Tramping (New Zealand-ese for backpacking or hiking) seems to be an incredibly popular pastime in this country. As far as I can tell, aside from the immediate in-town touristy things that the country offers, tramping is one of the biggest tourist attractions that the country touts. The entire island is covered in huts ranging from deluxe with gas stoves to sheds with straw floors. Most of them are managed by the Department of Conservation, which will sell you an unlimited 6-month hut pass, excluding the huts on the Great Walks, for $90NZ. That amounts to less than $70US.
Since I knew I wanted to do some tramping, and since we’d already used one of the huts without paying when we got stuck in the downpour on the Wakamarina track earlier, I pretty easily talked Scott into buying a pair of the passes for us. I like supporting organizations that do cool things. It would take 6 hut visits to pay it off.
I’d gotten the suggestion to do the Greenstone-Caples loop from the mountain biker on the Old Ghost Road, and we had just enough time to squeeze it in before Scott needed to be back on the Internet, so we threw some logistics together and went.
At camp, the bikes went into the bush, along with our tent, sleeping pads, and extra junk that seems to accumulate when we stay in a town too long. We were limited to our 22L Osprey Talons, day-packs at their finest. Yet we managed to fit sleeping bags, warm clothes, rain gear, our stove and pots, and two nights worth of food into them. Hut tramping is awesome. It also helps that you have to carry next to no water here as water seems to shoot out of the sides of mountains everywhere.
Andras and Vanessa had offered to drive us out to the trailhead near the town of Glenorchy, north of Queenstown, in Yeti, the 1993 camper van.
Things actually went pretty well for the first 45 minutes…right up until Andras pulled over on the side of the road in the bushes and announced a scenery break. This would have made more sense 50 meters earlier when there was an actual overlook.
Then steam started coming out from under the front seats and everyone jumped out of the van. Andras seemed unconcerned. “She’s done this before. It’s just overheating. I just add more water to the radiator when it cools down.”
He lifted up the front passenger seat to reveal the engine, and we watched the steam hiss out from the overheated engine.
“Let’s make coffee. I love living in my van!”
Once cool, we emptied most of our water into the radiator and drove on. We were 5 km down a dirt road when the van overheated again. We let it cool down and made it another km. This wasn’t going to work, and Scott thought that water without antifreeze wasn’t going to get us anywhere. So we dumped all of our remaining water into the radiator and hightailed it back to Glenorchy to the mechanic who didn’t have any antifreeze. “Just fill it with water,” he said, so we did. And got back on the road.
Yeti made it to the first creek ford on the road, just a few km’s down from where we’d turned around before. Yeti wasn’t going to make it past the ford, so Scott and I quickly grabbed our packs, wished them good luck, and headed down the road for a 10km road walk.
Luckily, a van filled with 13 year old girls on a school trip picked us up halfway in and gave us a ride to the trailhead. It was 4:30 by the time we started hiking, we’d left Queenstown at 10:30. Nothing that goes smoothly makes for a good story?
The 12km to the hut went easily, and we rolled in long before dark to a beautifully situated building filled with 16-year old school girls and boys who were on a school trip. Observations: School trips in NZ are cooler than school trips in the US and 16-year old mixed gender groups have an amazing capacity to make constant and loud noise. If it wasn’t so impressive, it might have been annoying.
It was raining when we got up. If I were to write a book about our travels in NZ, I would call it “And then it rained”. Scott was skeptical about undertaking a 40km walk to the next hut in the rain, something about not wanting to suffer for no good reason if we weren’t going to be able to see anything anyways, but the weather forecast had said clearing after heavy morning showers, and I insisted that we not make a decision until after we’d eaten breakfast and packed.
This was a good thing because it had stopped raining by the time we were ready to go, and I quietly followed Scott to the trail, letting him make the decision on whether to go up the trail, or to do a smaller tramp in a different area. I did a secret little happy dance when he pointed in the direction we were originally planning on going.
Light rain and wind 30 minutes in had us both questioning our decision, but then the rainbows came out, followed shortly by full sun, and we knew that we’d made a good choice. Finally, we were getting lucky with the weather! Could it be?
We rejoiced in the full(ish) sun, the lack of wind…even boggy trail with water past our ankles couldn’t get us down.
Before long, we were at McKeller Hut, which is where most people stop for the day, but for us, it was merely an almost halfway point. We weren’t going to catch our shuttle back to Queenstown if we stayed there.
But it was a great place to make a sandwich, perform a boil-up for afternoon coffee, and watch it rain, because, well, it was raining again. Bugger.
We marched on, with a time forecast (they measure trails in time here, not distances, and they’re actually pretty dead on) of 6-7 hours to the next hut. With a 1:30 departure, we hoped to arrive before 8pm. Which is fine, because it’s light past 10 here.
Of course, the high point of the track was socked in and raining.
But there were signs of mountains in the distance. We sang happy songs asking for the fine spells to come back as we plunged into the valley.
We ran into the group of girls who’d given us a ride to the trailhead 45 minutes down from the high point. They’d missed the private deer stalker hut they were supposed to stay in that night and had hiked “ages” past where it was. All things considered, they were in good spirits and probably only overshot their hut by an hour and a half of hiking….whoops?
When we got to the hut, it was packed. 23 out of the 24 bunks were taken as the Routeburn, one of the Great Walks in the same mountain range had closed due to the snow last week, and all of the displaced trampers had come over to do Greenstone Caples. I personally thought that the heaps of people were fun. Lots of different stories to listen to, and we were pretty much the last ones to go to bed at 9:45. Scott took a spare mattress to the kitchen along side two even later arrivals, and I took the last bunk.
I’m getting pretty good at passing out in broad daylight.
I could tell something was special when I crawled out of the top bunk, the first one moving in the morning. It was all I could do to contain a squeal when I looked out the giant hut windows from the kitchen.
The sun was out! It was lighting up the mountains in full force! Halleluja!!! I immediately went and woke Scott up, ‘You have to see this!’
The clear skies led to low temperatures, and we were even able to enjoy a cup of coffee outside with the hut warden, who was a gal from Grand Junction, before the sandflies woke up and started swarming. With only 9km to go before our noon shuttle pickup, we had all of the time in the world, so we soaked up the view for all it was worth before starting down the trail, bidding the mountains goodbye.
Even with a late start, we had time for a sandwich and a boil-up for coffee in the parking lot before the shuttle showed up. The driver, who verged maybe a little bit on the cray-cray side of life, got us back to Queenstown in 90 minutes, a far cry from the six hours it took us on the way out on the Andras-non-Express.
We finished the trip the only way we desert rats knew how to, with tacos from the Taco Medic. With all due respect to all of the other tacos I’ve eaten in my life, these may be some of the best. At least in the top 3.
We hunted down my brother, Vanessa gave us a ride back to the campsite, and we spent the afternoon lounging in the sun, which was still shining. As of this writing, 24 hours after that, it still hasn’t rained. It probably will tomorrow, but bloody hell, when it’s nice out here, there is nothing like it.