Tramping in the Southern Alps of New Zealand
The tourist town of Wanaka reminded me of Lake Placid as we pedaled through streets jammed with tourists and past stores selling outdoor clothing. Wanaka, rhymes with Hanukkah, sits at the end of a long lake in the Southern Alps and from the park along the shore there is a breathtaking view of craggy snow-topped peaks.
We stayed in Wanaka long enough to have a lively farewell breakfast with our Kiwi friend Chris and her cousins Lu and Lauren. It is a great gift to have good friends in a faraway place but we were all heading off in different directions after a couple of days together painting an outside wall of Lu’s batch (summer camp).
Tom and I took the road toward Mt. Aspiring National Park, a long scenic dead end that most long distance bicyclists avoid. When it turned to rough dirt for twenty kilometers we could see why. But we rode borrowed mountain bikes, were in no hurry, and carried food for five days.
The long band of high mountains we approached featured craggy peaks, glaciers, and braided rivers. We pedaled up the Matukituki Valley where the road and river shared space with hundreds of sheep and cows. In a stroke of luck we found a narrow strip of land along the river that was fenced off from the livestock and set up our tent. We boiled water for soup and cocoa on a tiny stove made out of a beer can. Lauren had shown Tom how to make one and for fuel we used a dollop of methylated spirits, a bottle I’d found in the grocery store cleaning products aisle. The stove worked remarkably well and certainly was lightweight and inexpensive.
For the next four days we explored the trails at the end of the road. The most popular hike, the Rob Roy Trail, attracted every tourist from miles around. It only took a few hours but led up to a fantastic, close-up view of a couple of glaciers, and the plunging waterfalls that drained off of them. We were some of the first hikers up to the top but on the way down we passed a steady stream of walkers. We amused ourselves by trying to guess the nationality of each group. German? Australian? British?
Almost no one used the trail that led up the East Matukituki Valley. We walked our bikes across a swinging bridge and locked them to a fence that protected a rare Hector’s Tree Daisy from the livestock. A sign told us only a few thousand of these trees now exist. The rest have been gobbled up by hungry sheep and cows, or nibbled up by rabbits, possums and rats. New Zealand has no native mammals except a small bat and the introduction of other mammals has completely changed the landscape. The many native flightless birds nest on the ground, of course, and their eggs are enjoyed by stoats and ferrets, animals introduced to kill the rabbits and rats. Only a few islands and fenced areas are free from non-native mammals.
Our trail began as a path through pastures with a few easy fords over small streams. The number of cows and sheep increased as we turned up a wide valley, fenced into large pastures and fields. We passed a farmhouse and wondered how the owners got there. The river would be too high to cross for most of the year and there was no road. We knew from reading the historical signs that a couple of the first farmers in the valley had drowned in the icy water.
After walking past a large field of turnips used for winter feed, we finally entered the woods, a rare area of native bush. Huge red beech trees made deep shade even though they have tiny leaves. Most of the native trees grow very slowly and after they are cut down the land either is turned into pasture or planted with non-native, fast growing trees. A stand of Pinus radiata, a California pine, is ready to harvest in as little as fifteen years in New Zealand’s mild climate.
These woods and the blue river beside them were so beautiful we slowed our hike down to a leisurely journey with breaks to sit on sand bars and cool off our legs in the icy, blue waters of the river. After a steep climb up a narrow valley, the land opened up at Mt. Aspiring Flats, a truly spectacular place, gobsmacking, as our friend Chris would say. The flat bowl was surrounded by high peaks and glaciers and waterfalls. It amazed us that almost no one was there.
We did meet two hikers, Judy from California and Ian from Wanaka, neither of them young but both of them very fit.They had set up camp in a soft meadow and Ian offered us a cup of tea, the proper Kiwi response to visitors. In a flash he had water boiled on his stove, milk made from powder and cups of tea ready. We sat and talked, enjoying Judy’s lively stories and Ian’s quiet comments. Judy invited us to share the little meadow but we headed off through a dense tangle of bush to find a place on the map called The Rock of Ages bivouac. Ian had looked for it and not seen it, so that gave us the thrill of the chase.
We did find the bivouac, a slanting cliff with room to stay almost dry on a rainy night. But we had a tent with screen, useful as the sand flies arrived at dusk. These little biters are close cousins to the Adirondack black fly and just as persistent in finding bare skin.
In the morning, we discovered that Ian and Judy had not carried a tent and slept little because of the attentive sand flies. Judy was grumpy but Ian beamed when he described the bright stars and the dawn chorus of birdsong. I was almost sorry I’d been snug under a screen and slept so well.