Heading North

Dubbed as the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown is a mecca for mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, parasailing, skydiving, and water sports. As much as I would love to retail you with stories of jumping off of stuff and careening down things, I did very little (read: none) of that during our couple of days in Queenstown. What we did, mostly, was enjoy being in town and catching up with some of Tim’s old friends. We spent a couple of days drinking our way around town and enjoying the bustling, light-hearted atmosphere of the place. Queenstown itself is beautiful; surrounded by hills, perched on a gorgeous lake, it is certainly your picturesque New Zealand town. This is somewhere a person could happily spend a few months out of the year.

Queenstown

It was then time to begin our long journey north. We left in the afternoon, after Tim squeezed in a quick mountain biking trip, and headed towards Castle HIll. Castle Hill is an area dotted with very unique rock formations, and has become a popular spot for climbers and boulderers. We pitched out tent for a night in the nearby campground (for a whopping $12/night) and managed to get a solid half-day of climbing in amongst the boulders. We had a long drive ahead of us back to Picton that evening, where we were to catch the 2 a.m. ferry back to the North Island. Upon arrival in Wellington somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6 a.m., we didn’t waste any time before commencing the 8 hour (ish) drive back up to Auckland. The hurry was purposeful, though, as we got back to Tim’s family’s place at a reasonable hour in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. We had an amazing Christmas – my second in a row in this half of the world – and I was completely spoiled and  felt right at home with stockings, a turkey, and thoughtful gifts. Though missing all of the crew back in Canada, I certainly couldn’t have asked for a better time in New Zealand.

And there we have it! (I’m finally almost caught up!) We had a couple of days to pack, and pack again, and shove all of Tim’s remaining stuff into closets in the garage, and we were all of a sudden off to Mexico in a very short amount of time!

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Multipitching

We treated ourselves to another night in a cabin at the holiday park in Fox Glacier. And steak. And bakery treats, chocolate, and deliciously cold ciders. That’s the thing about spending five days in the bush, you feel as though you deserve all of the indulging in the world when you come back. After our indulging session and our comfy night in the cabin we took a quick visit to Fox Glacier in the morning. The glacier was beautiful, but it felt distinctly odd due to the overflow of tourists, considering how secluded our last few days had been. We then began the trip inlands towards Wanaka, which could be compared a bit to Banff – adorable mountain town, picturesque lake, and a healthy combination of gear shops, trendy cafes, and tourists. We spent two nights in a campground just outside of town, right on the lake, and happened to be checked in to our campsite by Adriana, an incredibly sweet Mexican girl who definitely helped peak the excitement about the fact that we were leaving for Mexico in around a week. Tim used to own a mountain bike guiding business that operated out of Wanaka, and looking at the hills surrounding town, you could certainly see how it would be an excellent area for it. On this trip, however, our aim was climbing, not biking. We went out for a few drinks the first night we got in, mostly in an effort to be around people for a couple of hours – too long in secluded mountain huts doesn’t sit well with my system, I’ve discovered. We then woke up in the morning and headed off towards Hospital Flat where we aimed to spend the day climbing.

We played around for a bit on the rock, and even brought Adriana out to do her first ever climb. The pinnacle of the day was what we accomplished at the end: a three-pitch climb that ended in a very exposed but easy traverse before a two-stage abseil back down to the ground. Multi-pitching is, again, a whole different ball game. It involves one person leading the first pitch of the climb, anchoring themselves at the top, pulling up most of the rope, and belaying the second climber from above. Once the second climber reaches the first, the whole process is repeated again. This involves belaying on the wall, anchored to a point 15, 25, or 40 metres off of the ground. Scary? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. Would I jump at the opportunity to do another multi-pitch climb? Absolutely.

Climbing - Wanaka 2

 

Climbing - Wanaka

 

Wanaka Abseil

The Copland Track Test

Our next adventure was the big adventure: 5 days on the Copland Track of the Southern Alps. The plan was to hike the 18 km into Welcome Flat on Day 1, head 7 km further to Douglas Rock on the second day, make it as far as we could towards the Copland Pass on the third day before returning to Douglas Rock, return to Welcome Flat on the fourth, and then walk out on the fifth day. This was going to be, by far, the longest hike I’d ever endeavoured to go upon, and also the only hike I’d be carrying a huge backpack full of gear and food (save for the two-day hot spring adventure a couple of days ago). We’d spent the night in a holiday park in Fox Glacier, a town a short drive away from the entrance to the track. Loaded up with sand fly repellent and dehydrated meals, we began the trek. The track was quite similar to our previous hike; generally through the trees, including lots of river crossings, with snippets of outstanding mountain and glacier views. When we finally reached our destination, and were greeted by the unbelievable scenery, hot springs, and a large and well maintained hut, I was impressed. It hadn’t been clear for the majority of the hike where we were going to turn up for the evening, and the snow-capped mountains and steaming springs more than lived up to my expectations. At the same time, it seemed an awfully long way to come for just this – the majority of people who spend time on the Copland Track walk up to Welcome Flat and then out the following day. The thing is, the walk isn’t spectacular until you get to Welcome Flat – the rest of the hike is nice, but not particularly awe-inspiring. I was looking forward to the fact that we had a few more days up in the area, though the repetitive signs warning us that the track beyond that point becomes suitable only for experienced trampers did make me a bit apprehensive.

Copland Camping

The morning stroll up from Welcome Flat, over grassy flats along the riverbed, left me feeling incredibly optimistic for the day. The distance wasn’t huge at all – 7 kilometres – and the topography map didn’t make this leg out to be particularly scary. I started to scoff at the “experienced trampers” signs, as the walk was easy and you’d have to try to get lost on the well-marked path. At one stage along the route, we came out of the trees into a large rocky and expansive creek bed. After a slightly dubious crossing, we scanned the area for the tell-tale orange path markers, to no avail. Even the hiker-made rock towers, which often help lead hikers gone astray in the right direction were missing from our sights. I swallowed my earlier comments about having to be a few screws short of a hardware store in order to get lost. It appeared as though we’d done it, at least temporarily. We began wandering in the general direction of “on,” through an area filled with enormous boulders. Not convinced we were barking up the right tree, we dropped the packs and Tim went to scout the route, luckily running into the hut warden from Welcome Flat, who pointed us in the right direction.

Copland Track Flats

When we continued along the trail, we understood why we hadn’t seen it; the entrance looked like nothing more than a sliver of break in the thick bush. The path had most definitely stopped being a grassy walk in the park. The next few hours were filled with fighting our way through thick bush, clambering over fallen trees and slips, and crossing streams, all with the general consensus of uphill throughout. It turned into a much bigger day than expected, and it was an exhausted pair that arrived at Douglas Rock that afternoon.

Douglas Rock was quite the hut and we, remarkably, had it all to ourselves. There were two overgrown bunks lining one wall, with the capacity to sleep around 8 or 10 people all told. A large kitchen table dominated the centre of the room, and the rest was left to the kitchen; a couple of steel countertops on either side, a sink with running water, and a wood burning stove we dubbed “Ole Smokey.” The jagged peaks of the Southern Alps were intimidatingly close, monstrous glaciers casually dotting the valleys. It wasn’t until you remembered that the valley you are currently residing in was carved by glaciers such as those that you fully appreciated the power of the nature surrounding you. We could hear the bubbling and rushing river that was a few metres away, and it was almost the only sound.

Douglas Rock

Inside Douglas Rock

We tuned into the old radio in the hut that afternoon to listen to the weather forecast, and that’s when we heard that a huge system was expected to move in, and that the entire track had been closed; no one was coming in or going out for at least two days. Our plans for the following day were looking a bit grim. When we woke up to absolutely pouring rain and fog so thick that we couldn’t see the trees outside of the hut, we knew it would be a pointless mission. We spent the day relaxing in the hut, trying to coax the fussy stove to spit out heat and not just smoke, and playing cards. We were optimistic that we may get a bit of a hike up the following morning, before we had to head back down the track. The rain continued in the morning, unfortunately, and let up just as we began the hike back down. We enjoyed a soak in the springs, some rehydrated dinner, and some hot chocolate before we retired to our tent for the night.

Hot Springs

By the fifth day, I was very, very ready to get off of the track and back to civilization. I was tired, sore from carrying the pack, and exceptionally tired of dehydrated food. We charged the walk back out – what had taken us 7.5 hours on the way in took us around 5 on the way back. It was definitely more downhill, but the pure driving force was motivation, and we sailed through the entire day. Though there were grins and high-fives at the end, this particular form of adventure may be a bit lost on me. “Enjoy” is not a word I would have uttered very often during the experience. It’s sort of nice in hindsight, and you do feel quite accomplished, but it seems a bit of a waste for me to expend so much time and energy doing something that involves so little consistent fun. There’s not a chance in hell I would have made it past the first day if it weren’t for my persistent yet encouraging travel companion. Neverhtless, the next big hike we go on, we’ve decided, I get to choose. It may look something more like three days, along flat ground, with a beach and a piña colada at the end.

High Fives

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Historic Huts & Hot Tubs

There had to be millions of them. The New Orleans native who had found his home in New Zealand pondered, while steaming in the riverside hot pools with us, what the mass of all of the sandflies, taken together, in New Zealand would be. As I sat watching clouds of them over the river, scratching the many bites I’d accumulated, I shuttered at the thought.

We were in what was essentially a natural hot tub, soaking beside a rather icy river, about a ten minute walk through the bush and across what these crazy Kiwis have dubbed “a swing bridge” from our two-bed, open fireplace, no electricity historic hut. I would tell you where, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy from the friend who tipped us off in the first place. Fair enough, as an influx of people would truly ruin the magic of the place. But, as the area is reached by a 25 kilometre drive and a 7 kilometre hike from the nearest real town, you probably won’t be rocking up tomorrow anyway. Not that a 7 k.m. hike sounds terribly daunting, but when what seems like half of it is over large, slippery stones lining the river and the other half of it involves crossing countless streams as you head up and over a truly never-ending hill, all with approaching darkness, in the rain, on empty stomachs, this 7 k.m. seems to triple in distance. Particularly when going into it with the impression that it was going to be a couple hours of easy strolling through the trees. It’s amazing how your mindset going into something has such a huge impact on your experience. 20 kilometres on Tongariro, 3 days of kayaking and hiking the Abel Tasman, these are things I would have rather done again in a second, if given the option, during that hike in. This was a combination of a lot of factors. We’d had a long day, I was tired and hungry, and my rather gangly stature – not used to hiking with a heavy pack – was finding these wet river stones a bit of a mission. Nevertheless, we made it in, and had enough sleeping bags to make up for the fact that our open fireplace could not change the fact that all of the wood was soaking wet. These are times when you very much appreciate the little things: dry socks, hot chocolate, and let’s not forget those hot pools.

Hot Pools

Big Up

Adiós ocean. Hola rock. We left the Abel Tasman behind and headed out to the Golden Bay area, a single destination in mind. Paynes Ford Scenic Reserve is well-known as a prime rock climbing spot, with over 200 climbing routes along several large, limestone walls. The Hangdog Campground, a minute and a half walk from the entrance to Paynes Ford, housed ourselves and our tent for $10 a night, along with a hodgepodge of climbers from all over the world, staying in every manner of tent, caravan, and vehicle. When we offered to pay our dues upon arrival, Troy, the terminally chilled-out head of the place, waved us away with a leading smile and the comment “Pay us when you leave.” Which somehow seemed to drift into the unsaid “Because you’ll never leave …” And indeed, it appeared to be one of those places. We met a couple of people in the camp who had come for a couple of days, or a week, and were still there – climbing every day – months later. We’ve already said we’ll be back, for a longer stint next time. (Although we did actually manage to check out after two nights.)

We headed out of camp bright and early after our first night there, eager to do our first bit of climbing in New Zealand. The sun was shining, making a good effort to dry up the last of the damp rock that remained after several days of rain. Excitement!

Perhaps the first thing we noticed was that rock in New Zealand is different from rock in Australia. Limestone vs. sandstone. Hard vs. soft. Sturdy vs. Break-y. Climby vs. fall-y. More than once, I grabbed on to a nib or a nub or a narrow strip of rock and tugged at it apprehensively, fully expecting it to break off in my hand. More than once, it did not. I’m not much of a climber. When we got chatting with the others, and compared my six months of very sporadic, generally indoor, climbing with their years of intense devotion that had taken them to crags around the world, it really brought to light how long you can chase this sport and have it still be challenging.

Still an amateur, I was – without question – challenged on this wall. There were a handful of climbs in a grade that I could attempt, so I did. Sport climbs are graded on a scale based on difficulty. This scale is quite subjective, as different body types and styles mean that some people find certain climbs significantly harder than someone else might. This scale can be noticeably “harder” in some regions (perhaps where the climbers are better) and is also completely different, depending on where you are in the world. (A 20 in Australia is roughly a 5.10c in America and 6b in France.) I’m going to go on the assumption that you don’t know very much about climbing because, up until a few months ago, I didn’t either.

There are two main ways to climb a wall; by leading it, or by top-roping it. A top rope is just what it sounds like: a rope fed through a bolt or carabiner or what-have-you, securely attached at the top of a climb, which you then attach securely to yourself. As you climb up, your belayer (your buddy on the ground) takes in slack on their end of the rope the entire time so that you’re always well protected, if you should fall. Of course, with this method, you first need to get a rope to the top, which generally involves someone leading it.

When you lead a climb, you start at the bottom of the wall, looking up at a blank – save for a few bolts – canvas. You are attached securely to one end of the rope, and the other end of the rope falls loosely into your belayers hands, who is standing on the ground right beside you. The goal at this point is to reach the first bolt on the wall, where you can make yourself secure (read: not fall on and subsequently crush your belayer). The first bolts at Paynes Ford seemed to be a lot higher off the ground than they were at ye olde indoor climbing gym in Sydney. Once you make your way off the ground and find a steady enough place close to your first bolt, you remove one of your precious, life-saving hands from the wall, grab a quick draw (essentially a bit of rope – but not rope, really, more like webbing – with a metal clip on either end) from your harness, clip the draw into the bolt on the wall, pull up slack from the rope dangling from your harness, grab it with your teeth, pull a bit more slack, clip it into the draw on the wall, and then replace that precious, life-saving hand back on the rock. When your belayer pulls your slack tight, you are officially safe. Clearly, lead climbing is a whole different ball game to top rope. Not just physically harder, there is a psychological aspect as well. You are often in a position to take some very real falls. Bolts can be several metres apart, and if you stuff up, you are falling the distance to your last clip. You are, in theory, safe the entire time. There’s a huge amount of trust that you’re placing in your partner and in your gear, and it makes the experience seem about 1000 times more real than being able to lean back on your top rope at any time. I led my first climb at Paynes Ford. And then a few more. It’s exhilarating and calming at the same time. Having the confidence to move, when you know that having a poorly positioned foot or a weak hold could send you down the wall is a big step up from what I’d been climbing before. This confidence is slowly and grudgingly growing, not least from being stuck on a portion of given wall (several times) with Tim coaching me patiently to let go and climb. I can’t wait to get on the next wall.

Paynes Ford

Sink or … Paddle!

“Abel Tasman was a dude, hey?” I said, in a bout of no-unversity-no-job-no-books-except-the-one-I’d-picked-up-from-a-campground-used-book-exchange-I’m-most-definitely-on-holiday intelligence, as we made our way towards the national park named after said dude. We’d spent the night after Tongariro camping in a backyard (I’m quite sure Tim wasn’t lying when he said he knew the family whose holiday home lawn we were crashing,) and then headed down to Wellington to catch the Bluebridge Ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island of New Zealand. After landing in the town of Picton, we headed off on the scenic drive along the coast where I got my first real experience on driving this country’s insanely windy roads – a success, I’m happy to report.

And then we arrived at Abel Tasman National Park. Other things named after Abel Tasman, I’m guessing, include Tasman Bay (that body of water right next to us, while in the park), the Tasman Sea (that bit between New Zealand and Australia), and Tasmania. Not a bad legacy in this chunk of the world, really.

Abel Tasman (the park, that is) is known for one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” a 54.4 kilometers, 3-5 day hike along the coast, up and down rolling headlands and across sweeping beaches. Having done only about 14 k.m. of the entire walk, and climbed at least that many hills, I was quite pleased with the fact that we had not walked the entire thing. I’m quite sure these hills had a rather consistent presence on the track. We opted, instead, to kayak. Cudos to Tim’s planning skills for calling this one, and an awesome surprise for me. We began our trip on the first really rainy day we had thus far, and figured what better place to spend it than in a kayak. We’re going to get wet anyway.

We spent two days in our double kayak, fighting the wind and the surf north along the coastline, dipping into inlets and up rivers to explore during high tide, and floating around islands and spotting seals. There was also the occasional penguin leisurely drifting past, buoyant on the top of the water. Penguins are my favourite animal, so we’d try to get as close as we good to them to snap some photos before they would dive below the surface and then pop up several meters away.

Abel Tasman Kayaking

Despite the near constant rain, we still counted ourselves very lucky with the weather, as camp set-ups and tear-downs stayed miraculously dry for the most part, the sun even making an appearance in the mornings to dry out the tent. We left our kayak on a beach the second afternoon where it was to be picked up by a water taxi, and completed the rest of the journey on foot (up and down those hills I’d mentioned). The walking track was beautiful as well, and gave a difference perspective of the park than seeing it from the water; it was great to have both. There are a couple of areas along the track that must be crossed within a few hours of low tide; they are completely impassable otherwise. Wading through the water with packs on, trotting along beautiful beaches, and catching some stunning views of the ocean we’d just been battling on kayaks was quite extraordinary. We made it to the end of the road where we, like our kayaks had been, were picked up by a water taxi and shuttled the length of our journey home.

Abel TasmanPhoto Credit: Tim Binks

Tongariro

It’s probably the best day walk in the country, and could quite likely lay a broader blanket of fame than that as well. Australia and the Pacific perhaps? I, of course, have not completed every day walk in New Zealand, and certainly not in the continent, but I’d wager some good bets that it’s up there.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing spans the length of Mount Tongariro and is located in the Central North Island. Through a combination of Tim’s foggy memory, faulty research, and sugar-coating, I discovered that the 10 km walk that I expecting was actually 19.4 (And don’t forget the words “alpine crossing” in the title here. That means hills). Nevertheless, the distance is still easily traversed in a day, and the amazing scenery more than makes up for trudging slowly up the aptly named Devil’s Staircase. Every hike worth its salt surely has one of these – the steepest area of the track where they may have fashioned something resembling a crumbling staircase in an attempt to camouflage the aggressive slope you will soon be puffing up. Perhaps one of the best things about this hike is that you get all of the hard stuff out of the way at the beginning, reach a beautiful peak with beautiful views, and then spend the next three hours trotting downhill quite happily, slaloming down scree with hiking poles, past old women with hiking poles, which makes you feel a bit better about being 20-something and using hiking poles. The pristine and brilliant colours of the emerald and blue lakes, the steaming volcanoes, and the rocky, red earth of the track make for a day of extraordinary views, contrasts, and the constant and very real reminder that you are in an active volcanic zone. Fenced off explosion holes next to the path (and still a reasonable distance from the mouth of any volcano) the size of small cars and signs ready to change at a moments notice to advise visitors that the track is closed kept it in the forefront of our minds that the area is still extremely active volcanically. The steam alone was enough to make Tim a bit nervous, as he had spent a fair amount of time in the area and had never seen it so active. Clearly, though, all was well, and the start of our solo trip south began on quite an excellent foot.

Tongariro

Tongariro Lakes

Photo Credit: Tim Binks