Caroll Hut, Arthur’s Pass National Park

Impressive old southern rātā along the track.

Just beyond Otira, the main highway snakes along, with the Otira River on one side and impossibly steep slopes on the other. A track takes off from Kelly Creek and shoots straight up. My husband said he’d often looked up at those slopes thinking, “Glad I’m not going up there.”

But that’s exactly where we went Friday. Eight hundred twenty-five vertical metres over a mere 2700 metres horizontal distance, if the topo map is to be believed. That’s an average slope of 17 degrees, which doesn’t seem like much, except that parts of the track are flat or go down, so many sections are practically ladders, and require hands and feet.

In spite of the steep grade, it’s not a difficult climb—tree roots and rocks provide plenty of hand and foot holds. And the slow climb upward affords plenty of time to gaze back up the valley towards Otira, watch a train rumble down the tracks below, enjoy a waterfall, examine the flora, and listen to the bellbirds. The forest is full of gems like southern rātā and mountain neinei (a tree that could only have come from Dr. Seuss’ imagination).

View towards the west coast from above Caroll Hut

You emerge above tree line to a gentle climb to Caroll Hut. A little further uphill, cresting Kelly’s Saddle, the view opens to the west coast, and you can see all the way to the Tasman Sea. 

It’s not a hike you’d want to do in bad weather, but Friday’s calm clear air was perfect. A lovely day out.

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.

Throwback Thursday: Tramping the Abel Tasman

100_1198 smThe Abel Tasman was our first Great Walk as a family. It was also our first family tramp longer than two nights—the kids were still at the stage where they sometimes needed a prod to get to the top of a hill (or more accurately, the promise of chocolate at the top).

The Abel Tasman was the perfect trip—long enough to give the kids a ‘real’ adventure, and easy enough that they didn’t struggle with it. The distances between huts were short enough that the kids could spend hours playing on the beaches along the way and still get to the hut by mid-afternoon.

I’ve heard that the track is miserable in bad weather—all those exposed beaches can’t be fun in the wind and rain—but we were blessed with perfect sunny days. Though it was April, the weather was warm enough for lots of swimming along the way, and the whole experience felt more like a frolic than a tramp.

For me, the best part about the trip was gaining a greater appreciation for tides. The surges of water, so different from the normal waves, that fill the estuaries, bringing schools of fish and rays with them. The rippled and exposed mud flats of low tide. The twice-daily rhythm of inundation and exposure of the coast.

It wasn’t a wilderness experience—the huts were filled to capacity, and boats stopped at most of the beaches—but it was a beautiful chance to explore a rich and dynamic coastline.

 

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.