Christmas Adventure–Gillespie Circuit

The family’s Christmas tramp this year took us to the Gillespie Circuit Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The trip was a good adventure, through a dramatic landscape we don’t often hike in.

Day one started with a jet boat from Makarora to the confluence of the Wilkin and Makarora Rivers. It was my first jet boat ride, and I’ll admit my inner teenager was grinning as we slalomed down the river in a noisy, environmentally unsustainable fashion my adult self disapproves of.

From the mouth of the Wilkin River, we hiked upstream. It was decidedly the least interesting four hours of the trip—the area is grazed, so it was primarily a slog through a cow paddock. The track then turned into the forest and climbed steadily up Siberia Stream to Siberia Hut, where we spent two nights.

On day two, we took a day trip to Crucible Lake. The track to the lake is quite steep, but worth every step. The lake sits in a basin behind a massive glacial moraine. The glacier above the lake drops chunks of ice into the water, making it look like an enormous punch bowl. Apparently it’s popular to take a dip in the lake, but we were deterred by the ice and the cool morning air. The scale of the landscape is deceptive, and photos don’t come close to capturing it.

Day 3, Christmas Day, dawned lightly overcast—perfect for the next stage of the hike, over Gillespie Pass. The track climbs steeply over 1000 metres to the pass, first through the forest, and then into alpine scrub and tussock. Mount Awful looms over the pass, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by jagged peaks and glaciers. The taller peaks, including Mount Awful, were shrouded in cloud, but the views were nonetheless spectacular. We even got a slightly white Christmas, hiking through a couple of snow patches near the top of the pass.

If we thought the way up was steep, the way down proved us wrong—it was even steeper, dropping down a precipitous ridge to the top of the Young River. From there, the nearly flat hike to Young Hut afforded plenty of opportunity to admire the rocky ridges above and the many waterfalls cascading down from them.

Day 4 was a long but relatively gentle hike along the Young River to the Makarora River through the forest. Crossing the thigh-deep Makarora River back to the car was a refreshing end to the trip.

Being a Christmas hike, the trip naturally inspired another bad tramping Christmas song. This year’s song is to the tune of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Have yourself a merry tramping Christmas.
Make the trailside gay.
From now on our cars will be so far away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy tramping days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Sleeping near to us—they snore!

Through the years we all will tramp together
If the joints allow,
Even when we’re eighty, though I don’t know how.
So have yourself a merry tramping Christmas now.

May you all have a lovely holiday filled with your favourite people doing your favourite things!

Weekend Getaway

Carrington Peak

Over the long Waitangi Day weekend, we hiked up the Waimakariri River to Carrington Hut. Using Carrington Hut as a base, we took day walks to Kilmarnock Falls and Waimakariri Falls Hut.

The weather was glorious, and hiking on the riverbed, it was easy to cool off with a quick dip in icy water. The hike to Waimakariri Falls Hut was particularly rewarding: there are two ‘official’ falls on the river, and dozens of smaller streams dropping off the surrounding peaks in spectacular fashion, so you feel as though you’re walking through a watery wonderland.

Wading in to see Waimakariri Falls.

The upper falls, just below the hut, are hidden in a deep, narrow fissure in the rock. Waist deep in icy water is the only way to see the water roaring down—great fun, but not something you’d want to do on a cold day. 

Above the falls, the river is narrow enough to jump across with dry feet, and flows through a fabulous alpine landscape. We didn’t hike all the way to the snowfield where the river actually begins, but we were close. 

The fuzzy flower of a South Island edelweiss

My favourite two things on the hike were the South Island edelweiss (Leucogenes grandiceps), which looks like it was made out of felt by someone named Aunty Flo, and the river water itself. The water was crystal clear, yet colourful (the gorgeous turquoise of glacier-fed rivers) and full of substance. I could have watched it flow over the rocks for hours (come to think, I did watch it flow over the rocks for hours).

Waimakariri Falls Hut. The snowfield visible to the right of the hut is the source of the Waimakariri River.

Least favourite part of the hike was Carrington Hut. It’s a great hut in a stunning location, but last weekend, it felt as though everyone from Christchurch was there. Carrington Hut has 36 bunks, but only 1 toilet and 1 sink. With about 40 people in the hut and another 20 or so tenting nearby, it was way over its capacity. As usual, everyone was considerate and did their best to make it work, but it was still unpleasant.

All in all, a lovely weekend getaway, and an easy hike, as long as you’re comfortable with river crossings.

Christmas on the Heaphy Track

Our pre-Christmas tramp this year took us to Kahurangi National Park to walk the Heaphy Track. The trip was simultaneously spectacular and miserable.

The Heaphy Track follows the path of a proposed road, and as such is gently graded—it’s a technically easy walk. So easy it’s almost boring. But it passes through some spectacular landscapes teeming with remarkable flora and fauna.

Day 1 began for us at 5.30 am when we awoke in the Collingwood Campground to our tent being blown flat by the wind and rain. We quickly decamped and retreated to a shelter to wait for the rain to let up before starting our hike.

Unfortunately, the rain outlasted our patience, so we started out under a heavy fall that had us soaked within minutes. The steady climb was largely unremarkable. The rain eventually cleared and we reached Perry Saddle Hut under a sunny sky.

Day 2 was more eventful, with two endangered species sightings by 7 am. The first was a takahe browsing the grasses just outside the hut as we finished breakfast. This critically endangered bird, the world’s largest rail, was presumed extinct for 50 years. Its population now numbers just 445.

Minutes down the track, with rain setting in again, we nearly stepped on our second endangered species of the day—a Powelliphanta snail—a fist-sized carnivorous snail. Without the rain, we never would have seen these nocturnal, moisture-loving animals. We counted ourselves lucky.

Under increasing rainfall, we made our soggy way across Gouland Downs and then the weird and wonderful Mackay Downs. We explored caves and admired huge glacial erratics tossed like giant bowling balls over the landscape. Weka (another endemic rail) with chicks in tow scurried around our legs every time we stopped for a break, waiting for us to let down our guard so they could make off with a snack.

We reached Mackay Hut drenched, but the worst of the rain was yet to come. Half an hour later, the sky opened up and the wind rose. The torrent sheeted down, spilling off the hut roof like someone was tossing buckets of water over the edge. It didn’t let up until nearly 4 am the following day.

Again we set out in the rain, this time into a landscape scoured and still gushing water. But again the rain held delights—another giant snail, sundews lining the track, enormous 700-year-old southern rata trees, waterfalls in all directions, sprays of flowering bamboo orchids dripping from tree trunks, a mistletoe with scarlet flowers … That evening—Christmas eve—drying out in Heaphy Hut, we composed a New Zealand tramping ballad as a family:

T’was the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the hut
I sure wasn’t stirring; I was sitting on my butt.
A cup of tea nestled warm in my hand.
I ate lots of scroggin, expanding my waistband.
Out on the porch, the weka did play,
Hauling our shoes and our stockings away.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter
I limped from my bench to see what was the matter.
The sun on the roof of the dunny nearby
Made me shade my eyes as I peered up to the sky.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a trio of cheeky, mischievous kea.
With can opener beaks and curious minds
The birds tore apart everything they could find.
When done on the roof they moved on to our packs
Eating their fill of our Christmas Day snacks.

With our stockings all gone and no snacks to eat,
We still had a Christmas that couldn’t be beat.

Christmas morning dawned and the last ragged storm clouds blew away, leaving brilliant blue skies and blooming rata trees for our last leg along the coast under dense stands of nikau palms.

We ended with a quick dip in the Kohaihai River (very quick—it was ice water) and the long drive home. A most enjoyable Christmas!

Nelson Lakes Tramping

Before Christmas, the family spent five days tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park. We have tried several times to plan a trip to the area around Angelus Hut, but something has always happened to cancel it—once it was bad weather, another time it was a gastrointestinal bug at Angelus Hut that laid 30 hikers low, another time it was the Kaikoura earthquake. But this year, we managed, with only a 24-hour postponement due to the weather.

We rolled in late on day one. With only a two-hour hike to the first hut and pouring rain forecast to clear late in the day, there was no reason to start early. We lucked out, and the last raindrops fell as we were getting out of the car. The climb to Bushline Hut on Paddy’s Track was a bit of a monotonous uphill, but with nice views. If I were doing it again though, I’d give Bushline Hut a miss. The place is overrun by mice—if the noise of them nibbling into everyone’s packs didn’t keep you awake all night, their pattering feet over your bed or down your neck did. It was less than pleasant.

Vegetable sheep (Raoulia spp)

Leaving the mice behind in sparkling sunshine the next morning, we followed Robert Ridge to Angelus Hut. Well above tree line, the ridge is one continuous spectacular view of the mountains and lakes in and around the park. We were prepared for wind and cold (it had snowed on the ridge the day before), but enjoyed sun all day with very little wind. My favourite part of the ridge was the profusion of vegetable sheep—some of the most spectacular specimens I’ve ever seen.

Angelus hut dwarfed by the surrounding landscape.

We made good time and enjoyed lunch overlooking a mountain tarn just a few minutes before reaching Angelus Hut, in its dramatic location at the edge of Lake Rotomaninitua. That left us all afternoon to explore the stunning tarns, streams and rocks around the hut. Rain from the preceding days had left all the tarns and streams overflowing, and the sound of flowing water was a constant—trickling through rocks underfoot or rushing in torrents down the mountainsides.

Mt. Cedric Route

The following day was the hardest and most spectacular, following the Mt. Cedric Route to Sabine Hut. I thought Robert Ridge was spectacular, but the Mt. Cedric Route blew Robert Ridge out of the water! Again, we had fabulous weather and enjoyed the views. The route skirts around an unnamed 1880-metre peak, which we summited—an easy scramble without packs, and well worth it for the views. From that high point, the rest of the track is downhill. Fourteen hundred metres vertically, to be exact, most of which happens in the incredibly steep final 1.5 km. While the ridges and scree slopes of the majority of the route are visually and mentally daunting, they’re relatively easy to traverse. But the drop through the forest, on slick wet leaves, was basically one long ungainly fall.

We were rewarded at the end by Sabine Hut on the shore of Lake Rotoroa. A nice swim in the lake and a gentle walk to the Sabine River made for a relaxing afternoon.

Day four was a long uphill, which was actually welcome after so much downhill the previous day, ending at Speargrass Hut. Unlike the previous two days, the Sabine-Speargrass Track is entirely in the forest. And it is a magical forest—lush and wet, but it gives the impression of perching on nothing but great blocks of rock. The track regularly traverses roots with deep holes between them, and you could hear water gurgling underfoot in many locations.

The most magical spot along this section of track was an open bog not far from Speargrass Hut. A long boardwalk climbs to a platform perched in the bog. Benches provide a nice place to sit and take in the view. Coming out of the forest into a landscape so rich in colour felt like entering a painting—colours just a little too saturated, bog falling away a little too perfectly to reveal distant peaks a little too sharp and dramatic to be quite real. 

Day five was a quick, relatively unremarkable jaunt out to the carpark along Speargrass Track, and then a long drive home.

Quite possibly one of the most spectacular pre-Christmas tramps we’ve done. It was definitely worth waiting for.

The Backcountry Hut Experience

Black Hill Hut

Black Hill Hut

The hut nestles amidst scrubby sub-alpine vegetation. As you emerge from the trees onto a rocky hillside, you see it across the valley. Dark beech forest laps at the hut on one side, and cliffs rise on the other. A kea calls. A stream rushes far below. You are not the first at the hut—a thin wisp of smoke rises from the chimney. You smile and look forward to warming your hands and drying your socks by the fire.

As each hiker arrives at the hut, they are greeted by those already resident.

“G’day. Did you come of from Sharplin Falls this morning?”

“Going to Woolshed Hut tomorrow, or all the way out?”

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, you’re from Southbridge. My mother lives there. Do you know her?”

“Is this your first visit to New Zealand?”

“Do you do much tramping?”

As afternoon wears on, the hut fills up. Locals, tourists, couples, solo hikers, and families with kids. A dozen or more strangers bunking together, cooking and eating together. There are no cell phones to divide you. You are all present in this place together. You share matches, hot water, chocolate, and reading material. As the evening wears on, a bottle of scotch might be passed around. You talk about your homes, previous travels, and your current aches and injuries. You tell stories. You laugh. You wish each other good night.

In the morning, some carry on downhill while you toil up Others, you know you will see again at the next hut. You bid them all a cheerful farewell, feeling like old friends.

 

When I first came to New Zealand, I found the idea of backcountry huts a bit odd. I didn’t have to hike with a tent? I’d just bunk with other hikers in a hut provided at just the right spot? I was used to hiking in the US, and for me backpacking (tramping) meant getting away from other people and setting up my tent in a place of complete solitude. I was dubious.

Twelve years and many backcountry huts later, I’m sold on the hut system. Not only is it lovely to not have to carry a tent, I’ve come to enjoy the social aspect of the hut experience.

That’s not to say I enjoy listening to half a dozen strangers snore next to me all night, or that I don’t sometimes wish my hut mates were less talkative, but on the whole, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned—about other places, other cultures, and sometimes even about my own neighbours—far outweigh the negatives.

Backpack meals

100_4233 smI picked up the food for a backpacking trip today. All I can say is BLECH, and HOLY COW THAT STUFF’S EXPENSIVE! And we don’t go for the “backpacker” food—we just buy the instant meals available in the grocery store.

To buy over-salted, over-sugared, freeze-dried, highly processed food when there is fresh produce pouring out of the garden is physically painful.

I suppose we should plan in advance. As vegetables come into season, we should dry enough for our trips, make up our own highly-processed, over-salted backpacking food. Once upon a time—before children—we did some of that.

But it’s actually a lot of work…to change a delicious vegetable into something we would only consider eating if it were the only option. I just can’t get excited about that.

So, we’ll probably just keep buying those icky instant meals. It’s backpacking, after all—you don’t do it for the food.