Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Heaphy Track, Day Three: Saxon Hut to James Mackay Hut (11.8km)

Last night I stayed up past the sunset on the deck of the Saxon Hut with Lynn and Mark, listening to the birds. We heard ruru, the native New Zealand owl (also called a morepork, because its call sounds like it is saying, "More pork! More pork!"), and the female kiwibird's call! It turns out I had heard them the night before at Perry Saddle when I was lying in my tent, but didn't know what they were. It sounds vaguely like a large cricket chirping. It was too dark to see the kiwi, but it sounded like it was about a hundred feet in front of us out in the grassland. It was a very special experience; even though we didn't actually see the kiwi, very few New Zealanders have seen or heard a kiwi in the wild, so I felt privileged to just hear one. It will be one of the highlights of this hiking trip, I think.

The wind woke me up constantly last night; I kept fearing the gusts were going to blow down my jury-rigged tent. Sleeping on the boards wasn't particularly comfortable, either, but at least it was a uniform surface, and no rocks jabbed into my back.

Seeing as we only (yes, only..) had 11.8km to walk today, we made a later start at 9:30am. I am now walking wearing Lynn's around-the-camp shoes: cloggens, a glorious invention halfway between a clog and a croc; they have been a godsend to my bruised and battered feet. (The ones I'm wearing look just like the first photo of the link, but with the heel strap removed.) They don't constrict my nail-less baby toe, and being open at the back there is nothing to rub against my side and heel blisters. Mary is somewhat skeptical that I could have improved so much, but after the agony of yesterday, accidentally sipping out of the cloggens and emptying them of rocks and gravel every now and then is a marvellous improvement. In our start photo today I am sticking out my cloggen-clad foot and everyone is pointing at it. As for my hiking boots, Sally is being nice and carrying them strapped to her pack today, to lighten my load a little bit.

Hurray for the non-standard footwear!

Crossing Saxon Downs

Heading out of camp across the grassland, we crossed the Saxon River, then Blue Duck Creek; the terrain was a swampy wetland, and as such the track was up on a raised boardwalk. After crossing the wetland we were once again in the forest, as we climbed the ridge that joins Gouland Downs to Mackay Downs, and marks the boundary between Nelson and the West Coast. I loved returning to the forest, as it marked the beginning of our entry into the temperate rainforests of the West Coast, which remind me so much of home. The banks beside the trail were very lush and wet, with beautiful mosses of varying colours and types. With the terrain change also came a change in the track surface: the hard rocks of the the previous two days were replaced with a soft springy dirt and small granules of granite crunching underfoot. Jenny (the guided group's tour guide) was correct when she said the track would be easier on our feet, but lying when she said we wouldn't notice we were going uphill; we definitely did!

Blue Duck Creek

Beautiful multi-coloured moss

At our hourly water/refueling stop we saw a weta crawling on the bank! They are indeed huge, but a brown caramel in colour, not the black that I was expecting. I wasn't creeped out by it at all; I imagine that's because a) my curiosity overrode other emotions and b) the weta can't crawl quickly anyway, so it didn't have the "creepy crawly" aura of big wolf spiders.

The weta, with my hands to provide a scale reference

"I'm ready for my close-up..."

After descending from the ridge we found ourselves once again walking across a boardwalk in the Mackay Downs. We met DOC Ranger Craig on one of the boardwalks, and he explained to us that we were walking on some of the oldest rocks in New Zealand: this area is an eroded ridgeline, buried in silt and now being forced upward by the plate tectonics of the region. Water and wind have eroded the rocks and helped remove the sediment, exposing granite boulders and rock faces that are 450 million years old. At Craig's suggestion we stopped for lunch at "Dino's Rock" (so named for the Flintsone's family pet), and I scrambled up to sit on top of Dino while I ate my bagel and cheese.

Atop Dino's Rock

450 million-year-old granite, and decidedly younger lichen

Bevin surveys the eroded ridgeline

Heading off again, the landscape was dominated by a short, flowering scrub brush called mānuka/kāhikatoa, also known as the "tea tree" because Captain Cook and his crew used its leaves to brew a substitute for tea. About an hour later we arrived at the James Mackay hut (which I pronounce "Mah-Kay" but all the Kiwis pronounce "Mah-Ky" (long "i" sound). It's named after the man who first pushed for a bridle track from Collingwood to the West Coast.

Mānuka/kāhikatoa Flowers

Sally and Mary arrive at Mackay Hut

We can see the ocean from here! The Tasman Sea and Heaphy River mouth can be seen in the west, 15km away and 750m below (we're hiking there tomorrow.... it looks even farther away when I think that).

The Heaphy River Mouth and Tasman Sea in the distance

I get to stay in the hut tonight; my one night out of four where I sleep with a roof over my head. I went in right away and nabbed a top single bunk (the bunks are divided into two rooms: in each room, a large top and bottom bunk each sleeps five in a row, and on the opposite wall are two single bunks, with a total of fourteen bunks per room). So at least I don't have to worry about getting crushed by a roller or stepped on by someone going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but I do have to worry about sandflies and snorers (yahoo). The person sharing the adjoining top bunk is a ten-year-old boy who is hiking the track with his mom and dad and 11-year-old brother, so at least I don't have to worry about some gangly dude kicking me in the middle of the night.

James Mackay Hut

Once again James Mackay Hut has a "foot spa" creek nearby, but while being very pretty, it was also very shallow, and I didn't want to ruin the bandages on my foot by taking a dip (Mary rebandaged them for me tonight anyway, though). Incidentally, our hut has some of the modern conveniences; we have flush toilets (yea!!) and a coal stove for warmth, including a coal storage bunker out in front.

Mackay Spa

The afternoon was spent quietly relaxing; the whole group and I sat around the coal bunker and talked and watched a beetle of some kind drag a HUGE (and thankfully dead) spider up the side of and into the coal bunker, and then I sat and read my book (Dune by Frank Herbert) out in a clearing near the campsites, surrounded by mānuka/kāhikatoa and the occasional annoying sandfly. We also found some Powelliphanta shells; a carnivorous snail, they are hermaphrodites that suck up worms like spaghetti; the largest ones can have shells up to 9cm across!

Coal for the hut's heating stove

Beetle vs. spider. The beetle won, hands down!

Powelliphanta shells, with a matchbox for scale reference

I'm apprehensive for tomorrow; Ranger Craig told me I chose a "good night" to spend in a hut instead of camping, and informed all of us trampers that the weather is turning for the worse; tomorrow will be drizzle and showers, and it would be best to make an early start and head on down the mountain before the track gets too wet and the creeks we have to cross too high. Yea. Cross your fingers for me... night!


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