A 10 day wilderness trip in Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks.
While driving down the West Coast I fill Jake in on the details. “I’ve never actually met Tara but people say we’ll get along well. We’ve talked about doing a trip together in Central Asia sometime. If we enjoy this trip then at least we’ll know if a longer mission together is a smart idea.”
Jake, an American workmate from NOLS, is dropping me off near Wanaka for a 10 day trip with a stranger. We left Nelson and headed down the Coast, checking out some nice beaches and going for a quick packraft on the Wanganui River on our way South.
I smile to myself as we pull into the Boundary Creek campsite and jokingly thank Jake for being our shuttle bunny. He is doing a wonderful job. Not only has he agreed to being ditched for 10 days (girls-only trip!), he’s agreed to hide our food resupply bucket under a random bridge on the West Coast and then pick us up from a road end a few hundred kilometres away! In exchange he has a car to borrow while we’re gone and is treated to the company of two giggling girls at either end of the trip.
“I’ll send you an Inreach message in a few days if we need to change the pick-up location. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get over the tops yet. But all going to plan we’ll see you at the Hollyford trail head on 31st October” I told Jake. Trip logistics. There’s always more that goes on behind the scenes than you think. We wave Jake goodbye and set off towards the mountains. It’s one of my favourite feelings, that moment when you step off the road, gaze into distance and all you can see is nature. Giant white peaks were visible at the end of the valley and with every step we were getting closer to the white giants and further away from the tarmac. My soul screams for this feeling, for the simple routines of the backcountry. For fresh air, piercingly cold rivers and birdsong in the morning. Just a friend, a ridiculous backpack and 10 days of wilderness ahead.
Within the past week our route ideas had changed multiple times. Initially we started with the standard Hollyford-Pyke loop idea but we decided it’d be fun to do something a little longer and more creative. Could we go up Mount Aspiring and then somehow get down and paddle to the ocean? What about going into the ice plateaus and packrafting out? We settled on heading up the South Fork of the Wilkins valley, getting over the tops and dropping into the Waiototo. From there we could packraft out to the ocean and walk along the coast to Big Bay, popping inland to meet the Pyke to packraft a section before walking out the Hollyford Track. I was stoked, planning was easy as we shared similar styles and I knew immediately we’d get on well.
Up the Wilkins
Within a few minutes of leaving the road end we find ourselves tits-deep in a freezing cold river, too lazy to inflate our packrafts for a river crossing. We spend our first night camping out in a clearing near the river and in the morning we share a pot of porridge before continuing up the valley towards the formidable Waterfall Face. The tops are covered in a lethally thin layer of snow which would be terribly slippery on the snow grass. The snow conditions, combined with the forecast, prompt us to embrace hut life and reassess our route. So we opt for an afternoon sitting in the sun in our sleeping bags feasting on chocolate. The next morning we turn around and head out the way we came, packrafting out the Wilkins back to the road-end. After some rain the river levels are rising and we’re thankful for our packrafts to cross back to the main highway. After making it to the road we load our packrafts into our bags and stand on the side of the road with our thumbs out. The plan is to hitch-hike to Haast and continue our trip down the coast into Fiordland from there. I turn on my Inreach and there’s a message from Jake: “Resupply bucket is at SW end of bridge, under the metal placard commemorating the year the bridge was built. JP.” What a bloke! We start dreaming of that block of Whittaker’s chocolate, a resupply of cheese and our bag of tortillas. A stream of fancy cars and tourists in camper vans pass and we’re still standing on the side of the road with our thumbs out. We eat some chips and start taking bets about when we’ll get picked up and by who.
Heading to Haast and the Cascade
“I bet we’ll get picked up by some hunters,” I say. Next thing we know a truck has pulled up, not for us but to fill up on gas. I’m feeling cheeky and yell out “We’re good company!” and they come over and offer us a lift. We jump in the back, sharing the seat with a friendly dog. They’re loaded up for a boys’ weekend fishing and hunting at Jacksons Bay, right where we’re headed. Score! They offer to bring us further down the gravel road, saving us 20 kilometres of boring walking. Part way we ask them to stop at the bridge and we jump out and return with a big white bucket of extra food. By now they must think we’re really crazy. Two girls on a 10 day adventure with packrafting and mountaineering kit, with a bucket of food hidden under a bridge in South Westland.
They drop us off between Jacksons and the Cascade. It’s raining when we put on our backpacks and we crack up laughing at how ridiculous our whole trip is. The Cascade River is up from recent rain and would have been impossible to cross without a packraft. Feeling lazy, we just inflate one packraft and both try to cross at the same time. Epic fail! “That’s one of the dodgiest things I’ve ever done” Tara says, after we almost topple over backwards into the river. I’m amused because Tara recently circumnavigated Svalbad in a sea kayak with lots of polar bears! But our backpacks are so tall and heavy that it’s almost impossible to maintain balance. We soon find ourselves sitting on the deck of what appears to be a bachelor pad or remote hunting getaway. We wait around, hoping someone will turn up soon because we’re keen to camp there for the night. It seems lived in and there are fresh tomatoes on the table. We get creeped out so we keep walking. A few hours later it’s getting dark and we’re still trudging along, making our way through slippery creek beds and muddy swamps in thick rainforest. We count 16 deer on dusk within an hour or two. It’s a long walk through the forest towards Barn Bay, especially in the dark. Tara is still rocking her jandals and whenever we reach a muddy pool she almost loses them. We admit that we’re both afraid of sleeping in the thick bush at night (haha) so we continue pushing towards the coast. We finally pop out at the Hope Hilton, a private hunters’ hut with a small add-on that trampers can use. We cook up a feed and reflect on a great day. We feel satisfied with our efforts – ditching the Wilkins, packrafting to the highway, hitch-hiking to Haast, scoring a ride up the gravel road towards the Cascade and then walking to the coast. It’s around 11pm when we curl up in our sleeping bags, giggling ourselves to sleep.
Barn Bay – Gorge River – Big Bay
The following morning we begin heading down the coast. We spend most of the day walking along boulders by the ocean, doing the section of coast from Barn Bay to Gorge River. It’s a gorgeous stretch of remote coastline, with lots of Fiordland Crested penguins. We make friends with the penguins (counting 60-70), talk about food and adventures and men, and finally we spot the rocky islands by Gorge River in the distance. When we get close, Beansprout pops up on the other side of the river and we packraft across to say hello. Tara has been here a few times so he recognises her and gives us a friendly welcome.
We have a moment where we sit at Gorge River and contemplate sending an Inreach message to our Facebook newsfeed, inviting any rugged mountain men who want a date with two adventure girls to come along to Gorge River. We don’t go through with it but it would have taken most people at least 2 days to walk in to our little hut anyway! Maybe we’ll give that a shot next time. Instead we hang out with Beansprout and stay at Gorge River for a second night. He has been living at Gorge River for over 35yrs, mostly with his family. They’ve become famous as “New Zealand’s most remote family”. Both Robert and Kathrin have written books about their life living at Gorge River. We drink tea, eat fresh cake and talk about the world. We end up being invited in for dinner and dine on roast vegetables, fresh mussels and salad from the garden. As we slip into our sleeping bags that night I say, “Well, we ended up having a date at Gorge River in the end. Beansprout is the ultimate rugged bush man”. Giggling ourselves to sleep quickly becomes tradition.
It’s a day’s walk from Gorge River to Big Bay where we enjoy another great DOC hut and continue walking to the Pyke River. From there it’s a cruisy packraft to Lake Alabaster (saving us many hours on foot) where we bump into Bruce (AKA “Sammy Stoat” for those of you who may have been reading the hut books) who offers to give us a tow across the lake! Awesome.
Our route: We walked up the Wilkins and into the South Branch. Came back down the Wilkins (walking and packrafting). Hitch-hiked to the West Coast. Walked from the Cascade – Hope Hilton – Barn Bay – Gorge River – Big Bay – Pyke River. Pack rafted Pyke River. Got towed across Lake Alabaster by Bruce! Then walked out the Hollyford to the road end, finishing on October 31st.
After this Tara headed off on a ship to Antarctica and I headed north with Jake to packraft the Clarence River. We made it off the river and up the coastal road just before the Kaikoura earthquake hit. We were the final group to paddle the full Clarence River before a class 5 rapid was created by the earthquake!
Tara and I have already started dreaming up our next adventure. After our ridiculous backpacks on this mission, we’ve declared that our next one will be “an ordinary tramping trip”. Matching mountaineering jandals are mandatory, of course.
Note: this trip was almost 4 months ago now, since then life has been busy (although not too different from the past 3 years). A trip to Nepal, Queensland for Christmas, India, a short stint working in an office in Christchurch and then more time working in the bush in New Zealand.