Nov 2014, late spring, New Zealand.
The plane ride was hellish. Not because we were in the air for so long, but because Air Canada sent us to Vancouver, B.C. knowing full well we’d miss our connection to Auckland. Our itinerary was then systematically jacked up on every leg. Every. Single. Leg. It was one of the worst travel experiences I’ve had – and I’ve had a lot. (I once slept on a row of seats after 7 hours of delays in O’Hare next to the Director of Quality while he snored. Yeah, not fun. This was worse.) Blerg!
Anyway… We (me and Emily) finally make it to Queenstown on the South Island, picked up the rental car and drove on the wrong (right) side of the road all the way down to Milford Sound. It was Lord of the Rings all over the place. We met up with Sabs, Emily’s friend and an Aussie, who was coming off the Milford Track. Sabs was joining us for a week’s worth of hiking in Mount Aspiring National Park. Mount Aspiring…Sounds great, huh?? Well, it was! Let me tell you all about it.
Before heading out for the National Park, we stopped by the Ranger Station in Queenstown to check the weather reports and fine tune our itinerary. Sabs found out from the Ranger that late spring storms had dropped snow and ice on Gillespie Pass, the Pass we intended to take to into Siberia Valley for a 58k loop, 3-4 day tramping tour of 3 valleys. (Tramping is hiking for us Americans.) Unless we had crampons, ice axes, alpine gear and the like, the Ranger advised against going over Gillespie. Guess what? We had none of those things. Time to reconfigure.
[Ok, before I get too far. Tramping on these tracks (hiking trails for us Americans) entails staying in Huts. Huts come in various sizes and with various amenities. Almost all huts have bunks, a sleeping mat, a heating stove, cooking surfaces, a table, potable water (sometimes inside, sometimes out) pit toilets and are stocked with fire wood. Ideally, all you have to take is clothes, food, camp stove, sleeping bag, water bottle and whiskey.]
We decided to go up the Wilkin River into the Wilkin Valley instead. Wilkin Valley was right next door to Siberia Valley, and there was a connector trail that would get us over there. We could even take a plane or a speedboat ~20k up the river to Kerin Forks Hut so we could spend more time in the Valleys. BONUS!
Whatever we decided, we had to be back in Queenstown in 5 days to catch our flight. Here was the plan: take a boat up to Kerin Forks Hut, hike to Top Forks Hut and spend the night. Hike back to Kerin Forks hut and spend the night. Hike the connector trail to the Siberia Valley and spend the night in the Siberia Hut. Hike out. That would give us 4 days and 3 nights in the Wilkin Valley. Perfect.
We booked seats on a speedboat, tossed our fully loaded backpacks in the back, threw on our life jackets, jumped in and zipped up the braided Wilkin River past a gazillion grazing sheep. We got out at Kerin Forks Hut and began our tamping to Top Forks Hut, a little 13k hike.
What we didn’t know then was that the trail to Top Forks Hut should have followed (mostly) the Wilkin River, but the trail was mostly under water. The Wilkin River was high with late spring runoff. Instead of a nice, level trail, we were on a Silver Fern filled hillside, post holing in fern roots, bushwhacking through ferns fronds taller than me – FOR MILES. We crossed so many mid-calf and knee high tributaries and feeder streams that I lost count. We got our asses kicked by that trail. And I haven’t even told you about The Knob yet.
The Knob. The g.d. Knob.
The Ranger told us when we got to The Knob, we would be within striking distance of Top Forks Hut, our home for the night. Here’s the catch: The Knob is 600m climb straight up and straight down. It probably takes about 30 steps to cross the dang thing. The Knob is the epitome a mean trick. We were both euphoric and demoralized to finally see it. The Ranger also told us that if the river was low enough, we could go around The Knob, rather than over it. The river was not low (or anything like it), but after the day we had, we were determined to go around that damn thing.
The Wilkin was moving very fast, and we didn’t really know how deep it was. We knew it deep enough to hurt us. We waded into some swift water, threw our backpacks up a steep & slick rock wall, then shimmied, pulled and shoved ourselves up and over, too. One misstep could have been devastating at best, deadly at worst. We leapt across crags, tossed our packs over more obstacles and under others. It was some intense hiking at our most fatigued. Don’t worry, I’m here telling you this story. Everything worked out, but it was stupid.
Once around The Knob, and after a few more minutes of walking, we saw Top Forks Hut. It. Looked. Glorious. What should have taken 4-5 hours to walk took right around 8. We were beat, hungry, thirsty, tired, wet and really ready to sit down for a good, long time.
I would like to note that we had walked for 8 hours in the New Zealand wilderness and had not seen a single other person. 8 HOURS. No trampers, no fishermen, no sportsmen, no rangers, no nothing. We were in the g.d. wilderness.
As we got close to the Hut, we could see boots and gear under the benches on the front porch. (It’s a common practice to take off your muddy, gross, wet things before entering the Huts. Don’t track your mud and muck in there!) We were not alone – after 8 hours of being alone. As we stepped up on the porch and looked through the windows into the Hut, we caught a glimpse of 2 guys in their underoos using the Hut rafters to have a pull-up contest. I’ll wait here while you read that last sentence again. The looks on our collective faces must have been, “What the what??” because right after that, we heard scrambling and laughter from inside the hut. We stowed our wet gear and walked in. There were 5 collage age kids in there; 3 guys and 2 gals. They were a tramping club from the University of Auckland, and were exceptionally friendly. They had cleared spaces for us to drop our packs, and spaces for us to cook and eat.
I was gratefully gulping down tomato soup and drinking water like a mad woman. I was so dehydrated that my hands were cramping and curling into angry, little balls. As we were going through our dinner time rituals, the kids were going through their bed time rituals. They had been there a while, after all, and were surprised to see 3 people so late in the day. As we finished dinner and sat around getting warm and dry, the kids hopped into their bunks. One of the boys opened a book. He then began to read aloud, in his completely charming Kiwi accent, about a British explorer from the turn of the century (the 20th) who was visiting a village in what is now Afghanistan. I have the distinct memory of looking around the room, thinking that I may have been dreaming, but really hoping I wasn’t because this was awesome. I know for sure I had stopped in mid-spooning of tomato soup into my mouth, eyes wide, hoping this would go on for a while. I was not disappointed. He read on and on. It was great.
The next morning the kids were up and out early. We decided to stay an extra night at Top Forks Hut and go for a day hike out to Lakes Diana, Lucidus and Castilia. We had the whole Hut to ourselves that night. (So, that’s 2 night at Top Forks.)
On the morning of day three, we packed up and braced ourselves for the slog back to Kerin Forks Hut. This time we went OVER the 600m Knob. We didn’t like it one bit, but no one was gonna die in a river that way. We were also able to find a flat path and skip the ferny hillside this time. It took us 4-5 hours – as it should have! – to get back to Kerin Forks Hut. Again, WE SAW NO ONE ON THE TRAIL. NO ONE. 4-5 HOURS OF HIKING, AND WE SAW NO ONE. We were in the g.d. wilderness.
As we came out of the Beech Tree forest, we had a beautiful view of the lower Wilkin Valley. The greens were soooo varied and deep, the water was rushing and clear, they sky was slightly overcast and the mountains on either side of us rolled up and up. The Hut was there, just off to the right, nestled into a pasture. I saw a man running up the sloping, verdant pasture carrying a car battery. I think the words I said were, “What on earth?” or something like that. Could have been slightly more colorful. We – us three hikers and the man with the car battery – were all headed for the Hut.
Everyone arrived at the Hut around the same time. The man smiled, acknowledged how this might seem odd and explained that he was in the process of ferrying his family to the Hut to celebrate his son’s 13th birthday, but the boat’s battery had died. He had no way to get his boat back down the river to pick up the rest of his family and his son’s friends. 3 more 13 year old boys. There were 7 of them total and 3 of us. There were 10 beds in the Hut. Close one.
The man, who I will refer to from now on as Mr. NZ, happened to know the Hut Ranger. The Ranger had a smaller private hut just behind Kerin Hut, but the Ranger wasn’t on duty. Mr. NZ knew how to get into the Ranger’s hut though. There was a spare battery in there. It didn’t work for his boat though. That’s why WE SAW A MAN RUNNING THROUGH THE WILDERNESS CARRYING A CAR BATTERY! People, I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Mr. NZ told us he know some fishermen up the river were being picked up soon, which was news to us because WE HAD NOT SEEN ANYONE BECAUSE WE WERE IN THE WILDERNESS, and he was going to see about getting a ride back to town with them. His son and daughter, who were in the Hut, were staying behind. We wished him luck, kicked off our wet gear and went into the hut to meet the kids. We chatted a bit. They offered us birthday cake, and we took it. Are you crazy, of course we did! Who gets to eat birthday cake in the wilderness? That’s right, we do!
We were warm and dry and relaxing while going over our options. We could spend an extra night at Kerin Forks Hut or we could push on to Siberia Hut. Getting back to Queenstown in time to catch our flight was the catch. We would somehow have to arrange for the boat to come and pick us up or walk out. We were in a bit of a pickle and we were in the wilderness. That’s when we heard the sound of a helicopter. Yes, you read me right. A helicopter landed on the grass right in front of the Hut. Mr. NZ hops out and runs into the hut. He lets his kids know that he’s catching a ride down the river and will be back soon, then runs out the door. Sabs runs after him. Emily and I look at each other and wonder what on earth could be happening. Sabs had asked Mr. NZ to ask the helicopter dude to come back and pick us up at Siberia Hut the day after next. Pickle gone! We were in the WILDERNESS! How do you confirm from the WILDERNESS?!?! Trick question! You don’t!
Just as I was thinking, “Holy crap, this could totally work out. We wouldn’t have to slog out the 20k along the river AND we could get back to Queenstown in time,” the sound of a helicopter filled the valley. We all look out the windows to see a helicopter come up the valley and land on the grass in front the hut. Out came 3 excited and animated 13 year old boys and 1 mom carrying a crock pot full of onion dip. We. Were. In. The. Wilderness.
In the hut they came. The young boys told and retold the story of their helicopter ride. Mrs. NZ offered us onion dip. We gladly accepted. Mr. NZ showed up at the Hut shortly after. He had fixed his battery, and docked the boat way down the pasture. He let us know that he had talked to the helicopter guys and that they would pick us up from Siberia Hut the day after next at 4pm. Wilderness…that’s where we were.
As the boys played outside, Mr. NZ told us stories about New Zealand’s Kea birds and what absolute jerks they are. For real. A Kea is a feisty alpine parrot. That’s right, I just said all of those words in one sentence when talking about a bird. He told us horror stories about packs of adolescent male Keas sneaking into open windows of locked cars and tearing up the seats, pulling the knobs off the radio, pulling the rubber seals off of everything they could get their beaks on. Keas working in teams to sucker hikers into leaving their backpacks or food alone while another Kea steals the food or attacks the backpack. Flying off with hiking boots left outside your tent for the night. Jerks! Mr. NZ told a story about working as a mechanic at a ski resort. His shop had a corrugated tin roof. He was going in and out of the shop a lot one day so he left the door open. He kept seeing a Kea would on the overhang of the roof. It would look into the shop and watch him. Whenever he would exit the shop, the Kea would run back up the roof. Mr. NZ kept an eye on the Kea while he was outside the shop because…well…they’re jerks. See above. Anyway, he keeps going in and out and pretty soon, on one of his trips out, he gets hit in the head with a small snowball that falls from the corrugated roof. He figures some snow has just come loose. He keeps going in & out, he keeps getting hit with snowballs. So the next time he goes out, he looks up at the roof to see what’s going on. The Kea had rolled a bunch of snowballs and was timing them to drop on his head when he walked out. ALPINE PARROTS ARE JERKS, AND ALSO CLEVER, BUT MOSTLY JERKS!
The next morning, MR. NZ offered us a ride across the Wilkin River, which was running fast and high. We took him up on it. Off we went up the connector trail into the Siberia Valley. For the first time in days, we saw hikers on the trail! A group was coming down the connector trail from Siberia Valley to catch a boat out. We stopped to have a quick snack and chat with them. They told us that they had heard some Americans & an Aussie were headed for Siberia Hut. This is the part where I throw my hands up and say, “We were in the wilderness!” really fast and at a very high pitch.
When we reached the Valley and could see the hut in the distance, we noticed a man in tan overalls about 200 yards away & walking towards us. It was Nick, the Siberia Hut Ranger. He said he was expecting some Americans & an Aussie. Wil-Der-Ness. Oh, and that our helicopter would pick us up at the pad at 4pm the next day. I give up.
We had Siberia Hut all to ourselves, which is unheard of. There was running cold-as-hell water so we could wash up a bit, we cooked, read the Hut ledger and drank the last of our whiskey. We made plans for an early morning hike out to Lake Crucible before the helicopter came for us the next day.
Before the sun came up we were cutting across Siberia Valley, crashing through streams, climbing up a 200m wall of tree roots, crashing through more streams and walking up Crucible Valley to Lake Crucible. The lake was FA-ROZEN, and we stayed just long enough to not be able to feel our hands or feet anymore. We stopped at a waterfall on the way back to the Hut to dip our feet in the water. The water was so clean and pure that we even drank right from the streams. Disclaimer: I know. As a PNW native, this was a gigantic no-no. Giardia & Beaver Fever are zero fun.
We had enough time to kick around the Hut, pack, read, relax, eat and lay in the sun before the helicopter came for us. Around 3:30 we lugged our packs the quarter mile to the helicopter pad. Sure enough, at 3:59 we head the sound of chopper blades in the distance. The helicopter landed, and the pilot ran out to help us stow our gear in the side-panel boxes. He gave us head gear, and we were flying off in a helicopter. We were in the wilderness, people.