SOUTH ISLAND ROADIE: MOUNT COOK TO WANAKA
You’re entering a half told story. Or more accurately one quarter told, as the action picks up on day two of our south island road trip. With me in the car is Jess, my sister Kelly and bro-in-law Adam. Nobody stunk yet.
From the port city of Picton we’ve skirted our way down the arid east coast, passing under Kaikoura’s moody skies. Our ears popped as we turned west and climbed into the southern alps.
True fact: New Zealand rivers are made of blue gatorade.
Our campsite on night two was fabulous – full stop. And I don’t understand why. Fabulous because it was unestablished, flat, free, isolated, easy to spot, wood rich and overlooking a gorgeous lake with New Zealand’s tallest mountain on the horizon. But I’m confused why it was available. Surely, for an island bursting with natural beauty there would be swarms of travellers like us jockeying for the same life-list campsites? Particularly on clear nights. Guess we lucked out.
That night it was beer, pizza and stargazing. In the morning it was rock ball (a rock hit into the water was a home run) before back in the car and around the lake to Mount Cook village. This was our shortest travel day of the week with only 45 minutes from the freakonomics campsite to the trailhead.
Nevermind the bungy jump or the marathon … this was the activity I was most worried about. A tough night on the mountain. I wanted us to share at least one backcountry experience on this trip – and for our group I picked the Meuller Hut in Mount Cook National Park for its rave reviews and tackleable 5K distance.
With our hiking boots laced and hut tickets in hand, we rocked up to the visitor centre to see this sign:
ICE AX AND CRAMPONS NEEDED
MOUNTAINEERING EXPERIENCE ESSENTIAL
Great. If you have to ask what crampons are, you probably don’t have them. I approached the ranger. “So my crew and I have tickets to the Mueller Hut tonight but we’re a wee light on gear … what’s the likelihood of us making it up there?”
I expected him to spit out his coffee and taze me. Instead he asked a few questions (which apparently I answered correctly), jotted down our info and sent us across the street to a gear rental outfitter. His sentiment was: it’s gonna be hard, but if you’re fit, up for an adventure and take the right precautions, you can do it. One reason I love kiwis. Tough as!
With the marathon only a few days away, Jess decided to save her legs and grab a motel. This left Kelly, Adam and me for a bit of brother sister time on the mountain. We pointed to the glacier we expected to kill us and set foot up the trail.
After 1,800 stairs the trail turned to snow. The route was marked with orange poles which were barely visible at times. As long as we could spot the next pole we were good.
In the hut we found two american girls, an irish couple, one austrian teenager and two kiwi hut wardens, who instructed us to meet at the radio at 7pm for a weather update and roll call from park headquarters. I stepped out for a few photos.
You could walk gingerly on the snow but occasionally you would fall through. As a dude your balls cushion your fall. In this picture I had stopped to laugh at Adam and apparently the weight of my awesome insults was an ounce too heavy.
We arrived at the hut on opening day for the season. As such, it and the outhouse were virtually buried in snow. One of the volunteer hut wardens duties was digging these out over the next several days.
It was a cold night in the hut. No fireplace or insulation. Brrrrrr. During the weather update the night before a crackling voice warned of gale force winds and hard rain the next day. We awoke to a blowy snowstorm which eased as we cramponed our way down the mountain.
Made it! What a cool experience. Strongly recommended for anyone planning their south island adventure. It was gruelling climb made riskier in avalanche conditions, but it’s the salt that sweetens the memory isn’t it?
Speaking of sugar, we had some celebrating to do. Smelling of rotten skunk corpses after four days without bathing, we piled back in the car and sped toward the shower promise land of Wanaka.
Showers were necessary, yes. But the wine more so. So in Wanaka we b-lined for Rippon Vineyard for a tasting of the region’s famed pinot noir.
The hotel that night was a treat. And though showers and beds lifted our spirits, the mood was tense. For it was Tuesday. And Tuesday was bungy jump day. In just hours we would each have a turn standing on the edge of sanity, glaring down 400 feet to the rocky river below. The jump weighed heavy on us, and as we crested the Crown Range Road and looked down upon our final destination of Queenstown, it was the only thing on our minds. GULP
TO BE CONTINUED…