Glade House to Pompolona Lodge: 16km (10 miles).
Mt Sentinel is still snoozing behind cloud as we walk away from Glade House. It’s 8.30am and the air is chilly and damp. Some of our party are wrapped in multiple layers and waterproofs, but I know once I get walking it won’t take me long to warm up and I’d rather shiver a little now than have to stop in half an hour to take off layers.
We cross the Clinton River, whose course we will follow for most of the day, queuing for the swingbridge – maximum ten people – across which we bounce and sway. I’m not a fan of swingbridges – it was years into our Kiwi life before I could even get across one – but today I’m not the one emitting small squeals and alarmed cries; as we reach the far side and climb down steps onto firm ground the woman behind Neil apologises and mutters: ‘I hate those things!’
We will cross this river only once today but there are many more bridges, some across small side streams, some over dry rocky beds, all short and solid, built on high stone foundations to lift them above water that will turn violent and could tear them down. The Clinton switches from deep and slow-moving, the water so clear we can see the riverbed despite the depth, to rough and white as it rushes over rocks, then back again to wide and flat. Smooth sandbanks become pebbled beaches edged with elegant toetoe, remains of trees are marooned on small islands, and banks are torn away where the water has dragged at them – in one such place a tree still grows from its new position a metre or so lower than it had been.
Despite that there are forty-eight in our group, plus other trampers on the track, it never feels like a motorway. People walk at different speeds and there are many opportunities to stop, things to see. We have long periods when we don’t see other walkers and it often feels as though we are the only people on the track. The walking isn’t arduous, no gradient to tell of, but a few rough patches and many tree roots to keep you alert, the odd fallen tree to scramble around. Their torn wood, still fresh and clean, suggests they were taken down by the violent storms that hit the area a year ago and closed the track before a pandemic could. In a couple of places the river has ripped away at the land and the path diverts into the forest, wending around huge trees that have clearly withstood the elements for aeons, their trunks and branches smothered in mosses and lichens, the same hanging fairy-floss that we saw yesterday. One of the guides says: Old Man’s Beard, and I express surprise, only then learning that there are two varieties, this one a harmless lichen that grows on beech trees in sub-alpine regions, not the rampant noxious vine that smothers native plants and would be removed from the National Park.
A small path leads off to the left, onto a boardwalk that protects wetland, multi-hued springy mosses glowing without the sun to wash their colour away, water glinting between them. Another couple of side tracks lead to lakes, one Hidden, dark and uninviting, the other Prairie, clear and tempting, fed by a tiny stream that falls down the cliffside behind it. The water is icy cold against my feet and I decline the invitation to submerge, watching in awe as some plunge into it, emerging with gasps and beaming smiles. Both lakes sit at the base of the cliff-face, a cleared area around each testament to periodic avalanches that cause tsunami ripples and prevent much vegetation from gaining a roothold.
I’d expected the entire day to be in deep bush, only occasional glimpses out through to the light, but we are constantly breaking out into small clearings and walking through large open areas. The path is a grey stripe between the green of grass and fern and, less than I had thought, through darker forest where even there light penetrates between the huge trees. By mid-morning the sky above the granite tops is blue, and as the sun climbs the temperature rises. Lunching at Hirere Falls Hut by the river we don hats against its fierce rays.
Like its river, the valley also changes its face, narrowing between craggy cliffs, widening to expansive views and our first glimpse, just after noon, of Mackinnon Pass, which we will cross tomorrow. Beneath the peaks the lower slopes are green, sometimes with vertical scars like those we saw yesterday – not the result of a mythical beast but evidence of treeslides: the gradient allows no hold for topsoil so anything that grows does so in cracks, trees spreading their roots across the surface of the rock, intertwining with others and forming a carpet that clings precariously to the steep sides. Safety in numbers until one tree loses its grip and takes its neighbours tumbling down with it, leaving bare rock glistening with moisture and a kaleidoscope of colour from minerals and lichens. Other pale streaks mark watercourses, thin threads dribbling down them until rain falls.
The forest is full of birdlife: tiny tomtits flit between trees as we walk by and a robin hops down from a branch to search where our feet have hopefully disturbed insects for him to snack upon. He pecks one of Neil’s shoelaces, finds it unpalatable, then tries to land on his head. At lunch a couple of them stalk a young woman and her ham sandwich. We constantly hear their call as we move between their territories, along with the clear notes of bellbirds and the guttural grunts of tuis. The squawks of kaka are rarer and a kea screeches above us as we near the lodge.
Mid-afternoon we reach a sign: Bus Stop. I laugh; it seems so incongruous. Another sign warns against proceeding further along the path if it is raining heavily and the creek is high, instead stopping at the shelter, albeit not for a bus. Today not a drop of water flows down the wide exposed creek bed, a vague path up it to a sturdy bridge marked by orange-topped poles. We clamber up around huge boulders weathered white by sun and water, speckled green with moss. Heat radiates from the exposed stone, and I’m glad it takes us only ten minutes to cross before we are back in the cool green shade. Ten more minutes and we arrive at Pompolona Lodge, a cluster of wooden buildings climbing up the shady side of the gorge as it narrows into Clinton Canyon. We are shown to our room and warned against leaving boots outside unless we want to lose our laces to a cheeky kea on a stealing spree.
As Neil showers I pull out my journal and write three words: absolutely amazing day.