The plan was to hike to the Liverpool Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park. It’s a 6 hour hike: 4 hours along the Matukituki valley then 2 hours up the mountain. What was supposed to be an early departure from town turned into a 2pm start time. We packed some booze, the board game Risk, and a delicious dinner. When we crossed paths with the warden of the Mt. Aspiring Hut around 4pm and told him that it was our intention to go for the Liverpool Hut that night, he suggested we reconsider our plan. We still had 5 hours of walking ahead of us and the last two were quite steep. It would be dark when we arrived at the hut.
Our initial reaction was, this guy is like 80 years old and is underestimating our ability. Side note: In the states, the park rangers often overestimate the time and skill level required to complete a hike. On the east coast, we look for descriptions that say strenuous because that is where the interesting hikes begin. In New Zealand though, the time estimates are accurate, and strenuous means you will sweat your ass off.
We continued past the warden in silence, quietly walking and mulling over the plan.
“We could do it. It would be like 9pm when we get there, but we could do it,” Someone said.
There were a bunch of yeah, mmhmm, I think we coulds from the group then a moment of silence. The woods are going to get dark a lot earlier than the valley though. I mean, we have headlamps, but do we really want to be faffing around in the woods at night when we could be playing Risk in the hut?
We called it quits after two hours of walking and started setting up the board game at a communal table in the Mt. Aspiring Hut. Throughout the evening, we ate all of the bacon, drank all of the Jameson, gobbled down massive quantities of chocolate, and played the game of world domination with two Israeli guys who discussed their strategy in Hebrew before moving pieces. By midnight, we were too drunk to care about the pitch black night’s sky, positively littered with stars.
Oh my god, look at the stars!
Mmhmm, I’m going to bed. Where’s the water?
We woke the next day at 10 and set out around 11 for the Liverpool Hut. We left our packs where we had stayed the night before and brought only our lunch and water bottles, which we refilled in the streams that ran off the glaciers above us. The beginning part of the hike was all photo ops and river crossings until we got to the base of the mountain, which seemed to form a 60 degree angle with the valley floor. Hand over foot we climbed, assisted by roots that served as ropes, up the thousand meter ascent. Two steps forward, one step up, stopping frequently to enjoy the views and catch our breath. Boob sweat, back sweat, sunscreen in your eyes, we climbed. No one could be bothered with pictures. An hour and a half later, we spotted the little red Liverpool Hut that we had seen in pictures at the car park. Hut! the first person called, Hut Hut! the second in line shouted back. But still, it wasn’t close. We stopped for lunch on the trail with a great view, but not at the hut where we intended to be. Fuckit, let’s eat.
After lunch we split up. A few of us went on and some started the descent. The hut was on a ridge, 30 minutes from where we first spotted it. It was there for a reason. That ridge had the best view of Mt. Aspiring of anywhere in the valley. It was stunning and only confirmed my suspicion: we will be doing this hike again. I need to stay in that hut and sit on the porch, with a cup of coffee in hand, watching the sun come up over Mt. Aspiring. It was 3pm when we arrived at Liverpool Hut. We stayed for 10 minutes, knowing that we had a 5 hour trek back to the car, an hour drive back to town, and no more food. The walk out was gorgeous, but I had shaky legs and kept thinking about how far we had to go.
As soon as we got cell service, we phoned in an order for burgers for pick up. We took them home, sat on the floor and unwrapped their beautiful, greasy paper before attacking them like a pack of wild dogs. Twas a phenomenal hike, executed in entirely the wrong way.
If the Mt. Somers hiking trail isn’t one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” I’m excited to see what’s made the cut.
We began our hike, or “tramp” in the local lingo, at the Sharplin Falls parking area, near Staveley, about an hour from Christchurch. Our route was Sharplin Falls to the Woolshed Creek Hut (bypassing the Pinnacles Hut), where we’d spend the night, and then to Woolshed Creed parking lot the following day. We met an affable Czech named Jan overnight in the hut, and he graciously provided us a ride back to our car.
Our first day was the longer of the two, with five hours on the trail broken up by a leisurely lunch at the Pinnacles Hut. The morning featured a steep climb up to 800 meters followed by a wonderful jaunt along Boyers Creek. Due to spring runoff, the creek was more like a raging river, taking parts of the track down with it and slowing our progress, but the challenge of hopping from rock to rock along the riverbed with our packs did nothing but add to our enjoyment. We climbed out of the river valley and into the sub-alpine bush above and arrived at Pinnacles Hut for lunch around one o’clock. At our stop there, I learned that the rock formations directly behind the hut (the “Pinnacles”) are home to some excellent sport climbing routes. As I salivated over the lines, I concocted a plan to return with ropes and gear for an extended stay at Pinnacles Hut.
The weather turned worse as we departed the hut, with rain changing to sleet and eventually, snow. We felt two worlds away from our humid morning jumping from around in the creek bed, but again, the journey, and its attendant challenges, are the point. As the weather continued to decline, the terrain eased and we hurried our pace, eager to dry off in front of a fire at our day’s destination. A few hours and several frigid river crossings later, we had arrived, hanging our soggy socks behind a crackling fire.
I’ll reiterate Bill Bryson’s point from A Walk in the Woods: besides the beautiful scenery and physical rewards, hiking’s appeal comes largely from deprivation and then return of basic comforts. As I sit in front of that fire, warming my frozen toes, I felt tremendously fortunate to have simple warmth.
As we patted ourselves on the back for our decision to bring our camping stove, we enjoyed a simple vegetable soup and chatted over tea with our new Czech friend. I discovered that he was also a rock climber in need of a belay partner, so we exchanged contact information and discussed the lines at the crags we’d gawked at on the way in. Tired from our long day fighting the wind on the trail, we turned in early to read a few pages of our book before nodding off to a restful sleep.
We awoke to find our fire burnt out and a strong chill in the air. The hut sat down in a deep valley, so while the sun was shining on the hilltops, it hadn’t yet reached the few inches of snow that accumulated overnight lower down. The cold motivated an early start, so we were on the trail again before eight o’clock. While the signs outside the hut indicated it was a three hour trip to the end of the track, we hustled through it in half that and were back at our car and relaxing in the Staveley Village Store, drinking hot coffee and snacking before 10am. This was backpacking at its most luxurious.
New Zealand’s backcountry huts provide an unprecedented and unequaled level of comfort, especially compared to those I’ve visited in the northeastern United States. They’re equipped with wood stoves and firewood, sleeping mats, sinks with clean running water, and, most importantly, four walls and a roof. The shelters in the United States are simple platforms with leaky roofs, open on one side to the elements and, if you’re lucky, near a running stream or fire pit. New Zealand’s backcountry huts are the Ritz-Carlton to the United States’ Motel 6.
Tickets to stay in one of the country’s extensive system of huts ($15 per person or $120 for an annual pass) are available at Department of Conservation offices, many visitor’s centers, in the general stores at each end of the Mt. Somers Track. The Staveley Village Store is worth a stop anyway for a delicious savory brioche and a cup of coffee after a few snowy and windy days on the trail.
This hike came recommended by a few different guide books (Fodor’s, Lonely Planet), so I had high expectations. Despite (or possibly even because of) the weather, it exceeded all my hopes. The terrain was challenging but not difficult while changing from lush forest to rocky alpine terrain. There were exciting river crossings and comfortable huts spaced relatively close together. At the beginning of December we’re scheduled to hike the Heaphy Track, which is part of the “Great Walks” system. These are the most popular tramps in the country, and come with special (higher) rates and an online booking system. If Mt. Somers didn’t qualify as a “Great Walk,” I’m excited to see what has.
As Christina mentioned in her last post, we’ve struck a nice balance, both financially and mentally, between jobs and time off to explore New Zealand on our own. Most recently we’ve been in adventure-mode, spending the last week bouncing around the Canterbury region of the South Island. Here’s what we’ve been up to:
October 10: Camped in Little Akaloa, a tiny village on the sea on the Banks Peninsula. The drive along Summit Road at sunset was stunning.
October 11: We had a lazy morning reading and relaxing in Little Akaloa, then rode our borrowed bikes up the hill beside town. We chose our destination because the street at the top had a nice name: Long Lookout Road. It turned out to be very poorly named, but the descent back to town was steep and exhilarating.
October 13: After refusing to pay for the world’s most expensive parking spot again, we camped under a tree on the side of the road. This isn’t explicitly allowed in New Zealand, but there weren’t any “No Camping” signs and there was a public bathroom nearby. We don’t need much else. We paid for our bravado with a sleepless night, fearing our shade tree would collapse under a relentless gale and sheets of rain and awoke to find the windows in the van were stuck in the down position. In the rain. ‘Twas a challenging string of events.
We spent the day resupplying in Geraldine and visiting some very odd tourist attractions: the largest knitted sweater in the world and a handmade reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry with millions of tiny pieces of metal. As we limped up the mountain out of town the pounding rain relented into a gorgeous, peaceful snow.
In Lake Tekapo we spent the evening soaking in piping hot thermal pools, with giant Christmas-y snowflakes gently falling around us. The snow continued to fall as we went to sleep – nearly a foot was forecast.
October 15: After an off-road adventure in Nissan Serena Williams, we found a nice secluded camping spot on the shores of Lake Pukaki, with panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. We took a very muddy and bumpy bike ride in Ruatawhini Conservation Park and came to the realization that some kind of suspension is pretty much essential for mountain biking to be fun. I spent the afternoon getting my monthly dose of adrenaline, bouldering along the Mt. Cook highway.
Back on the road, our plans were again derailed in Mt. Cook National Park. We’d planned to do a short hike in the morning then go up to Mueller Hut for the night, but our discussion with with the ranger at the visitor center went something like this:
“Mueller?” He looked down at our feet. “In those boots?”
“Do you have skis?”
“Any avalanche training?”
Fully emasculated now: “Nope.”
“You’ll never make it. Come look at this.” We walked to a window of the sparkling visitor’s center and he pointed at a giant icy blue shelf that looked like it was about to tumble down on the mountainside and us below it. “That’s where you’re headed.” We quickly changed our plans and made the prudent choice: relaxing in the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe with a glass of whiskey.
October 17: Hey, that’s today! We’re back at the Old Mountaineer’s, caffeinating and writing. Today we’ll head back to the Tekapo hot pools for another soak and a day off from hiking/biking. We’ve both got a knee that’s barking and could use some extended R&R. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it with a hike around Mt. Somers on the way back to our WWOOF hosts.
Traveling like this provides constant freedom, but with that comes a few challenges. We’re always making plans then scrapping them with changes in the weather or our attitude. We’ve learned its useless to have more than a very rough sketch of your next few days, and the best skill you can have is flexibility. The Mueller Hut hike is on my NZ bucket list, so I was bummed to learn that it wasn’t possible this time, but I’m content in telling myself that it’s a reason to return to the area later in our trip.
Despite the challenges of the last few days, I still feel incredibly fortunate to be here. I only need to look out the window at the jagged mountains surrounding us to be reminded that this is a special opportunity.