The lockdown devoured both the Easter and ANZAC day long weekends this year. Getting out exploring New Zealand on Queen’s Birthday weekend was mandatory.
Outdoor adventure would be happening, rain or shine… luckily, it was all shine!
The weekend started with a Friday night escape from Christchurch. Joining the slow-moving crawl of long-weekend traffic. Eventually we arrived on the shores of Lake Middleton, a glorified puddle separated from lake Ōhau by a narrow causeway. Ok. Glorified puddle is unkind. It looks insignificant on the topo map next to its fancy neighbour, but it sure looks glamorous in the morning light.
After a cold night camping by the cars, we shook the frost of our tents, jammed them back in our packs and began day one of our three day adventure.
It all started with a pretty casual trundle on the wide ‘Alps to Ocean’ Cycleway.
Leaving the A2O behind, we headed uphill into the forest on the still very well-formed Te Araroa track.
But then we took an abrupt turn into the tussocky hillsides, following an on-again off-again trail to a the small tarn.
And eventually on to the ridge above.
As some of us sat in the sunshine waiting for the rest of our (rather large) group to arrive, the first grumblings of a mutiny began.
The short winter days meant that we would lose the sun behind the mountains pretty early in the afternoon. Our plan had been to camp one night by Dumb-Bell lake, then bagging two huts (Maitland and Snowy Gorge) on day two before returning to our starting point on day three.
This plan involved a fair bit of time spent in valleys and climbing up and down. The weather just seemed too good to waste walking around and camping in cold valleys.
Did I say mutiny? No mutiny was required! As the stragglers arrived, it was agreed that our original plan all sounded rather silly. Now that we were sitting on a sunny saddle looking and the cold, shady valleys far below…
We promptly downgraded our weekend plans from ‘adventure’ to ‘relaxing alpine womble’. Deciding to skip the huts and spend our time enjoying the sunshine on ridge-tops and beside tussocky tarns.
Tramping lesson #132 Be ready to change your plans to suit the weather. And your laziness.
After a short ridge top meander and rocky,tussocky decent we had almost arrived out our planned destination for day one. Dumb-bell lake.
However, the complete lack of ambition was infectious. Most of us didn’t even descend to the lake to camp, instead pitching our tents high above to enjoy the last of the winter sun.
Which didn’t last long.
My favourite part of any fine weather trip is when all the other sensible trampers tuck themselves into bed and I can go find a quiet spot in the dark and just enjoy the night time peace and quiet under the pretext of taking night sky photos. (This may seem ironic to those who know me, as my presence tends to be the antithesis of peace and quiet).
The sense of solitude looking up at the vast Milky Way, makes you forget that you’re only a few hundred metres from a campsite full of snoring trampers. Instead the only sounds are the distant burble of a creek or the occasional rumble of eroding scree.
This particular bright moonlit night was not exactly ideal for astrophotography. However, with not even a breath of wind—it was perfect for sitting and relaxing. Until the call of a warm down-filled sleeping bag became too great to resist.
After a cold night, hiding in all the layers of down I own, it was a relief not to have to rush to pack up.
When I was once asked what force of nature I would use to describe myself, I didn’t opt for anything dramatic like a tornado or lightning. Instead my response was “I’d be the morning frost, I’m not going anywhere until the sun hits me.”.
This stands true until today, although due to all the eager folk I go tramping with I do sometimes have to reluctantly begin to cook breakfast and pack up from the warmth of my sleeping bag or risk being abandoned by the early birds.
The good news was, today there really was no rush. There was even time to wander down to the lake and just generally sight-see and relax.
Ok. Maybe not quite enough time, upon returning to the campsite I found most people had left and someone had left a small rocky gift in my pack…
Tramping lesson #312 don’t leave your overnight pack unattended.
Day two’s far less ambitious plan now saw us reversing course, then continuing along the ridge above the valley the Te Araroa trail followed. We would be looking for a place to drop down to a large tarn in a tussocky basin, with plans to set up camp early and enjoy a relaxing afternoon.
The relaxing stroll back along the ridge included plenty of time for tomfoolery at a small frozen tarn.
As well as numerous lunch stops, I think we may have had three before the morning was even over…
When it came to time to descend, the group split into several smaller groups. Some took the direct route, others opting to explore further along the ridge.
I descended with a group to a smaller frozen tarn and we slowly meandered our way our planned camp site.
Setting up camp while the sun was still shining meant plenty of time to sit around by the stream and drink hot tea.
Tramping lesson #183 Ambition is over-rated. Setting up camp in time to enjoy the sunshine is not.
However. It also gave us plenty of time to start to wonder where the last member of our group had got to. He had opted to continue to explore a bit further along the ridge, but it was now getting late enough that we should have been able to see him making his way down from above.
Our concern increased when he didn’t show up as it was starting to get dark. We checked out a nearby tarn in case he had misunderstood our destination. It was scenic but devoid of trampers.
Tramping lesson #35 Try not to lose members of your group.
By this point we were all starting to question what the best course of action was, he had all the gear needed to camp independently, but we of course had no idea why he had failed to show up. Not knowing if he was injured, lost, or just being too damn adventurous for his own good. We decided returning to the ridge top to search in the dark was futile, as he had more likely descended to the wrong basin and set up camp. It ended up being an uneasy night’s sleep.
The next morning we waited around for a bit before departing to give our wayward tramper time to find us. Just in case he had run out of time the day before.
With no sign of a late arrival, we reluctantly shouldered our packs, hoping we’d see him in the carpark. We were instead surprised to walk over the first tussocky rise to see him preparing to leave his camping spot—less than five minutes walk away.
It turned out he’d wandered along the ridge further than he intended. Choosing not to return up an icy section—he’d just kept ambling. Eventually descending several kilometres away and traversing the tussock basins just below the tarns. We’d been about 2 hours early checking the nearby tarn, he’d finally set up camp just after dark, assuming he was near us, but not sure how near, since he didn’t have a map…
Tramping lesson #7 Maps are your friend
We were pleased to return to the cars via an easy trundle out on the Te Araroa trail. With a full compliment of trampers—and in time for lunch in Tekapo!
Tramping lesson #17 Food always tastes better after an adventure.
The route we followed is below (minus side trips to tarns and Lake Dumb-Bell).
It makes for a respectable first day (13km/1400m height gain) followed by two increasingly unambitious days, with plenty of scope for side-trips (7.5km/460m and 10km/all downhill) . Days two and three could easily be combined into one. Or alternatively expanded into a longer adventure to include a bit of hut bagging for those keen to visit Snowy Gorge and Maitland huts… which sounds like a good summer adventure to me.
I’d recommend not misplacing any members or your group though.