It was tough but amazing

Published: February 26th 2016
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We escaped Sydney and all the lead up mayhem of the annual Christmas celebrations to head across the Tasman to Picton in the South Island of New Zealand for the start of Dave’s adventure program (22+ days of hiking – largely no electricity, no wifi, no hot showers, no ‘get out of jail’ cards….you get the vibe).

Side note: we had experienced the amazing Department of Conservation (DoC) series of Tramping Huts located on various trails, when we did some hikes in Queenstown / Wanaka back in Jan/Feb 2014 –refer earlier post

Queen Charlotte Sound (QCS) track – The Warm Up 4 days of hiking (Mon 7/12 to Fri 11/12)

We started with our ‘warm up’ hike to awaken our legs, feet and backs with a 4 day-hike of the Queen Charlotte Sound (QCS) track, which starts from Ships Cove (spot where Captain James Cook spent many months repairing his ships/provisioning) – we get there by boat/ferry.

Each day we stayed in luxury resorts (you can camp if you want to) but we opted for some comforts – where the food was amazing and rooms very comfy, we carried our own gear/packs to get used to walking with weight BUT you can arrange to have your extra gear moved to the next hotel stop. The distances we covered were Day1: 15 km – Day 2: 13km – Day 3: 24km and Day 4: 21 km. We were in good shape and spirits to head back to Picton for our ‘rest day’ and shopping for food to send to our resupply points at St Arnaud and Boyle Village for the remaining 400km+ we covered. After our warm up walk we celebrated with few pints and pizza at the Irish Pub Pizzeria!

The QCS is beautiful part of the world, pristine coastline and flora and fauna, very tropical. People who live here have gorgeous little cottages to very modern large holiday homes with boat only access. It is very reminiscent of cottage country in Canada.

Picton is a very nice spot – it is visited by many cruise ships (with upwards of 3,000 passengers) who visit the nearby world famous Marlborough Sounds vineyards.

Now for the ‘real’ hiking from Sat 12 Dec – Wed 30/12

Warm up over we now started our hike proper. No comfy beds, nor wifi, electricity, hot showers, cooked restaurant meals à Now it is sleeping bags, river bathing, freeze dried dinners from Back Country (really quite tasty after big day of hiking, especially if you add extra Mashed Potatoes), big porridge breakfast with plenty of sultanas and brown sugar for energy and lunches of NZ’s institution of a ‘One Meal a Day’ cranberry bars and Big Bars (chocolate chips with apricot or banana oat slice kind of concoction). We also drank lots of hot ‘Raro’ Black Currant cordial.

Dave arranged to have us dropped off to the start of the track (rather than a 38km walk along the road) by coolest driver, “Big Dave”, who picked us up when we 1st arrived in NZ and took us to Picton. Dave was a keen fisherman and hunter and shared some great stories. He noted that the 3rd instalment to the Hobbit movies was shot on the Pelorus River (wine barrel scene).

It was drizzly old day but after Dave dropped us off, we started our hike proper, loaded with food/supplies for 9+ days as no resupply points once you get into the wilderness…….

Day 1 (Sat 12/12) : We had only short day of 13.5km to Middy Creek Hut (slept 6 persons. We arrived and met locals from Nelson who were enjoying weekend break. Had quick dip in the stream along with many biting sand flies.

Day 2 (Sun 13/12): Weather was pretty good – 16km. We didn’t see a single person today… was tough going as lots of sidling in dense growth forest – it was a 9-hour day (without breaks) to arriving at Browning Hut where we had the hut all to ourselves. It was lovely spot. We woke up very refreshed and to enjoy a coffee on a crisp clear morning - there was frost on the grass.

Day 3 (Mon 14/12): We had a big vertical climbing hike of 1000m (6hrs+) and we were rewarded with amazing views to the coast/sea. We stayed at Starveall Hut (had the hut to
ourselves) – we did not see anyone today, only heard a helicopter overhead.

Day 4 (Tues 15/12): we crossed over to the Richmond Alpine Track (I didn’t read the small print – but these unformed trails are referred to as the hardest section of the Te Araroa “TA” (3,700km series of trails that cross both the North and South Islands) – they are recommended quote from the TA guide “routes are defined for fit, well-equipped people with a high degree of experience and with navigating and river-crossing experience”. Dave later mentioned that when he put our hike program, it was based on the following criteria: HHP – Highest – Hardest – Prettiest (%$#@!).

We had some river crossings but all doable as could see the bottom of the river and thankfully, there had been lack of heavy rain recently in the area. There was bit of wind about as they climbed and crossed ridgeline before we had to descend. We arrived in Old Man Hut in one piece after a fairly solid steep descent. During the day, we only met one lady from Perth who was
hiking in opposite direction to us and stayed at Old Man Hut with Clarisse (from France) who was doing the “TA” solo.

Day 5 (Wed 16/12): This was going to be a very big day – we had to climb Mt Rintout (only covering 4.5km in 5 hours) and then spend further 5 hours to reach Tarn Hut for our overnight stay all with a 2,500M vertical effort – note: the ascent of Mt Rintout should not be attempted in bad weather as very exposed to wind, hail, rain, snow and it is steep with rocks as your friend.

We had an overcast start (but no rain) and we were in good shape with the climb after the 1st ascent and descent but Robbo had a big tumble / double somersault after skidding on large rock over deep scree of rough jagged rocks…Dave just got me up very quickly when we ascertained no broken bones in order to keep me moving as we still had plenty of work to do to get up and off this mountain. I was bit shaky and lost bit of confidence but with Dave’s tough
love shall we say, we made up and over and then down off Mt Rintout. You have to check out my bruise photos, I was very lucky that I did stop when I did else I would have been off the mountain. Dave had his finger on our Personal Locator SOS button but we didn’t need to use (thank goodness). After we descended to Mt Rintout Hut, we had quick bite of lunch and then hit the trail to reach Tarn Hut as the rain was coming. We arrived to fire going (thanks to Clarisse who had arrived before us) and just crashed. I was pretty sore but slept very well. It was one of our toughest days in our hiking experience but wow so excited to have done it…in one piece!!.

Day 6 (Thurs 17/12): – It rained fairly solidly overnight but it was a clear sunny morning for today’s adventures – we had to cover two sections: 1st section was to Mid Wairoa River Hut (41/2 hours) with very steep descents made little more challenging as quite wet and slippery with overnight rain and the 2nd section was to Top Wairoa River Hut (5 ½ hours) of extremely tight narrow sidles with 50ft+ drop offs, it was slow and steady kind of day. So narrow were some of the ledges that your boot was too wide. Dave told me afterwards that he was too scared to look back at me, he as just ready to act if I screamed &/or slipped. We had several river crossings at end of the hike through some of the most beautiful waterfalls / clear pools I have ever seen. It was magic but tough day. We arrived at Top Wairoa Hut. We were fast asleep when 3 more hikers arrived at 10.00pm…..they had hiked from Mt Rintout Hut so had a monster day and completed some of the final river crossings in the dark. This is when we met Margaret (opera singer / voice coach from San Francisco), Mad Dog Murphy (photographer / adventurer) from US and Sonia (aka Fire Pants) from Montreal Canada.

Day 7 (Fri 18/12): We did not have the best sleep the night before but we had another 9 hours ahead of us to cover. We didn’t see anyone else aside from hikers from night before. Highlight was calling St Arnaud Alpine Lodge to book our stay on top of Mt Ellis with crystal clear reception. We had beautiful views. We arrived at Porters Creek Hut and were excited that next day was our exit to civilisation and a nice hot shower at St Arnaud.

Day 8 (Sat 19/12): Exit from Richmond Alpine Park – well it was still tough morning – lots of scrambling, steep scree sections to cross but finally we reached the Red Hills Hut and the walk to the car park / highway.

We ‘hitched’ a lift to St Arnaud (only 10 min drive) – 1st time ever for us and we were rewarded by a lift from Paul and his cute little shiatsu puppy, Benson. They had been up in Picton working on Paul’s boat. He dropped us off at the Alpine Lodge – oh my goodness it was just beautiful – we booked a superior suite that was gorgeous – a hot shower after 8 days was heavenly and the soft enormous cosy bed was divine. We had a delicious meal of slow roasted lamb shank with some beers / wine. This was our early Christmas dinner.

Day 9 (Sun 20/12): REST DAY – we just had huge sleep in, did our laundry, had yummy breakfast / brunch, did some napping and then enjoyed pizza and champagne in the evening. It was so nice to enjoy some comforts but equally we ready to start next leg. We filled our packs with food/supplies that we had posted from Picton to St Arnaud – lets do this!!!

Day 10 (Mon 21/12): Started Waiau Pass Track (115km)

We had picturesque clear sunny walk to John Tait Hut (over 21 km) – picture goblin green moss covered trees and rocks and gorgeous water falls – it was like walking through a fairy tale scene. It was not technically challenging like the Richmond Alpine walk so was quite relaxing in comparison.

We met Karen from Sweden (ocean scientist who was about to undertake 7-week research visit to Antarctica), Phil the volunteer hut warden from Leeds, UK and we caught up with Mad Dog Murphy and Sonia (Fire Pants – name she was given in reference to her little wood cooker that also was providing energy to charge her phone/camera).

Day 11 (Tues 22/12): Today we had to cross Travers Saddle (which is only recommended to do in fair weather – we saw information notices for a German climber that went missing in 2014 crossing the Saddle, still not found). We woke to heavy rain however set out to initial hut at Upper Travers Hut (2.5 hr hike) and then we waited for rain to clear, which it did after approx. 2 hours. While it was raining outside, we had some extra porridge and lit fire to dry out our boots and socks. We also came across a two-man pop up tent…now this was ‘a sign’ as we did not pack our tent for this adventure and we knew that we needed a tent for an upcoming night at Caroline Creek. We thanked the universe for whoever left their little festival tent and included it in our packs…you will see photos of the bivvy or emergency hut accommodation and see why a tent was your Plan A option.

After the rain had stopped falling heavily and the clouds looked like they were clearing – we did the ascent pretty comfortably, we were coming up above the cloud line and up close to snow that had fallen on 16th Dec. We then had a brutal descent section in deep steep scree of approx. 1100m that took 3+ hours before we arrived at the West Sabine Hut where we crashed. We enjoyed quick swim/dip in the river and met other hikers who were doing a circuit of the various huts in the Nelson Lakes National Park rather than the TA route. There are so many hikes you can do in the Nelson area, day trips or multi-day loops.

Day 12 (Wed 23/12): We had a relaxed start as only had a ½ day planned to head to Blue Lake Hut (1100m Altitude) to one of two lakes, Blue Lake and Lake Constance, where scientists regard as having the purest water in the world. It was a beautiful hike and the hut at the Blue Lake was gorgeous. It is popular spot for hikers to reach. We shared with Karen (Sweden who we’d met at John Tait hut), Sonia Fire Pants and John and Sue from Nelson. We just relaxed in the afternoon exploring the lake and reading our Kindles / books.

Day 13 (Thurs 24/12 – Christmas Eve): Big day today, we crossed the Waiau Pass (9 hours+), we enjoyed perfect clear morning to do the technical ascent and descent – we shared trail with Sonia as good to be with others when it is challenging. It was beautiful to walk up to Lake Constance and watch sun come up over the mountain with only other inhabitants being some Canadian geese.

Reached the Waiau pass and touched snow before looking at our descent down….it was little daunting as we only saw 3 snow poles and then nothing – an abyss but slow and steady we made our way down inch by inch / step by step. It was so beautiful. After we descended we then had saw beautiful waterfalls and tons of alpine flowers everywhere. We had to complete many boulder field crossings before we reached Caroline Creek. It was the mid-way point; the next hut was 9 hours away. We peeked inside the Bivvy / Emergency Hut that would hold two (2) very short people and it was infested with sand flies & other bugs plus the tiny bunks were simply old hammocks that had not been updated since 1950s (I think)…lucky we had our 2-man tent as our Plan A. Plan B may have been asking Sonia if we could join her in her tent. We shared Christmas Eve with Sonia with a full bright moon but also 1,000’s of sand flies – they were brutal. We lit a fire in middle of dry creek bed in an effort to smoke them out but they just kept coming.

Day 14 (Fri 25/12): – Merry Christmas / Joyeux Noël

We did not have a bad sleep in our little tent – air mattresses would have been nice but we weren’t complaining. We had quick breakfast before the sand flies woke up and headed off to the Anne Hut (30+ km away). It was cold fresh clear morning and we had two chilly cold river crossings to do not less than 1km from our campsite. It was freezing.

The rest of the day was following primarily a 4WD track following the river. The hike crossed the St James Station. It was pretty hot; estimate 27 degrees with clear blue skies. We saw one local runner who was training for an endurance event in February 2016, a family camping on the other side of river and then when we arrived at Anne Hut, along with Sonia – Fire Pants, we met four (4) young Russians who were enjoying break from their fruit picking and who were doing the St James multi-day hike. Anne Hut is one of the newest huts (built 2011) and it was heavenly to be in a comfy bunk. We were exhausted after long day walking but so happy to arrive to a comfy hut and celebrate our Christmas Day March with dinner of freeze dried deliciousness (again).

Day 15 (Sat 26/12): we enjoyed an easy day of hiking (only 5 hours) to the Boyle Flats Hut – very sunny with not a cloud in the sky. We had an afternoon nap and nice to relax after two (2) preceding big days of hiking.

We were just about to turn in for the night when we had 3 late arrivals including John (local horseman) and his grand daughter Sala (who was riding their horse called ‘No Name’) and a German hiker, Stephanie from Dresden who had joined them for Christmas. John volunteers his time and skill to making sections of the St James trails accessible to horse riders and mountain bikers.

Day 16 (Sun 27/12): We walked to Boyle Village just a short hike of 4 hours. We were booked to stay at the Boyle Outdoor Education Centre and also we posted our 2nd box of food/supplies there. It is large centre that caters for school and corporate groups. We met Noeleen Francis (Volunteer duty manager and her friends Kate and John). We were the only guests staying but it was so lovely to rest up, take a hot shower and have nap in the afternoon. We could have caught a lift to nearby township of Hamner Springs but we were content to just not ‘reconnect’ to world for the moment. We said to farewell to gorgeous Sonia aka Fire Pants as she was heading in to Hamner Springs for ‘some R&R’ / hot springs et al.

Day 17 (Mon 28/12): We had a lovely offer from Noeleen to drive us to the beginning of the start of the Harpers Pass track rather than spend 2 hours along road. We took up that generous offer which meant we were able to recalibrate our program to see us possibly ‘exit’ the trail’ at Arthurs Pass (which we did achieve on Wed 30/12 to then make our way home to Sydney and our puppy, HB, who we were missing desperately)….by cutting out those 2 hours of road section in the morning, we were aiming to do two (2) monster days as some legs between huts were 4 hours and then next hut 5-6 hours, so a day is too short to only do 3-4 hours but doable (if not somewhat challenging) to do 9-10 hours, but that’s what we did. We were ready to come home.

It was hot old day, and we had a long slog to Hurunui Hut. The most beautiful hut we spent our lunch stop at was the Hope Kiwi Hut, which was a converted farmhouse. Would have liked to stay at that one (next time). We arrived at Hurunui Hut to full house but we scored a bunk each – lots of local kiwis were out tramping after Christmas celebrations – we met a fisherman, 4 hunters and day trippers who were camped at Lake Sumner. It was hot old night in the hut and the sand flies were brutal….and we had an Olympic Level Snorer in the house – he was loud baby!. Clarisse (from France) who we had met way back at Old Man Hut also stayed at Hurunui Hut.

Day 18 (Tues 29/12): We had another 10 hour day to attack – first stop was Huranui Hut No. 3 hut which was 3 hour jaunt and then we crossed the Harpers Pass to the Locke Stream Hut (further 7 hours). The later section has plenty of technical work to do including sidling, river hopping, steep descent sections – we loved it. It was amazing going over the Harpers Pass to see change in flora from forest to almost semi tropical / lush vegetarian and then return back to forest vegetation. We arrived at the hut and met 6 girls from a tramping club in Auckland (they do regular getaways when they have long weekends and 2-3 weeks during Christmas holidays). Clarisse arrived approx. 9.00pm, followed by Daniel, young guy from Washington State at 10.00pm+ who was doing the full TA. The hut was a very old hut, built originally in 1940s and renovated in 1993. There were hand bevelled timber floors and frames.

Day 19 (Wed 30/12): We are heading ‘off trail’ today – we were excited to be heading home to Sydney. The actual hike today was strangely unmarked and bit obscure – you had to do some bush-bashing and then follow the river along kilometres of rock beds so not the most enjoyable of walks but our goal was to get home so despite being finicky we tried to stay focused with the final river crossing at the Otira River and then walking up to the highway at Otira (It took 6 ½-7 hours). We removed our muddy boots, bagged them and put our big smiles and thumbs up to seek a lift to Arthurs Pass township (approx. 25km). We were happily given a lift by Brenda, a nurse, who was on her way to Christchurch (ChCh). She dropped us off at Arthurs Pass where we waited for shuttle bus service to ChCh. We had quick famous NZ meat pie. After many clear sunny days, it started raining when we arrived at Arthurs Pass. After 2 hours we arrived in ChCh, whilst on the bus we booked a studio at the Ramada Hotel ChCh. When we arrived at the downtown bus exchange, we witnessed the damage from the 2011 earthquake. It was surreal to see brand new buildings adjacent to condemned unsafe buildings. I found many familiar sights / street names from my childhood.

We arrived at Ramada Hotel which was beautiful and enjoyed delicious bite to eat The Dux, a new pub/hotel that had been opened for 4 short months. We made call to take a early direct flight to Sydney on 31/12/15 and return to ChCh at another time to explore.

Our flight was 6.00am so we booked a 3.45am taxi service (yes you read correctly).

We had a fabulous flight on code share with Air NZ/Virgin service and arrived Sydney at 7.15am AEST.

We had such great time hiking, our best yet – it was challenging, especially physically and mentally. Thank you Dave for doing the logistics and planning for this trip – he did an amazing job but our biggest thrill was coming home and seeing HB. Gavin and Silvio and Wilma had taken such sweet care of our dog.

Our next adventure: TBC – flagged to be Europe June-July 2016 – Alpine Pass in Switzerland and/or Grand Randonnee (GR) 20 in Corsica which is considered to be Europe's most challenging long-distancewalking trail. We did some hiking in Corsica in 2011 and it was breathtaking. Ciao ciao xoxox

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