Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Heaphy Track, Day Two: Perry Saddle Hut to Saxon Hut (12.4km)

As the Beatles in a parallel universe might have said, "I've had a hard night's day"... I didn't bring an air mattress or foamie with me, so I spent the night having my hipbones bash into protruding rocks in the stony ground. I made a mental note to be more selective of where I pitch my tent tonight!

At least the weather was somewhat cooperative; after strong winds last night (that shook and rattled my tent), most of the heavy cloud blew through, and we awoke to partly cloudy skies and patches of sunlight. After another group photo we set off promptly at 9:00am; and about five minutes in, I realised I had forgotten my leftover Thai curry chicken in the kitchen of the hut, and turned around to get it. Someone called out, "What'd you forget?" (as they'd been ribbing me all yesterday for forgetting my sunglasses), and  I replied, "I'm not telling because then Sally will tease me!" However, I was able to go get it and catch up with the group in no time.

Perry Saddle in the morning

The Hiking Party, ready to start Day Two!

There was a very spectacular slip on the trail today; so spectacular, in fact, that we had to climb up the steep bank beside the trail and into the woods to get around it. The men were very gracious and climbed through first, removed their packs, and then came back to carry the ladies' across. Not mine, however: I ploughed through on my own accord.

John surveys the extent of the slip

Sally receives a helping hand from Puff

About an hour into today's hike, however, my feet were starting to bother me severely; the blister on my left foot had popped and was being rubbed raw, and new ones were rapidly starting to develop on my left baby toe and right heel. I don't know why my feet are so vulnerable to blisters in these hiking boots which I've had for three years; my best guess is the extra weight of my pack is adding enough pressure to really do a number on my feet. Now I know why overweight people don't want to go hiking! (and yes, I know that was a tactless statement).

The first part of today's hike took us across Perry Saddle and beside Perry Creek through mountain beech forest until we reached an opening on the side of the hill, revealing the tussock plains of Gouland Downs. The landscape reminded me of parts of the Tongariro Crossing, or more whimsically, the land of Gondor or Pelennor Fields. We stopped for our first break just after the end of the forest (amusingly, we later found out, 100m up the track from a picnic table), and I took my left boot off and put a strip of bandage over the popped blister on my left foot.

Gouland Downs

Descending into the Downs, we passed the famous boot tree, where other trampers have tied up old boots; Bevin jokingly tied one of his to the trunk and posed with his sock resting against the tree, saying, "I should just exchange for a new pair!". I felt like doing that myself... but no. I paid too much for these boots!

I love the pink hiking-appropriate footwear
right at the top of the tree...

Bevin scouts out a new pair of boots

Just before we reached the Gouland Downs Hut we passed over the beautiful Cave Brook, with its stunning rock cliffs. I was hot and sweaty and wanted to go swimming, but apparently there was also a swimming hole at Saxon Hut, so I decided to hold out until then. Instead, Gouland Downs Hut became a quasi-lunch stop; it was 11:15am, apparently too early for lunch, but I was hungry so I ate mine anyway. A bold weka came out of the grass and stalked around us, looking hopefully for a few tidbits to be thrown its way (we didn't oblige).

Cave Brook

Gouland Downs Hut

With 5.4km left to hike to Saxon Hut, I hoped my feet would last that long; I wanted dearly to take my boots off at Gouland Downs Hut, but feared if I did I would never get them back on again; my boots felt like they were getting tighter, and I knew my feet were swelling up.

Leaving Gouland Downs Hut, we headed out through a limestone outcropping that has escaped erosion; I knew we were now in cave country, as the landscape reminded me of that surrounding Horne Lake Caves (sunken depressions and limestone outcroppings). Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stop and explore the moss-carpeted floors of the "Enchanted Forest"; I had to settle for Lynn taking a picture of me sitting by a cave mouth that I spotted hidden in the grass off to the side of the track.

The Enchanted Forest

Let's go spelunking!

Leaving the limestone forest behind, we entered into the Northern part of Gouland Downs, and the Department of Conservation Heaphy Track guide warns that although "the tussock country and riverbeds make for good exploring [...], when the mist lowers, the featureless Downs can be confusing and it is easy to become disoriented". We crossed over Shiner Brook, which had our first cable bridge (a.k.a. a suspension bridge). It is only necessary to use the bridge when the brook is in flood, but several of us went over it just for fun. The bridge is very narrow, and feels unsettlingly unstable, with just a chain-link bottom and sides and two guide wires to hang on to. When we came to Big River, I likely should have taken the bridge instead of fording the river; my sense of balance is severely impeded by my heavy pack, my sore feet, and I lent my walking pole to Sally so she could cross ahead of me!

Lynn and I on the Shiner Brook Swing Bridge

Lynn and Mark fording Big River

The last two kilometres or so were mostly uphill, heading up out of the Downs; I was so happy to see the "Hut 1km" sign, but it was the longest 1km of my life, with my feet aching and sending stabbing pains up my legs with every step that I took on the rocky, uneven trail surface. When we reached Saxon Hut the first thing I did was take my boots and socks off, then limped over to the campsites to choose the best spot for my tent. The sites here were raised wooden platforms (I'm not sure why... rocky ground? Drainage problems?), so I had an interesting time devising a jury-rigged system where I attached the provided ropes to the peg holes on my tent to hold it upright.

Hiking out of Gouland Downs

My jury-rigged tent. Note the stategically-placed rocks.

The bulletin board inside the hut mentioned the "Saxon Spa", which could be reached by following the path down to the river. At the end of the note it advised to "bring a friend with you to administer CPR when your heart stops beating", which I took to mean the water was unforgivingly cold (it actually wasn't that bad). When I went exploring I discovered two passable swimming holes; one by two boulders and one near a riverbend, but both with the water possessing an unattractive reddish-brown hue. We jumped in anyway; Sally and I ended up swimming mostly at the river bend spot, and while I was washing my shirt I had her explain to me New Zealand clothing sizes (the shirt was one I bought at an Op Shop down here and says "size 10", but fits more like a "small" back home). She said I would be about a New Zealand size 8 or 6, and was amazed to hear of US "00" sizes, as apparently New Zealand hasn't fallen victim to vanity sizing the way North America has.

Saxon Spa

The late afternoon and early evening was spent relaxing in the hut; I stole the puzzle page of the newspaper away from an increasingly hyper Sally (she had "cabin fever" apparently), and fought with the hard sudoku for about twenty minutes before giving up.

Saxon Hut

Fog rolling in to Saxon Downs

After dinner (leftover Thai curry chicken that I had run back to get and a bagel), I showed my war-ravaged feet to Mary (a nurse), and she bandaged them for me. She and several of the other members of the group were somewhat horrified with what I endured today (Sally says she's going to teach me how to whine earlier so that my feet never get to that state again). I had a huge blood blister underneath the nail-bed of my left baby toe; I ended up ripping the nail off in my tent after swimming this afternoon, releasing a large amount of sticky yellow-red fluid (disgusting, yes, I know, but at least my toe felt a little better). Mary bound things up with antiseptic ointment and bandages as best she could, and Jenny, the guide who was leading a group of trampers across the track and staying in the hut with us donated some of her sport tape: she showed me how before every hiking trip she tapes her heels to prevent blisters before they start. She also told me that the Heaphy Track is notorious for giving people blisters, due to its length and the unforgiving rocky trail. Now my feet, while treated and bandaged, throb painfully; I took a tylenol, and we'll see how they are in the morning.

My battle-scarred feet (the
bandaged toe has no nail)

I'll end this blog entry with a laugh, however; Lynn had been commenting when we left Perry Saddle how her shorts were feeling looser already due to all the exercising, and when we stopped for our first break and Mark (who is not her husband!) was helping her adjust her pack waist-buckle, she looked up at him and said brightly, "Look, Mark, there's room in my pants!" What really sold the line was the enthusiasm evident in her tone of voice... I think that just might become the best quote of the whole trip. :-) Night!


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