December 17th, 2015
Dec 14 day 105 Queenstown 0 km
It seemed indulgent taking another zero so close to the last one (at Wanaka), but the Motatapu Track really kicked my ass, and I did want to take the time to see Queenstown which is a fascinating place. Apart from all the different places to book adventures that endanger your life, there are plenty of coffee shops, craft beer bars, and parks with benches and sunshine. I availed myself liberally of all. The only dark spot was that the YHA was fully booked, so I had to move to the hostel across the street. Got very little sleep as my different roommates kept coming in and out all night, it was very hot in the room, and the drunks out the window were howling all night. Queenstown has it fine points, but if I return to this area to visit again, it will be to Wanaka.
December 13th, 2015
Dec 13 day 104 Arrowtown to Queenstown 8:30-2:30 28 km
After a quiet breakfast in Arrowtown (the place is terminally cute) it was a simple stroll over to Queenstown. Made one wrong turn and ended up cutting through a private section without permission. The wealth in this area is palpable– unlike any I’ve been in yet. Part of the TA was on a walking path through a golf course, not your usual trail environment. The place dripped privilege–was glad to get past it. The most interesting part were the stone buildings– some old, some new– an architectural style/material I have not seen in New Zealand much, part of the mining heritage of the area I suppose. Queenstown is a crowded adventure town. The place is packed with every gap-year 20 something on the planet, and the Main Street is primarily a place to book skydiving, boat adventures, etc etc. Still, has a good feel. I on the other hand have hit some sort of physical wall–completely exhausted so will see if a rest day tomorrow will make those last 400 km bearable.
December 13th, 2015
Dec 12 day 103 Highland Creek Hut to Arrowtown 7:00-5:30 33 km
Today I was a walker and rider in rivers. Got an early start as I knew it would be a long day– how long I did not suspect. The first stretch was physically very difficult, one of the hardest trails I’ve been on since the Richmond Range– a lot of steep up and down with very little regular hiking between. The weather was threatening all day, and I was a little worried about being up on exposed ridges I case things got rough. Fortunately it held off most of the day. When the trail finally got down to the Arrow River, then decided to climb back up a ridge, I decided to just hike down the river itself. The flow was not deep. My feet got a little numb, but not too bad, so my afternoon was crossing from flat to flat or just marching straight down the middle. Just above Macetown (an empty old mining town 2/3rds of the way down), I got on a four wheel drive track that forded the river about as much as it ran on dry land. The road continued after Macetown and I had the choice of following it all the way to Arrowtown (the longer route) or to take a trail over a mountain. The weather was threatening, and I was having fun in the river, so I opted for the road. The further down I went, the deeper the river got. Even though the road continued to ford, there were pedestrian bridges to keep us poor walkers from getting swept away. A few kilometers from town, a couple came down the road in a 4WD Toyota pickup with huge tires and the engine’s air intake mounted at cab roof height. I was treated with some driving in the river- sometimes right down the middle of it for a while (the driver really knew what he was doing). Thank heavens for the high air intake, because even though it sat up high, the water came over the truck’s hood several times. After a safe delivery to dry land in Arrowtown, I got a room at the New Orleans Hotel, wandered the Main Street a bit–great old mining town where they have repurposed all the old buildings, so it has an unusual old feel. Had good meal in hotel restaurant and went to bed early– am really feeling the last two day’s hike.
December 13th, 2015
Dec 11 day 102 Wanaka to Highland Creek Hut 8:30-6:00 30 km
Really did not want to leave Wanaka– my new favorite town in NZ. Lingered over coffee in the hostel which incidentally was called the YHA Purple Cow hostel. I asked if the name had anything to do with Williams College, but nobody knew. Then picked up a pie from the bakery near the waterfront, and finally, reluctantly, recommenced my trek, only to stop after about 3 km because the Edgewater hotel had a coffee sign out on the lakeside path. Couldn’t resist hanging out just a little longer. The first half of the day’s walk was along the lakeside to Glendu Bay, where there is a nice campground (got ice cream to go with my lunch) and a nearby organic farm. The trail went up through it so I could see some of the operation including those portable chicken coops they move around the pasture behind the cattle. After a bit the creek valley narrowed, took an abrupt turn from a seemingly impenetrable wall, and led up through a beech forest a while before breaking out into the alpine terrain that defines this section. Met an Austrian man named Daniel who is also hiking this stretch– we ended up passing each other all afternoon and then at the same hut, which took a long day’s walk to attain. The huts are all recent, clean and beautiful– part of this new Motatapu Track which was apparently funded by foreign investment (I’m not sure how a walking track can be a good monetary investment). The first day hiking after a rest day is always exhausting, not sure why, but it is definitely early to bed tonight.
December 10th, 2015
Dec 10 day 101 Wanaka 0 km
Ahh, a zero day (by choice). Wanaka is an amazing little town, lives up to all the good things I have heard on the trail. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I stopped walking a bit. Feels good not to be moving very much (though I did walk a bit to break in my new shoes). One thing you have to love about tramper culture is living within forms of mobility and in the big outside. Sitting in a coffee shop this morning, I watched a man across the street beside his car drop his pants, flash all the cars going with some briefs crack, then he put on his hiking shorts. There is no real place for modesty in hiking towns. All in all, a day well spent.
December 10th, 2015
Dec 9 day 100 Lake Hawae Village to Wanaka 8:45-2:00 25 km
Lake town walking– flat and fast. Woke at 5:30, bing–wide awake. Decided to spend early morning in hostel kitchen drinking coffee and catching up on correspondence. So far behind on a series of short essays, but hard hiking days really don’t lend themselves to evening writing, and December so far has been a pedal to the metal month. Just taking what is there and trying to build some buffer days in case problems emerge. The walk over to Wanaka was along the Hawae River on a bike trail. A little hot and dusty, but pretty, and after yesterday’s rock clambering, ridge hiking, steep descent, a little flat was welcome. The Wanaka hostel is good– they messed up my reservation so I got upgraded to a cabin with some good folks, including a guy from Chile. Got some laundry done (including sleeping bag), resupplied at the New World, got new shoes (!), and found a replacement icebreaker beanie hat. Not sure why that made me so happy– the old one had been such a useful bit of equipment. Not a day of contemplation, just getting things done. After chores I wandered the town a bit. Many people I have talked to have said to forget spending time in Queenstown as it is too “touristy” (which of course is what I am, though I don’t travel around in a group) and to stay in Wanaka. A stroll down the lakeside convinced me that this is a town to spend some time in. Since I’ve been making such good time and have not taken a free zero in a long time (all zeros on the South Island were dictated by weather, not desirability. In addition, I’ve been having some physical stress pains in my legs and feet, so a day of rest is probably in order (and I can walk about town breaking in my new shoes!)
December 8th, 2015
Dec 8 day 99 free camp to Lake Hawae Village 6:45-4:00 28 km
So I pitched my tent on what looked to be a great free camp site, and it was except the ground was not as level as I thought, so my night was a good bit of sliding from one side to the other of my tent–not the best night of sleep in preparation for an uncertain day of hiking. I woke fairly early to a very cold morning– layered up with all my warm clothes (and at some point in the day lost my Icebreaker beanie hat that I loved so much–very disturbing). This day did not mess around. Immediately I was climbing very steep and not well formed trails, and it did not stop all morning. Scree that moved to a touch, lots of downed trees across very steep trails, then a few gratuitous river crossings (very cold water). Finished out by an incredibly steep climb out of the river valley up to the Breast Hill plateau (yeah, breast hill!). The late morning , early afternoon was more civilized, following a farm track up above the bush line for some incredible views of the lakes and the snow covered southern alps. The descent off the plateau was tough, first along a long ridge line with narrow rocky paths, then a quick descent to the lakefront and a long dusty walk to Hawae Village, which is more a collection of houses near the lake than a town. I did get the last backpackers bunk at the hotel and had a great meal at the unforgettable Sailz restaurant, then settled in to rest from what was a difficult few days hiking. Glad to be in another lake valley; will make the trek over to Wanaka tomorrow.
December 8th, 2015
Dec 7 day 98 Ahuriri River to free camp on ridge above Timaru River 7:15-5:15 30 km (+4 walk up road to trailhead)
Recipe for hiking on South Island: Start day hiking up narrow valley, probably crossing a cold stream often, climb all morning to reach a saddle at about noon, then descend into a new river valley following riverbed with regular climbs to ridges above. Repeat for two or three days, then a day of road walking to a town on or near a lake, then repeat it all again. The main variation on that formula today was surface. The first 2/3rds of the day, including crossing Mount Martha’s saddle, was on a farm track then a bulldozed road. Not smooth but easy to follow. Still the climb was a beast, and the wind (with snow) on top was tough. The other 3rd was back in the forests much like on the north island — very narrow sidling above steep banks and climbing over lots of downed trees. Got to Top Timaru hut at 1:30– a brand new well-made little hut, would love to have stayed there, but was too early to call it a day, so went to the woods and then went slogging in the Timaru River the rest of the afternoon. Should get to Lake Hawea Village tomorrow. Sleeping near a small waterfall tonight.
December 8th, 2015
Dec 6 day 97 Lake Middleton to free camp, south of Ahuriri River 7:00-6:30 30 km (plus 7 km off trail to hike around river to bridge).
Today I was once again a walker of rivers, unfortunately not a forder of rivers which made for a long day’s work. I woke with a vague sense of dread. The descriptions of the day’s trail were not promising, making it sound as if navigation up on the saddle and down the East Branch of the Ahuriri would be difficult with no real trail to follow and markers few and far between (I was remembering the difficulty around Coal River last week) And there was a ford at the end of the day– the largest unbridged river on the trail. And it was cold and wet, some rain falling as I headed up the road to the trail head. The hike initially was uneventful, the mist cleared and the trail was a 4 wheel drive road so the grade was easy. Then it turned up into the pass, following up a roaring stream through a huge beech forest. It was magical and my bad temper lifted immediately. Just before the trail broke out of the woods above bushline, I stopped by the stream at a big rock, got out the Jetboil and made oatmeal and coffee, then just relaxed, taking in the beauty of the place. The rest of the ascent was steeper and rockier, but good, and before noon I was over the saddle and on my way down a well-marked and easy to follow trail. The river was beautiful and so was the day. After a bit, the trail stopped crossing the stream and climbed a ridge where a large flat plateau opened out, a space worthy to be the set of a Sergio Leone film. This area is high desert– a lot of water is flowing through it, but the soil is thin and rocky. The bogs have masses of moss and springy grass, and the edges of the streams have some bushes and of course spear grass, but on on the plain the vegetation is crispy and thin except just now the dandelions are blooming by the millions. They are different from the ones I know, the leaves are small, thick and have no lobes. Instead, they spread out touching the ground so there is no wind desiccation. They get maximum sun and hoard moisture, waiting for the beginning of December to thrust up a single bloom on a two inch stalk. It was all yellow today. Late in the afternoon, the valley I was descending broke out into the main river valley. It was all broad flat plain except for a pine plantation on one side. It took a good hour just to cross the wide flat space (I was slowed a good bit by dodging rabbit holes– they are everywhere here). When I got to the river, my plan was to ford and camp just on the other side– a good 30 km day– but, around 4:00, I arrived to discover a high and fast running river. To the west I could see a range of snow capped mountains melting fast in the day’s hot sun. The river was milky green, so full of glacier melt that I could not see the bottom. I made several tentative forays into it, trying to get a good foothold and then cross, but each time I’d get about 1/4 the way across and the bottom would drop out, making it impossible to cross in the current. The TA paperwork says that when the river is too high to ford you should head downstream 5 km and cross by a bridge. So off I went, first in the rocky river bed, then up an a small ridge but making good time. I was still in a good mood. Then the Ahuriri did what all rivers here do– it swung over to my side and crashed hard against a cliff, making walking impossible. There was a high ridge above (about 100 meters nearly straight up) that formed a flat plateau with a lot of pine trees. I had no choice but to climb up there, weave in and out of trees, sticker bushes, pasture land, climbing numerous barbed wire fences, fording dozens of streams, finally getting to the road that led to the bridge. It was 6:00 before I crossed, too late to try to get back to where I originally planned to camp, so I walked up the road a couple of clicks until I found a stream and a flat place for my tent. Going to sleep well tonight.
December 8th, 2015
Dec 5 day 96 Twizel to Lake Middleton Campground 8:15-3:15 29 km
Following my rule not to eat out of my backpack when a restaurant is available, I wandered around Twizel a bit before getting the big breakfast at the Hydro Cafe, so-named because this whole network of lakes and canals in this area is a massive hydro project, with Twizel right in the middle of it. Twizel itself is a strange town. I’d like to learn the history. There are a number of buildings that are older (not old) including the High Country Motel and Backpackers where I stayed, along with the Top Hut Sports Bar immediately adjacent, but the entire downtown looks as if it was designed and built just a couple of years ago (along with the inexplicable presence of two 4 Square grocery stores within a block of each other). It all has a recently designed feel to it, and one that does not follow the typical New Zealand small town which inevitably is made of two streets crossing perpendicularly and lined with a bank of storefronts. Twizel’s business district faces a square with a playground. After breakfast I headed out for another day of road/bicycle path walking, going first to the dam across the base of Lake Ruataniwha– a man-made lake that is part of the hydro system and also the site of rowing competitions. I saw several boats out practicing in a strong headwind as I walked up the shoreline, but first I stopped at the salmon farm, not to feed the fish which apparently is a big tourist draw, but to get a last cup of coffee before heading off into the bush for 4-5 days. The day’s walk was uneventful, first following shore of Lake Ruataniwha, then the Ohau River, and finally the Lake Ohau, arriving mid-afternoon at a DoC campsite with few amenities, a high site price, and a lot of sand flies. Still, I had hiked nearly 30 km and thought calling the day early was a wise choice. Had a great conversation with an enthusiastic fly fisherman named Frank, cooked dinner, and dove into my tent just ahead of the sand flies.