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Kia Ora – Welcome to New Zealand

I left Australia at 6:30pm on the 4th of April, loaded with 90kg of gear across 5 bags. This included my bike, two pairs of skis, a complete trad climbing rack and rope, all my camping gear and my whole wardrobe of clothes. Luckily I’ve mastered the art of stacking all of this on those tiny airport trolleys. It involves some complex canter-levering of my bike box by stacking my other bags in a very certain, house of cards, sort of way. Then I drag my ski bag, which luckily has wheels, behind me. The whole thing has a turning circle similar to that of my late Mercedes Sprinter van. It’s especially hard to maneuver through the roped corrals of the customs area. I usually end up dragging or knocking over half the poles, drawing even more attention to myself in the proccess. The trip through customs was thorough, but went smoothly and soon I was out in arrivals where Jesse was waiting to pick me up and help carry my gear. It was 12:15 am local time by the time I was sitting in the passenger seat of my car getting driven out to Darfeld. This is 40 minutes out of Christchurch, where I planned to stay for a few days.

My first two days in New Zealand were met with consistent rain as the aftermath of cyclone Debbie swirled past. I suppose I’m going to have to get used to rain, but for the first couple of days I had plenty to do indoors to occupy myself. Moving to a new country invariably means a lot of paperwork and it takes time and organisation to stay on top of it all. My list of jobs included; insuring my car (which Jesse had purchased a month prior on my behalf), insuring all my gear, getting a local phone number, opening a bank account, declaring myself to the government and applying for an IRD number (NZ version of a Tax File Number). It can be a frustrating ‘chicken and egg’ process sometimes, as you can’t open a bank account without an address and phone number but you can’t get those without opening a bank account and transferring some money etc. I’ve been through it all before in Canada and one of the biggest helps is having gracious hosts who are willing to lend you their address and phone number (Immense thanks to Joan, Allan and Jesse). I find that these processes are also much easier to do in person, as online forms often have very rigid parameters.

By the time the rain cleared I was all set to go. The storm had dumped a large amount of snow on the surrounding mountains making for spectacular scenery. As I drove into Christchurch that morning away from Arthur’s Pass National Park I couldn’t stop looking in the rear view mirror as the fresh snow beckoned to me. I ran a few more chores in Christchurch and then spent the rest of the day skating at Washington. Unfortunately all the Port Hills mountain bike trails were closed because of the recent rain. That night Jesse and I packed the car and drove down to Mt Cook National park for the weekend. The night was fresh and the excitement was high.

On the road to Aoraki NP.

We freedom camped on the banks of Lake Pukaki and awoke the next morning to some low lying cloud, which hid what I would later discover, was a majestic view.

Free camping on the banks of Lake Pukaki. Photo: Jesse Dhue

We packed up and then drove into the glacier valley which leads to Aoraki (Mt Cook). The valley is deadpan flat and then juts up aggressively on either side. Again the true majesty of the peaks all around me were hidden above a thick roof of cloud.

Even the clouds are beautiful here.
You know you’re in NZ when there is a herd of Merino sheep on the road.

We arrived at  Sebastopol Bluffs near Unwin Lodge and loaded up with our climbing gear. There is a lot of rock here, but it’s quite jungle like and there are large scree slopes at the bottom of each crag. This added to my anxiety about the stories I’ve heard about New Zealand rock climbing. Having done the majority of my climbing at Mt Arapiles in Victoria, a place renowned for its diamond hard sandstone, I was quite nervous to climb on New Zealand’s much weaker and crumbly rock. Upon arriving at the base of Red Wall I was pleasantly surprised that the rock seemed a lot more solid and clean than I had expected. It was however, devoid of natural protection for trad climbing. Luckily there were bolts everywhere and we embarked on my first NZ climb.

Red Arête*** (14,13,15) was great way to get a few meters under the belt (73m) to warm up and get a feel for the rock. It was very easy but helped to ease my worries about what I was in for. The descent, a three pitch rappel, also offered some jungle bashing allowing me to become more acquainted with the native flora. It was at this point the cloud finally begun to burn away and man was it beautiful!!!

Rappelling down Red Wall @ Sebastopol Bluffs. Photo: Jesse Dhue

Invigorated by the sunshine and feeling more comfortable on the rock I decided to get a feel for placing gear in this softer shale like rock. We cruised over to Twin Cracks Wall right at the base of Central Crag where I geared up for Twin Cracks* (17). It was a really enjoyable climb and started to inform my understanding of NZ trad climbing and grading. I found it on par with other grade 17’s I have climbed in Australia and the protection was reasonably good.

Climbing can be slow, by this stage it was lunch time, and we had plans to stay at Mueller’s hut for the night. Mueller’s hut is famous for having the best views of any alpine hut in NZ as it looks straight up the Hooker glacier to Aoraki, the tallest mountain in NZ. As you can imagine this makes it quite popular and the hut was booked out. However we had come prepared with all our hiking gear, so this wasn’t an issue. We left the Mt Cook Village at 2pm. It is a 5.2km trail that gains approximately 1000m in elevation. The trail is quite steep, but the first half up to Sealy Tarns is very developed and is basically a huge steep staircase winding its way up through the sub alpine native bush. It was hard going, and with all the clouds long gone, we were soon sweating profusely under a brilliant blue sky and the watchful gaze of Aoraki.

Looking down the valley on the lower developed track.

The second half of the trail is a much less developed as it winds across avalanche paths and scrambles through boulder fields.

Admiring the ever present view of Mt Cook/Aoraki and Hooker Lake. Photo: Jesse Dhue.

We were about 100m away from the hut when we spotted the perfect, and possibly only, tent site amongst a sea of shattered alpine rock. We quickly claimed it and set up our tent for the night. It was a brilliant spot, much quieter than the huge hut which was filled to capacity.

Mueller Hut, reputed to have the best views in NZ but a bit busy for my taste.

It was a brilliant night, not a breathe of wind or cloud in the sky. The temperature dropped below 0 degrees but I slept toasty in my sleeping bag, listening to the rumbling sound of avalanches echoing across the mountains. Jesse got up at 4:30 am to shot photos of the Milky Way over Aoraki.

The galactic core over Mt Cook. Jesse woke me up to shine the head torch around in the tent. Photo: Jesse Dhue

The next morning we watched the sun rise while we packed up and ate breakfast. We soon set out to return and put our knees and thighs through the agony of a 1000m of descending large and uneven stairs and boulders. We were pretty tired by the time we reached the car so we cruised back to Darfield stopping to admire the many amazing views along the way.

Packing up after a brilliant night.

I plan to do a bit of bike riding over the next few days before Jesse and I embark on a large hike over Easter.

Mountain biking near the craigeburn ski area

This first week in NZ has gone really well and has filled me with excitement for what is to come. There will be tough times, for example, my car is quite small and my amount of gear quite large. I expect I will need to live in my car amongst my gear for the next few weeks, before we migrate down to Queenstown in search of more permanent lodging. But this is all part of the adventure and worth it for my love of the mountains.

 

Sam
Avid outdoors man, aspiring mountain guide and author of 'For love of the Mountains'

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