Final tally: 17 sand fly bites. 53 confirmed sand fly fatalities (51 deaths by thumb-smoosh, two unintentionally swallowed). So I win.
Yes, while sea kayaking and good coffee and flowers and brewery tours are all well and good, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with leaving the Ice until I went out into the wild with nothing but my boots and tent (well, and clothing, too. And my first aid kit. And my trekking poles. And trail mix and electrical tape and an extra pair of socks and…).
I chose the St. James Walkway in the Spencer Mountains, a sub-range of the Southern Alps about three hours’ drive northwest of Christchurch. I picked the St. James because I hadn’t done it before and because it’s long-ish (66km, or 40-plus miles) but rated as an “easy tramping track.” I figured it would be a good way to get back into it and test some new gear I bought online while living on the Ice.
It was one of the most miserable hikes of my life.
Of course I enjoyed it.
Hiking in the face of adversity, like swimming in cold water or wearing pointy-toed high heels, brings out a perverse, masochistic streak in me. Whoo-hoo! Look at me, I’m suffering! I suppose any pop psychologist would tell me it’s the pain and tangible unpleasantness that makes me feel more alive or something. Whatever. All I know is that as ugly as it got, there was no place I would have rather been.
The hike started out ill-advised. The sheets of rain I had watched from the window of my cozy hostel on Banks Peninsula caused significant flooding. I ended up staying an extra day out there simply because the one road out of the peninsula was closed due to flooding and downed trees. Once the road was re-opened, I took my time getting up to Lewis Pass, where the St. James starts, hoping to give the trail a little time to dry out. The weather forecast was a little cloud and then fine, so no worries, right?
Yeah, you know where this is going.
I realized I couldn’t do the whole trail because my time had been cut short by a day, so I opted to do an out-and-back hike to Boyle Flats Hut, about 20 miles round-trip, over two days.
The weather as I set out was gloomy, but I had been assured by several sources that it would clear up as the morning wore on.
The trail itself was indeed easy, one of the easiest I’ve done in New Zealand, but let’s keep in mind it’s been more than 18 months since I’ve been on a trail made of something other than ice or snow or volcanic rock. It took a long time to get over the fact that stuff was sticking to my boots–eew, gross! Mud! Bog! More mud! Streams running high from the rain and needing to be forded! Water-rounded rocks slippery with icky green stuff! Tree roots everywhere!
It was a significant and totally unexpected challenge to walk on a “normal” trail again, one that took my pathetically bad ankles a lot of time to deal with.
And then there was the cowshit.
Much of the St. James runs through private land used for grazing cattle. The cows have acres and acres and acres of open grazing land and forest (I have heard cows actually prefer to graze in forest, though I do not know how they figured that out, since cows are rather taciturn about expressing their preferences, at least as far as I can tell). And yet… they sure do like pooping right on the trail.
Working my way around the mud and the bog and the cow patties and the slippery, wet, moss-covered rocks and the occasional raging torrents of unbridged streams and shaky suspension bridges was made all the more exciting by interaction with wildlife. No, not the famous birds of New Zealand (though I did see plenty of bellbirds and a wee rifleman, New Zealand’s smallest bird). I’m talking about insects. The sand flies welcomed me with open mouths, the little bastards. Because I’m still cold all the time, I was wearing a long sleeve hoodie and long pants, the only reason I escaped with as few bites as I got.
And then there were the spiders.
You’d think a spider would conserve its energy and build a web between two trees fairly close together. But no. Apparently there is some kind of macho showmanship competition among spiders of the South Island, or at least the ones around Lewis Pass. I imagine them daring each other to string webs across the trail.
Yes, I walked through more than a dozen webs the first day alone, which is more than a dozen too many.
Then there was the weather. The clouds never parted. They only sank lower, laden with rain. Fortunately I had reached Boyle Flats and was just setting up my tent when the worst of the rain hit. And kept hitting. It rained all night, a chilly sub-alpine downpour that had me wearing every piece of clothing I’d brought. Still I shivered, even with handwarmers shoved in my socks and shirt and pants.
I also discovered that the super cool, high-tech, endorsed by Delta Force (really), inflatable sleeping pad I was using for the first time was indeed super cool and high-tech, but not really suited for the temperature. The air pockets that reduce the pad’s packing size to that of a soda can seemed to channel the cold air from the ground directly into my back.
Cold and wet and too miserable to heat my food, I ate my Wattie’s Pumpkin and Roasted Garlic Tortellini straight from the pack, cold, and crawled into my sleeping bag.
Shortly afterward, I was struck with FreshieBelly. I will spare you the details, dear reader, but let’s just say I was glad I’d pitched my tent relatively close to the long-drop toilet. Each trip, and there was more than one, some more rushed than others, required squirming out of my sleeping bag, pulling on my camp shoes, unzipping the tent flap and the fly flap and grabbing a flashlight and swatting away the ever-vigilant sand flies. Do they never sleep? Several people told me that sand flies are not active at night. I guess my scent was just too scrumptious for them and they were willing to pull an all-nighter for the chance of sampling my flesh.
Then it was a dash in the cold rain, the whole thing repeated in reverse until I would crawl wet and chilled, back into my bag.
It was at this point that I began hearing a little voice in my head, quiet but insistent: So, let me get this straight. We could have stayed in Hanmer Springs and soaked in the hot pools and had a facial, but you thought this would be more fun?
When morning finally came, the sand fly population decreased notably (perhaps because I had killed so many) and the clouds lifted a little. The sun finally came out early afternoon, but by then, full of the grim resolve that comes from dehydration and poor sleep, I was midway through the ten-mile march to my car.
As I drove back to Christchurch, the weather cleared completely and revealed New Zealand, the most beautiful country I know, in all its splendor.
Aw, shucks, New Zealand… mud, bog, cowshit, sand flies, rain and spiders aside, I can’t stay mad at you.