New Zealand - South Island Part 1
Trip Start Jan 14, 2009
57Trip End May 2010
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Hello, first-world New Zealand! Hello to looking out on a vista and actually being able to see it (i.e. no pollution)! Hello to good cheese and wine! Hello to English as a first language! Hello to under population! Hello to...what!!?! High prices??
Yes, it's true we had forgotten what things cost in the first world. A few days before our arrival and immediately following a purchase of the Lonely Planet for the South Island sent us in a spiral of financial panic. After several revisions to our budget, we still wondered how we would see all the things we wanted to see and make our budget last for 37 days when "cheap" rooms start at $80NZ, groceries and restaurants are double the cost as in the States, and public transportations options are more expensive than renting a car yourself in the States. Even just going for a multi-day walk in any of the Great Walks tracks in NZ will run you $40 per person to crash in the huts.
I guess no place is truly perfect, but it sure makes us appreciative of what we have back home! Regardless, we found a way to make things work on our budget and set off on our South Island adventure!
After arriving in Christchurch and picking up Ben's replacement Patagonia rain pants (Thanks, Patagonia!) and some climbing beta (info) from Dan, a friend of a friend, we took the first flight out the next morning to Queenstown, the hub to outdoor adventure (Mt. Aspiring National Park, Mt. Cook, and Milford Sound to name a few). That same morning, we called around for the best car rental rates and zoomed (or more like puttered) in our miniature, pink 1.3L car for Wanaka. The South Island had a late summer this year and we had just caught the tail end of the poor weather, so we took the opportunity to re-tone our bodies from several weeks off climbing, and crag it between rain showers.
Wanaka Lake from our illegal campsite. While there are many modern campgrounds around NZ chock full of facilities, they all charge per person and are about $16 each just to lay a tent down. When we're in "dirt-bag" climber mode, we have to avoid these kinds of fees like the plague.
We were stunned by how much technique we lost; coming from last climbing steep-but-juggy limestone with holds-a-plenty, where the soft grades inflated our egos into thinking we were regular 6c (or 5.11b) climbers, to going to technical, often run-out, slopey/crimpy (the locals call Wanaka and Paynes Ford climbing "slimpy") schist rock, our egos were crushed as we couldn't grunt our way up even the odd 20 (which our book converts to 5.10b)! With over 700 routes to choose from though, we had plenty lines to keep us busy for a few days.
Lindsey at the top of the Tombstone rock
Ben at the crags
Schist rock and rolling hills
We also managed to take an afternoon out to hike to the Rob Roy glacier in Mt. Aspiring National park. For those of you who are heading to this area sometime, this short 3-hr hike is an absolute must! From the Raspberry Flats trailhead, the first km or so meanders along the rolling, grassy hillsides of the river valley, passing grazing sheep. Then, you cross the river and begin trending a consistent-but-doable grade through beach forest and woody ferns until you arrive at literally the base of the massive Rob Roy glacier. Very few hikes we've been on provide such a stunning alpine setting for such little effort!
Link to a short vid of Ben chasing sheep on our way to the trailhead: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benkunz/4312365558/in/set-72157623178241737/
The grassy valley at the start of the track
The Rob Roy glacier
When our tips and tendons pleaded for a rest, we cruised into Wanak town to check the weather and plan the next adventure. Tourism has overtaken sheep in the last few years for the top seat in New Zealand's economy, and a wonderful by-product of that is every town is now equipped with at least a tourist information centre (called an i-Site) and many towns also have a Department of Conservation (DOC) site, similar to our national park offices in the States. Stocked full of maps, tramping advice and access to Metservice, New Zealand's best weather source for both cities and mountain weather, we were elated to find summer was finally here! Not a drop of rain forecasted for the next several days. Our minds were quickly made up: drive back to Queenstown right away to drop off the rental car and begin a multi-day tramp in Mt. Aspiring National Park the next day. No time to waste!
Unfortunately, public transport to the trailheads is egregiously expensive ($50 per person per way, which could tally up to $200 just to access the hike!). Fortunately, New Zealand is very hitch-hiker friendly, so we scribbled a big sign for WANAKA and within 5 minutes got a ride straight to Wanaka, plus 3 more rides to get us all the way to the Raspberry Flats car park. In the end, it took us only 30 minutes longer to get there than driving ourselves and it was absolutely free--not to mention better on the environment!!
The starting half day from Raspberry Flats to Mt. Aspiring Hut was an easy-going walk along the Matukituki Valley. Grassy, rolling hills were scenes to Lord of the Rings, passing sociable teams of sheep and cattle. Despite the easy terrain, we were somewhat sluggish having foolishly mispacked heavy food. Wanting to keep options open for our walk out the Rees or Dart valleys, we carried extra food for an extra day or two should we get excited on side trips. The downside to this approach meant we would be lugging around heavy packs over Cascade Saddle and beyond until we could consume away the poundage.
The infamous distance signs along the track. More on this below.
The Matukituki Valley
The cows were friendly to us but we heard from other trampers that they got charged by these beasts
Regardless, we arrived at the hut at around 6pm, with plenty of daylight left (sunset around 9:45pm at this summer latitude), so we carried on to put some of the vert of the next day's climb behind us.
The trail immediately heads into the forest and abruptly took us up, up, up. The meters flew by on our altimeter. By just after 7:30pm, we made camp at a gorgeous, protected spot just below the treeline. The dominating Mt. Aspiring, along with lesser though still impressive Mt. Barff, Mt. Liverpool, Mt. Avalanche, and Mt. Rob Roy, peaked their snowy and rocky summits through the beach trees that comprised our shelter from wind and rain.
Making dinner in our wooded shelter
The lovely Mt. Aspiring (3033 meters/~10,000 feet) embraced in clouds at sunset
The night brought some cute but peksy visitors. First, the glorious green kea birds. These curious and smart birds are about the size of a large house cat and have in IQ just short of a primate. They fly over the treetops in groups, more like cliques, at dawn and dusk, crying out their adorable calls that sound much like their own name. "Kea, keeeea, keea," would echo the valley walls as they aggressively flapped their green bodies, exposing a stripe of orange under their wings. Leave a bag in the open and turn you back on it for two minutes and a kea will have hop hopped over, peaking in the bag for something to eat or just examine.
The lovely kea bird. Don't you just want to cuddle and squeeze it?
Here's an endearing and really great vid of the kea bird taken from our trip up the Rob Roy glacier: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benkunz/4311842613/in/set-72157623178241737/
The other visitor, whom was a bit more persistent during the night, was the local variety of possum. These large, sloth-like creatures, though more cute and cuddly than our version back home, are still pests, just like home, and are a huge tuberculosis problem for New Zealand. Anyway, every 20 minutes or so we'd hear a slow rattling through our stuff in our vestibule, like a slow, oversized rat. We'd switch on our headlamps to find a perturbed possum starring back at us with no intention of leaving our vestibule. As if Ben were fending off burglars, he dutifully made rounds outside our tent in flip flops and underwear, chasing off the 3 pesky possums with a stick. Having no known predators, these creatures were more curious of Ben than afraid. In some cases, he literally had to poke these guys to get them to move!
The vertical gain and heavy packs the previous day took its toll on Lindsey and she awoke with unbelievable knee pain. We decided upon takking a rest day in our nice, sheltered lcoation to see if the knee would improve enough to press on with the adventure. Ben took advantage of the extra day to get another summit under his belt: Mt. Tyndall (2496 m).
Ben at the snowy summit of Mt. Tyndall
Sure enough, Lindsey's knee made good recovery, so we pressed on the next day and were rewarded with stelar weather and views up the Matukituki, Liverpool, and Dart valleys. We'll let the photos describe the landscape...
Lindsey looking down on the Matukituki Valley
Mt. Aspiring on a lovely clear day
From left to right: Mt. Aspiring, Mt. Avalanche, Mt. Rob Roy
Ben on our first river crossing of the day with Mt. Tyndall in the background
Unique river valley where the river has cut through and exposed the schist rock
Exposed terrain at the Cascade Saddle (Lindsey isn't posing in this shot, is she? Nahhh...)
Our lunch spot at Cascade Saddle
A kea joined us for lunch (Plunket Dome in the background)... or is that Ruth Mountain?!
Upon crossing over into the Dart Valley, the impressive Dart Glacier stunned us. The broad river of ice snaked around Plunket Dome (2191m), Mt. Liverpool (2482m), Mt. Maori (2535m), Mt. Maoriri, confusing I know (2535m), the dubious Mt. Edward (2620m) and many other peaks in the cirque between. What really impressed us about this nearly 10km-long glacier, perhaps more than its size, was the amount of debris sitting on top of the glacier. (If a glacier has enough debris on top, it can actually insulate the ice and retard the rate of glacial melting. However, if only a little debris sits atop, the rock in the debris can act like a blanket, heating and melting the glacier faster.) At the terminus of this frozen giant, a river flowed from beneath it, literally exposing the mouth of the Dart River.
The Dart Glacier with Mt. Edward on the left
Vid of Ben and the terminal morain, the mouth of the Dart River: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benkunz/4312337030/in/set-72157623178241737/
The walk to the Dart Hut was surprisingly long, exposed, and dry. The landscape, though mountainous and beautiful, had a very desolate feeling, like we were on the moon, and it reminded us of coming over the pass in Nepal last October into Muktinath with our friends, Ben Glenn and Greg Chappel. We also forded countless creeks and river braids.
The desolate valley, similar to Nepal's Muktinath
Lindsey crossing one of many rivers that day at the start of the Dart Valley
This segment was the start for us of what we like to describe as classic "New Zealand sandbagging." The distances between landmarks was measured in time, not distances in km or miles like we're used to, and it seemed as though these times were listed for people without packs who never stopped to take photos or pause for a view. Occasionally, we'd try to map our current location and distance to a landmark (let's use the Dart Hut as an example), then calculate about how much more time it would take us to reach that landmark (let's say 3 hrs). Then, we'd walk (let's call it 1.5hrs) until we'd reach a distance sign that would read, "Dart Hut: 3hrs." No!!!! Okay, maybe we were just in a time warp or maybe we were going slowly. Being plenty sunburned, we decided to get this day over with, so we decided to just keep our heads down and walk quickly. Two hour of hiking later, we'd reach another sign. Surely, with our brilliant math we should only be an hour out from the hut. "Dart Hut, 2 hrs." No, no no no!!! This happened to us again and again on this trail. We finally made it to Dart Hut though, after a tiring, 11-hr day.
Happy to have made camp...and to have made another mess
The rest of the walk out the Dart Valley was long (surprise) and beautiful, though not as beautiful in our opinion as the walk over Cascade Saddle. The valley follows the Barrier Range, but most times you can't see the peaks through the forest and foreshortening.
Heading out the Dart Valley
Our final night on the Dart River valey was anything but lonely. Cooking dinner on the river-side beach proved distracting, to say the least, as we desperately swatted away thousands of sand flies. If you've ever experienced sand flies, you know they are the most annoying thing to ever roam the planet. And their sheer numbers are infathomable! Post dinner, we ran into our tent, zipped it up as hundreds pattered agains our tent like rain, killed the lucky bastards that made it inside the tent and vowed not to get out of the tent until morning.
We awoke early and broke camp faster than ever before to get away from the damn sandfles that were waiting for us through the night. Twenty bites at least on each foot, and that was with using Deet! In our haste, we left behind our tent states and our pot, which made us hate the sand flies even more!
Alaska looking isn't it?!
Life is good on the trail!
We made it to Chinaman's car park, the end of the Dart track, at about 11:30am, barely intact. Luckily, we scored a ride with a generous English couple, had sandwiches with them in Glenorchy and were dropped off in Queenstown where we spent the rest of the day doing as close to nothing as possible. Quite a ride!
Lots of more (mountain!) photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benkunz/sets/72157623178241737/
We miss you Mt. Aspiring!