A babble of stories and accents crowds the Mt. Aspiring Hut. Because I speak passable French I’m helping translate for a Swiss man as he describes yesterday’s glacier travel. He had tied into a rope with a couple of Australians who didn’t speak a word of his native tongue. The hut full of trampers laughs uproariously as the Swiss fills in missing words with outrageous pantomimes. A German, an Israeli, a Dane, a Finn, and a Japanese join the fun, along with myself — American — and a token New Zealander or two. Most of these folks have been on the “road” for weeks, some for months, even years. It’s a convivial group that has coalesced for a magical evening and will disperse again by morning.
We’re all drawn to New Zealand by the same magnetic forces: soaring glacier-clad peaks, waterfalls cascading from incredible heights, turquoise rivers meandering swiftly down deep grassy valleys. Scenery, that is. The kind of place that you discover in a photograph and fixate on until the right time finally comes and you can at last go see it for yourself. And trails-“tracks” they call them Down Under-that a backpacker dreams about until he can’t stand it anymore and has to stomp them with his very own boots.
I picked my route from a guidebook while daydreaming at my desk one gray December day in Oregon (the Southern Hemisphere’s summer falls smack dab in the middle of our northern chilly season). I wanted to hike something that displays New Zealand’s mountain landscape at its finest, but doesn’t have the popularity of such world-famous attractions as the Milford and Routeburn tracks. Not that I’ve ever heard a disappointed word about those classics. It’s just that I find a delicious joy in “discovering” something people at home have never heard of. Even if I did find out about it in a guidebook.
Sandy, the Mt. Aspiring Hut caretaker, shows up the next morning with the weather forecast, which she receives twice daily via shortwave radio. New Zealand huts are well-loved not simply because they can save you the weight of a tent, but mostly because the climate here can turn truly foul in a few hours. Tents have been known to rip apart under the lashing of a gale. There’s even the tale of a mountain hut that blew completely off its perch. They never did find the missing hut and its three occupants, which explains why high altitude shelters now sport thick cables strapping them to bedrock.
Of more immediate concern is my hiking route of today, which climbs the steep hillside to Cascade Saddle before dropping into the popular Rees-Dart Track in a neighboring valley. Posted signs, guidebooks, and wardens all advise caution during bad weather. The hump to the saddle involves 4,000 of the steepest feet you’ve ever seen a “trail” climb. (To be precise, it’s 4,400 feet in 2.5 miles.) The first half ascends through beech forest with the occasional pseudo-switchback thrown in for relief. The final half tackles, well, the fall line. According to a sheep farmer I spoke with on the way in, at least seven people have been killed over the years when they slipped on this route. The trouble here is that the dominant vegetation above treeline is snowgrass, which is slick as its namesake, especially when wet. At either end of the summer season, when real snow settles onto the steep landscape, slick hardly describes the stuff-the hiking route turns into mountaineering. Because it’s January, I shouldn’t have to worry about anything frozen, but I’ve still been advised to wait for a favorable weather report.
“I have good news,” Sandy informs the assembled trampers during breakfast. “Today should be mostly fine, with some mist and drizzle here and there. Freezing level 3,000 meters.” This being a particularly wet summer (El Ni?o, of course), anything other than heavy rain is greeted with a rousing cheer. Most of my fellow hikers are sticking to the Matukituki Valley floor, but I’m eager for altitude and strike off into the forest aiming for Cascade Saddle.
Dappled light settles softly through the beech canopy. Tree roots fan out across the ground and soon I’m walking an organic plankway that for all appearances could be wooden snakes writhing on the duff. On steep sections I grab the rigid reptiles and yard myself upward. Beech trunks seem familiar enough; smooth, gray, mottled with lichens and moss, they look like a generic blend of our basic North American birch/alder/aspen/maple. But these roots are something else again. And the canopy, too, with branches that fan out in flat tiers all covered in tiny leaves-not like home at all. Oddest, though, is how the forest is sandwiched in a narrow band between grasslands below and grasslands above. Driving toward Mt. Aspiring National Park yesterday morning, my strongest impression was of the barrenness of the landscape. Across the vast and rugged countryside, nary a tree broke the “tussock land,” as the hillocky grasslands here are called.
After 2,000 feet of steady upward progress, I emerge from the upper treeline. And what a glorious feeling it is. Suddenly the views encompass this fantastic valley. Way down below I see the hut like a miniature doll house. In a great sweeping arc to the north stand glacier-clad peaks with drainage streams cascading straight down their rocky flanks. To the east is the grassy valley of yesterday’s heart-meltingly beautiful walk. To the southwest, it’s up. Fantastically up. I sit for a good rest while I stare dumbfounded at grassy tundra slopes that rise another 2,000 feet to the horizon. Switchbacks? Forget about them. This is New Zealand. I’m lucky to get a series of orange pickets driven into the ground every few hundred feet for guidance.
There is a slender trail, I’m glad to discover, and during the next 2 hours the only times I experience the slickness of snowgrass are when I step off the beaten track to take a photo of giant Mt. Cook lilies (the world’s largest buttercup), edelweiss, or delicate white gentians. At times the “trail” is so steep that I sink to all fours-or rather, the ground rises to meet my clinging fingers.
During one of many rest breaks I think back to my visit with Stuart Thorne at the Department of Conservation (DOC), which administers the park. “People coming to New Zealand from other parts of the world often don’t know what to make of our hikes,” he told me. “It’s a concern to us because what we consider a good tramp is getting people into trouble.” Tramp. It’s a uniquely Kiwi term covering everything between an easy “trek” and actual mountaineering. While most tramps follow well-defined routes that any fit hiker can tackle, even on these one might find stream fordings, passages across steep roots, and alpine crossings. Some of these walks are definitely not for the faint of heart, as I’m finding out today.
At long last the ridgecrest draws near, and finally I’m at the metal pylon that marks the top of the hump. Already the sweaty hike up has vanished from memory. The little hanging valley outstretched before me must surely rank among the most exquisite nooks on the planet. Gentle waves of sage-colored tundra roll across the land as if it were a wind-tossed lake. Above this Eden a series of waterfalls sprout from the craggy mountainside. These coalesce into a crystalline stream that forces me to take off boots and wade calf-deep for 30 feet. I spend the afternoon wandering through the enchanted landscape.
The stream leads me down to where it surges through a narrow canyon, then plunges recklessly off a 2,000-foot cliff toward Mt. Aspiring Hut, barely visible far, far below. Shallow tarns dot my little valley. I stop to feel the water in one. Splendid! I strip and lay flat in a surprisingly warm alpine bath graced with one of the most dramatic views imaginable. Spanning the entire western horizon is a series of glacier-covered peaks. From the suspended ice of the upper Dart Valley periodic booms reverberate when rocks or ice break loose and plunge to their destiny. Sweeping northward from peak to peak to peak, my eyes eventually come to a long rest on the chiseled features of Mt. Aspiring itself, the monarch of the range. But even Aspiring doesn’t command the view, because yet more rocky summits and glacier-covered flanks march eastward.
The sound brings me to sharp attention. It’s the unmistakable call of one of New Zealand’s most beloved and despised birds, the world’s only alpine parrot, and it strikes terror into my heart. Just over the ridge is where I placed my pack. Stupidly I left some bags laying next to the pack, including my used film. As I dash toward my gear, I remember stories of keas carrying off equipment and dropping it over cliffs just for their kleptomaniacal fun. Friends told of keas landing on metal-roofed huts and sliding down them, over and over, each time emitting a delighted “keeahh!” to the horror of bleary-eyed sleepers. Someone told me of returning to a hut to find that keas had torn apart down sleeping bags and were hopping about in what appeared to be an indoor snowstorm, all the while cackling jubilantly, “Keeahh! Keeahh!”