The wind followed us as we climbed up from the dusty Rangitata valley. The riverwalk was beautiful, though, running through a deep gorge with beech and pine forests lining the edges. As we climbed up the steep, steep ridgeline toward the first hut, the gusts were so strong that we had to stop and crouch on the ground to avoid being blown off the mountain.
We took a break in that first hut, an old one with a metal roof and stone floor. The building shook and rattled around us, but we were glad for the brief respite. The wind began to subside a bit once we left the hut and began the ascent toward the high point of Te Araroa. If there's anything this trail has taught us, its that we should truly appreciate a good quality trail. This was... not that. We slipped and slid through tussock as we marched gradually upward, and it began to rain softly.
By the time we reached the second hut, rain was pouring down in sheets and we had to hike hard to stay warm. We ducked inside for a somewhat soggy lunch of tuna wraps stuffed with potato chips (hiker health food...). The huts on the South Island can feel luxurious at times like these, offering havens safe from the rain (and sandflies). But sometimes, they also create gathering points for hikers that cause things to get crowded, particularly when it's toughest to leave; the rain always looks worse when you're inside, looking out.
We ventured back out into the wet weather with chilly hands and feet, but as we neared yet another hut, the rain slowed to a drizzle, then rapidly disappeared into a hot, sunny afternoon. A crowd of people, maybe 10 hikers, stood outside of the hut, marveling at the sudden warmth. Scared of the forecasted rain, one group had woken up in the hut and decided not to leave. Others had hiked in from the adjacent huts, one of which was less than 4 miles away. There were 5 more hikers still huddled inside the 6-bunk hut. We'd met the confluence of the SOBOs and NOBOs ("south-" /"northbounders") -- luckily, our 24 mile day meant leaving them behind really, really quickly. We had the trail to ourselves as we hiked the last few miles to the saddle.
The rest of our day was straight up magical. We made the final climb to Stag Saddle, the high point of the official trail, and then headed across a scree field onto a long, open ridge for the smooth, gradual descent to Lake Tekapo, with the snow-topped Southern Alps rising above the water. From the ridge, we got our first clear glimpse of Aoraki (Mt. Cook), the highest peak in New Zealand, with its massive glaciers. We also got our first look at the lake itself, so blue that it looks in real life like an over-edited photo. Running down a ridgeline with a perfect breeze, stunning views, and a smooth trail may just be my favorite feeling in the entire universe.