Saint James Walkway – Return to Civilisation
Of the three of us that spent the night at Anne Hut I was the last to leave on my third morning of the tramp. Leaving the hut behind, the route crossed an open expanse of ground before dropping down to the bank of a river where the route turned south. There was some vague sunshine in the sky but the threat of clouds was constantly there as they swirled around above me, blocking and unblocking the sun at irregular intervals. It wasn’t long to reach a bridge across the river and once on the far bank it continued to follow the water as it flowed at varying depths to my side. After a while, the ground underfoot became a little boggy and at an incline in the bank the track disappeared. I back-tracked a little to retrace my steps, got my map out and scoured the scene in front of me. Finally I spotted an orange marker far in the distance and came to realise that the bank had collapsed, and with it a portion of the track. I was left with two options: get my feet wet in the river or go bush-whacking.
I found a vague worn patch that suggested others had chosen the trees so with my large backpack to catch every possible branch as I passed, I fought my way through the thick foliage, up and over the raised embankment and down the other side where I found the trail again. Not far after that, the ground became a swamp, and with an orange marker on the far side, I had to pick my way through the boggy mess to get to it. Once there though, and through the next section of trees, the landscape opened up a little and I found myself on a boardwalk crossing an open area with rolling mountains all around me. The boardwalk led down to another bridge to take me back across the same river.
Looking back I could see a snow-topped peak and looking ahead of me, the river grew thinner as I walked, becoming less obvious the further through the valley I went. Stony remnants of avalanche slopes scarred the forests that grew on the slopes and the vibe of the hike changed as I continued south towards the next curve in the track at Kia Stream. By the time I was heading west again, it was a large grassy expanse with the river hidden out of view until a little before the climb began. Once back in the trees, there was the final climb to Anne Saddle at 1136m (3727ft).
Coming down the other side, the weather was totally different. By the time I reached the bottom, it was raining and I could see rain clouds either side of me. It started as a drizzle then grew heavier as I walked. The trail grew a little marshy under foot in places, but thankfully the rain reduced to drizzle after a while. This section of the trail was a little uninteresting and when it went back into the trees it was under construction with evidence of trail maintenance and diversions in place. It then felt like a long time to reach the bridge marked on the map. The walking was easy but the trail had lost its interest so it was very much a trudge under a couple of embankments and along side another river until finally an incline signalled that I was at Rokeby Hut.
The hut was a great spot to get my bag off my back for a bit and have some lunch. I took a nosy inside but as I sat outside eating, I was descended upon by sandflies, the flying/biting nuisance of being near a waterway in New Zealand. In the end, their annoyance spurred me to get going and I slung my bag on my back once more to push ever south. Across another bridge, the track followed what was now the Boyle river. In a torrent down stream, I watched some goslings white water rafting as their parents tried desperately to keep them from being swept away. Where the track kept low to the river, I once again found it disappear as another slip had caused the bank to collapse. Once more I chose bushwhacking over wet feet and struggled to push my way through the dense trees with my bulky bag.
The final stretch to Boyle Flat Hut felt like it went on for ever. It was pleasant enough with the bubbling water next to me but I was tired and keen to get my boots off. The river valley was nestled among some steep but pretty hillsides, and although initially narrow, the valley opened up a little ahead of the bridge which was finally spotted as I came up an incline. The metal swing bridge led me across the gushing Boyle river and through a small copse of trees to present me at the hut. The same hiker from the previous nights was already there and we were later joined by some hikers heading in the opposite direction. Compared to Anne Hut, this one felt cold, dark and damp. I was glad for the shelter though when the rain began to fall heavily in the evening and the temperature dropped more at night fall. I was exceedingly glad to have my 3-season sleeping bag with me that night.
Waking up on the last morning of the hike, I was shocked to look out the window and see snow falling. Growing up in Scotland, I have so many memories of snow, but now living in Christchurch on the dry east coast, snow is a rarity so I was suddenly giddy and quickly pulled my boots and layers on so that I could go outside and watch it. There’s something so magical about the silence that accompanies snowfall. Even with the lightness of the fall, there was nothing to hear as the forest life and winds had gone quiet. The hillside and ground around the hut looked like icing sugar had been sprinkled on it, and after a while I headed back in for a warm breakfast.
Anticipating issues following the trail in the snow, the other hiker and myself decided to stick together for this last day, setting off as the snow eased but the clouds swirled round. At the bridge, I stopped to take a photo of her crossing it and accidentally let go of my brand new hiking poles, one of which slid down the steep embankment towards the gushing river below. I immediately tried to grab it without thinking about it and the weight of my bag nearly took me off my feet and down to the fast flowing river. After steadying myself, I dumped my bag and scrambled down the side, retrieving my pole and making it back up to the path intact. I quickly crossed the bridge to join my companion and we were off.
We took it in turns to lead and it wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the sun came out. The peppered snow remained on the hills but what was on the grass at our feet was quick to melt. Behind us, Boyle Flat Hut grew smaller and smaller until we could see it no more but it felt like no time before we reached the turn-off for Magdalen Hut. We had no need to visit this hut so took the swing bridge across Boyle river and almost immediately the track left the river behind and dove into a forest. The track was narrow and a little rough but easy to follow, and the views were reduced to snippets through breaks in the foliage. My companion’s pace was naturally quicker than mine and we started to separate a little here. She disappeared out of view after a while and every now and again I’d come round a corner and find her waiting, only for her to take off again when she realised I was ok.
After a change in direction from south to south-west, the path reached a break in the trees which allowed a view back up the valley. I could still see snow on the tallest peaks but by now the rest of it had melted. For a long stretch, the path teetered at the edge of the forest, idling by its side before cutting through the edge of it repeatedly. The Boyle river lay across the far side of the valley floor and eventually the path climbed up the hillside a little before disappearing back into the trees. I hadn’t seen my companion for some time now. She’d stopped waiting for me, our paces being too different, so I had no qualms about stopping and taking a break for a snack. Almost immediately, a South Island robin (kakaruwai) appeared and started flitting around me. These birds are so bold and inquisitive and it flew and hopped right up to me, watching me with a cocked head before flitting off to another branch and doing the same again. It was almost close enough to touch at several points and I think it knew I was eating nuts. It seemed to look hopeful for something but I never feed wildlife and did my best to make sure I didn’t contaminate the environment with any dropped portions.
Shortly after making tracks again, I met a hiker heading in the opposite direction. A brief chat revealed that my companion was about 10 minutes ahead of me, and shortly after that, the treeline broke and the path was up above the river. Cutting across a scree bank, the track headed back into the forest once more and it was a long amble to reach the final swing bridge back across the Boyle river. It felt like the end of the hike was in sight but in actual fact this last section seemed to take longer than I expected it to. Initially it was low to the river and suddenly the walking track was regularly crossed by horse riding trails. After a while it went up an incline again and the river seemed some way down below. Eventually, it intersected with a road and finally I was on the final descent down the hillside towards Boyle village. At the edge of the campgrounds, the trail stopped being marked and I picked a direction that I thought was the right one but turned out to circumnavigate the whole campground before finally depositing me at the Outdoor Centre that makes up Boyle village. The other hiker was lounging on a bench with a long wait till her bus to take her to the west coast. In the end, she’d completed about 15mins earlier than me, and as I was heading east, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.
Back in the comfort of my car, I set off to head back to Christchurch but it was only lunchtime so I took the Hanmer Springs turn-off and at my new favourite cafe there I ordered a massive lunch before heading to Hanmer Springs. Nothing beats a soak in the hot pools, and after 4 days of hiking it was a joy to get in the thermal water. My new hiking boots felt well worn in ahead of the biggest hike of my life a couple of months later and my poles had survived too. It was shaping up to be a good summer of hiking.