

Glad I staggered on the final 300km regardless without a functioning ankle though. There’s some incredible scenery up there in the wild hills of southwest NZ. One night I pitched my tarp in the Valley of the Trolls (pics 1&2) and awoke in the middle of the night with a strange feeling like something was coming for me. The air suddenly felt chillier and the wind had dropped to an eerie silence. When I opened my eyes the previously clear sky complete with an incredible display of stars was surrendering to a rapidly advancing battalion of thick cloud travelling up the valley towards me. This sight was so unreal and made my heart skip a beat. It was like a thousand silent horses galloping up the valley toward me, illuminated in the moonlit glacial formed valley. Before I knew it I was immersed and swallowed in the cloud and the wind immediately picked up and swirled around me. I’d learned in Iceland not to mess with trolls. That’ll teach me for camping in their valley.

Final Steps

Another memorable moment came as I ascended up the east side of Cascade Saddle in Mt. Aspiring NP at daybreak (see last video). As I slowly limped up the steep slope and picked my way up through the densely forested slope I was accompanied by the same harsh, loud squawks and screams I had heard sporadically throughout the night next to my camp spot. These squawks increased in frequency and intensity as I packed my tarp up in the dark and could still not discern their source. As I ascended and night turned to day, the squawks followed me up the mountainside, and finally when dawn had truly arrived I was able to make out the source of the ruckus: a kea – New Zealand’s infamous (and the world’s only) alpine parrot. These amazing creatures are believed to be one of the most intelligent and curious bird species in the world, and the fact that their habitat is alpine and high mountain environments makes them all the more fascinating. For hours up through the trees it came with me, and we ended up having a conversation of sorts squawking at each other. It hopped from tree-top to tree-top above me until the trees thinned out and the forested landscape turned to harsh alpine rocks. As I walked on past the last remaining solitary tree the kea held back and squawked at me one final time in farewell. I was sure I could still make out it’s high pitched calls as passed over the ridge summit and observed the tiny specs of trees on the hillside far below.

Weeks later as I lay under my sandfly infested tarp near the shores of Doubtful Sound, the end point of my 2500km journey across NZ I concluded that if I am gonna get old, I’m not gonna give up without a fight.

Part 1: Bikepacking across the North Island