by Hank Leukart
March 14, 2016
Surviving thru-hiking boot camp in New Zealand’s Richmond Range
Backpacking the Richmond Alpine Track, one of the most difficult stretches of on-trail hiking in New Zealand.
A hiker looks out from a ridge above Slaty Hut in New Zealand’s Richmond Range.
AINT ARNAUD, New Zealand — Upon my arrival in Havelock after four days paddling the Marlborough Sounds in my packraft, I rush to The Mussel Pot restaurant, where I eat enough garlic bread and locally-caught mussels for three people, trying to make up for the calorie deficit incurred during my four days of ocean paddling. Afterward, while watching Futurama reruns in the common room of the town’s backpackers’ hostel, I meet a lively, 27-year-old, Danish occupational therapist named Sarah. Her three-week vacation is coming to a close, and she suggests that we spend her last day in New Zealand together, hiking and swimming. Though my body wants only to take a rest day to lie in bed, it seems foolish to turn her offer down. The two of us head out the next day on a short hike, and we spend the afternoon swimming and snacking on the rocky shore of the picturesque Pelorus River. In the evening, we walk to a sparkling glow worm grotto on a mountain high above the town, where Sarah tells me about her favorite adventures traveling around New Zealand and the world, and I recount the most embarrassing stories of my packrafting trip.
In the morning, I begin my first proper day thru-hiking New Zealand’s 3,000-kilometer country-spanning trail, the Te Araroa. The trail from Havelock follows a dirt road through flat farmer’s fields, and maintaining a 5-kilometers-per-hour pace is no problem. The Te Araroa sections of this trip will be easy, I think. On the road, I meet two 25-year-olds, river-raft-guide Sam (who is enamored by my packraft) and camp-counselor Malcolm, both from the American South. I like the pair immediately, partly because I love hiking games, and they tell me about a trail game they play frequently called, “What are the Odds?” in which a challenger sets a dare by saying something like, “What are the odds that you’ll strip off all of your clothes right now and climb up that tree?” (When the challenged sets the odds — e.g. “1 in 6” — both players then pick a random number between 1 and 6, and if the numbers match, the challenged must complete the dare. But, if the challenged decides to set the odds at “1 in 2,” the challenger must do the dare if the numbers do not match.)
Though Sam and Malcolm speed past me within an hour — they’re super fit, having completed 1,800 kilometers on the North Island already — they remind me of how much I love the backpacker community; the kind of people willing to hike thousands of kilometers across a country also tend to be open, honest, humble, and fun-loving. A day later, when I reach the edge of the Mount Richmond Forest Park and the start of the Pelorus River Track, I’m surprised by and dismissive of a sign estimating that hikers will need four hours to reach Captain Creek Hut, which is only eight kilometers away. But, the trail is often riddled with tree roots and traverses unstable ground, occasionally collapsing when I take steps. The sign’s estimate is correct, and I don’t arrive at the hut until 10:30 PM, after hiking for an hour and a half in the dark with only an iPhone flashlight to guide me. (I destroyed my headlamp on the first day of the trip while packrafting the Marlborough Sounds.)
“Who are you?!” asks a voice from the dark with a female German accent, as I set up my tent.
“I’m Hank,” I respond into the darkness. “Wow, that was a tough trail getting here.”
“Ah, a new TA hiker,” she says, chuckling. She turns on her headlamp and reveals herself, a 32-year-old German woman with very short blond hair. “That was an easy trail. Oh, and I’m Jana. But my trail name is Destiny.”
While I make dinner, we talk for a few minutes, and then Jana/Destiny goes back to bed. While I eat, I wonder why she considers the 2-kilometers-per-hour trail an “easy” trail. After all, I’m an experienced wilderness hiker. I’ve finished multi-week trips in Alaska’s Denali, Nepal’s Everest region, Chilean Patagonia, Iceland, British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, and the Grand Canyon (in snowshoes). But, Jana has made me wonder whether I’m fully prepared for New Zealand’s Richmond Range. As I fall asleep, I notice that my Big Agnes air mattress is slowly deflating due to a leak, and, within minutes, I’m sleeping on the ground. It doesn’t bode well.
The next day, as I’m slogging up 800 meters (2,600 feet) toward Rocks Hut on a high peak, on a difficult trail riddled with fallen trees and root obstacles, I start to understand Jana’s warning. Though my trip plan is to hike twice as far as Rocks Hut, after taking 6 hours to complete the 10 kilometers to the hut, I am out of energy. There, I meet up again with Jana, who introduces me to dreadlocked, Canadian Vivyanne (trail name: Maple Leaf) and Lucas, two hikers who met coincidentally on the Te Araroa, discovered that they grew up in the same small town in Canada but had never met each other, and then (in my estimation) fell in love. The power of backpacking’s ability to bring people together always inspires me.
“How many days of food are you carrying?” Jana asks me that evening.
“I started with a ten-day supply and have seven days left,” I say.
“You might not make it with that,” she warns. “You’ve already lost a half day by only getting to Rocks Hut, and if there’s any storm delays, you’ll be in trouble.” She hands me six New Zealand-made OSM (One Square Meal) Bars, which amounts to an entire extra day worth of food. “You’ll need these. You’re about the hike the hardest section of the entire 3,000-kilometer TA.”
Quickly, it becomes pointedly obvious why many consider the Te Araroa to be the most difficult long distance hike in the world. Over the next three days, I hike only 56 kilometers, but climb 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) and descend 2,400 meters. The terrain is brutal, especially for someone who has only just started adjusting to a long distance trail. At Hacket Hut, I meet Luke, a friendly Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who tells me that he is hiking the Te Araroa for the Wounded War Veterans charity. He tells me that he has lost nearly 50 pounds so far. The next morning, on the grueling, seemingly-never-ending, 5-kilometer, 970-meter-gain climb to Starveall Hut, I meet Mike, a friendly, 50-year-old New Zealander who is hiking almost as slowly as I am (though still faster). I barely know him, but we celebrate jubilantly together upon reaching the top. (Jana/Destiny later tells me that she cried while hiking this section when she discovered that the trail continues to climb an additional 300 meters to Slaty Hut after this false summit.) When, after marveling at the astounding mountains views on the ridge along the way, I finally arrive at Slaty, I meet Carsten and Lena, a friendly couple from Germany; and Neil, a Kiwi living in Toronto. Despite my worries, they congratulate me on my stamina.
But, none of the huge climbs so far compare to the total mindfuck that is the next day’s journey from Slaty Hut to Mt. Rintoul Hut, a 14.5-kilometer, ten hour journey. From Slaty, the trail follows an exposed ridge line, without access to water but with stunning views of Mount Starveall, Mount Slaty, Mount Rintoul, and, of course, Mount Richmond. To be honest, I don’t look at my topo maps or trail notes very carefully in the morning, so, when, after climbing 300 meters up a steep slope of boulders and scree and then sidling precariously up a sheer rock face (where a single slip would have sent me tumbling down the valley to my death), I reach a summit, I celebrate with some whooping and collapse, proud of my accomplishment. About 60 seconds later, when I look out at a dizzying view, I see an orange navigational marker in the far distance and realize I’m atop only Little Rintoul. The trail continues on to an imposing, gray peak towering over me: the actual Mount Rintoul.
“They can’t… It doesn’t..” I mutter to myself. “What insane person designed this trail? Oh, shit.”
I have no choice but to continue on, and the trail descends immediately and dangerously, 250 meters down another steep and unstable scree slope. At one point, I see an orange navigational marker teetering on the edge of a steep cliff, and I’m in utter disbelief that it will be possible to reach it without tumbling down the mountain, let alone safely continuing afterward. Nevertheless, after slipping and sliding down part of the scree slope, I see that the trail starts climbing another 350 meters toward Rintoul’s summit. That’s when I realize that I’ve run out of water.
Also, Apple Music on my iPhone (even the offline songs) has stopped working without phone service, leaving me with only — for some unknown reason — the pastoral Dances with Wolves soundtrack. So, parched and exhausted, I turn on the soundtrack to inspire me to push on toward the top, stopping every so often to allow my legs to recover and wishing I had water to drink. But, finally, when I drag myself up the last few meters to the summit, I feel my thirst, exhaustion, and feelings of being totally overwhelmed melt away. The only thing left is Dances with Wolves’s violins and a dizzying view of clouds circling the mountain peaks around me. It’s amazing how quickly pain and turmoil is forgotten when a goal reached.
When, two hours later, I reach Mt. Rintoul Hut after a steep decline, in a grassy field with a view of the sun setting behind mountains in the distance, American Luke, New Zealanders Neil & Mike, and Germans Carsten and Lena greet me enthusiastically, cheering and clapping. I immediately down an entire liter of water.
“We waited for you a bit on the summit but we eventually had to head down,” Luke says. “We were a little worried about you.”
Since they, too, are all super fit after walking the entire North Island, keeping up with them had proved impossible, and I never caught sight of them for the entire day. But it’s still nice to know that people — even partial strangers — are rooting for and caring about me. I fall asleep again that night to the soothing sound of my air mattress deflating under me.
After Mt. Rintoul Hut, I’ve completed the most difficult section of the Richmond Alpine Track, but the trail doesn’t get much easier. After a steep and relentless descent to the Pelorus River, I run into Ron, a seemingly-crazy guy hiking with a Tupperware container around his neck. The only way I can get him to stop talking to me is to inch past him slowly and politely. Soon after, a group of ultra-fit TA hikers in their early 20s, who were originally a half-day behind me due to a resupply stop they planned, pass me. This group includes Jana/Destiny and Vivyanne/Maple Leaf, who I chat with for few minutes while their group eats lunch under the hot afternoon sun next to a huge, shimmering waterfall. It’s warm enough that all the young guys have taken their shirts off as the trail sends us up steep, rust-colored boulder fields and enters the Red Hills, and I feel like I’ve somehow become a misplaced Burberry model in an Abercrombie and Fitch ad.
The Abercrombies quickly pull far ahead, and on my last day in the Richmond Range, I find myself following the picturesque Motueka River Valley, listening again to the only thing I can, the Dances With Wolves soundtrack. The music and the landscape make the journey feel special, and when the trail drops me all the way down to the river bed, I stop on a dry shingle to have lunch, savoring my last few hours in New Zealand’s Richmond Range by myself. It’s clear that I have enough food to finish the trail, but Jana was right: if there had been a single bad weather day, I would have been in trouble.
In the evening, the Abercrombies cheer and clap when I arrive at Red Hills Hut, two hours after them. They’re not patronizing me. They’re genuinely impressed that I’ve managed to finish the trail on their daily schedule, albeit a couple hours late each night. We eat dinner, play cards, and laugh about crazy Ron, who they too had trouble escaping on the trail. I feel sad, knowing that not only will I not only be able to keep pace with these new friends, but that the packrafting aspect of my New Zealand adventure will soon force me to diverge from their route. But, for now, I bask in the unique camraderie of Te Araroa thru-hikers having completed the imposing Richmond Range. Totally depleted but utterly happy that I’ve finished what felt like thru-hiker boot camp, I fall asleep even before my leaky air mattress has completely deflated itself.
Hank admires the view above the clouds from the top of Mount Rintoul in New Zealand’s Richmond Range.
How to Hike New Zealand’s Richmond Range
- OVERVIEW: New Zealand’s Mount Richmond Forest Park offers beautiful scenery along the Pelorus River Track and outstanding views over the Waimea Plains and Inland Kaikoura Mountain Ranges on the challenging Richmond Alpine Track above the bushline.
- LOGISTICS: The Te Araroa is New Zealand’s 3,000 km hiking route stretching from Cape Reinga on New Zealand’s North Island to Bluff on New Zealand’s South Island. It was officially opened on December 3, 2011, and is widely considered the most physically challenging long-distance thru-hike in the world. If you’re hiking the Te Araroa, you’ll hike through the Richmond Range on the South Island. But, if you’re not, you can drive, hitchhike, or take a shuttle bus to the start of the Pelorus Track by taking Nelson-Blenheim Road (State Highway 6), turning onto Maungatapu Road at Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve, and driving 13 km to the road end. Eventually, this track connects to the difficult Richmond Alpine Track. Good luck. It’s also possible to start make this trip shorter by getting a ride to the road end near Hacket Hut, thus eliminating the first three to four days of the trip.
- DANGERS: The Richmond Alpine part of this route is considered the most challenging part of the entire Te Araroa. Only very fit hikers should attempt this trip. Some high and exposed parts of the trail, which is often marked only with orange poles, should only be attempted in good-visibility weather to avoid getting lost or falling from a steep, unforeseen cliff. Bring at least two extra days worth of food in case bad weather or exhaustion forces you to spend extra rest time.
- ROUTE: Here is the route and schedule that I followed:
- DAY 1: Havelock to Pelorus Bridge (22 km, 178 m gain, 6 hours)
- DAY 2: To Captain Creek Hut (24.4 km, 717 m gain, 10 hours)
- DAY 3: To Rocks Hut (10.4 km, 1002 m gain, 5 hours)
- DAY 4: To Hacket Hut (14.5 km, 524 m gain, 6 hours)
- DAY 5: To Slaty Hut (11.8 km, 1,502 m gain, 6.5 hours)
- DAY 6: To Mt Rintoul Hut (13.7 km, 1,240 m gain, 10 hours)
- DAY 7: To Mid Wairoa Hut (15.9 km, 796 m gain, 8.5 hours)
- DAY 8: To Hunters Hut (19.4 km, 1,484 m gain, 9.5 hours)
- DAY 9: To Red Hills Hut (19.1 km, 1,277 m gain, 9 hours)
- DAY 10: To St. Arnaud (17.2 km, 255 m gain, 3.5 hours)
View my route and download the Without Baggage Richmond Range GPS track in GPX or KML format.