As soon as we reached the forests of the Richmond Range, Jonathan and I felt like we'd finally found the New Zealand we'd come to see: big, rocky mountains, steep climbs, and epic views. With Colorado as our base for the last few years, this terrain made us feel right at home. By comparison, the whole rest of the trail suddenly felt like a warm up.
With perfect weather and a lot of stoke, we conquered this section in just four and a half days (the DOC-recommended time frame is 8-10). A lot of hikers around us seemed to struggle with the tougher terrain, however. When we arrived our first hut on day 1, they looked at us like we were monsters as we told them that we'd come from Havelock, 30 miles north.
Our second day in the Richmonds spanned one of the most memorable sections of the trail so far. Each heartbeat of the elevation profile brought us higher and higher until finally, right at the end of the day, we crested over a saddle where the view ahead was all jagged mountains and the view behind reached all the way back down to the ocean below. This was both one of the hardest days on trail and one of the most rewarding.
We shared our campsite at Slaty Hut that night with an awesome group of fellow hikers, some new friends and several that we'd caught up to again after our Wellington vacation. We ate dinner with Eran, an Israeli guy who we met way back on 90 mile beach, as well as Lancelot and Benjamin, two French Canadians we had met in Waikanae, Abby, another American, and Matthew, the only ultralight Kiwi on trail (it's a bit of a running joke for us that Kiwis seem to carry as much weight as they possibly can).
One more highlight that I'd be remiss to bypass? One of the huts had a flush toilet! This was obviously a major subject of discussion for thru-hikers and we'd all gone out of our way to visit. That's called #hikertrash luxury... Don't worry, we did not take a photo.
Everything about the Richmond Range was stunning. On day three, we climbed over two peaks, Mt. Rintoul and Little Rintoul, on the sketchiest and steepest trail so far. And on day four, we hiked up the Wairoa River then headed into the wild colors of the Red Hills. I think the photos of these sections probably speak best for themselves.
As will be common for most of the South Island, we passed backcountry huts every five miles or so. Here, the huts were crowded and a couple of nights, we actually opted to sleep in the tent just because the huts were so darn hot. But the huts were wonderful for taking midday breaks, giving us a brief refuge from the ever persistent sand flies, nasty little nibblers who give painful bites that drive you insane with itchiness the next day. They don't seem to bother us while hiking, but if you stop for too long, the swarm is never far behind.
With big miles and big mountains, our hiker hunger in this section reached a whole new level. We hiked into St. Arnaud with our food bags empty and headed straight for hot pies. Lucky for us, we happened to arrive on Sunday afternoon, just in time for the famous all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet at the Alpine Lodge. The lodge set up a hiker table (yea, they see us coming a mile away) and we all got our money's worth before staggering back to the hostel to sleep off the food coma.
From St. Arnaud, we head directly up into Nelson Lakes National Park with two more high elevation passes ahead. Bring on the mountains!