Earlier this year I finally made it across the sea to our friendly NZ neighbours.
I flew over with my friend Bede, and we planned to spend a few weeks hiking around the South Island before meeting up with the Loverboy in Queenstown.
It had been a horrendously hot March, which had followed a standard furnacey summer, and I hadn’t really been putting much effort into training for hiking.
So, naturally, when Bede and I sat down a fortnight before we left to plan our hiking, I agreed to an epic wandering route that linked up 4 hikes in the Routeburn area.
Our initial plan was to hike from Rob Roy Glacier, into the Matukituki Valley, up over Cascade Saddle, join with the Rees/Dart Track, hitch into Glenorchy to resupply, and continue over to the Routeburn, linking it up to the Greenstone/Cables track.
Of course, like with all adventures I undertake, nothing really went to plan.
First of all, I was dismally under-prepared physically.
I was also willfully ignorant about the precipitation situation in NZ.
And finally, I forgot that for effective hitch-hiking, you need a fairly decent sized population.
Normally, I wouldn’t dish the dirt on hitchiking in NZ. In fact, for the majority of my trip it was an awesome and effective way of travelling the South Island. The only problem with hitching in NZ is when the road is a no-through road, and at the end of the road is not much more than a few farms and a Glacier.
Our adventure started with many hours of standing on the side of a road, looking pleadingly with big innocent eyes into the windscreens of cars zooming by, discreetly turning our thumbs into middle fingers behind our backs as each car passed us.
This was Bede’s first experience of hitch-hiking, and he began to grow more and more concerned as the day passed us by with each unfriendly car.
Eventually, a young Italian guy picked us up on his way out to a climbing area. I sat in the front seat, and watched with horror as my gratitude rapidly disappeared while the driver sped his way through the windy NZ roads faster than his texting fingers.
My horror was short lived, because he pulled up outside the climbing area, let us out and wished us luck. Our destination was still a long way away, and there was not a car in sight.
Bede and I resigned to try to walk to the glacier car park before nightfall, daring to hope that maybe a car would come our way and pick us up.
We were trudging along the pretty roads, not even uplifted by the waterfalls everywhere, when a car pulled up behind us. A woman told us to get in, and we excitedly scrambled over one another to get into the tiny shoe-box car. She took us to the Glacier carpark, and we were soon on our merry way into the Matukituki valley.
That night we camped in a small clearing in the valley with a few other hikers. I went to sleep listening to the quiet night, completely unaware that the 1300m elevation gain in the morning might be more terrible than it sounded.
It was more terrible than it sounded.
The day was picture perfect – warm sunshine, cool air, not a cloud in the sky.
The birds were singing, the sunlight glittered through the canopy of moss and trees.
It was warm and cool in all the right ways.
The views were jaw-dropping-off-the-chain-amazeballs.
And I hated every minute of it.
I hadn’t done any pack training, and lugging 6 days worth of food and camping gear up a slope so steep I had to crawl and climb up most parts was the exact opposite of my idea of fun. I was slowing Bede down trying to scramble up the slippery tree roots and rocks, while his long legs easily strode up over obstacles.
But finally, finally, we made it above the tree line. I caught up with Bede at a rest stop overlooking the valley below, and if I hadn’t already been spluttering and puffing, it would have taken my breath away.
Then we looked up.
It just kept on going up.
Getting steeper and steeper.
I decided to look back down to the valley floor for a while, and forget about the up part. Couldn’t I just stay here forever?
But Bede said no (laaamme), and so I got back up to keep on trudging up and up and up.
We began scrambling up grass and rocks, using fistfulls of vegetation to haul ourselves up.
The muddy ruts of tracks turned into rocks, and we soon found ourselves balanced on sections of rock-face, with nothing below us but a few slippery rocks and grass clumps.
My rockclimbing knowledge helped immensely here, and I slowly and steadily made my way up the rock.
Eventually, exhausted, we made it to the top, and flopped out under a rock shelter, drinking in the views.
As we ate a lazy lunch in the sun, looking out of Mt Aspiring National Park, a group of people popped over the rise. A white head of hair appeared first, followed by another, and then another. Soon we were surrounded by a large group of white haired trampers, walking sticks in hand, large packs on stooped backs. There was one elderly lady in the group, and she wobbled over to the flat lunch rock and took in a satisfying yawn before sitting down.
“Hello dear!” She smiled at me, not unlike my own grandmother – minus the hilarious NZ accent.”Bit of a big walk isn’t it?”
Gobsmacked, I smiled in reply.
“Are you all heading out to the Rees/Dart today?” I asked eventually, once my awe-struck awkwardness had faded.
“We certainly are!” Interrupted one of the old men. “I haven’t done this hike since 1969, so I am excited to see what has changed.”
Not wanting to be shown-up by a tough old group of grandparents, Bede and I finished lunch and got moving. We wanted to get to the hut by nightfall, and we had just found out we weren’t even halfway there yet.
As we wandered along the flat plateau above the valley, staring out over the mountains and glaciers, drinking from the fresh cold streams, I decided that when I was in my 70s I still wanted to be able to climb mountains to drink from streams. That old hiking lady was officially my hero, and I want to be her.
Soon we dropped down into another valley below a glacier. We walked along barren scree slopes for hours, as the light faded and the shadows lengthened.
Eventually, after many hours of weary trudging, rock-hopping and river crossings, we arrived at the hut for the night just as night fell.
Once our bunks were claimed, dinner was cooked and eaten, and we were considering going to bed, Bede and I realised that the group of oldies hadn’t arrived yet.
We voiced our concerns to a few other hikers, and started to form a plan to go out and look for them. I feared that maybe one of them had turned an ankle or knee of the uneven rocky screen.
Just as we were about to send out a search party, 3 old men stumble inside. They were supporting one of the group, who had blood dried all over his face.
A few hikers immediately jumped to the rescue and went out to find the rest of the group and help bring back the injured man’s pack.
Once the initial kerfuffle had subsided, I approached the injured man and offered some first aid. He was wary at first, and refused my help. I offered to just help clean up the blood off his head and face instead, to which he agreed. I used the opportunity to surreptitiously inspect the head wound, get a brief history of the injury, and try and asses his consciousness and memory. Eventually, after speaking with him for a while and cleaning his face and head, he gruffly agreed to let me do a proper examination on him.
Not entirely convinced he didn’t have a concussion, I spoke with the old lady in the group. The injured man was friendlier than before, but was still a little confused. I told her that if anything happens or changes in the night they should wake me up, and showed her which bed I was staying in.
Thankfully, the night passed without any more medical dramas, and I was much more satisfied with my patient when I re-checked him in the morning.
He was much happier in the morning too, and allowed me to examine him without even the smallest of protests.
As Bede and I hiked off into the morning fog, the whole group – who were staying behind an extra day to recover – cheered us off with friendly waves and big smiles.
Leaving behind the valley, and heading towards the pass, Bede and I tramped in a dreaded upwards direction again. The morning fog turned into clouds and mist and eventual rain. We trudged through the misty valley, all the while Bede singing Lord of the Rings songs to fit the mood.
Eventually we crossed the pass, and down into a wide, foggy valley. We made quick pace through the cold, and were greeted with the welcoming views of smoke swirling out of the top of a chimney. The hut!
Warmed by the fire, and filled with tea, I settled into a window bench seat with my kindle, to watch the rain beat down and rivers and waterfalls pop up all over the mountain side.
The next day brought torrential rain, and we, along with everyone else that was staying in the hut, decided to wait the rain out in the hut for another day. We played cards, read, drank tea, nursed our sore muscles, and made friends.
It was here we met two NZ blokes from the North Island – Graham and Basil – who taught us some funky new card games.
We hatched a plan all together to hike out tomorrow together, as our food was dwindling, and catch a lift into Glenorchy.
Reluctantly, the next morning, we packed quietly in the hut, and headed out into the relentless NZ rain. Within minutes water was pouring down my raincoat hood and sleeves, soaking me underneath.
Our first obstacle was a raging torrent of water. We cross carefully, two at a time, holding on to each other to stop us slipping over. Our boots were now waterlogged, our pants wet up to our thighs. I stop caring about the rain. Let it soak me. See what I care NZ rain!
The day was long, and we cross many streams and rivers, and eventually end up wading through flooded watercourses. I continue to make terrible Lord of the Rings jokes, and Bede continues to groan and shake his head at them.
We arrived at the end of the trail, and eventually, into the little town of Glenorchy, where we begged and pleaded tp get a overpriced, tiny backpackers bed for the night.
All our clothes were soaking, so Bede and I changed into garbage bags fashioned into skirts (or a large 60’s style dress for myself) and sat in the laundry waiting for our clothes to dry in the driers, snacking on dates and canned soup, hatching plans for the next leg of our journey.
Strangely, sitting on the cold wet concrete floor of the mouldy laundry room in a garbage bag, waiting for my clothes to wash and dry, eating overpriced canned soups, lifted my mood and remains one of my fondest memories shared with Bede.