Thursday, December 5, 2013

The North of The South Island

The Coastal Pacific train travels through vineyards between Kaikoura and Picton.

Watering Cove where I spent my first night on the trail.
Earlier this week I spent three days walking along through the forests and along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park.  It was the perfect respite after 14 months in Antarctica.  Here is a description of the first 15-20 minutes of hiking on my last day on the trail.

Sunset over Nelson Haven of Tasman Bay in Nelson.
The night before I was eager to be up before the sun because I hadn’t seen a sunrise since the sun would come up at noon in McMurdo a few months ago.  However I didn’t feel that eagerness as my alarm went off at 4am.  After hitting the snooze button a few times on my phone and my watch I finally sat up in my damp tent and primed the whisperlite stove in the dark grey, humid morning.  The flames from the stove lit up my little nook in the Awaroa Campground.  I really needed coffee for a little extra motivation.  Even though I only had 5.5 kilometers to hike that day I knew it was going to be a long one because I could already feel my blisters throbbing and I didn’t even have shoes or a pack on yet.

Early morning in the Awaroa Campground.
I thought I was being clever by wearing my lightweight running shoes along the Abel Tasman Coastal trek because it was going to be warm and sunny along this relatively easy track.  While I had run in those shoes a lot over the last few months, I hadn’t carried a heavy pack in them or with any shoes for that matter over the last 11 months.  I don’t know why I though my feet would react well to this. 

The Milky Way isn't as visible in New Zealand as it was during the winter in Antarctica.  
Before I knew it my coffee was gone and my pack was packed.  I knew I’d be walking through some water and mud so I opted for hiking the half-kilometer across the estuary, which is only crossable within a few hours of low tide (that is why I was up so early), in my flip flops. 

The night before I had a my knife, bandage and the only wet antiseptic wipe that was usable from my first aid kit laid out in my tent in the excitement of draining the bloody fluid from my blisters.  Then I remembered that while crossing the estuary my feet would get covered in mud and salt water and I would not fair well with a bandaged foot with even a small hole in the major blister. 

I started across the estuary in my flip flops and pack wincing at every step.  Besides the pain in my feet it was peaceful with no wind and a brightening day.  I was completely surrounded by the sounds of birds also greeting the new day.  I started an hour earlier than most people in the campground because the hiking was going to be slow for me.  I walked on the outside of my feet to avoid putting pressure on the blisters that were nestled in between the ball of my foot and big toe. Yes, a strange place to have them.  Days later my legs are sore in strange places because of walking this way.

An oystercatcher searches for food in the evening in the Awaroa Inlet. 
The sky was slowly turning from grey to pink and I wanted to stop to take photos, but it was too wet to set my pack down and I just wanted to get this crossing over with. At first the going was easy, but I soon got to the muddy section filled with the crabs.

I’m not afraid of spiders unless they surprise me and I have no reason to dislike crabs unless there are thousands of them near my exposed feet.  As I walked they would scuttle in all directions.  Some would scuttle sideways away from me and stand there looking terrified as if saying, “Please don’t hurt me,” and others would run toward my feet and stand there swaying back and forth as if saying, “Come at me bro.”  Others would quickly crawl back into their little holes in the sand.  I knew I was stepping on many of them beneath the sand, but I hoped that they would be able to crawl out after I moved on.  I also didn’t feel too terribly bad about this because of the unease they were causing me—even though I was in their home.  Every once in awhile I would test the “come at me bro” crabs and poke them with my trekking pole.  This would be enough to scare some away and others would get aggressive and attack the end of my pole.  I was never sure which ones were right next to my feet. To my delight the crabs eventually thinned out and I was confronted with the Awaroa river.

It was hardly knee deep and I was wearing shorts so getting my clothes wet wasn’t an issue.  It was also very mellow so I had no worries of falling in.  The cold water felt good on my feet.  The crossing brought back memories of terrifying river crossings with 100 pound packs and mountaineering boots in Patagonia.  Thinking about holding on to four other people and walking sideways across a waist-deep, grey-colored rushing river sounds absurd to me right now.  And, well, it did at the time too.  Besides the ocean, the landscape that I’d traveled through for the last few days reminded me a lot of Patagonia.  

Typical beach along the trail.
I was most of the way across the estuary by this point and felt like I was home free.  No more crabs and no more scary river crossing memories left.  Nope, I was wrong about the crabs.  More crabs! There were less on this side of the river and they seemed less aggressive.  With just about 100 meters left I got to the sticky mud.

If I hadn’t had enough of a harrowing crossing this sealed the deal.  There was a nice thin layer of black mud mixed with sand that made my sandals stick to the ground with each step.  My feet and sandal straps were covered in the same beautiful golden sand that covers the beaches of Abel Tasman National Park.  However, this sand is from granite and the crystalline structure was extra painful as it was ground between my skin and sandal strap as I tried to free my flip-flop with each step forward.  I tried to slow down, but that just prolonged the pain and the grinding of the sand against my skin. 



After twenty long minutes of walking I made it to the rocks on the north side of the estuary where I brushed the sand off my feet and let them dry out before I put on a fresh pair of socks and the same blister-causing shoes I’d worn for the previous two days.  I resisted the urge to grab my camera, while being eaten by sand flies, I watched the bright pink sky turn to daylight.  There was only five more kilometers to go that day.


I'm going to have some fun with this underwater camera housing.
Watering Cove where I spent my first night.
Waiharakeke Bay
This photo almost makes me dizzy.


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