The Orbiter: Hiking on New Zealand’s South Island

The Vitals

Dates: April 25 – May 9, 2019

Location: Around the South Island, NZ

Photos by Brittany

The Trip

We traded two wheels for four when we took the bus from Dunedin to Christchurch and stored our bikes at the home of a good friend’s younger sister. With one free day in Christchurch, we went to the local bouldering gym instead of doing any sightseeing and shredded our skin for a couple of hours. We weren’t worried about missing out on any attractions because we’d be back in two weeks.

Early morning on ANZAC day, laden with a borrowed backpack and four reusable grocery bags of supplies, we caught the bus through the barren streets of Christchurch to the airport to pick up our rental van. After biking for two months, it was time to circle the South Island again doing as much hiking as possible.

Mt. Fyffe Loop

In this very first summary I’ve already lied by using the word “loop”. As a dayhike, Mt. Fyffe is purportedly a long slog up a 4wd road to a summit, then back down the same. For more fun and two nights out, we planned on making a loop. We were soon to learn that a lot of hiking (tramping in the local parlance) is a lot rougher than we are used to at home. In addition to marked trails, the Department of Conservation (DOC) also provides some scant information on “routes” that are not marked and usually consist of a lot of river crossings or even walking straight up a river. The routes sounded a lot more appealing anyway, so our first day was on the “route” to a DOC hut called Kowhai Hut.

Getting to the top of the steep grassy slopes. Doesn’t look too bad from here.

We started in the early afternoon and found our way to the correct valley where we started to follow the river. At first we were too stubborn to take the time to cross the river and tried our best to hug the banks, but sometimes the banks turned into cliffs and there was no other choice. As time went on, our willingness to wade across increased, and after a few hours and a dozen crossings we arrived at our first backcountry hut.

After dinner on our own, another couple arrived well after dark but in fine shape so the four of us chatted and shared the six-bunk hut. We were still at the valley bottom but the next day we would be climbing to a saddle at the head of the creek and then following the ridgeline back over a couple of peaks to Mt. Fyffe Hut and then out the next day. Our more locally familiar hutmates let us know that the route could be hard to follow but that it should be possible to make your own path.

Kowhai Hut

In the morning, we set off first and made great progress for a time, finding and losing and finding a faint path through the bush, sometimes marked. Eventually we reached a fork in the creek and followed the one that looked easier. As we progressed, the terrain got steeper and thicker with bush. We were well off route and knew it, but figured we could now try a direct scramble to the ridge. We battled for two hours up a dauntingly steep slope made up of long grasses, two kinds of thorny bushes (Speargrass and Matagouri), and occasional vertical steps of rock.

After a few false alarms, we made it over a rise and into more alpine territory. The grasses and bushes were disappearing and being replaced by loose stone and steep gullies. There was only one possible route so we scrambled up to a knife-edge ridge made up of crumbling rock and prayers which disappeared into near vertical gullies on either side. Beyond the ridge was one last gravelly face.

Early morning at the hut

Without hyperbole, we had a very real chance of a fatal accident. Instead of backing off this route near the bottom once we knew it was the wrong path, we continued. Instead of reversing when the bushes turned penetrative, we continued. Instead of tucking our tail between our legs at this knife-edge, we pushed on. After crossing the ridge on all fours, I started to scramble the steep face. From lower down this looked like a scree slope that would be safe to ascend. Scree slopes are hard work because it’s a two steps forward, one step back type of terrain as the loose rocks resettle, but in general the movement is predictable. However, instead of scree, I found a monolayer of pebbles on a harder subsurface. Any little movement I made would send a cascade of rocks over the cliffs below us.

Through the pebbles there were occasionally small protrusions of the more solid rock below. I worked my way from one protrusion to the next but these also tended to disintegrate. I had to will my brain to turn off and focus on moving forward and soon found myself at maybe a fifteen foot gap where there only seemed to be loose stones and no solid protrusions. After that gap, the rock looked a lot more solid all the way to the summit ridge. We’d already crossed the line into stupid territory but we weren’t done yet. The thought of downclimbing what I had just come up was terrifying and it’s usually far easier to climb up than down, so I continued. About halfway across I had to stop.

My most solid point of contact was less than a handful of grass somehow rooted in the rubble. My other three limbs were just causing more stones to rain down and I was slowly slipping lower. The handful of grass felt like just enough to hold me in this position, but was way too weak to hold my fall if my other three limbs lost it. If I were to let go I really think it would be an unstoppable slide over a cliff.

One of the many river crossings

I needed to get back down. I managed to get back to the slightly more solid rock protrusions and slowly work my way lower. Brittany had come to the end of the knife-edge (already a dangerous position), and we both downclimbed back to the grass slopes below. After bashing through the thorns a second time, we arrived at the Kowhai Hut for a second night beat up, a bit bloody, and incredibly shaken.

I’ve been afraid many times doing things in the mountains but I think this was the single worst example of judgement I’ve shown. We both felt sick to our stomachs as we thought back to what we had done and the feeling stayed with us for days. Usually when I’ve been scared, I’m able to look back and see that something just felt dangerous. This time there was no excuse and the outing really tempered our bravado for the remaining hikes. We left the next morning by heading down the river and escaped for a night in the van on the beach in Kaikoura, where dolphins playing in the surf near shore provided a sharp contrast to our recent experience.

Lewis Pass Loop

For our next outing we planned a horseshoe in the Lewis Pass area. We would follow a well-worn track up the Nina Valley to the Nina Hut, follow Duchess Creek to its main basin and scramble to the “Brass Monkey Bivy” and then return to the highway via an extension of the Lewis Tops trail.

Nina Hut on a cold morning

After a rainy night in the van, then a rainy morning waiting for a break in the weather, we started in the early afternoon. The trail was well-marked but over 50% of it was running water as the rain coursed down it. We made quick work to the hut but had given up on dry feet after about 100 m of trail. By the time we arrived, the rain had restarted so we were happy to pack into one of the most popular DOC huts in the system.

It was a cold night in a big hut with only two of us and when we awoke in the morning there was a heavy frost and ice on the puddles. There was also a little snow on the peaks in the morning sun.

Brass Monkey Bivy. Just an orange speck on a yellow background.

We worked our way across to Duchess Creek and then fought our way to the alpine basin. This was another DOC “route” and we saw no evidence of prior passage. Occasionally a deer trail would provide an easier path through dense forest but plenty of the time we were pushing our way through the branches and over the rotting corpses of fallen trees.

Inside the bivy

It was only about two hours of bushwhacking but I was well and truly over it once we got into the alpine. Once there, it was much easier going in the grasses and rocks up and over the saddle to the bivy. Once again we were alone for dinner but another couple arrived just as the sun was dipping behind the Grand Duchess. In Kowhai Hut we had spent a comfortable night with four in the six-bunk, but Brass Monkey is a two-person hut. In fact, its dimensions are shorter than I am so I had to scrunch a bit when lying in the narrow bunk. With some effort, and the stashing of some materials outside for the night, space was made for the other couple to sleep tightly on the floor.

Sun setting behind the Grand Duchess

This couple had taken the Lewis Tops trail to the bivy so they were able to give us some advice on the descent. After an easy ramble over an unnamed peak, we had to climb up to the ridgeline of Lucretia peak where an exposed scramble led to the next valley and a straightforward walk out.

Ordinarily I love exposed scrambles on solid rock, but our recent mistakes got in the way of a truly enjoyable time and Brittany admits to shedding a few tears. However, there was no getting stuck this time so we worked through it and popped out at the highway after a few hours ready for a shower.

Along the Lewis Tops

McIntosh Loop

After the Lewis Pass hike we spent a few days driving to Greymouth (where we were stranded a month prior during our bike trip) and down the west coast. The highway bridge in Franz Joseph had recently reopened so we had the opportunity to see what we had missed. Along the way we van-camped on the beach, hiked Mt. Fox (over 1300 meters vertical in 3.75 km!), saw alpine parrots (Keas), and managed to avoid getting our windows smashed by thieves, an accomplishment not shared by our parking lot neighbours after a night spent in the Blue River Hut (built 1905).

Gillespie’s Beach near Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier in the ten minutes we weren’t surrounded by cloud
Blue River Hut

Our last hike was to be at the tip of Lake Wakatipu, near the town of Glenorchy. The Mt. Mcintosh area is an old mining region with overgrown mining roads, open mine shafts, rusting equipment, and a few buildings now owned by the government that serve as mountain shelters.

We wanted our last hike to be easy, so we left with two nights of supplies on a track described as taking 8 – 10 hours total. In fact, on the day we started, three people were doing the loop as a day trip.

Lake Wakatipu under a carpet of cloud
Early morning in McIntyre Hut

After a quick two hour power hike, we were at the McIntyre hut perched on a little bench on the slopes of Mt. McIntosh. The route was all on old mine road and was dead simple to follow through the yellow grasses characteristic of this part of the island. Night began to fall around 5:00 and we pulled out the newest addition to our kit – candles. The hut hadn’t had overnight guests in two weeks, according to the log book, and no more would join us this time. We played cards by candlelight and waited for sleep.

McIntyre Hut

In the morning it was only another 1.5 hours to McIntosh hut, situated a little higher up the mountain. This hut is actually accompanied by a few other old mining buildings and lots of random rusting junk and old fuel barrels. With a lot of time to kill, I continued to follow old roads to the mountain beyond named Black Peak. I followed the switchbacks, and crawled over the parts of the road that had long ago succumbed to small rockslides, until about 100 meters below the summit. From here I scrambled up to the subsummit and looked around. The true summit was a loose knife-edge scramble away – no thanks! Instead I looked around at the nearby glaciated peaks including the one that played Isengard in the Lord of the Rings movies.

McIntosh Hut with glaciated Mt. Earnslaw behind.

Back at the hut, an English couple had made it up for the night. We all played cards for an hour or so before a tablet was pulled out and we watched “Along Came Polly” at 1500 meters. I felt no shame and welcomed any diversion that wasn’t another book or game of cribbage.

Evening outside the hut

The four of us hiked out the next morning to complete the loop (6.5 hours total hiking time over three days – that’s definitely a leisurely pace) and Brittany and I started the long drive back to Christchurch, spending another couple of nights in the van along the way before sadly relinquishing possession of our Spaceship rental van. We had two days to pack our stuff, see some of the sights in Christchurch, and then catch a plane to the last leg of this trip: Korea.

Last morning just outside of Christchurch
Sad to say goodbye to our Spaceship
Typical evening in a hut