A wholesome adventure with a group of great people (August 2020).
It is 7:45 and we are still finalising our plans for the trip. Last night we decided we would walk to Maitland Hut and then out via the skifield or tops to get back to the car, but just as I closed my eyes to sleep I remembered seeing something about requesting access, and indeed, we need permission to cross farmland at the start of the track to Maitland Hut (the number can be found here).
We decide to stick to our plans and ring the number provided by the Department of Conservation (DOC) for permission once we are on the road. By the time all of this is established, we have collected everyone from literally all over the city and the Adlers have sourced dinner, it is 8:30. This is not too bad. We separate into boys and girls, and Maddy and I enjoy Toreas now much improved driving.
It doesn’t take long before we overtake the boys in the espacio heading up Kilmog Hill, but they decide to flex a little and overtake us for a very short period. Luckily Torea soon rectifies that situation and then we lose them by taking the shortcut that avoids Oamaru which they don’t know about. The message we left earlier results in a call back from the farmer and after being informed we really should not have called so last minute he gives us instructions so we can check in with him and sign a form. You can find his number here if you are planning a trip to Maitland Hut.
Little did we know, while we were speeding towards Lake Ōhau the boys were having an interesting encounter…
The BDE Policeman Encounter.
So the boys are driving the stretch between Omarama and Lake Ōhau, Sam keeping to a steady “100” kph. A police car comes toward them, pulls a u-turn and pulls them over. They exchange pleasantries. As pleasant as an exchange with a policeman with strong BDE, red wraparounds and very well-trimmed facial hair can be. This is followed by a bit of sass.
“How old are you?”
“Okay, I just pulled you over because you look about 12.”
Sam unknowingly lies to the officer about having alcohol in the car. He nails the counting to 10 part of the breath test with a barely discernible stutter at 7. Luckily they teach that kind of stuff at intermediate school.
We meet at Lake Ōhau and after a healthy dose of about 10 apples between us we head off to see the farmer. He reiterates that we really should have called earlier (you can find his number here) but he is a good sort and points us to the track start, armed with a very accurate description of the 4WD track: five kilometers of steady uphill. Jamie is fascinated by a massive cow pat that he cannot stop talking about for the duration of the trip. Admittedly it is unusually large.
The official start to the track is marked by a large orange triangle and a shoe on a post. We drop down a very slippery vague track with frozen patches under the shade of tussocks, scratching through a few narrow sections where Discaria toumatou (Matagouri) grabs at bare legs. The beech we pass through is clinging to the loose rocky slopes, some patches even persisting in the middle of the broad scree bands. I lag behind, taking photos and admiring the scree slopes.
After we cross the final scree slope we enter a long sidle through beech forest before eventually reaching the river. Once in the river I am highly reluctant to leave but the track entices us up then leaves us hanging on the edge of a rather large slip. Luckily there is a vague trail around the edge which disconcertingly dislodges rocks further down the slope as I walk along the edge. A particularly muddy section causes a bit of a traffic jam and an alternative route pushes me to the front of the group. There will be no more uphill until it is absolutely necessary.
The track immediately takes an uphill trajectory and I boldly decline, opting for the riverbed instead. This works out quite well for a while. I find a good shallow crossing where I retain dry feet despite not wearing gaiters, however I am instantly forced up onto the true left. There are good animal trails but I soon become concerned that I have walked across the track leading to the hut, an unlikely but entirely possible scenario as I learnt over the summer.
Maddy the map carrier catches up and it turns out I have not led us too far astray at all, perhaps just slightly too far up a hill and directly towards a sharply cut out stream. We drop down and spot the track heading up to the hut just up river. The trail runner wearers opt for the wet feet track option while the boot wearers, myself included, opt for the side creek and gravel bank bush bash option. My way is decidedly faster (although this may be because I am slightly competitive), and it is less than 10 minutes to the hut once I reunite with the track. It takes us three and a half hours to reach the hut from the road.
The hut is well kitted out and tidy when we arrive, except for a few miscellaneous items, in particular a bowl still sticky with black goopy stuff. We get the fire going, boil water and move on to food prep. Dinner is chopped and cooked and served while I simultaneously put the yeast in some probably too warm water and no sugar. After dinner the forgotten sugar is added and there is a slight increase in yeast reproduction. We don’t wait long enough then add flour, collect a bunch of sticks and other stick-like items from around the hut, huddle our seven selves in front of the fire and cook ourselves some damper.
“If the butter isn’t running off your damper then you haven’t put enough on”
There is a rather early awakening from my phone which has decided to turn itself back on and then has the audacity to have an alarm go off at 06:30, as well as having drained almost all of its battery. I engage in a short nap, then wake up properly to admire the very light dusting of snow that fell during the night. Breakfast is had and by the time everyone has packed up the sun has reached the hut. Perfect timing for our group photo shoot. Grab an implement and pose.
We wait in a huddle while one group member goes for an extended visit to the toilet. Encouragement is called out to help them through their ordeal and they eventually emerge victorious.
From the hut it is a very short walk to the bushline and we burst out onto a small river terrace overlooking a broad braided river, vast tussockland and gentle slopes.
She is big country and we spend a while admiring her. We slip slop slap and continue on our way. The terrain is made up of easy going tussock terraces, and on a small rocky section I decide to investigate what looks like a good gecko rock. It is a gecko rock. A rather lengthy photo shoot ensues, the group gradually disappearing out of my sight as I try to get the angles I want. A difficult task when your model obviously knows they look dang fine from every angle and does not seem to care about the angles you want. Check them out here. I race to catch up but it turns out everyone has been entranced by a pair of rock stacks that provide a bit of bouldering entertainment anyway.
Woodworthia ‘Southern Alps’ (Southern Alps Gecko) is a grey and rather meh coloured gecko with bands or splotches found inland from southern Marlborough to north Otago. It can be found amongst scree, rock piles, scrub, and occasionally beech and kanuka. They have greenish or brown eyes, a pink mouth lining and tongue and 9–12 lamellae (the thin strips under their toes). Note: Geckos are fully protected in New Zealand meaning that you are not allowed to handle them without a permit, and it is illegal to deliberately harm them.
We arrive at another group of boulders and Jay collapses in agony from a deep and incredibly painful gash from a huge rock that detached while he was bouldering and collided with his shin. Immediate first aid attention is required to avoid the need for a major amputation further down the line.
I decide I want to find more geckos so I head off up a boulder field, scanning for gecko rocks, alas, there are none. I check a few not particularly promising ones for the sake of it and am not surprised to find nothing. Once at the top of the ridge there is ice and little patches of snow. I stroke the soft cushions of vegetable sheep (Raoulia eximia) which are scattered in the rocky crevices as I scramble up some of the steeper sections of the ridge. I wait for the rest of the group at a high point and we break for lunch. Leftovers of noodles and vegetables.
The climb is relentless but interspersed with snow and boulders and ever increasing views of the incredible snow capped mountains around us. We spot multiple groups of Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) making easy work of the slopes ahead. There is a satisfying cap of snow on pt 1855 m and from there the snow cover becomes continuous.
We follow Chamois hoofprints along the ridge, pausing to look down onto Dumb-bell Lake which we considered walking to. I am glad we have decided to stick to the ridge. The lake looks like a lot more effort and I am already quite tired. I take photos from the ridge instead and am quite content with that perspective.
Once we reach the top of the ridge above Ōhau skifield the uphill finally eases. During a quick break Sam shotguns a cheeky dark craft beer using his ice axe while overlooking the ski field. The ridge provides alternating terrain, from small peaks to broad plateau-like slopes, and spectacular views over the surrounding mountains including Aoraki/Mt Cook. It doesn’t take us long to leave the snow covered slopes and reach bouldery scree interspersed with soft sinking mud where the ground has recently thawed.
The aim is to drop down one of the stellar looking scree slopes, ideally the one that leads directly to where the 4WD track ends. I am ahead of the group, single mindedly ploughing forward now that it is all downhill. I drop down over a small lip and find the top of the scree slope. Then I wait. No one appears. I call out. Nothing. I look up at the top of the slope. I look down at the 4WD track. Nothing can convince me to go back up the sliding rocks. So I descend. There are some absolutely Grade A sections of scree and I barely have to work to make progress down the 500 m of elevation which I lose in a matter of minutes. I look back up the slope but see no one so I conclude that they must have headed further along the ridge before dropping down, so I start walking slowly along the 4WD track while scanning the slopes above me.
I pass another decent scree slope, but still don’t see anyone descending. Eventually I hear a whistle but still cannot spot anyone, and I have no way of responding as I do not have a whistle. Then I spot someone on a rock outcrop and wave. They wave back then sit down next to some others. I walk a little further and wait at the base of the scree slope between us. I wonder if they have seen me as they take ages to start moving. Eventually I see Tom take to the slopes, shredding sick turns as he descends, Jay following behind. Both are full of stoke as they reach the bottom and it turns out no one was too worried. Jamie has already headed off to the car in thinking I might already be on my way.
Please note that the situation, while it worked out fine, was certainly not ideal and should not have happened. You should absolutely never be out of sight and earshot of your group without arranging it and taking certain precautions. I was certainly feeling the effects of both exhaustion and dehydration and would not typically leave a group behind like this. It is very important to be aware of the effects that exhaustion and dehydration have on your decision making particularly as it is often not realistic to avoid both while tramping.
The others follow Tom and Jay, albeit much more carefully, and we head back along the 4WD track to the car where we find Jamie curled up in his sleeping bag sheltering from the already plummeting temperatures accompanying dusk. It has been a successful eight-hour day covering over 17km and 1300 m of elevation.
For the Department of Conservation page about Maitland hut and the number to call for access follow this link, and to see the route we took click here. We covered approximately 27 km and 2200 m of elevation over the two days.
*BDE — A term used by the boys while recounting their interaction with the policeman and his “Big Dick Energy”.