We arrived in St Arnaud, in New Zealand’s Nelson Lakes, to persistent drizzle and a grey cloud that hung in the air and made driving difficult. It wasn’t a great start to a three-day walk into New Zealand’s wilderness, and a real mood-dampener considering the bad luck we had already had with the inclement Kiwi weather.
The blood-sucking sandflies – infamous in the South Island’s Nelson Lakes region – were also out in force, driving my friend Julia into her tent in the wake of their bloodlust. The shower of insect repellent she sprayed in the cramped confines of her tent resulted in a dramatic coughing fit and the near expulsion of a lung.
The adventure was going swimmingly!
The next day, however, dawned with crystal blue skies and a shining sun, whose rays danced on the dew drops coating the grassy campsite. This was more like it. A proper day. One worthy of a tramp into the unknown wilderness.
And so, we were off; hiking boots double tied, walking poles in hand and packs laden with three-days’ food. Our destination for night one? The Angelus hut, located at 1,650m in altitude, high in the ranges between Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa and more than 12km from the nearest civilisation. To get there we had to climb a steep track up a mountain overlooking Lake Rotoiti and then pick our way over rocky mountain ridges.
This was not a walk for the faint-hearted. The first upward stretch, involving a steep zig-zag route, was aptly named the Pinchgut Track and before long it was living up to its name. At one point, I shamefully wished for clouds as the sun beat down and sweat trickled down my back.
At around 1,400m we sheltered in a little hut from the buffeting wind and hastily consumed our rations before heading out along Robert Ridge. What followed was hours of exposure to the elements, clambering round rocky outcrops, hoping from giant boulder to giant boulder, and hugging mountainsides as the earth plummeted away below.
To the right, a sea of mountains on mountains faded into the horizon as a grey blur, while on our left, jagged peaks, featuring remnants of landslides, were sucked into deep valleys. With each crest along the ridge, the view became more stunning than the crest before; the adventure more intrepid and exhilarating.
Day two didn’t disappoint either. After a freezing night at 1,650m we woke to a still and quiet morning. Lake Angelus was like an oil slick and the lake’s mountain namesake was clothed in a swathe of cloud. The world felt at peace.
As we left, the hut warden warned us about the descent – steep and slippery, he said. This can only be described as an understatement; perilous would have been a better word to use. What lay ahead was a hodgepodge of rocks and small loose rubble in a near vertical descent. It was slow going, hard on the legs, followed by a narrative of expletives. When I had a chance to look up from my feet, I was forced to take pause – the view that greeted me was immense as the mountains towered around us like giants.
Slowly we inched further down, moving into a forest and winding round ancient tree trunks and skipping over knobbly networks of roots. On more than one occasion the path seemed to vanish and we were left scratching our heads until the beady eyes of my companions picked up the orange glint of the trail marker through the trees.
And then we reached the river – the river without a bridge. It was shallow, yet deep enough to cover all the rocks, so rock hopping wasn’t an option. It was meandering, yet in parts the water rushed by, and it split into three channels, islands of rocky gravel influencing the path of the flow. We looked at each other. It was another head-scratching moment.
We surveyed the scene. The boyfriend chucked rocks in, in the hope he might create a foot bridge. But to no avail, they just disappeared below the rippling water. We pondered the dead tree, conveniently spanning a deep section, and considered the odds of scuttling across without getting wet feet.
I gave up. So did Julia. We removed our boots and socks and hobbled across the braided river, feeling the cold, hard rocks slimy under our weary two-day trekker’s feet, while the cold water washed away the sweat and sent goose bumps up our legs.
The boyfriend, on the other hand, decided to brave the dead tree and, with a surprising amount of nimbleness, scuttled across the branches to dry land on the other side. Rejoicing in his skill and his dry feet, he then promptly slipped off a rock as he hopped over channel number three, ending up in ankle-deep water with wet boots and a sour face.
Julia soon followed the boyfriend’s lead, stepping into a bog, and for the next half hour, as we walked towards the hut, we were accompanied by mellifluent squelching sounds on every step. The others smarted; I smirked, my socks and boots splendidly dry and silent.
Even a roaring fire overnight didn’t reduce the damp, and it was a soggy three-hour tramp back to civilisation the next day. The weather had held, but the New Zealand wilderness had tested us – and it had been a treat.