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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo Credit: Tim Binks