Thursday, January 6, 2011

Heaphy Track, Day Four: James Mackay Hut to Heaphy Hut (20.5km)

Rain. Rain, rain, rain. Today was the day of rain... I cannot stress this enough. I have never been this wet for so long in my entire life.

Last night, as I fitfully slept on my bunk in the hut (my iPod in my ears to block out the snorers), I dreamt a fire swept through where I worked and lived in New Zealand (obviously fictional) and destroyed everything I owned. I'm not sure why I had this dream; perhaps because it was quite hot in the hut, as I woke up once to unzip my sleeping bag and another time to take off my shirt. (At least the sandflies didn't wake me up; before I went to bed, I stood by the glass pane of the fire exit door and methodically squished every single sandfly crawling on the glass; I figured I may as well lower their numbers from the get-go.) As it was, it was strange to wake up from repeated visions of raging fires to gusts of wind and sheets of rain falling steadily from the sky.

The Heaphy River Mouth, now hidden in clouds.
Perfect weather for hiking, no?

Mark the Ghost dances around Mackay Hut

To add insult to injury, today was our longest day of hiking, as we descended off the mountain toward sea level at the Heaphy River mouth. Our hike started early, at 7:30am; decked out in all our rain gear, we took a quick group photo and then headed on down the path to the track through the mānuka/kāhikatoa bushes, before rapidly entering into the damp, typical west coast temperate rainforest. And emphasis on the rain in rainforest; being in the forest is almost worse than being exposed out amongst the scrub brush, as every gust of wind sends a veritable bucketful of water from the leaves raining down on one's head.

I quickly discovered that nothing I own is waterproof; my coat soaked through, my pack soaked through and started dripping water down onto my lower back, which ran down and soaked my pants and underwear, and the bottoms of my pants quickly wicked up moisture from the ground. Even though they are made of nylon and polyester and dry very quickly, my pants never had the chance to dry, as the rain never let up. My feet didn't fare any better; bandaged under my socks, they quickly became soaked and had me slipping and sliding inside the cloggens, which also absorbed water and resulted in my feet squishing in a muddy puddle of water. The numerous new blisters I have tonight can likely be attributed to my feet being soft from being submerged in a puddle of water all day long.

And I haven't even mentioned the dirt yet! All the rain turned the track into a makeshift river, and I found myself constantly slipping and sliding in the mud (the cloggens had no traction) and being forced to splash through puddles when no alternative ground was available. The ends and backs of my pantlegs were filthy with mud and kicked up gravel, but mercifully, I only fell over once, soiling my knees (I found I couldn't catch myself properly when I started to trip, due to all the extra weight on my back).

Knowing all this, you can probably understand why I didn't take many photos this morning; I was concentrating very hard to keep from falling down and was cold, soaked through, and didn't want to risk damaging my camera by exposing it to so much water. I put it in a plastic bag, as even my normally dry pocket was soaked through... every part of me was wet. At one point I thought I was bleeding on my arm, and then realised it was the dirt leaching out of my watch strap that was turning my arm a reddish-brown colour (yes, I know, this likely means I need to wash my watch strap more often!).

I wish the rain had let up even a little bit, as a few times we passed by a gap in the trees which I assume would normally reveal the Heaphy River below us slowly growing closer; as it was, we had to gauge how far we had descended by listening to the sound of the river get slowly closer. We knew we were about an hour away from Lewis Hut when we reached a section of the track cut out of a coal seam that Ranger Craig had mentioned the night before as a reference point; being a steam junkie, I of course had to risk whipping out my cameral to take a picture of the coal.

The track cut out of a coal seam

We stopped for lunch at Lewis Hut, located at the junction of the Lewis River with the larger Heaphy River (it's named after Charles Lewis, the man who first investigated James Mackay's proposed bridle route to the West Coast in the 1880s). The Lewis Hut had over twelve inches of water in it during the torrential rainfall last week; on the 28th of December, a man wrote in the hut's visitor's book and described how the floodwaters from the river slowly rose to the point where the entire floor of the hut was underwater, and then receded again in a couple of hours. It must have been terrifying, and yet horrifyingly exciting to watch.

Lewis Hut

Inside Lewis Hut; the dirt on the wall marks the level the
floodwaters rose to on December 28th, 2010.

The Heaphy and Lewis Rivers, as seen from Lewis Hut

When we got to the Lewis Hut I peeled off my sodden coat and hung it up to dry (hah!), revealing my soaking wet cotton t-shirt underneath. "Wet t-shirt contest!" I yelled out, only to realise that I'm travelling with a bunch of 50-something adults who likely have little interest or desire to participate in such stupid activities. I put on my blue thermal directly over my wet sports bra, which at least kept my top half warm during lunch. After lunch, as I attempted to put my wet cotton t-shirt back on, a coup organised by Sally insisted I wear Lynn's thermal fleece instead under my coat. I was grateful that they were thinking of me, but a little petulant about it internally because a) I knew the cotton shirt would rapidly warm up to my body termperature, and I woudn't be cold once we started hiking, and b) I knew I would sweat in the thermal once we started moving. I accepted and put it on, however, with a "thank you" and stuffed my wet cotton t-shirt into the side of my sodden backpack.

Puff preparing for an afternoon in the rain

The afternoon began with the first of many necessary swing bridge crosses; the first one over the Lewis River. It was here that we observed Lynn's fear of heights; she was terrified crossing over the undulating metal bridges! Due to weight restrictions we could only cross one at a time; Lynn would close her eyes and feel her way, with her husband Mark urging her on from the riverbank. On the second bridge (this one crossing the Heaphy River) she was unlucky enough to be caught out in the middle of the bridge when a gust of wind caused it to pitch precariously.

You can do it, Lynn!

Posing for the camera before crossing the Heaphy River

Gunner River Swing Bridge

The rain turned from showers to a constant permeating drizzle over the course of the afternoon, which didn't drench us quite as quickly, but still didn't make for very pleasant walking. The beautiful and wet temperate rainforest reminded me of BC, but with decidedly different vegetation, such as the nikau palms, whose trunks bear a circular ring marking each frond the tree has produced, and rata trees, which start life as an epiphyte: they begin as a plant in a host tree and send roots down to the ground, encircling their host and gradually enclosing and killing it while growing in height and girth themselves.

Nikau palm trunk

John's found a semi-dry spot to rest...

...and so has Bevin. The roots hanging down
behind him belong to rata trees.

All along the trail the recent flood damage was evident; we could see places where the undergrowth had been swept away, leaving nothing but sandy soil, and in several places the track was diverted from following directly beside the river as the bank had collapsed into the water, taking trees and the trail with it. There was even a footbridge uprooted from its foundations and pushed 5m downstream! As the roar of the sea grew louder, I wished I had a pedometer so I could estimate how much farther we had to travel before reaching the hut; my feet were aching and I was forcing myself to keep pace with John and Mark, slipping and sliding through the mud and half-running to keep up after every time I slowed down to navigate a particularly precarious patch of ground.

Erosion of the Heaphy River bank caused by flooding

It's a jungle out there!

When we reached the Heaphy Hut at last I immediately took off my shoes and socks, but found limited relief; my feet are completely shot, and I'm worried that I won't be able to complete the track tomorrow without doing them permanent damage. I hobbled down to the beach and washed my socks and the shoes out in the river mouth before returning to the campsite to pick where to pitch my tent.

Heaphy Hut

The Heaphy River Mouth, as seen from Heaphy Hut

The Heaphy Hut campsite area comes complete with a three-walled shelter structure where Mary, Bevin, myself, and a French boy named Johnny set up our base camp; here Mary and Bevin cooked themselves a noodle lunch and then set up their tent. After watching me debate for twenty minutes where to put my own tent (I was worried about the wet ground and the potential for water running downhill to make me even more wet over the course of the night), Mary finally called out in exasperation, "Carolyn, what's your second name?" When I answered, "Taylor", she responded with, "Carolyn Taylor, get your shit together and set up your tent!" Hmm, being bossed around by someone named Mary... it was oddly familiar! (And it turns out her maiden name was Taylor, so before she married Bevin her name was "Mary Taylor"! Freaky...)

Hanging out in the Heaphy Campsite Shelter

My tent pitched with some help from Puff, I went back down for a walk along the river to the beach, and watched the river rush headlong into the ocean's waves, creating some spectacular churning water. The Heaphy River mouth is located at the site of two greenstone (pounamu) trails, and archaeological digs in the area have uncovered evidence of Māori settlements here from as early as the 16th century. A European settlement was even surveyed for the area in the early 20th century, but never built, mainly due to its remote location and poor land accessibility. I would also venture to guess the sandfly population would be enough to deter some settlers; the things are merciless! I managed to squish half a dozen into the pages of my notebook while writing this blog entry.

Sand Dunes at the Heaphy River Mouth

The rain-drenched mountains, as seen from
the Heaphy River Mouth beach

I went for a swim in the river wearing my sports bra and hiking pants; it was cold, but I felt strangely refreshed; I think the cool reddish-brown water did me some good after an entire day of abusing my body. When I got out and put on dry clothes I watched in amusement as Bevin ("Gandalf", wearing his grey thermal and striding along with a big walking stick) proceeded to light a fire in the campsite area's firepit for reasons unknown (it proved useful to Johnny for drying his shoes and socks).

Hidden up somewhere in those clouds is the Mackay Hut!

I ate and cooked my dinner in the hut tonight (freeze-dried honey soy chicken), and John tossed me a couple BC Magazine copies that were floating around the hut; one of them had a feature on Cowichan Bay! I eagerly pawed through both of them, showing everyone pictures of my home province and areas that I had visited. I had to stop after a while, though, as it was making me too homesick. However, I must say, swimming in the river today, surrounded by mist and the lush greenery of the mountains, I felt hat if any place in the world could be my adopted home, New Zealand could make a good substitute for British Columbia.

We will have one more day of hiking tomorrow, and then we will have completed the Heaphy Track... right now I am hoping that my tent bottom allows me to stay dry when I go to sleep (I'm not optimistic), and that my feet manage to carry me through one more day of abuse. I bandaged them up again tonight as best I could, and put some of my clothing and shoes in the hut; hopefully the warmer temperature in there will help them dry out in time for tomorrow's 8am start. Goodnight!


No comments:

Post a Comment